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Obama's Second Term

How Much Does Obamacare Rip Off Young Adults?

March 29th 2014

Obamacare

Obamacare is still struggling to sign up young people. In order to offset the high cost of the older, and probably less healthy people who are joining Obamacare plans, the White House must coerce a sufficient number of thirty-somethings to also join. Problem is, the health plans are too pricey to make economic sense for many young adults.

Just how costly are the Obamacare plans for young beneficiaries? We ran the numbers. Here are our results:
Overall, the Federal government reports that 32% of on-exchange enrollees as of March 1st are under the age of 34. And many of these are teenagers who are part of family policies, not the young yuppies that Obamacare is fervently targeting. Earlier estimates showed only 20 percent of enrollees were between the ages 18 and 34.

The final number of young enrollees is well below the required cohort. Premiums will rise next year as a result of the adverse selection of older, and probably less healthy consumers. Why are young adults staying away? In one word, economics. Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

Arab Nations Don't Take Obama Seriously

March 28th 2014

The extension of the peace talks means only one thing: that Abbas will be able to use the new time given to him to try to extract further concessions from the U.S. and Israel, while all the time bearing in mind that Obama and Kerry are willing to do almost anything to avoid a situation where they are forced to admit that their efforts and initiatives in the Middle East have failed.

The communiqué issued by Arab heads of state at the end of their summit in Kuwait this week shows that the Arab countries do not hold the Obama Administration in high regard or even take it seriously. Read more ..


The US and Egypt

Sissi Bid for Egyptian Presidency Puts US in Complex Position

March 27th 2014

General Al-Sisi

Egyptian General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi's decision to run for president comes as the United States is pushing Cairo to improve its treatment of journalists and political opponents. What does his decision mean for an Obama administration trying to balance support for Egyptian democracy with security concerns in Saudi Arabia?

Sissi’s candidacy, which could bring Egypt back to the 60-year-old rule of civilian-dressed generals after a one-year-break, has been expected for months.  The U.S. says the announcement has no impact on its suspension of weapons deliveries to Egypt over human rights concerns. 

"As you know, we put a range of assistance on hold,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. “Last year there was some assistance, security assistance that moved forward because it was in our national security interest.  But I don’t have any prediction for you on when any decision will be reached on the rest." Read more ..


Broken Government

Why the Johnson and Crapo 'Taxpayer Protection Act' Will Not Protect Taxpayers

March 25th 2014

Home Foreclosure

The draft bill released on Sunday, March 16 by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Ranking Member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) will not protect taxpayers from future bailouts.
It will replace the implicit federal guarantees enjoyed by Fannie and Freddie with explicit guarantees enjoyed by their successors.

It will replace the single-family affordable housing mandates with a new set of affordable housing provisions that will also lead to debased underwriting standards.

It will raise taxes on the middle class by imposing a new tax on homeownership that will be used to provide billions annually in furtherance of a misguided policy to promote risky lending to lower income homebuyers.

Experience has shown that any bill which includes an explicit guarantee of an insurance program will fail to protect taxpayers. The proposed Federal Mortgage Insurance Corporation (FMIC) will be no different. Read more ..


Vote 2016

GOP Presidential Hopefuls Consider their Last Best Shot

March 22nd 2014

Vote Buttons

Many Republicans with an eye on the White House in 2016 may be asking themselves “Why not run?” when pondering a presidential bid.

Their party is at a crossroads with no clear frontrunner among more than a dozen candidates, and such a fluid field offers both fresh faces and old hands their best shot at the nomination they may ever get.

But even with a tantalizing, wide open field, there’s still plenty of risks the run the gamut from the personal to the political if a candidate does take the plunge.
Families, private relationships and day jobs are all upended by a White House bid. Rising stars could diminish their stature with a disappointing performance, while re-runs may end up known in the history books not as statesmen or former senators but a multiple loser. Read more ..


El Salvador on Edge

El Salvador's President-Elect Sanchez Ceren Asks for National Dialogue

March 22nd 2014

On March 16, El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), officially confirmed that the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) had indeed won a hard fought and extremely close race (6,364 vote margin out of 3 million). Since this was such a close race, it is understandable that the their right-wing rival, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), would closely scrutinize the electoral process. However, instead of abiding by the final determination of the TSE, ARENA’s leadership has refused to concede victory to their opponents and have, as their own presidential candidate put it, “gone on the war path.”

Since the preliminary total vote count was announced on March 9, ARENA has launched a fierce campaign alleging voter fraud designed to taint the FMLN victory and discredit the integrity of the TSE. However, ARENA’s claim is contradicted by all the credible international observers that monitored the election process including the United Nations, Organization of American States, U.S. Embassy, and various international civil society organizations. Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

Obama's Abysmal Approval Ratings Hurt Fellow Democrats

March 20th 2014

President Barack Obama’s public approval ratings have hit new lows in recent weeks, sparking fears among Democrats about their chances in the November midterm congressional elections. Historically speaking, two-term presidents experience losses in midterm congressional elections. It’s usually not a question of if, but how many? This year the stakes are especially high because Republicans believe they have an excellent chance of wresting control of the Senate from Democrats, which would have enormous political implications for the final two years of the Obama presidency. Read more ..


The Battle for Ukraine

Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Future of Europe

March 19th 2014

Click to select Image

Horia-Roman Patapievici is a Romanian philosopher who, way back in the late 1990s, told me that Romania's task was to acquire a public style based on impersonal and transparent rules like in the West, otherwise business and politics would be full of intrigue. And he questioned whether Romania's Eastern Orthodox tradition is helpful in this regard. He went on to explain that Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Russia, Greece and Cyprus -- the Orthodox nations of Europe -- were all characterized by weak institutions, compared with those of northwestern Europe. He and many others have intimated that this is partly because Orthodoxy is flexible and contemplative, thus tolerant of the world as it is, having created its own alternative order. Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

Obama's 2015 Budget: The Good and the Bad

March 18th 2014

Homeless in Cheap Motels

After 50 years of the War on Poverty, we have neither a clearly defined mission nor a consensus on policy options. We don’t even have a good way to measure poverty. President Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget is an example of the jumble that U.S. anti-poverty efforts have become, featuring both ill-conceived and promising policies.

The official poverty statistics indicate that there has been virtually no progress in reducing poverty in the United States in half a century, with the poverty rate – a measure of income – stuck at around 15 percent. But, as my colleague Nicholas Eberstadt has explained, income is a lousy measure of poverty, and consumption – roughly twice income for the poor – is rising faster than income itself. Given our inability to accurately quantify poverty, it’s not surprising that many of our proposed solutions are often poorly-targeted or confused as well. Read more ..


The Economy on Edge

Crimea Secession Likely to Spark Economic Disorder

March 17th 2014

Ukraine protest

When Crimea’s two million people wake up Monday after likely having voted in Sunday’s snap referendum to break with Ukraine in favor of joining the Russian Federation they will quickly feel the impact in their pockets from the secession and will endure months of economic disorder, say analysts.

“It is going to be a long and painful process and the chaos is going to hit and cost ordinary people hard,” says Yevhen Panchenko, a professor at Crimea’s Economics Institute, a branch of the Kyiv headquartered National University.

A lack of planning for how the region will manage the split with Ukraine – how Ukrainian state property will be handled, whether Ukraine will be compensated on assets losses or when existing private-sector business contracts have to be re-written to comply with Russian law – will compound the turmoil, he says. Read more ..


Defense on Edge

So Many Defense Budgets; So Little Clear Direction

March 16th 2014

F-35

This is the most confusing defense budget submission in recent times. It will not help Pentagon leaders achieve the goal they seek, which is for Congress and the White House to pass a new law softening the effects of sequestration for the remainder of the decade.

While the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration are part of the problem, good old fashioned politics loom large as well. All the parties — whether at the Pentagon, White House or Capitol Hill – are acting as rational actors in trying to avoid blame; the problem is few of their interests strategically align. So the military is left in limbo and unable, again, to plan for the long term. Instead, the services must try to simply manage the immediate mess while still cleaning up from recent year’s indecision, constantly-shifting priorities and reduced funding.

The irony of this is that the murk will only prompt more questions from the very politicians charged with providing and maintaining the Armed Forces, even though the Pentagon tried to provide answers about the continuing consequences of sequestration. The difficult task of being able to discern what is in and what is out of the President’s military budget, what is a priority and what is not, means Pentagon leaders will muddle through another year. They will miss the bigger opportunities, breakthrough and political “buy in” that come with clear-eyed awareness, unity, purpose and direction. Congress, meanwhile, will continue to fight for individual programs and one-off projects without regard for the bigger picture because they will be hard pressed to make heads or tails of it with this budget. Read more ..


The Chinese Edge

China Set To Gain From Most Outcomes In Crimea

March 15th 2014

Thick Hair Man

A draft UN Security Council resolution condemning Russian actions in Crimea as violations of Ukraine's territorial integrity is expected to be put to a vote ahead of Crimea's March 16 referendum on whether the region should secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

There is no doubt Russia will use its veto powers as a permanent Security Council member to block such a resolution.

But Western diplomats hope a vote showing where other Security Council members stand will increase pressure on Moscow by demonstrating that Russia is isolated from the rest of the international community.

As a result, Western diplomats have been focusing their efforts on trying to convince China not to side with Russia by vetoing the resolution. So far, China has remained largely silent about the Kremlin's incursion in Crimea and its military buildup this week on Russia's border with eastern Ukraine. Read more ..


The Edge of History

What's The Difference Between Putin And Milosevic? About 22 Years

March 14th 2014

Vladimir Putin sunglasses

As I watch the news and images from Crimea, I can’t help but feel a sense of deja vu. It's as if I am reliving the 1992 break-up of Yugoslavia and the beginning of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

When Russia's propaganda machine claims the unmarked troops in Crimea are spontaneously organized self-defense forces comprising concerned citizens, I am reminded of similarly "self-organized" armed groups setting up barricades in Sarajevo in March 1992.

Just like in Crimea, these troops lacked recognizable insignia. What they did have were brand new Kalashnikovs, impeccably organized communication, and military discipline. The similarity is eerie and ominous for anyone who was in Sarajevo at that time. What's the difference between Vladimir Putin and Slobodan Milosevic? About 22 years.

They are one man with two shadows; one modus operandi separated by a little more than two decades. In fact, if Milosevic were alive today, he could probably sue Putin for plagiarism. Read more ..


The Battle for Ukraine

What Do Russian Troop Movements Near Ukraine's Border Signify?

March 13th 2014

Russian Tanks Invade Georgia

Officials in Kyiv have warned that Russian military forces are massing on Ukraine's borders "in an offensive manner" and suggested they could be preparing for an invasion in the country's east.

What are the specific claims that Ukrainian officials have made about Russian military forces?
Andriy Parubiy, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said on March 12 that Russian troops are massing along Ukraine’s borders for a possible invasion.

Parubiy said the troops are being deployed “in an offensive manner,” and that the forces include more than 80,000 soldiers, “up to 270 tanks, 180 armored vehicles, 380 artillery systems, 18 multiple-launch missile systems, 140 combat aircraft, 90 combat helicopters,” and 19 naval warships. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Reporters Without Borders Names 'Enemies Of Internet'

March 12th 2014

Shadowy Computer User

The media freedom organization Reporters Without Borders has released its annual list of " Enemies of the Internet."

The report was issued on March 12 to coincide with World Day Against Cyber Censorship and seeks to draw attention to "government units and agencies that implement online censorship and surveillance."

Antoine Hery, the head of RSF's World Press Freedom Index, said that many chronic offenders remained on this year's list.

"Belarus, of course, and Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, etcetera -- those countries are looking pretty much uniquely at the Russian model and the Russian model is absolutely terrible," he said. "We have a feeling that those countries are getting worse and worse every year. But that's not only related to their online activities or censorship of the Internet, it's related to [the situation of the media] in general." Read more ..


The Defense on Edge

America's Navy Needs 12 Carriers and 3 Hubs

March 11th 2014

Nimitz

President Obama’s latest defense budget would shrink the US Navy’s fleet from 11 aircraft carriers to 10 absent additional funding. But the truth is that America is currently a nine-carrier nation.

Several years ago, Congress waived the 11-carrier requirement. As a result, the Navy currently operates 10 aircraft carriers until the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) joins the fleet in 2016. But one is in constant maintenance at all times and unavailable for global deployment.

Whereas the question used to be “Where are the carriers?” a new question emerges—“What carriers?” Congress must now decide if America’s single-digit carrier fleet is enough to meet the global demands of a superpower. The short answer is no.

Pentagon leaders have tried twice now to retire an aircraft carrier earlier than planned to recoup the savings. President Obama has personally vetoed the decision, calling the aircraft carrier a “strategic asset.” Part of its value is that it is an asset in constant demand. Last year, Navy Rear Admiral Thomas Moore said it best, noting “We’re an 11-carrier Navy in a 15-carrier world.” Read more ..


Russia on Edge

The Permanent Crisis of the Russian State

March 10th 2014

Putin

A permanent legitimacy and capacity crisis exists today in Russia and the state's nature ensures that this cannot be otherwise. Indeed, we have arguably entered into what Soviet historians called a revolutionary crisis, i.e. a long-term crisis of the state culminating in a revolution or fundamental transformation because that system cannot function any longer and collapses under the combined stresses of domestic failure and international competition. But understanding this state is particularly difficult. Western analysts are trapped in a self-imposed labyrinth of an ethnocentric American or Western approach to politics that sees Russia merely as an authoritarian construct. But to call Russia authoritarian is tantamount to observing that the sun rises in the East.

To understand both the masquerade and the reality of the Russian state we must understand that Russia is trapped in what Claude Levi-Strauss called a frozen [political] culture. Today's Russian state fundamentally remains the patrimonial Muscovite state originating in the medieval formation of the Tsar surrounded by his Boyars, an aristocratic tier of society that formed the early supreme council, the Duma. This system characterized both Tsardom and Soviet power. Over time it has become increasingly clear that this state cannot, for the most part, obtain domestic or external legitimacy or create a government equal to the tasks of economic and political modernization except through Stalinist mobilization, which is no longer possible. Hence the current situation of a permanent legitimacy and capacity crisis that will last as long as the present system continues. Read more ..


The Battle for the Ukraine

Russian Invasion of Crimea Likely to Affect US Foreign Policy

March 9th 2014

John Kerry

Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula could have a major impact on U.S. foreign policy regarding such issues as Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s civil war and Afghanistan. Analysts say NATO also must consider changes to counter Russian troop movements in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is flexing Russia’s military might.

President Putin has captured Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula -- though Moscow says these are local self-defense forces -- causing world tensions to skyrocket.

Secretary of State John Kerry said, “There's no place in the community of nations for the kind of aggression and steps that we have seen taken in Crimea, in Ukraine in these last days." And now analysts say the Crimean crisis is likely to affect other conflicts such as the Syrian civil war. The U.S. and Russia have cooperated on removal of Syrian chemical weapons, but support opposite sides in the fighting. Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

Three Worthwile Initiatives in the Obama Budget

March 8th 2014

Capitol Senate

I think it is incorrect to describe the entire Obama budget released on Tuesday as “dead on arrival.”  Yes, the document was full of retread proposals that did not find favor in previous years and are no more likely to be enacted in 2014. Yes, the budget was honed as a political tool for the fall elections — a “campaign brochure” in the words of Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin. And yes, President Obama’s failure to take on entitlement reforms means that he intends to leave his successor to face a horizon with a mounting burden of debt relative to gross domestic product — a reflection of a budget proposal that would stabilize the national debt for only about a decade, even with a panoply of new taxes.

Despite these inadequacies, within the budget are at least three ideas that deserve serious consideration: proposals related to spending on infrastructure like roads and bridges, to job training and to early childhood education. Each of these initiatives involves new spending, but more money would be merited if accompanied by improvements that make better use of existing funds. And new legislation in these three policy areas could address pressing economic challenges in the United States and result in substantial positive returns for both individual families and for the nation as a whole. Read more ..


China on Edge

New Investment Platforms Raise Questions for China's Banking System

March 6th 2014

Click to select Image

The growth of large online investment platforms has captured the attention of Chinese authorities in recent months. Non-state enterprises such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., which runs the e-commerce website Taobao, and Tencent Holdings Ltd., a social media conglomerate that runs the popular WeChat online messaging program, are an emerging force in China's financial system.

The question is whether these online financing platforms could start to chip away at state-controlled banks' effective monopoly over the country's vast pool of household and corporate savings. For now, funds invested into new online financing platforms such as Alibaba's Yu'e Bao are equivalent to a little more than 1 percent of the state-controlled banking sector's roughly 74.2 trillion yuan ($12 trillion dollars) in consumer deposits. But the platforms are growing rapidly. Read more ..


Russia and the Ukraine

The Ukraine Crisis, The Ruble, And The Russian Economy

March 5th 2014

Russia-naval-ship

The Russian ruble has plummeted to a record low against the U.S. dollar as the Ukrainian crisis revives Cold War-style tensions. Here are four things to know about the ruble's fall, and where things might go from here.

How much has the Russian ruble fallen in recent days
Russia's ruble fell to a record low of below 36.4 to the dollar and below 50 to the euro for the first time on March 3.

Lars Christensen, head of emerging markets analysis at Danske Bank in Copenhagen, says a big reason for the fall is foreign investors' perceptions of Russia are changing as the Ukrainian crisis deepens.

"There is a fear among investors that Russia is moving away from the West. Whether or not that should be called a new Cold war is controversial but, at least, investor sentiment is influenced by the fact that we are seeing a cooling down of relations between East and West. And obviously in such an environment you would see less foreign direct investment into Russia," Christensen says. Read more ..


Afghanistan on Edge

A Month Before Afghan Election, Karzai Maneuvers To Retain Influence

March 4th 2014

Karzai

Although constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made no secret of the fact that he intends to remain a central force in Afghan politics even after his successor is elected this spring.

And observers say the horse-trading intended to make that happen has begun in earnest, just a month ahead of the April 5 ballot.

A public rift between Karzai and one of the candidates, his own older brother Qayum, has raised some eyebrows. But observers say appearances may not be what they seem.

Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, spent almost a decade working in southern Kandahar Province, where for the first few years she ran Qayum Karzai's NGO. She says the apparent falling-out between the Karzai brothers is actually part of the Afghan president's election strategy.

"I don't think he [Qayum Karzai] is a real candidate. This whole alleged dispute is smoke and mirrors. I think Qayum is in fact serving as a placeholder -- to withdraw and throw his support to an agreed candidate at the last minute," Chayes says. "This scene of Hamid Karzai telling Qayum Karzai not to run is pure theater. These two men are pretending to be opposed to each other when in fact they're joined at the hip. I have seen this dynamic for years." Read more ..


Obama's Second Term

New Obamacare Delay Dings Congressional Democrats

March 4th 2014

Click to select Image

The Obama administration is set to announce another major delay in implementing the Affordable Care Act, easing election pressure on Democrats.

As early as this week, according to two sources, the White House will announce a new directive allowing insurers to continue offering health plans that do not meet ObamaCare’s minimum coverage requirements.

Prolonging the “keep your plan” fix will avoid another wave of health policy cancellations otherwise expected this fall.
The cancellations would have created a firestorm for Democratic candidates in the last, crucial weeks before Election Day.

The White House is intent on protecting its allies in the Senate, where Democrats face a battle to keep control of the chamber. Read more ..


Defense on Edge

Deeply Unsettling

March 3rd 2014

Chuck Hagel

America’s chattering classes seem at last to have awoken to the fact that the U.S. military ain’t what it used to be. Even the New York Times allows that “the Pentagon’s proposals to reduce the Army to pre-World War II levels” could “seem unsettling to a nation that prides itself on having the world’s most capable military.” It could also unsettle the world, and most of all those allies who rely on the United States to keep a variety of dangers at bay.

Indeed, the real news in last week’s budget announcements from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is that it’s finally news. After all, this is hardly the first time Barack Obama has cut military spending. When this president moved into the White House, he inherited a military that George W. Bush belatedly had expanded to conduct the Iraq surge and whose budget, outside of war costs, had made only the smallest dent in the drawdowns and the “procurement holiday” of the Clinton era. However, instead of addressing the “hollow buildup” of the Bush years, President Obama, with Robert Gates at the Pentagon’s helm, proceeded to cut some $400 billion more from the military’s planned spending—all of this coming before the Budget Control Act (BCA) and its nearly trillion dollars in mandated cuts. Read more ..


Ukraine on Edge

Everything You Wanted to Know about Crimea But Were Afraid to Ask

March 2nd 2014

Russian troops in Crimea

The situation in Ukraine remains incredibly tense, despite Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych’s flight from Kiev and the establishment of an interim government in the capital.

On February 27, masked gunmen seized control of the regional parliament buildings in Simferopol, capital of the Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea, and raised the Russian tricolor.

The Crimean peninsula, long associated in the West with Russia thanks to events like the Crimean War in 1854-1855 and the Yalta conference at the end of World War II, was once a part of the Soviet-era Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, but became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. Today, Russians form an ethnic majority in Crimea, alongside significant minorities of Ukrainians and the Turkic Crimean Tatars.

To get a better understanding of the situation in Crimea and Ukraine generally, I spoke with Charles E. King, Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University and a specialist on Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia. He is the author of Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams.

Why was Crimea handed over to Ukraine in 1954?

Well, there’s still a lot of debate about why that actually happened, but we have to be very clear about this – it wasn’t handed to Ukraine. The administrative boundaries were changed so that Crimea became a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Read more ..


Russia and the Ukraine

The Budapest Memorandum And Its Relevance To Crimea

March 1st 2014

Black Sea fleet

With tensions rising in Crimea and pro-Russian forces controlling the peninsula's main airports, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has called on Russia to "not violate the Budapest Memorandum." So what is the "Budapest Memorandum" and what does it have to do with Crimea?

What exactly is the "Budapest Memorandum"
The "Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances" is a diplomatic memorandum that was signed in December 1994 by Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

It is not a formal treaty, but rather, a diplomatic document under which signatories made promises to each other as part of the denuclearization of former Soviet republics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Under the memorandum, Ukraine promised to remove all Soviet-era nuclear weapons from its territory, send them to disarmament facilities in Russia, and sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Ukraine kept these promises. Read more ..


Iran's Nukes

"Iran Deal," May be Washington’s Gravest Foreign Policy Mistake

February 28th 2014

Iran Nuclear Equipment centrifuges

The Obama administration, in its first and second terms, has committed strategic mistakes in the Middle East which will undermine U.S. national and security interests for many years, even under subsequent administrations after 2016.

 
The damage done is severe, and a remedy seems out of reach unless earth shattering changes are applied to Washington’s foreign policy—either under the incumbent’s administration or the next. The common core of U.S. strategic mistakes has been the perception of partners in the region since day one of the post-Bush presidency. While Bush’s narrative on backing pro-democracy forces was right on track, the bureaucracy’s actions betrayed the White House’s global aim. By the time the Obama administration installed itself on Pennsylvania Avenue in 2009, little had been accomplished by the Bush bureaucrats in regards to identifying these pro-democracy forces and supporting them. When the current administration replaced Bush, however, civil society groups in the Middle East were systematically abandoned—aid to their liberal forces was cut off and engagement with the radicals became priority. The mistakes of the Bush bureaucracy became the official policy of the Obama administration.
Read more ..

Broken Government

Dave Camp's One Huge Tax Problem

February 28th 2014

IRS building

Representative Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, released his tax-reform plan yesterday. Here are the four best elements of the plan, the three worst -- and its biggest missed opportunity.

     Let's start with the good stuff:
--The plan cuts taxes on business investment. Those taxes are now higher than in any other developed country, which encourages companies to invest abroad rather than in the U.S. The Camp plan changes those incentives, which ought to mean more capital domestically -- and, in the long run, higher wages. It would be even stronger on this front if it didn't drag out how long it takes for businesses to write off investments.

--It ends the tax deduction for state and local taxes. That deduction is a subsidy from people in low-tax states to those in high-tax ones. It also puts a federal thumb on the scales in the debate over how big state and local governments should be. Camp is right to seek its end. Read more ..


The Battle for Iraq

Battle Lines Drawn in Iraq’s Anbar Province

February 27th 2014

Iraqi Forces

Since the New Year, Iraq’s Anbar province has been wracked with violence as tribal militias, Iraqi government forces, and the al-Qaeda inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have fought for control of key cities in the region.

Though the causes behind this current round of violence are multi-faceted, its outbreak can roughly be traced to December 28, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dispatched troops to Ramadi to arrest Ahmed al-Alwani, an MP in the Iraqi Parliament.

Al-Alwani is a Sunni politician with ties to an Anbar-based protest movement against the al-Malaki government, which protesters accuse of unfairly targeting its Sunni political opponents.  The movement has decried the mass imprisonment of political prisoners, suspect executions under Iraq’s controversial Article 4 of the Terror Law, and Sunni expulsions at the hands of government-sanctioned militias. Al-Alwani acted as the group's voice in parliament, and it follows that he was likely targeted in an effort to stem criticism towards what many Sunnis believe to be an increasingly authoritarian and sectarian prime minister.

These events corresponded with a substantial increase in activity from the Anbar-based ISIS – an al-Qaeda affiliated militant group formed during the US occupation of Iraq.  Owing to its involvement in the Syrian civil war, recruitment and funding have spiked through 2013, allowing it to carry out more sophisticated bombing campaigns in Baghdad and Shiite strongholds in Iraq. Read more ..


The Ukraine on Edge

Who Might Lead Ukraine?

February 26th 2014

Ukraine

The ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych marks a resounding victory for Ukraine's pro-European protesters after their deadly, three-month standoff with the government. But it also plunges the country into new political uncertainty.

As the opposition-dominated parliament scrambles to work out who is in charge, speculation is rife about who will emerge as the new leaders of Ukraine and its 45 million people.

Oleksandr Turchynov
Ukraine's parliament overwhelmingly elected its speaker as interim president on February 23, just one day after throwing out Yanukovych.

Turchynov, a close confident of Yulia Tymoshenko, will serve as president until a presidential election on May 25.

A former head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), he is a leading member of her Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party whose political career has been closely intertwined with Tymoshenko's.

Turchynov is a Baptist -- setting him apart from the traditionally Orthodox and Catholic majority -- and a prolific writer, whose psychological thriller "Illusion of Fear" was made into a film and submitted as the country's entry for the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 2008. Read more ..


Ukraine on Edge

Turning Revolution to Recovery in Tumultuous Ukraine

February 25th 2014

The uprising in Kiev has apparently reached its conclusion. President Viktor Yanukovich and the opposition reached an agreement, negotiated by the Polish, German and French foreign ministers. The parliament is now effectively in charge, deciding who will be ministers and when elections will be held, whether to dismiss judges and so on. It isn't clear whether the parliament can fire the sitting president without impeachment and trial, but all of this is now moot. What is interesting is that the Polish, French and German foreign ministers negotiated an outcome that, for practical purposes, ignored the Constitution of Ukraine. It sets an interesting precedent. But for Ukraine, the constitution didn't have the patina of tradition that a true constitution requires, and few will miss Yanukovich.

The question now is whether all of this makes any real difference in Ukraine or the world. There is a new temporary leadership, although it is still factionalized and the leaders of the factions have not fully emerged. The effect of hostile gunfire will forge unity in Kiev for a while, but in due course, ideology, ambition and animosity will re-emerge. That will make governing Ukraine as difficult as in the past, particularly because the differences among the neo-Nazis, the liberals and groups in between -- all of which manned the barricades -- are profound. A government of national unity will be difficult to form. Read more ..


The Battle for Syria

The Geneva II Tragic Charade

February 24th 2014

Bomb Damage

It is hard to imagine that representatives of the 30 countries that assembled in Geneva actually believed that they could find a political solution to the Syrian civil war. Given the differing strategic interests in Syria of the powers within and outside the region, reaching a consensus to end the crisis at this juncture is beyond the realm of possibility. The conditions on the ground in Syria and the balance of power between the rebels and the Assad regime must first be altered on behalf of the rebels in order to force Assad to change his calculation before any political solution can be formulated.

President Obama may strongly embrace the agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons or seek a political solution by holding the Geneva II conference. Unfortunately and predictably, the chemical deal worked only to strengthen Assad as it prevented an American attack and gave him more time to consolidate his gains. Read more ..


Israelis and Palestinians

The Politics of the Palestinian Right of Return

February 24th 2014

Dome-of-the-Rock

US-backed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are entering a critical period. With reports suggesting Israeli acceptance of the 1967 lines and land swaps, what about Palestinian concessions? Two issues are paramount: the 'right of return' and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently stated, "Let me put it simply: the right of return is a personal decision. What does this mean? That neither the PA, nor the state, nor the PLO, nor Abu-Mazen [Abbas], nor any Palestinian or Arab leader has the right to deprive someone from his right to return."

Jamil Mizer, a member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) underscored the issue saying, "there is talk about the liquidation of the Palestinian refugee cause, the return of hundreds of thousands to the lands occupied in 1948, and the dismantling of the right of return of over six million Palestinian refugees in the camps, in exile and in the diaspora, who are waiting for their moment to return to the homes and lands from which they were expelled". Read more ..


Burma on Edge

Analysts Fear Burma's Reforms Stalling

February 23rd 2014

Ethnic strife

Analysts said there are fears Burma's program of political and economic reforms are stalling before the 2015 national elections.  Bangkok rights concerns are growing as the foreign business community remains upbeat over Burma's long term economic potential.

The Asian Development (ADB) said Burma can become a middle income country by 2030 if it is able to sustain economic growth rates of more than six percent a year.

The economic and political reforms begun in 2011 have led most nations to set aside long standing economic sanctions against military rule in Burma, which is also known as Myanmar.

Australian lawyer and consultant on Burma John Hancock said foreign investors recognize Burma's potential. "It is just remarkable what has happened there in the last five, six, seven years.  The opening up has been just quite remarkable.  The will to change, the will to move forward, is quite amazing.  There is such potential there now.  Everyone wants to be there, everyone is willing to throw money in there to support their interest to get on the fast track," he said.            Read more ..


Venezuela on Edge

Toward a Peaceful Solution for Venezuela’s Crisis

February 22nd 2014

Caracas at night

Protests over growing scarcity and criminal violence in Venezuela are entering their 10th day. They have been met with violent government repression and censorship. International support is needed to convene the actors in this crisis to engage in dialogue and craft a peaceful outcome.

On February 12, nation-wide marches were convened by the political opposition and civil society to protest growing scarcity and criminal violence. While they began peacefully, they ended in violent confrontations between police, pro-government criminal gangs (known as colectivos) and some protestors. Public property in downtown Caracas was damaged, three persons are known to have died from gun shots, and over 70 were arrested by police, intelligence and military forces. The government and opposition have traded charges on who is responsible for the damage and the deaths, although subsequent reporting identified the shooters as government agents. Remarkably, the only broadcaster carrying live feed from the protest, NTN24, was an international channel, and was censored by the Maduro administration as events were unfolding. In the wake of the protest, the government ordered the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on the charge of fomenting violence. Read more ..


Education on Edge

Common Core: Teachers Unions Think Again

February 21st 2014

school kids

In recent days, there has been a spate of news stories reporting that the nation’s teachers’ unions are having second thoughts about the Common Core State Standards — which seek to set nationwide standards for what K–12 students should learn in each grade in math and in English-language arts.

The two major unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, were among the broad array of organizations that endorsed Common Core in 2009, when it was just words on paper. However, as rubber has met road with Common Core implementation, the unions have had second thoughts.

On Wednesday, Politico’s Stephanie Simon reported: “The nation’s largest teachers union is pulling back on its once-enthusiastic support of the Common Core academic standards, labeling their rollout ‘completely botched.’” In a letter to his membership, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel wrote, “NEA members have a right to feel frustrated, upset and angry about the poor commitment to implementing the standards correctly.” Van Roekel said that it would be easy to just oppose Common Core, but that the NEA is not ready to take that route. Meanwhile, the New York State United Teachers (an AFT affiliate) won a multi-year delay in the implementation of consequences attached to the forthcoming Common Core tests. And last November, AFT President Randi Weingarten said, “You think Obamacare is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.”
What should we make of all this? Four things, really. Read more ..


Education on Edge

What Do We Know About Professional Development?

February 20th 2014

Special Ed Teacher

Do we know how to improve teaching?  I don’t mean tinkering around the edges—making a particular history lesson better or getting an individual teacher to alter his or her instructional strategies—but a lasting, substantive change, one that reshapes the profession.  Do we know how to transform bad teachers into adequate teachers?  Can we take teachers who are merely adequate and make them good—even outstanding? 

Those questions are especially relevant right now.  The burden of answering them affirmatively falls on professional development (PD).  All levels of government spend a huge amount of money on teachers’ professional development; it’s a mainstay of federal education policy.  Expenditures on Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (The Eisenhower Program), mostly devoted to PD, are budgeted at about $2.3 billion in 2014.  More than $450 million of i3 grant money spent from 2010-2012 went to PD.  Advocates of school reforms that affect teaching and learning inevitably rely on PD to implement their preferred changes.  The prominent contemporary example is the Common Core.  Advocates of the Common Core are counting on PD to equip teachers with the instructional capacity to actualize the standards. Read more ..


The Ukraine on Edge

How Ukraine Crisis Went From Compromise To Bloodshed In Just Hours

February 19th 2014

Flames in Cairo

As recently as February 17, when an amnesty for hundreds of demonstrators went into effect, Ukraine's crisis looked like it was deescalating. But beginning on February 18 at least 25 people died.

Here are five things to know about why things went bad so fast, and where they might go from here.

What sparked the lethal violence Ukraine?
Tensions soared on February 18 when opposition lawmakers urged parliament to revert to Ukraine's 2004 constitution, which would offer President Viktor Yanukovych fewer powers, but were rebuffed. At the same time, some 20,000 protesters marched on the parliament building in support of the opposition deputies and were stopped by police in a violent confrontation. Read more ..


America on Edge

Americans' Focus on Private Affairs Leads to Indifference to Foreign Affairs

February 18th 2014

Recently, several events took place that were important to their respective regions and potentially to the world. Russian government officials suggested turning Ukraine into a federation, following weeks of renewed demonstrations in Kiev. The Venezuelan government was confronted with violent and deadly protests. Kazakhstan experienced a financial crisis that could have destabilized the economies of Central Asia. Russia and Egypt inked a significant arms deal. Right-wing groups in Europe continued their political gains.

Any of these events had the potential to affect the United States. At different times, lesser events have transfixed Americans. This week, Americans seemed to be indifferent to all of them. This may be part of a cycle that shapes American interest in public affairs. The decision to raise the debt ceiling, which in the last cycle gripped public attention, seemed to elicit a shrug. Read more ..


The Nuclear Edge

Don't Junk New START

February 17th 2014

Ballitic Missile

U.S. Representatives Trent Franks and Doug Lamborn, writing in The Moscow Times on Feb. 12, called for the U.S. to withdraw from the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START. Their arguments do not stand up to serious scrutiny. Continued observance of New START is in the interest of the U.S. and Russia.

New START requires that each country reduce its strategic arms to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and no more than 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers. These limits take full effect in February 2018.

The treaty constrains only deployed strategic weapons. It does not limit reserve strategic warheads or non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the U.S. and Russia have total arsenals numbering about 4,500 nuclear weapons each. Read more ..



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