Thursday, April 17, 2014

Meet the tax defiers

By: Brian Faler, Politico.com
April 15, 2014 04:37 PM EDT 
 
Before the tea party, there were the tax defiers.

Every year around this time, the IRS confronts thousands of Americans who refuse to pay their taxes.

They are not interested in arguing over taxing the rich or whether the poor pay enough. Many reject the entire premise that the government has the power to tax them at all, with elaborate, sometimes paranoid theories about why April 15 does not apply to them.

Some say the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, which authorizes Congress to impose an income tax, was never properly adopted by the states. Some say lawmakers never passed a law specifically requiring the public to pay or that taxes are voluntary.

Their bottom line is the same: that the income tax is nothing more than a long-running hoax.

(More here.)

Court Deportations Drop 43 Percent in Past Five Years


New deportation cases brought by the Obama administration in the nation’s immigration courts have been declining steadily since 2009, and judges have increasingly ruled against deportations, leading to a 43 percent drop in the number of deportations through the courts in the last five years, according to Justice Department statistics released on Wednesday.
The figures show that the administration opened 26 percent fewer deportation cases in the courts last year than in 2009. In 2013, immigration judges ordered deportations in 105,064 cases nationwide.
The statistics present a different picture of President Obama’s enforcement policies than the one painted by many immigrant advocates, who have assailed the president as the “deporter in chief” and accused him of rushing to reach a record of two million deportations. While Mr. Obama has deported more foreigners than any other president, the pace of deportations has recently declined.
The steepest drop in deportations filed in the courts came after 2011, when the administration began to apply more aggressively a policy of prosecutorial discretion that officials said would lead to fewer deportations of illegal immigrants who had no criminal record. Last year the Department of Homeland Security opened 187,678 deportation cases, nearly 50,000 fewer than in 2011.

(More here.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Hank Aaron gets a new ton of racist hatemail, proving his point

from DailyKos

This isn't from the 1960s. It is from this week.
"Hank Aaron is a scumbag piece of (expletive) (racial slur)'' a man named Edward said in an e-mail to the Braves front office and obtained by USA TODAY Sports. "My old man instilled in my mind from a young age, the only good (racial slur) is a dead (racial slur)."
Because baseball great Hank Aaron had the audacity to say that racism still exists and things haven't really changed that much over the last few decades. So the racists responded by entirely proving his point and sending a deluge of racist hatemail to the Atlanta Braves.

Now, over at Fox or on Right Wing AM radio you can listen to any number of white people who will totally agree that racism is over and the New Black Panther Party is scary, scary, scary. In reality all it takes to prove that racism is alive and well is for a black man to say that racism still exists.
When Aaron broke the record in 1974 set by Babe Ruth at 715 home runs, he received death threats and was on the receiving end of a torrent of hateful messages. During a recent interview with USA Today on the 40th anniversary of the event, he said he not only said he keeps the messages as a reminder that America still has a ways to go in race relation, but he lambasted Republicans for the way they treat this country's first black president.

Those comments have apparently set off a new torrent of hate mail for Aaron, USA Today reports, full of racial epithets and accusations of Aaron himself being a racist.
(More here.)

Facing Justice in the Court of Memory

By ADAM HOCHSCHILD, NYT, APRIL 15, 2014

In most countries, there is no statute of limitations for murder. Should there be one for torture? In Spain, neither charge can be brought against anyone who worked for the harsh, long-lasting regime of Francisco Franco, because of an amnesty law that eased the country’s transition to democracy after the dictator’s death in 1975.

But the case of Antonio González Pacheco, a notorious torturer from the last years of Franco’s military rule, is raising thorny questions. A former prisoner named José María Galante was startled last year to discover that Mr. Pacheco, alive and spry enough at 67 to be a long-distance runner, was living not far from him in Madrid.

Mr. Galante wants justice: He says Mr. Pacheco beat him on the genitals, waterboarded him and punched him while he was suspended from the ceiling in handcuffs. But the amnesty law means that Spanish courts will not try the case, so Mr. Galante and others have taken their cause to Argentina, where a sympathetic judge is trying to have Mr. Pacheco extradited.

While the chances of extradition are slim, anything that threatens consequences for those who were formerly complicit in a brutal tyranny lessens the chances for such a regime in the future. Franco controlled all of Spain for three and a half decades and a portion of the country for several years before that. Particularly in the early years of his dictatorship, during and after the Spanish Civil War, he ruled by deliberate terror. Officials boasted of mass rape as a weapon, for instance, and branded the breasts of female opponents with the yoke-and-arrows symbol of Franco’s political movement. Although the government eventually became less bloodthirsty, the medieval garrote, an iron collar that an executioner tightened around the victim’s neck, remained in use until a year before Franco’s death.

(More here.)

Abortion Endures as a Political Tripwire

Thomas B. Edsall, NYT
APRIL 15, 2014

Why is there such a difference in the durability of two foundational issues of American conservatism: gay marriage and abortion?

Same-sex marriage burst onto the political scene in the early 1990s, lasted through the mid-2000s, and is now quietly fading. Abortion, as a political call to arms, has been around twice as long and shows no signs of disappearing.

Opposition to same-sex marriage became a centerpiece of the conservative movement in the early 1990s, and resulted in the 1996 passage — with Bill Clinton’s support — of the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA declared that “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

In 2004, when George W. Bush deployed it to boost turnout during the presidential election, same-sex marriage reached its maximum efficacy as a tool to mobilize voters. That year, voters in 11 states — including the key battleground state of Ohio — approved, by double-digit margins, state constitutional bans on gay marriage.

(More here.)

Israel: Not the Same Old, Same Old

Thomas L. Friedman, NYT
APRIL 15, 2014

At first, the article in The Jerusalem Post last week seemed like the same old, same old: A picture of a ransacked Israel Defense Forces post in the West Bank. Then a quote from Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon: “The State of Israel will not tolerate such criminal activity, which is terrorism in all respects.” Those Palestinians will never quit.

Oh, wait a minute. Yaalon wasn’t talking about Palestinian terrorists. He was talking about Jewish terrorists, renegade settlers, who slashed the tires of an I.D.F. jeep parked in the settlement of Yitzhar, after Israeli soldiers came to demolish illegal buildings. “Settlers clashed with security forces during Monday night’s demolition and lightly injured six officers,” The Post reported. “A group of 50 to 60 settlers then raided an army post located to the west of the settlement, destroying generators, army equipment, heaters and diesel fuel tanks.” Israel’s justice minister, Tzipi Livni, warned that extremist settlers had crossed a line: “An ideology has flourished that does not recognize the rule of law, that does not recognize us or what we represent.”

These small stories tell a bigger one: We’re not dealing anymore with your grandfather’s Israel, and they’re not dealing anymore with your grandmother’s America either. Time matters, and the near half-century since the 1967 war has changed both of us in ways neither wants to acknowledge — but which the latest impasse in talks only underscores.

(More here.)

A Top Player Accused, and a Flawed Rape Inquiry

By WALT BOGDANICH, NYT
APRIL 16, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Early on the morning of Dec. 7, 2012, a freshman at Florida State University reported that she had been raped by a stranger somewhere off campus after a night of drinking at a popular Tallahassee bar called Potbelly’s.

As she gave her account to the police, several bruises began to appear, indicating recent trauma. Tests would later find semen on her underwear.

For nearly a year, the events of that evening remained a well-kept secret until the woman’s allegations burst into the open, roiling the university and threatening a prized asset: Jameis Winston, one of the marquee names of college football.

Three weeks after Mr. Winston was publicly identified as the suspect, the storm had passed. The local prosecutor announced that he lacked the evidence to charge Mr. Winston with rape. The quarterback would go on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead Florida State to the national championship.

(More here.)

Combat Vehicles in East Ukraine Raise Russian Flag

Combat vehicles with a Russian flag, a Donetsk Republic flag and gunmen on top are parked in downtown of Slovyansk on Wednesday. Associated Press

Soldier Says Ukrainian Unit Switched to Pro-Russian Side, But Can't Be Confirmed 

By James Marson, WSJ

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine—An armored column of military vehicles flying a Russian flag and carrying dozens of heavily armed fighters motored into this eastern Ukrainian city early Wednesday, a day after the Ukrainian army launched an operation to clear out pro-Russian separatists who had taken control of cities in the region.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the men were Russian soldiers or local militants who had gotten their hands on military vehicles. A soldier on one said the unit was part of the 25th brigade of Ukraine's airborne forces that had switched sides and was joining the pro-Russian forces, but that couldn't be immediately confirmed.

All of the men appeared to be wearing military uniforms without insignia, similar to the heavily armed uniformed men who have seized government building around the region.

Six vehicles took up positions in the center of the city outside the city council building, and dozens of men in fatigues, balaclava masks and carrying automatic weapons milled around. A crowd of about 200 locals gathered around the vehicles and began cheering when one of them showed off by driving in tight circles.

(More here.)

Ad: John Boehner’s ‘electile dysfunction’

By LUCY MCCALMONT, Politico.com, 4/15/14 8:03 AM EDT

The primary challenger running against John Boehner is out with a new ad spoofing the speaker’s “electile dysfunction.”

In the Cialis-like spot titled “When The Moment Is Right,” tea party candidate J.D. Winteregg also takes some not-so-subtle jabs at Boehner for the Ohio Republican’s smoking, golfing and tan.

“Other signs of electile dysfunction may include extreme skin discoloration, the inability to punch oneself out of a wet paper bag, or maintain a spine in the face of liberal opposition,” the ad said, which was posted to Winteregg’s YouTube channel on Sunday.

“Your electile dysfunction? It could be a question of blood flow. Sometimes when a politician has been in D.C. too long, it goes to his head and he just can’t seem to get the job done,” the voiceover says as footage of Boehner shaking hands with President Barack Obama plays. “If you have a Boehner lasting more than 23 years, seek immediate medical attention.”

(More here.)

In Syria, a Show of Democracy Amid Destruction

By ANNE BARNARD, NYT
APRIL 15, 2014

HOMS, Syria — The center of this city is a blockaded, insurgent-held war zone, its skyline jagged with broken concrete. Ringing it is a patchwork of scarred neighborhoods, some functioning but fearful, some crammed with the displaced, others reduced to bombed-out shells where only soldiers move. Much of Homs is scarcely fit for human habitation, never mind a safe and peaceful exercise in democracy.

That did not stop the local governor, Talal al-Barazi, from declaring this broken city ripe for “relatively good elections.” His optimism is shared at the highest levels in Damascus, where officials have declared that a presidential vote will be held within three months, despite the raging war that has driven nine million Syrians from their homes. They expect President Bashar al-Assad to win — even though, for the first time in decades, there will in theory be an opponent on the ballot.

Claiming another seven-year term amid a three-year revolt against his rule would be a remarkable feat of survival for Mr. Assad, embarrassing for his international foes and demoralizing for Syrian opponents who staked their lives, families and towns on his ouster.

(More here.)

Heartbleed Bug Puts Millions Of Android Devices At Risk

Gerry Smith, HuffPost
Updated: 04/15/2014 2:59 pm EDT

You might have changed all your passwords in the days since you learned of the Heartbleed bug, but if you're one of millions of people using certain Android devices, you might still be vulnerable.

Numerous devices running older versions of Google’s Android operating system may be at risk of the high-profile bug, according to Marc Rogers, a security expert at the mobile security firm Lookout.

Rogers told The Huffington Post that people using Android version 4.1.1 should avoid sensitive transactions on their mobile devices because a hacker could exploit the Heartbleed bug to steal their data.

“The whole device is vulnerable, so you should be cautious about the kind of sites you use,” Rogers said in an interview. “I’d be cautious about doing banking on your phone.”

Last week, researchers revealed that a flaw in a popular method of securing online transactions allows hackers to steal passwords, credit card data or even Social Security numbers from two-thirds of websites. Experts have since warned the bug also affects home routers and other Internet-connected devices because many companies use the flawed OpenSSL software to secure their products.

(More here.)

Bloomberg Plans a $50 Million Challenge to the N.R.A.

By JEREMY W. PETERS, NYT
APRIL 15, 2014

Michael R. Bloomberg, making his first major political investment since leaving office, plans to spend $50 million this year building a nationwide grass-roots network to motivate voters who feel strongly about curbing gun violence, an organization he hopes can eventually outmuscle the National Rifle Association.

Mr. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, said gun control advocates need to learn from the N.R.A. and punish those politicians who fail to support their agenda — even Democrats whose positions otherwise align with his own.

“They say, ‘We don’t care. We’re going to go after you,’ ” he said of the N.R.A. “ ‘If you don’t vote with us we’re going to go after your kids and your grandkids and your great-grandkids. And we’re never going to stop.’ ”

He added: “We’ve got to make them afraid of us.”

(More here.)

Russia Is Quick to Bend Truth About Ukraine

By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN, NYT
APRIL 15, 2014

MOSCOW — The Facebook post on Tuesday morning by Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia was bleak and full of dread.

“Blood has been spilled in Ukraine again,” wrote Mr. Medvedev, once favored in the West for playing good cop to the hard-boiled president, Vladimir V. Putin. “The threat of civil war looms.”

He pleaded with Ukrainians to decide their own future “without usurpers, nationalists and bandits, without tanks or armored vehicles — and without secret visits by the C.I.A. director.”

And so began another day of bluster and hyperbole, of the misinformation, exaggerations, conspiracy theories, overheated rhetoric and, occasionally, outright lies about the political crisis in Ukraine that have emanated from the highest echelons of the Kremlin and reverberated on state-controlled Russian television, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.

(More here.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Preventing Painkiller Overdoses

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD, NYT
APRIL 14, 2014

The Food and Drug Administration earlier this month approved a hand-held device that can quickly reverse the effects of an overdose and prevent deaths from opioid painkillers and heroin. The easy-to-use injector delivers a dose of the drug naloxone, a treatment that is typically delivered in hospitals but can now be used by family members or emergency responders at the scene of an overdose.

With some 17,000 fatal opioid overdoses a year, broader use of this device could save some lives. In some states, first responders are already using naloxone, and the Justice Department has encouraged emergency medical workers across the country to carry the drug. Massachusetts has even made nasal sprays of naloxone available to family members for easy administration, and New York’s attorney general is encouraging law enforcement officers to carry the drug and get training in its use.

The announcement was made in part to shift the focus of discussion from the F.D.A.’s controversial decision to approve a prescription painkiller, Zohydro ER, which contains pure hydrocodone and is released over an extended period to relieve chronic pain. An expert panel had advised the F.D.A. against approval until Zohydro ER or others like it could be made more resistant to tampering or abuse.

Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts announced on March 27 that his state would ban the painkiller as a move to help combat what he called “an epidemic of opiate abuse” in the state. Andrew Kolodny, the president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, an advocacy group, praised Massachusetts for banning a drug whose capsules, he said, can be easily crushed and ingested in fatal amounts.

(More here.)

Happiness and Its Discontents

By DANIEL M. HAYBRON, NYT
April 13, 2014, 8:00 pm

What does it mean to be happy?

The answer to this question once seemed obvious to me. To be happy is to be satisfied with your life. If you want to find out how happy someone is, you ask him a question like, “Taking all things together, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?”
Are you satisfied with your life? How are you feeling? Does either question tell us what we really want to know?
Over the past 30 years or so, as the field of happiness studies has emerged from social psychology, economics and other disciplines, many researchers have had the same thought. Indeed this “life satisfaction” view of happiness lies behind most of the happiness studies you’ve read about. Happiness embodies your judgment about your life, and what matters for your happiness is something for you to decide.

This is an appealing view. But I have come to believe that it is probably wrong. Or at least, it can’t do justice to our everyday concerns about happiness.

One of the most remarkable findings in this area of psychology, for instance, is just how many poor people say they are satisfied with their lives — very often a majority of them, even in harsh environments like the slums of Calcutta. In a recent study of poor Egyptians, researchers asked them to explain why they were satisfied, and their responses often took something like this form: “One day is good and the other one is bad; whoever accepts the least lives.” This sounds like resignation, not happiness. Yet these Egyptians were, in terms of life satisfaction, happy.

(More here.)

Interest Rates and the Budget Outlook

Paul Krugman, NYT
April 14, 2014, 6:18 pm

The CBO has issued its latest budget update, and as always it’s a very careful piece of work. But there is one thing really worth drawing attention to — not that the CBO is necessarily wrong, but it might be, and at any rate people should be aware of what’s driving the conclusions.

Here it is: the CBO’s projection has deficits quite low in the near term, but starting to widen a few years from now. What’s driving that move toward deficit? To an important extent it’s interest payments, which CBO has rising from 1.3% of GDP in 2014 to 3.3% of GDP in 2024.

Well, that’s what happens when you have ever-growing debt, right? The more you owe, the bigger the interest payments, and up it spirals, right?

Wrong.

(More here.)

Mistakes to Avoid When Shopping for Long-Term-Care Insurance

How to Pick the Best the Policy for Your Needs and What to Avoid

By Anne Tergesen, WSJ
April 13, 2014 4:50 p.m. ET

It's a decision many baby boomers are grappling with: Should I buy long-term-care insurance?

The decision has never been more difficult. According to researchers at Georgetown University and Pennsylvania State University, about 70% of individuals 65 and older will need long-term care—whether at home or in an assisted-living facility or nursing home.

Have questions about long-term-care insurance? Don't miss this interactive video interview, featuring a panel of retirement-planning experts, hosted by The Wall Street Journal's Anne Tergesen.

At the same time, however, the price of long-term-care insurance keeps going up. A 55-year-old couple, for example, can expect to spend about $3,275 in annual premiums for $164,000 of coverage for each that grows by 3% a year, according to the American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance, a trade group for insurance agents.

For some people, of course, long-term-care policies make no sense. Medicaid is there to help people who have little money. (Medicare doesn't typically cover continuing care.) People with assets of $2 million or more, meanwhile, can probably afford to pay for long-term care out of pocket, although a policy may still make sense to ensure they have money to leave to their heirs.

(More here.)

In the Middle East, Time to Move On

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD, NYT
APRIL 14, 2014

The pointless arguing over who brought Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to the brink of collapse is in full swing. The United States is still working to salvage the negotiations, but there is scant sign of serious purpose. It is time for the administration to lay down the principles it believes must undergird a two-state solution, should Israelis and Palestinians ever decide to make peace. Then President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry should move on and devote their attention to other major international challenges like Ukraine.

Among those principles should be: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with borders based on the 1967 lines; mutually agreed upon land swaps that allow Israel to retain some settlements while compensating the Palestinians with land that is comparable in quantity and quality; and agreement that Jerusalem will be the capital of the two states.

Perhaps the Obama administration’s effort to broker a deal was doomed from the start. In 2009, the administration focused on getting Israel to halt settlement building and ran into the obstinacy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and resistance from the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to entering peace talks. Since then, members of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government have tried to sabotage the talks. As Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator, told the website Ynet, “There are people in the government who don’t want peace.” She cited Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settler party Jewish Home, and Uri Ariel, the housing minister.

(More here.)

How Jeb Bush crystallized the GOP dilemma on immigration

Greg Sargent, WashPost

Jeb Bush’s comments about immigration, and the continuing backlash to them, have produced a seminal moment in this debate, because they lay bare the fundamental difference between the two parties on the issue with remarkable clarity. It is this: Most Democratic lawmakers want the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country to become a part of American society, while most Republican lawmakers want them to (at best) remain in the shadows of illegality or (at worst) leave.

To be sure, after the official party-wide GOP position of self-deportation (as expressed by the GOP presidential nominee) led to historic losses among Latinos in 2012, many leading Republicans agreed something needs to be done to legalize the 11 million. A handful of GOP Senators voted for the Senate bill and its special path to citizenship. Some are suggesting alternatives, such as legalization with no possibility of citizenship.

But for all practical purposes, the basic fact remains: House Republicans have not offered, or voted on, any formal proposal to confer on the 11 million any kind of legal status. So their de facto position is either the status quo or deportation (self-administered or otherwise). Reform’s fate turns on the core question of whether there exists any set of conditions or terms that can induce a sizable enough bloc of House Republicans to support some form of legalization for those 11 million people.

The Jeb Bush comments are important precisely because they illuminate the moral and political dilemma for Republicans that underlies this core question.

Speaking to conservative activists in New Hampshire over the weekend, Donald Trump elicited boos when he castigated Bush’s remarks. It’s worth rerunning Bush’s comments, because one of the most important aspects of them has not gotten enough attention — his suggestion that undocumented immigrants might have something valuable to contribute to American society if they are legalized:

“Yes, they broke the law. But it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family…it shouldn’t rile people up that people are actually coming to this country to provide for their families. And the idea that we’re not gonna fix this with comprehensive reform ends up trapping these people when they could make a great contribution for their own families, but also for us….they can make a contribution to our country if we actually organized ourselves in a better way.”

(More here.)

In Albuquerque, a shocking history of police abuse

Radley Balko, WashPost

Last week, the Department of Justice issued a damning report on the use of force among police officers in Albuquerque. Among the DOJ findings:
  • Albuquerque cops “too often use deadly force in an unconstitutional manner in their use of firearms.” The report points to 20 shootings by the city’s police between 2009-2012, a majority of which the DOJ found to be constitutional violations. Moreover, investigators found that city police “often use deadly force in circumstances where there is no imminent threat of death or serious body harm” to the police or anyone else, and that cops have used lethal force against people who are a “minimal threat” or pose no threat at all to anyone other than themselves.
  • The city’s police offices also have a record of using “less lethal force” in ways that violate the Constitution, including a pattern of using Tasers on people who posed little to no threat to the police or the public, and in ways that made things more dangerous, such as on a man who had doused himself in gasoline.
  • Albuquerque police routinely escalated situations by using physical force instead of efforts aimed at peaceful conflict resolution.
  • The city gives its police officers insufficient training on interacting with people suffering from mental illness or suffering some sort of mental crisis.
  • The report emphasizes that these incidents are “not isolated or sporadic,” but represent a pattern set by bad policies, including insufficient training and lax oversight.
  • “In nearly all cases” that the DOJ reviewed, APD supervisors confirmed their officers’ account of an incident, “even when officers’ accounts were incomplete, were inconsistent with other evidence, or were based on canned or repetitive language.”
  • More troubling still, in cases where outside entities did find that city police had used unreasonable force, police department supervisors responded by lavishing praise on those officers, even holding them up as examples other officers ought to follow.
(More here.)

Greed, greed and more greed

C.E.O. Pay Goes Up, Up and Away!

Joe Nocera, NYT
APRIL 14, 2014

At 79, Graef “Bud” Crystal is the grand old man of executive compensation critics. Once a top compensation consultant, he switched sides in the 1980s, becoming a fierce critic of many of the practices he helped institutionalize, and analyzing executive pay for other media like Fortune and, most recently, Bloomberg News. He’s been known to call his second career “atoning for my sins.”

The other day, Crystal was recalling what it used to be like trying to cobble together pay information about a chief executive based on reading the disclosure documents required by the Securities and Exchange Commission. There was no rhyme or reason to the way the numbers were put together, and shareholders were often left scratching their heads.

“I remember writing an article for Fortune in the late 1980s, using Goizueta’s pay at Coca-Cola,” Crystal told me. (Roberto Goizueta was the chief executive of Coke from 1981 until his death in 1997.) The proxy statement showed that he made $800,000 that year in salary. But about 15 pages later, it showed that he had received an additional $56 million in stock options. Except that, instead of being written numerically, the option grant was spelled out, thus easy to overlook. “It was deliberate obfuscation,” said Crystal.

For the most part, it isn’t like that anymore. In the mid-2000s, the S.E.C. passed rules forcing companies to place all the compensation information for top executives in one place. There were people who thought that this effort at pay “transparency” would help get C.E.O. compensation under control — in effect shaming compensation committees and chief executives from letting executive pay get any more out of hand than it already was.

(More here.)

Monday, April 14, 2014

The GOP’s amateur hour

By Richard Cohen, WashPost, Monday, April 14, 6:39 PM

Not to put too fine a point on it, but what has Rand Paul ever done? Oh, sure, he’s a member of the U.S. Senate, but only a freshman, and it’s the only political office he has held. He’s an ophthalmologist, a father, a husband and the son of Ron Paul, who used to run for president. So now it is son Rand who is doing so. Aside from family tradition, the question is why?

Last month, Paul won the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll with 31 percent of the vote. Second in the hearts of conservatives that day was Sen. Ted Cruz, yet another right-wing darling whose record is unblemished by significant achievement. He, too, is a Senate freshman and by virtue of inexperience feels he knows so much more than his colleagues.

At the moment Paul has the momentum. He just appeared at the Freedom Summit in Manchester, N.H., where, according to The Post, he generated the most excitement. Cruz also attended the event, as did Mike Huckabee (back from the politically dead), Donald Trump, running or not running for the umpteenth time, and Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who may or may not be seeking the White House.

Either way, the result will be the same. All this might seem something of a joke. Blackburn is probably not a household name on her own block. Huckabee has failed before and will undoubtedly fail again. Trump would probably prefer to run for president than actually be one. But it is Paul who commands attention. A fair number of Republicans are drawn to his putative candidacy on the basis, it seems, of what he opposes — big government, the Federal Reserve, foreign aid, federal education programs and, of course, abortion — more than anything he has done.

(More here.)

Triclosan: When will enough be enough?

This Antibacterial Agent In Soap Could Be Causing Staph Infections — In Your Nose

By Lecia Bushak | Apr 8, 2014 01:21 PM EDT | Medical Daily

A new study has pinpointed the antimicrobial agent triclosan as a promoter of Staphylococcus aureusbacteria in human nasal passages, which may pose a risk for infection.

According to researchers at the University of Michigan, triclosan is a man-made agent found in common items like toothpastes, kitchen surface cleaners, soaps, clothes, and even medical devices. In the study, researchers found that triclosan was found in the noses of 41 percent of study participants.

“Triclosan has been used as a biocide for over 40 years, but the broader effects that it has on the human microbiome have not been investigated,” the authors of the study wrote. Blaise Boles, author of the study and an assistant professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at University of Michigan, notes that triclosan has been used frequently in myriads of antibacterial household products, but that there is little to no evidence that “it does a better job than regular soap,” he said in a press release. Indeed, triclosan is so incorporated into our common items that some studies have actually found traces of it in human urine, milk, and serum. When high concentrations of triclosan are found in the endocrine system, it can be damaging to the heart and skeletal muscle function — not to mention that when it accumulates in the nasal passages, it can lead to potential staph infections.

(Continued here.)

A Necessary Discussion

By Juan Williams, The Hill, 04/14/14 06:00 AM EDT

Mitch Landrieu, the white liberal Democratic mayor of 60- percent-black New Orleans, had this to say about white conservative Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) trouble after Ryan spoke out about the “inner city” culture that does not value work:

“So, Paul Ryan said something people took issue with and it became a huge battle. It was not a thoughtful [debate]…it all got to be about condemnation. ‘I condemn him for saying this.’ ‘No I condemn you because he did not say that... And all this yelling across headlines. No wonder people who want to be thoughtful [are afraid to say anything about real problems.] They want to say ‘I think this, I don’t really know how to say this, but I want to deal with the issue and get past race.’”

Landrieu was sitting on stage at the Newseum last Tuesday with Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter (D), a black man, for the annual Aspen Institute Symposium, sponsored by Comcast, on the State of Race in America. I moderated the discussion between the mayors in which Nutter said blacks get mad at him for talking about problems in the black community, especially the incredibly high crime and homicide rates.

“So you can imagine what happens to my somewhat non-African American friend from New Orleans – he catches hell for talking about it,” said Mayor Nutter.

(More here.)

If Republicans Win the Senate, What Crisis Will Mitch McConnell Cook Up Next?

Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

The most recent forecast by Fivethirtyeight gives Republicans a sixty percent chance of winning a majority of the Senate in November’s elections. Given that any bill already has to pass the Republican-controlled House, the effect of a Republican Senate upon President Obama’s legislative agenda can be calculated at zero, with a margin of error of zero. You can’t kill something that is already dead.

On the other hand, what is currently alive, albeit barely, is a fragile peace that has enabled the functioning of the traditional separation-of-powers relationship between the branches of government. The survival of that peace depends entirely on a Democratic Senate. Almost nobody seems to be thinking about the potential chaos that could lie ahead.

The Constitutional crises of 2013 were numerous enough to blur together. The most easily resolved took place when Senate Republicans began wholesale barricading of various judicial and executive branch appointments by the Obama administration. Previously, the Senate tended to block candidates in rare and particular circumstances — say, if they were unusually radical or unqualified, or sometimes in response to a particularly bitter fight over a previous candidate. Last year, Senate Republicans declared they simply would not allow any Obama nominees for various positions in the executive branch whose functioning (like enforcing labor law or regulating Wall Street) they did not care for. They likewise announced that they would not permit any new judges to the powerful D.C. Circuit because the court was balanced between the two parties and Republicans wanted to keep it that way. This escalation amounted to a major revision of the balance of powers — if it held, a hostile Senate could paralyze any agency it desired, or prevent a president from appointing anybody to the federal bench.

(More here.)

Still Dancing Around The Word 'Torture'

The Huffington Post | by Jack Mirkinson
Posted: 04/14/2014 6:55 am EDT, Updated: 04/14/2014 7:59 am EDT

In recent weeks, the controversy surrounding the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA interrogations during the Bush administration has been a major media story. From Sen. Dianne Feinstein's dramatic allegation that the CIA had spied on Senate aides as they prepared the report, to the leaking of most of the study's major findings, journalists have had no shortage of new material to sift through.

What's not new is the media's persistent dance around the word at the heart of the entire story: "torture."

Much has been made in the past decade or so about the news business' sudden conversion to euphemism when it came to describing techniques that had been previously universally recognized as torture. One study, for instance, found that major outlets abruptly stopped defining waterboarding as torture when the Bush administration began using it.

That tendency has not abated in recent years, and a look through recent newspaper and television coverage shows that many outlets are still hesitant to use "torture."

(More here.)

Saving Young People From Themselves

Steven Rattner, NYT
APRIL 12, 2014

RETIREMENT is a financial obligation that today’s younger generations are not handling well. That may be through no fault of their own — they suffer from lower incomes, after being adjusted for inflation, and student debt that makes it a struggle to save. But regardless of the reason, the failure to save for retirement is setting up Americans in their 20s and early 30s for financially stressed golden years.

The statistics are startling: Only 43 percent of eligible workers under 25, and 62 percent of those between 25 and 34 participate in 401(k) plans, compared with 70 percent or more of those over 45. And the young contribute less — 4.3 percent of income for those under 25 and 5.5 percent for ages 25 to 34. In contrast, Americans between 55 and 64 direct 8.7 percent of their incomes to these plans.

Skimpy retirement assets might be manageable if they were being offset by other wealth accumulation. But that hasn’t happened. In fact, adjusted for inflation, members of Gen Y — those born after 1980 — are poorer than their parents were at similar ages.

We should address this looming crisis via a radical restructuring of our retirement plans, including mandated savings.

(More here.)

George Bush's Paintings Aren't Funny

But they are fascinating

By MOLLY CRABAPPLE
Politico.com, April 13, 2014

The greatest work of art George W. Bush ever took part in was in 2008, when an Iraqi journalist threw two shoes at his head. “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog,” screamed the journalist, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, who had been arrested twice by U.S. forces during the occupation.

Bush dodged the shoes with the same ease with which he’d had dodged consequences all his life; those for drunk driving, for ruined companies, stolen elections, war crimes, the destruction of Zaidi’s country.

After he dodged the shoes, Bush joked about free countries. Meanwhile, guards beat Zaidi bloody. Police tortured him during the nine months he served in jail.

Bush’s first art exhibition, “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy,” lacks the apt metaphor of Zaidi’s shoe throw. Bush’s 30 oil-on-board portraits of world leaders will hang at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas through June 3. As artifact, they’re fascinating, even if as art they’re not.

(More here.)

Three Expensive Milliseconds

Paul Krugman, NYT, APRIL 13, 2014

Four years ago Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, abruptly canceled America’s biggest and arguably most important infrastructure project, a desperately needed new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. Count me among those who blame his presidential ambitions, and believe that he was trying to curry favor with the government- and public-transit-hating Republican base.

Even as one tunnel was being canceled, however, another was nearing completion, as Spread Networks finished boring its way through the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. Spread’s tunnel was not, however, intended to carry passengers, or even freight; it was for a fiber-optic cable that would shave three milliseconds — three-thousandths of a second — off communication time between the futures markets of Chicago and the stock markets of New York. And the fact that this tunnel was built while the rail tunnel wasn’t tells you a lot about what’s wrong with America today.

Who cares about three milliseconds? The answer is, high-frequency traders, who make money by buying or selling stock a tiny fraction of a second faster than other players. Not surprisingly, Michael Lewis starts his best-selling new book “Flash Boys,” a polemic against high-frequency trading, with the story of the Spread Networks tunnel. But the real moral of the tunnel tale is independent of Mr. Lewis’s polemic.

Think about it. You may or may not buy Mr. Lewis’s depiction of the high-frequency types as villains and those trying to thwart them as heroes. (If you ask me, there are no good guys in this story.) But either way, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to save three milliseconds looks like a huge waste. And that’s part of a much broader picture, in which society is devoting an ever-growing share of its resources to financial wheeling and dealing, while getting little or nothing in return.

(More here.)

My Ideas, My Boss’s Property

By ORLY LOBEL, NYT, APRIL 13, 2014

SAN DIEGO — THE big story in Silicon Valley these days is a class-action lawsuit alleging that several major tech companies, including Google and Apple, agreed not to try to hire away one another’s employees — thereby hindering workers from seeking out better-paying jobs.

But do-not-hire agreements are not the only way that corporations are taking control of their employees’ intellectual capital. From Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs, the individual inventor is a hero in our popular imagination. But increasingly it is corporations, not people, who own inventions.

This ownership runs deeper than inventions and artistic works, extending to skills, ideas and professional ties — tacit knowledge and social relations that cannot be subject to patent or copyright under the traditional scope of intellectual property, but which corporations lay claim to at increasing rates through employment agreements.

In these agreements, companies demand that employees, from those in low-level manufacturing positions to design engineers and creative workers, sign away all their innovations, and the knowledge they will acquire during the course of employment, and refrain from competing with their employer post-employment, whether that means taking a new job with a competitor or starting their own company.

(More here.)

Sanctions Are Eased; Iran Sees Little Relief

By RICK GLADSTONE, NYT
APRIL 13, 2014

Halfway through a six-month nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers that was meant to allow time to reach a comprehensive agreement, the Iranians have seen little in the way of a boost from the sanctions relief they had been expecting, trade lawyers and diplomatic analysts say.

Whether Iran’s disappointment means that it will be more or less motivated to negotiate a permanent deal on its disputed nuclear program by the July 20 deadline remains unclear.

“Iran has become kryptonite for banks and shippers and insurance companies,” said Farhad R. Alavi, a sanctions law specialist at Akrivis, a Washington-based international law firm that has fielded numerous inquiries about doing business with Iran since the temporary accord took effect. Though the accord may have served as a “teaser” to Iran, he said in a telephone interview, foreign business interest has remained extremely limited.

“Is a bank in Germany going to revamp its compliance policies when the law could be changed and reverted in six months?” he said. “I think what we’ve seen is that it’s not created that breakthrough. Nobody is making that substantial step for increased economic ties between Iran and the rest of the world.”

(More here.)

The United States’ Middle East peace process paradox

By Jackson Diehl, WashPost, Published: April 13

The Middle East “peace process” can look like an endless loop of diplomatic failures that leave Israelis and Palestinians stuck in in­trac­table conflict. So as the latest round of U.S.-sponsored negotiation teeters on the brink, it’s worth pointing out that during the course of the last 25 years the two peoples have made glacially slow but cumulatively enormous progress toward coexistence. In fact, they have traveled most of the path to a final settlement.

A decisive majority of Israelis and the political elite have given up the dream of a “greater Israel” and accepted that a state of Palestine will be created in the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank. That was out of the question in 1990, when Secretary of State James Baker threw up his hands in frustration and advised the parties to “call us . . . when you are serious about peace.”

Palestinians have dropped their denial of Israel’s right to exist and, for the most part, the tactics of terrorism and violence that undid the diplomacy of the Clinton administration. Once racked by suicide bombings and messy military sweeps, Israel, the West Bank and lately even Gaza have been islands of relative tranquility in a bloody region. Israeli troops that once patrolled every major Palestinian town are gone. They are replaced in the West Bank by competent Palestinian security forces whose commanders work closely with their Israeli counterparts — another once-inconceivable development.

True, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are still far apart on the specific terms for the Palestine state, including where the border will be drawn, how former Palestinian refugees will be handled and whether and how Jerusalem will be divided. But, contrary to the claim of Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the time for a two-state settlement is not running out. In fact, the doomsayers who made that same argument 25 years ago, such as Israeli demographer Meron Benvenisti , had a more plausible case.

(More here.)

Secret Drugs, Agonizing Deaths

By MEGAN McCRACKEN and JENNIFER MORENO, NYT, APRIL 13, 2014

BERKELEY, Calif. — FACING a critical shortage of lethal injection drugs, prison officials in a number of states have recently engaged in an unseemly scramble to obtain new execution drugs, often from unreliable and even illegal sources. Not only does this trend raise serious questions about the constitutionality of executions, it also undermines the foundations of our democratic process. In the name of security, states are now withholding vital information about their death penalty procedures — from death row prisoners’ lawyers and from judges, whose stamp of approval they need to impose the ultimate sanction, as well as from the public, in whose name the sentence is carried out.

States have long shielded the identities of executioners, a reasonable policy that should not interfere with judicial review of execution procedures. But in the past year, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and other states have expanded the reach of their secrecy laws to include not just the execution drugs used, but even the pharmacies that supply them.

These laws hide the information necessary to determine if the drugs will work as intended and cause death in a humane manner. For states to conceal how they obtain the execution drugs, whether those purchases comply with the law and whether the drugs themselves are legitimate prevents courts from analyzing the legality and constitutionality of death penalty procedures. And that deprives the public of informed debate.

For more than 30 years, every state carrying out executions by lethal injection used the anesthetic thiopental, in combination with other drugs. In 2011, the American pharmaceutical firm Hospira stopped making thiopental. Departments of corrections at first responded by importing it from abroad, but the federal courts ruled that the Food and Drug Administration was prohibited from allowing in the unapproved drugs.

(More here.)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palestinian university students’ trip to Auschwitz causes uproar

By William Booth, WashPost, Published: April 12

JERUSALEM — Professor Mohammed S. Dajani took 27 Palestinian college students to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland a few weeks ago as part of a project designed to teach empathy and tolerance. Upon his return, his university disowned the trip, his fellow Palestinians branded him a traitor and friends advised a quick vacation abroad.

Dajani said he expected criticism. “I believe a trip like this, for an organized group of Palestinian youth going to visit Auschwitz, is not only rare, but a first,” he said. “I thought there would be some complaints, then it would be forgotten.”

But the trip was explosive news to some, perhaps more so because it took place as U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were in danger of collapse, and emotion surrounding the decades-old conflict is high.

Controversy was also heightened by rumors — untrue — that the trip was paid for by Jewish organizations. It was paid for by the German government.

(More here.)

Are Iran and Israel Trading Places?

By ABBAS MILANI and ISRAEL WAISMEL-MANOR, NYT, APRIL 11, 2014

STANFORD, Calif. — Although the Israeli and Iranian governments have been virtually at war with each other for decades, the two countries have much in common.

Both are home to some of the oldest civilizations on earth, and both are primarily non-Arab states in a mostly Arab region. In the 1950s, David Ben-Gurion’s Israel and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s Iran were bastions of secular nationalism; the shah pushed authoritarian modernization, while Ben-Gurion advanced a form of nonreligious Zionism. Only after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran did radical Islam all but eclipse this secular brand of politics. It held on for much longer in Israel but is now under threat.

Both Iran and Israel are now entering potentially challenging new stages in their relations with the outside world, and particularly with the United States. Over the last seven years, United Nations Security Council resolutions have imposed sanctions on Iran with the aim of halting its nuclear program. For years, Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad railed against the “Great Satan.” But even if Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is still opposed to reforms, it appears that some officials inside Iran have finally realized that continued intransigence and bellicosity will beget only more sanctions and catastrophic economic consequences.

As the winds of change blow across Iran, secular democrats in Israel have been losing ground to religious and right-wing extremists who feel comfortable openly attacking the United States, Israel’s strongest ally. In recent months, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, called Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic,” while Naftali Bennett, Israel’s economy minister, labeled Mr. Kerry a “mouthpiece” for anti-Semitic elements attempting to boycott Israel.

(More here.)

Fracking, natural gas and the shock doctrine

Why US Fracking Companies Are Licking Their Lips Over Ukraine

By Naomi Klein, Guardian UK
11 April 14

From climate change to Crimea, the natural gas industry is supreme at exploiting crisis for private gain – what I call the shock doctrine

The way to beat Vladimir Putin is to flood the European market with fracked-in-the-USA natural gas, or so the industry would have us believe. As part of escalating anti-Russian hysteria, two bills have been introduced into the US Congress – one in the House of Representatives (H.R. 6), one in the Senate (S. 2083) – that attempt to fast-track liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, all in the name of helping Europe to wean itself from Putin's fossil fuels, and enhancing US national security.

According to Cory Gardner, the Republican congressman who introduced the House bill, "opposing this legislation is like hanging up on a 911 call from our friends and allies". And that might be true – as long as your friends and allies work at Chevron and Shell, and the emergency is the need to keep profits up amid dwindling supplies of conventional oil and gas.

For this ploy to work, it's important not to look too closely at details. Like the fact that much of the gas probably won't make it to Europe – because what the bills allow is for gas to be sold on the world market to any country belonging to the World Trade Organisation.

(Continued here.)