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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.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Praise the Lord for Chief of Staff Denis McDonough: At the Last Minute, Obama Alone Made Call to Seek Congressional Approval - Change in president's thinking confounded White House insiders (but not the Cracker Squire for logic)

From The Wall Street Journal:

After a 45-minute walk Friday night, President Barack Obama made a fateful decision that none of his top national security advisers saw coming: To seek congressional authorization before taking military action in Syria.

The stunning about-face after a week of U.S. saber rattling risked not only igniting a protracted congressional fight, which could end with a vote against strikes, but a backlash from allies in the Middle East who had warned the White House that inaction would embolden not only Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but his closest allies, Iran and Hezbollah.
Aides said the decision was made by Mr. Obama and Mr. Obama alone. It shows the primacy the president places on protecting his hoped-for legacy as a commander in chief who did everything in his power to disentangle the U.S. from overseas wars. Until Friday night, Mr. Obama's national-security team didn't even have an option on the table to seek a congressional authorization.
The only real discussion was a plan to punish Mr. Assad for what the U.S. and others have called a chemical-weapons attack amid Syria's grinding civil war. The final question, policy makers thought, was how many targets to hit and when to tell the Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean to open fire.
Yet Mr. Obama made no secret to aides he felt uncomfortable acting without U.N. Security Council backing. Current and former officials said his decision reflected his concerns about being seen as acting unilaterally—without political cover from Congress and without the U.K. at his side. Arab states, for their part, have offered little public support despite their private encouragement.
The change in Mr. Obama's thinking confounded White House insiders. Some raised concerns about the decision. They asked what would happen if Congress refused to authorize using force, a senior administration official said.
The move also took key allies from Israel to Saudi Arabia by surprise, diplomats said. They thought Mr. Obama was about to pull the trigger and were preparing for possible retaliation from Mr. Assad.
One official said the biggest concern for the Middle Eastern allies was that the passage of time during the congressional debate would reduce the sense of urgency for action.
At a Situation Room meeting of his White House National Security Council on Aug. 24, three days after the Syrian bombing raid, Mr. Obama made clear his strong inclination was to take action.
During one meeting, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said something that left an impression on Mr. Obama: The timing of a strike didn't matter, officials said.
Gen. Dempsey's message to Mr. Obama was that whether the strikes were launched tomorrow, or a week from now, or a month from now, the military would be able to ensure the effectiveness of the operation, officials said.
On Thursday, the White House watched with alarm as U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron failed to secure parliamentary support for the U.K. to join the U.S. military operation. The takeaway for White House officials, aides say, was not to discount the level of war-weariness, both in the U.K. and at home.
Until Friday night, Mr. Obama's national-security team was focused on only consulting Congress, rather than seeking a vote on an authorization to use force. Mr. Obama's team concluded that Mr. Obama had the legal authority to act without congressional authorization and was proceeding on that basis.
During his daily wrap-up meeting with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Mr. Obama and Mr. McDonough went on a 45-minute walk around the White House grounds.
During the walk, Mr. Obama told Mr. McDonough his thinking—that consulting with Congress wasn't enough—lawmakers should have to go on the record one way or the other.
Current and former officials said it was no surprise Mr. Obama would make such an important decision after consulting with Mr. McDonough, who in his previous role as deputy national security adviser emerged as a leading voice of caution against intervening in Syria. Mr. McDonough's successor on the National Security Council has overseen a gradual expansion of U.S. support to the Syrian opposition, but he doesn't have as close a relationship with the president.
In meetings devoted to Syria last year, Mr. McDonough would push to keep the U.S. off the "slippery slope" leading to a potentially unpopular intervention, according to officials involved in these meetings. One official, recalling Mr. McDonough's prior role, said "any time Denis would show his cards a little bit, they would ultimately line up with where the president would come down."
Dennis Ross, a longtime diplomat who served with Mr. McDonough in the NSC NSGP.FR +0.02%in the president's first term, said of Mr. McDonough: "He is very mindful of what the high cost of American intervention had been. So he approaches the issue of the use of force with a genuine caution and a genuine concern about really once you do this, where are you? And how do you get out of it?"
At 7 p.m. Friday night, Mr. Obama called his top aides into his office, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice, to inform them of his plans. Aides say Mr. Obama came up with the idea himself to seek an authorization.  
Many insiders were stunned because of the risk Congress will say 'no.' "You have to win the vote. You have to win," one senior administration official said after the decision was disclosed. "If Congress doesn't let him act, the consequences for him and for the country's standing in the world are enormous."
Later Friday night, Mr. Obama told aides the decision reflected his growing frustration with lawmakers who appeared to want to have it both ways—criticizing the president for not seeking congressional authorization, and then criticizing the decisions he makes.
House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) had sent a letter to Mr. Obama demanding more consultation with Congress and asking the White House to clearly lay out the goals of a military mission in advance. Other Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have said Mr. Obama's plans for a limited strike didn't go far enough. And still other lawmakers, including a sizable minority of Mr. Obama's own party in Congress, have expressed opposition to any intervention in Syria.
Current and former officials said Mr. Obama wanted to force Congress to make the decision so lawmakers own it as much as the president does. He also thought the U.S. would be in a stronger position to act in Syria with Congress's full backing, officials said.
On Saturday, Mr. Obama held a two-hour long meeting of his National Security Council.
Gen. Dempsey repeated his assurances to Mr. Obama that the strikes can wait. The general told Mr. Obama and his advisers the U.S. military is confident that there would be no negative impact and that Navy destroyers could remain in place.
During the past week, White House advisers have said they were moving fast on Syria. One senior administration official cautioned that hesitation could embolden Mr. Assad.
"There is an urgency here in our view given that the further you get away from the event the less the attention is on what took place actually on the 21st of August and it becomes more about process and provides an opening for the Syrians and others who support them to obfuscate and delay and muddy the water," the senior administration official said earlier this week. "And frankly that sends its own message, which is you can essentially cover your tracks as it relates to using chemical weapons."
Mr. Obama made clear during the meeting that the decision was final and in the end, his advisers agreed.
Just before his Rose Garden address, Mr. Obama called President François Hollande of France. The U.S. still hopes to act with France.
A senior administration official voiced confidence Mr. Assad won't take advantage of the delay to push ahead with his offensive using chemical weapons. White House officials also predicted that Congress would authorize using force, citing the strength of the underlying intelligence being shared with lawmakers this weekend. With Congress's blessing, strikes could still be launched, officials said, within weeks.

Talk is cheap: Quietly, Some Allies Push for Action

From The Wall Street Journal:

In recent meetings, South Korean officials told their U.S. counterparts that continued White House inaction in Syria could embolden North Korea to use its own chemical weapons against its southern neighbor.

Similar messages were relayed by Turkish, Israeli and Saudi officials in recent days, telling President Barack Obama he must respond to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, current and former U.S. and Middle Eastern officials said. Failure to act, these allies said, could convince Iran that Washington isn't serious about halting its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Obama's possible move to strike Syria is designed to retaliate against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for what the U.S. and others call a chemical-weapons attack on Aug. 21. A strike would also be intended to persuade friends and foes alike that the U.S. won't renege on global-security commitments.

Current and former U.S. officials say growing concerns about American credibility helped tip the scales within the White House in favor of a limited military intervention. Two months ago, when U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Mr. Assad had crossed Mr. Obama's "red line" by using chemical weapons on a smaller scale, neither the president nor his top military advisers favored striking Syria.

Some Middle Eastern diplomats and American lawmakers have lamented the limited nature of Mr. Obama's telegraphed intervention in Syria, saying only more decisive action might be enough to deter such countries as Iran, North Korea, Russia and China from bucking U.S. interests. Indeed, Mr. Assad already has taken advantage of a week of U.S. saber-rattling to disperse military equipment and forces where it will be harder to destroy them with a limited number of strikes, U.S. officials said. The Pentagon is adjusting its targeting in response, a senior official said.

Secretary of State John Kerry has been advocating a harder line against Mr. Assad for months. In Situation Room meetings, Mr. Kerry has argued the stakes were broader than Syria and specifically cited the strategic implications should Iran doubt "our seriousness about red lines," a senior administration official said.

In a conference call on Thursday to brief lawmakers on U.S. intelligence, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was traveling at the time in Asia, said that South Korean leaders were concerned that U.S. inaction in Syria would make North Korea think it could get away with using chemical and biological weapons without consequence.

Mr. Kerry made explicit that argument during formal comments Friday on Syria, when he said the choice facing the administration was "directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something." He said not acting would mean there would be "no end to the test of our resolve" from countries who think they can act with impunity.

That the U.S. felt the need to reassure allies about its commitments is partly a consequence of Mr. Obama's deliberately light footprint on the world stage. A hallmark of Mr. Obama's foreign policy has been a concerted effort to lower expectations that the U.S. would automatically assume the role of global policeman, given the president's preference to concentrating on his domestic policy agenda, officials and experts say.
Events overseas, however, notably the Arab Spring and its bloody aftermath, have time and again pulled the administration back to a region from which Mr. Obama wanted to withdraw.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz) described the Obama Syria policy as "muddled," citing Mr. Obama's past assertions that Mr. Assad should step down. "So the president two years ago said he had to leave power, but now that [Mr. Assad] has committed a war crime, the president of the United States says he's not interested in removing him from power."

Colin Kahl, a former Obama administration Pentagon official, said the president's expected military action was an appropriate demonstration of U.S. credibility. "One of the things I heard most often when I was in the administration is that superpowers don't bluff," he said. "That's why the administration has been very cautious across a whole host of issues not to issue a lot of red lines."

In the run-up to the strikes, Mr. Obama suffered a series of embarrassing international affronts, which underlined the limits of U.S. influence.

Hong Kong then Russia refused to hand over National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to the U.S. In July, Egyptian generals with long-standing ties to the Pentagon overthrew their country's first democratically elected president over U.S. objections. The U.S. subsequently saw its message to Cairo undercut by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, its closest regional allies, which urged the generals to crack down hard on the Muslim Brotherhood over Washington's warnings.

The Obama administration also struggled to bring allies on board this week, notably the U.K., whose parliament scotched the prospect of a joint mission.

The administration has long been divided over how to tackle Mr. Assad's forces. Even before the alleged chemical-weapons attack, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned the White House against trying to change the balance of power, citing a danger that opposition groups linked to al Qaeda will try to gain the upper hand. Officials say Gen. Dempsey backs the limited strikes now on the table, citing the importance of U.S. credibility and about sending a message that chemical-weapons use won't be tolerated.

At the direction of the State Department this week, ambassadors in the Middle East have been prodding Arab leaders to issue statements of support for the U.S., but the early results haven't been encouraging, officials in the region say.

Besides Mr. Assad, U.S. allies and foes remain a target audience for the pending military action. One former administration official said the South Koreans and the Israelis "have been beating this drum hard" in talks with the U.S. and its allies, questioning the U.S.'s security commitments to defend them against North Korea and Iran.

Israel, on the border with Syria, is one of the U.S.'s biggest concerns. The Israelis are worried that Lebanese militant group Hezbollah could be encouraged by U.S. inaction to acquire sophisticated guided rockets that could be loaded with poison gas. If Israel is attacked by either Syria or Hezbollah, Israeli have made clear they will respond with force.

The U.S. has sought to reassure Israel that Mr. Obama will enforce U.S. "red lines" with Tehran, going so far as to show top Israeli officials a secret Pentagon video showing what the largest U.S. bunker buster bomb can do. Israeli leaders remain skeptical of Mr. Obama's intentions, reflected in efforts by the Jewish state to build a bunker buster of its own, according to American and Israeli officials.

Saudi King Abdullah, meanwhile, has sent private messages to Mr. Obama warning the American president that an abdication of U.S.'s leadership would have dire consequences for U.S. allies in the Middle East, according to U.S. officials.

"Your credibility is on the line, not just in the region but globally," he warned Mr. Obama in one of those messages, according to U.S. officials briefed on the exchange.

Friday, August 30, 2013

9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask

I feel I am up on things in Syria as do my readers.  Regardless, this article from The Washington Post is worth your read.  It begins:

The United States and allies are preparing for a possibly imminent series of limited military strikes against Syria, the first direct U.S. intervention in the two-year civil war, in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians.

If you found the above sentence kind of confusing, or aren’t exactly sure why Syria is fighting a civil war, or even where Syria is located, then this is the article for you. What’s happening in Syria is really important, but it can also be confusing and difficult to follow even for those of us glued to it.
Here, then, are the most basic answers to your most basic questions. First, a disclaimer: Syria and its history are really complicated; this is not an exhaustive or definitive account of that entire story, just some background, written so that anyone can understand it.

Read the rest of our “9 questions you were too embarrassed to ask” series here

David Brooks: One Great Big War

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:
What’s the biggest threat to world peace right now? Despite the horror, it’s not chemical weapons in Syria. It’s not even, for the moment, an Iranian nuclear weapon. Instead, it’s the possibility of a wave of sectarian strife building across the Middle East.
The Syrian civil conflict is both a proxy war and a combustion point for spreading waves of violence. This didn’t start out as a religious war. But both Sunni and Shiite power players are seizing on religious symbols and sowing sectarian passions that are rippling across the region. The Saudi and Iranian powers hover in the background fueling each side.

As the death toll in Syria rises to Rwanda-like proportions, images of mass killings draw holy warriors from countries near and far. The radical groups are the most effective fighters and control the tempo of events. The Syrian opposition groups are themselves split violently along sectarian lines so that the country seems to face a choice between anarchy and atrocity.

Meanwhile, the strife appears to be spreading. Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq is spiking upward. Reports in The Times and elsewhere have said that many Iraqis fear their country is sliding back to the worst of the chaos experienced in the last decade. Even Turkey, Pakistan, Bahrain and Kuwait could be infected. “It could become a regional religious war similar to that witnessed in Iraq 2006-2008, but far wider and without the moderating influence of American forces,” wrote Gary Grappo, a retired senior Foreign Service officer with long experience in the region.

“It has become clear over the last year that the upheavals in the Islamic and Arab world have become a clash within a civilization rather than a clash between civilizations,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote recently. “The Sunni versus Alawite civil war in Syria is increasingly interacting with the Sunni versus Shiite tensions in the Gulf that are edging Iraq back toward civil war. They also interact with the Sunni-Shiite, Maronite and other confessional struggles in Lebanon.”

Some experts even say that we are seeing the emergence of a single big conflict that could be part of a generation-long devolution, which could end up toppling regimes and redrawing the national borders that were established after World War I. The forces ripping people into polarized groups seem stronger than the forces bringing them together.

It is pretty clear that the recent American strategy of light-footprint withdrawal and nation-building at home has not helped matters. The United States could have left more troops in Iraq and tamped down violence there. We could have intervened in Syria back when there was still something to be done and some reasonable opposition to mold.

At this late hour, one question is whether the sectarian fire has grown so hot that it is beyond taming. The second question is whether the United States has any strategy to limit the conflagration.

Right now, President Obama is focused on the imminent strike against the Assad regime, to establish American credibility when it sets red lines and reinforce the norm that poison gas is not acceptable.

But the president does have the makings of a broader antisectarian strategy. He has at least three approaches on the table. The first is containment: trying to keep each nation’s civil strife contained within its own borders. The second is reconciliation: looking for diplomatic opportunities to bring the Sunni axis, led by the Saudis, toward some rapprochement with the Shiite axis, led by Iran. So far, there have been few diplomatic opportunities to do this.

Finally, there is neutrality: the nations in the Sunni axis are continually asking the United States to simply throw in with them, to use the C.I.A. and other American capacities to help the Sunnis beat back their rivals. The administration has decided that taking sides so completely is not an effective long-term option.

Going forward, there probably has to be a global education effort to reduce anti-Sunni and anti-Shiite passions. Iran could be asked to pay a higher price not only for its nuclear program, but for its mischief-making around the region.

But, at this point, it’s not clear whether American and other outside interference would help squash hatreds or inflame them. The legendary diplomat Ryan Crocker argues in a recent essay in YaleGlobal that major outside interventions might only make things worse. “The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come. Like a major forest fire, the most we can do is hope to contain it.”

Poison gas in Syria is horrendous, but the real inferno is regional. When you look at all the policy options for dealing with the Syria situation, they are all terrible or too late. The job now is to try to wall off the situation to prevent something just as bad but much more sprawling.

And we want to simplify the tax code! - Under the health law, millions of Americans will face a new test of their fortunetelling skills: precisely predicting their next year's income. "A $500 holiday bonus could be the most expensive bonus somebody ever got."

From The Wall Street Journal:

Under the health law, millions of Americans will face a new test of their fortunetelling skills: precisely predicting their next year's income.

The federal health-care overhaul creates a potentially rich new class of benefits for people—namely, federal subsidies they can use to buy insurance on the new marketplaces created in each state. Eligibility for subsidies is based on income.

But there are pitfalls for people whose incomes unexpectedly rise or fall. And there is a sharp dividing line between people who qualify, and those who earn too much. "A $500 holiday bonus could be the most expensive bonus somebody ever got," says Brian Haile, senior vice president for health policy at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service Inc.

For some middle-income earners, that may change the way they think about income and tax planning, tax experts say. People can take the subsidies in the form of a credit when filing taxes at year's end. Or, the amount can be estimated up front and applied toward the cost of insurance premiums each month.

When people apply for subsidies, beginning this fall, the federal government will ask a series of questions—about family size, income and potential deductions—designed to help them estimate what their final income will be in 2014.

People who qualify for the subsidies, but wind up underestimating their income (for instance, thanks to a midyear raise) could find themselves owing the Internal Revenue Service if they took the money up front. They would have to refund any overpayments when filing taxes for that year.

Eligibility for subsidies cuts off at four-times the federal poverty level: $45,960 a year for single people, $62,040 a year for couples and higher for families with dependent children. Lower earners qualify for larger subsidies.

At the top income level for an eligible couple, two 60-year-olds could get $540 in monthly subsidies in Toledo, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of rate filings in Ohio. With that, their direct cost for the least expensive policy in the area would be $300.

However, a $1 pay increase would erase the subsidy, leaving the pair to pay the full premium for their health insurance—about $840 a month.

Mr. Haile said his firm will advise clients who anticipate income increases to consider applying for partial upfront subsidies when they sign up for coverage under the law, or to plan ahead to make sure they can pay back any difference at tax-filing time.

Consumer groups are encouraging people to consider buying individual insurance policies through the exchanges even if they don't think they will be eligible for subsidies, so they can apply for the tax credit later if their income decreases suddenly.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Imminent U.S. strike on Syria could draw nation into civil war - “The one thing we should learn is you can’t get a little bit pregnant.”

From The Washington Post:

An imminent U.S. strike on Syrian government targets in response to the alleged gassing of civilians last week has the potential to draw the United States into the country’s civil war, former U.S. officials said Tuesday, warning that history doesn’t bode well for such limited retaliatory interventions.

The best historical parallels — the 1998 cruise missile strikes on targets in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan — are rife with unintended consequences and feature little success.

“The one thing we should learn is you can’t get a little bit pregnant,” said retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was at the helm of U.S. Central Command when the Pentagon launched cruise missiles at suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and weapons facilities in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “If you do a one-and-done and say you’re going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in.”

Images of the glassy-eyed corpses of civilians, including children, killed in last week’s chemical attack in a Damascus suburb struck a powerful chord in Washington, where until now there has been little appetite for a military intervention. With U.S. Navy destroyers stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, the White House is scrambling to assemble international support for a days-long bombing campaign targeting military sites, which appears to have robust support from Congress.

The United States has at best a mixed record of success with such operations. In late August 1998, the Pentagon fired cruise missiles at suspected terrorist camps in Afghanistan and the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that was presumed to be producing chemical weapons. The campaign, called Operation Infinite Reach, was in response to the bombings on Aug. 7, 1998, of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which were the first al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets.

The strikes in Afghanistan failed to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or his top lieutenants. The one in Sudan became an embarrassment for the Pentagon because the intelligence that put a pharmaceutical factory on the target list turned out to be faulty.

In December of that year, the Clinton administration lobbed cruise missiles at military targets in Iraq in response to Hussein’s refusal to comply with United Nations resolutions that condemned Iraq’s weapons program.

Former U.S. officials said neither operation dealt much of a strategic setback to the targets. But they enraged many in the Muslim world, prompting angry demonstrations, including an attempted siege of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus by a mob that later ransacked the ambassador’s residence.

“We didn’t really gain anything,” said longtime U.S. diplomat Ryan C. Crocker, who was the ambassador in Damascus at the time. “The behavior of our adversaries did not change. A couple of cruise missiles are not going to change their way of thinking.”

With Congress in recess, the lead-up to a military strike on Syria has unfolded with relatively little substantive debate on Capitol Hill about the risks and merits of a cruise missile strike. Potential pitfalls include strengthening rebel factions aligned with al-Qaeda and triggering even more brutal attacks by the regime.

The limited debate about the anticipated operation in Syria has centered on questions of presidential powers.

After a few conservative Republicans insisted that the Obama administration needed congressional authorization before ordering a strike, House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) urged the White house to conduct “meaningful consultation with members of Congress” and articulate “clearly defined objectives” before giving the Pentagon the green light.

In an operation some policy analysts have used as a template, the United States and NATO allies started a bombing campaign in 1999 in an effort to stop ethnic cleansing and drive Serbian forces from Kosovo. American diplomat Christopher R. Hill, who was dispatched as a special envoy to Kosovo, said there was an expectation that U.S. military intervention would be short and decisive. Some thought the bombing campaign would last a few days, Hill said, but it dragged on for 78.

“The problem is that people expect when U.S. military assets are deployed that we will do so until the regime goes away,” he said.

Hill said he understands and supports the White House’s desire to launch a strike, but with a major caveat.

“The problem with Syria is that it’s bombing in the absence of a political plan,” said Hill, who worries that the government of President Bashar al-Assad could respond with even more chemical attacks. “I think we’re opening a big door. Every time you drop bombs on something, you can’t entirely predict the results.”

Christopher Harmer, a former Navy planner who is an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said a quick military campaign that is not accompanied by a clear end goal is a terrible idea.

“Conducting a punitive attack that does not fundamentally alter the balance of power is in my opinion worse than doing nothing,” said Harmer, who last month drafted a report outlining how cruise missile strikes could degrade Syria’s air force and air defenses. U.S. bombs raining down on Damascus could boost Assad’s standing, giving credence that the war he is waging is one against external threats.

“The way he has been defining himself now becomes true,” Harmer said. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Monday, August 26, 2013

A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. Tonight I watched two heavies on PBS and read below. I am still unconvinced: Why Obama Is Being Pulled Into Syrian Conflict - The Most Important Reason Can Be Summarized in One Word: Iran

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:
After two years of trying hard to avoid involvement in a conflict that he fears could easily become a long-term quagmire, that has little popular appeal at home, and that his own Pentagon chiefs have essentially called a losing proposition, President Barack Obama stands on the edge of a military commitment in Syria.
The reasons the situation has come to this are many and varied, but the most complex one can be summarized in one word: Iran.

As the force behind the Syrian regime, Iran is the country most responsible for fueling the regime's fight, and the nation whose influence will be most enhanced if President Bashar al-Assad prevails.

Of more immediate concern, Iran also is the country with a dangerous nuclear program, and therefore the one most prone to draw the wrong conclusions if Syria's alleged use last week of its own weapon of mass destruction—chemical arms—stands unchallenged.

The Iran factor, in short, is the elephant in the room, creating an exquisite dilemma for a president who might otherwise find plenty of good reasons to keep his distance.

The Syrian fight and the killing and displacement of civilians it has wrought present big humanitarian concerns, as did the conflict in Rwanda in the 1990s. Syria's fight also presents big worries about who holds the balance of power in an important region, as did the conflict in Kosovo in the same decade. In Rwanda, the concerns didn't prompt U.S. military involvement; in Kosovo, they did, in the form of a 77-day NATO air campaign.

But largely because of Iran's role, Syria's conflict falls into a different category, one in which America's global interests are engaged. Syria has become essentially a proxy war pitting an Iranian-led axis—Iran, President Assad and their allies in the Hezbollah movement—against virtually everybody else in the Middle East.

What now makes it a broader question is the move of weapons of mass destruction to the center of the conflict. Monday's declaration by Secretary of State John Kerry that the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against its own people is "undeniable" will make it harder to avoid at least the perception of linkage to the even more serious struggle to contain Iran's nuclear program.

Mr. Obama has said it wouldn't be acceptable for Syria to use chemical weapons, just as he has said it wouldn't be acceptable for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. He now must ponder whether the credibility of the first statement will affect the credibility of the second. That question burns particularly hot as the administration considers entering nuclear talks with the government of Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, even as Iran continues to deny it has nuclear-arms ambitions.

At the same time, if American force ultimately helps oust Mr. Assad, that outcome might merely increase Iran's sense of isolation and fuel its desire for a nuclear weapon as a kind of security blanket.

All those considerations will be cranked into American decision-making on whether to launch a cruise missile strike against Syrian targets. Such a strike would be limited, designed to make the point that chemical weapons use comes at a price, rather than aimed to magically turn the military tide against Mr. Assad. Still, even a limited action would involve considerable short-term and long-run risks.

In a letter sent a few days ago to Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, who had asked for an analysis of military options in Syria, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bluntly analyzed the effects of military action. He said that while the U.S. has the ability to knock out Syrian air power with limited strikes, such a move would do little to clean up the Syrian mess.

"It is a deeply rooted, long-term conflict among multiple factions, and violent struggles for power will continue after Assad's rule ends," he wrote. "We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context."

Any action would carry immediate risks. Tensions with Russia, Syria's other big benefactor, would rise instantly. The chances of terrorism directed by Syria's allies against American targets would increase. Any military escalation carries the danger of expanding the war around the region.

Similarly, the long-term risks that have persuaded Mr. Obama to try to stay on the sidelines are no less real now than before. The president's biggest concerns have been twofold: First, when the U.S. gets involved in such a conflict, it would be expected to inject enough force to prevail. It's hard for a superpower to get involved halfway in any conflict. Again, the question of credibility would arise.

Second, once the U.S. wades in, it's more likely than any other country to own the mess that would follow a victory—defined here as the downfall of President Assad's regime. The forces trying to take his place include many unappetizing Islamists who share few other interests with the U.S.

Sorting through the rubble could take years.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Pressure Rises on Hamas as Patrons’ Support Fades

From The New York Times:

The tumult roiling the Arab world had already severed the lifeline between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and two of its most important patrons, Iran and Syria.

Now, the dismantling of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood by the new military-backed government that ousted the Islamist president has Hamas reeling without crucial economic and diplomatic support. Over the past two weeks, a “crisis cell” of ministers has met daily. With Gaza’s economy facing a $250 million shortfall since Egypt shut down hundreds of smuggling tunnels, the Hamas government has begun to ration some resources.

Its leaders have even mulled publicly what for years would have been unthinkable — inviting the presidential guard loyal to rival Fatah back to help keep the border with Egypt open. (They quickly recanted.)

The mounting pressure on Hamas has implications beyond the 141 square miles of this coastal strip that it has ruled since 2007. It could serve to strengthen President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and his more moderate Fatah faction that dominates the West Bank just as Washington-orchestrated peace talks get under way. It also adds another volatile element to the rapidly changing landscape across the region, where sectarian tensions have led to bloodshed and the Islamists’ rise to power through the ballot box has been blocked.

“Now, Hamas is an orphan,” said Akram Atallah, a political analyst and columnist, referring to the fact that the movement sprang from Egypt’s Brotherhood a quarter century ago. “Hamas was dreaming and going up with its dreams that the Islamists were going to take over in all the capitals. Those dreams have been dashed.”

The tide of the Arab Spring initially buoyed Hamas, helping bolster Iran and Syria, which provided the Gazan leadership weapons and cash, while undermining President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who was deeply distrustful and hostile to the group. But Hamas eventually sided with the Sunni opposition in the civil war in Syria — alienating President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers. That was offset when Mr. Mubarak was replaced by Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and ideological ally who relaxed the borders and brokered talks between Hamas and the hostile West as well as its Palestinian rivals.

With Egypt’s military crackdown, Mr. Morsi in detention and the Brotherhood leadership either locked up, dead or in hiding, smuggling between Gaza and Egypt has come to a virtual halt. That means no access to building materials, fuel that costs less than half as much as that imported from Israel, and many other cheap commodities Gazans had come to rely on.

Egypt kept the Rafah crossing point closed for days — stranding thousands of students, business people, medical patients, foreigners and Gazans who live abroad. Adding to Hamas’s isolation, the new emir of Qatar, another benefactor, is said to be far less a fan than his father and predecessor.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Local governments cutting hours over Obamacare costs

From The Washington Post:

Many cash-strapped cities and counties facing the prospect of shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in new health-care costs under the Affordable Care Act are opting instead to reduce the number of hours their part-time employees work.

The decisions to cut employee hours come 16 months before employers — including state and local governments — will be required to offer health care coverage to employees who work at least 30 hours a week. Some local officials said the cuts are happening now either because of labor contracts that must be negotiated in advance, or because the local governments worry that employees who work at least 30 hours in the months leading up to the January 2015 implementation date would need to be included in their health-care plans.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

On the Killing Floor, Clues to the Impact Of Immigration on Jobs

From The Wall Street Journal:

Here on the outskirts of town sits a sprawling meatpacking plant where more than 3,000 workers slaughter and process thousands of cows a week—and where English is hardly the only language spoken inside. Indeed, the union handbook is printed in English, Spanish, Burmese and Somali.
The plant was one of a half dozen facilities owned by Swift & Co. that federal agents raided seven years ago in search of workers living in the country illegally. Some 260 people were detained here, forcing the plant's new owner to find American replacements after some were deported. When 1,300 new jobs were added, the task grew harder, and the plant took on its international flavor, hiring Somalis and Burmese refugees.
"We looked everywhere," said Christopher Gaddis, head of human resources for JBS USA, which bought the plant soon after the raid and advertised bonuses and small wage increases to try to fill slots. Today, JBS USA estimates 15% of the plant's workers are refugees.

Across the country, and in Congress in particular, the debate over the future of immigration continues to bat the same questions back and forth: Will legalizing immigrants and allowing in additional low-skill laborers displace native-born workers and cut wages? Or will new workers simply fill empty employment niches and spark a broader economic boon that benefits all? Economists are divided, but a plant like this one—which dealt with immigrants, first illegal, and then legal—may provide some clues.

So far, there isn't any broad evidence the new, legal immigrants are taking jobs from locals. They didn't drive down wages, but did allow the addition of that second shift, with additional workers whose presence is sparking other economic activity around town.

Dig deeper, though, and there are hints of why some worry about immigration's impact. Critics charge that, while wages have held up recently, immigrant and refugee labor have helped produce a long-term decline in meatpacking pay.

Economists disagree on what new flows of immigrants mean for American workers. Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis, believes when low-skilled immigrants come in, they often complement American workers, helping native-born workers climb the ladder. One of his studies showed previous waves of immigration boosted wages for low-skilled Americans.

Other researchers have found immigrants to be Americans' direct competitors. George Borjas, a Harvard University economist who has supported limits on immigration, found that when immigrants—legal and illegal—came to the U.S. over a nearly two-decade span, they pulled down wages for low-skilled workers by as much as 4.7%.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office fueled the debate with its prediction that a Senate immigration bill to legalize undocumented immigrants and create new work visa programs would boost economic growth, but that wages would fall by 0.3% by 2033 for high school dropouts and certain high school graduates.

The meatpacking industry represents ground zero for this economic debate, for it has long drawn immigrants willing to do the industry's tough and, to some, distasteful jobs.

At the Greeley plant, cattle are herded up a curved ramp, known as the "stairway to heaven," and greeted at the top by a worker in the "knock box" who waits for the right moment to use a pressurized gun to shoot a rod into each steer's head. Nearby, a river of blood runs across the "kill floor" as cattle are heaved aloft on a chain for the various stages of dismemberment.

On a recent day at the plant, a worker on the kill floor deftly hooked a cattle's hide, just above the shoulder, into a machine called the hide puller. A bar swooped down, yanking the hide over the cow's head and leaving behind a naked carcass. The machine can do that 365 times in an hour. The work used to be done by hand; workers used knives to peel the hide from the skull.

Employees work eight hour shifts, standing, with a 15-minute morning break and a 30-minute break for lunch. It is tiring and riskier than average work. For every 100 workers, 6.4 were injured or fell ill on the job in 2011 nationwide. For all occupations, public and private, there were just 3.8 incidents per 100 workers.

Since the meatpacking plant was built in Greeley in the 1950s, the northeastern Colorado city has lured immigrants. The population blossomed to more than 90,000 in 2010, 36% of whom were Hispanic, most of them from Mexico. Twenty years earlier, the town had 60,500 residents, 20% of them Hispanic.

Now the area has about 2,000 refugees, too—the "new Mexicans," as some in the meatpacking business called them. Asad Abdi, a refugee who got his start at the meatpacking plant in Greeley, opened a Global Refugee Center in 2008 to help immigrants learn English, find housing and jobs and apply for government benefits.

The changes haven't always unfolded smoothly, breeding tension among native-born Americans, Latinos and refugees here.

"We're a pretty conservative community, and I would say we don't want illegals," says Greeley Mayor Tom Norton, where unemployment stood at 8.4% in June. "But we do want a labor force." There's the rub, he says. There are some longtime residents who still want to work in meatpacking plants, but not very many.

At the time of the raid, the plant owner then denied it knowingly hired unauthorized workers, although some were deported. After taking over the facility, JBS executives went on their hiring blitz to add more than 1,000 jobs, both to ramp up for the second shift and make up for losses from the raid. They advertised on the radio, bought billboard space and ran newspaper ads. They sought out towns where workers were more likely to have factory experience.

When their efforts fell short, they focused recruiting on Denver, a popular spot for refugees, a group the U.S. government gives legal status if they have been persecuted or fear persecution in their home countries. Unlike undocumented immigrants, they can legally work in this country.

It was 2007, and the unemployment rate hovered above 4%. Factories were in hot competition for workers. One thing JBS didn't do was to sharply raise pay, since it would have had to do so for the whole workforce at the unionized plant. Instead, it offered signing bonuses and spread the news in the local paper: Starting in a few months wages would go up. A new union contract was set to kick in, bumping up the base hourly rate from $11.75 to $12 and nudging up the top rate to $13.95 from $13.60.

Still, wages have fallen in meatpacking plants over time, as plants relocated to rural areas, unions weakened and jobs grew more mechanized. Production workers in meatpacking earned more than $13 an hour in June. In the 1980s, the pay was more than $19 an hour, adjusted for inflation.

An overhaul of immigration laws has the potential to build a wider pool of labor for companies like JBS, executives said. Labor unions would help ensure wages wouldn't decrease, meatpacking executives said.

Mark Lauritsen, international vice president and director for the food processing, packing and manufacturing division for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, agreed economic factors and unions play a bigger part in affecting wages. "I lived through the 1980s working in a meatpacking plant when a meatpacking job went from the best job in the Midwestern United States to where the unions were busted and the wages were driven down," he said. "Immigration played no part in that." The UFCW supports the Senate immigration bill.

New immigration policies would give people such as Maria Mendoza, 38, who came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico, a chance to work again. She narrowly missed being caught in the 2006 immigration raid at the Greeley plant, where she was earning $12.75 an hour. Now, the seven-person Mendoza family survives on her husband's $39,000 annual salary. He has legal status and works the cleaning shift at the packing plant.

"The thing is, if we get legal documents, we wouldn't be competing for the jobs that most Americans apply for," said Mrs. Mendoza, who said she wants to return to work, even at a meatpacking plant. "We'll be competing for the jobs that Americans don't want."

Finding the right kind of worker is critical. It costs between $12,000 and $15,000 to train new employees at the Greeley plant, which has a 29% annual turnover rate. These days JBS has teamed with Citizenship and Immigration Services under a program that is designed to help improve their hiring process to ensure a legal workforce. The company said it has increased spending on compliance by 8% to 10% per worker.

"We compete like hell for labor," said JBS's Mr. Gaddis. "There's no way that anybody in our industry can undercut, from a wage perspective. People will flee in flocks of thousands."

On a breezy day in Greeley, the smell of "vacas," or cows, wafts through downtown. The area is having its own mini-revitalization, dotted with shops such as the La Tarahumara Mexican market, the Najah African restaurant and an African barber shop. A new chophouse opened, too, featuring one of the priciest entrees available in downtown Greeley: A 22-ounce, bone-in rib eye that sells $42.95. It is a JBS product.

Abdiwali Amaan, an Ethiopian refugee, saw a Swift ad in Denver for a $1,500 signing bonus just a few weeks before the raid. Swift, which filed an unsuccessful injunction to try to block the raid, started running ads to replenish its workforce even before the raid took place and while it was in negotiations with federal authorities.

Mr. Amaan accepted a job at the plant, earning $11.25 an hour, plus the bonus, in 2006. After the raid, he took advantage of the referral bonus as well, coaxing two of his friends to come to Greeley and earning Mr. Amaan $2,400. In the mornings, he would make four or five trips to the plant to drop off more than a dozen new refugee workers. He was the only one with a car.

In March 2009, earning $13.45 an hour at the plant, Mr. Amaan quit. The African market he was running on the side, which sold such hard-to-find staples as Halal meats, was generating enough income to support him. The influx of new immigrants, in this case refugees, pushed him up the economic food chain. Before long he helped his brother set up a second African goods store in town. Mr. Amaan gets a 20% take.

"It's more money, it's not easier," says Mr. Amaan, who proudly boasts about how much he paid in taxes last year ($2,900) before dinner at one of Greeley's East African restaurants.

His wife is angling for him to buy a home instead of staying in their rented apartment, and the couple has an eye on future expansion opportunities. "I hope to be a big company," Mr. Amaan says.

The catch with immigration is "some people are winners and some people are losers," says Pia Orrenius, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Immigrants, American companies that benefit from the labor and workers who move up the food chain tend to be the winners. There is no doubt legalization is good for those who are legalized. It could, economists estimate, boost their wages by 5% to 20%, because they would be able to switch jobs more easily and pursue more education.

The losers find themselves in direct competition with new immigrants.

Oscar Saenz, an executive assistant in the packing division of the UFCW labor union, and who has worked in meatpacking for four decades, says the union contract at the Greeley plant is one of the best they have negotiated at any beef plant. He supports an immigration overhaul to give millions of undocumented immigrants legal status, but he worries that new work-visa programs will allow so many new workers in that it will make the union's job harder. "Maybe by having so many of them, we're not going to get the wages we want for the American workers," he worries. It is one of the trade-offs, he says, to get a comprehensive plan passed.

Luis Benzor, 39 years old and a native-born American, thinks he is already getting the losing end of the deal. He says he applied for a job at the plant and never got a call back "because they have Somalian people that work there."

After a 15-year stint in the Army, he ended up in a construction job with steadily declining wages. He was laid off. He blames illegal immigrants willing to work for lower pay.

During a nine-month stint of unemployment, he applied for jobs in retail, customer service and auto mechanic shops. He says he has had scrapes with the law in the past that may be hurting his chances, including a domestic dispute that resulted in a criminal record. But he did earn an associate degree to be a diesel mechanic and is pursuing a second degree in auto mechanics.

A spokesman for JBS declined to comment on Mr. Benzor's application, but said it was an "equal-opportunity employer." Eventually, Mr. Benzor took a diesel mechanic job for less than the starting wage at the plant.

"We have to really look at ourselves and say, OK, if we bring more people here are we going to hurt the people who are here already?" Mr. Benzor says. "You're competing with people that come from other countries and it's just like, what is left for us?"

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tacking Health Care Costs Onto California Farm Produce - “You can’t put your ag workers on a 28-hour workweek like Starbucks, Denny’s and Walmart are considering.”

From The New York Times:

Farm labor contractors across California, the nation’s biggest agricultural engine, are increasingly nervous about a provision of the Affordable Care Act that will require hundreds of thousands of field workers to be covered by health insurance.

While the requirement was recently delayed until 2015, the contractors, who provide farmers with armies of field workers, say they are already preparing for the potential cost the law will add to their business, which typically operates on a slender profit margin.

“I’ve been to at least a dozen seminars on the Affordable Care Act since February,” said Chuck Herrin, owner of Sunrise Farm Labor, a contractor based here. “If you don’t take the right approach, you’re wiped out.”

The effects of the law could be profound. Insurance brokers and health providers familiar with California’s $43.5 billion agricultural industry estimate that meeting the law’s minimum health plan requirement will cost about $1 per hour per employee worked in the field.

“Everybody is afraid of the cost,” said J. Edward McClements, Jr., a senior vice president at Barkley Insurance and Risk Management, based in Oxnard, about 60 miles west of Los Angeles. “It’s difficult when you’ve got 1,000 workers who’ve never had health insurance before, to get an idea of what their costs will be.”

The concern is felt from vineyards in Napa County to the almond orchards outside Coalinga in the Central Valley. Farm labor contractors generally rely on a 2 percent profit, and they say they will have to pass the added health care costs required by the law on to growers.

Mr. Herrin, who can employ up to 2,000 farmworkers — many of them longtime employees — has been warning his customers of the coming price increase due to health insurance costs.

“It’s made for some heated battles,” Mr. Herrin said of his talks with growers, who include his father-in-law, the owner of a Central Valley farm.

Some farmers seem resigned to higher labor costs. “That cost is going to be borne by us at the end of the day,” said Scott Deardorff, a partner at Oxnard-based Deardorff Family Farms, which grows strawberries, cauliflower and chard, among other salad bar staples, all of which are likely to be more expensive for consumers down the line.

Across the country, employers in many other kinds of businesses are devising strategies to comply with or, in some cases, sidestep a new requirement to provide insurance for those who work 30 hours or more. Some are breaking their businesses into smaller companies, for instance, or even laying off workers. Some companies plan to shift workers to part-time status.

But in the vast, fertile fields of California’s Central Valley, part-time labor is not realistic. Pruning, picking and packing produce is full-time, nearly year-round work.

“You can’t put your ag workers on a 28-hour workweek like Starbucks, Denny’s and Walmart are considering,” Mr. McClements said.

In places like Huron, a Central Valley town surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland, there are other, practical concerns.

On a recent morning, Jose Romero pulled weeds from a row of lush tomato plants. Mr. Romero, 36, arrived at the field around 5 a.m. and worked until sunset. Like many of the other workers in the tomato field, he was surprised to learn that his employer, Mr. Herrin at Sunrise Farm Labor, would have to offer him health coverage, and that he could be asked to contribute up to 9.5 percent of his wages to cover the costs.

“We eat, we pay rent and no more,” Mr. Romero said in Spanish. “The salary that they give you here, to pay insurance for the family, it wouldn’t be enough.”

There seems to be widespread agreement among agricultural employers, insurance brokers and health plans in California that low-wage farmworkers cannot be asked to pay health insurance premiums. “He’s making $8 to $9 an hour, and you’re asking him to pay for something that’s he’s not going to use?” Mr. Herrin said.

The minimum compliant health plan for employee coverage under the new law will cost about $250 a month in California’s growing regions, according to insurance brokers, and includes a $5,000 deductible for medical care, although insurers cannot charge co-payments for preventive visits. “It’s unacceptable,” Mr. Herrin said of the cost.

The situation is complicated by the reality that many farmworkers apply for jobs with questionable identification, and farmers and farm labor contractors hire them anyway. (Employers say they must accept documents that look legitimate and can be penalized for directly asking if a potential employee is in the country illegally.)

Employers are trying to spread the word, a tricky process in places where the mention of government oversight can stir fear. Oscar Renteria, owner of Renteria Vineyard Management, a farm labor contractor based in Napa, has held meetings in Spanish to explain the health law to his 380 employees, some of whom may be in the country illegally.

“They’re really nervous,” Mr. Renteria said. “Nervous they’ll be tracked and then somehow the possibility of being identified, and the fear of being deported or not being allowed to work. It comes up all the time in conversations when we outline the choices.”

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Health Overhaul Targets Hispanics - Uninsured Hispanics Represent Big Opportunity for Insurers, the Government.; "The success of the Affordable Care Act really hinges on the ability to reach the Latino community and get them enrolled." Is this what it's all about???

When WellPoint Inc. WLP +0.23%asked a group of 20 uninsured Hispanics to review educational materials on the federal health overhaul earlier this year, many had simple questions: What is health insurance? And how does it work?
Uninsured Hispanics represent one of the biggest opportunities—and challenges—for insurers and the government as the health law rolls out. About 10.2 million of the 53 million Hispanics in the U.S. are uninsured and could qualify for coverage under the law, according to estimates from the Obama administration.
As a group, they're also young and healthy—an appealing demographic for health insurers. So it is little surprise that a race is on to connect with them in the weeks before new health-insurance exchanges launch Oct. 1.
"The success of the Affordable Care Act really hinges on the ability to reach the Latino community and get them enrolled," said Jennifer Ng'andu, director of health and civil-rights policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group.
According to census data, 30% of Hispanics are uninsured, the highest rate among racial and ethnic groups. Latinos as a whole have a median age of 28, compared with 37 for the overall U.S. population.
But signing them up won't be easy. Some don't speak English. Even with government-provided subsidies, many may not be able to afford insurance, given that Hispanics' median household income—$39,000 in 2011—significantly trails the national average, which was $51,000 that year. 
A May survey by Latino Decisions, a nonpartisan polling firm, found that 69% of Hispanics called the health-care law "confusing and complicated" and 71% couldn't name any policy that was part of it.
"This is a large demographic that is going to be, for the first time, exposing themselves to insurance. They might not know what a premium is or even what a copay is," said Dan Schuyler, director of exchange technology at Leavitt Partners LLC, a health-care consulting firm run by Michael Leavitt, the former Health and Human Services secretary under President George W. Bush.
Families with different immigration statuses under one roof, a common scenario, add to the complications. Illegal immigrants won't qualify for any benefits. Legal immigrants are eligible to buy insurance on the exchanges, but they generally don't qualify for Medicaid unless they have been in the country for five years. "In those mixed-status families, there are fears about enrolling in coverage and exposing undocumented family members," said Samantha Artiga, an analyst with Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-care policy organization.

An HHS spokeswoman declined to comment.

WellPoint teamed up with Univision Communications Inc., whose assets include the largest U.S. Spanish-language network, to conduct town-hall educational meetings in four states that kicked off earlier this month here in Atlanta. Florida Blue, the state's largest insurer, launched advertisements this week, in Spanish and English. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and private foundations such as the California Endowment are pouring tens of millions of dollars into enrolling uninsured Hispanics.

At a recent town hall meeting, sponsored by Univision and the WellPoint-owned Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, more than 220 people crammed into an Atlanta auditorium to hear a panel that included local physicians. It was the first of 12 such planned sessions across the country by Univision and the WellPoint.

Eduardo Montana, a pediatric cardiologist, said people shouldn't fear the enrollment process. The new health law, Dr. Montana said, encourages people to visit the doctor proactively, so men, in particular, should overcome attitudes of "machismo" that make them reluctant to seek help, he said.

Attendees asked if the new health law affected their Medicare coverage and whether illegal immigrants were covered. (No, and they are not.)

Among those in the audience were Tomas and Marilu Landa, who said they were recently told they would be laid off from their jobs as janitors for schools in Cherokee County, Ga. Ms. Landa, a 55-year-old who recently completed chemotherapy for breast cancer, is concerned her coverage might have to be halted, as she waits for her government-subsidized insurance to start on Jan. 1, 2014. She's already postponed one mammogram because of out-of-pocket costs.

Mr. Landa pulled out a stack of a half-dozen hospital bills—including one for $1,000 and one for $40. "It's a lot of money," said Mr. Landa, 46.

Oscar Munguia, a 48-year-old attendee from the Atlanta suburb of Duluth, Ga., said his experience with insurers had been confounding: long waits on hold, voice messages and a dearth of information on what is covered and what is not. "I'd like to know more about what it's going to cover, what are deductibles," said Mr. Munguia.

WellPoint has hired 130 people who are bilingual to spearhead efforts to help inform and encourage Hispanics to enroll in California, Colorado, Georgia and New York. Those employees are fielding questions at tables set up at retail partners like Walgreen Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Those efforts will be key to building awareness with younger, healthy Hispanics—even if the discussion is occurring with parents, said Robyn Gilson, WellPoint's vice president for multicultural marketing. "When you're talking about the younger generation, Mom and Dad will be quite influential," Ms. Gilson said.

HHS recently awarded $150 million to community health centers around the country—many of which focus on serving Hispanics—for outreach and enrollment work. Last week, it announced the recipients of $67 million in grants for the "navigators" program, aimed at helping the uninsured sign up for benefits. "It really is an all-hands-on-deck effort," said Mayra Alvarez, an HHS public health policy director.

In June, a not-for-profit group called Enroll America kicked off a campaign that will deploy thousands of volunteers across the country to engage Hispanics everywhere, from supermarkets to soccer games, said Ashley Allison, the group's director of constituency engagement.

On Tuesday, Florida Blue launched advertisements with the taglines, "In the Pursuit of Health" in English and "Para una mejor salud" in Spanish. The advertisements will run when popular Univision shows are on, said Craig Thomas, Florida Blue's chief strategy and marketing officer. "These will be running when people are watching," said Mr. Thomas.

Towns Try to Take Back Water Systems - Water Fights Are Simmering Across the Country as Municipalities Want to Regain Privately Owned Systems

From The Wall Street Journal:

Water fights are simmering in small towns across the country this summer, as rate increases irk residents and spur local governments to try to take over privately owned water systems.

Municipalities in Massachusetts, California and Texas have recently filed lawsuits or set ballot measures in a bid to gain control of their water systems. Private firms have defended their rate increases, saying they have had to spend money to improve the infrastructure and are entitled to make a profit.

Residents of Ojai, a small town in Southern California, will vote later this month on whether to fund the purchase of the water system serving them. In Blue Mound, Texas, the mayor has vowed to appeal a July court ruling that prevented his town from operating its water system. Also last month, a trial concluded in Superior Court in Worcester, Mass., in a lawsuit filed by Oxford, Mass., over the sale of its water infrastructure. A judge's ruling is pending.

In the 1980s and 1990s, private water companies pushed to buy or manage municipal systems at the same time the costs of maintaining these systems were rising because of age, which made sales attractive to cities, said Tony Arnold, a University of Louisville law professor who has studied water privatization. "In order to make a profit [and] invest in upgrades to the system, the companies [had] to raise water rates substantially and quickly," he said.

Joseph Zeneski, the town manager of Oxford, said he objects to residents having to pay a consolidated water rate that he said Aquarian Water Co. of Bridgeport, Conn., set for several towns. He thinks towns should pay varying rates because their water comes from different sources and that Oxford is unfairly subsidizing a water-treatment plant in another town. "They don't want to give up the Oxford water system," he said of Aquarion.

John Walsh, Aquarion's vice president of operations for Massachusetts and Connecticut, said Oxford's rates have risen only about 3.4% annually since the system was purchased in 2002.

According to a 2012 report by Food and Water Watch, a group that supports public control of water systems, the privatization trend is waning. Using Environmental Protection Agency data, the group estimated that between October 2007 and October 2011 the number of Americans served by privately owned systems fell 16%, while the number served by public ones rose 8%.

"Communities large and small are increasingly seeking to maintain or revert back to public control of their water systems," said Seth Gladstone, spokesman for the group. Privatization raises costs because of the profits companies must make, he said, adding that customers have more oversight of local systems.

Michael Deane, executive director of the National Association of Water Companies, said although some of the towns attempting to take over their water systems have received a lot of attention, other cash-strapped ones are still turning to private companies. Private community water systems served about 42 million Americans in 2012, and public systems served some 300 million, he said.

Municipalities sometimes keep water prices impractically low, Mr. Deane said. "Oftentimes the city council may not be as responsible as [state] public service commissions in making sure the utility has the funds it needs to make improvements," he said.

Public-service commissions generally regulate private companies but not publicly owned systems.

In Blue Mound, a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, Mayor Alan Hooks said he would appeal a court ruling that prevented his town from gaining control of its system. Mr. Hooks, who wants to use eminent domain to take over the system, said his own water bill has risen fourfold since 1998.

"You could stand on one side of the street and throw a rock to the other side, to where Fort Worth is, and they'll pay four times less," he said. A chart compiled by Blue Mound indicates rates about 3.5 times higher in Blue Mound in 2012 than in Fort Worth.

Chuck Profilet, vice president of SouthWest Water Co., which provides Blue Mound's water, said Blue Mound's rates rose 63% between 2005 and 2013. But, he said, "It is difficult to compare the rates of a municipality with that of an investor-owned utility because private utilities do not receive tax payments, grants, franchise fees or loans at low municipal bond interest rates."

In Ojai, residents are pursuing a public acquisition of their system from Golden State Water Co. of San Dimas, Calif. On Aug. 27, ratepayers will vote on letting the Casitas Municipal Water District issue bonds for the purchase. The utility has indicated it could use eminent domain if purchase negotiations fail.

A takeover won't be easy, though. "We have said repeatedly that the system is not for sale. We are interested in growing our company," said Golden State Chief Executive Robert Sprowls. "Worst case, if we aren't able to keep the system, we are expecting to get fair market value for the assets."

Monday, August 19, 2013

Work or Welfare: What Pays More? - In Hawaii ($49,175), the District of Columbia ($43,099), Massachusetts ($42,515), Connecticut ($38,761) and New Jersey ($38,728).

From The Wall Street Journal:

Hawaii offers the most generous welfare benefits package in the U.S., but a cluster of New England and Mid-Atlantic states aren’t far behind.  That’s according to a report out Monday, “The Work Versus Welfare Trade-Off: 2013 An Analysis of the Total Level of Welfare Benefits by State,” from the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.

That’s according to a report out Monday, “The Work Versus Welfare Trade-Off: 2013 An Analysis of the Total Level of Welfare Benefits by State,” from the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.

The report, by Michael Tanner and Charles Hughes, is a follow-up to Cato’s 1995 study of the subject, which found that packages of welfare benefits for a typical recipient in the 50 states and the District of Columbia not only was well above the poverty level, but also more than a recipient’s annual wages from an entry-level job.

That hasn’t changed in the years since the initial report, said Mr. Tanner, a senior fellow at Cato. Instead, the range has become more pronounced, as states that already offered substantial welfare benefits increased their packages while states with lower benefits decreasing their offerings.

To be sure, not all of those who rely on government programs take part in every benefit to which they are entitled, and the most generous benefits are in states that have the highest costs of living.

The state-by-state estimates are based on a hypothetical family participating in about seven of the 126 federal anti-poverty programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; the Women, Infants and Children program; Medicaid; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; and receiving help on housing and utilities.

In Hawaii, that translates into a 2013 package of $49,175 — up $7,265 from an inflation-adjusted $41,910 in 1995. Rounding out the top five areas for welfare benefits, along with their 2013 amounts, were: the District of Columbia ($43,099), Massachusetts ($42,515), Connecticut ($38,761) and New Jersey ($38,728).

The state with the lowest benefits package in 2013 was Mississippi, at $16,984, followed by Tennessee ($17,413), Arkansas ($17,423), Idaho ($17,766) and Texas (18,037).

One change the authors noted between the surveys was a slight increase in the value of work to welfare, by a few dollars an hour. “There was some improvement of the relative value of work through the Earned Income Tax Credit, particularly at the state level, and the child tax credits,” Mr. Tanner said. “Those largely didn’t exist in 1995.”

Some states also are curbing some housing assistance, he said, and now requiring individuals who receive welfare benefits to pay their own rent.

The authors found that in 11 states, “welfare pays more than the average pretax first-year wage for a teacher [in those states]. In 39 states, it pays more than the starting wage for a secretary. And, in the three most generous states a person on welfare can take home more money than an entry-level computer programmer.”
Dist. of Columbia
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia