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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Obama aims to reinvigorate Asia strategy - President Obama’s bid to focus U.S. attention on Asia has failed to meet the lofty expectations he set three years ago in a grand pronouncement that the new emphasis would become a pillar of his foreign policy.

From The Washington Post:

President Obama’s bid to focus U.S. attention on Asia has failed to meet the lofty expectations he set three years ago in a grand pronouncement that the new emphasis would become a pillar of his foreign policy.

The result, as Obama prepares to travel to the region next week, has been a loss of confidence among some U.S. allies about the administration’s commitment at a time of escalating regional tensions. Relations between Japan and South Korea are at one of the lowest points since World War II, and China has provoked both with aggressive actions at sea despite a personal plea to Beijing from Vice President Biden in December.

“Relations have gone from being generally positive at the strategic level among the great powers to extremely difficult,” said Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state who helped conceive the Asia strategy. “It’s a much more challenging strategic landscape.”

In a glitzy rollout in the fall of 2011, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the United States would “pivot” away from long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and ramp up engagement to meet China’s rise.

Instead, over the past year, the administration has been drawn deeper into crises in traditional hot spots in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Congressional Democrats blocked Obama’s bid to speed up talks on a 12-nation Pacific free-trade pact at the core of a policy that aims to balance military realignment with economic initiatives.

And Obama canceled participation in two Asian summits because of the government shutdown last fall.

White House aides say they are confident that the president will reenergize his Asia strategy by visiting seven countries this year — Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines next week and China, Burma and Australia in the fall. Obama met with the leader of China and, in a separate meeting, with the leaders of Japan and South Korea on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in Europe last month.

“Showing up matters a lot in Asia. The good news is that it’s pretty easily fixable,” said Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “We have the benefit of knowing what success will look like — and if we achieve it, people will think it was worth it.”

Despite that optimism, there is a feeling outside the administration that the energy and enthusiasm that marked the launch of the policy has been lost with the departures early last year of Clinton and national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon. Their successors, John F. Kerry and Susan Rice, respectively, have been focused foremost on conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, a Middle East peace pact, and Iran’s nuclear program.

“For a lot of reasons, none egregiously negligent, it adds up to us not being there,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution. “Perceptions are everything, and now the whole idea of the rebalance is at risk.”

A new emphasis

A few days into her tenure as the nation’s top diplomat, Clinton held a dinner for her closest advisers on the ornate eighth floor of the State Department with some longtime Asia policy hands, including author Orville Schell.

The message was clear: After a decade of war, there would be a new emphasis. It was a view in sync with Obama’s thinking. The president had already instructed his national security staff to conduct a review of the military’s global footprint.

The conclusion of the review, Donilon recalled in an interview, was that “at the very same time that Asia was undergoing the most dramatic social and economic development in the history of the world, the United States was overwhelmingly focused on military efforts in the Middle East.”

For a president with roots in Hawaii and Indonesia, a turn to Asia made sense. In February 2009, Clinton’s first trip as secretary of state was to Asia, and Obama welcomed Japan’s Taro Aso as his first foreign leader to visit the White House.

Underpinning the renewed focus on Asia was the realization that China was moving to fill the vacuum of U.S. inattention to the region. China’s view in 2008 and 2009 was that an “arrogant” United States had been knocked down by the recession and “there’s a new sheriff in town and it’s China,” said Campbell, Clinton’s top Asia strategist.

On Obama’s first Asia trip, in November 2009, Chinese President Hu Jintao embarrassed the White House by rejecting the administration’s demands on China’s currency manipulation and refusing to allow questions at a joint news conference.

“It turned into a metaphor for us supposedly kowtowing to the Chinese,” recalled Jeffrey Bader, director of Asia affairs for the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011. “The White House was not going to let that narrative recur.”

Clinton laid the groundwork for a more confrontational U.S. stance with China when, on a trip to Vietnam in July 2010, she declared that resolving a territorial dispute between Southeast Asian nations and China in the South China Sea was a “leading diplomatic priority.”

By the following year, administration officials agreed it was time for a bold recalibration of their Asia policy.

Administration’s ‘pivot’

As White House staffers plotted a presidential trip to Asia in the fall of 2011, Campbell arranged for Clinton to pen a cover story in Foreign Policy magazine.

Clinton’s 5,600-word treatise, titled “America’s Pacific Century,” was published in October, a month before Obama’s nine-day trip, and it was the first public signal of the administration’s “pivot” — a word Clinton used three times — to the region.

A chief aim, aides said, was to enlist Beijing as a partner on the global stage by demanding that it live up to its responsibilities as a rising world power.

Clinton also reaffirmed traditional alliances, pledged greater U.S. economic investment, emphasized democratic values and vowed to pursue new multilateral organizations, especially in Southeast Asia, to mitigate conflicts.

The essay, followed by Obama’s trip, aimed to “grab people by the lapels” and “communicate to them, ‘This is what we really care about; this is what you should judge us on,’ ” Rhodes said.

Several Asia initiatives were ripening in different government agencies, and the White House packaged them together for the president to unveil.

Obama pledged in Hawaii that the U.S. would play a lead role in negotiations over the Trans-
Pacific Partnership, a large-scale, multi-nation free-trade pact. In Australia, he announced plans for a rotating contingent of 2,500 Marines to be based in Darwin.

“The United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation,” Obama said in an address to the Australian Parliament.

On his final stop, at the East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia, Obama made the biggest splash — announcing that Clinton would become the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the long-isolated nation of Burma in 50 years. The dramatic gesture was given the green light only after Obama called democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from Air Force One en route to Bali to win her blessing.

“This was a high-wire act,” said Campbell, who helped negotiate with Burma’s ruling military leaders. “It required real, hard behind-the-scenes diplomacy.”

A year later, in November 2012, Clinton made a second trip there, this time aboard Air Force One with Obama.

High stakes

Since then, China has become convinced that the U.S. strategy is aimed primarily at containing its rising influence.

Obama, hoping for a fresh start with China’s Xi Jinping, who succeeded Hu last year, invited him to the Sunnylands Estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in June — a setting picked for its relaxed atmosphere.

But in the fall, Beijing declared an air defense zone above contested waters in the East China Sea, provoking angry responses from Japan and South Korea. Last week, during a visit to Beijing, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel traded barbs with his Chinese counterpart, who declared that China’s military “can never be contained.”

The Pentagon announced in 2012 that it intended to have 60 percent of its naval and Air Force assets in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. And with Democrats slowing the trade pact amid election-year pushback from labor unions, a critical Senate Foreign Relations Committee report this week concluded that the administration’s Asia strategy has become viewed in the region as military-focused.

The State Department devotes just 8 percent of its diplomatic engagement budget to its Asia-
Pacific bureaus and 4 percent of aid money to a region which accounts for 33 percent of the world’s population, the report found.

“Sweeping speeches and policy pronouncements unsupported by hard deliverables create a large gap between expectations and reality,” according to the analysis, overseen by the committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

Administration officials point to new strategic partnerships with Indonesia and Vietnam and a deal with Japan on the contentious issue of relocating a Marine air base.

But Bader, now at the Brookings Institution, said the administration still must make clear whether its strategy is “about containing China, hedging against China, or is it about participating in and benefiting from the most dynamic area of the world? The administration says the latter, but many continue to argue for the former.”

The stakes are perhaps as high for Clinton as Obama. As she weighs a White House bid in 2016, her supporters have cited the Asia strategy as one of her most significant accomplishments.

On the wall of his office, Campbell keeps a framed photo of Obama and Clinton posing with their aides on Air Force One as they descend into Burma. The inscription, from the president, reads: “Thanks for years of outstanding work on our pivot to Asia.”

Court Deportations Drop 43 Percent in Past Five Years

From The New York Times:

New deportation cases brought by the Obama administration in the nation’s immigration courts have been declining steadily since 2009, and judges have increasingly ruled against deportations, leading to a 43 percent drop in the number of deportations through the courts in the last five years, according to Justice Department statistics released on Wednesday.

The figures show that the administration opened 26 percent fewer deportation cases in the courts last year than in 2009. In 2013, immigration judges ordered deportations in 105,064 cases nationwide.

The statistics present a different picture of President Obama’s enforcement policies than the one painted by many immigrant advocates, who have assailed the president as the “deporter in chief” and accused him of rushing to reach a record of two million deportations. While Mr. Obama has deported more foreigners than any other president, the pace of deportations has recently declined.
The steepest drop in deportations filed in the courts came after 2011, when the administration began to apply more aggressively a policy of prosecutorial discretion that officials said would lead to fewer deportations of illegal immigrants who had no criminal record. Last year the Department of Homeland Security opened 187,678 deportation cases, nearly 50,000 fewer than in 2011. 

At the same time, the share of cases in which judges decided against deportation and for allowing foreigners to remain in the United States has consistently increased, to about one-third last year from about one-fifth in 2009. 

The court figures do not suggest there has been any wholesale retreat from enforcement by the administration, as many Republican lawmakers have contended in the polarized debate over immigration. Rather, more immigrants are seeking lawyers and fighting deportations, leading to longer and more complex cases for immigration judges to weigh.
The number of deportations ordered by immigration courts is only a portion of total deportations in a given year. But the lower numbers from the courts contributed to a drop in overall deportations last year, when enforcement agents made 368,644 removals, a 10 percent decrease from 2012. Also, some deportations that judges order — for example, if the foreigner becomes a fugitive — may not be carried out. 

In addition, since 2011 the administration made a major shift in enforcement geography, sending more agents and resources to the Southwest border to quickly remove immigrants caught crossing illegally. Many deportations at the border do not go through the immigration courts.

The figures are from the latest yearbook, through fiscal 2013, of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the branch of the Justice Department that runs the immigration court system. By a peculiarity of American law, the immigration courts are in the executive branch, not the judiciary. But court officials are not responsible for enforcement policy or for bringing immigration prosecutions, which are handled by the Department of Homeland Security.
The substantial drop in new deportation cases has contributed to an overall 20 percent decline since 2011 in new matters coming before the long-overburdened immigration courts, the figures show. Deportations, known in legal language as removals, accounted for about 97 percent of the new cases received by the courts last year.
But the slowdown in new cases has not eased the vast backlog in the courts, which increased to 350,330 cases at the end of fiscal 2013, up from 298,063 cases at the end of fiscal 2011.
Court officials said the apparent paradox of a shrinking new caseload coinciding with a swelling backlog was primarily a result of the severe budget cuts, known as the sequester, imposed by Congress last year, which prevented the courts from hiring judges and support staff. The reduced corps of judges could not keep up with the new cases, much less dig into the backlog, court officials said.
“Sometimes the bleeding was quite profuse,” said Juan Osuna, director of the office that runs the immigration court system. “Not only were we not able to hire new judges, we were not able to hire to backfill for those who retired.”

The number of judges in the nation’s 58 immigration courts fell to 251 at the end of last year from a peak of 272 three years earlier.

Homeland Security officials said the court statistics reflected their efforts to focus on deporting convicted criminals, foreigners posing security threats and recent illegal border crossers.

“The administration has taken a number of steps to focus our resources on those priorities,” said Peter Boogaard, a department spokesman. He said “the exercise of prosecutorial discretion” had led enforcement agents and visa officials to file fewer deportation charges.
Deportations were further reduced by a big increase since 2011 in cases that were suspended, often by agreement between Homeland Security prosecutors and judges. Under the prosecutorial discretion policy, administration officials said they would offer suspensions to clear the court docket of low-priority cases involving immigrants with no criminal records who had families in the United States.

The number of case suspensions rose to 32,454 last year from 6360 in 2011, an increase of more than 400 percent.

Mr. Obama has asked the Homeland Security secretary, Jeh C. Johnson, to review the enforcement strategy to come up with what he called a more humane policy. Mr. Johnson has been meeting with lawmakers, advocates and religious groups to hear their often impassioned criticism of the current approach.

The new court statistics do not include any description of foreigners facing deportation, such as their criminal histories.

The figures do reveal that more of them are battling their cases and going to court with lawyers versed in the intricacies of immigration law, which Mr. Osuna hailed as a positive trend for the system. In 2013, 59 percent of cases involved lawyers, compared with 35 percent in 2009.
But Mr. Osuna said the workload for judges had become overwhelming. “Many courts are bailing water as quickly as it’s coming in,” he said.

Court backlogs can discourage foreigners living in the country illegally from trying to fix their status through the legal system, and encourage migrants in deportation proceedings to vanish during long waits.

For the new yearbook, officials said they used a different method to analyze their data on the courts’ performance, intended to make it easier for the public to track the numbers of individual cases moving through the system. The new statistics cannot be compared with past yearbooks, officials said, but they went back to apply the new method to all data since 2009.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

It was partly sold as something that would save us money, remember: Budget Office Lowers Estimate for the Cost of Expanding Health Coverage

From The New York Times:

The insurance expansion under the Affordable Care Act will cost $1.383 trillion over the next decade, more than $100 billion less than previous forecasts, the Congressional Budget Office said Monday.

The nonpartisan budget office’s report, an update to projections from February, shows the law costing less than in previous estimates in part because of the broad and persistent slowdown in the growth of health care costs. The news might come as welcome to Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House who are struggling to defend the law in an election year.

“Today’s C.B.O. update shows once again that the Affordable Care Act will help reduce our deficits while offering more Americans access to quality, affordable health care,” said Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington and the head of the Senate Budget Committee. “We need to keep building on this progress rather than turning back the clock on the millions of people who have now signed up for coverage.”

The reduced estimate is attributable mostly to the budget office’s cutting its projections of federal spending for subsidies for insurance premiums, with estimates falling by $3 billion for spending in 2014 and $164 billion over 10 years.

The budget office also issued projections that 12 million more nonelderly people would have insurance in 2014 than would have otherwise, rising to 26 million in 2017. The budget office, making projections along with the Joint Committee on Taxation, said the number of uninsured people would drop to 30 million in 2017 from 42 million in 2014.

The budget office and tax committee estimate that “the insurance coverage provision of the A.C.A. will increase the proportion of the nonelderly population with insurance from roughly 80 percent in the absence of the health care law to about 84 percent in 2014 and to about 89 percent in 2016 and beyond,” the report said.

In addition, the C.B.O. trimmed its estimates of the penalties that individuals would pay for failing to purchase coverage and that businesses would pay for refusing to cover their employees. It estimates that individuals will make $46 billion in payments over a decade, and employers $139 billion.

Despite the significant costs of the insurance expansion, the budget office said that over all, the Affordable Care Act should reduce deficits.

In a separate report, the budget office also trimmed its estimate of this year’s fiscal deficit. In the 2014 budget year, it forecasts the government’s shortfall to be $492 billion, or about 2.8 percent of economic output. In February, the budget office had estimated that the deficit would be about $23 billion higher.

The smaller deficit projection is a product of lower outlays for discretionary programs and net interest payments, the budget office said. It also cut its estimate of the cumulative deficit from 2015 through 2024 by $286 billion.

In the past five years, the deficit has fallen precipitously because of the economic recovery, spending cuts and tax increases. The budget office projects the deficit to fall by a third between last fiscal year and this fiscal year alone.

For years during the recession and sluggish recovery, the federal government racked up trillion-dollar deficits, and in the 2009 fiscal year — during the worst of the downturn — the deficit was equivalent to nearly 10 percent of economic output.

But the budget office said deficits would soon start rising again as an aging population required more health care and Social Security spending and as the government paid out more interest on the national debt. The budget office forecasts deficits to swell by the mid-2020s to about 4 percent of economic output, with the federal debt climbing to 78 percent of economic output, up from 72 percent today.

All politics and no play makes Johnny a dull boy: Why Boston Marathon Runners Can Expect Quadriceps and Calf Muscle Pain - Running downhill makes it worse, and other tips for coping: Pickle juice or cherry juice?

From The Wall Street Journal:

One experience unites all long-distance runners: At some point a marathon becomes an experiment in discomfort and pain management.

Don't fret if you are the sort of marathoner who plans to drag yourself across the finish line at the Boston Marathon next Monday in five-plus hours, your thighs feeling as if knives are jabbing with every step. There are very likely races when last year's winners, Lelisa Desisa and Rita Jeptoo, experience their share of misery, too. Last month, Mo Farah, the Olympic champion in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races, collapsed after crossing a finish line—of the New York City Half Marathon.

"I doubt anyone has ever run a marathon without feeling some degree of aches, pains or tightness in leg muscles and joints," said Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon.

Few long-distance runners, even those with years of experience, understand how to react or exactly what is happening in their quadriceps and calf muscles when pain begins to crest, usually somewhere between the 16th and 23rd miles.

"Unfortunately, that 'dead' feeling is probably not going to go away, even by slowing down," said Jack Daniels, the renowned long-distance coach and exercise scientist who leads the Run SMART Project, a top coaching service for runners.
Here's the good news: That type of pain is perfectly normal, even somewhat inevitable, most experts say. There is actually some micro-tearing going on inside the muscles, which can't work the way they want to under that level of stress.
"A muscle gets sore and goes into spasm when it gets pissed off, and the causes of that are nutritional and functional," says Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, who has completed more than 30 marathons and is a 10-time Ironman finisher.
The trickier question is what to do about the pain and soreness. The best midrace treatments ("remedies" would be the ultimate misnomer) include counterintuitive alternatives ranging from don't slow down to drinks that don't sound particularly thirst-quenching.
Slowing down too much just extends the period of pain, whose causes involve real damage to microfibers within the affected muscles.
Running the downhill segments of a really long-distance race—Boston's rolling course has plenty of these—is one of the best ways to injure a muscle, according to Kerry Kuehl, a physician and expert in exercise science at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.
The act of striding, landing on the foot and then bounding into the next stride is what sports-medicine physicians refer to as "eccentric contraction."
"You're lengthening the muscle and then loading on it," Dr. Kuehl said. That causes a disruption or tearing of the "myofibrils," which are the thousands of tiny strands within the muscles, as well as damage to the muscle-cell membranes. The membranes and myofibrils become inflamed, and that hurts, Dr. Kuehl said.
The pain can't be totally prevented, but Dr. Metzl said it can be delayed until later in the race through strength training, so the muscles don't break down so quickly.
A big problem with long-distance runners, according to Dr. Metzl, is that many of them do plenty of running but not much else. (I'm running Boston, and I plead guilty as charged.) That puts a limit on how far they can run pain-free.
Dr. Metzl recommends a strength workout that involves quick explosive repetitions, including squats, planks, sit-ups, push-ups and leg lifts but comparatively little weight work.
Of course, it's probably too late for anyone running Boston to gain much strength before Monday. For them, the focus has to be on dealing with muscles that are careening toward spasm.
This is where the pickle and bitter cherry juice come in.
Muscles, in addition to hurting because of micro-tears, also stop functioning well and start hurting when they no longer have the proper fuel, experts say.
Running a marathon burns a lot of fuel, especially fluids and salts, which the body loses when it perspires. A dehydrated muscle doesn't contract well, which is what it needs to do with every step, and it starts to hurt.
Muscles also don't function well when they don't have the necessary amount of electrolytes, which conduct electrical impulses that enable muscle cells to contract. Electrolytes are formed from sodium, calcium, chloride, magnesium and potassium.
Gatorade and other sports drinks have electrolytes, but pickle juice has about as much concentrated sodium as any liquid on the planet that athletes have been able to stomach during intense exercise.
Pickle juice isn't widely available at most marathon water stations, though drinking it isn't a new strategy. The Philadelphia Eagles drank it during a 2000 game against the Dallas Cowboys when temperatures climbed to 109 degrees Fahrenheit. The Eagles won.
Still in pain and want to reach for the ibuprofen? Consider the juice from Montmorency cherries instead.
About five years ago, Dr. Kuehl, the Oregon physician, studied the effects of the tart, bitter juice on inflammation.
He and a team of researchers conducted a double-blind test of 54 runners participating in the Hood to Coast relay race that covers 200 miles up and down steep terrain from Mount Hood to the Pacific Ocean.
"It's a really good race to test muscle soreness," Dr. Kuehl said.
Runners who drank the juice equivalent of 45 to 50 cherries before, during and after the race reported significantly less pain than those who drank a placebo. Medical examinations corroborated those reports.
Cherry juice is rich in antioxidants, which combat some of the muscle inflammation from the micro-tears that cause pain. And cherry juice isn't a drug that could cause ulcers or kidney damage, Dr. Kuehl said.
Still hurting? Probably—which might mean the only option left is to try thinking about something else. "Concentrate on another part that is not feeling bad," said Dr. Daniels, the Run SMART coach.
"Be optimistic and don't be thinking, 'Wow, I still have 5 or 6 miles to go.' Better to concentrate on the task at hand, what you are doing, how much of your body is relaxed and quit thinking how far you still have to go."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Noonan: A Catastrophe Like No Other

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal (4-5-2014):

Put aside the numbers for a moment, and the daily argument.

"Seven point one million people have signed up!"

"But six million people lost their coverage and were forced onto the exchanges! That's no triumph, it's a manipulation. And how many of the 7.1 million have paid?"

"We can't say, but 7.1 million is a big number and redeems the program."

"Is it a real number?"

"Your lack of trust betrays a dark and conspiratorial right-wing mindset."

As I say, put aside the argument, step back and view the thing at a distance. Support it or not, you cannot look at ObamaCare and call it anything but a huge, historic mess. It is also utterly unique in the annals of American lawmaking and government administration.

Its biggest proponent in Congress, the Democratic speaker of the House, literally said—blithely, mindlessly, but in a way forthcomingly—that we have to pass the bill to find out what's in it. It is a cliché to note this. But really, Nancy Pelosi's statement was a historic admission that she was fighting hard for something she herself didn't understand, but she had every confidence regulators and bureaucratic interpreters would tell her in time what she'd done. This is how we make laws now.

Her comments alarmed congressional Republicans but inspired Democrats, who for the next three years would carry on like blithering idiots making believe they'd read the bill and understood its implications. They were later taken aback by complaints from their constituents. The White House, on the other hand, seems to have understood what the bill would do, and lied in a way so specific it showed they knew exactly what to spin and how. "If you like your health-care plan, you can keep your health-care plan, period." "If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor, period." That of course was the president, misrepresenting the facts of his signature legislative effort. That was historic, too. If you liked your doctor, your plan, your network, your coverage, your deductible you could not keep it. Your existing policy had to pass muster with the administration, which would fight to the death to ensure that 60-year-old women have pediatric dental coverage.
The leaders of our government have not felt, throughout the process, that they had any responsibility to be honest and forthcoming about the major aspects of the program, from its exact nature to its exact cost. We are not being told the cost of anything—all those ads, all the consultants and computer work, even the cost of the essential program itself.
What the bill declared it would do—insure tens of millions of uninsured Americans—it has not done. There are still tens of millions uninsured Americans. On the other hand, it has terrorized millions who did have insurance and lost it, or who still have insurance and may lose it.
The program is unique in that it touches on an intimate and very human part of life, the health of one's body, and yet normal people have been almost wholly excluded from the debate. This surely was not a bug but a feature. Given a program whose complexity is so utter and defeating that it defies any normal human attempt at comprehension, two things will happen. Those inclined to like the spirit of the thing will support it on the assumption the government knows what it's doing. And the opposition will find it difficult to effectively oppose—or repeal the thing—because of the program's bureaucratic density and complexity. It's like wrestling a manic, many-armed squid in ink-darkened water.
Social Security was simple. You'd pay into the system quite honestly and up front, and you'd receive from the system once you were of retirement age. If you supported or opposed the program you knew exactly what you were supporting or opposing. The hidden, secretive nature of ObamaCare is a major reason for the opposition it has engendered.
The program is unique in that the bill that was signed four years ago, on March 23, 2010, is not the law, or rather program, that now exists. Parts of it have been changed or delayed 30 times. It is telling that the president rebuffed Congress when it asked to work with him on alterations, but had no qualms about doing them by executive fiat. The program today, which affects a sixth of the U.S. economy, is not what was passed by the U.S. Congress. On Wednesday Robert Gibbs, who helped elect the president in 2008 and served as his first press secretary, predicted more changes to come. He told a business group in Colorado that the employer mandate would likely be scrapped entirely. He added that the program needed an "additional layer" or "cheaper" coverage and admitted he wasn't sure the individual mandate had been the right way to go.
Finally, the program's supporters have gone on quite a rhetorical journey, from "This is an excellent bill, and opponents hate the needy" to "People will love it once they have it" to "We may need some changes" to "I've co-sponsored a bill to make needed alternations" to "This will be seen by posterity as an advance in human freedom."
That was the president's approach on Tuesday, when he announced the purported 7.1 million enrollees. "The debate over repealing this law is over. The Affordable Care Act is here to stay. . . . In the end, history is not kind to those who would deny Americans their basic economic security. Nobody remembers well those who stand in the way of America's progress or our people. And that's what the Affordable Care Act represents. As messy as it's been sometimes, as contentious as it's been sometimes, it is progress."
Someone said it lacked everything but a "Mission Accomplished" banner. It was political showbiz of a particular sort, asking whether the picture given of a thing will counter theexperience of the thing.
There's a brute test of a policy: If you knew then what you know now, would you do it? I will never forget a conversation in 2006 or thereabouts with a passionate and eloquent supporter of the decision to go into Iraq. We had been having this conversation for years, he a stalwart who would highlight every optimistic sign, every good glimmering. He argued always for the rightness of the administration's decision. I would share my disquiet, my doubts, finally my skepticism. One night over dinner I asked him, in passing, "If we had it to do over again, should we have gone in? would you support it?"
And he said, "Of course not!"
Which told me everything.
There are very, very few Democrats who would do ObamaCare over again. Some would do something different, but they wouldn't do this. The cost of the blunder has been too high in terms of policy and politics.
They, and the president, are trying to put a good face on it.
Republicans of all people should not go for the happy face. They cannot run only on ObamaCare this year and later, because it's not the only problem in America. But it's a problem, a big one, and needs to be hard and shrewdly fought.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sebelius Exits, but Health-Care War Endures - HHS Secretary's Departure Won't Do Much to Close Bitter Partisan Divide Over Health Law

From The Wall Street Journal:

The resignation of Kathleen Sebelius signals the departure of the official who, fairly or not, had become the face of the deep and bitter partisan divide over Obamacare. But the Health and Human Services secretary's departure won't do much to close that divide.
Instead, the Affordable Care Act now is entrenched as the most deeply divisive social program in recent memory, and it figures to stay that way through the November election and beyond.
That means there simply won't be any serious attempt to fine-tune the law until the political situation sorts out. Until then, Obamacare will have to rise or fall as it is, with the White House doing what it can unilaterally to adjust the health-care law.
Meanwhile, the two parties will roll out dueling Obamacare anecdotes—horror stories about consumers with lost or unaffordable coverage from Republicans, good-news stories about Americans newly healed through their new coverage from Democrats—until voters have their say in November's midterm election.
Virtually every Republican will run pledging to wipe the law off the books. Just hours before news of the Sebelius resignation broke, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who helps oversee the Republicans' Senate campaign committee, was asked what position he would advise GOP candidates to take on Obamacare this year. He replied: "I would advise all of them to run on repeal and replace."

Most Democrats, conversely, are digging in behind the law, regardless of misgivings. They are taking the fact that 7.5 million Americans now have signed up for health insurance under Obamacare—a figure that seemed impossible just two months ago—as a sign of a corner turned.

Thus, November's national election figures to be the third straight in which the health-care overhaul plays a central role in the debate. And there is only a slim chance that this year's vote will produce anything like a consensus on whether Obamacare is accepted or rejected as a permanent part of American life. More likely, that question won't be settled until the 2016 presidential contest.

For her part, Mrs. Sebelius appears to have taken advantage of that recent upturn in the law's fortunes to resign, having made good on the pledge she made months ago to see the program through its shockingly tattered and troubled rollout last fall.

In retrospect, she and President Barack Obama made a key strategic error in overseeing the program's launch, as they both now acknowledge. They believed the key to initial success lay with the nation's insurance companies, and whether they provided a sufficiently robust menu of health-care plans, so their attention was focused there. They didn't imagine that the relatively more mundane question of whether Americans could actually get on a website and sign up for the policies would become the far bigger issue.

Now that the sign-up question has been resolved, more or less, attention will turn back to the original question of whether the insurance offerings are sufficient to do the good works promised: provide coverage for most, bend down the curve of health-care costs, and do it all without adding to the federal deficit.
The jury will be out for a while. Mr. Portman, for example, argues that if the new system merely reduces the number of uninsured Americans to 30 million from the 45 million or so at the time the law was implemented, it won't have done any more than Republican proposals to expand insurance pools for high-risk patients, make insurance more portable and implement tax credits to buy coverage could have done.
Amid the conflicting claims, Americans are watching warily from deep partisan trenches. In the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 70% of Republicans said that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who pledged to repeal the health-care law; 77% of Democrats said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who pledged to keep the measure in place and fix it.
On Obamacare, Americans really are from either Mars or Venus, and the departure of Kathleen Sebelius will do little to bring them together on the same planet.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

States Raise Gas Taxes to Pay for Infrastructure - As Congress Only Takes Short-Term Steps, Governors Seek More Funds for Roads

From The Wall Street Journal:

States and cities desperate to build and repair roads and other infrastructure—but frustrated by inertia in Congress—are raising their own levies and turning to private companies for funding.

Six states and the nation's capital have raised gasoline taxes in the past year to pay for highway construction. A handful of other states, including this small coastal state [Delaware] looking to kick-start its dormant economy, are weighing similar moves.

Before this burst, no state had raised its gas tax for nearly four years, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonprofit research group.

The local efforts come after years of failed lobbying by local lawmakers for Congress to raise the 18.4 cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax, long the country's biggest source of revenue for highway and transit construction. Congress hasn't boosted the tax in 21 years due to partisan differences and public opposition. As a result, gas-tax revenues have far lagged behind prices for highway-construction materials and labor.

Health-Care Law Helps Add 3 Million to Medicaid - More Americans Accessing Program Since Start of Open Enrollment Period

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration said Friday that three million additional Americans were enrolled in Medicaid as of the end of February than were in the program before the start of the health law's open enrollment period Oct. 1, suggesting the law allowed more people to gain Medicaid coverage.

Medicaid and Chip are federal-state health-insurance programs for low-income Americans. Under the health law, states had the option of expanding Medicaid to people less than 65 years old with incomes up to 133% of the federal poverty level, or about $15,521 for an individual and $31,721 for a family of four. About half of the states expanded Medicaid while the rest kept to prior state income guidelines.

Earlier this week, the Obama administration said about 7.1 million people have signed up for private health-insurance plans as of March through federal and state marketplaces, beating original expectations that the law would provide coverage to six million or seven million Americans in 2014. Those figures didn't include Medicaid enrollment. Open enrollment under the health law technically ended March 31, but the federal HealthCare.gov insurance exchange and states with their own exchanges are continuing to process applications for health coverage.

Young Workers Fail to Flock to Employer Health Plans - Take-Up Rates Among Those Under 30 Show Unexpected Decline

From The Wall Street Journal:

Young workers in the U.S. signed up for employer-sponsored health plans at a lower rate than last year, a surprising result that helped keep overall workplace enrollment rates flat.

Companies had been bracing for a big bump in the number of workers signing up for workplace plans because of the new government mandate that most American adults buy health insurance or pay a penalty.

But new data on worker behavior for the 2014 coverage year from payroll-services company Automatic Data Processing Inc. suggest that surge of enrollment never happened, at least broadly across large companies.
A separate analysis by benefits consultant Aon Hewitt also found little overall growth in enrollment among those eligible for workplace health coverage.
Instead, enrollment as a percentage of those eligible for coverage was largely unchanged, ADP found.
Continuing a longer-term trend, younger workers' take-up of company health plans declined, meaning participation fell as a percentage of those eligible to enroll.
One possible culprit: Rules that kicked in during 2010 allowing parents to keep children on their own health plans through age 26. That likely explains much of the longer-term decline in workplace coverage among younger workers, health-care analysts say.
Alternatively, younger workers may have decided to skip coverage altogether, gambling that they would remain healthy and preferring to conserve cash, instead of paying insurance premiums.
That scenario is especially likely given that employers continue to shift a greater proportion of health-care costs to employees, Dr. Ho said. The ADP data indicate that trend continued into this year.
Lower participation by younger people, who are assumed to be healthier and therefore cheaper to insure, has been a significant concern with the public health-insurance exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act. The same assumptions hold true for workplace plans, ADP's Mr. Ryan said.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Shields and Brooks - 3-28-2014 - on Obamacare with 6 million having signed up

From PBS Newshour:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, two other things I want to ask you both about.

One, Mark, is the health care law, White House celebrating yesterday. The deadline is the end of March. They’re celebrating. They have — six million Americans have now signed up.

Is this — we know the law is still very unpopular, or largely unpopular with the American people. Does this, though, in some way take the edge off of the negative that the Republicans have made this as an issue?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s the old better than expected, Judy, is where it is.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, seven million was the target. Now it’s six million, and the Democrats are doing a little victory dance in the end zone over that.

It’s certainly far better than it was. And you can see that there’s been an all-out effort made. I do think the Republicans, quite honestly, have promised to come up with one that will cover everybody at a lower cost and at no intrusion. We’re still waiting for that. It hasn’t — it hasn’t happened.

But it has been an abject failure on the part of the Democratic administration to sell this plan. It was 36 percent approval four years ago in the CBS poll, 39 percent approval two years ago, and 41 percent approval. It’s a failure to convince people, persuade people that they’re right and the other side’s wrong.



Well, I think the plan has achieved credibility. There was some possibility — I never thought it was a large possibility — there was some possibility that people wouldn’t sign up and the whole thing would collapse just by lack of effort. It has crossed that threshold. So it is going to function. The question is whether it will function well or poorly, whether the exchanges will work, whether the cost things will work, whether innovation will be driven by this.

And then we’re simply too soon to tell. It will take two or three years to even begin to get some sign of that. What we have now is people really reacting to it individually. A lot of people are pleased. They’re getting — they’re getting insurance at lower cost. A lot of people are displeased. They’re seeing their premiums go up.

I suspect, over the next six months, seven months, a lot of those individual experiences will begin to replace the more ideological reaction which people have to the bill now. I suspect it will still be a pretty good issue, at least this election, for Republicans.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Geopolitics and the New World Order - Geography increasingly fuels endless chaos and old-school conflicts in the 21st Century. - Forget the niceties of international law. Territory and the bonds of blood that go with it are central to what makes us human.

From TIME:

This isn’t what the 21st century was supposed to look like. The visceral reaction of many pundits, academics and Obama Administration officials to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s virtual annexation of Crimea has been disbelief bordering on disorientation. As Secretary of State John Kerry said, “It’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century.” Well, the “19th century,” as Kerry calls it, lives on and always will. Forget about the world being flat. Forget technology as the great democratizer. Forget the niceties of international law. Territory and the bonds of blood that go with it are central to what makes us human.

Geography hasn’t gone away. The global elite–leading academics, intellectuals, foreign policy analysts, foundation heads and corporate power brokers, as well as many Western leaders–may largely have forgotten about it. But what we’re witnessing now is geography’s revenge: in the East-West struggle for control of the buffer state of Ukraine, in the post–Arab Spring fracturing of artificial Middle Eastern states into ethnic and sectarian fiefs and in the unprecedented arms race being undertaken by East Asian states as they dispute potentially resource-rich waters. Technology hasn’t negated geography; it has only made it more precious and claustrophobic.

Whereas the West has come to think about international relations in terms of laws and multinational agreements, most of the rest of the world still thinks in terms of deserts, mountain ranges, all-weather ports and tracts of land and water. The world is back to the maps of elementary school as a starting point for an understanding of history, culture, religion and ethnicity–not to mention power struggles over trade routes and natural resources.

The post–Cold War era was supposed to be about economics, interdependence and universal values trumping the instincts of nationalism and nationalism’s related obsession with the domination of geographic space. But Putin’s actions betray a singular truth, one that the U.S. should remember as it looks outward and around the globe: international relations are still about who can do what to whom.

Putin’s Power Play 

So what has Putin done? The Russian leader has used geography to his advantage. He has acted, in other words, according to geopolitics, the battle for space and power played out in a geographical setting–a concept that has not changed since antiquity (and yet one to which many Western diplomats and academics have lately seemed deaf). 

Europe’s modern era is supposed to be about the European Union triumphing over the bonds of blood and ethnicity, building a system of laws from Iberia to the Black Sea–and eventually from Lisbon to Moscow. But the E.U.’s long financial crisis has weakened its political influence in Central and Eastern Europe. And while its democratic ideals have been appealing to many in Ukraine, the dictates of geography make it nearly impossible for that nation to reorient itself entirely toward the West. 

Russia is still big, and Russia is still autocratic–after all, it remains a sprawling and insecure land power that has enjoyed no cartographic impediments to invasion from French, Germans, Swedes, Lithuanians and Poles over the course of its history. The southern Crimean Peninsula is still heavily ethnic Russian, and it is the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, providing Russia’s only outlet to the Mediterranean. 

Seeing that he could no longer control Ukraine by manipulating its democracy through President Viktor Yanukovych’s neo-czardom, Putin opted for a more direct and mechanical approach. He took de facto control of pro-Russian Crimea, which for all intents and purposes was already within his sphere of influence. Besides, the home of Russia’s warm-water fleet could never be allowed to fall under the sway of a pro-Western government in Kiev. 

Next, Putin ordered military maneuvers in the part of Russia adjoining eastern Ukraine, involving more than 10,000 troops, in order to demonstrate Russia’s geographical supremacy over the half of Ukraine that is pro-Russian as well as the part of Ukraine blessed with large shale-gas reserves. Putin knows–as does the West–that a flat topography along the long border between Russia and Ukraine grants Moscow an overwhelming advantage not only militarily but also in terms of disrupting trade and energy flows to Kiev. While Ukraine has natural gas of its own, it relies on Russia’s far vaster reserves to fuel its domestic economy. 

Putin is not likely to invade eastern Ukraine in a conventional way. In order to exercise dominance, he doesn’t need to. Instead he will send in secessionists, instigate disturbances, probe the frontier with Russian troops and in other ways use the porous border with Ukraine to undermine both eastern Ukraine’s sovereignty and its links to western Ukraine. 

In short, he will use every geographical and linguistic advantage to weaken Ukraine as a state. Ukraine is simply located too far east, and is too spatially exposed to Russia, for it ever to be in the interests of any government in Moscow–democratic or not–to allow Ukraine’s complete alignment with the West. 

Back to a Zero-Sum Middle East 

Another way to describe what is going on around the world now is old-fashioned zero-sum power politics. It is easy to forget that many Western policymakers and thinkers have grown up in conditions of unprecedented security and prosperity, and they have been intellectually formed by the post–Cold War world, in which it was widely believed that a new set of coolly rational rules would drive foreign policy. But leaders beyond America and Europe tend to be highly territorial in their thinking. For them, international relations are a struggle for survival. As a result, Western leaders often think in universal terms, while rulers in places like Russia, the Middle East and East Asia think in narrower terms: those that provide advantage to their nations or their ethnic groups only. 

We can see this disconnect in the Middle East, which is unraveling in ways that would be familiar to a 19th century geographer but less intuitive to a Washington policy wonk. The Arab Spring was hailed for months as the birth pangs of a new kind of regional democracy. It quickly became a crisis in central authority, producing not democracy but religious war in Syria, chaos in Yemen and Libya and renewed dictatorship in Egypt as a popular reaction to incipient chaos and Islamic extremism. Tunisia, seen by some as the lone success story of the Arab Spring, is a mere fledgling democracy with land borders it can no longer adequately control, especially in the southern desert areas where its frontiers meet those of Algeria and Libya–a situation aggravated by Libya’s collapse. 

Meanwhile, Tripoli is no longer the capital of Libya but instead the central dispatch point for negotiations among tribes, militias and gangs for control of territory. Damascus is not the capital of Syria but only that of Syria’s most powerful warlord, Bashar Assad. Baghdad totters on as the capital of a tribalized Shi’ite Mesopotamia dominated by adjacent Iran–with a virtually independent Kurdish entity to its mountainous north and a jihadist Sunnistan to its west, the latter of which has joined a chaotic void populated by literally hundreds of war bands extending deep across a flat desert terrain into Syria as far as the Mediterranean.

Hovering above this devolution of Middle Eastern states into anarchic warlorddoms is the epic geographic struggle between a great Shi’ite state occupying the Iranian Plateau and a medieval-style Sunni monarchy occupying much of the Arabian Peninsula. The interminable violence and repression in eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sunnistan (covering both western Iraq and Syria) are fueled by this Saudi-Iranian proxy war.

Because Iran is developing the technological and scientific base with which to assemble nuclear weapons, Israel finds itself in a de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be defined by his zero-sum geographic fears, including that of the tyranny of distance: the difficulty of his relatively small air force to travel a thousand miles eastward, which bedevils his search for an acceptable military option against Iran. This helps make him what he is: an obstinate negotiating partner for both the Palestinians and the Americans. 

Pacific Projection 

Then there is the most important part of the world for the U.S., the part with two of the three largest economies (China and Japan) and the home of critical American treaty allies: the Asia-Pacific region. This region too is undeniably far less stable now than at the start of the 21st century, and for reasons that can best be explained by geography.

In the early Cold War decades, Asian countries were preoccupied with their internal affairs. China, under Mao Zedong’s depredations and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, was inwardly focused. Vietnam, the current territory of Malaysia and to a lesser extent the Philippines were overwhelmed by internal wars and rebellions. Singapore was building a viable city-state from scratch. And South Korea and Japan were recovering from major wars. 

Now these states have consolidated their domestic affairs and built strong institutions. They have all, with the exception of the poverty-racked Philippines, benefited from many years of capitalist-style growth. But strong institutions and capitalist prosperity lead to military ambitions, and so all of these states since the 1990s have been enlarging or modernizing their navies and air forces–a staggering military buildup to which the American media have paid relatively scant attention. 

Since the 1990s, Asia’s share of military imports has risen from 15% to 41% of the world total, and its overall military spending has risen from 11% to 20% of all global military expenditures. And what are these countries doing with all of these new submarines, warships, fighter jets, ballistic missiles and cyberwarfare capabilities? They are contesting with one another lines on the map in the blue water of the South China and East China seas: Who controls what island, atoll or other geographical feature above or below water–for reserves of oil and natural gas might lie nearby? Nationalism, especially that based on race and ethnicity, fired up by territorial claims, may be frowned upon in the modern West, but it is alive and well throughout prosperous East Asia. 

Notice that all these disputes are, once again, not about ideas or economics or politics even but rather about territory. The various claims between China and Japan in the East China Sea, and between China and all the other pleaders in the South China Sea (principally Vietnam and the Philippines), are so complex that while theoretically solvable through negotiation, they are more likely to be held in check by a stable balance-of-power system agreed to by the U.S. and Chinese navies and air forces. The 21st century map of the Pacific Basin, clogged as it is with warships, is like a map of conflict-prone Europe from previous centuries. Though war may ultimately be avoided in East Asia, the Pacific will show us a more anxious, complicated world order, explained best by such familiar factors as physical terrain, clashing peoples, natural resources and contested trade routes. 

India and China, because of the high wall of the Himalayas, have developed for most of history as two great world civilizations having relatively little to do with each other. But the collapse of distance in the past 50 years has turned them into strategic competitors in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. (This is how technology abets rather than alleviates conflict.) And if Narendra Modi of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is elected by a significant majority in elections in April and May, as is expected by many, India will likely pursue a fiercely geopolitical foreign policy, aligning even more strongly with Japan against China. 

China, meanwhile, faces profound economic troubles in the coming years. The upshot will be more regime-stoked nationalism directed at the territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas and more rebellions at home from regionally based ethnic groups such as the Turkic Muslim Uighurs, in the west abutting Central Asia, and the Tibetans, in the southwest close to India. Can the Han Chinese, who inhabit the arable cradle of China and make up 90% of the country’s population, keep the minorities on the upland peripheries under control during a sustained period of economic and social unrest? The great existential question about China’s future is about control of its borderlands, not its currency. 

Practically anywhere you look around the globe, geography confounds. Burma is slowly being liberated from benighted military dictatorship only to see its Muslim minority Rohingyas suffer murder and rape at the hands of Burmese nationalist groups. The decline of authoritarianism in Burma reveals a country undermined by geographically based ethnic groups with their own armies and militias. Similarly, sub-Saharan African economies have been growing dramatically as middle classes emerge across that continent. Yet at the same time, absolute population growth and resource scarcity have aggravated ethnic and religious conflicts over territory, as in the adjoining Central African Republic and South Sudan in the heart of the continent, which have dissolved into religious and tribal war. 

What’s New Is Old Again 

Of course, civil society of the kind Western elites pine for is the only answer for most of these problems. The rule of law, combined with decentralization in the cases of sprawling countries such as Russia and Burma, alone can provide for stability–as it has over the centuries in Europe and the Americas. But working toward that goal requires undiluted realism about the unpleasant facts on the ground. 

To live in a world where geography is respected and not ignored is to understand the constraints under which political leaders labor. Many obstacles simply cannot be overcome. That is why the greatest statesmen work near the edges of what is possible. Geography establishes the broad parameters–only within its bounds does human agency have a chance to succeed. 

Thus, Ukraine can become a prosperous civil society, but because of its location it will always require a strong and stable relationship with Russia. The Arab world can eventually stabilize, but Western militaries cannot set complex and highly populous Islamic societies to rights except at great cost to themselves. East Asia can avoid war but only by working with the forces of ethnic nationalism at play there. 

If there is good news here, it is that most of the borders that are being redrawn–or just reunderlined–exist within states rather than between them. A profound level of upheaval is occurring that, in many cases, precludes military intervention. The vast human cataclysms of the 20th century will not likely repeat themselves. But the worldwide civil society that the elites thought they could engineer is a chimera. The geographical forces at work will not be easily tamed.
While our foreign policy must be morally based, the analysis behind it must be cold-blooded, with geography as its starting point. In geopolitics, the past never dies and there is no modern world.

Putin rekindles the glow of empire

From TIME:

Empires have spilled blood and spent treasure for control of Crimea for more than 2,500 years, ever since the ancient Greeks first made it their colony. It took Russian President Vladimir Putin less than three weeks–and not a single shot fired in anger–to wrest the peninsula from Ukraine. On March 18, two days after a referendum showed that an overwhelming majority of Crimeans wanted to be annexed by Russia, Putin signed a decree formalizing the arrangement. The U.S. and its European allies barely had time to prepare a round of mild sanctions–mainly travel restrictions and asset freezes for a handful of officials–which the master of the Kremlin shrugged off.

For Putin, the punishment pales before the political prize. The annexation of Crimea has pushed his popularity higher than it’s been in three years–to a stunning 72% in two nationwide polls, up almost 10% since the invasion of Crimea began. Roughly the same percentage of respondents said at the start of February that they did not want Russia to intervene at all in Ukraine’s internal affairs. But for Russians, the conquest of Crimea was not seen as an intervention. It felt like a rightful return to the status of empire that Russia had lost after the fall of the Soviet Union. Even for some of Putin’s harshest critics, achieving that is worth just about any rupture in relations with the West.

Just ask Mikhail Gorbachev. In an interview on the eve of Crimea’s annexation, the last leader of the USSR–the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is credited with ending the Cold War–declared that Putin should not stop at Crimea. All of southern Ukraine, Gorbachev said, is Moscow’s rightful dominion. “In essence, in history, it’s just like Crimea,” he told a Russian news website. “Its population is Russian. It was civilized by Russians.” And with tens of thousands of Russian troops still massed at Ukraine’s eastern border, Putin may yet decide to expand his landgrab.

As long as he can follow the Crimean formula–a bloodless and surgical takeover–even his enemies in Russia will applaud. Maria Baronova is a case in point. Last year she stood trial in Moscow for “inciting mass unrest.” Her crime? Organizing a protest against Putin on the eve of his third presidential inauguration. Few Putin critics are more outspoken, but on Crimea, Baronova is fully behind her President. Her generation of savvy, liberal urbanites suffered through the Soviet loss of empire when they were just coming into their own, and Baronova remembers it as “a palpable, physical discomfort, a sense of helplessness in knowing that our state can do nothing to counter the will of the West.”

The most painful object lesson for them was NATO’s intervention in the war in Kosovo in 1999, when Russia was forced to watch Serbia, a nation with deep religious and cultural ties to the Russians, bombed by Western warplanes and then, after a plebiscite backed by the West, lose control of Kosovo. “Watching that gave us a deep inferiority complex,” says Baronova.

Some of her older friends in Moscow even volunteered to go fight in Bosnia back then. “It was a mad time,” says Mark Feygin, who was in his early 20s when he went to Bosnia to fight alongside the Serbs in 1993. “Everything was falling apart–the Soviet Union, everything we knew–and our country was in no condition to help our brothers. So we went and did what we could.” Twenty years later, Feygin has become one of Russia’s most prominent civil rights lawyers; he defended the activists of Pussy Riot when three of them were put on trial in 2012 for protesting against Putin. But Feygin, too, supports the return of Crimea to Russia. “It really is a historical injustice that Crimea was given to Ukraine like some kind of toy,” he says.

That gift was made in 1954 on the whim of Nikita Khrushchev, who was then the leader of the Soviet Union. He decided to take Crimea away from Russia and transfer it to Ukraine at a time when the placement of their borders didn’t really matter. (Legend has it that Khrushchev was drunk when he signed the papers.) All three were part of the Soviet Union, whose collapse seemed unthinkable. But when it all broke apart in 1991, Crimea and its majority-Russian population found themselves in what felt like a foreign land. Ukrainian nationalism was on the rise, and a popular movement in Crimea pleaded for Moscow to take it back in the early 1990s. Those appeals were ignored. The Kremlin had too many other fires to fight across its crumbling empire.

So when Putin sent in troops to take back Crimea, he didn’t just increase Russia’s variety of Black Sea beaches. To his supporters, he corrected a historical anomaly. “Crimea is our common property, the most important factor of stability in the region,” Putin said during a speech in the Kremlin on March 18, just before signing a treaty to annex the peninsula. “This strategic territory should be under strong, stable sovereignty, which realistically may only be Russia today.”

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Shame on you Mrs. Obama; this is like something you would expect from Jimmy Carter. I am embarrassed. You invited yourself to this country as a trip billed as cultural exchange.

From The New York Times:

On a visit that was supposed to be nonpolitical, Michelle Obama delivered an unmistakable message to the Chinese on Saturday, saying in an address here that freedom of speech, particularly on the Internet and in the news media, provided the foundation for a vibrant society.

The forthright exposition of the American belief in freedom of speech came against a backdrop of broad censorship of the Internet by the Chinese government. The government polices the Internet to prevent the nation’s 500 million users from seeing antigovernment sentiment, and blocks a variety of foreign websites, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The authorities compel domestic Internet sites to censor themselves.

The White House has stressed that Mrs. Obama’s trip to China during the spring break of her daughters, Malia and Sasha, is intended to highlight the importance of education, and foreign exchanges in particular.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The federal government would cover the entire cost of Medicaid expansion for the first 3 years, with its share gradually dropping to no less than 90% thereafter. Money will be flowing out of Georgia into states that have accepted Obamacare.

From the AJC's Political Insider:

One of the year’s grandest acts of political rebellion in the state Capitol took place last Tuesday, deep into the 39th day of a 40-day session of the Legislature.

“I am concerned that my party is going to lose thousands of health care workers and independent voters over this,” said state Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome. “The majority of Georgians do oppose Obamacare, but six out of 10 believe we ought to expand Medicaid. There is a difference between the two.”

Hufstetler is a first-termer and a back-bencher. Literally. His seat is on the final row. But he is the sleepy, quiet type. No bomb-thrower. In fact, by trade he is an anesthetist at Redmond Regional Medical Center, the smaller of two hospitals in his district.

The occasion of Hufstetler’s outburst was the Senate debate over HB 990. The bill was the lesser of two anti-Obamacare measures in circulation, a greased piece of legislation that would take the decision of whether to expand Medicaid, as recommended by the ACA, out of the hands of the governor. Legislative approval would be required.

Gov. Nathan Deal had endorsed the whittling of his own authority, so the Senate vote and the words that went with it were mere formalities. Until Hufstetler took the well.

First, the former member of the Floyd County Commission presented his credentials. He had opposed the 2009 passage of the Affordable Care Act, he said, primarily because of its mandate that individuals purchase insurance or be fined.

But President Barack Obama has issued so many waivers for the requirement that it is almost meaningless, Hufstetler said.

What worried the Rome senator was Gov. Nathan Deal’s decision – which will soon be in the hands of the GOP-controlled Legislature – to refuse to expand the federal-state health care program for low-income Georgians.

Hufstetler cited a list of Republican governors in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Utah who have made their peace with the Affordable Care Act, expanding health care coverage to poorer residents in their state.

In Georgia, Medicaid expansion would wrap in an estimated 650,000 more low-income earners. The program currently covers about 1.7 million children, pregnant women, plus elderly and disabled residents.

The federal government would cover the entire cost of Medicaid expansion for the first three years, with its share gradually dropping to no less than 90 percent thereafter – a promise that most Republicans treat with high skepticism.

But Hufstetler sees something else. He sees his state giving up billions upon billions of dollars at the cost of thousands of health care jobs. With no impact on the federal deficit. Money will be flowing out of Georgia into states that have accepted Obamacare.

“I believe this transfer of wealth is going to hurt Georgia as numerous studies by Kaiser [Permanente], the University of Georgia, and Georgia State have pointed out,” Hufstetler said.
Huftsetler was the only Republican to cast a vote against HB 990. He also voted against a measure sent to the governor that will eventually force the University of Georgia to drop a federally funded program to train the “navigators” that point consumers to health insurance exchanges.

“I don’t know why we as Republicans would vote to not allow the University of Georgia to help enroll people at no cost to the state, to help enroll people in private insurance,” he later said.

At the very least, Hufstetler’s speech, which startled even Democrats, was inconvenient to the chief resident of the state Capitol’s second floor.

The next day, the governor would tell a gathering of rural legislators that he would back a plan allow rural hospitals in south Georgia – which are gasping for cash that could come their way under an expansion of Medicaid – to reduce the services they offer as a way of cutting expenses.

For many health care centers, the only other alternative is to shut down. Four rural hospitals have closed in the last two years. The Department of Community Health recently advanced $800,000 to a small hospital and nursing home in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., so that it could make payroll.

The singularity of Hufstetler’s comments might be hard to understand, unless you’ve sat through a dozen or so Republican gatherings. There is a playbook, and unwavering opposition to Obamacare is at the very top of it.

Right now, when it comes to Medicaid expansion, Hufstetler stands alone among Republicans in the state Capitol. “I can’t think of anybody else,” said Matt Caseman, executive director of the Georgia Rural Health Association – who quickly declared his sincere and deep appreciation for Deal’s efforts to help rural hospitals.

As for Hufstetler, he will survive in the Legislature at least through 2016.

“I haven’t really had any negative reaction to this. I think it helps that in my eight years on the county commission, we lowered taxes six times,” Hufstetler said. “The people in my district know my record as a fiscal conservative.”

Perhaps more important, Hufstetler’s speech came after qualifying closed – he has no opposition in 2014. He might be fearless, but he’s not stupid.

NRSC chairman: Obamacare has helped ‘dramatically’ expand Senate map for GOP

From The Washington Post:

The head of Senate Republicans' campaign arm said Friday that problems associated with the Affordable Care Act have "dramatically" expanded the Senate map for Republicans, who are gaining steam in their quest to win back the majority.

"The map and opportunities have expanded dramatically in a year, in part because of the consequences of the Affordable Care Act," said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Moran spoke on a conference call with reporters to mark the four-year anniversary of President Obama's signing of the health-care law, which is Sunday. Moran said that in January of 2013, he felt like Republicans could "gain five, six, maybe seven seats." Today, Moran said, "we have strong credible candidates in races that can be won by those candidates in 10, 11, 12, 13 states."

Republicans must pick up six seats to win back the Senate majority. They recently landed top candidates or potential candidates in New Hampshire and Colorado when former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown (R) and Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) entered the mix. Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie's decision to run in Virginia made another Democratic-held seat more competitive. Democrats, meanwhile, are playing offense in Georgia and Kentucky.

Moran was joined on the call by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.). Walden pointed to Republican David Jolly's recent win in Florida's 13th district special election as evidence that Democrats' keep-it-but-fix-it refrain is a "total flop."

Obamacare, Walden said, is "not the only issue," but it's a "brutal issue."

The outcome of the Florida race "showed what will happen to Democrats in November," added Priebus.