Sunday, July 05, 2015

Alexander von Humboldt: The man who made nature modern

The statue of German scientist Alexander von Humboldt in front of the main building of the Alexander von Humbolt University in central Berlin on April 27, 2011. (Markus Schreiber / Associated Press)
By Andrea Wulf, LA Times

His contemporaries considered Alexander von Humboldt the most famous man in the world after Napoleon, and Thomas Jefferson called him “one of the greatest ornaments of the age.” There are more plants, animals, minerals and places named after Humboldt than any other person. In California alone, a county, a bay, a college and a state park all bear his name. He is a founding father of environmentalism, a visionary who predicted man-made climate change as early as 1800.

Yet Humboldt is almost forgotten in the English-speaking world. We see his name on maps, on the information cards at the zoo or in the newspaper — the Humboldt Current, the Humboldt penguin, Humboldt State, the Humboldt mountain range — but most Americans know little about the man.

Born in 1769 into an aristocratic Prussian family in Berlin, Humboldt discarded a life of privilege and spent his substantial inheritance on a dangerous five-year exploration of Latin America.

He ventured deep into the mysterious rain forests in Venezuela and paddled along crocodile-infested tropical rivers. He walked thousands of miles through the Andes, from Bogota, Colombia, to Lima, Peru — climbing volcanos along the way, including Chimborazo, then believed to be the highest mountain in the world.

He was fascinated by scientific instruments and empirical data, but equally driven by a sense of wonder. At almost 20,000 feet and nauseated by altitude sickness, Humboldt measured the chemical components of the air and also described nature's majestic beauty. Where other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that “nature must be experienced through feeling.”

When he returned to Europe, his trunks were filled with dozens of notebooks, hundreds of sketches and tens of thousands of astronomical, geological and meteorological observations, and some 60,000 plant specimens. Over the next 50 years, Humboldt published so many books that even he lost track.

(More here.)

Trump is a loser

James Hohmann, WashPost

Despite the hyperventilating of recent days, Donald Trump will not be the Republican nominee. Period. Full stop.

The businessman is touting seven polls conducted since his announcement that show him “surging.” He was in second place nationally among Republicans in surveys from CNN (with 12 percent) and Fox News (11 percent). Quinnipiac found him tied for second place among likely Iowa caucusgoers (with 10 percent). Suffolk and WMUR each put him at second in New Hampshire, also in the double digits. The Democratic firm Public Policy Polling said he is second in Michigan and third in Kentucky.

Polling wise, Trump is this cycle’s Michele Bachmann. That’s how Washington Post polling manager Peyton M. Craighill responded when we asked what’s going on. At this time in 2011, the then-Minnesota congresswoman was pulling 17 percent, even higher than Trump. By November 2011, she was down to 4 percent. Or he might be like others who had their moment in the sun last time. Rick Perry was at 30 percent in The Post’s September 2011 poll of Republicans and had fallen to 6 percent by December. Herman Cain was at 23 percent in our November 2011 poll and out of the race a month later. Newt Gingrich peaked at 30 percent that December and saw his support cut in half a few weeks later. “History tells us this up and down pattern is not unusual,” Peyton emails.

While Trump has seen a bigger bounce than anyone else from his rollout, he also came in with higher name recognition than any of the other GOP candidates. In the Washington Post/ABC poll at the very end of May, only 11 percent of Republicans were unable to provide a rating for Trump. Compare that to 14 percent who said they did not know enough about Jeb Bush to offer an opinion. Other GOP candidates ranged from 21 percent (Huckabee) to 46 percent (Walker) unable to rate.

He’s also already toxically unpopular among the Republican rank-and-file. Trump was viewed by far more negatively than anyone else among all adults and among GOP voters in The Post’s poll. Among Republicans, he was 42 points underwater (viewed favorably by 23 percent and unfavorably by 65 percent). The same Quinnipiac poll Trump ballyhooed in his most recent press release found that 28 percent of Iowa Republicans would definitely never support him.

Other less tangible factors work against Trump too: He won’t raise significant outside money, and he’s never going to get endorsed by any serious elected official or party elite who is not on his payroll. The rank-and-file activists who are drawn to Trump love that he lacks the cautiousness of typical politicians—he tells it like they think it is—but these folks also want to win the White House after eight years in the wilderness, and they’ll recognize with each successive unforced error that Trump is unelectable. The media, especially cable, will keep covering the freak show nature of his campaign, including the continuing fallout from his breathtakingly offensive comments about Mexican immigrants. But his strength in the polls will be short lived.

(More here.)

Wonkblog America’s most gerrymandered congressional districts

By Christopher Ingraham May 15, 2014, WashPost

Crimes against geography.

This election year we can expect to hear a lot about Congressional district gerrymandering, which is when political parties redraw district boundaries to give themselves an electoral advantage.

Gerrymandering is at least partly to blame for the lopsided Republican representation in the House. According to an analysis I did last year, the Democrats are under-represented by about 18 seats in the House, relative to their vote share in the 2012 election. The way Republicans pulled that off was to draw some really, really funky-looking Congressional districts.

Contrary to one popular misconception about the practice, the point of gerrymandering isn't to draw yourself a collection of overwhelmingly safe seats. Rather, it's to give your opponents a small number of safe seats, while drawing yourself a larger number of seats that are not quite as safe, but that you can expect to win comfortably. Considering this dynamic, John Sides of The Washington Post's Monkey Cage blog has argued convincingly that gerrymandering is not what's behind the rising polarization in Congress.

(More here.)

How the CIA ran a ‘billion dollar spy’ in Moscow

An identity card created by the CIA in an attempt to replicate Adolf Tolkachev’s building pass to facilitate removing secret documents from his Soviet military institute. Despite much effort, the plan worked only briefly in the summer of 1982. (Courtesy of H. Keith Melton and the Melton Archive/From the book “The Billion Dollar Spy”)
By David E. Hoffman July 4 at 9:20 PM, WashPost

The spy had vanished.

He was the most successful and valued agent the United States had run inside the Soviet Union in two decades. His documents and drawings had unlocked the secrets of Soviet radars and weapons research years into the future. He had smuggled circuit boards and blueprints out of his military laboratory. His espionage put the United States in position to dominate the skies in aerial combat and confirmed the vulnerability of Soviet air defenses — showing that American cruise missiles and strategic bombers could fly under the radar.

In the late autumn and early winter of 1982, the CIA lost touch with him. Five scheduled meetings were missed. KGB surveillance on the street was overwhelming. Even the “deep cover” officers of the CIA’s Moscow station, invisible to the KGB, could not break through.

On the evening of Dec. 7, the next scheduled meeting date, the future of the operation was put in the hands of Bill Plunkert. After a stint as a Navy aviator, Plunkert had joined the CIA and trained as a clandestine operations officer. He was in his mid-30s, 6-foot-2, and had arrived at the Moscow station in the summer. His mission was to give the slip to the KGB and make contact.

That evening, around the dinner hour, Plunkert and his wife, along with the CIA station chief and his wife, walked out of the U.S. Embassy to the parking lot, under constant watch by uniformed militiamen who reported to the KGB. They got into a car, the station chief driving. Plunkert sat next to him in the front seat. Their wives were in the back, holding a large birthday cake.

(More here.)

Voters are shifting to Democrats, flashing a warning for Republicans

By Dan Balz
Chief correspondent July 4 at 6:52 PM, WashPost

The Gallup organization reported its latest findings on party identification late last week, and the report contained good news for the Democrats and a flashing yellow for Republicans.

The Democrats “have regained an advantage” over the GOP in party affiliation, Gallup’s Jeffrey M. Jones wrote in an accompanying analysis. Republicans, he added, “have seemingly lost the momentum they had going into last fall’s elections.”

The current numbers don’t mean Republicans can’t win the White House in 2016. The Democrats’ advantage is not as large as at other points in the past, for example. But the findings add to a series of data points that underscore the challenges ahead for a party trying to keep pace with a rapidly changing country.

The latest numbers essentially mark a reset that returns party affiliation to its modern historical norm. Democrats long have enjoyed the advantage over Republicans in Gallup’s measures.

(More here.)

The Americans are coming!

Some in a Texas county fear an Obama-led U.S. military invasion

By Kevin Sullivan July 4 at 8:32 PM, WashPost

BASTROP, Texas — The office of the Bastrop County Republican Party is in an old lumber mill on Main Street, with peeling brown paint and a sign out front that captures the party’s feelings about the Obama administration: “WISE UP AMERICA!”

Inside, county Chairman Albert Ellison pulled out a yellow legal pad on which he had handwritten page after page of reasons why many Texans distrust President Obama, including the fact that, “in the minds of some, he was raised by communists and mentored by terrorists.”

So it should come as no surprise, Ellison said, that as the U.S. military prepares to launch one of the largest training exercises in history later this month, many Bastrop residents might suspect a secret Obama plot to spy on them, confiscate their guns and ultimately establish martial law in one of America’s proudly free conservative states.

(More here.)

How the South Skews America

We’d be less violent, more mobile and in general more normal if not for Dixie.

July 03, 2015

Every year the Fourth of July is marked by ringing affirmations of American exceptionalism. We are a special nation, uniquely founded on high ideals like freedom and equality. In practice, however, much of what sets the United States apart from other countries today is actually Southern exceptionalism. The United States would be much less exceptional in general, and in particular more like other English-speaking democracies such as Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were it not for the effects on U.S. politics and culture of the American South.

I don’t mean this in a good way. A lot of the traits that make the United States exceptional these days are undesirable, like higher violence and less social mobility. Many of these differences can be attributed largely to the South.

All English-speaking democracies share certain characteristics in common. Compared to continental European and East Asian democracies, the Anglophone nations tend to be more market-oriented and less statist, with somewhat lower levels of social spending and weaker bureaucracies. We might even speak of “Anglosphere exceptionalism.”

But even by the standards of the English-speaking world, the U.S. appears as an extreme outlier, in areas ranging from religiosity to violence to anti-government attitudes. As we learned after the slaughter last month in Charleston, S.C., some deluded Southerners still pine for secession from the Union. Yet no doubt there are also more than a few liberal Northerners who would be happy to see them go.

Minus the South, the rest of the U.S. probably would be more like Canada or Australia or Britain or New Zealand—more secular, more socially liberal, more moderate in the tone of its politics and somewhat more generous in social policy. And it would not be as centralized as France or as social democratic as Sweden.

(More here.)

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Obama Plans Broader Use of Clemency to Free Nonviolent Drug Offenders

JULY 3, 2015

WASHINGTON — Sometime in the next few weeks, aides expect President Obama to issue orders freeing dozens of federal prisoners locked up on nonviolent drug offenses. With the stroke of his pen, he will probably commute more sentences at one time than any president has in nearly half a century.

The expansive use of his clemency power is part of a broader effort by Mr. Obama to correct what he sees as the excesses of the past, when politicians eager to be tough on crime threw away the key even for minor criminals. With many Republicans and Democrats now agreeing that the nation went too far, Mr. Obama holds the power to unlock that prison door, especially for young African-American and Hispanic men disproportionately affected.

But even as he exercises authority more assertively than any of his modern predecessors, Mr. Obama has only begun to tackle the problem he has identified. In the next weeks, the total number of commutations for Mr. Obama’s presidency may surpass 80, but more than 30,000 federal inmates have come forward in response to his administration’s call for clemency applications. A cumbersome review process has advanced only a small fraction of them. And just a small fraction of those have reached the president’s desk for a signature.

“I think they honestly want to address some of the people who have been oversentenced in the last 30 years,” said Julie Stewart, the founder and president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group advocating changes in sentencing. “I’m not sure they envisioned that it would be as complicated as it is, but it has become more complicated, whether it needs to be or not, and that’s what has bogged down the process.”

(More here.)

Seattle on the Mediterranean

Timothy Egan, NYT
JULY 3, 2015

Oh, the ceaseless Seattle sun. June just set another record — the hottest ever recorded in this city, closing out the warmest first half of a year.

Seattle is farther north than Maine and Montreal, and yet, over the last month or so, it’s been hotter here than Athens, Rome or Los Angeles on many a day. We had eight days at 85 degrees or higher in June. On Sunday, east of the Cascade Mountains, it hit 113 degrees in Walla Walla.

London and Paris, two cities that share a similar climate to Seattle’s, both set heat records this week — 98, the hottest July day in British history, and 103.5 in the City of Light.

As a native Seattleite, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to live in a place where it’s sunny every day. Now that I’m experiencing something close to that, I feel out of sorts in a strange land. Wildfires burn today in the Olympic Mountains west of Seattle, a forest zone that is typically one of the rainiest places on earth.

Sure, my backyard grapes, my tomatoes, my Meyer lemons and my rosemary plants love it. This is Sicily in Seattle, with nearly 16 hours of daylight. June, known for its cloudy gloom, was “probably the sunniest month in Northwest history,” wrote the University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass on his weather blog.

(More here.)

Friday, July 03, 2015

Greece vs. Minnesota

from Kelly Coleman:
  • Greece is half the size of Minnesota but has twice the population. 
  • Minnesota’s current annual GDP is $316 billion, while Greece’s GDP is $246 billion.
  • Minnesota’s per capita GDP is $57,943 while the per capita GDP of Greece is $25,800.
  • Minnesota’s total state & local government spending was $58.4 billion, while Greece’s government spent $127.9 billion.
  • Minnesota’s total state & local per capita spending was $10,702, while Greece spent $11,869 per capita.
  • Minnesota’s total debt is $86 billion, while Greece’s total has reached $498 billion.
  • Minnesota’s per capita debt is $16,000, while Greece’s per capita debt is $46,000.
  • The unemployment rate is Minnesota is currently 3.7%, while in Greece the rate is 27%.

All data is for 2014 unless stated otherwise.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Turning the environment over to big business


City Pages

Dip your paddle into Lake Crystal on some muggy afternoon, and it will return lathered in a soupy green slime. Each summer, algae sludge forms a thick seal on the water's surface.

It's toxic and cruelly pervasive. One dog died last month after being poisoned by Red Rock Lake in Douglas County. Three more were killed by the blue-green foam in 2014.

Children have been warned away: Touching or breathing in the foul-smelling toxin could bring on vomiting, rash, and liver damage.

There are no more swimmable lakes in southwestern Minnesota, a 1,783-square-mile stretch that spans six counties. Dangerous levels of phosphorous, nitrogen, and bacteria like E. Coli will take decades to clean up, says the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The problem extends along our southern border, where rampant pollution threatens the safety of drinking water.

Legislators hem and haw about potential causes. The science isn't so mealy-mouthed: The bulk of the pollution is from factory farms and fertilizer runoff.

(Continued here.)

See China’s rapid island-building strategy in action

The Fiery Cross Reef, 2,740,000 square meters. (CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Digital Globe)

By Simon Denyer July 1, WashPost

New images taken just this week show China building what look like military bases on reclaimed land in the South China Sea, a development likely to add to concerns in the United States and among its Asian neighbors.

China said on Tuesday that land reclamation had now finished on "some islands" in the South China Sea. But the focus is now likely to shift to the construction work that China is carrying out, which many fear will lead to further militarization of the South China Sea.

Images taken as recently as June 28 show how China has almost completed the construction of an airstrip at Fiery Cross Reef. The images were taken by Digital Globe and supplied to The Post by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Land reclamation is now complete at Fiery Cross Reef. AMTI says construction of the air base is continuing “with ongoing paving and marking of the airstrip, an added apron, construction of a sensor array and development of additional support facilities.”

(More here.)

Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? Because our textbooks and monuments are wrong.

False history marginalizes African Americans and makes us all dumber.

By James W. Loewen July 1, WashPost

James W. Loewen, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont, is the author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me" and "The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader."

History is the polemics of the victor, William F. Buckley allegedly said. Not so in the United States, at least not regarding the Civil War. As soon as Confederates laid down their arms, some picked up their pens and began to distort what they had done, and why. Their resulting mythology went national a generation later and persists — which is why a presidential candidate can suggest that slavery was somehow pro-family, and the public believes that the war was mainly fought over states’ rights.

The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about. We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation that they spread, which has manifested in both our history books and our public monuments.

Take Kentucky. Kentucky’s legislature voted not to secede, and early in the war, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston ventured through the western part of the state and found “no enthusiasm as we imagined and hoped but hostility … in Kentucky.” Eventually, 90,000 Kentuckians would fight for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones.

(More here.)

As Donald Trump surges in polls, Democrats cheer

By Philip Rucker July 1 at 4:17 PM, WashPost

For Democrats, Donald Trump amounts to a kind of divine intervention.

With the Republican Party on an urgent mission to woo Latino voters, one of its leading presidential candidates has been enmeshed for two weeks in a nasty feud over his inflammatory comments about Mexican immigrants.

“They’re bringing drugs,” Trump said in his campaign announcement speech. “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

The comments — and many more since — have prompted an uproar among Latino groups and acrimonious breakups between Trump and various corporate partners. His outlandish rhetoric and skill at occupying the national spotlight are also proving to be dangerously toxic for the GOP brand, which remains in the rehabilitation stage after losing the 2012 presidential race.

(More here. And then there is this:)

Here are 12 other times Donald Trump vilified illegal immigrants in no uncertain terms

By Amber Phillips July 1 at 4:22 PM, WashPost

Lately, Donald Trump has not been on immigrant advocates' good side.

Since announcing he's running for president, the real-estate mogul has managed to call illegal immigrants "rapists" -- "Some, I assume are good people," he caveated -- and drug-toting criminals. It cost him his relationships with Univision, NBC, Macy's and even Flo Rida.

But what's most interesting is that this is hardly something new for Trump. As immigrant advocates will be the first to tell you, Trump was stirring this pot long before launching his quixotic presidential campaign. In fact, we found a dozen instances dating back to last year of him linking undocumented immigrants to terrorism, the potential spread of Ebola and otherwise destroying America. (Oh, and Trump also wants to build a really big wall between us and Mexico -- paid for by Mexico, somehow.)

In fact, saying bad things about illegal immigrants is kind of something Trump does a lot. And his comments in his announcement speech were basically repeating what he said before. We all just took notice.

Let's recap, starting with the most recent.

(More here.)

How World War III became possible

A nuclear conflict with Russia is likelier than you think

by Max Fisher on June 29, 2015, VOX

It was in August 2014 that the real danger began, and that we heard the first warnings of war. That month, unmarked Russian troops covertly invaded eastern Ukraine, where the separatist conflict had grown out of its control. The Russian air force began harassing the neighboring Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are members of NATO. The US pledged that it would uphold its commitment to defend those countries as if they were American soil, and later staged military exercises a few hundred yards from Russia's border.

Both sides came to believe that the other had more drastic intentions. Moscow is convinced the West is bent on isolating, subjugating, or outright destroying Russia. One in three Russians now believe the US may invade. Western nations worry, with reason, that Russia could use the threat of war, or provoke an actual conflict, to fracture NATO and its commitment to defend Eastern Europe. This would break the status quo order that has peacefully unified Europe under Western leadership, and kept out Russian influence, for 25 years.

Fearing the worst of one another, the US and Russia have pledged to go to war, if necessary, to defend their interests in the Eastern European borderlands. They have positioned military forces and conducted chest-thumping exercises, hoping to scare one another down. Putin, warning repeatedly that he would use nuclear weapons in a conflict, began forward-deploying nuclear-capable missiles and bombers.

Europe today looks disturbingly similar to the Europe of just over 100 years ago, on the eve of World War I. It is a tangle of military commitments and defense pledges, some of them unclear and thus easier to trigger. Its leaders have given vague signals for what would and would not lead to war. Its political tensions have become military buildups. Its nations are teetering on an unstable balance of power, barely held together by a Cold War–era alliance that no longer quite applies.

(More here.)

Bernie Sanders Draws Big Crowd to Wisconsin Rally

People cheer as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, on the stage at center, speaks during a political rally in Madison, Wis. — Associated Press

By Colleen McCain Nelson, WSJ

MADISON, Wis. – Nearly 10,000 supporters delivered a jolt of momentum to Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign Wednesday night at a supersize rally where the senator from Vermont asked his backers to help him create a political revolution.

Mr. Sanders, the upstart Democratic presidential candidate who has steadily been gaining ground in the polls but remains a distinct underdog, outlined an unabashedly liberal agenda for the raucous Wisconsin crowd, advocating a $15-an-hour minimum wage, a single-payer health-care system and free tuition at public universities.

In Madison, Mr. Sanders was greeted by a roaring crowd that filled a 10,000 seat arena to the rafters. He told supporters that this was the largest rally yet for any candidate in the 2016 presidential campaign.

“Tonight, we have made a little bit of history,” Mr. Sanders said.

Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, drew about 5,500 supporters to New York’s Roosevelt Island when she kicked off her campaign last month.

(More here.)

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Drug cops took a college kid’s savings and now 13 police departments want a cut

By Christopher Ingraham, WashPost

In February 2014, Drug Enforcement Administration task force officers at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport seized $11,000 in cash from 24-year-old college student Charles Clarke. They didn't find any guns, drugs or contraband on him. But, according to an affidavit filled out by one of the agents, the task force officers reasoned that the cash was the proceeds of drug trafficking, because Clarke was traveling on a recently-purchased one-way ticket, he was unable to provide documentation for where the money came from, and his checked baggage had an odor of marijuana. (He was a marijuana smoker.)

Clarke's cash, which says he he spent five years saving up, was seized under civil asset forfeiture, where cops are able to take cash and property from people who are never convicted of -- and in some cases, never even charged with -- a crime. The DEA maintains that asset forfeiture is an important crime-fighting tool: "By attacking the financial infrastructure of drug trafficking organizations world-wide, DEA has disrupted and dismantled major drug trafficking organizations and their supply chains, thereby improving national security and increasing the quality of life for the American public."

But the practice has become contentious, in part because agencies are generally allowed to keep a share of the cash and property they seize. In cases like Clarke's, where local and federal agents cooperate on a seizure, federal agencies typically keep at least 20 percent of the assets, while local cops split the remainder among themselves. Critics argue that this creates a profit motive and leads to "policing for profit."

Two local agencies were involved in the seizure of Clarke's cash: the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport Police, and the Covington Police Department, which is the home office of the DEA task force officer who detained and spoke with Clarke. But according to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties group now representing Clarke in court, 11 additional law enforcement agencies -- who were not involved in Clarke's case at all -- have also requested a share of Clarke's cash under the federal asset forfeiture program. They include the Kentucky State Police, the Ohio Highway Patrol, and even the Bureau of Criminal Investigations within the Ohio Attorney General's office.

(More here.)

Gov. Chris Christie’s Phony Truth-Telling


On his new website, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey portrays himself as a guy who gets attacked for “telling it like it is,” but that’s what his mom told him to do from her deathbed.

It is part of the legend Mr. Christie has carefully cultivated for many years, with startling success. He is described as “brash” and “bold,” with a certain rough charisma that his political opponents just cannot handle. “I get accused a lot of times of being too blunt and too direct and saying what’s on my mind just a little bit too loudly,” he says in the first video for his presidential campaign, showing him with a selected group of adoring voters.

It’s fundamentally nonsense. There are lines between brash and belligerent, between open and obnoxious, and, most important, between “telling it like it is” and not telling the truth. Mr. Christie crosses those lines all the time, as Tom Moran, the editorial page editor of The Star-Ledger of Newark, documented in a blistering column about Mr. Christie’s “catalog of lies.”

“Don’t misunderstand me. They all lie, and I get that,” Mr. Moran wrote of politicians in general. “But Christie does it with such audacity, and such frequency, that he stands out.”

(More here.)

The Bonds That Broke Puerto Rico


When Puerto Rico’s governor told lawmakers and citizens on Monday that the commonwealth could not pay its $72 billion in debt, many wondered how a small, seemingly low-key American island in the Caribbean could have amassed a debt big enough to crush it.

The answer lies in a confluence of factors, including American investors’ desire to avoid taxes; the mutual fund industry’s practice of competing on the basis of yield; complacency about the practice of long-term borrowing to plug holes in budgets; and laws that supposedly give bond buyers ironclad guarantees.

That brew of incentives has produced truly staggering numbers. On a per-capita basis, Puerto Rico has more than 15 times the median bond debt of the 50 states, according to Moody’s Investors Service. The governor, Alejandro García Padilla, said on Monday that at the rate the debt situation is developing, every man, woman and child on the island would owe creditors $40,000 by 2025. High unemployment means fewer resources to pay off what is owed.

(More here.)

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Works Globally to Fight Antismoking Measures

JUNE 30, 2015

KIEV, Ukraine — A parliamentary hearing was convened here in March to consider an odd remnant of Ukraine’s corrupt, pre-revolutionary government.

Three years ago, Ukraine filed an international legal challenge against Australia, over Australia’s right to enact antismoking laws on its own soil. To a number of lawmakers, the case seemed absurd, and they wanted to investigate why it was even being pursued.

When it came time to defend the tobacco industry, a man named Taras Kachka spoke up. He argued that several “fantastic tobacco companies” had bought up Soviet-era factories and modernized them, and now they were exporting tobacco to many other countries. It was in Ukraine’s national interest, he said, to support investors in the country, even though they do not sell tobacco to Australia.

Mr. Kachka was not a tobacco lobbyist or farmer or factory owner. He was the head of a Ukrainian affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, America’s largest trade group.

From Ukraine to Uruguay, Moldova to the Philippines, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its foreign affiliates have become the hammer for the tobacco industry, engaging in a worldwide effort to fight antismoking laws of all kinds, according to interviews with government ministers, lobbyists, lawmakers and public health groups in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States.

(More here.)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Bye-bye citizen overview of environmental issues in Minnesota

Why do Minnesotans put up with this?

"It’s a farce.  It’s more or less the equivalent of a courtroom where the prosecutor is also the judge."

by Alan on June 30, 2015,

On June 23rd, the MPCA [Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] “Citizens’ Board” held its last meeting, the board having been abolished by the Minnesota Legislature with the consent of Governor Mark Dayton.

Some very smart, well-informed people must have written the environmental laws of Minnesota in the 1960s and 1970s. The Citizens’ Board seems to have been designed to keep the MPCA from becoming overly bureaucratic, self-serving, and too closely tied to the interests it was supposed to regulate. These, of course, are the normal evolutionary tendencies of a regulatory agency, kept down only by constant effort. No wonder the Chamber and “big-ag,” etc, wanted the Citizens’ Board gone.

Back to the June 23rd meeting, in the basement boardroom of the MPCA, beginning at 9:00 am and ending about 6:30 pm. What I observed, having been there all day, seemed rather different from the media reports I have seen. No need, however, to take my word for anything. You can see many of the documents and watch video of the meeting here.

One substantive matter was on the agenda: A sewer project, really a big community septic system, proposed by the City of Afton. It was opposed by two other neighboring Minnesota cities, Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary’s Point, a couple of non-profit organizations, and many individual citizens. They had asked for an Environmental Impact Statement to be prepared, and for a “Contested Case.” The objectors were well represented by lawyers, technical consultants, elected officials, and citizens.

(More here.)

European Prejudice Falls Where Jews Were Attacked

European countries that were the scenes of attacks against Jews have experienced a notable drop in anti-Semitism

By Naftali Bendavid, WSJ
Updated June 30, 2015 2:21 a.m. ET

BRUSSELS—European countries that were the scenes of attacks against Jews in 2014 or 2015 have experienced a notable drop in anti-Semitism, due to increased public awareness and strong government responses, a new poll finds.

In France, 37% of the population held anti-Semitic views in a survey in May, 2014, by the Anti-Defamation League, a leading organization fighting anti-Semitism and other prejudice. Following the killing of four people in January at a kosher supermarket in Paris, that number has dropped by 20 points to 17%.

Similarly, in Belgium, where an assailant killed four people at a Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014, the proportion of those holding anti-Semitic views dropped from 27% to 21%. And in Germany, which was the site last summer of an attack on a synagogue and anti-Semitic chants at protests against the Gaza war, the number fell to 16% from 27%.

A striking difference from previous anti-Semitism in Europe has been the swift condemnations of governments from Paris to Berlin to Brussels, accompanied in some cases by the deployment of thousands of troops to protect Jewish institutions, said Abraham Foxman, the league’s national director.

(More here.)

Greece Over the Brink

Paul Krugman, NYT
JUNE 29, 2015

It has been obvious for some time that the creation of the euro was a terrible mistake. Europe never had the preconditions for a successful single currency — above all, the kind of fiscal and banking union that, for example, ensures that when a housing bubble in Florida bursts, Washington automatically protects seniors against any threat to their medical care or their bank deposits.

Leaving a currency union is, however, a much harder and more frightening decision than never entering in the first place, and until now even the Continent’s most troubled economies have repeatedly stepped back from the brink. Again and again, governments have submitted to creditors’ demands for harsh austerity, while the European Central Bank has managed to contain market panic.

But the situation in Greece has now reached what looks like a point of no return. Banks are temporarily closed and the government has imposed capital controls — limits on the movement of funds out of the country. It seems highly likely that the government will soon have to start paying pensions and wages in scrip, in effect creating a parallel currency. And next week the country will hold a referendum on whether to accept the demands of the “troika” — the institutions representing creditor interests — for yet more austerity.

Greece should vote “no,” and the Greek government should be ready, if necessary, to leave the euro.

To understand why I say this, you need to realize that most — not all, but most — of what you’ve heard about Greek profligacy and irresponsibility is false. Yes, the Greek government was spending beyond its means in the late 2000s. But since then it has repeatedly slashed spending and raised taxes. Government employment has fallen more than 25 percent, and pensions (which were indeed much too generous) have been cut sharply. If you add up all the austerity measures, they have been more than enough to eliminate the original deficit and turn it into a large surplus.

(More here.)

At the Supreme Court, a Win for Direct Democracy


IN 2000, voters in Arizona adopted a state constitutional amendment that created an independent commission to draw congressional districts. But the commission immediately faced a legal challenge: the United States Constitution gives the power to state legislatures (and to Congress) to regulate national elections — not to the voters. Can the word “legislature” in the Constitution mean voters themselves?

That question eventually came before the Supreme Court, which on Monday ruled, in a 5-to-4 decision, that the Constitution permits states to let their voters use “direct democracy” — popular votes on ballot measures, known as voter initiatives — to regulate the rules for national elections.

Ten states give commissions a role in congressional districting, though aside from Arizona, only California has a fully autonomous independent commission. But the stakes go beyond the design of election districts. In 21 states, voters can initiate legislation; in 18 states, they can initiate constitutional amendments.

In recent years, for example, voters in Washington and California have used this power to adopt a new form of primary election, known as the “top two” primary, designed to give voters more choices. If the Constitution permits only state legislatures to enact such laws (or to refuse to enact them), these kinds of voter-initiated measures would be unconstitutional.

(More here.)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Republicanism is dead. Maybe.

By Richard Cohen Opinion writer June 29 at 8:00 PM, WashPost

If you’re old enough to recall how the landslide election of Lyndon Johnson over the hapless Barry Goldwater supposedly spelled the end of the Republican Party, or how Ronald Reagan’s election amounted to a revolution that put the Democratic party on the mat until — more or less — the end of time, then you will understand my caution in saying that while the Republican Party may well survive its recent difficulty, Republicanism itself is dead. I think.

The recent difficulties consist of taking the wrong side in the great health-care debate, not only opposing what came to be called Obamacare, but also refusing to produce an alternative. People are worried about their health, and the party comes up with buffoons such as Sarah Palin who invents death panels and trivializes the whole debate. Obamacare is not only the law of the land, but it is also the inevitable next step toward universal health care — just like many countries have, even the poorer ones.

The party’s other recent difficulty is being on the wrong side of just about every social issue you can think of. The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the land, and Republican after Republican stepped forward to denounce the decision and prattle on about what God intended — as if any of them know.

(More here.)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jeb Bush dogged by decades of questions about business deals

By Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Tom Hamburger June 28 at 7:06 PM, WashPost

In early 1989, seven weeks after his father moved into the White House, Jeb Bush took a trip to Nigeria.

Nearly 100,000 Nigerians turned out to see him over four days as he accompanied the executives of a Florida company called Moving Water Industries, which had just retained Bush to market the firm’s pumps. Escorted by the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, Bush met with the nation’s political and religious leaders as part of an MWI effort to land a deal that would be worth $80 million.

“My father is the president of the United States, duly elected by people that have an interest in improving ties everywhere,” he told a group of dignitaries in a private meeting, according to a video documenting the visit. “The fact that you have done this today is something I will report back to him very quickly when I get back to the United States.”

Just days after Jeb Bush returned home, President George H.W. Bush sent a note to Nigerian President Ibrahim Babangida, thanking him for hosting his son. “We are grateful to you,” President Bush wrote on White House stationery.

(More here.)

After Tunisia, Kuwait and France we should not be afraid to call evil by its name

The sheer sadism of Islamic State cannot be explained by politics alone. It comes from something deeper and darker.

Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian
Last modified on Sunday 28 June 2015 19.25 EDT

In France, in Tunisia, in Kuwait – horror upon horror, in a single day. It played out like some kind of gruesome auction, each atrocity bidding against the others for our appalled attention. The opening offer came near Lyon, where a factory was attacked and, more shocking, a severed head was found on top of a gate, and a decapitated body nearby. The French president said the corpse had been inscribed with a message.

From the Tunisian resort of Sousse, holidaymakers tweeted terrified pictures from their barricaded hotel rooms, describing how they had fled from the beach after sounds they had assumed were a daytime fireworks display turned out to be the opening gunshots of a massacre. From Kuwait City, as if to top the rival bids, a suicide bomber walked into a mosque packed with 2,000 people and pressed the button that he hoped would send scores to their deaths.

Each of these acts pulled our gaze from the event its perpetrators had surely hoped would trump all others. On Tuesday an Isis video – “snuff movie” would be the more accurate term – showed five Muslim men, each wearing a Guantánamo-style red jumpsuit, packed into a cage and lowered into a swimming pool. State-of-the-art underwater cameras recorded the men’s dying minutes, the thrashing and flailing as they drowned. (I rely here on reports: my small stance against the so-called Islamic State’s propaganda war is to refuse to watch its propaganda.)

What are we to make of these events? What are we to do with what we have witnessed? Experts will look for connections, for common authorship. There will be claims of responsibility. Islamic State has already sought credit for the deaths in Kuwait. There will be analysis aplenty of IS’s position, of the global response, of the nature of contemporary terrorism.

(More here.)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

How Not to Be Misled by Data

Numbers can deceive just as surely as words—so here’s a guide to avoid being led astray.

By Jordan Ellenberg, WSJ
June 26, 2015 10:16 a.m. ET

A number has a way of ending an argument. What can you say to it? There’s no nuance, no room for interpretation—it is what it is.

Unfortunately, numbers turn out to be a lot like words: powerful and illuminating but capable of being deployed to bad ends. Here’s a little manual of some of the most common ways that data, for all its precision, can take you down a wrong path.

Failure to compare. Last fall, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo crowed, “The news that our unemployment rate has dropped to its lowest since 2008 is proof that New York is on the move.” What Mr. Cuomo said about the unemployment rate was true: Only 6.2% of New Yorkers were unemployed in September 2014. But he didn’t mention another number: the overall U.S. unemployment rate, which stood at 5.9%—also the lowest since 2008. If New York is on the move, it is moving at the same speed as the country as a whole. A number by itself is often meaningless; it is the comparison between numbers that carries the force. (Gov. Cuomo’s office didn’t respond to a request to comment.)

My favorite example of this lapse came from the blogger Vani Hari (aka “Food Babe”), who warned her air-traveling readers in 2011, “The air that is pumped in [to an airplane cabin] isn’t pure oxygen either, it’s mixed with nitrogen, sometimes almost at 50%.” Almost 50% adulteration sounds terrible—until you remember that the natural proportion of nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere is 78%. (Yvette d’Entremont wrote about the mistake on Gawker; Ms. Hari has pulled down the offending post.)

(More here.)

ISIS and the Lonely Young American

JUNE 27, 2015

This is about how ISIS recruits new members around the world. By Poh Si Teng and Ben Laffin, Publish Date June 27, 2015.

Alex, a 23-year-old Sunday school teacher and babysitter, was trembling with excitement the day she told her Twitter followers that she had converted to Islam.

For months, she had been growing closer to a new group of friends online — the most attentive she had ever had — who were teaching her what it meant to be a Muslim. Increasingly, they were telling her about the Islamic State and how the group was building a homeland in Syria and Iraq where the holy could live according to God’s law.

One in particular, Faisal, had become her nearly constant companion, spending hours each day with her on Twitter, Skype and email, painstakingly guiding her through the fundamentals of the faith.

But when she excitedly told him that she had found a mosque just five miles from the home she shared with her grandparents in rural Washington State, he suddenly became cold.

(More here.)

Reasons to Despair in France

U.S. eavesdropping? The French are too underwhelmed by their politicians to care.

By John Vinocur, WS
June 25, 2015 3:32 p.m. ET

It’s to France’s credit that its government is handling with modest indignation the WikiLeaks publication Tuesday of documents purportedly showing how the U.S. has spied on French presidents and other leaders of the country.

You’d think the French were following a special protocol of reasonableness. They’ve dismissed calls for retaliation and are seen to regard the so-called revelations as trivial. The weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, a snarky political gossip sheet, often does better.

At the height of French displeasure, America’s behavior is described as “unacceptable.” That’s limited low-rung misery on the ladder of diplomatic confrontation. The surest gauge of its innocuousness is President Barack Obama’s use of the word to characterize Washington’s determination to block Iran’s goal of nuclear weapons.

France, happily, is not Germany in its reactions to the Americans’ professional eavesdropping. A little spying among friends—the French are excellent spooks—brings forth nothing from Paris like Berlin’s repeated outpourings of righteousness and its claim to world leadership in victimization by Washington.

(More here.)

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Roberts Court’s Reality Check

Linda Greenhouse, NYT
JUNE 25, 2015

Sometimes the Supreme Court moves in mysterious ways. The health care decision was not one of those times.

A case that six months ago seemed to offer the court’s conservatives a low-risk opportunity to accomplish what they almost did in 2012 — kill the Affordable Care Act — became suffused with danger, for the millions of newly insured Americans, of course, but also for the Supreme Court itself. Ideology came face to face with reality, and reality prevailed.

The 6-to-3 vote to reject the latest challenge means that one or perhaps two of the justices who grabbed this case back in November had to have jumped ship. Here’s why: It takes at least four votes to add a case to the court’s docket. Given that the decision to hear this case, King v. Burwell, was entirely gratuitous — the Obama administration had won in the lower court, and an adverse decision in a different appeals court had been vacated — we can assume the votes came from the four justices who nearly managed to strangle the law three years ago in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius.

These four were Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Maybe Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., excoriated in right-wing circles for having saved the statute with a late vote switch last time, also agreed to hear the new case. Or maybe his four erstwhile allies were trying to put the heat on him. It’s a delicious question without, at least for now, an answer.

(More here.)

Measuring Health Insurance Subsidies’ Success

JUNE 25, 2015

WASHINGTON — The Affordable Care Act, saved by the Supreme Court for the second time in three years, has changed the fabric of health care in America, providing treatment and coverage to millions of the uninsured while transforming the insurance and hospital industries. But the law still faces stiff political resistance in many quarters and could yet return as an explosive issue in the 2016 elections.

The impact of the law appears most clearly in the shrinking number of uninsured Americans. In 2014, the number of people without health insurance coverage fell to 36 million from 44.8 million in 2013, a decline of nearly 20 percent, according to data released this week by the National Center for Health Statistics.

That decline was made possible in part by federal insurance subsidies, which the court upheld on Thursday, and by the expansion of Medicaid in more than half of the states, which was financed under the law.

Health insurance companies have reinvented themselves, adopting new business models. The law requires them to accept anyone who applies for insurance and prohibits them from charging sick people more, as they did for decades. Insurers not only survived but are thriving, and the industry is being swept by interest in mergers as companies try to cut costs and premiums while preserving their profits.

(More here.)

This is how you become a white supremacist

I spent seven years leading hate groups and getting other angry white people to join.

By Arno Michaelis June 25, WashPost
Arno Michaelis is the author of "My Life After Hate."

Since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of being a warrior. I learned to read early and would sit in the library poring over books of Greek and Norse myths, gravitating to the parts about monsters and violence. In middle school, I played Dungeons & Dragons, fancying myself as an unstoppable fighter who made his own rules. Art was equally as fascinating as violence, and the two combined in my drawings of battle scenes from ancient Vikings cracking skulls to spaceships blowing each other to bits.

I grew up in an alcoholic family and developed an adrenaline habit that drove me to lash out at the world in increasingly drastic ways. By the time I turned 16, I was an alcoholic and very comfortable with hate and violence. I hated the town I lived in. I hated my school and most of the teachers and other kids. I hated the police. I discovered racist skinhead music through the punk scene and learned that the swastika is an effective way of angering others — the hostility I radiated was reflected by the people around me, validating the paranoid ideology that had become my identity. Eventually I became a founding member of the Northern Hammerskins, which went on to become part of Hammerskin Nation.

(More here.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Minnesota is 2015's Top State for Business

Scott Cohn, CNBC

Leave it to the North Star State to chart a new course to competitiveness.

Minnesota is America's Top State for Business in 2015, reaching the pinnacle of success by way of a much different route than our eight previous winners.

Minnesota scores 1,584 out of a possible 2,500 points, ranking in the top half for all but two of our 10 categories of competitiveness. But what may be most instructive are the categories where Minnesota does not do well. Both involve cost. Indeed, the birthplace of Spam, Scotch Tape and the supercomputer marks a new first this year. Never since we began rating the states in 2007 has a high-tax, high-wage, union-friendly state made it to the top of our rankings. But Minnesota does so well in so many other areas—like education and quality of life—that its cost disadvantages fade away.

As always, we scored all 50 states in more than 60 metrics in 10 broad categories of competitiveness. You can read more about our methodology here.

This year's categories and point values are:
  • Workforce (400 points)
  • Cost of Doing Business (350 points)
  • Infrastructure (350 points)
  • Economy (340 points)
  • Quality of Life (325 points)
  • Technology & Innovation (250 points)
  • Education (200 points)
  • Business Friendliness (160 points)
  • Cost of Living (75 points)
  • Access to Capital (50 points)
(More here.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Council of Conservative Citizens Promotes White Primacy, G.O.P. Ties

JUNE 22, 2015

The Council of Conservative Citizens opposes “all efforts to mix the races,” and believes “that the American people and government should remain European in their composition and character.” It would severely restrict immigration, abolish affirmative action and dismantle the “imperial judiciary” that produced, among other rulings, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that integrated American education.

Those are among the core principles of the council, a Missouri-based organization with a long history of promoting white primacy. Now the massacre of nine black parishioners in a Charleston, S.C., church has propelled the organization, which in recent years seemed in decline, back onto the national stage and embroiled the Republican Party in new questions about its ties to the group.

Many of the themes promoted on the council’s website resonate through an online manifesto apparently written by Dylann Roof, who has been charged in the killings last week in Charleston. The manifesto traced the motivation for the shootings to a twisted epiphany: a Google search that led to the council’s website, where “pages upon pages of brutal black on White murders” were tallied and described.

“I have never been the same since that day,” the manifesto attributed to Mr. Roof said.

Since it rose in the 1980s from the ashes of the old and unabashedly racist White Citizens’ Councils, the Council of Conservative Citizens has drifted in and out of notoriety. But it is clearly back in: Last weekend, three Republican presidential candidates — Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky — announced that they were returning or giving away donations from the council’s president, Earl Holt III.

(More here.)

Israel asking US for 50% increase in next defense package

Israeli soldiers patrol near an Iron Dome defense system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in the Golan Heights, on January 20, 2015. (AFP/Jack Guez)

Raise would bring annual military funding to $4.5 billion; US, Israeli officials in talks for 10-year deal

By JTA May 26, 2015, 10:22 pm 167, The Times of Isreal

WASHINGTON — Israel reportedly wants the US to increase its annual defense assistance package by half, to an average $4.5 billion.

Defense News reported this weekend that Israel and US officials have in recent months begun negotiations on the next 10-year aid package.

The previous package, negotiated by the George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert governments in 2007, averaged $3 billion of assistance each year, for a total of $30 billion, from 2007-2017.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants that to increase to $42-45 billion over the 2018-2028 period, Defense News reported, adding that President Barack Obama during his March 2013 visit to Israel “endorsed in principle” that range.

Defense News quoted “US and Israeli experts” as saying that the amount would be separate from any package the United States offered Israel as compensation for the Iran nuclear deal now being negotiated between Iran and the major powers.

(More here. LP note: How about $0? I'd rather have that $4.5 billion for U.S. schools, infrastructure, health care, anti-poverty programs and tax breaks for America's disadvantaged.)