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Cracker Squire


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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.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Anti-U.S. Anger Rises in Egypt - Secularist-Leaning Opposition Groups Say White House Is Supporting the Islamist Leadership They Hope to End

From The Wall Street Journal:

As Egyptians prepare for massive protests against President Mohammed Morsi on Sunday, a large piece of opposition activists' anger is being directed at the U.S. and its perceived support for Egypt's ruling Islamists.

A flurry of newspaper articles, talk shows and public statements over the past few weeks have singled out the U.S. for particular scorn while accusing America's diplomatic mission in Cairo of acting as a sort of puppet master behind Mr. Morsi's administration.
Anger against the U.S. is nothing new in the Middle East, and neither are conspiracy theories in which Washington plays a strong, silent hand.
But rarely have such theories placed U.S. influence so squarely behind Islamists such as Mr. Morsi, a former leader in the powerful Muslim Brotherhood that the White House helped to subdue for decades by backing successive anti-Islamist autocrats.
Suspicions of U.S. involvement in Egyptian politics have never been far below the surface of the Egyptian public consciousness. Moheb Doss, a founding member of the Tamarod, or "Rebel" petition campaign demanding that Mr. Morsi resign, said the Central Intelligence Agency backed Mr. Morsi because his capitalist leanings mirror those of Mr. Mubarak's.
But comments by Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, earlier in June at an Egyptian pro-democracy organization have sparked a renewed eruption of anti-American sentiment in the secular media.
In an effort to "set the record straight" about the U.S. relationship with the Brotherhood, Ms. Patterson said the White House supported Mr. Morsi because he was fairly elected and poured cold water on protesters' plans to oust him on June 30.
"Some say that street action will produce better results than elections. To be honest, my government and I are deeply skeptical," Ms. Patterson told the audience of mostly activists. "More violence on the streets will do little more than add new names to the lists of martyrs. Instead, I recommend Egyptians get organized."
The backlash from activist corners was fast and fierce.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Erdogan Tightens Grip on Turkey, Putting Nation at Crossroads

From The Wall Street Journal:

As mayor of Istanbul in the late 1990s, Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly read a poem that included the lines: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers." The Islamist message earned him a few months in jail from Turkey's military-backed secular government.
A few years later, Mr. Erdogan re-emerged in politics as a champion of liberal democracy calling for sweeping institutional reforms and closer ties with Europe, became prime minister and led Turkey through a decade of prosperity and influence.

Now, Mr. Erdogan has tacked back in the other direction, igniting weeks of protests from Turks concerned by what they see as Mr. Erdogan's efforts to consolidate his power and Islamize public life. The shift has raised new questions among many Turkish voters about whether the prime minister is democrat or autocrat. How far Mr. Erdogan pushes his new agenda may determine the durability of Turkey's revival.

The protests were ignited by Mr. Erdogan's development plans for an Istanbul park but quickly spread into a national crisis. Mr. Erdogan on June 15 restored order by sending riot police to storm the park, sending protesters fleeing in a hail of tear gas and water cannons.
Consequences are starting to emerge. Germany, Turkey's largest trading partner, this week sought to block the start of new talks about Turkey entering the European Union. The U.S., which has called on Turkey to show restraint, is watching to see if the protests constrain Mr. Erdogan's ability to pressure the Syrian regime that President Barack Obama wants to oust.
How the prime minister navigates the next stage could affect other Muslim countries that have viewed Mr. Erdogan's brand of Islam-infused democracy as a model. Turkey was quick to champion the pro-democracy uprisings that unseated dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2011. In Egypt, Turkey offered more than $2 billion to bolster the economy and dispatched leading officials and businesspeople to help President Mohammed Morsi reform the country's secular-dominated institutions.
For Mr. Erdogan himself, the protests could hinder his effort to overhaul the constitution and create a more powerful presidency and broker a peace deal to end a three-decade long Kurdish insurgency. His pugilistic response to the demonstrations alienated secular and moderate allies, but played well with his socially conservative political base, analysts say.
The current turmoil in Turkey follows a shift by Mr. Erdogan after his third election victory in 2011. Since then, the prime minister has sought to impose further restrictions on alcohol consumption and abortion and repeatedly called for all women to have at least three children to grow Turkey's population. He has held forth on what citizens should eat at the family dinner table, and intervened to censor sex scenes in prime-time television series. His government has sought to muzzle the press; Turkey now jails more journalists than Iran or China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In Istanbul, he has personally commissioned plans to build a landmark mosque on Taksim Square, the bastion of Turkey's secularists and leftist groups. He has centralized power by taking control of his party list, purging it of more moderate voices and handpicking candidates for parliament who agree with his views, analysts say.
The breaking of the power of Turkey's military, which had toppled four governments in the second half of the 20th century, was perhaps Erdogan's most striking achievement. Hundreds of officers were jailed after coup trials.
The prime minister's popularity was boosted by a remarkable decade of economic growth that has seen a near tripling of nominal incomes. The average Turk today earns $10,500 a year, up from $3,500 when Mr. Erdogan took power.
The masterful period has seen political power increasingly centralized around Mr. Erdogan, who has final word on every issue. He has stifled dissent, using a broad coup investigation designed to subdue the military to purge other enemies, including opposition journalists and Kurdish activists.
Some observers of Mr. Erdogan say that his charisma has been the key to his success, but could also be a roadblock that could frustrate reaching a resolution.
"Erdogan is at his root a pragmatist and not unlike Bill Clinton—he would make you feel like you were the only person in the room," said Jenny White, a professor at Boston University who once shadowed Mr. Erdogan when he was Istanbul mayor. "Erdogan is a product of Turkish culture that is characterized by militant masculinity that can easily turn to violence. It's a loaded gun that can be manipulated and pointed, which makes it dangerous."

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

David Brooks on the U.S. Supreme Court and Affirmative Action - Speed of Ascent

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:
The Supreme Court didn’t exactly shock the world on Monday. But, by imposing stricter standards on how courts review affirmative action plans, the court did send another small signal that the era of explicitly race-based affirmative action is coming to an end.
During their heyday, affirmative action programs produced some lasting good. It would have been immoral in the civil rights era to have an archipelago of white colleges and universities dotting the land. Affirmative action plans prevented that. As William Bowen and Derek Bok wrote in their classic work, “The Shape of the River,” in 1960, only 5.4 percent of blacks between 25 and 29 had graduated from college, while, by 1995, that share had risen to 15.4 percent. The share of black medical school students climbed from 2.2 percent to 8.1 percent.

But affirmative action programs also perpetrated some noteworthy wrongs. They reinforced crude racial categorizations, which repelled many Americans. They discriminated against Asian-Americans. Thomas Espenshade of Princeton reviewed admissions data from 1997 and found that Asian applicants had to outscore African-Americans by 450 points on their S.A.T.’s to have an equal chance of getting into a college. The programs also produced a mismatch between minority students and the schools they attended, which sometimes ended up hurting the students they were designed to help.

The evidence on this is hotly disputed, but Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. make a compelling case in their book “Mismatch.” Because some minority applicants get drafted into schools where they wouldn’t otherwise be accepted, they are more likely to be stuck in the bottom of their classes and more likely to flee from difficult science and engineering majors. Black law school students are four times more likely to fail bar exams, with mismatch, according to Sander and Taylor, explaining half this gap.

So affirmative action gave us some wildly good and unfortunately negative outcomes, and it stirred up fierce debates. But that’s not why these racial preferences are going away. They are going away because underlying realities have changed.

First, economic inequality now trumps racial inequality as the chief source of disadvantage. Sean Reardon of Stanford has looked at a range of studies over 50 years and found whereas the black/white test score gap used to be nearly twice as large as the rich/poor gap, now the income gap is nearly twice large as the race gap. Given this, explicitly race-based affirmative action just doesn’t respond to the needs of the moment.

Second, the ethnic makeup of the country has become more complex. At the dawn of the affirmative action era, it was easy to see the chief racial divide as between whites and blacks, but the ethnic mosaic is much more complicated now, with an explosion of different groups from all over the world, at various levels of disadvantage.

Third, we’re living in an age of data. Once, it may have seemed reasonable to measure a person by a few crude metrics: S.A.T., G.P.A., race. But now colleges and universities, especially with financial aid forms, have access to a wide array of data on all applicants and can potentially get a much more personalized look at the disadvantages each individual has overcome.

The result is that race-based affirmative action, while not being rejected, is being subsumed within class-based affirmative action. It’s being subsumed within more detailed measures of exactly which challenges each applicant faced.

In his Century Foundation report, “A Better Affirmative Action,” Richard Kahlenberg shows how state university systems in places like Texas and Colorado and at places like the U.C.L.A. Law School are devising class-based preference systems, which ameliorate economic disadvantage while still producing racially diverse campuses.

What often happens is this: Voters or courts in a state will strike down race-based affirmative action. Minority enrollments initially plummet. Then administrations devise class-based systems that look at the specific obstacles that applicants have overcome: growing up in a neighborhood with concentrated poverty, with a single parent or in a home with few financial assets. Minority enrollments recover, at least to a significant degree, and the new system is fairer than the old.

What are we looking for when we admit a student into a university? We’re looking for speed of ascent, not academic attainment at one moment in time. A student who’s risen from an economic catastrophe to achieve a B-plus average has more speed of ascent than the child of law professors who has an A average. The first student may be more expensive to teach. She may not write as many big alumni checks. But she’ll reflect more credit on her school and society.

We now have the means to measure speed of ascent in a fairer and better way. Explicit, raced-based affirmative action programs weren’t wrong for their time, but they are being replaced.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Supreme Court Weighs Cases Redefining Legal Equality - Justice Antonin Scalia: “Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements,” he said, “it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”

From The New York Times:

Within days, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a series of decisions that could transform three fundamental social institutions: marriage, education and voting.

:The extraordinary run of blockbuster rulings due in the space of a single week will also reshape the meaning of legal equality and help define for decades to come one of the Constitution’s grandest commands: “the equal protection of the laws.”
If those words require only equal treatment from the government, the rulings are likely to be a mixed bag that will delight and disappoint liberals and conservatives in equal measure. Under that approach, same-sex couples who want to marry would be better off at the end of the term, while blacks and Hispanics could find it harder to get into college and to vote.
But a tension runs through the cases, one based on different conceptions of equality. Some justices are committed to formal equality. Others say the Constitution requires a more dynamic kind of equality, one that takes account of the weight of history and of modern disparities.
The four major cases yet to be decided concern same-sex marriage, affirmative action in higher education and the fate of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which places special burdens on states with a history of racial discrimination.
Formal equality would require that gay couples be treated just like straight couples when it comes to marriage, white students just like black students when it comes to admissions decisions and Southern states just like Northern ones when it comes to federal oversight of voting. The effect would be to help gay couples, and hurt blacks and Latinos.
But such rulings — “liberal” when it comes to gay rights, “conservative” when it comes to race — are hard to reconcile with the historical meaning of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, adopted in the wake of the Civil War and meant to protect the newly freed black slaves. It would be odd, said David A. Strauss, a law professor at the University of Chicago, for that amendment to help gays but not blacks.
“What’s weird about it would be the retreat on race, which is the paradigm example of what the 14th Amendment is meant to deal with,” he said, “coupled with fairly aggressive action on sexual orientation.”
But actual as opposed to formal racial equality has fallen out of favor in some circles, Professor Strauss said. “One thing that seems to be going on with these historically excluded groups,” he said, “is that they come to be thought of as just another interest group. Blacks seem to have crossed that line.”
Justice Antonin Scalia appeared to express that view during the argument in February in the voting rights case, Shelby County v. Holder, No. 12-96. “Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements,” he said, “it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”
Gay men and lesbians have yet to achieve formal legal equality. They are not protected against job discrimination in much of the nation, may not marry their same-sex partners in most of it and do not have their marriages recognized by the federal government in any of it. The fact that they are asking for equal treatment may help their cause in the cases challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which for purposes of federal benefits defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and Proposition 8, the California voter initiative that banned same-sex marriage there.
But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. suggested in March that ordinary politics would sort things out. “As far as I can tell,” he told a lawyer challenging the federal marriage law in United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307, “political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case.”
In the three months since that argument, three more states have adopted same-sex marriage, raising the total to 12, along with the District of Columbia.
Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at New York University, said the two different conceptions of equal protection are animated by different concerns. One is skeptical of government classifications based on race and similar characteristics, whatever their goals. The other tries to make sure that historically disfavored groups are not subordinated.
“Under Jim Crow,” Professor Yoshino said, “both horses ran in the same direction.” Southern states enacted laws that drew formal distinctions, and those distinctions oppressed blacks.
“These days,” Professor Yoshino said, “the two horses are running in opposite directions.”
Consider the case of Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was denied admission to the University of Texas. She says the university, an arm of the state government, should not classify people on the basis of race because that violates a colorblind conception of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.
Defenders of the university’s affirmative action program say the purpose of the classification must figure in the equal protection analysis. “What we’re really trying to do is try to make sure there aren’t castes in our society, and we will try to lift up castes,” Professor Yoshino said.
A formal conception of equality helps Ms. Fisher in her case, Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 11-345. A dynamic one helps the university.
Whichever side loses a major Supreme Court case is likely to say the decision was an example of judicial activism. That term can be an empty insult, but political scientists try to give it meaning. They say a court is activist when it strikes down a law as unconstitutional. There is a chance the court will be activist in that sense twice this week.
It may strike down central provisions of the federal marriage law and of the Voting Rights Act. Should that happen, said Pamela Harris, an adviser to the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown’s law school, “the left will be saying out of one side of its mouth, ‘How dare you strike down the considered judgment of Congress in the Voting Rights Act?’ ” In the same breath, she said, liberals will add, “But great job on DOMA.”
There is another possibility: one or more of the cases could fizzle, said Walter E. Dellinger, who served as acting solicitor general in the Clinton administration and filed an influential brief in the Proposition 8 case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, No. 12-144. It argued that the failure of officials in California to appeal the judgment against them deprived the Supreme Court of jurisdiction to decide the case, and it was discussed at the argument in March.
Mr. Dellinger said all four remaining blockbuster cases suffer from plausible procedural flaws that could lead to their dismissal. “I’ve never heard of this before,” he said of such an end-of-term possibility.
An effort to harmonize all of the court’s big decisions may in the end prove impossible. “It’s hard to imagine somebody happy with everything they do, except Justice Kennedy,” Professor Strauss said, referring to the member of the court at its ideological center, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
That may be just as well for the court’s reputation. In giving something to liberals and something to conservatives, as it often does, Professor Strauss said, “the court has avoided putting itself in a position where either side wants to declare war on them.”

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Tom Friedman: Postcard From Turkey - What’s sad is that Erdogan’s arrogance, autocratic impulses and, lately, use of anti-Semitic tropes, are soiling what has been an outstanding record of leadership. His Islamist party has greatly improved health care, raised incomes, built roads and bridges, improved governance and pushed the Army out of politics. But success has gone to his head.

Tom Friedman writes in The New York Times:

 Having witnessed the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011, I was eager to compare it with the protests by Turkish youths here in Taksim Square in 2013. They are very different. The Egyptians wanted to oust President Hosni Mubarak. Theirs was an act of “revolution.” The Turks are engaged in an act of “revulsion.” They aren’t (yet) trying to throw out their democratically elected Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. What they’re doing is calling him out. Their message is simple: “Get out of our faces, stop choking our democracy and stop acting like such a pompous, overbearing, modern-day Sultan.”

The Turks took to the streets, initially, to protect one of Istanbul’s few green spaces, Gezi Park, from being bulldozed for an Erdogan project. They took to the streets because the prime minister — who has dominated Turkish politics for the last 11 years and still has strong support with the more religious half of Turkey — has stifled dissent. Erdogan has used tax laws and other means to intimidate the press and opponents into silence — CNN Turk, at first, refused to cover the protests, opting instead to air a show on penguins — and the formal parliamentary opposition is feckless. So in a move that has intriguing implications, Turkish youths used Twitter as their own news and communications network and Gezi Park and Taksim Square as their own parliament to become the real opposition.

In doing so, they sent a message to Erdogan: In today’s flat world, nobody gets to have one-way conversations anymore. Leaders are now in a two-way conversation with their citizens. Erdogan, who is surrounded by yes-men, got this lesson the hard way. On June 7, he declared that those who try to “lecture us” about the Taksim crackdown, “what did they do about the Wall Street incidents? Tear gas, the death of 17 people happened there. What was the reaction?” In an hour, the American Embassy in Turkey issued a statement in English and Turkish via Twitter rebutting Erdogan: “No U.S. deaths resulted from police actions in #OWS,” a reference to Occupy Wall Street. No wonder Erdogan denounced Twitter as society’s “worst menace.”

Three Turks in America responded to the events in Istanbul by starting a funding campaign on Indiegogo.com that bought a full-page ad in The New York Times supporting the protests. According to Forbes, they received donations “from 50 countries at a clip of over $2,500 per hour over its first day, crossing its $53,800 goal in about 21 hours.”

What’s sad is that Erdogan’s arrogance, autocratic impulses and, lately, use of anti-Semitic tropes, are soiling what has been an outstanding record of leadership. His Islamist party has greatly improved health care, raised incomes, built roads and bridges, improved governance and pushed the Army out of politics. But success has gone to his head. He has been lecturing, or trying to restrict, Turks on where and when they can drink alcohol, how many children each woman should have (3), the need to ban abortions, the need to ban Caesarean sections and even what docudramas they should watch. The Turkish daily Zaman on Monday published a poll showing that 54.4 percent of Turks “thought the government was interfering in their lifestyle.”

While the parents were cowed, the kids lost their fear. I walked with protesters on the streets of Istanbul on Saturday when the police, armed with fire hoses and tear gas, cleared Gezi Park. The pavement literally shook with the energy of young people telling Erdogan to back off. Or as Ilke, 30, an aerospace engineer standing next to me remarked — before we were scattered by tear gas — “They are trying to make rules about religion and to force them on everyone. Democracy is not just about what the majority wants. It’s also what the minority wants. Democracy is not just about elections.”

Erdogan (like Russia’s Vladimir Putin) confuses “being in power with having power,” argued Dov Seidman, whose company, LRN, advises C.E.O.’s on governance and who is the author of the book “How.” “There are essentially just two kinds of authority: formal authority and moral authority,” he added. “And moral authority is now so much more important than formal authority” in today’s interconnected world, “where power is shifting to individuals who can easily connect and combine their power exponentially for good or ill.”

You don’t get moral authority just from being elected or born, said Seidman: “Moral authority is something you have to continue to earn by how you behave, by how you build trust with your people. ... Every time you exercise formal authority — by calling out the police — you deplete it. Every time you exercise moral authority, leading by example, treating people with respect, you strengthen it.”

Any leader who wants to lead just “by commanding power over people should think again,” he added. “In this age, the only way to effectively lead is to generate power through people,” said Seidman, because you have connected with them “in a way that earned their trust and enlisted them in a shared vision.”

Can Erdogan learn these lessons? Turkey’s near-term stability and his legacy hang on the answer.

Health-Insurance Exchanges Are Falling Behind Schedule

From The Wall Street Journal:

Government officials have missed several deadlines in setting up new health-insurance exchanges for small businesses and consumers—a key part of the federal health overhaul—and there is a risk they won't be ready to open on time in October, Congress's watchdog arm said.

The Government Accountability Office said federal and state health officials still have major work to complete, offering its most cautious comments to date about the Obama administration's ability to bring the centerpiece of its signature law to fruition.

"Whether [the government's] contingency planning will assure the timely and smooth implementation of the exchanges by October 2013 cannot yet be determined," said the GAO in twin reports to be released Wednesday.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act created two exchanges, seeking to provide coverage for many Americans who now go without health insurance. President Barack Obama has said the exchanges will be ready on schedule in October, offering coverage to take effect Jan. 1, 2014, but he has cautioned that "glitches and bumps" are likely.

Around two million people are projected to receive insurance through the small business exchanges and seven million people will be enrolling in the individual insurance exchanges in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The small-business exchanges in particular have had some early setbacks. The federal government said in April that contrary to initial plans, it wouldn't allow workers in the first year to choose between a range of insurance options offered through employers. For the first year, companies will select one plan to offer to workers.

In some states, only one insurance carrier has expressed interest in the small-business exchange. In Washington state, officials have had to postpone the exchange altogether because they couldn't find a carrier willing to offer small-business plans for all parts of the state.

Seventeen states are running their own small-business exchanges, with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services carrying out the task on behalf of the remaining 33 states.

The GAO report on the small-business exchanges said officials still have big tasks to complete including reviewing plans that will be sold and training and certifying consumer aides who can help companies and individuals find plans.

It said that the 17 states running their own exchanges were late on an average of 44% of key activities that were originally scheduled to be completed by the end of March. "While interim deadlines missed thus far may not impact the establishment of exchanges, any additional missed deadlines closer to the start of enrollment could do so," the report said.

The Obama administration has long said that it expects to be ready on Oct. 1. "We have already met key milestones and are on track to open the marketplace on time," said Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

"This GAO report confirms our suspicions about the implementation of the health care law," said Rep. Sam Graves (R., Mo.), chairman of the House Committee on Small Business. "With each passing day it appears the creation of the exchanges are very much in doubt."

The administration has welcomed signs that the growth of health-care costs has tempered recently. Some economists believe that may be partly due to the new health law encouraging more cost-effective care. The Labor Department said Tuesday that its price index for medical care fell a seasonally adjusted 0.1% in May, the first monthly drop in almost four decades.

The administration and liberal groups are stepping up efforts to prepare people to enroll for coverage. For the economics of the exchanges to work, they must attract healthy people to balance the risk of those who have chronic diseases.

Enroll America, an administration-backed nonprofit group, opened its "Get Covered America" campaign Tuesday. "We are at a place where…78% of the uninsured aren't even aware of what's coming their way," said Anne Filipic, the group's president.

Republicans who oppose the health-care law are poised to highlight any glitches in the rollout, and many believe implementation of the law could be a key issue in 2014 elections.

Regulators in New Hampshire have said they received applications from only one carrier, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, a unit of WellPoint Inc., WLP +1.10%to sell small group plans or individual policies through the exchange next year.

Small-business owner Nancy Clark of North Conway, N.H., said she was disappointed more carriers didn't apply because Anthem is already one of just two carriers that doctors in her area accept.

"I was hoping more [insurance] providers would step up to the table," said Ms. Clark, whose firm, advertising agency Glen Group Inc., has 10 employees and has offered benefits to full-time staff since 1997 to attract and retain talented workers. "I had these rose-colored glasses on, thinking that doctors in our area would then accept more insurance plans, truly giving everyone a choice."

Ms. Clark said she also worried that without more carriers in the exchange, the cost of a group health plan wouldn't stabilize or go down as she had anticipated. She said her premiums have increased every year by double digits despite her work force's good health.

Some Democratic members of Congress also are beginning to express concerns about particular aspects of the law relating to employers. Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who voted for the law as a member of the House, on Wednesday is expected to become the first Democrat who backed the law to support changing a requirement that larger firms must provide coverage to employees working 30 hours a week or more, his staff said.

Joe Trauger, vice president of human resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, D.C., said the trade group's 12,000 members are "deeply concerned" about the lack of information available about the state exchanges. "It comes up in every meeting I'm in," he said.

Backers of the law say that over time, competition between carriers and new restrictions barring insurers from setting small group premiums based on members' medical history will keep costs in check for business owners and enable them to keep offering coverage.

Michael Brey, president of Brey Corp., a toy retailer in Laurel, Md., that does business as Hobby Works, said he was looking forward to being able to shop for a small-group plan from a variety of carriers through his state's exchange. Currently he can choose from just three carriers. "I have some degree of confidence that it will be a good move for us," he said.

Mr. Brey also said he expected to get a better deal through the exchanges. He covered 100% of the cost of premiums for his staff when he bought the business in 1992, but he said he can only afford to contribute 50% now, and only for full-time employees.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I go with Zakaria: Stay Out fo Syria

Fareed Zakaria: Stay Out Of Syria from The Dish on Vimeo (from The Washington Post):

About two weeks ago, Washington Post columnist and CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria recorded a video for blogger Andrew Sullivan explaining why he believes the United States is right to practice “strategic restraint” on Syria; to not get involved. Now, as the Obama administration says it will respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons by providing some arms to rebels, but not by intervening, the video is especially worth watching.

In sum, his argument is that the Syrian war will either be like Lebanon’s civil war, from 1975 to 1990, or Iraq’s, from 2003 up until who knows when. Neither choice is anywhere near a good one, he says, but the latter model is preferable for the United States. “The idea that we could prevent all these terrible things from happening in Syria is belied by the fact we intervened in Iraq, and all those things happened anyway,” he says. “Why did they happen? Because it’s a bloody civil war, competition is fierce, the losers in these civil wars know that they’re going to get massacred so they fight to the end.”

Zakaria begins with colonialism, which divided the Middle East along ahistorical lines, establishing Syria and other Middle Eastern countries as we know them today. Those somewhat artificial national borders, along with their dictatorial regimes, left the countries precariously balanced between competing religious and/or ethnic groups. In some cases – he cites Lebanon, Syria and Iraq – that left minorities ruling over everyone else. When those countries collapse into war, the conflict becomes a very bloody process by which that society rebalances itself toward majority rule.

He compares Syria’s war to the 15-year civil war in Lebanon and the war that erupted in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. In both cases, the wars were as much about vicious competition between sectarian groups as they were about the decisions of military and political leaders. In both cases, power ended up shifting from minority to majority sects. In both cases, civilians were massacred, and minorities suffered terribly. The difference, perhaps, is that the United States took heavy losses in Iraq but stayed out of Lebanon.

His case, then, is that Syria’s war is not something that the United Stated can stop or alter. Zakaria has no illusions about the pain and terror of Lebanon’s civil war but says that the United States was right not to involve itself. (He also points out that Reagan’s decision to bow out in 1982 did not exactly destroy American credibility in the region.) He points to the war in Iraq; even though the United States toppled Iraq’s minority dictator and quickly moved power over to a government that represented the broader population, that did not prevent hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, the formation of many civilian militias that did terrible things and the infiltration by al-Qaeda and affiliated groups. In this thinking, intervening in Syria will not stop the war’s violence, which is after all more about competing sects than it is about the decisions of one leader.

Wars are difficult to predict, though, and one might reasonably disagree with Zakaria. The world of 2013 is very different from that of 1982, when the Reagan administration withdrew from Lebanon; international Islamist terrorist groups did not have the strength or reach they have today, thanks to technology and other factors. An Islamist extremist victory in Syria might well be more likely than it was in Lebanon 30 years ago; the potential ramifications for the United States might also be more severe.

Also, Zakaria’s argument makes the most sense if he limits his comparisons to other sectarian conflicts in the post-colonial Middle East. Those are for sure the most apt comparisons, but there aren’t very many of them; such a limited data set makes it tough to argue with total certainty how the war will turn out. Why not compare it to, for example, the war in Kosovo, where a U.S.-led intervention helped to halt much of the sectarian bloodshed before it reached Lebanese extremes and gave the now-independent country space to establish what appears to be a much stabler society.

There’s also Cyprus; with peace-keepers dividing Turkish and Greek communities for now 30 years, it’s hardly a success story, but the United Nations intervention did halt what could otherwise have been a horrific sectarian civil war and allowed for relative peace.

Whether you agree with Zakaria’s position or not, it’s good to at least bring some history into the discussion.

G.O.P. Pushes New Abortion Limits to Appease Vocal Base

From The New York Times:

After Republicans lost the presidential election and seats in both the House and the Senate last year, many in the party offered a stern admonishment: If we want to broaden our appeal, steer clear of divisive social and cultural issues.

Yet after the high-profile murder trial of an abortion doctor in Philadelphia this spring, many Republicans in Washington and in state capitals across the country seem eager to reopen the emotional fight over a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. Their efforts will move to the forefront on Tuesday when House Republicans plan to bring to the floor a measure that would prohibit the procedure after 22 weeks of pregnancy — the most restrictive abortion bill to come to a vote in either chamber in a decade.

The bill stands no chance of becoming law, with Democrats in control of the Senate and the White House. Republican leaders acknowledge that its purpose is to satisfy vocal elements of their base who have renewed a push for greater restrictions on reproductive rights, even if those issues harmed the party’s reputation with women in 2012.

But beyond Washington, advocates on both sides of the issue say the chance to limit abortion in the near future is very real.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Whites’ deaths outnumber births for first time

From The Washington Post:

More white people died in the United States last year than were born, a surprising slump coming more than a decade before the Census Bureau says that the ranks of white Americans will likely drop with every passing year.

Although the percentage is small, several demographers said they are not aware of another time in U.S. history — not even during the Depression or wars — when there was such shrinkage among the dominant racial group.

The decrease was offset by 188,000 white immigrants, most from Canada and Germany but also from Russia and Saudi Arabia. And non-Hispanic whites remain the single largest group, making up 63 percent of the country.

But demographers were surprised by the outsize drop in births compared with deaths, which the Census Bureau projects will begin happening with regularity by 2025.

As a group, non-Hispanic whites are considerably older than anyone else, with a median age of 42. The median age for Asians is 34. For African Americans, it’s under 32; for Hispanics, it’s under 28.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

David Brooks: The Solitary Leaker; and Tom Friedman: Blowing a Whistle

David Brooks writes in The New York Times on Edward Snowden:

From what we know so far, Edward Snowden appears to be the ultimate unmediated man. Though obviously terrifically bright, he could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school. Then he failed to navigate his way through community college.

According to The Washington Post, he has not been a regular presence around his mother’s house for years. When a neighbor in Hawaii tried to introduce himself, Snowden cut him off and made it clear he wanted no neighborly relationships. He went to work for Booz Allen Hamilton and the C.I.A., but he has separated himself from them, too.

Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.

If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme. You’re more likely to donate to the Ron Paul for president campaign, as Snowden did.

It’s logical, given this background and mind-set, that Snowden would sacrifice his career to expose data mining procedures of the National Security Agency. Even if he has not been able to point to any specific abuses, he was bound to be horrified by the confidentiality endemic to military and intelligence activities. And, of course, he’s right that the procedures he’s unveiled could lend themselves to abuse in the future.

But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.

This is not a danger Snowden is addressing. In fact, he is making everything worse.

For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things.

He betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity. He made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths.

He betrayed his friends. Anybody who worked with him will be suspect. Young people in positions like that will no longer be trusted with responsibility for fear that they will turn into another Snowden.

He betrayed his employers. Booz Allen and the C.I.A. took a high-school dropout and offered him positions with lavish salaries. He is violating the honor codes of all those who enabled him to rise.

He betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more.

He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.

He betrayed the Constitution. The founders did not create the United States so that some solitary 29-year-old could make unilateral decisions about what should be exposed. Snowden self-indulgently short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability, putting his own preferences above everything else.

Snowden faced a moral dilemma. On the one hand, he had information about a program he thought was truly menacing. On the other hand, he had made certain commitments as a public servant, as a member of an organization, and a nation. Sometimes leakers have to leak. The information they possess is so grave that it demands they violate their oaths.

But before they do, you hope they will interrogate themselves closely and force themselves to confront various barriers of resistance. Is the information so grave that it’s worth betraying an oath, circumventing the established decision-making procedures, unilaterally exposing secrets that can never be reclassified?

Judging by his comments reported in the news media so far, Snowden was obsessed with the danger of data mining but completely oblivious to his betrayals and toward the damage he has done to social arrangements and the invisible bonds that hold them together.

Tom Freidman writes in The New York Times on same subject:

I’m glad I live in a country with people who are vigilant in defending civil liberties. But as I listen to the debate about the disclosure of two government programs designed to track suspected phone and e-mail contacts of terrorists, I do wonder if some of those who unequivocally defend this disclosure are behaving as if 9/11 never happened — that the only thing we have to fear is government intrusion in our lives, not the intrusion of those who gather in secret cells in Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan and plot how to topple our tallest buildings or bring down U.S. airliners with bombs planted inside underwear, tennis shoes or computer printers. 
Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another 9/11. That is, I worry about something that’s already happened once — that was staggeringly costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat.

I worry about that even more, not because I don’t care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.” That is what I fear most.

That is why I’ll reluctantly, very reluctantly, trade off the government using data mining to look for suspicious patterns in phone numbers called and e-mail addresses — and then have to go to a judge to get a warrant to actually look at the content under guidelines set by Congress — to prevent a day where, out of fear, we give government a license to look at anyone, any e-mail, any phone call, anywhere, anytime.

So I don’t believe that Edward Snowden, the leaker of all this secret material, is some heroic whistle-blower. No, I believe Snowden is someone who needed a whistle-blower. He needed someone to challenge him with the argument that we don’t live in a world any longer where our government can protect its citizens from real, not imagined, threats without using big data — where we still have an edge — under constant judicial review. It’s not ideal. But if one more 9/11-scale attack gets through, the cost to civil liberties will be so much greater.

A hat tip to Andrew Sullivan for linking on his blog to an essay by David Simon, the creator of HBO’s “The Wire.” For me, it cuts right to the core of the issue.

“You would think that the government was listening in to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and the hyperbole being tossed about,” wrote Simon. “And you would think that rather than a legal court order, which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame. Nope. ... The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the F.B.I. and N.S.A. are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. ... I know it’s big and scary that the government wants a database of all phone calls. And it’s scary that they’re paying attention to the Internet. And it’s scary that your cellphones have GPS installed. ... The question is not should the resulting data exist. It does. ... The question is more fundamental: Is government accessing the data for the legitimate public safety needs of the society, or are they accessing it in ways that abuse individual liberties and violate personal privacy — and in a manner that is unsupervised. And to that, The Guardian and those who are wailing jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of U.S. big data collection are noticeably silent. We don’t know of any actual abuse.”

We do need to be constantly on guard for abuses. But the fact is, added Simon, that for at least the last two presidencies “this kind of data collection has been a baseline logic of an American anti-terrorism effort that is effectively asked to find the needles before they are planted into haystacks, to prevent even such modest, grass-rooted conspiracies as the Boston Marathon bombing before they occur.”

To be sure, secret programs, like the virtually unregulated drone attacks, can lead to real excesses that have to be checked. But here is what is also real, Simon concluded:

“Those planes really did hit those buildings. And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically motivated enemy. And, for a moment, just imagine how much bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible to find those needles in the haystacks.”

And, I’d add, not just bloviating. Imagine how many real restrictions to our beautiful open society we would tolerate if there were another attack on the scale of 9/11. Pardon me if I blow that whistle.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago - When Presidential Words Led to Swift Action

From The New York Times:

These days it is hard to imagine a single presidential speech changing history.

But two speeches, given back to back by President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this week, are now viewed as critical turning points on the transcendent issues of the last century.

The speeches, which came on consecutive days, took political risks. They sought to shift the nation’s thinking on the “inevitability” of war with the Soviet Union and to make urgent the “moral crisis” of civil rights. Beyond their considerable impact on American minds, these two speeches had something in common that oratory now often misses. They both led quickly and directly to important changes.

On Monday, June 10, 1963, Kennedy announced new talks to try to curb nuclear tests, signaling a decrease in tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. Speaking at American University’s morning commencement, he urged new approaches to the cold war, saying, “And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”

“In the final analysis,” he continued, “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

The next evening, Kennedy gave an address on national television, sketching out a strong civil rights bill he promised to send to Congress. For the first time, a president made a moral case against segregation. He had previously argued publicly for obedience to court orders and had condemned violence, but not the underlying system.

“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution,” Kennedy said. “The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”

Bring it on: How the U.S. Uses Technology to Mine More Data More Quickly

From The New York Times:

When American analysts hunting terrorists sought new ways to comb through the troves of phone records, e-mails and other data piling up as digital communications exploded over the past decade, they turned to Silicon Valley computer experts who had developed complex equations to thwart Russian mobsters intent on credit card fraud.

The partnership between the intelligence community and Palantir Technologies, a Palo Alto, Calif., company founded by a group of inventors from PayPal, is just one of many that the National Security Agency and other agencies have forged as they have rushed to unlock the secrets of “Big Data.”

Today, a revolution in software technology that allows for the highly automated and instantaneous analysis of enormous volumes of digital information has transformed the N.S.A., turning it into the virtual landlord of the digital assets of Americans and foreigners alike. The new technology has, for the first time, given America’s spies the ability to track the activities and movements of people almost anywhere in the world without actually watching them or listening to their conversations.

New disclosures that the N.S.A. has secretly acquired the phone records of millions of Americans and access to e-mails, videos and other data of foreigners from nine United States Internet companies have provided a rare glimpse into the growing reach of the nation’s largest spy agency.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Do it with or without passage of immigration legislation: As Wars End, a Rush to Grab Dollars Spent on the Border

From The New York Times:

The nation’s largest military contractors, facing federal budget cuts and the withdrawals from two wars, are turning their sights to the Mexican border in the hopes of collecting some of the billions of dollars expected to be spent on tighter security if immigration legislation becomes law.

Half a dozen major military contractors, including Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, are preparing for an unusual desert showdown here this summer, demonstrating their military-grade radar and long-range camera systems in an effort to secure a Homeland Security Department contract worth as much as $1 billion.

Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, is pitching to Homeland Security officials an automated tracking device — first built for the Pentagon to find roadside bombs in Afghanistan — that could be mounted on aerial drones to find illegal border crossers. And General Atomics, which manufactures the reconnaissance drones, wants to double the size of the fleet under a recently awarded contract worth up to $443 million.

The military-style buildup at the border zone, which started in the Tucson area late in the Bush administration, would become all but mandatory under the bill pending before the Senate. It requires that within six months of enactment, Homeland Security submit a plan to achieve “effective control” and “persistent surveillance” of the entire 1,969-mile land border with Mexico, something never before accomplished.

Since 2005, the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to 21,000, and the stretches protected by pedestrian or vehicle fencing have grown to 651 miles as of last year from 135. But there are still large swaths where people trying to enter the United States illegally have good odds of success, particularly in rural Texas. And with budget cutting in the past two years, money for surveillance equipment along the border has been pared back.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Sad to me: Humanities Fall From Favor

From The Wall Street Journal:

The humanities division at Harvard University, for centuries a standard-bearer of American letters, is attracting fewer undergraduates amid concerns about the degree's value in a rapidly changing job market.

Universities' humanities divisions and liberal-arts colleges across the nation are facing similar challenges in the wake of stepped-up global economic competition, a job market that is disproportionately rewarding graduates in the hard sciences, rising tuition and sky-high student-debt levels.

Among recent college graduates who majored in English, the unemployment rate was 9.8%; for philosophy and religious-studies majors, it was 9.5%; and for history majors, it was also 9.5%, according to a report this month by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute that used data from 2010 and 2011.

By comparison, recent chemistry graduates were unemployed at a rate of just 5.8%; and elementary-education graduates were at 5%.

Immigration Revamp Hits Fresh Snag

From The Wall Street Journal:

The immigration effort's next hurdle comes in the Senate, where the bill's authors hope to win broad bipartisan support before it moves on to the more conservative House. The group who wrote the bill is working out whether to alter some provisions, particularly on border security, to draw more Republicans.

"What's stymieing efforts in the Senate is that we don't have the votes to pass it, because too many members on both sides of the aisle do not believe it goes far enough on border security," Mr. Rubio said. It often takes 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to pass legislation.

Mr. Rubio and other Republicans are looking to change a provision in the Senate bill that calls for the Department of Homeland Security to write a border-security plan within six months. The plan acts as a trigger to allow illegal immigrants to gain provisional legal status.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Georgia’s demographic shift

The AJC's Political Insider quotes from the Huffington Post:

Over the past decade, the 6 percent growth among Georgia's white population pales in comparison to the 26 percent growth rate among African Americans. This is in stark contrast to the growth patterns of the 1990s, when Georgia's white population grew by more than double that rate (16 percent). Since 1990, Georgia has gained more than 1.2 million African-American residents and has served, according to The Wall Street Journal, as a "magnet for black professionals" from other parts of the country.

Monday, June 03, 2013

GOP governors’ endorsements of Medicaid expansion deepen rifts within party

From The Washington Post:

Republican fissures over the expansion of Medicaid, a critical piece of the 2010 health-care law designed to provide coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, continue to deepen, with battles in Arizona and elsewhere showing just how bitter the divisions have become.

Despite expressing distaste for the new law, some GOP governors have endorsed an expansion of Medicaid, and three — Jan Brewer of Arizona, John Kasich of Ohio and Rick Snyder of Michigan — are trying to persuade their Republican-controlled legislatures to go along. The governors are unwilling to turn down Washington’s offer to spend millions, if not billions, in their states to add people to the state-federal program for the poor. But they face staunch opposition from many GOP legislators who oppose the health-care law and worry that their states will be stuck with the cost of adding Medicaid recipients.

In one of the most explosive of the internal Republican battles, Brewer, a firebrand tea party favorite who once wagged her finger at President Obama, has declared a “moratorium” on all other legislation until her Medicaid plan, which would add 300,000 Arizonans to the program, is approved. She has backed up her threat by vetoing five unrelated bills.

In Ohio and Michigan, the governors are pressing for last-minute compromises before their legislatures adjourn this summer. The Florida legislature, which has adjourned, rejected Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to expand Medicaid.

These conflicts over the health-care law illustrate a larger divide within the Republican Party over an array of issues, including immigration and automatic budget cuts.

Medicaid eligibility varies from state to state and depends on income and other factors. The health-care law, in an effort to make eligibility uniform, mandated that anyone earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level, or $15,856 in 2013 dollars, be eligible for the program. But last June, the Supreme Court, while upholding most of the health-care law, ruled that states could refuse to expand their Medicaid programs. That set the stage for bitter debates — ones ruled as much by ideology and politics as by financial realities — that have been occurring in state capitals nationwide.

Under the law, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of newly eligible Medicaid recipients for the first three years, beginning in January. After that, the federal contribution will taper, leveling off at 90 percent for 2020 and beyond.

China Is Reaping Biggest Benefits of Iraq Oil Boom - Our Fifth Fleet and air forces are helping to assure its supply

From The New York Times:

Since the American-led invasion of 2003, Iraq has become one of the world’s top oil producers, and China is now its biggest customer.

China already buys nearly half the oil that Iraq produces, nearly 1.5 million barrels a day, and is angling for an even bigger share, bidding for a stake now owned by Exxon Mobil in one of Iraq’s largest oil fields.

“The Chinese are the biggest beneficiary of this post-Saddam oil boom in Iraq,” said Denise Natali, a Middle East expert at the National Defense University in Washington. “They need energy, and they want to get into the market.”
“We lost out,” said Michael Makovsky, a former Defense Department official in the Bush administration who worked on Iraq oil policy. “The Chinese had nothing to do with the war, but from an economic standpoint they are benefiting from it, and our Fifth Fleet and air forces are helping to assure their supply.”

Deficit Deal Even Less Likely - Improving U.S. Fiscal Health Eases Pressure for a 'Grand Bargain' Amid Gridlock

Shrinking near-term federal deficits, slowing health-care cost increases and partisan gridlock have all but wiped out the likelihood for a deal this year to reduce long-term U.S. deficits, perhaps delaying a compromise until after the 2014 midterm elections, White House officials and congressional lawmakers said.

The prospects for such a "grand bargain" this year have been unclear for some time, but parties to the discussions said in recent days the chances appear to have further diminished due to signs the government's fiscal health is improving. That has removed the pressure needed to force compromises.

On Friday, the trustees for Medicare said that slower growth in spending has put the health program for the elderly on a firmer financial footing. They now estimate the program will be able to pay full benefits until 2026, two years later than projected last year.

Until recently, a key factor driving the two sides toward an agreement was the large annual budget deficit that each viewed as a threat to economic recovery. But now, the short-term deficit is shrinking due to a combination of tax increases, spending cuts and a slowly growing economy, easing pressure for the two sides to forge an agreement.

In mid-May, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the deficit for the year that ends Sept. 30 will be $642 billion, roughly 4% of gross domestic product. That comes after four consecutive years when the deficit exceeded $1 trillion annually.

The CBO also estimated that the government wouldn't need to raise its borrowing limit until October or November. Without an increase in the debt ceiling, the government will run out of money to pay all its bills—a potential crisis that most lawmakers want to avoid, and which has in the past pushed them toward budget agreements. Now there is little chance they will tackle the divisive issue before their August recess.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said the CBO and Medicare trustees' reports undercut the impetus to tackle long-term deficits. "We need to do something about entitlements but it is not the existential crisis that it used to be," he said. "It's not that it [Medicare] doesn't need fixing. It's that we don't need to do it this year."

Inaction is a dangerous course, given that long-term deficit problems haven't gone away, lawmakers and budget experts said.

Citing the positive economic data, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) said: "If we take that as a reason not to focus on the bigger problem, all we're doing is taking an aspirin for a headache that's going to come back."

He added: "I remain committed to trying to reduce the deficit and debt burden on my children and grandchildren and working with members of Congress and the administration to do that. We have a long way to go."

Sunday, June 02, 2013

As Syrians Fight, Sectarian Strife Infects Mideast

From The New York Times:

Renewed sectarian killing has brought the highest death toll in Iraq in five years. Young Iraqi scholars at a Shiite Muslim seminary volunteer to fight Sunnis in Syria. Far to the west, in Lebanon, clashes have worsened between opposing sects in the northern city of Tripoli.
In Syria itself, “Shiites have become a main target,” said Malek, an opposition activist who did not want his last name published because of safety concerns. He was visiting Lebanon from a rebel-held Syrian town, Qusayr, where his brother died Tuesday battling Shiite guerrillas from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. “People lost brothers, sons, and they’re angry,” he said.

The Syrian civil war is setting off a contagious sectarian conflict beyond the country’s borders, reigniting long-simmering tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, and, experts fear, shaking the foundations of countries cobbled together after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

For months, the fighting in Syria has spilled across its borders as rockets landed in neighboring countries or skirmishes crossed into their territories. But now, the Syrian war, with more than 80,000 dead, is inciting Sunnis and Shiites in other countries to attack one another.

“Nothing has helped make the Sunni-Shia narrative stick on a popular level more than the images of Assad — with Iranian help — butchering Sunnis in Syria,” said Trita Parsi, a regional analyst and president of the National Iranian American Council, referring to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. “Iran and Assad may win the military battle, but only at the expense of cementing decades of ethnic discord.”

The Syrian uprising began as peaceful protests against Mr. Assad and transformed over two years into a bloody battle of attrition. But the killing is no longer just about supporting or opposing the government, or even about Syria. Some Shiites are pouring into Syria out of a sense of religious duty. In Iraq, random attacks on Sunni mosques and neighborhoods that had subsided in recent years have resumed — a wedding was recently hit — as Sunni militias fight the army.

With Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey backing the uprising against Mr. Assad, who is supported by Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, sectarian divisions simmering since the American invasion of Iraq are spreading through a region already upended by the Arab uprisings.

The Syrian war fuels, and is fueled by, broader antagonisms that are primarily rooted not in sect but in clashing geopolitical and strategic interests: the regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran; Iran’s confrontation with the West over its nuclear program; and the alliance between Hezbollah and the secular Syrian government of Mr. Assad against American-backed Israel.

But sectarian feeling has seeped in. Iraq has been especially vulnerable. With the Sunni majority in Syria battling to overthrow a government dominated by Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism, some in Iraq’s Sunni minority grew emboldened by the prospect of overthrowing their own Shiite government.

Today, many Iraqis feel they are on the road back to the dark days of 2006 and ’07, the peak of sectarian militia massacres by Shiites ascendant after years of oppression under Saddam Hussein, and by minority Sunnis disempowered by his fall.

While the 2007 American troop surge helped to limit the bloodshed, random attacks against Shiites never stopped. What was different was that the Shiites, who finally felt firmly in control of the security forces, stopped retaliating. But that seems to be changing.

Sunni militias have risen up to fight the army, and for the first time in years Sunni mosques and neighborhoods are being regularly targeted. The first notable attack was in April, at a cafe in the Sunni neighborhood of Amariya; it started late at night as young men played pool, and it left dozens of people dead. While it is unclear who is responsible for the new violence, many Sunnis blame the government, or Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

In Lebanon, perennial clashes between Alawite and Sunni militias in Tripoli have reached their worst level in years as each side blames the other for carnage in Syria.

In Syria, both the government and its opponents insist that their civil war is not a fight between religious sects. Rebel leaders say their only aim is to depose a dictator. Mr. Assad says he is fending off extremist terrorists, and he is careful not to frame the conflict as a fight against the country’s Sunni majority, which he praises for its moderation.

Mr. Assad’s affinity with Hezbollah and Iran is primarily strategic. Though his Alawite sect, about 12 percent of the population, provides bedrock support, most Alawites are secular. Syria’s fewer than 200,000 mainstream Shiites are a much smaller minority, less than 1 percent.
Like Iraqis — who long insisted they were Iraqis first, and blamed outsiders for the rise of sectarian identity, yet descended into bloodletting — Syrians on both sides fear and disavow the slide into sectarianism.  
But in real terms, Shiite Hezbollah and the Sunni-dominated Al Nusra Front, a radical group allied with Al Qaeda, have emerged as two of the strongest militias in the Syrian civil war.
Both sides have also been willing to tap into sectarian alliances and emotions. With the West hesitant to fully support the opposition, rebels accepted help from Al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni militant group, and the reliable pipeline of weapons and cash flowing from extremist Sunni donors to jihadists, whose calls for an Islamic state found support among some Syrians influenced by hard-line clerics in Saudi Arabia.
On Friday, an influential Sunni Islamist cleric in Qatar, Sheik Yusef al-Qaradawi, called on Sunnis around the world to go to Syria to fight Hezbollah and Iran, calling them enemies of Islam.
Alawite militias in Syria have been accused of slaughtering Sunni families. Sunni rebels and gangs have been accused of kidnapping Shiites. Sunni fighters call Shiites “filth” and “dogs.” Rebel commanders have begun to refer to Hezbollah, whose name means party of God, as the “party of the devil.”
Government supporters call rebels “rats” and paint them with a broad brush as Bedouins and Wahhabis — a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia. Fadil Mutar, an Iraqi Shiite, said at the funeral of his son, who was killed in Syria, that he died fighting Wahhabis, “those vile people.”
Rafiq Lotof, a Syrian-American Shiite who left his pizza business in New Jersey to help Syrian officials organize militias known as the National Defense Forces, said recently in Damascus that Shiite religious passions would help the government survive.
“If we start to lose control, you will see thousands of Iranians come to Syria, thousands of Lebanese, from Iraq also,” Mr. Lotof said. “They are going to fight, they are not going to watch. That’s part of their religion.”
In Beirut, Lebanon, Kamel Wazne, the founder of the Center for American Strategic Studies, said that fighters are inspired by religious passions rooted in the seventh-century battle in what is now Iraq over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad.
After the bitter defeat of the faction that gave rise to the Shiites, the victors captured the prophet’s granddaughter Zeinab and took her to Damascus, where Shiites believe she is buried beneath the gold-domed shrine of Sayida Zeinab.
Today, Shiite fighters help the Syrian government to hold the area around Sayida Zeinab — a foothold that helps prevent rebels from fully encircling Mr. Assad’s seat of power in Damascus.
“Damascus did not fall because Sayida Zeinab is there,” Mr. Wazne said. “They will not allow Zeinab to be captured twice.”
Many devout Shiites have also come to view the Syrian civil war as the fulfillment of a Shiite prophecy that presages the end of time: a devil-like figure, Sufyani, raises an army in Syria and marches on Iraq to kill Shiites. Abu Ali, a student in Najaf, Iraq, said that his colleagues believe the leader of Qatar, a chief backer of Syria’s Sunni rebels, is Sufyani. They are flocking to Syria “to protect Islam,” he said.
Days after pro-government militias killed scores of civilians last month in the Sunni village of Bayda near the Syrian coast, one Sunni resident declared in an interview: “Starting today, I am sectarian. I am sectarian! I don’t want ‘peaceful’ anymore.” Composing himself, he added, “Sister, forgive me for talking this way.”