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Archive for May 2013

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Broken Economy

America's Ten Biggest Economics Mistakes from the Depression to the Recession

May 31st 2013

Click to select Image

I have just finished teaching a graduate course on the management of the U.S. economy from the Great Depression to the Great Recession. Given that economic crises bookended the syllabus, student interest in the review session unsurprisingly focused on discussing macroeconomic policy errors more than successes.

This set me thinking as to what I would adjudge the ten greatest economic policy errors from the late 1920s to the present. My list and rationale appear below. But first some caveats.

Such a listing tends to focus on short-term rather than long-term consequences because the latter are more difficult to track and link to specific policies. It can also be difficult to separate policy effects from broader structural movements in the U.S. and world economies that would have produced similar outcomes anyway. Furthermore, judgements about whether policy outcomes are good or bad reflect the values of the assessor -- people with different political views to mine would likely produce a different list. Finally, a list of failures has a pathological focus on economic sickness. It tends to overlook the reality that the American economy has been broadly healthy for a good many of the last eighty-plus years. But maybe a list of policy successes that generated and sustained prosperity can be a subject for a future blog. In the meantime, here’s my take on policy failures in ascending order of magnitude: Read more ..

The Nanotechnology Edge

Breakthrough Provides Tools Control to Arrangement of Nano-Particles

May 31st 2013

Click to select Image

Leading nanoscientists created beautiful, tiled patterns with flat nanocrystals, but they were left with a mystery: Why did some sets of crystals arrange themselves in an alternating, herringbone style? To find out, they turned to experts in computer simulation at the University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The result gives nanotechnology researchers a new tool for controlling how objects one-millionth the size of a grain of sand arrange themselves into useful materials—and a means to discover the rest of the tool chest. A paper on the research is published online in Nature Chemistry.

"The excitement in this is not in the herringbone pattern, it's about the coupling of experiment and modeling, and how that approach lets us take on a very hard problem," said Christopher Murray, the Richard Perry University Professor and professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. Murray's group is renowned for making nanocrystals and arranging them into larger crystal superstructures. Read more ..

The New Egypt

An Egyptian Summer of Discontent Follows the Arab Spring

May 31st 2013

Jump at Cops

Due to a moribund economy, fuel and food shortages, and a lack of political opportunities, Egypt faces a tumultuous summer, and conditions will likely continue to deteriorate thereafter. While Washington should encourage Cairo to undertake necessary political and economic reforms that might calm the situation and improve governance, the Obama administration should concentrate on preserving vital strategic interests in the event of renewed upheaval.

A summer of shortages

Since Egypt’s 2011 revolution, persistent political uncertainty and plummeting domestic security have undermined foreign investment and harmed the country’s once-vibrant tourism industry. According to the Interior Ministry, the past year has witnessed a 120 percent increase in murders, 350 percent increase in robberies, and 145 percent jump in kidnappings. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Military Implications of Hezbollah's Declaration of War in Syria

May 31st 2013


Hezbollah's commitment to the Syrian conflict will likely change the course of the war.

On May 25, Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah made what amounts to a declaration of war against the Syrian revolution. He committed his group to defeating the rebellion and preserving the regime of Bashar al-Assad, declaring that "Syria is the resistance's main supporter, and the resistance cannot stand still and let takfiris [extremist Sunnis] break its backbone."

No one can fault him for lack of clarity; this was not a speech cloaked in ambiguity. Assuming he follows through on his commitment to protect Assad's regime, both the speech and Hezbollah actions already underway in Syria could profoundly affect the war's military course, the security situation in Lebanon, and the group's military contest with Israel.

The Battle for Syria

U.S. and Germany Align Against Russia on Syria Imbroglio

May 31st 2013

Medvedev and Assad
Vladimir Medvedev and Basha al-Assad

The United States and Germany are urging Russia not to provide the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with advanced anti-aircraft missiles. After talks in Washington on May 31, Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said any Russian arms supplies to Syria could prolong the country's civil war.

Kerry also said a Russian transfer of the S-300 air defense system to Syria would put Israel's security at risk. "It is not helpful to have the S-300 transferred to the region while you are trying to organize this peace and create peace. It is not helpful to have a lot of other ammunition and other supplies overtly going in - not just from the Russians, and they are supplying that kind of thing, but also from the Iranians and Hezbollah," said Kerry.

Westerwelle called weapons deliveries to the Assad regime "totally wrong." He also said the transfers may hurt chances of getting the Syrian government and the opposition into peace talks that were tentatively planned for Geneva next month. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Keystone Builder 'Extremely Confident' Obama Will Approve it

May 31st 2013

Keystone Pipeline

The chief executive for Keystone XL oil sands pipeline builder TransCanada Corp. says he is “extremely confident” the White House will approve the project. TransCanada Corp. CEO Russ Girling said he hopes the State Department will complete its environmental review of the Canada-to-Texas pipeline by mid-summer. Foggy Bottom would then need to make a determination of national interest for the project, which Girling said he hopes would take no longer than 90 days.

“I have never been involved in a process that has lasted this long. We're not reinventing the wheel here,” he said, according to excerpts of an interview with Bloomberg Government’s Capitol Gains that will air Sunday. “I remain extremely confident that we'll get the green light to build this pipeline." Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syria And Russia’s S-300 Missile System

May 31st 2013


Russia's S-300 missile system could dramatically change the stakes in the Syrian conflict if it is sent to Damascus, which Russia has signed a contract to do. RFE/RL lays out five things to know about the air-defense system.

What are the capabilities of the S-300 system?
The S-300 missile system is designed to shoot down aircraft and missiles at a range of 5-to-150 kilometers. That gives it the ability to destroy not only attackers in Syrian airspace but also any attackers inside Israel. It can track and strike multiple targets simultaneously at altitudes ranging from 10 meters to 27,000 meters.

"The S-300 is Russia's top-of-the-range air-defense system," says Robert Hewson, the London-based editor of "IHS Jane's Air-Launched Weapons." "It is a surface-to-air missile system that's capable of shooting down any modern combat aircraft or missiles, including cruise missiles. In a way, it is the Russian equivalent to the U.S. Patriot system. And what it does for Syria is it adds a whole new level of capability on top of the existing Syrian air defenses. Syria already has a lot of Russian [surface-to-air] missiles, but the S-300 would be the most advanced." Read more ..

The Way We Are

Goats Keep South Sudan Kids Off Street

May 31st 2013


It's not the usual way to reintegrate kids who have been on the streets into the group dynamic of family life, but in South Sudan they're giving kids goats for just that reason. And it's working, officials say.

This week, the Social Welfare Ministry and NGO Veterinarians Without Borders, which goes by the French acronym VSF, gave 200 goats to 85 kids as part of a VSF goats-to-kids program.

Since it was launched last year, the program has helped to halve the number of street children in Northern Bahr el Ghazal from around 300 to 150. The youngsters seem to quickly get used to rearing and handling their caprine charges and use the goats to help ease their family’s financial burdens by selling the kids and products made from or produced from the goats. Read more ..

The Edge of Healthcare

WHO Urges Ban on Tobacco Advertising

May 31st 2013

cigarette burning

May 31 is World No Tobacco Day. The message from the World Health Organization to governments around the globe is to ban  tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. That's to try and prevent children from taking up smoking and to encourage smokers to quit. Tobacco kills nearly six million people every year, and the numbers are only expected to rise.

Terrie Hall is a former smoker. Her grandchildren will never know what she sounded like before she got cancer. She appears in a public service announcement: "If you're a smoker, I have a tip for you. Make a video of yourself before all this happens. Read a children's story book, or sing a lullaby.  I wish I had."

Hall is part of a new campaign from The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that features stories from former smokers. Bill Busse is another former smoker. "Last year they amputated my left leg because of poor circulation.  After surgery, I reached down and found that my foot wasn’t there anymore.  That was the day I quit," he recalled. The campaign has renewed interest in quitting, according to Dr. Thomas Frieden of the CDC. "Quitting smoking is the single most effective thing you can do to improve your health," he said. Read more ..

Obama's Second Term

A Hidden Tax in Obamacare

May 31st 2013


The central provisions of the Affordable Care Act require younger and healthier Americans to buy insurance policies that will, in essence, subsidize the health care of older and sicker Americans. But one of Obamacare's hidden taxes — a new limit on contributions to health flexible spending accounts, or FSAs — will hit older and chronically ill individuals hardest.

Starting this year, the health care law imposes a $2,500 annual cap on an individual's contribution to an FSA that is part of an employer's "cafeteria" benefits plan. Such contributions, diverted directly from one's paycheck, are not subject to federal income and payroll taxes. The money in an FSA can then be used to pay for qualified medical expenses such as deductibles, co-insurance and co-payments, as well as services not covered by insurance.

Before Obamacare, there were no FSA contribution limits for workers under federal tax law. Employers set their own annual limits, and many chose amounts well above $2,500. The federal government, as one example, allowed FSA contributions of up to $5,000 a year. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Iran's Election: The Men Who May Be Also-Rans

May 31st 2013

Iran Missiles

In the span of the past week, the field of candidates for Iran’s presidential election has winnowed from 686 to 8, thanks to the theocratic system's heavy-handed vetting process, and now media speculation is converging even more narrowly around a single apparent front-runner— nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. And yet as I pointed out in a previous post, the drumbeat of inevitability surrounding Jalili may well be overstated, at least for the moment. Much can happen over the course of the next 15 days, and recent Iranian history suggests that it’s worth the effort to learn a bit about the longshots. In the Islamic Republic, today’s unknown may be tomorrow’s upset winner of the presidency.

In addition to Jalili, the field includes 7 other political figures intended to satisfy various constituencies and present a veneer of competition and diversity to a deeply cynical and depoliticized public. There are at least two serious contenders who stand a credible prospect of gaining momentum in this race; two additional candidates who, despite limited public traction, could credibly fill out the office of the presidency while ensuring its absolute impotence; two candidates whose inclusion reflects a grudging nod toward assuaging relevant political constituencies; and finally, an independent candidate who is a political entrepreneur.  Read more ..

Broken Government

You Get What You Pay For: Lessons From the IRS Scandal

May 31st 2013

IRS building

Everyone is outraged by the IRS scandal—Republicans and Democrats, members of Congress and the president, alike. Outrage is a good clean emotion to have when one encounters outrageous behavior. But after a good fist-clenching growl, serious people need to decide what to do to prevent a repetition of such misbehavior.

Here are three suggestions. First, implement the specific reform suggestions put forward by the Inspector General whose report documents the misdeeds. Next, tighten the law under which organizations are granted tax exempt status. The third suggestion—and this may surprise you—raise the budget of the Internal Revenue Service—a lot!

Before explaining the suggestions, let’s start with the facts. As far as tax exemption is concerned, organizations claiming tax exempt status don’t have to apply to the IRS, but most do to avoid challenge later on. Tax exempt status under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code is supposed to be granted to an applicant only if it is a ‘social welfare’ organization. That means that no income of such organizations is taxable and that the names of contributors may be kept secret. Read more ..

Oil Addiction

Senior GOP Lawmaker Revives Offshore Drilling Bill

May 30th 2013

Gulf oil spill

A senior House Republican floated legislation Thursday to extend offshore drilling to Atlantic and Pacific coastal regions President Obama excluded from his five-year oil and gas leasing plan. The bill from House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) is similar to the one that passed the House last year, largely with Republican votes.

“The Obama Administration has said ‘no’ to new energy and ‘no’ to new jobs, but House Republicans are once again saying ‘yes.’ This legislation is a pro-energy, pro-jobs plan that will strengthen our economy and increase our energy security by responsibly and safely harnessing our vast offshore energy resources,” Hastings said in a Thursday statement. The Natural Resources subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold a June 6 hearing on the bill, the committee announced. Read more ..

Israel's Next Northern War

Israeli Won't Let S-300 become Operational in Syria

May 30th 2013

Jet air show

Israel will prevent the S-300 anti-aircraft missile battery from becoming operational in Syria, National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror told European Union ambassadors in Israel. Amidror's strong message, delivered in a briefing to all 27 EU ambassadors last week, bolstered Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's statement earlier this week that Israel would "know how to act" if Russia goes ahead with its plan to provide Syria with the S-300 system.

Israel's vow to act against the fearsome weapons system come as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quoted on Thursday as saying that his country had already received the first shipment of the S-300 system from Russia. "Syria has received the first shipment of Russian anti-aircraft S-300 rockets," the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar quoted Assad as saying in an interview due to be broadcast later in the day. "The rest of the shipment will arrive soon." The Prime Minister's Office declined official comment on Amidror's statement to the EU ambassadors. Read more ..

The Cyber Edge

More Research Needed to Foil Cyber Criminals

May 30th 2013

Shadowy Computer User

Virtually non-existent two decades ago, cybercrime has become one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises around the world. Estimates peg the global cost of crimes ranging from malware to data theft at about $100 billion a year. And it's growing. Efforts to combat the problem have taken on urgency, but, there is growing debate on how best to foil hi-tech offenders.

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live - if you have access to a computer, you are a potential target for cyber criminals. And it’s not just individuals at risk. 

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Loretta Lynch, charged eight people for launching cyber attacks on foreign banks that could have netted $45 million. “This was a 21st century bank heist that reached through the Internet to span the globe.  But instead of guns and masks, this cybercrime organization used laptops and malware,” Lynch said. Read more ..

The Way We Are

Volunteers Help Revive LA's Concrete River

May 30th 2013

LA River

The Los Angeles River is a concrete drainage channel through much of its 80-kilometer length.  It channels waste-water from storm drains and has become a receptacle for much of the city's trash.  But, the river is slowly being restored to its natural state with the help of volunteers, who take part in an annual clean-up.

Thousands of volunteers turned out on a recent weekend to remove the trash that has been deposited by winter rain storms.  The Los Angeles River was lined with concrete in the late 1930s and 1940s, after years of periodic flooding.  Today, it looks like a river again, at least in some places, says clean-up volunteer Carol Henning. “It is beginning to look a little better.  My memory of the river was people having drag races in the LA River, on the cement bottom," said Henning. Read more ..

The Edge of Climate Change

More Storms Likely During 2013 Hurricane Season

May 30th 2013

Staten Island community

The 2013 Atlantic Hurricane season could be busier and deadlier than average, according to predictions released Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA.

The six-month seasonal outlook for Atlantic storms will be above average says Jerry Bell, lead Atlantic hurricane forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.  

“The outlook is calling for 13 to 20 named storms, of which we expect 7 to 11 to become hurricanes and three to six to become major hurricanes. So this is a lot of activity that we are predicting for this year,” Bell said. These ranges are well above the typical season of 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes. Bell says it is due to a confluence of climatic factors.  Read more ..

Pacific Islanders on Edge

Pacific Islanders Cope with Displacement from Natural Disasters and Climate Change

May 30th 2013

Pagasa Island

Like its neighbors in the Pacific, the Cook Islands is no stranger to severe natural disasters. Pacific island countries are highly susceptible to increasingly frequent and extreme events, such as cyclones, tsunamis and landslides, as well as the slower-onset effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, increased temperatures and coastal erosion.

Last week I was privileged to attend the first-ever regional consultation of the Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement, held in the Cook Islands in the Pacific. The consultation, hosted by the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, brought together government officials from ten Pacific countries, as well as representatives from regional and international organizations, academia and civil society.

The issue of cross-border migration is always a sensitive one, and even more so when the prospective, permanent movement of whole communities is contemplated. While a key message from the meeting was that Pacific peoples wish to remain in their homes for as long as possible, there was recognition that some displacement and migration is inevitable. As the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands observed: ‘If we fail to plan, then we plan to fail.’ Read more ..

Healthcare on Edge

Should Counseling be Required with DNA Screenings?

May 30th 2013

Angelina Jolie

The decision by Angelina Jolie to undergo a double mastectomy after tests determined she carried a genetic mutation that elevated her chances of developing breast or ovarian cancer has led to renewed calls for expanded genetic screening. It has also raised a disconcerting question-could genetic testing actually be harmful to your health?

As is the case for many people with a family history of breast cancer, the Jolie story is very personal. She carried one of three mutations, specifically BRACA 1, that is linked to ancient Jewish communities. I can relate: My two sisters and I all carry one of these genetic mistakes (in our case, it's BRCA2). I face a higher likelihood of contracting male breast cancer, as well as ocular and prostate cancers. Many of my family members, including my mother, developed breast or ovarian cancers. My mother died as a consequence of carrying this mutation. My young, female family members worry whether they should have their breasts and ovaries removed as a precaution.

It's estimated that one in forty-three Jews (about 2.5 percent) carry one of these three genetic faults. Because humans move around and fool around, the BRCA mutations are also found in non-Jews like Jolie. It's estimated that overall, one in nine women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime-although only a fraction can be definitively linked to a specific mutation like BRCA1 or BRCA2.

The Jolie revelation has sparked a welcomed public discussion about the benefits of testing. But it's also raised questions about the need for counseling that often accompanies genetic screening-and calls by some to make counseling mandatory, regardless of cost or effectiveness.

The costs of mandated genetic counseling
     I found out I was a potential carrier for one of the three "Jewish" breast cancer mutations in 2001, when I received a terrifying call from my oldest sister: she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  Gratefully, she defeated the cancer but the issue of genetic screening-it's costs and implications-took on personal significance. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

U.S. Should Support Nigeria in Its Fight Against Islamists

May 30th 2013

Boko Haram

During Secretary of State John Kerry’s first official trip to sub-Saharan he had the opportunity to publicly bolster a key U.S. ally.   Instead, he singled out Nigeria for criticism at the very time the country is engaged in a pitched battle to defend itself against radical Islamic terrorists who have pledged to overthrow the government and replace it with an Islamic state.

It was a puzzling choice by the United States, coming at the very moment that Nigeria is reporting major progress in combating the group Boko Haram.  Nigeria has deployed 2,000 soldiers to its northern regions to destroy well-equipped terrorist training camps utilized by the radical Islamic terrorists. Public chiding is not what Nigeria needs.  It doesn’t help Nigeria in its fight and ultimately does not best serve American interests. Nigeria is presently at war and on the other side are terrorists who may be receiving help from al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda linked fighters.  Nigeria’s goal is to retain its grip on three northern states, preventing Boko Haram from solidifying its grip on the region and fundamentally destabilizing Nigeria through terrorism that aims to strike fear in the hearts of its citizens. Read more ..

Eugenic America

Latino Americans Disproportionately Sterilized for Decades in California

May 30th 2013

Pacific Colony Spadra CA eugenics facility

Patients with Spanish surnames in California psychiatric institutions and homes for the developmentally disabled were disproportionately sterilized at rates ranging between 20 to 30 percent in the last century, according to a new University of Michigan study. Alexandra Minna Stern, U-M professor of obstetrics and gynecology and American culture, and graduate student Natalie Lira analyzed the paper trail left by the bureaucratization of this discriminatory and irreversible procedure.

They examined thousands of sterilization requests processed by California superintendents of state institutions and found ethnic and racial bias in sterilization procedures in California. These sterilizations accounted for a third of the approximately 60,000 sterilizations performed in 32 states based on similar discriminatory state laws in effect between 1907 and 1980. Read more ..

Film Review

The Great Gatsby: Borne Back Ceaselessly to an Unescapable Present

May 30th 2013

Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby. Director: Baz Luhrmann. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton. Length: 142 mins.

Everybody remembers the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most celebrated novel, The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." I’ll come back to those words in a moment. But how many of us remember the novel’s first lines? "In my younger and more vulnerable years," Fitzgerald wrote in the voice of his narrator, Nick Carraway, "my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’"

Nick then goes on to compliment himself for generally following this advice and "reserving judgments" about people but also to point out that, like his father, he does so condescendingly (he says "snobbishly"). He then adds that his tolerance has a limit and implies that Gatsby, in the story he is about to tell, is it.

For the most part, Baz Luhrmann’s new movie version of the novel sticks very closely to Fitzgerald’s words. Sometimes too closely. In several scenes, set in a completely un-Fitzgeraldian asylum at some unspecified later date where Nick, played by Tobey Maguire, has been instructed by a psychiatrist to write his story down, we see the words actually on the screen (and, like the rest of the movie, in 3-D).

But in the case of the opening lines, there is a subtle change. Instead of advising his son to reserve judgment of the less fortunate, the movie’s account of the senior Mr Carraway has him telling his son not to make any judgments of people at all. It’s a crucial difference which can stand for what, above all, distinguishes Fitzgerald’s world — a world in which morality and principle were things people of all classes were expected to take an interest in, as well as to behave in accordance with — and our own non-"judgmental" present where the only good is inclusiveness and the only evil is discrimination. Read more ..

Healthy Edge

Gene Therapy May Limit Future Influenza Pandemics

May 30th 2013

Researchers have developed a gene therapy against pandemic influenza in laboratory animals, one that stops infection at the point of entry - the nose. The therapy could potentially thwart the most aggressive viral pathogens, saving the lives of an estimated 500,000 people who die worldwide each year from the flu.

The genetic therapy developed by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania expresses so-called broadly neutralizing antibodies, giving lab mice and ferrets almost complete protection against a number of lethal avian influenza strains, including those isolated from the deadly 1918 and 2009 pandemics.

Unlike conventional vaccines which stimulate the body’s natural immune system to fight an infection, broadly neutralizing antibodies halt a virus’s biological activity so it cannot make people sick by infecting cells in the first place. The antibodies can become effective in two to three days. Read more ..

The Edge of Terrorism

Elders of Northern Nigeria to Debate Strategy Towards Islamist Terror

May 30th 2013

Nigeria soldiers

The Nigeria’s Northern Elders Forum (NEF) plans to meet Thursday to review a strategy toward the state of emergency recently declared in three northern states by President Goodluck Jonathan. President Jonathan recently declared states of emergency in three northern states following an upsurge in violence carried out by the militant sect, Boko Haram.

Forum spokesman Ango Abdullahi says the government did not consult the northern elders before declaring the states of emergency, despite seeking the group’s help to resolve the country’s internal security crisis. “The proclamation of the state of emergency came to us as a surprise because of the way it came about soon after a change of policy and strategy, which incorporated dialogue and reconciliation,” said Abdullahi. “We thought the proclamation was ill-advised and ill-timed because if really the government was serious about reconciliation and dialogue he won’t declare war on his on people.” Read more ..

Edge of Immigration

Mexican Deportees Cause Economic Crisis South of the Border

May 30th 2013

Stop the Raids immigration protest

A high-ranking official from the Mexican state of Guerrero told the press that U.S. deportations of his compatriots are having economic consequences. Netzahualcoyotl Bustamante Santin, Guerrero state migrant secretary, said stepped-up deportations mean a significant reduction in the migrant remittances which have emerged as a mainstay of the Mexican economy in recent decades, especially in Guerrero and other impoverished regions of the nation.

According to Bustamante, more than 28,000 migrants from Guerrero were deported from the U.S. in 2012, putting the southern state in the third place ranking for Mexican deportees’ place of origin. On a break from a tour of communities in the northern part of the state, Bustamante said the economic effects of deportation could be gauged by comparing the amount of remittances received in Guerrero between January and March of this year, when $279 million entered the state, with the same months for 2012, when $309 million flowed into the entity. Read more ..

Defense on Edge

Why this Defense Drawdown Must Be Different

May 29th 2013


Over two months in, deep and arbitrary budget cuts imposed by sequestration are popping up all over the US military with real consequences for those in uniform. This may be one reason the president’s budget request for next year virtually ignores sequestration. While Congress may be inclined to follow, the law remains unchanged and no grand bargain seems within reach at the moment.

This means that now is the time for policymakers at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill to seize the opportunity to mobilize support for far-reaching changes to some of the key drivers of defense spending that are threatening other essential priorities. Unfortunately, while there is a growing consensus in DC that such structural reforms are needed at the Department of Defense (DoD), the political will is conspicuously absent. AEI defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen has written extensively about this topic. AEIdeas recently sat down with Mackenzie and asked for her thoughts on the subject. Read more ..

The Way We Are

Puting the Brakes on Distracted Driving

May 29th 2013

Distracted Driver

If you're still using your mobile phone behind the wheel, University of Alberta sociology researcher Abu Nurullah likely has your number.

More specifically, he can tell what statistical category you fall under. Using survey data from mid-2011—just months before Alberta's distracted-driving law went into effect—Nurullah and his colleagues determined several characteristics of people who appear to top the risk scale by using cellphones while driving. The data are useful for police who have to deal with unlawful drive-and-dialers, and for policy-makers seeking to change offenders' habits with ad campaigns.

Nurullah says that although campaigns are an important piece of curbing the behaviour, social pressure from family and friends is also important. "I think the social influence is the key one. Friends, family, employers—they should be influencing others to reduce the use of cellphones while driving," he said. "Effective enforcement of the laws should include not only fines for such offences, but also mandatory lessons on the dangers of cellphone use while operating a vehicle." Read more ..

Food Safety on Edge

Americans Should be Alarmed by Smithfield Acquisition

May 29th 2013

Smithfield Foods pigs

Shuanghui International’s blockbuster acquisition of Smithfield Foods raises major concerns over food safety, Rep. Rosa DeLauro said Wednesday, pointing to the Chinese company's troubled history. "This potential merger raises real food safety concerns that should alarm consumers,” the Connecticut Democrat said in a written statement. “We know that Chinese food products have been a threat to public health and that Shuanghui was found to have produced and sold tainted pork.” DeLauro’s reference was to 2011 revelations that Shuanghui products contained a hazardous and banned chemical used to make meat leaner. The case was just one part of an ongoing scandal involving tainted or fake Chinese meat. Read more ..

Iran’s Nukes

Israeli or U.S. Action against Iran: Who Will Do It If It Must Be Done?

May 29th 2013


It is late 2013 and the prime minister of Israel has just received a phone call from the White House relaying the findings of a recent U.S. intelligence assessment: international sanctions and negotiations with Iran have yet to persuade the regime to halt its nuclear drive. Tehran previously rejected a generous U.S. offer that would have allowed it to enrich uranium in exchange for strong nuclear safeguards, and the program continues to advance unabated. After agreeing to convene in Washington in one week to discuss strategy going forward, the prime minister and president each call a meeting with their national security advisors.

The president’s team acknowledges that the United States is war weary, debt laden, and politically gridlocked. With U.S. forces having just withdrawn from Iraq and on a path to end combat operations in Afghanistan by late 2014, many hope that the attendant diversion of resources will spring the country from its financial woes and accelerate its economic recovery. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Iranian Presidential Candidates Accuse State TV of Censorship, Unethical Behavior

May 29th 2013

Iran Election Protest

Iranian presidential candidate and former top nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani has accused the country’s state-controlled broadcaster of unethical behavior and lies.

He voiced the criticism on May 27 during his first television interview as a candidate with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), during which he defended his past performance as nuclear negotiator and rejected accusations that he had been too soft in dealings with the West.

Rohani, who was Iran’s nuclear envoy from 2003 to 2005 and is considered a moderate, suggested that the interviewer, or people at the station behind the scenes, were "illiterate."

He made the comment in response to a question by the interviewer, who said Rohani had presided over a suspension of Iran’s nuclear program. "What you said is a lie, you know it yourself it’s a lie," said a smiling Rohani. He continued, "We suspended the program? We completed the technology. When I say ‘we,’ I don’t mean me, I mean our nuclear scientists." Read more ..

The Edge of Reform

Unintended Consequences Often Bedevil Reformers

May 29th 2013


A thoughtful reformer targets the traditional rules of an aging institution that has retarded progress in the past. Time to modernize those rules, the reformer says, and prevent obstruction in the future. The trouble is that such reform efforts often prove counterproductive. New rules strengthen rather than weaken the aging institution. Unintended consequences abound.

Three examples come to mind, the first from far away -- the British House of Lords.

After Tony Blair's Labor Party was swept into office in 1997, it decided to reform the House of Lords. Its hereditary members were overwhelmingly Conservative and could outvote the appointed life peers of various parties. The Lords could not veto legislation -- it threatened to do so in 1910 and the power was taken away -- but could delay or amend it, sometimes obstructing or frustrating the democratically elected House of Commons. Read more ..

After the Arab Spring

Finishing the Job: Security Sector Reform After the Arab Spring

May 29th 2013

Riot Police

The Arab Uprisings were principally sparked by the brutality of the security sector in almost every single country where they occurred. In Tunisia, Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation following an insult by the police in December 2010 triggered the revolution. In Egypt, the June 2010 murder by two policemen of Internet activist Khaled Said, followed by the brutality of police during the fraudulent parliamentary elections of November-December 2010, set the revolution’s context. In Libya, the arrest in February 2011 of Fathy Terbil—a human rights lawyer who had represented the families of the victims of the June 1996 Abu Selim Prison massacre, in which more than 1,236 political prisoners were gunned down by Moammar Gadhafi’s security forces—sparked that country’s revolution. In Syria, abuses committed in March 2011 by Assad’s security forces, which included the pulling out of the fingernails of children and teenagers in Deraa, triggered the protests that ignited that country’s ongoing civil war. In many ways, the Arab Spring was a region-wide reaction against violations by the security services. Read more ..

Cities on the Edge

A Big City Growth Revival?

May 29th 2013


Big cities could be making a growth comeback after a rocky decade. Their growth rates are rising and, for the second year in a row, they are growing faster than their surrounding suburbs.

The Census Bureau’s new release of population estimates for cities through July 2012 offer some surprises in light of recent trends. After plummeting to postwar lows during the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath, national migration rates have begun to increase again as the economy recovers. As a result, the traditional Snowbelt-to-Sunbelt shift has resumed as well. Many assumed that large cities, especially in the Snowbelt, might also release their hold on seemingly “stuck in place” residents who, due to the housing market stall, might have been prevented from moving to the suburbs or other regions of the country.

Instead, these new numbers raise the prospect that large cities may be in store for something of a demographic comeback. During the 2000-2010 decade, including the pre-recession housing boom years, many big cities grew slowly or even lost population as residents decamped for growing smaller cities and suburbs. From 2010 to 2012, however, cities with over one-half million population grew considerably more rapidly than they did, on average, over the previous ten years. Read more ..

The Race for EVs

Alcohol-Based Fuel Cells to Extend Range of E-Cars

May 29th 2013

Plug-in Vehicle

With a novel energy storage technique, researchers of the Berlin Technical University will improve the driving range of electrically driven cars: They use ethanol - but instead of filling it into the tank, they plan to build an ethanol-based fuel cell.

Fuel cells are not new as an energy source in the automotive industry. Actually, several carmakers including Daimler and Opel (General Motors) are in the prototype phase for a potential roll-out of serial-built fuel-cell powered e-cars later in this decade. Their common denominator is a hydrogen fuel cell whose electric power could directly drive an electric car.

The approach of the Berlin research group headed by professor Peter Strasser is different. While it basically is possible to build fuel cells based on alcohol instead of hydrogen, alcohol-based fuel cells feature a significantly lower energy density than their hydrogen counterparts. Nevertheless, alcohol fuel cells could offer significant benefits over hydrogen cells. The reason is that storing the very energy-rich hydrogen in high-pressure tanks as well as the process of refuelling requires strict safety measures. Since this tank frequently takes place under the passenger compartment, fuel cell vehicles face safety concerns in the public. Read more ..

Broken Government

Democrat-Heavy IRS Will Always Distrust Tea Parties

May 28th 2013

IRS building

If you take a group of Democrats who are also unionized government employees, and put them in charge of policing political speech, it doesn't matter how professional and well-intentioned they are. The result will be much like the debacle in the Cincinnati office of the IRS.

The IRS's targeting of Tea Party groups doesn't look like a Nixonian abuse of power by the Obama White House. And there's no reason to even posit evil intent by the IRS officials who formulated, approved or executed the inappropriate guidelines for picking groups to scrutinize most closely.

There's a fairly innocent -- and fairly probable -- explanation for what the IRS did, and it boils down to the natural suspicion people have of those with opposing views. The public servants figuring out which groups qualified for 501(c)4 "social welfare" non-profit status were mostly Democrats surrounded by mostly Democrats. Read more ..

Destination Mars

Mars One Gets 80,000 Willing for One-way Mission to Mars

May 28th 2013

Mars Rover

When the call went out Mars One might have expected a few dozen people would be willing to accept a suicide mission to a dead planet. Instead, they were overwhelmed with more than 80,000 applicants including at least a dozen from the Middle East. From this region three are from Israel, six from Turkey, one from Egypt, five from Iran, two from Iraq and one each from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Who’s wanted? Adventurous pioneers. Must be willing to share a cramped living space for many months. At least 40 million miles of travel required. Reward is a chance to be among the first to colonize a vast new land.

“With a Mars-load of experience,” writes Omri, an artist from Israel on his application. You can filter through all of them by country. Candidates should understand that the prob probability of success is less than 50 percent, where success means a spending the remainder of their lives on a frigid and desolate Martian desert. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

Syria Crisis Deepens With Arms Race, Assad Gains

May 28th 2013

Bombing in Syria Mar 2012

It has been a tough couple of days for the Syria conflict, with announcements on arms for the rebels and the government, and more delays in the U.S.-Russian effort to convene a peace conference.  

Britain and France won a significant victory at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers Monday, with an agreement not to renew an embargo that prevented them from sending arms to the Syrian rebels.  EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced the decision after a day-long meeting in Brussels.

“Everybody is trying to work out how best to support the people of Syria, and how best to ensure that we get to a political solution as quickly as possible," she said. But the EU members agreed not to actually send any weapons to the rebels at least until they see whether the United States and Russia succeed in convening a peace conference. Read more ..

The Way We Are

Oklahomans Have Long Tradition of Resilience, Perseverance

May 28th 2013


The people of the plains state of Oklahoma have shown determination in facing disasters, both natural and human.  One week ago, a powerful tornado tore through Moore, an Oklahoma City suburb, killing more than 20 people. But as area residents are living up to what has come to be known as the Oklahoma Standard.

In a rural area of Oklahoma, Todd Mauldin lost his house and truck. "I have had three close calls, and this was the third one, and it got me!" he said.

This kind of pluck and good-humored determination is what people admire about Oklahomans. In this devastated neighborhood in the suburb called Moore, most people plan to rebuild and remain. This is not the first time this state has faced tragedy. It has suffered more disasters per capita than any other state and not all were natural.

On April 19, 1995 a bomb blew up in front of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Timothy McVeigh was later tried, convicted and executed for the crime. Read more ..

The Water's Edge

Amazon River Exhales Virtually all Carbon Taken up by Rain Forest

May 28th 2013

Amazon rainforest

The Amazon rain forest, popularly known as the lungs of the planet, inhales carbon dioxide as it exudes oxygen. Plants use carbon dioxide from the air to grow parts that eventually fall to the ground to decompose or get washed away by the region’s plentiful rainfall.

Until recently people believed much of the rain forest’s carbon floated down the Amazon River and ended up deep in the ocean. University of Washington research showed a decade ago that rivers exhale huge amounts of carbon dioxide – though left open the question of how that was possible, since bark and stems were thought to be too tough for river bacteria to digest.

A study published this week in Nature Geoscience resolves the conundrum, proving that woody plant matter is almost completely digested by bacteria living in the Amazon River, and that this tough stuff plays a major part in fueling the river’s breath. Read more ..

Broken Banking

Meet the Queen of Nevis

May 28th 2013

Caribe Crucero

British woman living on goat-tramped Caribbean outcropping listed as director for more than 1,200 companies.

At the age of 38, Bradford-born Sarah Petre-Mears is running one of the biggest business empires on earth. Or so it would appear.

Official records show her controlling more than 1,200 companies across the Caribbean, the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand and the UK itself. Her business partner, Edward Petre-Mears, is listed as a director of at least another 1,100 international firms.

But the true location of this major businesswoman is mysterious.

The UK companies register lists 12 different addresses for her, several in London. But none are real homes: several are Post Office boxes, collecting mail for hundreds of different locations, while others merely house the offices of incorporation agencies. Read more ..

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