Sunday, July 27, 2014

Tax Avoidance du Jour: Inversion

Corporate Artful Dodgers

Paul Krugman, NYT
JULY 27, 2014

In recent decisions, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court has made clear its view that corporations are people, with all the attendant rights. They are entitled to free speech, which in their case means spending lots of money to bend the political process to their ends. They are entitled to religious beliefs, including those that mean denying benefits to their workers. Up next, the right to bear arms?

There is, however, one big difference between corporate persons and the likes of you and me: On current trends, we’re heading toward a world in which only the human people pay taxes.

We’re not quite there yet: The federal government still gets a tenth of its revenue from corporate profits taxation. But it used to get a lot more — a third of revenue came from profits taxes in the early 1950s, a quarter or more well into the 1960s. Part of the decline since then reflects a fall in the tax rate, but mainly it reflects ever-more-aggressive corporate tax avoidance — avoidance that politicians have done little to prevent.

Which brings us to the tax-avoidance strategy du jour: “inversion.” This refers to a legal maneuver in which a company declares that its U.S. operations are owned by its foreign subsidiary, not the other way around, and uses this role reversal to shift reported profits out of American jurisdiction to someplace with a lower tax rate.

(More here.)

Who Bears More Responsibility for the War in Gaza?

By John B. Judis, TNR

Like almost all conflicts that have occurred in Israel, this latest war in Gaza has provoked a furious debate. Was Israel’s ground and air assault on the Gaza Strip justified by Hamas’s rocket attacks? Or were Hamas’s rocket attacks a justifiable response to Israel’s arrest of hundreds of Hamas supporters and officials? I am not going to defend Hamas’s charter, which describes Israel and the occupied territories as an “Islamic Waqf,” nor its strategy of hurling rockets at Israel, but I am also not going to defend Israel’s response. What matters to me, and what is often ignored, is the overall moral and political context in which this and past conflicts have occurred.

Israel is one of the world’s last colonial powers, and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are its unruly subjects. Like many past anti-colonial movements, Hamas and Fatah are deeply flawed and have sometimes poorly represented their peoples, and sometimes unnecessarily provoked the Israelis and used tactics that violate the rules of war. But the Israeli government has continued to expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to rule harshly over its subjects, while maintaining a ruinous blockade on Gaza. That’s the historical backdrop to the events now taking place.

The Occupation

Israel’s founding in 1948 began to address the terrible wrongs that Europe’s Jews had suffered. It provided a state and what seemed like a safe haven. But Palestine’s Arabs, who had made up the overwhelming majority of the region, and who believed after the promises of World War I that they would gain their own state, came instead under Jordanian and Egyptian rule after Israel won its independence. And after the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel annexed Jerusalem, occupied the West Bank and Gaza, and turned the Palestinians who lived there into colonial subjects. The Israeli government encouraged and subsidized Jewish settlements in the territories in violation of the fourth Geneva Convention that prohibits an occupying power from transferring its population into the territories it has seized.

(More here.)

No Time to Think

By KATE MURPHY, NYT, JULY 25, 2014

ONE of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is “super busy,” “crazy busy” or “insanely busy.” Nobody is just “fine” anymore.

When people aren’t super busy at work, they are crazy busy exercising, entertaining or taking their kids to Chinese lessons. Or maybe they are insanely busy playing fantasy football, tracing their genealogy or churning their own butter.

And if there is ever a still moment for reflective thought — say, while waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic — out comes the mobile device. So it’s worth noting a study published last month in the journal Science, which shows how far people will go to avoid introspection.

“We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy,” said Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study. “No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”

The results surprised him and have created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.

(More here.)

The boggle threshold

Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins

T.M. Luhrman, NYT
JULY 26, 2014

STANFORD, Calif. — NOT long ago, I was at an event in which many people, most of them professors, were arguing for the existence of things that many of their colleagues did not believe in. Someone gave a talk in which he explained that he knew that U.F.O.s existed even though all the best evidence for them turned out to be false. Others spoke sympathetically about shamanic healing, reincarnation and near-death visions. But then a woman described her research on what it was like to be dead, which she had based on reports from mediums who claimed to have had the dead speak through them. She cited, as evidence of the benevolence in the afterlife, an Anglican priest, Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, who wrote a book attacking spiritualism while alive but who, she said, recanted the book after his death in 1914. The group stared at her in disbelief. This, they felt, was flabby-minded.

In a delightful account of the British Society for Psychical Research (a remarkable group in its turn of-the-last-century heyday, and whose presidents have included William James, Nobel laureates and fellows of the Royal Society), Renée Haynes, a writer and historian who died in 1994, introduced the concept of the “boggle threshold”: “the level above which the mind boggles when faced with some new fact or report or idea.” Haynes herself was fine, she wrote, with telepathy; hesitant about reincarnation; but appalled that a woman had flown across the Atlantic to have her torn “aura” repaired by a guru expert in invisible mending.

We all have these boggle lines. Praying in an ancient language you don’t understand is fine; praying in tongues (not a human language, but thought to be a spiritual one) anathema. A god who has a human son whom he allows to be killed is natural; a god with eight arms and a lusty sexual appetite is weird. You believe in the Holy Spirit, but you draw the line at exorcism. You take for granted that Christ will come again to earth, but riding on a white horse and wearing a robe dipped in blood? That’s obviously a prophet’s besotted fantasy.

(More here.)

In Israel and Gaza, extremism run amok

Aflame

By David Remnick, New Yorker

Because memory, particularly historical memory, fails unfailingly, this summer feels like a uniquely horrific season of dissolution and blood. “You name it, the world is aflame,” Gary Samore, a former national-security aide in the Obama Administration, told Peter Baker, of the Times, the other day. “We always have a mix of complicated interests. That’s not unusual. What’s unusual is there’s this outbreak of violence and instability everywhere.”

The supposed tranquillity of earlier seasons is almost always an artifact of distance. And yet Samore’s “everywhere” is forgivable hyperbole. In eastern Ukraine, where hundreds of corpses, and a dozen or so planes, lay shattered in fields of wheat and sunflowers, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear his intention to base his legitimacy at home on defiance abroad. In Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, President Goodluck Jonathan’s government appears powerless to stop Boko Haram, which has kidnapped hundreds of girls to demonstrate its pious opposition to the values of secularism and education. The men of ISIS, a radical Islamic force with origins in Al Qaeda, have planted their black flag over swaths of eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. Earlier this year, when President Obama was asked how he could claim that Al Qaeda had been “decimated” when jihadi flags were now aloft in Falluja, he resorted to a blithe formulation. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” the President told this magazine. The tone at the White House is no longer quite so unalarmed.

(More here.)

Taliban Making Military Gains in Afghanistan

By AZAM AHMED, NYT
JULY 26, 2014

MAHMUD RAQI, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters are scoring early gains in several strategic areas near the capital this summer, inflicting heavy casualties and casting new doubt on the ability of Afghan forces to contain the insurgency as the United States moves to complete its withdrawal of combat troops, according to Afghan officials and local elders.

The Taliban have found success beyond their traditional strongholds in the rural south and are now dominating territory near crucial highways and cities that surround Kabul, the capital, in strategic provinces like Kapisa and Nangarhar.

Their advance has gone unreported because most American forces have left the field and officials in Kabul have largely refused to talk about it. The Afghan ministries have not released casualty statistics since an alarming rise in army and police deaths last year.

At a time when an election crisis is threatening the stability of the government, the Taliban’s increasingly aggressive campaign is threatening another crucial facet of the American withdrawal plan, full security by Afghan forces this year.

(More here.)

Pentagon Plan Would Help Ukraine Target Rebel Missiles

By DAVID E. SANGER and ERIC SCHMITT, NYT
JULY 26, 2014

The Pentagon and American intelligence agencies are developing plans that would enable the Obama administration to provide specific locations of surface-to-air missiles controlled by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine so the Ukrainian government could target them for destruction, American officials said.

But the proposal has not yet been debated in the White House, a senior administration official said. It is unclear whether President Obama, who has already approved limited intelligence sharing with Ukraine, will agree to give more precise information about potential military targets, a step that would involve the United States more deeply in the conflict.

Already, the question of what kind of intelligence support to give the Ukrainian government has become part of a larger debate within the administration about how directly to confront President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and how big a role Washington should take in trying to stop Russia’s rapid delivery of powerful weapons to eastern Ukraine.

At the core of the debate, said several officials — who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the policy deliberations are still in progress — is whether the American goal should be simply to shore up a Ukrainian government reeling from the separatist attacks, or to send a stern message to Mr. Putin by aggressively helping Ukraine target the missiles Russia has provided. Those missiles have taken down at least five aircraft in the past 10 days, including Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

(More here.)

The Public Lightens Up About Weed

By JULIET LAPIDOS, NYT, JULY 26, 2014

When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he admitted that he had “experimented with marijuana,” but said he “didn’t like it,” “didn’t inhale it” and “never tried it again.” Whatever the accuracy of that statement, he was accused of pandering to the marijuana-wary voting public.

Flash forward to the early stages of the 2008 presidential campaign. At an event in Iowa, then-candidate Barack Obama disclosed that he had not only smoked marijuana as a young man, but inhaled it, too. “That was the point,” he said. The public responded with a shrug.

Between the two campaigns, Americans had loosened up considerably. By the time Mr. Obama was wooing voters in Iowa, Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” slogan was a relic of a fustier era, and “Weeds,” a comedy about a widowed mother who sells marijuana to support her family, was on TV. Few people remembered Judge Douglas Ginsburg, who in 1987 had to withdraw from consideration as a Supreme Court justice after admitting that he had used marijuana while a professor at Harvard Law School.

Seventy-eight percent of Americans thought marijuana should be illegal in 1991. That figure fell to 57 percent in 2008, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2013, for the first time in over four decades of polling on the issue, prohibition was a minority position. Fifty-two percent said they favored legalizing marijuana use; 45 percent were opposed.

(More here.)

In Hunt for Red Abalone, Divers Face Risks and Poachers Face the Law

Prized but Perilous Catch

By JOHN BRANCH, NYT
JULY 25, 2014

FORT BRAGG, Calif. — Every year, as steady as the tides, lifeless bodies are pulled from the cold, restless water along the rugged coastline north of San Francisco.

Most of the victims are middle-aged men. They wear black wet suits, usually hooded. They are often found in small coves framed by crescents of jagged rocks. An abandoned float tube sometimes bobs about nearby. Almost without exception, the victims are found wearing weighted belts that help them sink.

Sometimes the bodies are discovered by friends nearby. If the fog is not too thick, the victims might be spotted from the towering bluffs above, where lifeguards patrol dozens of miles of desolate coast and armed game wardens spy for poachers. Many of the bodies are plucked from the swells by a search-and-rescue helicopter crew accustomed to making daring rope rescues and recoveries several times a year.

The bodies are those of abalone divers.

(More here.)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

NYT: The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana

Repeal Prohibition, Again

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD, NY

It took 13 years for the United States to come to its senses and end Prohibition, 13 years in which people kept drinking, otherwise law-abiding citizens became criminals and crime syndicates arose and flourished. It has been more than 40 years since Congress passed the current ban on marijuana, inflicting great harm on society just to prohibit a substance far less dangerous than alcohol.

The federal government should repeal the ban on marijuana.

We reached that conclusion after a great deal of discussion among the members of The Times’s Editorial Board, inspired by a rapidly growing movement among the states to reform marijuana laws.

There are no perfect answers to people’s legitimate concerns about marijuana use. But neither are there such answers about tobacco or alcohol, and we believe that on every level — health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues — the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization. That will put decisions on whether to allow recreational or medicinal production and use where it belongs — at the state level.

(More here.)

The Typical Household, Now Worth a Third Less

By ANNA BERNASEK, NYT, JULY 26, 2014

Economic inequality in the United States has been receiving a lot of attention. But it’s not merely an issue of the rich getting richer. The typical American household has been getting poorer, too.

The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline, according to a study financed by the Russell Sage Foundation. Those are the figures for a household at the median point in the wealth distribution — the level at which there are an equal number of households whose worth is higher and lower. But during the same period, the net worth of wealthy households increased substantially.

The Russell Sage study also examined net worth at the 95th percentile. (For households at that level, 94 percent of the population had less wealth and 4 percent had more.) It found that for this well-do-do slice of the population, household net worth increased 14 percent over the same 10 years. Other research, by economists like Edward Wolff at New York University, has shown even greater gains in wealth for the richest 1 percent of households.

For households at the median level of net worth, much of the damage has occurred since the start of the last recession in 2007. Until then, net worth had been rising for the typical household, although at a slower pace than for households in higher wealth brackets. But much of the gain for many typical households came from the rising value of their homes. Exclude that housing wealth and the picture is worse: Median net worth began to decline even earlier.

(More here.)

What happens when extremism becomes mainstream?

The Existential Battle for the Soul of the GOP

By Norm Ornstein, National Journal
July 23, 2014

The most interesting, and important, dynamic in American politics today is the existential struggle going on in the Republican Party between the establishment and the insurgents—or to be more accurate, between the hard-line bedrock conservatives (there are only trace elements of the old-line center-right bloc, much less moderates) and the radicals.

Of course, tugs-of-war between establishment forces and ideological wings are nothing new with our political parties. They have been a continuing factor for many decades. The Republican Party had deep-seated struggles between its Progressive wing, led by Teddy Roosevelt and Robert La Follette, and its conservative establishment, led by William Howard Taft and House Speaker "Uncle Joe" Cannon, going back to the turn of the 20th century.

The Progressives succeeded in stripping Speaker Cannon of his dictatorial powers in 1910, and TR's willingness to bolt the GOP and run in 1912 as a Progressive on the Bull Moose Party line killed Taft's chances of winning and elected Democrat Woodrow Wilson. The struggles continued with moderates Wendell Wilkie and Tom Dewey battling Taft's progeny Robert through the 1940s. And, of course, the insurgents' struggles continued through Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Reagan first moved into national politics in 1968, with an abortive challenge to centrist Richard Nixon, who won and governed in the middle on domestic policy, promoting liberal social policies on welfare and health reform. Reagan reemerged in 1976, and his foray against centrist President Ford cost Ford the election—but Reagan's own election as president in 1980 led to an era of relatively pragmatic center-right policy-making. At the same time, however, the ongoing regional changes in the country were eliminating the bases of moderate and liberal Republicans and moving the GOP center of gravity to a lily-white and hard-line base in the South and rural West.

Democrats have had their own battles. The radical populist William Jennings Bryan won control (and lost the White House three times) around the turn of the century. But the victory of the establishment with Woodrow Wilson ushered in an era of relative calm. However, a Democratic Party built on two disparate wings—Southern rural conservatives determined to maintain segregation, Northern urban liberals determined to deploy and maintain the New Deal—had an uneasy alliance that enabled the party to keep a hammerlock on Congress for decades but began to unravel in the 1960s with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

(More here.)

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.)