Saturday, July 26, 2014

Oooooohhhh ... Offside! No goal!

Israel calls Brazil a ‘diplomatic dwarf’ – and then brings up World Cup humiliation

By Adam Taylor July 25 at 11:31 AM WashPost

In a statement on Wednesday, Brazil condemned what it said was a "disproportionate use of force" by Israel in its Gaza Strip offensive by pulling out its ambassador from Tel Aviv for "consultation." The country is the second country to recall its ambassador from Israel; Ecuador did so earlier in the week.

At first, the official reaction from Israel appeared sanguine. "Brazil is a friend, but we think its position is not balanced," Israel's general consul in São Paulo, Yoel Barnea, said according to the Wall Street Journal, adding that Israel should have a right to defend itself from the thousands of missiles being fired at it by Hamas and other Palestinian groups.

Things soon took a turn for the worse. “This is an unfortunate demonstration of why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf,” Israeili Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said on Thursday, the Jerusalem Post reports. “The moral relativism behind this move makes Brazil an irrelevant diplomatic partner, one who creates problems rather than contributes to solutions.”

That insult wasn't the worst that Israel had reserved for Brazil, however. In an interview with the Brazilian media, Palmor brought up the most humiliating moment in recent Brazilian history – this summer's stunning World Cup semifinal loss to Germany.

(More here.)

Beatlemaniacs, Beliebers, Directioners — why do they scream?

By Chris Richards July 25 at 11:22 AM WashPost

When One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer perform at Nationals Park next month, you’ll have to squint your ears to hear the boy bands’ hits amid a more ancient and fascinating sound: the emptying of adolescent lungs.

Obviously, there will be screaming — high-decibel, high-pitch swells that push hard on the eardrums and then harder, toward the surreal. It’s an abstract sound that JC Chasez has had years to ponder as a member of the multi-platinum juggernaut ’N Sync. But putting the power of that communal wail into words still isn’t easy.

“Sound is energy,” Chasez says. “And the entire room is producing sound, not just the people onstage, so when the entire room is resonating with every human being producing, it’s a very exciting feeling.”

Surely. But what’s behind that feeling? Why do young women assembled at pop concerts express their collective ecstasy with the most alarming sound available to their bodies? Why do they scream?

(More here.)

Ex-Chief of C.I.A. Shapes Response to Detention Report

By MARK MAZZETTI, NYT
JULY 25, 2014

WASHINGTON — Just after the Senate Intelligence Committee voted in April to declassify hundreds of pages of a withering report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program, C.I.A. Director John O. Brennan convened a meeting of the men who had played a role overseeing the program in its seven-year history.

The spies, past and present, faced each other around the long wooden conference table on the seventh floor of the C.I.A.’s headquarters in Northern Virginia: J. Cofer Black, head of the agency’s counterterrorism center at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks; the undercover officer who now holds that job; and a number of other former officials from the C.I.A.’s clandestine service. Over the speakerphone came the distinctive, Queens-accented voice of George J. Tenet.

Over the past several months, Mr. Tenet has quietly engineered a counterattack against the Senate committee’s voluminous report, which could become public next month. The effort to discredit the report has set up a three-way showdown among former C.I.A. officials who believe history has been distorted, a White House carefully managing the process and politics of declassifying the document, and Senate Democrats convinced that the Obama administration is trying to protect the C.I.A. at all costs.

The report is expected to accuse a number of former C.I.A. officials of misleading Congress and the White House about the program and its effectiveness, but it is Mr. Tenet who might have the most at stake.

(More here.)

It Turns Out Hamas Didn’t Kidnap and Kill the 3 Israeli Teens After All

By Katie Zavadski — New York Magazine

When the bodies of three Israeli teenagers, kidnapped in the West Bank, were found late last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mince words. "Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay," he said, initiating a campaign that eventually escalated into the present conflict in the region.

But now, officials admit the kidnappings were not Hamas's handiwork after all.

Non-plagiarizing BuzzFeed writer Sheera Frenkel was among the first to suggest that it was unlikely that Hamas was behind the deaths of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrach. Citing Palestinian sources and experts the field, Frenkel reported that kidnapping three Israeli teens would be a foolish move for Hamas. International experts told her it was likely the work of a local group, acting without concern for the repercussions:
[Gershon Baskin] pointed out that Hamas has earlier this month signed an agreement to form a unity government with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, bridging, for the first time in seven years, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza. 
“They will lose their reconciliation agreement with Abbas if they do take responsibility for [the kidnappings],” Baskin added.
(More here.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

AP Journalists Saw Rebels With BUK Missiles Hours Before MH17 Crashed

By YURAS KARMANAU and PETER LEONARD 07/25/14 03:53 PM ET EDT

SNIZHNE, Ukraine (AP) — It was lunchtime when a tracked launcher with four SA-11 surface-to-air missiles rolled into town and parked on Karapetyan Street. Fifteen hundred miles (2,400 kilometers) to the west, passengers were checking in for Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

It had been a noisy day in this eastern Ukrainian town, residents recounted. Plenty of military equipment was moving through. But still it was hard to miss the bulky missile system, also known as a Buk M-1. It left deep tread marks in the asphalt as it rumbled by in a small convoy.

The vehicles stopped in front of journalists from The Associated Press. A man wearing unfamiliar fatigues, speaking with a distinctive Russian accent, checked to make sure they weren't filming. The convoy then moved on, destination unknown in the heart of eastern Ukraine's pro-Russia rebellion.

Three hours later, people six miles (10 kilometers) west of Snizhne heard loud noises.

And then they saw pieces of twisted metal — and bodies— fall from the sky.

(More here.)

10,000 Bodies: Inside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's Crackdown

Photographs of Corpses Offer Evidence of Industrial-Scale Campaign Against Political Opponents by Assad Regime, U.S. Investigators Say

By Adam Entous And Dion Nissenbaum WSJ
Updated July 25, 2014 7:11 p.m. ET

A card identifies a corpse at Hospital 601 in Damascus, Syria. U.S. investigators believe at least 10,000 people, most of them anti-Assad activists, were tortured and killed between 2011 and 2013 as part of a crackdown on opponents of the regime.

At Hospital 601, not far from the presidential palace in Damascus, Syrian guards ran out of space to store the dead and had to use an adjoining warehouse where military vehicles were repaired.

A forensic photographer working for Syria's military police walked the rows and took pictures of the emaciated and disfigured corpses, most believed to be anti-Assad activists. Numbers written on the bodies and on white cards, the photographer said, told regime bureaucrats the identities of the deceased, when they died and which branch of the Syrian security services had held them. (Graphic image follows.)

U.S. investigators who have reviewed many of the photos say they believe at least 10,000 corpses were cataloged this way between 2011 and mid-2013. Investigators believe they weren't victims of regular warfare but of torture, and that the bodies were brought to the hospital from the Assad regime's sprawling network of prisons. They were told some appeared to have died on site.

Last year, the Syrian military-police photographer defected to the West. Investigators later gave him the code name Caesar to disguise his identity. He turned over to U.S. law-enforcement agencies earlier this year a vast trove of postmortem photographs from Hospital 601 that he and other military photographers took over the two-year period, which he helped smuggle out of the country on digital thumb drives.

(More here.)

Obama and the Myth of Presidential Control

Brendan Nyhad, NYT
JULY 24, 2014

One of the most common criticisms of presidents — especially struggling ones during their second term — is that they have lost control of events.

This charge, which has been leveled at chief executives such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, has become a mantra lately in coverage of President Obama, who faces a stalled legislative agenda and crises in Ukraine, Gaza and at the border with Mexico.

What happened? One frequent explanation from pundits and journalists is that Mr. Obama has “little control” and is instead being “driven” or “buffeted” by events.

This notion pervades commentary and debate on the presidency. We want to believe that the president is (or should be) in control. It’s the impulse behind holding the president responsible for a bad economy and giving him credit for a good one (the most important factor in presidential approval and election outcomes). The reassuring nature of presidential control is also why news media coverage of foreign policy crises and other events that rally the country tends to use language that depicts the president as being in command.

(More here.)

The MH17 Disaster Is All America's Fault?

Ron Paul and 'The Nation' want the U.S. to stop blaming poor Russia

By Linda Kinstler, TNR

It’s not just the Russians who are spouting conspiracy theories about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Americans far right and far left have joined the chorus, propagating the notion that it's the U.S., not Russia, that is ultimately responsible for the catastrophe.

Former Republican Congressman Ron Paul, well-known for his incendiary dispatches, leads the pack. Enraged by the mainstream media’s supposedly negligent reporting of the plane crash, Paul on Sunday published a long indictment of the American press, “What the Mainstream Media Won’t Report About Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.” Chief among the media's alleged failures: “They will not report that the crisis in Ukraine started late last year, when EU and US-supported protesters plotted the overthrow of the elected Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Without US-sponsored ‘regime change,’ it is unlikely that hundreds would have been killed in the unrest that followed. Nor would the Malaysian Airlines crash have happened.”

Leaving aside the lie that the media “will not report” that the crisis started in November 2013, Paul’s overarching message is one we’ve heard before. It’s the same one that The Nation’s Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel invoked back in May, when they suggested that Washington has secretly and silently become complicit in Obama’s effort to start a new Cold War. As The New Republic's Julia Ioffe wrote of the couple’s critique, “The moral imperative of sticking it to Washington and American hegemony is so pressing, so important, that, in true revolutionary fashion, the facts can easily be subsumed under the greater mission.”

But Paul’s disregard for facts far outpaces that of Cohen and vanden Heuvel. He writes that the mainstream media "will not report that the post-coup government in Kiev has, according to OSCE monitors, killed 250 people in the breakaway Lugansk region since June, including 20 killed as government forces bombed the city center the day after the plane crash! Most of these are civilians and together they roughly equal the number killed in the plane crash. By contrast, Russia has killed no one in Ukraine, and the separatists have struck largely military, not civilian, targets.” The only thing that matters is that Russia has killed no one in Ukraine; it just armed and trained and let surreptitious “volunteer” forces cross into Ukraine to do the killing on Russia’s behalf.

(More here.)

Congress’s Next Big Idea? Sue Obama

Ambulance Chaser in the House

Timothy Egan, NYT
JULY 25, 2014

You’re a member of Congress, and everyone hates you. You’re likely to be a lawyer — the leading profession for federal legislators — and most everyone hates lawyers, with a Pew survey finding that people rank them at the very bottom in contributing something to society. Is there anything you could do to generate more contempt?

Yes — sue somebody! The speaker of the House, John Boehner, has announced that Republicans in the House are likely to file suit against President Obama. They are doing this because he delayed parts of a law, the Affordable Care Act, that they have tried to repeal more than 50 times. If they win, business owners who have been given some breathing room from providing mandatory health care would have to quickly implement the very thing that Republicans say is a job-killing bullet to the economy.

It’s head-spinning, all of it. We’ve finally reached the point where the do-nothing, delay-everything, don’t-even-allow-a-vote-on-measures-a-majority-of-Americans-favor Congress has reached its logical position. They will not legislate. But they will litigate.

“Their big idea has been to sue me,” the president said earlier this month, unable to sustain a giggle. “That’s what they’re spending time on.”

(More here.)

Hackers exploiting Internet Explorer to expose security flaws on a huge scale

Exploits can expose software and security systems, researchers warn, helping hackers attack remote machines undetected

Samuel Gibbs, theguardian.com, Friday 25 July 2014 02.00 EDT

Hackers and cybercriminals are using flaws in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to search computers to discover what kinds of security software they are running and how to take control of them, security researchers claim.

The exploits are allowing digital reconnaissance to be performed on a massive scale, across whole companies, computers, web servers and users without their knowledge, exposing holes in their security and allowing criminals to intelligently attack vulnerable machines.

“By knowing what security software is installed, the hackers can determine if their attack is going to work,” Jaime Blasco, director of AlienVault Labs security firm that discovered the techniques, told the Guardian.

“That way they will only attack a computer they know is vulnerable and avoid alerting security companies to their presence.”

The hackers aren’t solely interested in security software. They also probe systems to discover software that might be vulnerable, including PDF readers and other user applications, which can be attacked to take control of a computer.

(More here.)

The nation's top colleges are turning our kids into zombies

Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League

By William Deresiewicz

William Deresiewicz is the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Eliteand The Way to a Meaningful Life, coming out August 19 from Free Press. He taught at Yale from 1998 to 2008.

In the spring of 2008, I did a daylong stint on the Yale admissions committee. We—that is, three admissions staff, a member of the college dean’s office, and me, the faculty representative—were going through submissions from eastern Pennsylvania. The applicants had been assigned a score from one to four, calculated from a string of figures and codes—SATs, GPA, class rank, numerical scores to which the letters of recommendation had been converted, special notations for legacies and diversity cases. The ones had already been admitted, and the threes and fours could get in only under special conditions—if they were a nationally ranked athlete, for instance, or a “DevA,” (an applicant in the highest category of “development” cases, which means a child of very rich donors). Our task for the day was to adjudicate among the twos. Huge bowls of junk food were stationed at the side of the room to keep our energy up.

The junior officer in charge, a young man who looked to be about 30, presented each case, rat-a-tat-tat, in a blizzard of admissions jargon that I had to pick up on the fly. “Good rig”: the transcript exhibits a good degree of academic rigor. “Ed level 1”: parents have an educational level no higher than high school, indicating a genuine hardship case. “MUSD”: a musician in the highest category of promise. Kids who had five or six items on their list of extracurriculars—the “brag”—were already in trouble, because that wasn’t nearly enough. We listened, asked questions, dove into a letter or two, then voted up or down.

With so many accomplished applicants to choose from, we were looking for kids with something special, “PQs”—personal qualities—that were often revealed by the letters or essays. Kids who only had the numbers and the résumé were usually rejected: “no spark,” “not a team-builder,” “this is pretty much in the middle of the fairway for us.” One young person, who had piled up a truly insane quantity of extracurriculars and who submitted nine letters of recommendation, was felt to be “too intense.” On the other hand, the numbers and the résumé were clearly indispensable. I’d been told that successful applicants could either be “well-rounded” or “pointy”—outstanding in one particular way—but if they were pointy, they had to be really pointy: a musician whose audition tape had impressed the music department, a scientist who had won a national award.

(Continued here.)

Left Coast Rising

Paul Krugman, NYT
JULY 24, 2014

The states, Justice Brandeis famously pointed out, are the laboratories of democracy. And it’s still true. For example, one reason we knew or should have known that Obamacare was workable was the post-2006 success of Romneycare in Massachusetts. More recently, Kansas went all-in on supply-side economics, slashing taxes on the affluent in the belief that this would spark a huge boom; the boom didn’t happen, but the budget deficit exploded, offering an object lesson to those willing to learn from experience.

And there’s an even bigger if less drastic experiment under way in the opposite direction. California has long suffered from political paralysis, with budget rules that allowed an increasingly extreme Republican minority to hamstring a Democratic majority; when the state’s housing bubble burst, it plunged into fiscal crisis. In 2012, however, Democratic dominance finally became strong enough to overcome the paralysis, and Gov. Jerry Brown was able to push through a modestly liberal agenda of higher taxes, spending increases and a rise in the minimum wage. California also moved enthusiastically to implement Obamacare.

I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

Needless to say, conservatives predicted doom. A representative reaction: Daniel J. Mitchell of the Cato Institute declared that by voting for Proposition 30, which authorized those tax increases, “the looters and moochers of the Golden State” (yes, they really do think they’re living in an Ayn Rand novel) were committing “economic suicide.” Meanwhile, Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute and Forbes claimed that California residents were about to face a “rate shock” that would more than double health insurance premiums.

(More here.)

The Shared Destiny of Israel and Gaza

Hope in the Abattoir

Roger Cohen, NYT
JULY 24, 2014

LONDON — Freight cars full of bodies shot out of the sky make their way across Europe. After more than two weeks of fighting in Gaza, at least 150 Palestinian children are dead, according to the United Nations. Thousands of Hamas rockets have hit Israel, and 32 young Israeli soldiers have been killed fighting to end this terror. As the poet Seamus Heaney observed, “It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir.”

When children die in these numbers, when the legitimate claim of the Jewish people to a sliver of earth is again contested, when the shrieking cacophony of each side declaiming its “truths” overwhelms, human progress seems a fickle fantasy. Truth, even before social media, was always the first victim of war.

Yet, against all evidence, people hope. They seek justice. It is in their nature.

Hamas establishes a stranglehold over 1.8 million Palestinians squeezed into what David Cameron, the British prime minister, once called the “open-air prison” of Gaza. It is a Jew-hating organization. It is ready, when need be, to use the lives of its own people as pawns. It pours concrete into a maze of tunnels rather than schools. Isolated before the latest violence, it revives by demonstrating a measure of military command and control, by hurting Israel, by appearing resolute as Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, wavers.

The demands of this reconstituted Hamas become the demands of the Palestinian people. Abbas is marginalized. This is not a strategic victory for Israel.

(More here.)

The E.U. is the world’s great no-show

By Fareed Zakaria — July 24 at 6:41 PM, WashPost

The Ukraine crisis has shone a spotlight on one of the glaring gaps in the world: the lack of a strategic and purposeful Europe. The United States can and should lead on the response to this conflict, but nothing can really happen without Europe. The European Union is by far Russia’s largest trading partner — it buys much of Russia’s energy, is the major investor in Russian companies and is the largest destination for Russian capital. Some of President Obama’s critics want him to scold Vladimir Putin. But ultimately, it is European actions that the Russian president will worry about.

Consider how Europe has dealt with Ukraine. For years, it could not really decide whether it wanted to encourage Ukrainian membership in the union, so it sent mixed signals to Kiev, which had the initial effect of disappointing pro-European Ukrainians, angering Russians and confusing everyone else.

In 2008, after Moscow sent troops into Georgia, Europe promised an “Eastern partnership” to the countries along Europe’s eastern fringe. But, as Neil MacFarlane and Anand Menon point out in the current issue of the journal Survival, “The Eastern partnership was a classic example of the EU’s proclivity for responding to events by adding long-term and rhetorically impressive, but resource-poor, bolt-ons to existing policy.”

(More here.)

Heady Summer, Fateful Fall for Dinesh D’Souza, a Conservative Firebrand

By JONATHAN MAHLER, NYT, JULY 24, 2014

Nobody wants the summer to end, but especially not Dinesh D’Souza.

In June, he published, “America: Imagine a World Without Her,” which spent a week as the No. 1 book on Amazon, and is currently No. 2 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.

In July, he released a companion film, which has grossed more than $12 million, already roughly the same as the total of such well-known documentaries as “Hoop Dreams” and “Roger & Me,” counting inflation.

But in September, he will stand before a judge in a Manhattan courtroom and face a possible prison term after pleading guilty earlier this year to a violation of campaign-finance laws.

“The whole experience has been undoubtedly traumatic,” Mr. D’Souza said of his prosecution. “But I’m determined not to let it deter me.”

(More here.)

Why Am I Moving Left?

[VV note: This is a very important article, not just because of the credentials of its author but by what he says. Ricks writes that he is "moving steadily leftward," yet he is only reflecting the same ideals he probably always had. It's just that the parties have changed. His ideas reflect a true conservatism, not the false conservatism espoused by the Tea and Republican parties today.]

I used to be right down the middle. But America’s changed, and so have I.

By THOMAS E. RICKS, Politico.com
July 23, 2014

Thomas E. Ricks is author of five books about the U.S. military, including Fiasco and The Generals.

In my late 50s, at a time of life when most people are supposed to be drifting into a cautious conservatism, I am surprised to find myself moving steadily leftward.

This is unexpected. It comes even as I am financially comfortable and enjoying my work. (I’m writing this from my summer home in Maine.) I’m not a natural progressive—I spent the last quarter century covering the U.S. military, first for the Wall Street Journal and then for the Washington Post, and now for Foreign Policy magazine. I have written five books about the Marines, the Army and our wars.

I am puzzled by this late-middle-age politicization. During the time I was a newspaper reporter, I didn’t participate in elections, because I didn’t want to vote for, or against, the people I covered. Mentally, I was a detached centrist. Today I remain oriented to the free market and in favor of a strong national defense, so I have hardly become a radical socialist.

But since leaving newspapers, I have again and again found myself shifting to the left in major areas such as foreign policy and domestic economic policy. I wonder whether others of my generation are similarly pausing, poking up their heads from their workplaces and wondering just what happened to this country over the last 15 years, and what do to about it.

(More here.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

MH17: Ukraine separatist commander 'admits' rebels had Buk missile system

Alexander Khodakovsky reportedly told news agency rebels may have received Buk from Russia, then changes story

Shaun Walker in Donetsk
The Guardian, Wednesday 23 July 2014 18.28 EDT

A top rebel commander in eastern Ukraine has reportedly said that the armed separatist movement had control of a Buk missile system, which Kiev and western countries say was used to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines plane last week.

Alexander Khodakovsky, who leads the Vostok battalion – one of the main rebel formations – said the rebels may have received the Buk from Russia, in the first such admission by a senior separatist.

"That Buk I know about. I heard about it. I think they sent it back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment that I found out that this tragedy had taken place. They probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its presence," Khodakovsky told Reuters.

Russian news agencies later said people close to Khodakovsky denied he made the admissions. Khodakovsky himself told Life News, a Russian news agency with links to Moscow's security services, that he was misquoted and had merely discussed "possible versions" with Reuters. Khodakovsky said the rebels "do not have and have never had" a Buk.

As two further Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down, apparently by missiles fired from within Russia, Khodakovsky appeared to imply that MH17 was indeed downed by a missile from the Buk, assuming the interview with Reuters is confirmed. He blamed Ukrainian authorities, however, for allowing civilian jets to fly over its airspace when the rebels had such capabilities.

(More here.)

On climate change American heads still firmly stuck in the sand

U.S. leads in number of people unconcerned about climate change and environmental disaster

BY ANGELA FRITZ
July 23 at 2:07 pm

The U.S. leads the world in number of people who aren’t convinced climate change and other environmental concerns are disasters in the making, according to a new poll released this week. This comes after the 2014 National Climate Assessment stated that climate change is happening now, and that the primary driver is “unequivocally” human emissions.

The poll, conducted by U.K. research organization Ipsos MORI, was conducted in 20 countries across the globe, and gathered feedback from over 16,000 people. The poll asked eight climate change and environment-related questions.

When asked the question, “To what extent do you agree or disagree? We are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly,” only 57.3% of the respondents in the U.S. said that they agree. Of the countries surveyed, the U.S. came in last in the number of respondents who agreed with that statement.

(Continued here.)

Paul Ryan and His Poverty Prophet

VV note: "There are the deserving poor and the undeserving poor" (see below) just like there are the deserving rich and the undeserving rich

Charles M. Blow, NYT
JULY 23, 2014

After being chastised early this year for proclaiming that there was a “tailspin of culture,” particularly among inner city men, of “not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work,” Paul Ryan is going to take another swipe at an anti-poverty proposal.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Ryan will unveil a six-pronged anti-poverty plan — “including ways to address incarceration and education and to encourage employment” — Thursday at the American Enterprise Institute.

Bob Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, and a Ryan mentor, told The Journal, “He’s coming up with a new construct, and I’ve encouraged him.” Woodson continued:

“We cannot and should not generalize about poor people. There are the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. It used to be that way, and it became politically incorrect. We are returning to some of the old values that served people very effectively until the welfare reforms of the 1960s.”

(More here.)

An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality

Nickolas Kristof, NYT
JULY 23, 2014

We may now have a new “most unread best seller of all time.”

Data from Amazon Kindles suggests that that honor may go to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which reached No. 1 on the best-seller list this year. Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Piketty’s book seems to eclipse its rivals in losing readers: All five of the passages that readers on Kindle have highlighted most are in the first 26 pages of a tome that runs 685 pages.

The rush to purchase Piketty’s book suggested that Americans must have wanted to understand inequality. The apparent rush to put it down suggests that, well, we’re human.

So let me satisfy this demand with my own “Idiot’s Guide to Inequality.” Here are five points:

First, economic inequality has worsened significantly in the United States and some other countries. The richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Oxfam estimates that the richest 85 people in the world own half of all wealth.

(More here.)

How a solar storm two years ago nearly caused a catastrophe on Earth

By Jason Samenow, WashPost

On July 23, 2012, the sun unleashed two massive clouds of plasma that barely missed a catastrophic encounter with the Earth’s atmosphere. These plasma clouds, known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs), comprised a solar storm thought to be the most powerful in at least 150 years.

“If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” physicist Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado tells NASA.

Fortunately, the blast site of the CMEs was not directed at Earth. Had this event occurred a week earlier when the point of eruption was Earth-facing, a potentially disastrous outcome would have unfolded.

“I have come away from our recent studies more convinced than ever that Earth and its inhabitants were incredibly fortunate that the 2012 eruption happened when it did,” Baker tells NASA. “If the eruption had occurred only one week earlier, Earth would have been in the line of fire.”

(More here.)

A conservative judiciary run amok

E.J. Dionne, WashPost

Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens captured our ideal when he wrote of the judge as “an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”

By effectively gutting the Affordable Care Act on Tuesday, two members of a three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals showed how far right-leaning jurists have strayed from such impartiality. We are confronted with a conservative judiciary that will use any argument it can muster to win ideological victories that elude their side in the elected branches of our government.

Fortunately, the D.C. Circuit ruling is unlikely to stand. On the same day the D.C. panel issued its opinion, a three-judge panel from the 4th Circuit ruled unanimously the other way, upholding the law.

There is a good chance that the 11-judge D.C. Circuit will take the decision away from its panel — something it is usually reluctant to do — and rule as a full court to affirm the ACA as commonly understood. It is virtually certain that a majority of the court’s members disagrees with the panel’s convoluted reading of the law and wants to avoid creating a needless conflict in jurisprudence with the 4th Circuit.

(More here.)

Swindlers Target Kin of Migrants

By FRANCES ROBLES, NYT
JULY 23, 2014

MIAMI — The federal government is investigating how detailed information about migrant children being held at two American military bases wound up in the hands of con artists who are using it to lure unsuspecting relatives into paying hefty sums to reunite their families, preying on people who have been separated for years, according to the F.B.I.

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Mexico and Central America have crossed the southwest border in the last year, creating a political firestorm for the Obama administration. Amid the surge, it has sent several thousand of them to emergency detention shelters on military bases until they can be placed with relatives or sponsors in the United States while their cases are decided in court.

Now, the F.B.I. says, swindlers have gotten hold of precise details about the children to reach out to their relatives across the country, claiming that payments are required to cover the processing costs and travel expenses of reuniting families. Cases of the fraud have been reported in 12 states so far, from New York to California, with the con artists seeking $350 to $6,000 in so-called fees, the F.B.I. says.

“There are enough cases that it’s not an isolated incident. It is a problem,” said Michelle Lee, a spokeswoman for the F.B.I. in San Antonio.

(More here.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tragedy Fails to Quiet Ukraine

Two Fighter Jets Shot Down Over Separatist Territory as Kiev Presses Offensive

By Anton Troianovski in Kiev, Ukraine, Lukas I. Alpert in Moscow and Carol E. Lee in Washington, WSJ

Two Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down Wednesday over separatist-held territory not far from the site of the Malaysia Airlines crash as international outrage over the tragedy has done little to slow the fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine.

While Kiev made significant advances against rebels in the country's east in recent days, Ukrainian and U.S. officials say Russian weapons are continuing to pour over the border. The escalation in fighting suggests Russian President Vladimir Putin has no intention of dialing back his support for the separatists, denting Western hopes that international attention from the airliner crash would force him to change course.

"The fact that you have two additional planes shot down speaks to the pattern we've seen over the last several weeks—which is Russian-backed separatists, armed with Russian anti-aircraft [weapons], posing risks to aircraft in Ukraine," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy White House national security adviser.

Kiev has pressed on with its offensive against the rebels despite calls to halt the fighting in the aftermath of the crash. The government said Wednesday that Kremlin-backed separatists in the east were attacking Ukrainian troops with Russian-supplied truck-mounted missile launchers, mining buildings, and blowing up bridges and burning down wheat fields upon their retreat. Kiev said it retook two cities even as a days-long fight continued for Lysychansk, the base of a leading insurgent commander.

(More here.)

Flight 17: Ukraine’s War and Europe’s Passivity

The Suns of August

Roger Cohen, NYT
JULY 21, 2014

LONDON — A century on from World War I, nobody wants the guns of August.

Yet it must be asked if waiting years for the evasive conclusions of an official investigation into the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is better than acting now on what we already know: That the Boeing 777 with 298 people on board was shot down by a missile from a Russian-made SA-11 antiaircraft system fired from an area of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists, Russian mercenaries and Russian agents. A half-drunk Ukrainian peasant with a 1950s-era rifle doesn’t shoot down a plane at 33,000 feet.

An “enormous amount of evidence,” in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, points to Russian provision of SA-11 systems and training. The Ukrainian government has damning audio and images that capture the crime. In June, a Ukrainian cargo plane landing in the area was hit with shoulder-fired missiles, killing 49 people. This month, another cargo plane flying at 22,000 feet was hit by a missile. Rocket science is not required.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia has been playing with fire. His irredentism has made him a hero in Russia. It has endangered the world. Crimea was the swaggering precedent to this crime. The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 amounts to an act of war. It was impromptu perhaps, but still. Dutch corpses have rained down on the sunflowers and cornfields of eastern Ukraine, to be defiled even in death, 193 innocent Dutch souls dishonored by the thugs of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

(More here.)

Russians have many theories about the MH17 crash…

… One involves fake dead people

By Karoun Demirjian July 22, WashPost

MOSCOW — As consensus builds in the U.S. government that pro-Russian rebels are responsible for shooting down a Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine, Russians are embracing a smorgasbord of alternate explanations.

Like: Maybe it was actually part of an assassination plot. Maybe those bodies were planted.

Khadija Gamzatova, 50, heard on the news that Vladimir Putin’s plane crossed flight paths with the Malaysian jet at one point — and thus believes that Ukrainian government troops shot down the jet, thinking it was the Russian president’s plane.

“They were flying close to one another,” said Gamzatova, sitting on a park bench in central Moscow and gesturing to show just how close she believed the planes had been. Ukrainian forces “wanted to shoot down our plane, but this is what they got.”

(More here.)

What the Hobby Lobby Ruling Means for America

Binyamin Applebaum, NYT
JULY 22, 2014

Last month, as you’ve probably heard, a closely divided Supreme Court ruled that corporations with religious owners cannot be required to pay for insurance coverage of contraception. The so-called Hobby Lobby decision, named for the chain of craft stores that brought the case, has been both praised and condemned for expanding religious rights and constraining Obamacare. But beneath the political implications, the ruling has significant economic undertones. It expands the right of corporations to be treated like people, part of a trend that may be contributing to the rise of economic inequality.

The notion that corporations are people is ridiculous on its face, but often true. Although Mitt Romney was mocked for saying it on the campaign trail a few summers ago, the U.S. Code, our national rule book, defines corporations as people in its very first sentence. And since the 19th century, the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are entitled to a wide range of constitutional protections. This was a business decision, and it was a good one. Incorporation encourages risk-taking: Investors are far more likely to put money into a business that can outlast its creators; managers, for their part, are more likely to take risks themselves because they owe nothing to the investors if they fail.

(More here.)

Putin’s Crime, Europe’s Cowardice

By BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY, NYT, JULY 22, 2014

TANGIER, Morocco — IN eastern Ukraine, Vladimir V. Putin has been playing with fire.

He has mobilized the worst elements to be found in the region.

He has taken thugs, thieves, rapists, ex-cons and vandals and turned them into a paramilitary force.

He has permitted ad hoc commanders of separatist groups to kill or chase off intellectuals, journalists and other moral authorities in the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk.

He has watched as a vodka-soaked rabble army destroys or takes over public buildings, hospitals, schools and municipal offices of the country it is pretending to liberate.

(More here.)

Debt Disaster Dead-Enders

Paul Krugman, NYT
July 22, 2014 4:33 pm

I got some correspondence from people telling me to read Rob Portman’s op-ed in the WSJ, intended to refute the growing evidence that the budget deficit has been grossly overrated as an issue. And it is an interesting piece — it’s a very good illustration both of the desperate desire to see a debt crisis, and what happens when someone (Portman, or more likely the staffer who wrote it) tries to be a Very Serious Person without actually understanding the numbers or having followed any of the analysis.

One thing you need to know is that none of Portman’s numbers refer to the CBO‘s baseline scenario; instead they refer to a much more pessimistic alternate scenario. That’s something he should have shared with readers.

And what you should know about that alternate scenario is that well over half of the projected spending rise he complains about has nothing to do with entitlements; it’s about rising interest payments, because the alternate scenario both assumes that spending will be higher and revenue lower than in the baseline, and that nothing will be done to remedy this situation, so that debt grows without limit. Oh, and those interest payments greatly overstate the real burden of debt in a growing economy with inflation.

(More here.)

U.S. Officials Lay Out Case Against Russians

Washington Seeks to Counter Russian Claims About MH17 Crash

By Siobhan Gorman in Washington and Paul Sonne in Snizhne, Ukraine, WSJ
Updated July 22, 2014 10:58 p.m. ET

U.S. intelligence officials presented reporters with their most detailed case yet Tuesday that Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists shot down a Malaysia Airlines 3786.KU jetliner last week, in a bid to counter what American officials see as Russian efforts to muddy the waters with claims of Ukrainian culpability.

The officials relied on photographs, social media, and voiceprint analysis of Ukrainian communications intercepts to make their public case that a likely SA-11 antiaircraft weapon fired from separatist-controlled territory shot down the commercial airliner, killing 298 people on board.

The evidence cited, however, didn't raise the case for Russian involvement in the shoot-down to a new level of certainty. Officials said they are still working to refine evidence and may offer more in coming days.

Other U.S. officials, including some at the Pentagon, have said more assertively in recent days that Russia likely provided the missile system used by separatists to shoot down Flight 17. The more restrained presentation by intelligence officials Tuesday reflected the cautious nature of intelligence analysis.

(More here.)

Crises Cascade and Converge, Testing Obama

A mosque in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip. As President Obama tries to corral Europeans on Russia, he must manage discontent over Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

By PETER BAKER, NYT
JULY 22, 2014

WASHINGTON — Not long after a passenger jet exploded in midair and plummeted to the ground in Ukraine last week, escalating a volatile crisis pitting the United States and Europe against Russia, President Obama’s thoughts turned to Syria.

The Malaysia Airlines flight seemed to have been shot down by a sophisticated Russian antiaircraft system provided to insurgents who mistook the airliner for a military transport. In a conversation with aides, the president said this was why he refused to send antiaircraft weapons to Syrian rebels. Once they are out of a government’s control, he said, the risk only grows.

Rarely has a president been confronted with so many seemingly disparate foreign policy crises all at once — in Ukraine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — but making the current upheaval more complicated for Mr. Obama is the seemingly interlocking nature of them all. Developments in one area, like Ukraine, shape his views and choices in a crisis in another area, like the Middle East.

The crosscurrents can be dizzying. Even as Mr. Obama presses Russia to stop fomenting a virtual civil war in Ukraine, he is trying to collaborate with Moscow in a diplomatic campaign to force Iran to scale back its nuclear program. Even as he pressures Iran over its nuclear program, he finds himself on the same side as Tehran in combating a rising Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Even as he sends special forces to help squelch those insurgents, he is trying to help their putative allies against the government in Syria next door.

(More here.)

Hamas Gambled on War as Its Woes Grew in Gaza

By ANNE BARNARD, NYT, JULY 22, 2014

GAZA CITY — When war between Israel and Hamas broke out two weeks ago, the Palestinian militant group was so hamstrung, politically, economically and diplomatically, that its leaders appeared to feel they had nothing to lose.

Hamas took what some here call “option zero,” gambling that it could shift the balance with its trump cards: its arms and militants.

“There were low expectations in terms of its performance against the recent round of Israeli incursions. It’s been exceeding all expectations,” said Abdullah Al-Arian, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar who is currently in Washington. “And it’s likely to come out in a far better position than in the last three years, and maybe the last decade.”

Hamas had been struggling. The turmoil in the region meant it lost one of its main sponsors, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whom it broke with over his brutal fight against a Sunni Muslim-led insurgency, and weakened its alliance with Iran. It lost support in Egypt when the Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted and replaced with a military-backed government hostile to Hamas.

(More here.)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Russia Today Faces UK Investigation Over MH17 News Coverage

Several viewers have complained to Ofcom about the Kremlin-backed TV channel breaking strict British rules on impartiality in news

Jim Waterson, BuzzFeed Staff, July 22, 2014, at 12:32 p.m.

Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed news channel, has attacked the “impartiality and factuality of the mainstream media” after learning it could itself be investigated for breaking broadcasting regulations on accuracy and impartiality during its coverage of the MH17 air crash.

Ofcom, which ensures TV channels with a UK broadcasting licence provide broadly impartial news coverage, said it was considering whether to investigate Russia Today following complaints from viewers about the tone of its coverage of the Malaysia Airlines disaster.

Last week presenter Sara Firth resigned from the channel, accusing it of covering the story with “total disregard to the facts”.

But the channel has hit back against its detractors and the potential Ofcom investigation, telling BuzzFeed it is one of the few news outlets that is willing to stand up to the “party line” on what actually happened to the flight when it crashed in eastern Ukraine.

(More here.)

Ooops! Pretty clear now that Russia made a boo-boo

U.S. discloses intelligence on downing of Malaysian jet

By Greg Miller July 22 at 7:24 PM, WashPost

The Obama administration, detailing what it called evidence of Russian complicity in the downing of a Malaysian airliner, on Tuesday released satellite images and other sensitive intelligence that officials say show Moscow had trained and equipped rebels in Ukraine responsible for the attack.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials cited sensors that traced the path of the missile, shrapnel markings on the downed aircraft, voiceprint analysis of separatists claiming credit for the strike, and a flood of photos and other data from social-media sites.

The officials also for the first time identified a sprawling Russian military installation near the city of Rostov as the main conduit of Russian support to separatists in Ukraine, describing it as a hub of training and weapons that has expanded dramatically over the past month. The officials said that tanks, rocket launchers and other arms have continued to flow into Ukraine even after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 civilians.

(More here.)

Charles Schumer: Adopt the Open Primary

End Partisan Primaries, Save America

By CHARLES E. SCHUMER, NYT, JULY 21, 2014

WASHINGTON — POLARIZATION and partisanship are a plague on American politics.

Political scientists have found that the two parties have each grown more ideologically homogeneous since the 1970s. The Senate hasn’t been so polarized since Reconstruction; the House has not been so divided since around 1900. As measured by laws passed, the current Congress is on track to be among the least productive in our republic’s history.

How did this happen? One of the main causes has not gotten enough attention: the party primary system.

The reasons behind the shocking primary defeat last month of Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, who was then leader of the Republican majority in the House, are still being debated, but there is no doubt that his defeat highlighted the pernicious effects of the predominant “winner-take-all” party primary system. Even in one of the country’s most Republican districts, Mr. Cantor was not conservative enough for the fairly small proportion of highly energized, ideologically driven voters who turned out for the primary. The partisan primary system, which favors more ideologically pure candidates, has contributed to the election of more extreme officeholders and increased political polarization. It has become a menace to governing.

(More here.)

Putinism Thrives on Dirty Money

Western leaders ignored Putin's bad behavior as long as Russian money flowed in. Flight 17 changes all that.

By Oliver Bullough, WSJ
Updated July 21, 2014 7:52 p.m. ET

This year's most important Russian financial indicator will be how much money flees abroad. Central-bank data released on July 9 put capital flight so far this year at $75 billion, almost 4% of gross domestic product, and rising by the day. And that was before last Thursday's murderous downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine.

Westerners marvel at Vladimir Putin's high domestic approval ratings, above 80% in Gallup's most recent poll, which comes after this year's invasion of neighboring Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. But those with the wherewithal to let their money do the talking say different. More money has fled Russia in the first half of 2014 than in the whole of 2013. If Mr. Putin were really doing a good job, capital flight would not be an issue.

Popularity and capital flight are rarely considered together, but they hold the key to Putinism: He gives ordinary Russians stability and television (heavy with propaganda), while their rulers get the right to strong-arm their way to riches and keep the money safely abroad. For the Romans, it was bread and circuses; for Mr. Putin, it is bread, circuses and offshore bank accounts.

Mr. Putin is often credited with rebuilding Russia, but that has been as much aided by $100-a-barrel oil as by anything he has done. Hundreds of billions of dollars have poured out of Russia since he took power in 2000, while corruption has spread to encompass every element of the economy.

(More here.)