Monday, October 20, 2014

Neoliberalism means never having to say you're sorry

"What shocks me about neoliberalism in all of its forms is how utterly unapologetic it is about the misery it produces." — Henry Giroux

Henry Giroux on the Rise of Neoliberalism

By Michael Nevradakis, Truthout | Interview
Sunday, 19 October 2014

Henry Giroux discusses the increasingly negative impact of neoliberalism across the world, politically, socially, economically and in terms of education, and he offers some suggestions for what we must do now.

Michael Nevradakis for Dialogics: Let's begin with a discussion about some topics you've spoken and written extensively about ... neoliberalism and what you have described as "casino capitalism." How have these ideas taken hold politically and intellectually across the world in recent years?

Henry Giroux: I think since the 1970s it's been the predominant ideology, certainly in Western Europe and North America. As is well known, it raised havoc in Latin America, especially in Argentina and Chile and other states. It first gained momentum in Chile as a result of the Chicago Boys. Milton Friedman and that group went down there and basically used the Pinochet regime as a type of petri dish to produce a whole series of policies. But I think if we look at this very specifically, we're talking about a lot of things.

We're talking about an ideology marked by the selling off of public goods to private interests; the attack on social provisions; the rise of the corporate state organized around privatization, free trade, and deregulation; the celebration of self interests over social needs; the celebration of profit-making as the essence of democracy coupled with the utterly reductionist notion that consumption is the only applicable form of citizenship. But even more than that, it upholds the notion that the market serves as a model for structuring all social relations: not just the economy, but the governing of all of social life.

(Continued here.)

Could the best diet be no diet?

The Healthiest Diet 'Proven' by Science

Posted by Ross Pomeroy October 21, 2014 RealClearScience

It's actually happened.

After decades of research filled with millions of meals eaten by hundreds of thousands of subjects, the verdict is in. Science is now ready to proclaim the healthiest way to eat: one diet to rule them all.

So which is it? Atkin's, perhaps? Or Paleo? Low-Carb? Low-Fat? South Beach? Raw? Fruitarian? Veganism?

The answer, my friends, is none of the above. But it could also be all of the above. That's because healthiest diet isn't a specific diet at all. It's the absence of a diet.

This is not a sudden, world-changing, mind-altering finding. It is not well suited to a blaring news headline. It is not share fodder on social media. What it is, however, is a realization that surfaced gradually and methodically: Science will never conclusively prove that a single diet is the best diet.

Author Matt Fitzgerald summarized the finding, or rather, the lack thereof, in his new book Diet Cults

(Continued here.)

What China Means by ‘Rule of Law’


NEW HAVEN — Two weeks ago, with the democracy protests in Hong Kong in full swing, China’s official People’s Daily newspaper labeled them “illegal” and called for protecting “the rule of law” in Hong Kong. Such statements left observers with little doubt about a central meaning “the rule of law” has in the People’s Republic: the Communist Party’s use of law to control and regulate society.

Yet there’s plenty of evidence that China sees the rule of law in far more nuanced and complex ways. Today the Communist Party’s 18th Central Committee starts its Fourth Plenum, and the main topic will be the rule of law in China — the first time in party history that a meeting with the authority of a plenary session will focus on the rule of law. And there are reasons for a measure of optimism that the plenum will demonstrate more complex views about the roles law can play and also take meaningful steps to advance new legal reforms.

Of course, legal reform has major limits in China’s one-party authoritarian system. There won’t be true judicial independence. All bets are off whenever the party sees a threat to its continued power; steps toward the rule of law don’t mean steps toward multiparty political democracy, which China’s current leaders totally resist. When the plenum issues its report, it will surely underscore that one central role of law is to maintain social order.

(More here.)

Phone Hackers Dial and Redial to Steal Billions

OCT. 19, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO — Bob Foreman’s architecture firm ran up a $166,000 phone bill in a single weekend last March. But neither Mr. Foreman nor anyone else at his seven-person company was in the office at the time.

“I thought: ‘This is crazy. It must be a mistake,’ ” Mr. Foreman said.

It wasn’t. Hackers had broken into the phone network of the company, Foreman Seeley Fountain Architecture, and routed $166,000 worth of calls from the firm to premium-rate telephone numbers in Gambia, Somalia and the Maldives. It would have taken 34 years for the firm to run up those charges legitimately, based on its typical phone bill, according to a complaint it filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

The firm, in Norcross, Ga., was the victim of an age-old fraud that has found new life now that most corporate phone lines run over the Internet.

(More here.)

In Tennessee, Time Comes for a Nuclear Plant Four Decades in the Making

OCT. 19, 2014

SPRING CITY, Tenn. — When the Tennessee Valley Authority first ordered Watts Bar 2, the nuclear reactor now approaching completion here, demand for electricity was growing at 7 percent a year and coal supplies were uncertain. The mercury, soot and acid rain that coal produced were simply accepted as the way things were, and many of the people who now worry about global warming had not yet been born.

But that was 1970. Today nearly all of that is reversed as Watts Bar 2, the nuclear industry’s version of a time traveler, prepares to begin operations. Now there is barely any growth in electricity demand, and plenty of coal, but most aging coal-burning plants need expensive cleaning or replacement. Thus the reactor, the T.V.A. reasons, is arriving at an opportune moment, even if almost every projection made over the last 44 years has proved wrong. With halting progress amid changing projections, construction has taken longer than that for the Panama Canal or the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

“I do find it as something of great value, maybe not for the reasons we restarted it,” said William D. Johnson, the T.V.A.’s chief executive.

The agency started Watts Bar as part of a campaign to build 17 reactors, but dropped the project in 1988 after spending about $1.7 billion, when it was supposedly 80 percent complete. In 2007, with electricity demand growing again, the T.V.A. board voted to restart work because, consultants said, it could be finished for $2 billion. But by the end of next year, when commercial operation is now expected, the T.V.A. will have spent more than $4 billion.

(More here.)

Putin’s Coup

How the Russian leader used the Ukraine crisis to consolidate his dictatorship

October 19, 2014

The war in Ukraine is no longer only about Ukraine. The conflict has transformed Russia. This increasingly is what European leaders and diplomats believe: that Vladimir Putin and his security establishment have used the fog of war in Ukraine to shroud the final establishment of his brittle imperialist dictatorship in Moscow.

Among those who believe that this is happening, and that Europe will be facing down a more menacing Russia for a long time to come, is Radek Sikorski, who was Poland’s foreign minister from 2007 until September.

“I think psychologically the regime has been transformed by the annexation of Crimea,” Sikorski told Politico Magazine. “This was the moment that finally convinced all doubters and turned all heads. This was Napoleon after Austerlitz. This was Hitler after the fall of Paris. This was the moment that finally centralized everything into the hands of Vladimir Putin.”

Sikorski is formerly a glamorous figure in Brussels who played a leading role in shaping the European Union strategy toward both Russia and Ukraine. European leaders, intimidated by his charisma and outspoken views on Russia, chose not to appoint him as Europe’s high representative for foreign affairs earlier this year. Today Sikorski is the hawkish speaker of the Polish parliament, and he says that the West has been so distracted by the crisis in Ukraine it has missed the more important developments further east.

(More here.)

Fear of Ebola Closes Schools and Shapes Politics

OCT. 19, 2014

In the month since a Liberian man infected with Ebola traveled to Dallas, where he later died, the nation has marinated in a murky soup of understandable concern, wild misinformation, political opportunism and garden-variety panic.

Within the escalating debate over how to manage potential threats to public health — muddled by what is widely viewed as a bungled effort by government officials and the Dallas hospital that managed the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States — the line between vigilance and hysteria can be as blurry as the edges of a watercolor painting.

A crowd of parents last week pulled their children out of a Mississippi middle school after learning that its principal had traveled to Zambia, an African nation untouched by the disease.

On the eve of midterm elections with control of the United States Senate at stake, politicians from both parties are calling for the end of commercial air traffic between the United States and some African countries, even though most public health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a shutdown would compound rather than alleviate the risks.

(More here.)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not O.K.

Paul Krugman, NYT
OCT. 19, 2014, the giant online retailer, has too much power, and it uses that power in ways that hurt America.

O.K., I know that was kind of abrupt. But I wanted to get the central point out there right away, because discussions of Amazon tend, all too often, to get lost in side issues.

For example, critics of the company sometimes portray it as a monster about to take over the whole economy. Such claims are over the top — Amazon doesn’t dominate overall online sales, let alone retailing as a whole, and probably never will. But so what? Amazon is still playing a troubling role.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s defenders often digress into paeans to online bookselling, which has indeed been a good thing for many Americans, or testimonials to Amazon customer service — and in case you’re wondering, yes, I have Amazon Prime and use it a lot. But again, so what? The desirability of new technology, or even Amazon’s effective use of that technology, is not the issue. After all, John D. Rockefeller and his associates were pretty good at the oil business, too — but Standard Oil nonetheless had too much power, and public action to curb that power was essential.

And the same is true of Amazon today.

(More here.)

Conspiracy Theorists Need a Pep Talk

Oh, for the golden age of nutty plots: the drama, the mystery. — Nishant Choksi

Joe Queenan is alarmed at the decline in the quality of conspiracy theories—but at least one theorist gives him hope

By Joe Queenan, WSJ
Oct. 16, 2014 12:31 p.m. ET

Recently, I have experienced grave concerns that conspiracy theorists are losing their touch, that their material is losing its sharp, preposterous edge. For example, last Saturday, while I was wandering through a farmers’ market in rural England, an earnest-looking woman came up and asked me if I cared about injustice. It seemed like a trick question. I said, “Yes, why do you ask?”

“Because at this very moment Big Business and the European Union are having a secret meeting in Brussels, giving global corporations the right to sue our governments for passing laws that damage their profits,” she said. “And a secret trade deal is being negotiated right now between the EU and the U.S.A. that will allow Big Business to do whatever it wants.”

“I don’t think that’s a secret,” I wisecracked. “I think it’s called the capitalist system.”

She could see that I was not a team player, so we didn’t get much further with that conversation. Nor did I make much headway a few minutes later with a very sincere woman who thrust a gaudy flier into my hand, reading “Power to the People!” She too was irate about that secret meeting in Brussels.

(More here.)

The Ebola Conspiracy Theories

OCT. 18, 2014

THE spread of Ebola from western Africa to suburban Texas has brought with it another strain of contagion: conspiracy theories.

The outbreak began in September, when The Daily Observer, a Liberian newspaper, published an article alleging that the virus was not what it seemed — a medical disaster — but rather a bioweapon designed by the United States military to depopulate the planet. Not long after, accusations appeared online contending that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had patented the virus and was poised to make a fortune from a new vaccine it had created with the pharmaceutical industry. There were even reports that the New World Order, that classic conspiracy bugbear involving global elites, had engineered Ebola in order to impose quarantines, travel bans and eventually martial law.

While most of these theories have so far lingered on the fringes of the Internet, a few stubborn cases have crept into the mainstream. In the last few weeks, conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham have floated the idea that President Obama had sent aid to Africa, risking American lives, because of his guilt over slavery and colonialism. And just days ago, the hip-hop artist Chris Brown took to Twitter, announcing to his 13 million followers: “I don’t know ... but I think this Ebola epidemic is a form of population control.”

Conspiracy theories have always moved in tandem with the news, offering shadow explanations for distressing or perplexing events. Though typically dismissed as a destructive mix of mendacity and nonsense, they often reflect societal fears.

(More here.)

Obama Could Reaffirm a Bush-Era Reading of a Treaty on Torture

OCT. 18, 2014

WASHINGTON — When the Bush administration revealed in 2005 that it was secretly interpreting a treaty ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” as not applying to C.I.A. and military prisons overseas, Barack Obama, then a newly elected Democratic senator from Illinois, joined in a bipartisan protest.

Mr. Obama supported legislation to make it clear that American officials were legally barred from using cruelty anywhere in the world. And in a Senate speech, he said enacting such a statute “acknowledges and confirms existing obligations” under the treaty, the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

But the Obama administration has never officially declared its position on the treaty, and now, President Obama’s legal team is debating whether to back away from his earlier view. It is considering reaffirming the Bush administration’s position that the treaty imposes no legal obligation on the United States to bar cruelty outside its borders, according to officials who discussed the deliberations on the condition of anonymity.

The administration must decide on its stance on the treaty by next month, when it sends a delegation to Geneva to appear before the Committee Against Torture, a United Nations panel that monitors compliance with the treaty. That presentation will be the first during Mr. Obama’s presidency.

(More here.)

Gary Webb was no journalism hero, despite what ‘Kill the Messenger’ says

By Jeff Leen October 17

Jeff Leen is The Washington Post’s assistant managing editor for investigations.

An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof. That old dictum ought to hang on the walls of every journalism school in America. It is the salient lesson of the Gary Webb affair. It might have saved his journalism career, though it would have precluded his canonization in the new film “Kill the Messenger.”

The Hollywood version of his story — a truth-teller persecuted by the cowardly and craven mainstream media — is pure fiction. But Webb was a real person who wrote a real story, a three-part series called “Dark Alliance,” in August 1996 for the San Jose Mercury News, one of the flagship newspapers of the then-mighty Knight Ridder chain. Webb’s story made the extraordinary claim that the Central Intelligence Agency was responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in America. What he lacked was the extraordinary proof. But at first, the claim was enough. Webb’s story became notable as the first major journalism cause celebre on the newly emerging Internet. The black community roiled in anger at the supposed CIA perfidy.

Then it all began to come apart. The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, in a rare show of unanimity, all wrote major pieces knocking the story down for its overblown claims and undernourished reporting.

(More here.)

Warren in Minnesota: ‘The game is rigged’

By Paul Kane October 18 at 4:15 PM WashPost

NORTHFIELD, Minn. — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) brought her populist message Saturday to this small college town to rev up the final weeks of Sen. Al Franken's reelection campaign, but also to claim the mantle of the modern liberal movement's political godfather.

Speaking before more than 400 people at Carleton College, Warren repeatedly invoked the spirit of the late Paul Wellstone, the fiery liberal senator who died 12 years ago this month in a plane crash during his reelection campaign. Wellstone remains a revered figure in Minnesota politics, and his brand of populism -- out of step in the Clintonian Democratic Party of the 1990s -- is now mainstream among leading liberal activists. Warren has become the most prominent public face of that movement, and the Wellstone disciples in this town 40 miles south of Minneapolis gave their approval Saturday.

"The game is rigged, and the Republicans rigged it," Warren said to loud cheers.

(More here.)

Life in Quarantine for Ebola Exposure: 21 Days of Fear and Loathing

OCT. 18, 2014

DALLAS — The refrigerator in Youngor Jallah’s small apartment broke down last week, and it did not take long for the stench of rotting food to grow unbearable. But when she reported the problem to the front office, the complex’s manager said that a repairman would not be sent until Monday.

That is the expiration date for the 21-day, self-imposed quarantine that Ms. Jallah, her partner and her four children have endured since the day her mother’s boyfriend, Thomas Eric Duncan, was hospitalized here with Ebola. Because her mother was at work, it was Ms. Jallah, 35, who last cared for Mr. Duncan, making him tea and handing him a thermometer — but, she said, never touching him — before summoning an ambulance.

The complex’s manager urged Ms. Jallah to move her food to the apartment across the stairwell, which has been empty since a new renter decided against moving in after hearing about the neighbors. When the landlord sent a maintenance man to deliver the key, he arrived wearing two pairs of rubber gloves.

(More here.)

Mexico Finds Many Corpses, but Not Lost 43

OCT. 18, 2014

IGUALA, Mexico — With borrowed shovels and pick axes, the farmers drove their battered pickup trucks to a series of suspicious clearings in the countryside, jumped out and started digging.

“Hey, hey, it’s a spine,” one of the men, part of a citizen police patrol, called out last week, fishing out what appeared to be a piece of spinal column. Soon came other fragments — a rib? a knee bone?

Five mass graves have already been discovered in the hunt for 43 students who disappeared last month after clashing with the local police — and another half dozen secret burial sites like this one are being tested to determine the origins of the remains inside.

Even with hundreds of soldiers, federal officers, state personnel and local residents on the trail, the search has still not confirmed what happened to the missing students. Instead, it has turned up something just as chilling: a multitude of clandestine graves with unknown occupants right on the outskirts of town, barely concealing the extensive toll organized crime has taken on this nation.

(More here.)

SarahPAC, Like Palin Herself, Light on Donations to Fellow Republicans

by Viveca Novak on October 16, 2014 OpenSecrets

The involvement of immediate family members in a drunken brawl does little to boost one’s political prospects.

On a different level, the same might be said of a stingy leadership PAC.

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s SarahPAC continued to perform underwhelmingly as a source of funds for other candidates in 2014′s third quarter, a report filed with the FEC this week showed. Out of $1.4 million the PAC had available in the third quarter — $978,000 sitting in the bank at the beginning of the July 1-Sept. 30 period, plus another more than $433,000 raised during that time — SarahPAC managed to donate just $45,000 to fellow Republicans running in the midterms. That’s a little more than 3 percent.

For the two-year 2014 cycle, the former Alaska governor’s PAC, a vehicle that helps her stay in the game amid talk that she may run in the 2016 presidential contest, has raised $2.5 million on top of more than $1.1 million that was in the bank at the start of the cycle. It has spent $2.7 million, with about $150,000 — or 5.5 percent — going to candidates.

(More here.)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

In American elections, who you hate is almost as important as who you like

By Jaime Fuller October 17 at 4:22 PM WashPost

The Pew Research Center has a new study on political polarization in the 2014 midterms, and it mostly confirms what we already know: The more ideologically partisan you are — especially if you're conservative — the more likely you are to vote.

But it goes a little further than that. In fact, the more you hate the party you aren't part of, the more likely you are to vote.

And not only that, there are plenty of people whose entire voting strategy is driven by distaste for the other side. Thirty-six percent of likely voters see their vote in terms of being against the other party. They aren't voting for their party; they just can't stand the idea of the other party winning!

This impulse to cast a ballot against the opposition more so than for your team is especially strong among the most conservative Americans, or what Pew calls "consistent conservatives." This also happens to be the demographic most driven to vote this year. Nearly as many of these folks see their vote as against the other side (44 percent) as for their side (46 percent).

(More here.)

The myth of Russian humiliation

By Anne Applebaum Columnist October 17 at 3:30 PM WashPost

Looking back over the past quarter-century, it isn’t easy to name a Western policy that can truly be described as a success. The impact of Western development aid is debatable. Western interventions in the Middle East have been disastrous.

But one Western policy stands out as a phenomenal success, particularly when measured against the low expectations with which it began: the integration of Central Europe and the Baltic States into the European Union and NATO. Thanks to this double project, more than 90 million people have enjoyed relative safety and relative prosperity for more than two decades in a region whose historic instability helped launch two world wars.

These two “expansions,” which were parallel but not identical (some countries are members of one organization but not the other), were transformative because they were not direct leaps, as the word “expansion” implies, but slow negotiations. Before joining NATO, each country had to establish civilian control of its army. Before joining the European Union, each adopted laws on trade, judiciary, human rights. As a result, they became democracies. This was “democracy promotion” working as it never has before or since.

But times change, and the miraculous transformation of a historically unstable region became a humdrum reality. Instead of celebrating this achievement on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is now fashionable to opine that this expansion, and of NATO in particular, was mistaken. This project is incorrectly “remembered” as the result of American “triumphalism” that somehow humiliated Russia by bringing Western institutions into its rickety neighborhood. This thesis is usually based on revisionist history promoted by the current Russian regime — and it is wrong.

(More here.)

Making Merkel Wait, Finding Time for Truffles

OCT. 17, 2014

MILAN — He was at it again this week.

First, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia stopped in Belgrade for a military parade evocative of the Cold War. He questioned Kosovo’s sovereignty, took a swipe at President Obama in the Serbian news media and reached a summit meeting in Milan so far behind schedule that he was hours late for a private evening meeting with Europe’s most powerful leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Nor was Mr. Putin done. When he left Ms. Merkel at roughly 2 a.m. Friday, his entourage streaked through Milan to the home of his friend and Italy’s former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The men talked and enjoyed truffles until about 4 a.m., whereupon Mr. Putin departed, leaving him barely four hours before he joined European leaders, including Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, for a pivotal breakfast meeting.

For Mr. Putin, the helter-skelter blitz through Milan was only the latest demonstration of an unpredictable, often theatrical, diplomatic style that he has employed during the Ukraine crisis to throw his rivals off balance. This time he kept Ms. Merkel waiting late at night. Last month he upstaged President Obama on the eve of a NATO summit meeting focused on Russian aggression when he unexpectedly announced a seven-point peace plan for Ukraine — written on the back of a napkin as he flew for a state visit in Mongolia.

(More here.)

What Is a Catholic Family?


ANNAPOLIS, Md. — GATHERED in Rome last week to discuss marriage, divorce and the widening array of domestic arrangements with which they now must contend, a group of Roman Catholic bishops released a statement that included a theological turn of phrase that proved more telling than intended. “We must not forget that the church that preaches about the family is a sign of contradiction.”

This was not meant as a self-aware nod to the incongruity of a cohort of celibate men discussing the place of birth control, child-rearing and marital relations in the lives of millions of noncelibate Catholics, nor as an acknowledgment that the church has held conflicting views on the family from the beginning. A “sign of contradiction” here alludes to a prophecy given to Mary early in the Gospel of Luke that the infant Jesus would be a “sign that is spoken against” by the people he had come to save.

For Christians, this sign is a call to stand apart from society, enduring scorn for the sake of religious truth. Referring to their synod on the family this way, the bishops were not humbly admitting their inability to speak from experience, but making a lofty claim to a higher authority.

Still, the contradictions most evident in the aftermath of the bishops’ statement were those within their own ranks. A recap of discussions held during the first half of a two-week meeting convened by Pope Francis, the report was greeted with outsize praise and alarm for its willingness to engage in unexpected ways with issues including homosexuality and what the church used to call “living in sin.”

(More here.)

In expansive Pakistan, Christians struggle to find space for cemeteries

By Tim Craig October 17 at 8:54 PM WashPost

In this tiny village where most homes don’t have windows and meals are cooked over fire pits, Christians are used to feeling like second-class citizens.

Christians say they earn less than $2 a day working in the sugarcane fields. They must shop at the sparsely stocked Christian-run rice and vegetable store. They are not allowed to draw water from wells tapped for Muslim neighbors. Now, in what many consider to be a final indignity, they and other Pakistani Christians are struggling to bury their dead.

Pakistan, whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim, is nearly twice the size of California. But leaders of the tiny Christian minority say their burial sites are being illegally seized by developers at an alarming rate, while efforts to secure new land are rejected because of religious tenets barring Muslims from being buried near people of other faiths. Increasingly, the remaining Christian cemeteries are packed with bodies atop bodies.

(More here.)

Amid Assurances on Ebola, Obama Is Said to Seethe

OCT. 17, 2014

WASHINGTON — Beneath the calming reassurance that President Obama has repeatedly offered during the Ebola crisis, there is a deepening frustration, even anger, with how the government has handled key elements of the response.

Those frustrations spilled over when Mr. Obama convened his top aides in the Cabinet room after canceling his schedule on Wednesday. Medical officials were providing information that later turned out to be wrong. Guidance to local health teams was not adequate. It was unclear which Ebola patients belonged in which threat categories.

“It’s not tight,” a visibly angry Mr. Obama said of the response, according to people briefed on the meeting. He told aides they needed to get ahead of events and demanded a more hands-on approach, particularly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “He was not satisfied with the response,” a senior official said.

The difference between the public and private messages illustrates the dilemma Mr. Obama faces on Ebola — and a range of other national security issues — as he tries to galvanize the response to a public health scare while not adding to the sense of panic fueled by 24-hour cable TV and the nonstop Twitter chatter.

(More here.)

ISIS Militants in Syrian Border Town Begin to Retreat After a Monthlong Battle

OCT. 17, 2014

SURUC, Turkey — The advance of Islamic State forces on the Syrian city of Kobani has stalled as the militants have been forced to retreat on several fronts, shifting the monthlong battle increasingly in favor of the Kurdish fighters defending the city, according to commanders and Kurdish and American officials.

Dozens of airstrikes this week by the American-led military coalition killed hundreds of Islamic State fighters, allowing Kurdish units to regain territory, said Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, head of the United States Central Command, who made a rare appearance before reporters at the Pentagon on Friday.

The Kurdish fighters, General Austin added, have done “yeoman’s work in terms of standing their ground.”

Over the last two days, the rapidly changing fortunes of the Kurdish fighters have produced a sense of palpable relief in Kobani, as well as in the refugee camps in neighboring Turkey that are filled with the city’s residents. The fierce clashes of previous weeks have given way to a tentative calm, broken on Friday only by the occasional crash of mortar rounds and some scattered sniper fire.

(More here.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Why India’s Muslims Haven’t Radicalized

By Jake Flanagin, NYR
October 16, 2014 3:38 pm

Though Muslims make up only 14.4 percent of India’s total population, the country maintains “the world’s second-largest Muslim population in raw numbers (roughly 176 million),” according to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center. That’s a little more than 11 percent of the world’s total Muslim population, according to another report from Pew’s Religion and Public Life Project.

Despite the enormity of India’s Muslim community, one finds little mention of them in Western media reports on modern Islam. Perhaps because, in the wake of Sept. 11 and in the midst of the war on terror, the West’s chief concern with the global Muslim community has been its capacity for fostering extremism — and India’s Muslims remain largely un-radicalized.

“A combination of factors explains it,” reads an editorial in The Economist. Religious intermingling has roots that run deep in India: “Islam in South Asia has a long history, over 1,000 years, but was long dominated by Sufis who integrated closely with non-Muslim Hindus, sharing many cultural practices.” The Taj Mahal, arguably the most globally recognizable structure in India, was built by the Muslim Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, his beloved wife who died in childbirth. Shah Jahan was himself the son of a Muslim father and a Hindu mother, the Emperor Jahangir and his wife, the Rajput princess Taj Bibi Bilqis Makani.

Back in 2009, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reported on a growing trend among Indian Muslims wherein community members refused to bury the bodies of suicide bombers. “That’s why India’s Muslims, who are the second-largest Muslim community in the world after Indonesia’s, and the one with the deepest democratic tradition, do a great service to Islam by delegitimizing suicide-murderers by refusing to bury their bodies. It won’t stop this trend overnight, but it can help over time,” he wrote.

(More here.)

The nasty politicization of Ebola

By Dana Milbank Opinion writer October 17 at 11:43 AM WashPost

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, administered a dose of truth to political Washington this week.

For this honest service, Collins was pilloried.

In an interview published Sunday night, Collins shared with the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein his belief that, if not for recent federal spending cuts, “we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this” Ebola outbreak.

This should not be controversial. His conjecture was based on cold budgeting facts. NIH funding between fiscal year 2010 and fiscal 2014 had dropped 10 percent in real dollars — and vaccine research took a proportionate hit. Research on an Ebola vaccine, at $37 million in 2010, was halved to $18 million in 2014.

(More here.)

In Exodus From Israel to Germany, a Young Nation’s Fissures Show


TEL AVIV — Ori Haber’s father escaped Germany during the height of the Holocaust for what would become the State of Israel. Now Mr. Haber, a 35-year-old computer technician, is part of a cadre of frustrated young Israelis clamoring to move to Berlin in what has become a contentious campaign revealing economic fissures and identity struggles in Israel’s still-adolescent society.

“I cannot see the future here,” he said, without a touch of irony at the idea that an Israeli Jew was looking for a better life in Germany. “The middle class in Israel is going down. We feel it in our flesh.”

Even his father seemed to understand, Mr. Haber said: “He has bad memories from Germany, but still he is like, ‘If you have the opportunity, go, try your luck.’ ”

Israelis have for years been drawn to Berlin’s cosmopolitan flair, vibrant arts scene and advanced public transportation. There are already several places in the city where one can have authentic hummus, and there is a bimonthly Hebrew-language magazine. But a Facebook post that went viral this month, a photograph of a supermarket receipt showcasing the low price in Berlin of a beloved chocolate-pudding snack, has revived a raw debate over the meaning of out-migration.

(More here.)

Quality of Words, Not Quantity, Is Crucial to Language Skills, Study Finds


It has been nearly 20 years since a landmark education study found that by age 3, children from low-income families have heard 30 million fewer words than more affluent children, putting them at an educational disadvantage before they even began school. The findings led to increased calls for publicly funded prekindergarten programs and dozens of campaigns urging parents to get chatty with their children.

Now, a growing body of research is challenging the notion that merely exposing poor children to more language is enough to overcome the deficits they face. The quality of the communication between children and their parents and caregivers, the researchers say, is of much greater importance than the number of words a child hears.

A study presented on Thursday at a White House conference on “bridging the word gap” found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.

“It’s not just about shoving words in,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University and lead author of the study. “It’s about having these fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects, like pretending to have morning coffee together or using the banana as a phone. That is the stuff from which language is made.”

(More here.)

Florida politics: Blowing cold air on hot air

Fan Delays Florida Debate, and Mocking Circulates Online

OCT. 16, 2014

MIAMI — Clinging to caricature, Florida has once again stumbled into political farce. This time by way of a fan, a small black Vornado Air Circulator tucked discreetly — some said improperly — beneath former Gov. Charlie Crist’s lectern during Wednesday’s high-stakes governor’s race debate.

The fan delayed Gov. Rick Scott from taking the stage for seven minutes, in protest of an apparent rule violation. And it led to an almost immediate flurry of social media lampooning, helped along by Mr. Crist who asked, “Are we really going to debate a fan?”

The governor’s absence sent befuddled debate moderators scrambling for explanations. “Somehow, there is a fan there, and for that reason, ladies and gentlemen, I am being told Governor Scott will not join us,” Elliot Rodriguez, a debate moderator and a Miami television anchor, told the booing crowd.

By Thursday, #Fangate, as it was christened on Twitter, had devolved into a predictable campaign montage of finger-pointing, backpedaling, face-saving and, finally, money-raising. That’s because the fan kerfuffle, while seemingly trivial, breezed into the middle of a neck-and-neck race between Mr. Scott and Mr. Crist.

(More here.)

Kris Kobach Pushed Kansas to the Right. Now Kansas Is Pushing Back.

OCT. 16, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. — In almost any other year, it would be hard to get much attention inside Kansas, let alone nationwide, in the race for Kansas secretary of state, by tradition a no-drama job that administers elections, handles business paperwork and publishes directories on government services.

Instead, as Supreme Court rulings reignite a national debate over voter ID and fraud, no candidate more defines this moment of politicized voting rules than Secretary of State Kris W. Kobach, who has transformed an obscure office in a place far from the usual political battlegrounds, to become a lightning rod on restrictive voting and illegal immigration.

Mr. Kobach has been a major conservative voice on voter issues for years. He has helped states write strict laws requiring proof of citizenship, presided over the “Kansas project” — a national hunt for double registrations — and, most recently, tried to keep a Democratic candidate on the ballot with the potential to help Kansas’ endangered Republican senator, Pat Roberts.

An itinerant firebrand with a Yale law degree, baptized a “blood brother” by the heavy metal conservative Ted Nugent, Mr. Kobach was elected by a 22-point landslide in 2010.

(More here.)

What Markets Will

Paul Krugman, NYT
OCT. 16, 2014

In the Middle Ages, the call for a crusade to conquer the Holy Land was met with cries of “Deus vult!” — God wills it. But did the crusaders really know what God wanted? Given how the venture turned out, apparently not.

Now, that was a long time ago, and, in the areas I write about, invocations of God’s presumed will are rare. You do, however, see a lot of policy crusades, and these are often justified with implicit cries of “Mercatus vult!” — the market wills it. But do those invoking the will of the market really know what markets want? Again, apparently not.

And the financial turmoil of the past few days has widened the gap between what we’re told must be done to appease the market and what markets actually seem to be asking for.

To get more specific: We have been told repeatedly that governments must cease and desist from their efforts to mitigate economic pain, lest their excessive compassion be punished by the financial gods, but the markets themselves have never seemed to agree that these human sacrifices are actually necessary. Investors were supposed to be terrified by budget deficits, fearing that we were about to turn into Greece — Greece I tell you — but year after year, interest rates stayed low. The Fed’s efforts to boost the economy were supposed to backfire as markets reacted to the prospect of runaway inflation, but market measures of expected inflation similarly stayed low.

(More here.)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Without Social Security Income, A Majority of U.S. Seniors Would Be Poor

Neil Shah, WSJ

A majority of U.S. seniors would be poor if Social Security were excluded from their incomes, according to a report on poverty released by the Census Bureau on Thursday.

In its report, Census provided a more comprehensive measure of poverty than its official rate—one that accounts for things such as differences in living costs across the country and antipoverty programs. For seniors, this “supplemental” rate dropped to 14.6% last year from 14.8%. That is good news because the nation’s “official” rate, released last month, suggested poverty among those 65 years old and up jumped from 9.1% to 9.5%.

Census’s alternative numbers on senior poverty tend to be higher than the official ones because government economists subtract from seniors’ income the cash they spend on necessary, out-of-pocket medical expenses—expenses that reduce the income they have available to pay for food.

The latest figures show how important America’s social policies—everything from Social Security to the Earned Income Tax Credit—are for the incomes of Americans, especially seniors and children. If Census were to exclude Social Security benefits from income, the poverty rate for American seniors would jump from 14.6% to a whopping 52.6%—roughly 23.4 million people. The nation’s overall poverty rate (based on the alternative measure) would rise to 24.1% from 15.5%.

(More here.)

'Whether you believe in climate change or not, … here's the data'

As Minnesota's climate changes, bad air and new disease risks follow

By Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio

In the last century, Minnesota has generally grown warmer and wetter, changes that have big implications for human health.

Some Minnesota counties are much more vulnerable than others to health problems associated with climate change, concludes the first county-by-county Minnesota Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment.

The Minnesota Department of Health report, released Monday, looks at which counties are most vulnerable to extreme heat, flash flooding and bad air quality.

Since 1895, annual precipitation has increased nearly three inches in Minnesota, said Pete Boulay, an assistant state climatologist for the Department of Natural Resources.

Temperatures also are rising, especially overnight lows. Overnight minimum temperatures have warmed more than two and a half degrees in the summer and nearly five and a half degrees in the winter.

(Continued here.)

Xcel Energy to shutter coal burner in Minnesota

Xcel to end coal burning at Burnsville plant in April

by Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio

Xcel Energy will stop burning coal at its Burnsville power plant in April 2015.

Plans had been in the works for Xcel's Black Dog plant to generate electricity using only natural gas. The transition will happen when new federal regulations take effect that would have forced the utility to add expensive controls to reduce mercury emissions, utility officials said this week.

Xcel said it could take several years to decommission the coal portion of the plant, including removing coal handling equipment and closing the coal yard and ash pond areas. Eventually, a recreation trail will be built on the property connecting to the Fort Snelling State Park Trail.

(Continued here.)

Potlatch for Politicians

Timothy Egan, NYT
OCT. 15, 2014

An editor with multiple graduate degrees once called me up with a story idea hatched among fellow trend-sniffers in Manhattan. “Indians,” he said, with practiced urgency. “Something’s going on with American Indians. Look into it and tell me what you think.”

Dutifully, I reported back that the first Americans were still poor, still forgotten, still there — albeit with casinos and better lobbyists in Washington. The forgotten part applies especially at elections, given that natives who list themselves as “Indian alone” on the census form make up less than 1 percent of the total population of the United States.

But — news alert! — with barely two weeks to go until the midterm federal election, the most underrepresented people in the country could be the kingmakers for control of the Senate. Let us pause for the cynical voice of an Indian friend who thinks that elections don’t matter: “Democrats, Republicans, they’re all white to me,” he says.

Still, the fact that all the money and manipulations of the Koch brothers could be undone by a handful of native voters living in some of the poorest and most remote parts of the land is a tribute to our teetering democracy. More time has been wasted defending the name of the Washington Professional Football Team than has ever been spent discussing tribal sovereignty or how the modern diet is killing too many natives. Yet now, important-sounding people have been forced to learn a phrase in Yup’ik, or find Shannon County, S.D., on a map.

(More here.)

Resurrecting Smallpox? Easier Than You Think


LOS ANGELES — ON Oct. 16, 1975, 3-year-old Rahima Banu of Bangladesh became the last human infected with naturally occurring smallpox (variola major). When her immune system killed the last smallpox virus in her body, it also killed the last such smallpox virus in humans. In what is arguably mankind’s greatest achievement, smallpox was eradicated.

Our war with this smallpox virus was brutal. It appears likely that the virus killed about one billion of us. Initially, our only defense was our immune system, but eventually we developed new tools, including vaccination. In the late 1950s, the World Health Organization began responding to outbreaks by vaccinating everyone in the surrounding area to prevent the virus from spreading. By 1975, we had won.

The smallpox virus had only a single host species: us. Other viruses have multiple hosts. For example, some strains of flu live in both humans and pigs, hence “swine flu.” If smallpox had had a second host, eradicating it in humans would have been of little value, since it would have thrived in its second host and later re-emerged in humans.

A few samples of the virus are still kept in special labs: one in the United States and one in Russia. We don’t bother vaccinating against smallpox anymore; if the virus escapes from one of these labs, the war will begin again. Currently, there is debate about whether these samples should be destroyed or kept for scientific purposes.

(More here.)

General Escalates Libya Attack

OCT. 15, 2014

TOBRUK, LIBYA — A Libyan general who has led a six-month campaign to rid the country of Islamists sharply escalated his attacks on Benghazi on Wednesday, with a concerted ground assault and airstrikes — pledging to give up command if he succeeds.

Gun battles raged in several parts of the city throughout the day to an extent not seen since the general, Khalifa Hifter, 71, began his campaign six months ago, before a backlash by Islamist militias — some of them hard-liners like Ansar Al Sharia — forced his soldiers and their allies to retreat to the outskirts of Benghazi. In a televised address announcing the assault, General Hifter, who calls his campaign Operation Dignity, declared that his men “are now ready to reach their most important goal for this phase, which is the liberation of the city of Benghazi.”

His latest advance is part of a sharp escalation of fighting on both the eastern and western ends of the country despite the urgent pleas of United Nations officials and Western diplomats for a nationwide cease-fire. “The international community cannot tolerate the continuous spilling of Libyan blood,” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared this week on a surprise visit to Tripoli, the capital. “If sustainable peace is not restored, prosperity and a better life will be a distant dream. This is what hangs in the balance.”

Three years after the ouster and killing of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya has descended into a violent contest between two rival factions. One faction, which portrays itself as a bulwark against Islamist extremists, includes General Hifter; other former Qaddafi military men; certain tribal groups and the western mountain city of Zintan.

(More here.)