Saturday, April 30, 2016

Israel, Hamas and Egypt form unlikely alliance against Islamic State affiliate

By Sudarsan Raghavan and William Booth, WashPost
April 30 at 12:02 PM

CAIRO — The Islamic State’s affiliate in Egypt is staging increasingly sophisticated and daring attacks, officials and analysts say, prompting Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian militant group Hamas to form an unlikely alliance against the terrorist group.

Hamas deployed several hundred fighters last week to Gaza’s border with Egypt’s lawless northern Sinai as part of a deal with Egypt to keep militants of the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — from entering the coastal enclave.

That came days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised his country’s decision to build a new barrier along the Israel-Egypt border, warning that “we would have been overflowed by thousands of ISIS fighters from Sinai.”

(More here.)

What It’s Like to Write Jokes for President Obama

By DAVID LITT, NYT, APRIL 29, 2016

PRESIDENT OBAMA and his anger translator were having issues. The motorcade was scheduled to leave for last year’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in less than 20 minutes. We had one chance to rehearse the president’s closing sketch with the translator, “Luther,” who was played by the comedian Keegan-Michael Key. President Obama had no problem delivering his lines or pretending to go unhinged when talking about climate change deniers. “I do actually get mad sometimes, you know,” he said.

The problem was Luther. Each time Mr. Key, as the anger translator, began a new manic tirade, the president burst out laughing. Already dressed in his tuxedo for the evening, he glanced toward us, his staff, huddled in a corner of the room.

“I’ve got to hold it together,” Mr. Obama said. He said it again backstage a few hours later, this time using a comedy term for laughing in the middle of a scene. “I have to make sure I don’t break.”

He pulled it off. Like other leaders before him, Mr. Obama has gamely played his part in the annual correspondents’ dinner — the one on Saturday night, his eighth, will feature the comedian Larry Wilmore — and the large number of toasts, monologues and other comedic obligations that come with the world’s most powerful gig.

(More here.)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

No love loss between former Speaker and wannabe president

[LP note: NPR usually eschews this kind of scuttlebut reporting, leaving such things to Salon or Huffington Post. Interesting….]

Boehner Says He's Never 'Worked With A More Miserable Son Of A Bitch' Than Cruz

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR
April 28, 201612:08 PM ET

Former House Speaker John Boehner is a retired politician, so he seems to have retired from being politic. He went with radical honesty at a recent event at Stanford, according to the Stanford Daily, when he was asked about his opinion of Republican presidential candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
"Lucifer in the flesh," the former speaker said. "I have Democrat friends and Republican friends. I get along with almost everyone, but I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life."
Consider how strong those words are: John Boehner was in Congress for 24 years.

Boehner entered the House in 1991. Total up all the House members not re-elected in the elections since then, and it's nearly 800. On the Senate side, it's more than 100. And then add in the 535 members who are there right now who Boehner also worked with.

And they all had staffers. Plus there were some delegates. And then there were the years Boehner spent in the Ohio House. And true, some of those Congress members left and came back, but you get the idea: Boehner has worked with thousands of people on the Hill. Apparently, Ted Cruz is at the bottom of that list.

(More here.)

Worth revisiting: A Wallstreeter's renaissance

For the Love of Money

By SAM POLK, New York Times, JAN. 18, 2014

Sam Polk is a former hedge-fund trader and the founder of the nonprofit Groceryships.

IN my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.

Eight years earlier, I’d walked onto the trading floor at Credit Suisse First Boston to begin my summer internship. I already knew I wanted to be rich, but when I started out I had a different idea about what wealth meant. I’d come to Wall Street after reading in the book “Liar’s Poker” how Michael Lewis earned a $225,000 bonus after just two years of work on a trading floor. That seemed like a fortune. Every January and February, I think about that time, because these are the months when bonuses are decided and distributed, when fortunes are made.

I’d learned about the importance of being rich from my dad. He was a modern-day Willy Loman, a salesman with huge dreams that never seemed to materialize. “Imagine what life will be like,” he’d say, “when I make a million dollars.” While he dreamed of selling a screenplay, in reality he sold kitchen cabinets. And not that well. We sometimes lived paycheck to paycheck off my mom’s nurse-practitioner salary.

(Continued here.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Beijing is starting to sound like the Sierra Club

China Curbs Plans for More Coal-Fired Power Plants

By MICHAEL FORSYTHE, New York Times
APRIL 25, 2016

HONG KONG — Coal-fired power plants have propelled much of China’s economic rise for decades, helping make the nation the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Even with economic growth slackening, and other energy sources taking hold, new coal plants have been added.

Now Beijing is trying to slow things down.

In guidelines released on Monday, China halted plans for new coal-fired power stations in many parts of the country, and construction of some approved plants will be postponed until at least 2018.

The announcement, by the National Development and Reform Commission and the National Energy Administration, means that about 200 planned coal-fired power generators — those seeking approval and those approved but not yet under construction — may not be completed, said Lauri Myllyvirta, who analyzes China’s energy production for Greenpeace.

The total of 105 gigawatts of power those plants would have been able to produce is considerably more than the electricity-generating capacity of Britain from all sources.

(Continued here.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Where Jobs Are Squeezed by Chinese Trade, Voters Seek Extremes

The International Paper mill in Courtland, Ala., was closed in 2014, eliminating more than 1,000 jobs from the local economy. Credit Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

By NELSON D. SCHWARTZ and QUOCTRUNG BUI, NYT, APRIL 25, 2016

COURTLAND, Ala. — In this forlorn Southern town whose once-humming factories were battered in recent years by a flood of Asian imports, Rhonda Hughes, 43, is a fervent supporter of Donald Trump. Her 72-year old mother is equally passionate about Senator Bernie Sanders.

Disenchantment with the political mainstream is no surprise. But research to be unveiled this week by four leading academic economists suggests that the damage to manufacturing jobs from a sharp acceleration in globalization since the turn of the century has contributed heavily to the nation’s bitter political divide.

Ms. Hughes avoids discussing the election with her mother, but their neighbor Benjamin Green, 83, knows just what Washington needs. “It’ll take a junkyard dog to straighten this country out,” he said.

Cross-referencing congressional voting records and district-by-district patterns of job losses and other economic trends between 2002 and 2010, the researchers found that areas hardest hit by trade shocks were much more likely to move to the far right or the far left politically.

“It’s not about incumbents changing their positions,” said David Autor, an influential scholar of labor economics and trade at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the paper’s authors. “It’s about the replacement of moderates with more ideological successors.”

(More here.)

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Rise and Deadly Fall of Islamic State’s Oil Tycoon

A document trove tells how Abu Sayyaf ran the terror group’s operations; approving expenses for slaves, dodging U.S. airstrikes

By Benoit Faucon and Margaret Coker, WSJ
April 24, 2016 2:25 p.m. ET

Islamic State oil man Abu Sayyaf was riding high a year ago. With little industry experience, he had built a network of traders and wholesalers of Syrian oil that at one point helped triple energy revenues for his terrorist bosses.

His days carried challenges familiar to all oil executives—increasing production, improving client relations and dodging directives from headquarters. He also had duties unique to the extremist group, including approving expenses to cover the upkeep of slaves, rebuilding oil facilities damaged by U.S. airstrikes and counting towers of cash.

Last May, U.S. Special Forces killed Abu Sayyaf, a nom de guerre, at his compound in Syria’s Deir Ezzour province. The raid also captured a trove of proprietary data that explains how Islamic State became the world’s wealthiest terror group.

Documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal describe the terror group’s construction of a multinational oil operation with help from officious terror-group executives obsessed with maximizing profits. They show how the organization deals with the Syrian regime, handles corruption allegations among top officials, and, most critically, how international coalition strikes have dented but not destroyed Islamic State’s income.

(More here.)

Measuring economic progress: Change is overdue

Why GDP fails as a measure of well-being

By MARK THOMA, MONEYWATCH, CBS News

How should we measure changes in an economy's standard of living, or compare living standards across countries? Typically, economists use GDP per capita as a proxy for a country's standard of living, but as International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde, Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson noted at the recently concluded World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, "GDP is a poor way of assessing the health of our economies and we urgently need to find a new measure."

Using GDP as a measure of welfare has well-known problems, which are among the first things macroeconomics principles courses cover. But the point of the discussions at Davos is that in the digital age, those problems are even deeper. Standard GDP statistics miss many of technology's benefits, so we need to rethink how we measure the typical person's well-being.

The textbooks generally point out five problems with using GDP as a measure of well-being:
  • GDP counts "bads" as well as "goods".…
  • GDP makes no adjustment for leisure time.…
  • GDP only counts goods that pass through official, organized markets, so it misses home production and black market activity.…
  • GDP doesn't adjust for the distribution of goods.…
  • GDP isn't adjusted for pollution costs.…
(Continued here.)

For those who still think the Tea Party movement was a 'spontaneous uprising'

Just in case you missed it…

‘To quarterback behind the scenes, third-party efforts’: the tobacco industry and the Tea Party

Amanda Fallin, Rachel Grana, Stanton A Glantz
Department of Medicine, University of California San Francisco, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, San Francisco, California, USA

Correspondence to Stanton A Glantz, Department of Medicine, University of California San Francisco, Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, Room 366 Library, 530 Parnassus, San Francisco, CA 94143-1390, USA; glantz@medicine.ucsf.edu

Published Online First 8 February 2013

Abstract

Background The Tea Party, which gained prominence in the USA in 2009, advocates limited government and low taxes. Tea Party organisations, particularly Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, oppose smoke-free laws and tobacco taxes.

Methods We used the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, the Wayback Machine, Google, LexisNexis, the Center for Media and Democracy and the Center for Responsive Politics (opensecrets.org) to examine the tobacco companies’ connections to the Tea Party.

Results Starting in the 1980s, tobacco companies worked to create the appearance of broad opposition to tobacco control policies by attempting to create a grassroots smokers’ rights movement. Simultaneously, they funded and worked through third-party groups, such as Citizens for a Sound Economy, the predecessor of AFP and FreedomWorks, to accomplish their economic and political agenda. There has been continuity of some key players, strategies and messages from these groups to Tea Party organisations. As of 2012, the Tea Party was beginning to spread internationally.

Conclusions Rather than being a purely grassroots movement that spontaneously developed in 2009, the Tea Party has developed over time, in part through decades of work by the tobacco industry and other corporate interests. It is important for tobacco control advocates in the USA and internationally, to anticipate and counter Tea Party opposition to tobacco control policies and ensure that policymakers, the media and the public understand the longstanding connection between the tobacco industry, the Tea Party and its associated organisations.

(Article here.)

How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk

Throughout her career she has displayed instincts on foreign policy that are more aggressive than those of President Obama — and most Democrats.

By MARK LANDLER, NYT
APRIL 21, 2016

Hillary Clinton sat in the hideaway study off her ceremonial office in the State Department, sipping tea and taking stock of her first year on the job. The study was more like a den — cozy and wood-paneled, lined with bookshelves that displayed mementos from Clinton’s three decades in the public eye: a statue of her heroine, Eleanor Roosevelt; a baseball signed by the Chicago Cubs star Ernie Banks; a carved wooden figure of a pregnant African woman. The intimate setting lent itself to a less-formal interview than the usual locale, her imposing outer office, with its marble fireplace, heavy drapes, crystal chandelier and ornate wall sconces. On the morning of Feb. 26, 2010, however, Clinton was talking about something more sensitive than mere foreign affairs: her relationship with Barack Obama. To say she chose her words carefully doesn’t do justice to the delicacy of the exercise. She was like a bomb-squad technician, deciding which color wire to snip without blowing up her relationship with the White House.

“We’ve developed, I think, a very good rapport, really positive back-and-forth about everything you can imagine,” Clinton said about the man she described during the 2008 campaign as naïve, irresponsible and hopelessly unprepared to be president. “And we’ve had some interesting and even unusual experiences along the way.”

She leaned forward as she spoke, gesturing with her hands and laughing easily. In talking with reporters, Clinton displays more warmth than Obama does, though there’s less of an expectation that she might say something revealing.

(More here.)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Congress creates an unworkable IRS, then blames the IRS for the problems Congress has created

I.R.S. Fights Back Against House Republicans’ Attacks

JACKIE CALMES, NYT
APRIL 21, 2016

WASHINGTON — For five years, congressional Republicans have taken out their anti-tax wrath on the Internal Revenue Service, cutting its budget by nearly $1 billion, reducing its staff by about 17,000, and even threatening to impeach its chief.

Now they say no one at the agency receives a bonus until customer service improves. And that measure, which the Republican-controlled House easily passed Thursday, was just one of six anti-I.R.S. measures that it approved this week, mostly by party-line votes, to mark the annual tax-filing deadline.

To supporters of the agency — and there are some — years of such attacks have yielded exactly what Republicans seemed to want: a depleted, defanged tax collector.

“I’m appalled, that’s all I can say,” said Lawrence B. Gibbs, a tax lawyer at Miller & Chevalier who joined the I.R.S. during the Nixon administration and was President Ronald Reagan’s choice for commissioner in 1986. “It’s fine to demonize the I.R.S. It has always been a target. Listen, that goes with the job.”

But, he added, given the nation’s challenges, “the one thing people ought to agree on is that we should have a revenue system that works and works well.”

“And if we’re going to create a disrespect for our tax revenue system,” he continued, “I look at it and say I just don’t think it’s in our country’s best interest.”

(More here.)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

It can't happen here … or can it?

Why Can't The Nation & the Left Deal With Election Theft?

By Bob Fitrakis & Harvey Wasserman, Reader Supported News
18 April 2016

There are two things we all need to know about the upcoming 2016 election:
  1. Millions of likely Democratic voters have already been stripped from the voter rolls in critical states like Ohio. The key reporting on this has been done by the great Greg Palast, who has shown that a computer program coordinated by the Republican secretary of state of Kansas is being used in some two dozen states to steal from a substantial percentage of the citizenry their right to vote. The raw numbers are high enough that they could have a significant impact on the presidential, US Senate, House and many other elections this fall. The ACLU has now sued Jon Husted, Ohio’s secretary of state, over the stripping of two million citizens from Ohio's voter rolls.
  2. There is no way to verify the official tally on the electronic machines on which the majority of Americans will vote this fall. Nearly all the machines are a decade old, most are controlled by a single company (ES&S, owned by Warren Buffett) and the courts have ruled that the software is proprietary, making the vote counts beyond public scrutiny. In fact, they are beyond all independent monitoring altogether. In many key swing states (including Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Arizona) GOP governors and secretaries of state will have a free hand to flip the vote count to whatever they want it to be without detection or accountability. This could turn control of our government over to the GOP come November, as it did in 2000 and 2004.
These two critical markers of the upcoming national election are at center stage in our compendium The Flip & Strip Selection of 2016: Five Jim Crows and Electronic Election Theft (www.freepress.org /www.solartopia.org), which we’ll be publishing at the end of April.

(Continued here.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The true cost of coal

Updated climate change costs make coal-fired power less attractive

Elizabeth Dunbar · Apr 18, 2016, Minnesota Public Radio

The price tag on Minnesota's changing climate is on the verge of going up.

State law already requires Minnesota account for climate change costs when deciding how to generate electricity. But an administrative law judge says the price range Minnesota uses is way too low — by a factor of more than 10 — because it's outdated and doesn't fully account for health problems and other societal costs tied to climate change.

If the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission agrees with the judge's view, it could mean wind and solar will look a lot cheaper than burning coal.

"The extent of these public health impacts is actually quite enormous," said Dr. Phil Murray, a retired Twin Cities physician.

Global warming leads to more heat-related illness, and air pollution is linked to asthma and other public health threats, he added. "Increased incidence of allergic problems, cardiovascular disease and stroke, and the increasing problems with vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease and things like malaria or dengue fever or Zika, for that matter."

(Continued here.)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Trumpism and Clintonism Are the Future

MICHAEL LIND, NYT, APRIL 16, 2016

No matter who wins the New York primaries on Tuesday or which candidates end up as the presidential nominees of the two major parties, one thing is already clear: Trumpism represents the future of the Republicans and Clintonism the future of the Democrats.

Those who see the nationalist populism of Mr. Trump as an aberration in a party that will soon return to free-market, limited government orthodoxy are mistaken. So are those who believe that the appeal of Senator Bernie Sanders to the young represents a repudiation of the center-left synthesis shared by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In one form or another, Trumpism and Clintonism will define conservatism and progressivism in America.

This may turn out to be the most turbulent election year since 1968, but the source of the turbulence is different. The presidential election of 1968 was a milestone in partisan realignment — the breakup of the mid-20th-century Democrats and Republicans and the reshuffling of voter blocs among the two parties. In 2016, this half-century process of partisan realignment is all but complete. What we are seeing instead of partisan realignment is policy realignment — the adjustment of what each party stands for to its existing voter base.

We are accustomed to thinking of the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 as the beginning of a new era. But from the vantage point of 2016, both Reagan and Bill Clinton look more like transitional figures. During this period, the migration from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party of socially conservative, economically populist Democrats, like the supporters of the segregationist Democrat George Wallace’s independent presidential campaign in 1968, was not yet complete. Neither was the flow of moderate Rockefeller Republicans in the opposite direction.

(More here.)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

How US covered up Saudi role in 9/11

By Paul Sperry, NY Post
April 17, 2016 | 6:00am

In its report on the still-censored “28 pages” implicating the Saudi government in 9/11, “60 Minutes” last weekend said the Saudi role in the attacks has been “soft-pedaled” to protect America’s delicate alliance with the oil-rich kingdom.

That’s quite an understatement.

Actually, the kingdom’s involvement was deliberately covered up at the highest levels of our government. And the coverup goes beyond locking up 28 pages of the Saudi report in a vault in the US Capitol basement. Investigations were throttled. Co-conspirators were let off the hook.

Case agents I’ve interviewed at the Joint Terrorism Task Forces in Washington and San Diego, the forward operating base for some of the Saudi hijackers, as well as detectives at the Fairfax County (Va.) Police Department who also investigated several 9/11 leads, say virtually every road led back to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, as well as the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles.

(More here.)

On climate change, the outlook only gets worse

A dire prediction on melting ice sheets and rising sea levels

By William Yardley and Raoul Rañoa, Los Angeles Times

The predictions only get worse.

In 2007, a United Nations panel of scientists studying the rise of sea level related to climate change predicted that, if nothing was done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, seas could rise by about 2 feet by 2100. By 2013, the panel had increased its forecast to more than 3 feet, which would put major cities at risk of flooding and storm surge.

Yet all along, the panel emphasized what it did not know. It expressed particular uncertainty about what could happen to the ice sheet in Antarctica. To help fill in the gaps, it invited outside scientists to contribute their own research.

Now the outside research is bearing fruit — and the news is not good.

A new study published in the journal Nature painted perhaps the most ominous picture yet. It showed that, by the end of this century, sea levels could rise 6 feet or more — again, if nothing is done to reduce emissions — potentially inundating many coastal areas, submerging nations and remaking maps of the world.

(Continued here.)

Could a climate s**tstorm be brewing?

What we’re doing to the Earth has no parallel in 66 million years, scientists say

By Chris Mooney, Washington Post, March 21

If you dig deep enough into the Earth’s climate change archives, you hear about the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM. And then you get scared.

This is a time period, about 56 million years ago, when something mysterious happened — there are many ideas as to what — that suddenly caused concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to spike, far higher than they are right now. The planet proceeded to warm rapidly, at least in geologic terms, and major die-offs of some marine organisms followed due to strong acidification of the oceans.

The cause of the PETM has been widely debated. Some think it was an explosion of carbon from thawing Arctic permafrost. Some think there was a huge release of subsea methane that somehow made its way to the atmosphere — and that the series of events might have been kickstarted by major volcanic eruptions.

In any case, the result was a hothouse world from pole to pole, some 5 degrees Celsius warmer overall. But now, new research suggests, even the drama of the PETM falls short of our current period, in at least one key respect: We’re putting carbon into the atmosphere at an even faster rate than happened back then.

(More here.)

Politics are determining the election process: Shouldn't it be the other way around?

Why Americans Can’t Vote

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD, New York Times, APRIL 16, 2016

The state of the nation’s underfunded, patchwork election system and obsolete balloting machinery may not arouse voters the way candidates can with charges of rigged elections. But voters in Arizona who lined up for the state’s presidential primaries last month learned just how difficult and unfair voting can be even without criminal malfeasance.

Maricopa County, the state’s most populous, had slashed the number of polling places to 60, from 200 in 2012, claiming a need for budget savings and leaving thousands of voters waiting long hours into the night, with some giving up in despair.

The Justice Department is investigating this electoral disaster, including charges that minority voters were particularly harmed. Critics blame the Supreme Court for weakening the Voting Rights Act, which used to subject regions with a history of discrimination, Maricopa County among them, to prescreening by the Justice Department before they could make major changes in voting procedures. Had that provision remained operational, the Maricopa fiasco might have been averted.

Arizona’s problem is a good early warning of troubles to come in deeply flawed voting systems everywhere in the country. Come Tuesday in New York, untold numbers of primary voters interested in crossing party lines will discover that it’s too late, that they should have switched parties by last Oct. 9, a little publicized deadline under “closed primary” voting procedures that serve to guard the major parties’ power.

(Continued here.)

And the Academy Award for best flop goes to…

Soccer Players Conveniently 'Get Injured' When Their Team Benefits From It

By Ross Pomeroy, RealClearScience

Watching a soccer match can be very much like watching a sitcom with terrible acting. To gain an advantage and help their team win, players regularly engage in acrobatic, unsporting antics, which may include flamboyantly falling to draw a foul, feigning an injury to waste time, or crying out in pain while clutching their neck after being lightly tapped on the shoulder.

Savvy futbol fans, of course, aren't buying it. In Seattle, the 40,000+ Sounders faithful chant in unison, "Let him die!" when they deem the "injured" player to be a faker. Now, a new study published to the journal Frontiers in Psychology has confirmed what Seattle fans -- and all other soccer fans -- suspected: footballers are huge floppers.

Researchers based out of the National University Singapore and the University of Birmingham watched thirty Euro 2008 soccer matches, 90 English Premier League matches and 63 World Cup 2010 matches, charting injuries for each team over the duration of every match. The timing of injuries was divided into six periods: 0-15th minute, 16-30th minute, 31-45th minute (including first-half stoppage time), 46-60th minute, 61-75th minute and 76-90th minute (including second-half stoppage time). The injuries themselves were categorized based upon whether they would benefit or not benefit the team of the injured player. For example, if a player suffered an injury when his team was up by a goal, that would constitute a "benefit" injury, as it would slow the game down and give his teammates a break.

(Continued here.)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Science has finally discovered an oral birth control for men … and we've been consuming it for decades!

Researchers have found a ‘striking’ new side effect from eating fast food

By Roberto A. Ferdman April 15, Washington Post

Critics of the fast-food industry have long warned about the perils of our addiction to processed food. Big Macs and Whoppers might taste good, but put too many of them in your body and it will expand as Violet Beauregard's did in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (although maybe not quite as fast). The evidence is decades in the making. The rise of processed food, after all, has coincided with an alarming growth in the size of our collective gut.

But there might be some new powerful ammunition for those who could do without the food the fast-food industry serves.

Researchers at George Washington University have linked fast-food consumption to the presence of potentially harmful chemicals, a connection they argue could have "great public health significance." Specifically, the team found that people who eat fast food tend to have significantly higher levels of certain phthalates, which are commonly used in consumer products such as soap and makeup to make them less brittle but have been linked to a number of adverse health outcomes, including higher rates of infertility, especially among males.

The danger, the researchers believe, isn't necessarily a result of the food itself, but rather the process by which the food is prepared. The findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal funded by the National Institutes of Health.

(Continued here.)

Ho hum: another climate temperature record

This March Was Hottest on Record by a Large Margin

Justin Worland, TIME
April 15, 2016

Last month was the hottest March since record keeping began, the eleventh such consecutive record, according to reports released this week.

Average global temperatures last month were 1.07 °C (1.9°F) above the average in March since 1891, according to data from the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA). Separate data released by NASA shows that March was 1.65°C (3.0°F) warmer than the average between 1951 and 1980. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the primary keeper of such data in the U.S., will release its numbers next week.

March may have also been the most above-average temperature month of all time, but preliminary agency data is inconsistent on that record. February of this year broke that record by a dramatic margin.

The temperature record was likely driven by the ongoing, but now fading, El Niño climate phenomenon that raises global temperatures and wrecks havoc on global weather patterns as well as ongoing climate change. Scientists widely expect 2016 to be the hottest year on record.

The string of records, and the scale at which they are being broken, are raising fears that the world is approaching the 2°C (3.6°F) level of warming above preindustrial levels that scientists say could bring about catastrophic and irreversible consequences.

(Continued here.)

Hidden money problem will grow with Panama Papers

By Tom Maertens
April 16, 2016

The revelations in the Panama Papers — 11.5 million documents leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca — continue to reverberate. The documents reveal how corrupt officials, criminals, corporations and the super-wealthy hide money, usually to avoid taxes or launder dirty money.

They include information on some of the 214,000 shell companies the firm created and on the 14,000 banks, law firms, and other middlemen from more than 100 countries who shield trillions from public scrutiny. Mossack Fonseca even appropriated the name of the Red Cross and fabricated religious-sounding organizations to obscure the real owners of the shell companies.

Thousands of people are implicated, including 12 current or former world leaders, several cronies of Vladimir Putin, and family members of eight Chinese politburo members; the prime minister of Iceland already resigned because of the revelations.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, some 400 journalists from 77 countries, has been analyzing the files for a year.

Among the usual tactics used to shelter money are paying foreign jurisdictions to pass favorable tax laws, and using shell corporations and foreign intermediaries to obscure ownership with layers of paper transactions.

This can lead to complicated and opaque tax avoidance schemes such as Apple’s “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich” which Sen. Carl Levin called the “holy grail” of tax avoidance — setting up offshore corporations legally incorporated in Ireland and the US — but for tax purposes, not resident anywhere. Apple shifted $74 billion among such subsidiaries between 2009 and 2012, and paid only 2 percent tax on the money.

A major study by the Tax Justice Network estimated that at least $21 trillion, and possibly as much as $30 trillion was hidden in secret tax havens by the end of 2010. That is equivalent to the size of the U.S. and Japanese economies combined.

This helps explain why tax cuts for the wealthy don’t trickle down as Republican dogma insists — money squirreled away in tax havens does not create jobs.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development calculates that almost a third of all overseas investments — amounting to $6.5 trillion — has been routed through “conduit countries,” mainly to avoid taxes, before reaching their destination.

It cited the British Virgin Islands as an example of a “conduit” country, noting that in 2012 it attracted $72 billion of foreign investment, a figure almost $30 billion more than the U.K. received, despite the latter having an economy 3,000 times larger.

Secrecy is the key to shielding “investors”: the confidentiality law in the Cayman Islands, for example, allows a person to be jailed for up to four years just for asking about investment information, reports Vanity Fair.

Tax avoidance is so common among the plutocrats that even a presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, had a Swiss bank account and money stashed in Bermuda and other tax havens. Bain Capital, the firm he founded, had at least 138 funds organized in the Cayman Islands to help its clients hide money.

Controlling offshore tax havens will require more international cooperation than currently exists. Senior officials from the world’s tax authorities, led by the Joint International Tax Shelter Information and Collaboration Network, have agreed to further coordinate their activities.

In 2010, the U.S. government passed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which requires foreign financial institutions to report U.S. clients they suspect of trying to conceal assets. Other legislation has been introduced every year since 2008 but it has never passed.

Surprisingly, the U.S. is among the biggest tax havens in the world, starting with Nevada and Delaware; creating a shell company in the U.S. is easier than obtaining a library card, says the Guardian. No state in the U.S. requires beneficial ownership information, which is what permits bank secrecy.

A financial system that permits corrupt politicians to hide stolen assets and tax evaders to escape their obligations to the countries whose services they use is inimical to democratic rule.

The journalists’ consortium says that more revelations are to come. In the meantime, a federal whistleblower reward program has been the most effective enforcement tool regarding U.S. citizens.

Bradley Birkenfeld, who disclosed that 19,000 U.S. citizens were hiding an estimated $20 billion in a Swiss bank received a $104 million reward, which sent a chill thru the offshore world. That prompted more than 50,000 Americans to come clean under an IRS amnesty program, which requires them to pay taxes and penalties but avoids criminal charges. The Washington Post reports there may be another 35,000 Americans attempting to negotiate an amnesty.

This article was also published in the Mankato Free Press here. 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 counter-terrorism in the State Department during and after 9/11.

Friday, April 15, 2016

China May Be the Big Winner in the Pentagon’s Newest Spying Scandal

By Dan De Luce, Elias Groll, Paul McLeary, Foreign Policy
April 13, 2016

The secrets a U.S. Navy officer is suspected of slipping to China could ground America’s most important spy planes just when Washington needs them most.

The U.S. naval officer at the center of a burgeoning spy scandal may not have simply betrayed his country: He may have also helped China compromise Washington’s most-sophisticated tool for tracking Beijing’s submarines, ships, and planes.

The surveillance aircraft potentially exposed in the espionage case are America’s high-tech “eyes in the sky” in the western Pacific, the EP-3E Aries II and P-8A Poseidon, which are equipped with sensors and radar that allow them to scoop up the electronic communications of Chinese forces and monitor their movements.

The Aries, which has undergone significant upgrades in recent years, delivers “near real-time” signals intelligence and full motion video, according to the Navy. The aircraft’s sensors and dish antennas — their range is classified — can pick up distant electronic communications, allowing the U.S. military to pick up on any possible threats and eavesdrop on foreign militaries.

(More here.)

The conservative conundrum

Facebook post by Sen. Ben Sasse

AN OPEN LETTER TO TRUMP SUPPORTERS

To my friends supporting Donald Trump:

The Trump coalition is broad and complicated, but I believe many Trump fans are well-meaning. I have spoken at length with many of you, both inside and outside Nebraska. You are rightly worried about our national direction. You ache about a crony-capitalist leadership class that is not urgent about tackling our crises. You are right to be angry.

I’m as frustrated and saddened as you are about what’s happening to our country. But I cannot support Donald Trump.

Please understand: I’m not an establishment Republican, and I will never support Hillary Clinton. I’m a movement conservative who was elected over the objections of the GOP establishment. My current answer for who I would support in a hypothetical matchup between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton is: Neither of them. I sincerely hope we select one of the other GOP candidates, but if Donald Trump ends up as the GOP nominee, conservatives will need to find a third option.

Mr. Trump’s relentless focus is on dividing Americans, and on tearing down rather than building back up this glorious nation. Much like President Obama, he displays essentially no understanding of the fact that, in the American system, we have a constitutional system of checks and balances, with three separate but co-equal branches of government. And the task of public officials is to be public “servants.” The law is king, and the people are boss. But have you noticed how Mr. Trump uses the word “Reign” – like he thinks he’s running for King? It’s creepy, actually. Nebraskans are not looking for a king. We yearn instead for the recovery of a Constitutional Republic.

(Continued here.)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Abortion Map Today

Linda Greenhouse, NYT, APRIL 13, 2016

IN his smart opinion piece last week, “A Mason-Dixon Line of Progress,” Timothy Egan noted the “retreat to bigotry” sweeping across the old South as politicians clinging to the past (under the banner of religious freedom) line up to authorize discrimination against gay people. The column prompted me to think about whether the battlegrounds in the never-ending abortion wars display a similar geographic concentration.

The answer is that to a startling degree they don’t. The battleground is much bigger. With the exception of the West Coast and most (but not all) of the Northeast, recently enacted abortion restrictions can be found almost everywhere.

Since 2011, 10 states, from the Canadian border to the Great Lakes to the Southwest, have each imposed 10 or more new barriers to access to legal abortion. An additional 21 states have enacted between one and 10 restrictions — the lower number in some cases simply reflecting a state’s creativity in having already adopted a long menu of anti-abortion measures.

It comes as no great surprise that each of the top 10 states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas — only four of which were part of the Confederacy) is headed by a Republican governor. Politics — political culture — outweighs geography.

(More here.)

America Hasn’t Gone Crazy. It’s Just More Like Europe.

Ivan Krastev, NYT
APRIL 14, 2016

Sofia, Bulgaria — FOR most Europeans these days, traveling to America is like landing on Mars. Even the most sophisticated political analysts can’t make head or tail of what is happening in the country. They are offended by the rise of Donald J. Trump, puzzled by Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialist appeal to young American voters, and confused by President Obama’s unsentimental, risk-averse foreign policy that decided against punishing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria for crossing Mr. Obama’s own red line on chemical weapons.

I stand in marked contrast to my fellow Europeans’ mystification. As I witness the anger of the middle class, the arrogance of the unloved elites, the shared disbelief in the effectiveness of military power and the pervasive fear of the future — perhaps for the first time, I feel I understand exactly what is going on in America.

Take Mr. Trump’s insurgency, built on barking out the basest and craziest comments. His success, making even Ted Cruz look mainstream, baffles many in the United States and abroad, who are used to seeing American politicians walk a careful line between red-meat populism and mainstream respectability. The center, until now, has always held.

But Mr. Trump would be at home in Europe. Mainstream parties barely get half the vote in national elections. What wins instead are the visceral appeals of political resentment. When I enter a cafe here in Sofia or in Warsaw or Amsterdam, I hear groups of women and men calling for foreigners to be bused out of the country, Muslims to be barred from coming in and walls to be erected on our borders.

(More here.)

Why China Won’t Overtake the United States

The Once and Future Superpower

By Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth
Foreign Affairs

After two and a half decades, is the United States’ run as the world’s sole superpower coming to an end? Many say yes, seeing a rising China ready to catch up to or even surpass the United States in the near future. By many measures, after all, China’s economy is on track to become the world’s biggest, and even if its growth slows, it will still outpace that of the United States for many years. Its coffers overflowing, Beijing has used its new wealth to attract friends, deter enemies, modernize its military, and aggressively assert sovereignty claims in its periphery. For many, therefore, the question is not whether China will become a superpower but just how soon.

But this is wishful, or fearful, thinking. Economic growth no longer translates as directly into military power as it did in the past, which means that it is now harder than ever for rising powers to rise and established ones to fall. And China—the only country with the raw potential to become a true global peer of the United States—also faces a more daunting challenge than previous rising states because of how far it lags behind technologically. Even though the United States’ economic dominance has eroded from its peak, the country’s military superiority is not going anywhere, nor is the globe-spanning alliance structure that constitutes the core of the existing liberal international order (unless Washington unwisely decides to throw it away). Rather than expecting a power transition in international politics, everyone should start getting used to a world in which the United States remains the sole superpower for decades to come.

Lasting preeminence will help the United States ward off the greatest traditional international danger, war between the world’s major powers. And it will give Washington options for dealing with nonstate threats such as terrorism and transnational challenges such as climate change. But it will also impose burdens of leadership and force choices among competing priorities, particularly as finances grow more straitened. With great power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes, and playing its leading role successfully will require Washington to display a maturity that U.S. foreign policy has all too often lacked.

(More here.)

The financial struggle of public research institutions: a choice, not a necessity

The Pillaging of America's State Universities

JONATHAN R. COLE
APR 10, 2016, The Atlantic

America’s great public research universities, which produce path-breaking discoveries and train some of the country’s most talented young students, are under siege. The result may be a significant weakening of the nation’s preeminence in higher education. Dramatic cuts in public spending for state flagship universities seem to be at odds with widespread public sentiment. Americans say they strongly believe in exceptional educational systems; they want their kids to attend excellent and selective colleges and to get good, well-paying, prestigious jobs. They also support university research. After 15 years of surveys, Research! America found in 2015 that 70 percent of American adults supported government-sponsored basic scientific research like that produced by public universities, while a significant plurality (44 percent) supported paying higher taxes for medical research designed to cure diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, many state legislators seem to be ignoring public opinion as they essentially starve some of the best universities—those that educate about two-thirds of American college students.

According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ recently completed Lincoln Project report, between 2008 and 2013 states reduced financial support to top public research universities by close to 30 percent. At the same time, these states increased support of prisons by more than 130 percent. New York City’s budget office reported in 2013 that incarcerating a person in a state prison cost the city roughly $168,000 a year. California apparently does it on the cheap: It costs roughly $64,000 annually for each prisoner—a bit more than the cost of a year at an Ivy League university (average tuition is $50,000) and far more than at the University of California, Berkeley, ($13,000) or at CUNY ($8,000).

(Continued here.)

Earth to humans: Hello? Anybody listening to me?

Scientists: Greenland ice sheet is melting freakishly early

By SETH BORENSTEIN, Apr. 13, 2016 10:30 PM EDT, AP

WASHINGTON (AP) — Greenland's massive ice sheet this week started melting freakishly early because of a weather system that brought unseasonably warm temperatures and rain, scientists say.

While the record early melt is mostly from natural weather on top of overall global warming, scientists say they are concerned about what it will mean when the melt season begins this summer. This early melt, however, could be temporary.

On Monday and Tuesday, about 12 percent of the ice sheet surface area — 656,000 square miles, or 1.7 million square kilometers — showed signs of melting ice, according to Peter Langen, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute.

That smashed the record for early melting by more than three weeks. Such a melt is normal for late May, not mid-April, Langen said.

Normally, no ice should be melting in Greenland at this time of year. Before now, the earliest Greenland had more than 10 percent surface area melting was on May 5, back in 1990. Even in 2012, when 97 percent of Greenland experienced melt, it didn't have such an early and extensive melt.

(More here.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Something we all can believe in

Will Science Drive Religion Extinct?

Posted by Ross Pomeroy, RealClearScience

Religion is declining in America.

This is actually something fairly new. For decades, religion has been on the wane in developed countries worldwide, with statistical models going so far as to predict its eventual extinction in nine countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. America was pretty much the sole country bucking the trend to nonbelief. No longer.

In 1998, 62 percent of Americans said they were “moderately” or “very” religious. In 2014, that number dropped to 54 percent. According to a recent study, irreligion is particularly pronounced amongst younger Americans.

"Nearly a third of Millennials were secular not merely in religious affiliation but also in belief in God, religiosity, and religious service attendance, many more than Boomers and Generation X’ers at the same age," the authors wrote. "Eight times more 18- to 29-year-olds never prayed in 2014 versus the early 1980s."

In light of the new data, it seems inevitable that as demographics change over a matter of decades, religious practitioners will become a minority group in the United States. What's driving the decline?

(More here.)

What did Della wear, boys? A brand new corporation … lots of 'em

Why Are There So Many Anonymous Corporations in Delaware? 

By Libby Watson, Sunlight Foundation | Tuesday, 12 April 2016

From the Federal Election Commission's suggestion that it might finally begin scrutinizing donations to super PACs from mystery limited liability corporations (LLCs) to the revelations in the Panama Papers, LLCs are very in right now. The leak of the Panama Papers reportedly shows the use of offshore shell companies to hide cash by many high-profile foreign figures, from highly-paid soccer star Lionel Messi to the prime minister of Iceland, but the lack of Americans implicated in the investigations has raised eyebrows in the international community. We'd all like to believe that it's because most Americans are law-abiding folks, but there might be another answer: Americans don't need offshore companies in tiny island nations to hide their money. America has Delaware.

Delaware is home to more than a million corporations, meaning it has more corporations than actual human residents. In 2012, The New York Times reported that a single building in Wilmington was the legal address of over 285,000 separate businesses. About 65 percent of Fortune 500 companies are incorporated in Delaware. Many companies choose to incorporate there because of the "business-friendly" climate and extensive body of corporate law, or because Delaware has much lower corporate taxes than most states. The New York Times says incorporating in Delaware "has enabled corporations to reduce the taxes paid to other states by an estimated $9.5 billion." But it also happens to be one of the easiest places in the world to set up an anonymous company, making it a great place to establish an LLC to do business that you don't want anyone to know about or you don't want to be easily connected to.

Setting up a company in Delaware is extremely quick, easy and inexpensive. Openness advocates like the Financial Transparency Coalition point out that a person needs to provide more personal information to register for a library card than to register an LLC in Delaware. We encountered this problem when we looked into some of the LLCs making donations to super PACs: Two LLCs that made big donations to the super PAC supporting Carly Fiorina, for example, are registered only to Harvard Business Services, with no further identifying information available on public documents. Harvard Business Services charges $50 to list itself as the registered agent, which makes it impossible to find the real owners. In Delaware, that's perfectly legal.

(Continued here.)

The object is to win, not to govern the country

Trey Gowdy injects Benghazi into the 2016 campaign

By Dana Milbank Opinion writer April 13 at 5:23 PM WashPost

Is Trey Gowdy planning a July surprise?

The chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi went to ground after he and his colleagues grilled Hillary Clinton in October. They haven’t had a single hearing since then (and had only three public hearings before that one), though they occasionally send news releases reminding the world that their 700-day-old investigation continues.

But that is about to change. Gowdy, after blowing through several previous deadlines he set, has said to expect a final report “before summer,” and Republicans say they are drafting it now. In another indication that the rollout is approaching, Gowdy last month cut off Democrats’ access to transcripts of witness interviews. This move, ostensibly to prevent leaks, diminishes the minority’s ability respond to allegations contained in the majority report.

Depending on how long the declassification review takes, the Benghazi report is on track to drop by mid-July, just before Congress recesses for the conventions and at a time when Republicans will be in need of a distraction from the Trump-Cruz standoff. If the review takes longer (they typically last from a few weeks to a several months) it could come out in September, in the campaign’s homestretch.

(More here.)

ISIS Expands Reach Despite Military and Financial Setbacks

By MATTHEW ROSENBERG, HELENE COOPER and NICHOLAS KULISH
NYT, APRIL 12, 2016

WASHINGTON — American airstrikes have killed 25,000 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria and incinerated millions of dollars plundered by the militants, according to Pentagon officials.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces have taken back 40 percent of the militant group’s land in Iraq, the officials say, and forces backed by the West have seized a sizable amount of territory in Syria that had been controlled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

But the battlefield successes enjoyed by Western-backed forces in the Islamic State’s heartland have done little to stop the expansion of the militants to Europe, North Africa and Afghanistan. The attacks this year in Brussels, Istanbul and other cities only reinforced the sense of a terrorist group on the march, and among American officials and military experts, there is renewed caution in predicting progress in a fight that they say is likely to go on for years.

“Even as we advance our efforts to defeat Daesh on the front lines,” Deputy Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told a congressional committee on Tuesday, using another name for the Islamic State, “we know that to be fully effective, we must work to prevent the spread of violent extremism in the first place — to stop the recruitment, radicalization and mobi

(More here.)

By Opposing Obama, the Republicans Created Trump

Steven Rattner APRIL 13, 2016, NYT

MEMO to Republican legislators biting your nails over the New York primary, wondering if you can finally derail Donald J. Trump’s candidacy with, gulp, Ted Cruz: You brought it on yourselves.

Not just by failing for too long to take Mr. Trump seriously or by lacking an effective response once you did. That’s well-covered territory. Most important, you created the anger that lifted his candidacy by years of systematically and effectively preventing passage of legislation that might have ameliorated the tough economic state of Mr. Trump’s core voters.

Mr. Trump’s biggest supporters are disproportionately white, middle-aged, working-class men without college educations, a group whose fortunes have flagged as globalization and new technology have rendered millions of jobs obsolete and cut into the wages of many more. While the trade agreements that Mr. Trump bashes have played a role, the mistake was not having entered into them, but having failed to sufficiently help affected workers adjust to the new dynamics.

(More here.)

Monday, April 11, 2016

Truth from the mouths of babes

Judge Denies Motions by Fossil Fuel Industry and Federal Government in Landmark Climate Change Case

By Our Children's Trust, EcoWatch
10 April 16

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin of the Federal District Court in Eugene, Oregon, decided in favor of 21 young plaintiffs in their landmark constitutional climate change case against the federal government. Judge Coffin ruled Friday against the motion to dismiss brought by the fossil fuel industry and federal government.

The court’s ruling is a major victory for the 21 youth plaintiffs, ages 8-19, from across the U.S. in what Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein call the “most important lawsuit on the planet right now.”

These plaintiffs sued the federal government for violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, and their right to essential public trust resources, by permitting, encouraging and otherwise enabling continued exploitation, production and combustion of fossil fuels.

(More here.)

In Oregon: Clean Energy 1, Coal 0

Oregon’s Groundbreaking Clean Energy Bill

The plan will have national implications and adds to the growing momentum to address climate change

POSTED ON APR 5 2016 BY NOAH LONG, Green Building Advisor

Noah Long is a senior attorney in the NRDC's energy program.

The historic clean energy law that passed Oregon's Legislature with bipartisan support this month will have regional, national, and international implications.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown's ceremonial signing of the state's pioneering Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Act at an elementary school that recently installed solar panels was both symbolic and appropriate. The new clean energy law helps address the greatest environmental threat of our time and protect future generations from the worst effects of climate change.

Oregon becomes the first state in the nation to legislate an end to the use of coal-fired electricity, with a deadline of no later than 2035. The law also requires that at least half of the electricity supplied by the state's largest utilities — Pacific Power and Portland General Electric, which together serve 70 percent of Oregon's electricity needs — come from new renewable sources such as solar and wind power.

And it directs those utilities to speed the deployment of charging stations for emissions-free electric vehicles. Plugging electric vehicles into renewable energy will help cut emissions from the transportation sector, which is Oregon's largest source of carbon pollution.

(Read more here.)