Thursday, May 28, 2015

Polluted Political Games

Nicholas Kristof, NYT
MAY 28, 2015

I’ve admired the Clintons’ foundation for years for its fine work on AIDS and global poverty, and I’ve moderated many panels at the annual Clinton Global Initiative. Yet with each revelation of failed disclosures or the appearance of a conflict of interest from speaking fees of $500,000 for the former president, I have wondered: What were they thinking?

But the problem is not precisely the Clintons. It’s our entire disgraceful money-based political system. Look around:

• Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey accepted flights and playoff tickets from the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, who has business interests Christie can affect.

• Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has received financial assistance from a billionaire, Norman Braman, and has channeled public money to Braman’s causes.

• Jeb Bush likely has delayed his formal candidacy because then he would have to stop coordinating with his “super PAC” and raising money for it. He is breaching at least the spirit of the law.

When problems are this widespread, the problem is not crooked individuals but perverse incentives from a rotten structure.

(More here.)

Armed With Google and YouTube, Analysts Gauge Russia’s Presence in Ukraine

MAY 27, 2015

WASHINGTON — An unusual investigation using publicly available videos, smartphone photographs and satellite images shows that Russia is continuing to defy the West by conducting protracted military operations inside Ukraine, according to an independent report.

Russia has long dismissed Western allegations that its military has intervened in Ukraine as little more than computer-generated propaganda.

In an attempt to puncture the Russian denials, independent experts have operated like digital Sherlock Holmeses, using Google’s Street View, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, satellite photographs and Russia’s version of Facebook, including social media updates by Russian soldiers. That research was then supplemented by more traditional sources like court documents and local media reports.

“Independent researchers, using open sources and rigorous methodology, have demonstrated that Russian troops and Russian weapons have been an important part of the fight in Ukraine’s east,” said John E. Herbst, a former American ambassador to Ukraine and one of the authors of the report, Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin’s War in Ukraine, which is to be released Thursday by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research center.

(More here.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Distracted by Trivia While Libya Burned

By David Ignatius - May 27, 2015, WashPost

WASHINGTON -- Secretaries of state have had private contacts since the job was created, so it's a mistake to get too indignant about Hillary Clinton's email exchanges about Libya with her longtime friend, Sidney Blumenthal. Still, these messages offer some useful insights about the court politics of Washington, and the way policymaking can be overwhelmed by trivia and personal puffery.

Try reading these messages not as a catalog of scandal (which doesn't appear to be there) but as fragments of an epistolary novel of Imperial Washington, written in the modern genre of email. There's a faint echo of Anthony Trollope in the revelations of petty plots, coy flattery and bids for influence. The fact that Libya, the nominal subject of most of the messages, is going down the drain is almost an afterthought.

The central characters in this palace intrigue are Clinton and Blumenthal, her Svengali-like confidant since the 1990s who is referred to in these documents as "HRC friend," "HRC Contact" and "Friend of S [for Secretary]." He had been shut out of a State Department job by the White House in 2009 but continued his friendship with Clinton and saw her occasionally. "Post-election, we'd like to have you over for dinner. Bill can come, too ...," reads one message.

Blumenthal didn't offer policy prescriptions so much as a running chronicle of the political machinations in Libya and the deteriorating security situation there. This gossip is dressed up with attributions to "an extremely sensitive source," "a particularly sensitive source," and the like.

(More here.)

The New York Times blows a hole in the case against Obamacare

Updated by Ezra Klein on May 27, 2015, 11:20 a.m. ET, VOX

There are basically two versions of the looming Supreme Court case against Obamacare. One of them makes sense but doesn't pose enough of a threat to Obamacare to satisfy Republicans. The other poses a real threat to Obamacare, but it's never made much sense — and the New York Times just blew a hole right through the middle of it.

The version that makes some sense goes like this: section 1311 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is poorly worded, and if you read it completely out of context it seems to say the law's tax credits are only available in state-run exchanges.

The problem for Republicans, as law professor Nicholas Bagley has written, is that the Supreme Court isn't going to gut Obamacare over a grammar dispute. The Court is deferential to other branches of government, so the bar for reinterpreting a law like Obamacare is high; the plaintiffs will basically have to prove that the statute is worded unambiguously and "the IRS’s contrary interpretation is downright unreasonable." But basically everything else in the bill makes clear that the IRS's interpretation is reasonable — and, frankly, correct. So simply arguing that Congress made a drafting error won't get Republicans where they want to go.

Which brings us to the second case against Obamacare, the one Republicans came up with later on: section 1311 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is worded perfectly. It was always Congress's intent to deny subsidies to federally run exchanges, no matter how much damage that would cause to state insurance markets, and no matter how firmly at odds that seems to be with a law dedicated to covering the uninsured.

(More here.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Muslim Frenchwomen Struggle With Discrimination as Bans on Veils Expand

Observant Muslim women in France, whose head coverings can vary from head scarves tied loosely under the chin to tightly fitted caps and wimple-like scarves that hide every strand of hair, say the constant talk of new laws has made them targets of abuse. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times


WISSOUS, France — Malek Layouni was not thinking about her Muslim faith, or her head scarf, as she took her excited 9-year-old son to an amusement site near Paris. But, as it turned out, it was all that mattered.

Local officials blocked her path to the inflatable toys on a temporary beach, pointing at regulations that prohibit dogs, drunks and symbols of religion. And that meant barring women who wear head scarves.

Mrs. Layouni still blushes with humiliation at being turned away in front of friends and neighbors, and at having no answer for her son, who kept asking her, “What did we do wrong?”

More than 10 years after France passed its first anti-veil law restricting young girls from wearing veils in public schools, the head coverings of observant Muslim women, from colorful silk scarves to black chadors, have become one of the most potent flash points in the nation’s tense relations with its vibrant and growing Muslim population.

(More here.)

The University of Minnesota’s Medical Research Mess


MINNEAPOLIS — IF you want to see just how long an academic institution can tolerate a string of slow, festering research scandals, let me invite you to the University of Minnesota, where I teach medical ethics.

Over the past 25 years, our department of psychiatry has been party to the following disgraces: a felony conviction and a Food and Drug Administration research disqualification for a psychiatrist guilty of fraud in a drug study; the F.D.A. disqualification of another psychiatrist, for enrolling illiterate Hmong refugees in a drug study without their consent; the suspended license of yet another psychiatrist, who was charged with “reckless, if not willful, disregard” for dozens of patients; and, in 2004, the discovery, in a halfway house bathroom, of the near-decapitated corpse of Dan Markingson, a seriously mentally ill young man under an involuntary commitment order who committed suicide after enrolling, over the objections of his mother, in an industry-funded antipsychotic study run by members of the department.

And those, unfortunately, are just the highlights.

The problem extends well beyond the department of psychiatry and into the university administration. Rather than dealing forthrightly with these ethical breaches, university officials have seemed more interested in covering up wrongdoing with a variety of underhanded tactics. Reporting in The Star Tribune discovered, for example, that in the felony case, university officials hid an internal investigation of the fraud from federal investigators for nearly four years.

(More here.)

Monday, May 25, 2015

What are we getting for our tax dollars? Cheap energy

Fossil fuels subsidised by $10 million a minute, says IMF

‘Shocking’ revelation finds $5.3 trillion subsidy estimate for 2015 is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments

Damian Carrington, The Guardian

Fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of $5.3tn (£3.4tn) a year, equivalent to $10m a minute every day, according to a startling new estimate by the International Monetary Fund.

The IMF calls the revelation “shocking” and says the figure is an “extremely robust” estimate of the true cost of fossil fuels. The $5.3tn subsidy estimated for 2015 is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments.

The vast sum is largely due to polluters not paying the costs imposed on governments by the burning of coal, oil and gas. These include the harm caused to local populations by air pollution as well as to people across the globe affected by the floods, droughts and storms being driven by climate change.

US taxpayers subsidising world's biggest fossil fuel companies

Nicholas Stern, an eminent climate economist at the London School of Economics, said: “This very important analysis shatters the myth that fossil fuels are cheap by showing just how huge their real costs are. There is no justification for these enormous subsidies for fossil fuels, which distort markets and damages economies, particularly in poorer countries.”

Lord Stern said that even the IMF’s vast subsidy figure was a significant underestimate: “A more complete estimate of the costs due to climate change would show the implicit subsidies for fossil fuels are much bigger even than this report suggests.”

The IMF, one of the world’s most respected financial institutions, said that ending subsidies for fossil fuels would cut global carbon emissions by 20%. That would be a giant step towards taming global warming, an issue on which the world has made little progress to date.

(More here.)

Your tax dollars at work: Helping coal and oil companies?

Subsidies: What Fossil Fuels & Porn Have in Common

Posted by Alex B. Berezow on May 27, 2015, RealClearScience

It's time to end the federal porn subsidy.

You might be asking, What federal porn subsidy? Fair question. Technically, there isn't a federal porn subsidy. However, if we borrow some of the logic commonly used by politically driven economists, we can redefine the word subsidy to mean whatever we want.

Pornography is enjoyed by many people, but it comes with a very real social cost: it can break up families and perhaps even become an addiction, which are profound losses of productivity. Economists refer to these as negative externalities -- i.e., bad side effects that affect people other than the person making the decision. One way to deal with such decisions is to tax them. This should, in theory, reduce the negative side effects, while simultaneously forcing the decisionmaker to bear the "true cost" of his actions. Clearly, if anyone should have to pay for this societal cost, it should be porn watchers, in the form of a porn tax. If they don't pay such a tax, they are getting an indirect subsidy.

As it turns out, we don't have a federal porn tax. Thus, we could say that the American government has issued a federal porn subsidy.

(Continued here.)

How Places Let Us Feel the Past

T. M. Luhrmann, NYT
MAY 25, 2015

WHAT gives certain places their extraordinary power to move people so deeply?

Many years ago, I met a man who as a teenager had been irritated that the comfortable, middle-class Jews he met in his Northern California synagogue did not take God seriously. He’d see them in the temple on High Holy Days — the only time many of them came to services, he thought — and be appalled at the flirting and the gossip. He would look around at the congregation and think: Who are these people? But he also felt like one of them — ignorant of the Torah, naïve about his faith.

So he went to Jerusalem. There, he met God. At least, one night he had an experience so remarkable, so terrifying, so powerful and so grand that, years later, when he told me about it, he made me turn off my tape recorder and swore me to secrecy about the details. The morning after his encounter, he made his way to a rabbi. The older man listened carefully and told him that while his experience was important, he should keep it private for now, and focus on his study.

Jerusalem has this effect on so many people that experiences like this have a name: Jerusalem syndrome. Roughly 100 tourists a year become sufficiently overwhelmed by spiritual experiences that they end up in a mental health center. They see themselves as biblical characters or as messiahs, or they feel that they have been given a special task, like moving the Western Wall. Often, but not always, they have had previous psychiatric diagnoses. Some seem to lose touch with reality, and then never do so again. The sheer intensity of being in so holy a place is enough to bring some people to an apparently psychotic state.

(More here.)

The New Dictators Rule by Velvet Fist


THE standard image of dictatorship is of a government sustained by violence. In 20th-century totalitarian systems, tyrants like Stalin, Hitler and Mao murdered millions in the name of outlandish ideologies. Strongmen like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire left trails of blood.

But in recent decades, a new brand of authoritarian government has evolved that is better adapted to an era of global media, economic interdependence and information technology. The “soft” dictators concentrate power, stifling opposition and eliminating checks and balances, while using hardly any violence.

These illiberal leaders — Alberto K. Fujimori of Peru, Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Viktor Orban of Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — threaten to reshape the world order in their image, replacing principles of freedom and law — albeit imperfectly upheld by Western powers — with cynicism and corruption. The West needs to understand how these regimes work and how to confront them.

Some bloody or ideological regimes remain — as in Syria and North Korea — but the balance has shifted. In 1982, 27 percent of nondemocracies engaged in mass killings. By 2012, only 6 percent did. In the same period, the share of nondemocracies with no elected legislature fell to 15 percent from 31 percent.

(More here.)

Putin Signs Law To Shut Down 'Undesirable' Foreign Organizations In Russia

 Posted: 05/24/2015 9:01 am EDT Updated: 3 hours ago

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law Saturday giving prosecutors the power to declare foreign and international organizations "undesirable" in Russia and shut them down.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the measure as part of an "ongoing draconian crackdown which is squeezing the life out of civil society."

The law is part of a Kremlin campaign to stifle dissent that intensified after Putin began his third term in 2012. His return to the presidency had been accompanied by mass street protests that Putin accused the United States of fomenting. Russian suspicions of Western intentions have been further heightened because of tensions over Russia's role in the conflict in Ukraine.

The new Russian law allows prosecutors to declare an organization undesirable if it presents a threat to Russia's constitutional order, its defenses or its security.

(More here.)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Four simple, revenue-neutral ways to help both employers and employees

Let’s Solve the Real Problem Behind Inequality

by Will Handke and Ross Pomeroy
Republished from the blog We Could Be Great

The American economy is not what it once was. Picture it as a building: Its foundations were once thick, strengthened by a large middle class and a realistic minimum wage. Its breadth was considerable, with plenty of room for everyone and then some. Its reach was high, but not dangerously so. Its penthouse was well adorned, but not decadent. Surely, some Americans struggled, but most moved upward and many more had the chance to do so.

Now, the economy has grown hollow, its base and woodwork worn through, as middle-class wages have stagnated. Many of its rooms are now poorly kept and packed full, even as its penthouse suites grow roomier and climb higher and higher, their soaring windows accruing rosier and rosier tints, their few and fortuned denizens elevated to such a level that they forget those on whom their wealth was built and ultimately relies. Today, many struggle, some move forward, and fewer have the chance to do so.

Many focus on inequality and immobility in themselves. But ultimately, these are symptoms of the true problem: that work is no longer as valued in America as it once was, that amidst the economic strains of globalization and the ordinary ebbs and flows of capitalism, political inaction or deliberate policymaking has reduced the pay of workers and made it harder for businesses to pay them.

Fortunately, the solutions to this problem are not only simple; they are popular. To put it plainly, America’s lawmakers must act to make work pay and to make it easier to pay workers. Here are four ways to get started:

1. Raise the minimum wage.

Lawmakers have allowed the minimum wage to fall from its peak in 1968 — $10.79 in 2015 dollars — to $7.25 today, even as the productivity of American workers has more than doubled. By increasing the minimum wage to $11, we would increase the earnings of those most likely to spend them, thus boosting the economy, and create upward pressure on wages even for those who make above the minimum. This higher minimum wage should also be indexed to inflation so that gridlock or laziness in Washington will no longer be the cause of falling wages.

2. Flatten the payroll tax for employees. Reduce it for employers.

Today, to fund Social Security and Medicare, lower- and middle-income earners are taxed proportionally higher than the wealthiest earners, who don’t have to pay taxes on any income earned over $118,500. Furthermore, employers have to match these payments. To increase the value of work, the payroll tax rate (currently 7.65 percent) should be lowered and the $118,500 income cap should be removed, giving 85% of workers a tax cut, while broadening the payroll tax base to offset the lower rate. To make it easier for businesses to pay employees a higher minimum wage, employers should be exempted from paying any payroll taxes on each employee’s first $22,880 worth of wages (equivalent to a full year worth of work at an $11 minimum wage). This floor would then be recurrently adjusted for inflation.

3. Eliminate inefficient tax privileges.

To cover the tax revenue gap from the reduced employer payroll tax, Lawmakers should eliminate a slew of inefficient tax privileges. For instance, those who flip houses, trade stocks, or collect dividend checks pay lower tax rates on their earnings than those who are paid via salaries or hourly wages. Also, people who buy more expensive houses and take on bigger mortgages have their taxes reduced in proportion to the larger interest payments they make. For every such inefficient tax privilege we provide, money is lost that could be used to reduce taxes for all workers. Also, privileges such as these have long served to dis-incentivize wages and salaries relative to investment income. By eliminating them, we reaffirm a common-sense principle: that a dollar earned should be treated the same regardless of how it’s earned.

 4. Reduce welfare.

Lawmakers have perpetuated an inefficient and gluttonous welfare and disability system that pays people too much and lets them stay on public assistance for too long. For instance, as of March 2015, 3.4 percent of the U.S. population was being paid Social Security benefits for being “disabled” — a designation that has become far too easy to get. That’s up more than 50 percent from 1985. With a higher minimum wage, many workers would no longer need or qualify for welfare benefits, and those who were still eligible would have a greater incentive to work. Additional welfare-roll reductions could be encouraged by reducing benefits and reducing the amount of time that they may be used.

The effect of these simple, revenue-neutral changes would be positive, rapidly felt, and permanently sustained. With the value of work in the U.S. once again restored, our teetering American building would be shorn up, its residents once again on the path to prosperity, its facade once again worthy of the American Dream.

(The article is here. Note: The writers are millennial entrepreneurs who co-own a small nutrition bar company in Minneapolis.)

Thank God Minnesota has a sensible governor, even if the legislature is not

Gov. Mark Dayton vetoes jobs, environment bills

Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed two major budget bills Saturday that would fund environmental protection and jobs programs, further complicating the state budget picture and the dynamics of a special legislative session that he is expected to call in the coming weeks.

The DFL governor already vetoed the education budget, the largest piece of the budget pie, demanding that the Legislature provide more funds for his signature prekindergarten proposal.

Dayton also made a public offer to House Republicans at a Saturday news conference: He asked for $650 million in new money for education, which is $250 million above what the Legislature passed, while also offering a temporary $250 million tax cut. He dropped his demand that the prekindergarten program be universal and lowered the cost about 40 percent.

“This is an attempt to give them something they want in exchange for something I want,” he said.

(Continued here.  For Gov. Dayton's veto reasoning, go here.)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Minnesota environmental bill a disaster

What are we? Wisconsin?

by Alan Muller on May 23, 2015

The regular session of the Minnesota Legislature has thankfully ended. Many bad things and few good things happened. It seems to me that the leadership of the House (Republican) and the Senate (DFL) were generally united against the people. How did this come about? A question that needs answering…..and a situation that needs changing.

Some of the worst language was removed or toned down due to lobbying by the Attorney General’s office, Isaac Walton League, Trout Unlimited, Carol Overland, and others.

At this point the only way to (possibly) improve the situation is to convince Governor Dayton to veto bad bills.

Here are the two of the worst bills we have been following. Note that during the session the bad stuff has sometimes moved from one bill number to another, sometimes more than once. This is the endpoint.

(Continued here.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Gunfight Between Police and Gang in Mexico Leaves at Least 45 Dead

At least three officers, 42 others killed in battle with alleged members of Jalisco New Generation drug cartel

By Dudley Althaus And Santiago Pérez, WSJ
Updated May 22, 2015 5:48 p.m. ET

MEXICO CITY—A gunbattle between federal police and alleged members of a criminal gang on Friday killed at least three officers and 42 other people in Mexico’s troubled Michoacán state, government officials said.

Gunmen ambushed a police convoy about 10 a.m., local time, as it traveled a rural highway in Tanhuato, a sparsely populated municipality near Lake Chapala, which is a resort area in the Western part of the country popular with U.S. and other foreign retirees, a senior official confirmed.

“Federal forces repelled the aggression,” the official said.

Michoacán state Governor Salvador Jara told Mexican TV station Milenio that the gunmen appeared to be members of the Jalisco New Generation cartel, a rising narcotics gang that has clashed repeatedly with federal forces in recent weeks, killing dozens security officers.

Members of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s security cabinet are traveling to the area to assess the incident, the officials said. The death toll is based on preliminary estimates and could change, they added. Gov. Jara declined to provide additional information.

(More here.)

One Woman’s Crusade for U.K. Town’s Young Rape Victims

Jayne Senior’s child-abuse reports, ignored for years, now deepen a national soul-searching

By Margaret Coker and Alexis Flynn, WSJ
May 22, 2015 3:49 p.m. ET

ROTHERHAM, England— Jayne Senior worked for more than a decade to expose rampant child sexual abuse in this rusting steel town in South Yorkshire, but she met mostly indifference and scorn from authorities.

The youth-charity director amassed evidence that a network of pedophiles “groomed” nearly 2,000 girls in her hometown, creating emotional bonds with them before raping them. Police largely dismissed her reports. In 2011, town hall revoked her funding.

Things seemed to change last August, when an independent investigation confirmed the widespread sex abuse Ms. Senior identified, concluding that at least 1,400 girls in Rotherham had been sexually abused from 1997 through mid-2013, allegedly by a gang from the Pakistani community. The police commissioner, town-council leader and child-services head resigned. After its own probe, the U.K. government in February ordered outside administrators to take over the town’s management.

The U.K.’s National Crime Agency is now examining the Rotherham cases. The national police-internal-affairs agency is investigating misconduct allegations against at least 42 officers who worked in Rotherham and the surrounding South Yorkshire police district. The NCA says it is determined to bring all offenders to justice. The police agency declines to comment on misconduct allegations.

Yet despite national attention on Rotherham, police have made only three arrests since last fall among the dozens of gang members identified as alleged perpetrators; the three haven’t been charged. Since Ms. Senior began reporting assaults in 1999, only five men have been convicted in cases she reported.

(More here.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Wyoming criminalizes citizen science

Forbidden Data

By Justin Pidot

Imagine visiting Yellowstone this summer. You wake up before dawn to take a picture of the sunrise over the mists emanating from Yellowstone hot springs. A thunderhead towers above the rising sun, and the picture turns out beautifully. You submit the photo to a contest sponsored by the National Weather Service. Under a statute signed into law by the Wyoming governor this spring, you have just committed a crime and could face up to one year in prison.

Wyoming doesn’t, of course, care about pictures of geysers or photo competitions. But photos are a type of data, and the new law makes it a crime to gather data about the condition of the environment across most of the state if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government. The reason? The state wants to conceal the fact that many of its streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause serious health problems, even death. A small organization called Western Watersheds Project (which I represent pro bono in an unrelated lawsuit) has found the bacteria in a number of streams crossing federal land in concentrations that violate water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act. Rather than engaging in an honest public debate about the cause or extent of the problem, Wyoming prefers to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. And under the new law, the state threatens anyone who would challenge that belief by producing information to the contrary with a term in jail.

(Continued here.)

College students are out for the summer, but they can always prepare for the fall

These Are the Four Types of Drunk College Students, According to Science

Posted by Ross Pomeroy, RealClearScience
According to anecdotal reports, clinical lore and internet articles like ‘‘The 12 types of drunk people you’ll encounter at a bar,’’ ‘‘The 7 kinds of drunk people you’ll find at parties,’’ and ‘‘The 9 types of drunk people (and which one you may be!),’’ not all drinkers act the same when intoxicated.
So begins Rachel Winograd's latest scientific paper, published in the journal Addiction Research and Theory. When Winograd, a psychology graduate student at the University of Missouri, perused those clickbait Internet articles, she found them devoid of scientific evidence and entirely incapable of answering the valid question they broached: Are there truly "types of drunks"?

The landscape of published scientific literature was similarly barren. Winograd and her co-authors, Douglas Steinley and Kenneth Sher couldn't find a single empirical study on the matter, so they formulated their own. The trio was treading upon new ground. It would be the first attempt to scientifically identify drunk personality types.

The work began where many psychology studies often do: in an introductory psychology class.

187 pairs of "drinking buddies" were recruited via email and invited into the laboratory, where -- in strict confidence -- they individually completed surveys covering their background, drinking behavior, and personality, both sober and drunk. Each participant also described the personality and drinking behavior of their "buddy."

(Continued here.)

Monday, May 18, 2015

The GOP Is Dying Off. Literally.

[VV note: This article, of course, is referring to voters. But who needs older voters when special interests have gobs of money to buy influence, and when they can deceive still alive — physically if not mentally — voters that they are advocating in their best interests? Hell, most of the Supreme Court is still alive and the moneyed interests have them deceived!]

May 17, 2015

It turns out that one of the Grand Old Party’s biggest—and least discussed—challenges going into 2016 is lying in plain sight, written right into the party’s own nickname. The Republican Party voter is old—and getting older, and as the adage goes, there are two certainties in life: Death and taxes. Right now, both are enemies of the GOP and they might want to worry more about the former than the latter.

There’s been much written about how millennials are becoming a reliable voting bloc for Democrats, but there’s been much less attention paid to one of the biggest get-out-the-vote challenges for the Republican Party heading into the next presidential election: Hundreds of thousands of their traditional core supporters won’t be able to turn out to vote at all.

The party’s core is dying off by the day.

(More here.)

Unaffiliated and Underrepresented

Charles M. Blow, NYT
MAY 18, 2015

President Obama is a Christian (despite the fact that most Republicans apparently still believe that his “deep down” beliefs are Muslim, according to one poll conducted last year.)

In fact, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, there have only been four “religiously unaffiliated heads of state in American history,” the last being Rutherford B. Hayes, who left office in 1881. This, however, does not mean that they did not believe in God.

Perhaps the most famous unaffiliated president was Abraham Lincoln, who wrote in 1846:

“That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular.”

Now it is almost unconscionable to think of a president who didn’t believe in God. In fact, a poll last year by the Pew Research Center found that not believing in God was the most negative trait a presidential candidate could have among a variety of options, even more negative than having an extramarital affair.

(More here.)

Boko Haram Militants Raped Hundreds of Female Captives in Nigeria

MAY 18, 2015

DALORI, Nigeria — Hundreds of women and girls captured by Boko Haram have been raped, many repeatedly, in what officials and relief workers describe as a deliberate strategy to dominate rural residents and possibly even create a new generation of Islamist militants in Nigeria.

In interviews, the women described being locked in houses by the dozen, at the beck and call of fighters who forced them to have sex, sometimes with the specific goal of impregnating them.

“They married me,” said Hamsatu, 25, a young woman in a black-and-purple head scarf, looking down at the ground. She said she was four months pregnant, that the father was a Boko Haram member and that she had been forced to have sex with other militants who took control of her town.

“They chose the ones they wanted to marry,” added Hamsatu, whose full name was not used to protect her identity. “If anybody shouts, they said they would shoot them.”

Boko Haram, a radical Islamist sect that has taken over large stretches of territory in the country’s northeast, has long targeted women, rounding them up as it captures towns and villages. Women and girls have been given to Boko Haram fighters for “marriage,” a euphemism for the sexual violence that occurs even when unions are cloaked in religion.

(More here.)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

How the DEA took a young man’s life savings without ever charging him with a crime

By Christopher Ingraham
May 11, WashPost

Joseph Rivers was hoping to hit it big. According to the Albuquerque Journal, the aspiring businessman from just outside of Detroit had pulled together $16,000 in seed money to fulfill a lifetime dream of starting a music video company. Last month, Rivers took the first step in that voyage, saying goodbye to the family and friends who had supported him at home and boarding an Amtrak train headed for Los Angeles.

He never made it. From the Albuquerque Journal:
A DEA agent boarded the train at the Albuquerque Amtrak station and began asking various passengers, including Rivers, where they were going and why. When Rivers replied that he was headed to LA to make a music video, the agent asked to search his bags. Rivers complied.
The agent found Rivers's cash, still in a bank envelope. He explained why he had it: He was starting a business in California, and he'd had trouble in the past withdrawing large sums of money from out-of-state banks.

The agents didn't believe him, according to the article. They said they thought the money was involved in some sort of drug activity. Rivers let them call his mother back home to corroborate the story. They didn't believe her, either.

The agents found nothing in Rivers's belongings that indicated that he was involved with the drug trade: no drugs, no guns. They didn't arrest him or charge him with a crime. But they took his cash anyway, every last cent, under the authority of the Justice Department's civil asset forfeiture program.

(More here.)

President Obama on how Fox News teaches the middle class to demonize the poor

By Emily Badger May 12 WashPost

Depictions of the poor as "lazy" and "undeserving" are regularly on Fox News, President Obama said Tuesday at a summit on poverty hosted by Georgetown University.

If we're being totally honest about why we haven't found more political will to attack poverty in the U.S., the obstacle isn't mere apathy. It's not simply that we don't prioritize the poor, or devote enough money to lifting them up, or demand of our politicians that they talk about poverty more often. Those would be problems of ambivalence — of not caring enough.

In reality, the hurdle is higher than that: Much of our political rhetoric doesn't simply disregard the poor, it actively disdains them. It treats them as takers, freeloaders, deadbeats. As morally weak and gleefully dependent. And like many narratives that are true in the rare anecdote but false on the whole, this one requires a whole lot of breathless storytelling.

"There’s always been a strain in American politics where you’ve got the middle class, and the question has been 'who are you mad at if you’re struggling, if you’re working but you don’t seem to be getting ahead?'" President Obama said Tuesday at a summit on poverty hosted by Georgetown's Initiative on Catholic Thought and Social Life. "Over the last 40 years, sadly, I think there's been an effort to either make folks mad at folks at the top, or be mad at folks at the bottom."

The latter strategy has been remarkably potent of late.

"I think the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges — leeches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving — got traction," Obama said. "Look, it’s still being propagated. I have to say that if you watch Fox News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu. They will find folks who make me mad. I don’t know where they find them. 'I don’t want to work, I just want a free Obama phone, or whatever.' And that becomes an entire narrative that gets worked up."

(More here.)

Israel & the U.S.: more evidence of the tail wagging the dog

How the US Treasury Department Promotes Israel's Propaganda Lines

By Gareth Porter, Truthout
Saturday, 16 May 2015

In February, a US Department of the Treasury press release announced sanctions on three Lebanese in Africa it said were linked to a "Hezbollah terrorist cell."

But behind that press release is a story of how the portrayal of the Lebanese by the Treasury Department was based entirely on a case constructed by Israel's foreign intelligence agency Mossad through its Nigerian clients, and how that Treasury release suppressed publicly available facts, which made it apparent that those claims were false.

It was not the first time the Treasury Department had used its "designations" of foreign individuals and organizations to put out false and misleading information reflecting an Israeli propaganda line. In 2011, Treasury claimed that Iran had reached a "secret deal" with al-Qaeda to allow the terrorist organization to use Iranian territory for its operations, despite clear evidence that the only agreement that had been reached was to facilitate the release of an Iranian hostage held by al-Qaeda in return for the release of al-Qaeda prisoners.

(Continued here.)

Why you should never, ever play the lottery

By Matt O'Brien
May 14, WashPost

What if I told you there was a $70 billion tax that the poor pay the most. You'd probably say that isn't very fair. But that's exactly what the lottery is: an almost 12-figure tax on the desperation of the least fortunate.

To put that in perspective, that's $300 worth of lottery tickets for every adult every year. But it's actually worse than that, because, as The Atlantic's Derek Thompson points out, researchers have found that the bottom third of households buy more than half of all tickets. So that means households making less than $28,000 a year are dishing out $450 a year on lotteries. And, as a result, everybody else doesn't have to pay the higher taxes they would if gaming revenues weren't underwriting our schools.

So what? Lotteries might be just like a tax for all but the one-in-a-hundred-million who win them, but they're still a voluntary tax. It's not the government's fault that people either don't care or don't realize that, once you account for taxes and the possibility of splitting the pot, it never makes financial sense to buy a lottery ticket. Right? Well, no. It's not that poor people don't understand that the lottery has a near-zero chance of making them dynastically wealthy. It's that they think everything else has an actually-zero chance. That's why, as Thompson highlights, people making less than $30,000 are 25 percent more likely to say that they buy lottery tickets for money than for fun, while it's the opposite for everyone else. State lotteries, in other words, don't just prey on poor people's dreams—they do that for everyone—but rather on desperate dreams.

(More here.)

With Another Bush Eyeing White House, Family Money Machine Springs to Life

Jeb Bush set for record haul from loyal donor network built over decades

By Beth Reinhard And Christopher S. Stewart, WSJ
May 15, 2015 1:01 p.m.

Former first lady Barbara Bush began adding campaign donors to the family’s Christmas card list five decades ago, building an index-card file of well-heeled contributors who went on to serve as ambassadors, cabinet members and State Department advisers in the two Bush administrations.

Jeb Bush, who opened the door to a presidential campaign five months ago, is now reaping a record-setting haul thanks to a donor network that stretches back to his father’s election to Congress in 1966.

“The Bush family gave us the chance to serve,” said donor David D. Aufhauser, who worked as general counsel for the Treasury Department under former President George W. Bush. “So we are loyal.”

Mr. Aufhauser and his wife, who worked at the Commerce Department, were among the hosts of a fundraiser earlier this year for Mr. Bush’s Right to Rise super PAC.

(More here.)

Harvard Accused of Bias Against Asian-Americans

Complaint alleges university sets higher bar for applicants to limit Asian enrollment

By Douglas Belkin, WSJ
Updated May 15, 2015 9:26 p.m. ET

A complaint Friday alleged that Harvard University discriminates against Asian-American applicants by setting a higher bar for admissions than that faced by other groups.

The complaint, filed by a coalition of 64 organizations, says the university has set quotas to keep the numbers of Asian-American students significantly lower than the quality of their applications merits. It cites third-party academic research on the SAT exam showing that Asian-Americans have to score on average about 140 points higher than white students, 270 points higher than Hispanic students and 450 points higher than African-American students to equal their chances of gaining admission to Harvard. The exam is scored on a 2400-point scale.

The complaint was filed with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

“Many studies have indicated that Harvard University has been engaged in systemic and continuous discrimination against Asian-Americans during its very subjective ‘Holistic’ college admissions process,” the complaint alleges.

The coalition is seeking a federal investigation and is requesting Harvard “immediately cease and desist from using stereotypes, racial biases and other discriminatory means in evaluating Asian-American applicants.”

Robert Iuliano, Harvard’s general counsel, said the school’s admissions policies are “fully compliant with the law.” The school says its admissions process takes into account a variety of factors besides academics, including applicants’ extracurricular activities and leadership qualities.

(More here.)

Separating Fact From Seymour Hersh’s Fiction About bin Laden

Osama’s body was chopped up and dropped from a helicopter? That's odd. I saw video of his burial at sea.

By Michael Morell, WSJ
Updated May 15, 2015 6:16 p.m. ET

As a career intelligence officer, I learned that there are few things in life of which you can be absolutely certain. But I am positive that a lengthy new article by journalist Seymour Hersh, which is getting widespread attention with a whole new tale about how Osama bin Laden was brought to justice, is wrong in almost every significant respect.

I can be certain because I was deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency when senior officials from our Counterterrorism Center first brought to CIA Director Leon Panetta and me the news that they had trailed an individual whom they believed was a bin Laden courier to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. And I was there for every meeting that followed as we worked through the evidence that led our analysts to conclude that the most-wanted man in the world was hiding at the compound.

So I had good reason to know that Mr. Hersh’s 10,000-word story in the London Review of Books was filled with falsehoods. But here’s something I got wrong: I was certain that Mr. Hersh’s allegations would be quickly dismissed. After all, there was a public record about the raid in statements by the White House, Pentagon and CIA, and in books by former officials such as Mr. Panetta, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others. Then there were the media appearances by the Navy SEAL who says he personally shot bin Laden. It should have been clear that either Mr. Hersh’s version of the truth was bogus or that we all had participated in one of the most successful and complex conspiracies in modern history.

Despite the many and obvious holes in Mr. Hersh’s story, his allegations gained some traction. A number of respected news organizations ranging from the New York Times to NBC News picked up slivers of information in Mr. Hersh’s account and essentially said, “Yeah, we heard something like that too.” Almost all of these accounts were attributed to anonymous former officials—many of whom admitted having at best secondhand information. Incredibly, these “I know a guy, who knows a guy who swears that . . .” accounts were given credence over on-the-record statements made in the past four years by people who were in the room—or on the scene.

Mr. Hersh has appeared in the media in recent days saying that when I and others asserted that his report was wrong, we were offering “non-denial denials” because our objections lacked specificity. All right, let me specifically address his major allegations.

(More here.)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Fraternity of Failure

Paul Krugman, NYT
MAY 15, 2015

Jeb Bush wants to stop talking about past controversies. And you can see why. He has a lot to stop talking about. But let’s not honor his wish. You can learn a lot by studying recent history, and you can learn even more by watching how politicians respond to that history.

The big “Let’s move on” story of the past few days involved Mr. Bush’s response when asked in an interview whether, knowing what he knows now, he would have supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He answered that yes, he would. No W.M.D.? No stability after all the lives and money expended? No problem.

Then he tried to walk it back. He “interpreted the question wrong,” and isn’t interested in engaging “hypotheticals.” Anyway, “going back in time” is a “disservice” to those who served in the war.

Take a moment to savor the cowardice and vileness of that last remark. And, no, that’s not hyperbole. Mr. Bush is trying to hide behind the troops, pretending that any criticism of political leaders — especially, of course, his brother, the commander in chief — is an attack on the courage and patriotism of those who paid the price for their superiors’ mistakes. That’s sinking very low, and it tells us a lot more about the candidate’s character than any number of up-close-and-personal interviews.

(More here.)

Wyoming Makes It A Crime To Collect Evidence Of Pollution On Public Lands

Author: Charles Topher May 14, 2015 11:58 am, AddictingInfo

Wyoming has implemented a law that will make it virtually impossible for citizen watchdog groups, whistleblowers, and even concerned private citizens to collect data evidence of pollution outside of city limits.

The law, signed by Governor Matt Mead (R) makes it illegal to collect data, outside of city boundaries, on all lands public, private or federal. It cites “data collection” as meaning “take a sample of material, acquire, gather, photograph or otherwise preserve information in any form from open land which is submitted or intended to be submitted to any agency of the state or federal government.”

Essentially if you live in or visit Wyoming, taking a picture of a polluted stream as a concerned citizen for the purpose of informing the EPA, National Forestry Service or any other agency could land you a $5000 fine and up to a year in jail.

Some are touting the law as a way to protect ranchers from scientists and whistleblowers from crossing their lands to collect evidence of wrongdoing, as those lands are private and should be protected from trespass.

(More here.)

Vast Antarctic ice shelf a few years from disintegration, says Nasa

Remnant of Larsen B Ice Shelf, about half the size of Rhode Island, is expected to break apart completely around the year 2020, adding to sea level rises

The research focused on a remnant of the so-called Larsen B Ice Shelf, which has existed for at least 10,000 years but partially collapsed in 2002. What is left covers about 625 sq miles (1,600 sq km), about half the size of Rhode Island.

Antarctica has dozens of ice shelves – massive, glacier-fed floating platforms of ice that hang over the sea at the edge of the continent’s coast line. The largest is roughly the size of France.

Larsen B is located in the Antarctic Peninsula, which extends toward the southern tip of South America and is one of two principal areas of the continent where scientists have documented the thinning of such ice formations.

“This study of the Antarctic Peninsula glaciers provides insights about how ice shelves farther south, which hold much more land ice, will react to a warming climate,” said Eric Rignot, co-author of the study and a glaciologist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

(More here.)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Traces of Chemicals in Syria Add to Pressure on Obama to Enforce a ‘Red Line’

MAY 13, 2015

WASHINGTON — If President Obama hoped that the danger of chemical warfare in the Middle East receded when Syria gave up tons of poison gas, mounting evidence that toxic weapons remain in the strife-torn country could once again force him to decide just how far he is willing to go to enforce his famous “red line.”

The discovery of traces of ricin and sarin in Syria, combined with the use of chlorine as a makeshift weapon in the country’s grinding civil war, undercut what Mr. Obama had viewed as a signal triumph of his foreign policy, the destruction of President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal.

But Mr. Obama appears no more eager to use military force against Mr. Assad’s government today than he was in 2013 when he abruptly called off a threatened airstrike in exchange for a Russian-brokered agreement in which Syria voluntarily gave up its chemical weapons. Instead, the Obama administration responded to reports of violations this time by seeking renewed assistance from Russia and exploring a new United Nations Security Council resolution addressing Syria’s continued use of chemicals as weapons.

“You’re dealing with a regime that is not very credible on weapons of mass destruction programs,” said Robert Ford, the Obama administration’s former ambassador to Syria. “No one should be surprised the regime didn’t declare all of its facilities. But the bad news in all of this is the regime is using chemical weapons regularly — even if not sarin gas now, they’re using chlorine gas regularly and they are not deterred from doing so.”

(More here.)

5 Big Banks Expected to Plead Guilty to Felony Charges, but Punishments May Be Tempered

MAY 13, 2015

For most people, pleading guilty to a felony means they will very likely land in prison, lose their job and forfeit their right to vote.

But when five of the world’s biggest banks plead guilty to an array of antitrust and fraud charges as soon as next week, life will go on, probably without much of a hiccup.

The Justice Department is preparing to announce that Barclays, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and the Royal Bank of Scotland will collectively pay several billion dollars and plead guilty to criminal antitrust violations for rigging the price of foreign currencies, according to people briefed on the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Most if not all of the pleas are expected to come from the banks’ holding companies, the people said — a first for Wall Street giants that until now have had only subsidiaries or their biggest banking units plead guilty.

The Justice Department is also preparing to resolve accusations of foreign currency misconduct at UBS. As part of that deal, prosecutors are taking the rare step of tearing up a 2012 nonprosecution agreement with the bank over the manipulation of benchmark interest rates, the people said, citing the bank’s foreign currency misconduct as a violation of the earlier agreement. UBS A.G., the banking unit that signed the 2012 nonprosecution agreement, is expected to plead guilty to the earlier charges and pay a fine that could be as high as $500 million rather than go to trial, the people said.

(More here.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Russia Has Complete Information Dominance in Ukraine

By James J. Coyle, Atlantic Council

Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, forced their way into a Ukrainian airbase in Crimea with armored vehicles, automatic fire, and stun grenades on March 22, 2014. As Russia seized Crimea, mobile telephone services were blocked, Russian naval ships jammed radio communications, Crimean government websites were knocked offline, telecommunications offices were raided, and cables cut.

Hackers have consistently used low-level cyber warfare tactics to advance Russian goals in Ukraine.

A dedicated group of hackers successfully infected the e-mail systems of the Ukrainian military, counterintelligence, border patrol, and local police. The hackers use a spear-phishing attack in which malware is hidden in an attachment that appears to be an official Ukrainian government email. For the most part, the technologies are not advanced but the attacks have been persistent. Lookingglass, a cybersecurity firm, suspects the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) is the culprit behind the virus dubbed Operation Armageddon.

The Russian government is likely behind an even more dangerous virus. Since 2010 BAE Systems has been monitoring the activities of malware they dubbed Snake, and numerous digital footprints point to the Russian Bear. Moscow time zone stamps were left in the code and Russian names are written into the software. Other clues point to the Kremlin. "It's unlikely to be hacktivists who made this. The level of sophistication is too high. It is very well written—and extremely stealthy," observed Dave Garfield, BAE's Managing Director for cyber security.

According to the IT security company Symantec, Snake has infected dozens of computers in the office of Ukraine's Prime Minister and at least ten Ukrainian embassies since 2012. Snake was used against the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to access documents on the Ukraine crisis. The malware establishes a "digital beachhead" that allows its operators to deliver malicious code to the targeted networks. The implications are far-reaching: "Russia not only now has complete informational dominance in Ukraine," an intelligence analyst told the Financial Times, "it also has effective control of the country's digital systems, too. It has set the stage."

(More here.)

Russians Rewrite History to Slur Ukraine Over War

Simon Shuster / Moscow @shustry, TIME
Oct. 29, 2014.

Vladimir Putin has turned the idea of fascism into a political tool, and now Russian historians are adapting to the Kremlin line

The trio of German historians, as well as a handful of their colleagues from Eastern Europe, flew into Moscow last week for what they thought would be a conference on the history of Nazi war crimes. It was the fifth in a series of international summits held every other year since 2006, first in Berlin and Cologne, then in Slovakia and Belarus, to keep alive the memory of the towns and villages destroyed during World War II. But the German co-chairman of the conference, Sven Borsche, began to feel that something was amiss in Moscow as soon as he met his Russian hosts. “All they wanted to talk about was the conflict in Ukraine,” he says.

Even without the simultaneous translations provided for the foreign guests, they would have gotten the political message. The photographs shown by several of the Russian speakers put the atrocities of the Nazi SS right alongside pictures from the current war in eastern Ukraine. There is not much difference, the Russian historians suggested, between the actions of the Ukrainian military in its war against separatist rebels and the atrocities that Hitler’s forces committed during World War II.

“Right now, fascism is again raising its head,” declared Yaroslav Trifankov, a senior researcher at the state historical museum in the Russian region of Bryansk, which borders Ukraine. “Right now,” he said from the podium, “our brother Slavs in Ukraine have been so thoroughly duped and brainwashed by their puppet government, which answers only to the U.S. State Department, that they truly have come to see themselves as a superior race.”

(More here.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

US taxpayers subsidising world's biggest fossil fuel companies

Shell, ExxonMobil and Marathon Petroleum got subsidises granted by politicians who received significant campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, Guardian investigation reveals

Damian Carrington and Harry Davies, The Guardian
Last modified on Tuesday 12 May 2015 08.41 EDT

The world’s biggest and most profitable fossil fuel companies are receiving huge and rising subsidies from US taxpayers, a practice slammed as absurd by a presidential candidate given the threat of climate change.

A Guardian investigation of three specific projects, run by Shell, ExxonMobil and Marathon Petroleum, has revealed that the subsidises were all granted by politicians who received significant campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry.

The Guardian has found that:
  • A proposed Shell petrochemical refinery in Pennsylvania is in line for $1.6bn (£1bn) in state subsidy, according to a deal struck in 2012 when the company made an annual profit of $26.8bn.
  • ExxonMobil’s upgrades to its Baton Rouge refinery in Louisiana are benefitting from $119m of state subsidy, with the support starting in 2011, when the company made a $41bn profit.
  • A jobs subsidy scheme worth $78m to Marathon Petroleum in Ohio began in 2011, when the company made $2.4bn in profit.
“At a time when scientists tell us we need to reduce carbon pollution to prevent catastrophic climate change, it is absurd to provide massive taxpayer subsidies that pad fossil-fuel companies’ already enormous profits,” said senator Bernie Sanders, who announced on 30 April he is running for president.

Sanders, with representative Keith Ellison, recently proposed an End Polluter Welfare Act, which they say would cut $135bn of US subsidies for fossil fuel companies over the next decade. “Between 2010 and 2014, the oil, coal, gas, utility, and natural resource extraction industries spent $1.8bn on lobbying, much of it in defence of these giveaways,” according to Sanders and Ellison.

(More here.)