Archive

November 27th, 2015

Sex and drugs on the road to jihad

    There is a paradox to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. As it claimed responsibility for them, Islamic State said they were meant as a strike against European depravity. Yet the perpetrators of the attack were apparently no puritans.

    The Islamic State message called Paris "the capital of prostitution and obscenity" and the rock concert at the Bataclan, where most of the victims died, a "profligate prostitution party" for "hundreds of apostates." That's standard rhetoric for the group, which has been known to execute people for smoking, drinking or homosexuality. It's supposed to have a low tolerance of vice, though slavery and rape are tolerated, encouraged, if the victim is an infidel.

    Yet after the Paris attacks, witnesses reported seeing one of the top suspects -- Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was later killed by French police -- sitting outside his apartment drinking and smoking pot with his friends. He was apparently known on his street as someone who liked to hang out.

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Putin's waging war on far too many fronts

    Has Vladimir Putin finally overreached?

    The Russian president is confronting several simultaneous crises. Over the weekend, Ukrainian activists blew up high-voltage transmission towers and cut off electricity supplies to Russian-held Crimea. In St. Petersburg, his home city, on Tuesday a column of 600 heavy trucks was crawling toward the city government building to protest tolls on Russian roads (a son of a close Putin friend has a financial interest in the system). And on the Turkey-Syria border, the Turkish air force downed a Russian bomber.

    After annexing Crimea and fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, stamping out domestic opposition, deploying his military to Syria, Putin hasn't responded to the latest outrages.

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'President Trump?' Get used to it

    President Donald Trump? Surely I jest? I wish.

    The billionaire presidential candidate has been riding atop the Republican primary polls for four months. He constantly defies the conventional rules of political etiquette. He reveals no more than a passing interest in facts. Yet the more he is criticized, the more he seems like Godzilla to grow bigger and stronger.

    Trump's disinterest in facts came into full bloom after the Paris terrorist attacks. He famously reignited an old and roundly debunked Internet conspiracy theory that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the World Trade Center's collapse in 2001.

    New Jersey officials and journalists -- including the authors of a paragraph that Trump cited -- have found no basis in fact for his assertion.

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No girls allowed? The Boy Scouts have a case

    What are the legal prospects for the California girls who want to join the Boy Scouts of America? Five girls, ages 10 to 13, have asked the local council to be admitted as full-fledged Boy Scouts. Should they eventually take their case to court, they won't be able to rely on Title IX, the law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions, because Congress wrote in an exemption for the Boy Scouts. Structurally, the exemption resembles the one that Congress gave Major League Baseball from antitrust laws: It doesn't really have a principled basis, but reflects some combination of tradition and lobbying power.

    The girls could instead try to use state anti- discrimination laws to demand membership. The Boy Scouts would, however, have a response. They could claim that they're committed to the exclusion of girls as a matter of their core definition, and therefore invoke their constitutional right to associate in a discriminatory fashion.

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NATO confronts Russian base on Turkey's border

    When Turkey shot down a Russian jet Tuesday, NATO was facing its worst fear: a direct confrontation with the Russian military. The problem on NATO's southern border is much bigger than this one incident; the new Russian base near Turkey presents a larger strategic challenge for the alliance that if ignored could lead to ongoing clashes.

    Two days ago, Petr Pavel, the chairman of the NATO military committee and top military adviser to NATO's secretary general, warned me about the long-term implications of the new Russian airbase in Latakia, Syria. The Czech general did not know then that the Russian presence in Syria would cause an international crisis so soon. But he already knew that NATO needed to figure out a comprehensive policy to push back against Russia's new base.

    Pavel said that the base is not just intended to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

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Leaving the justice out of wealth redistribution

    I'd like to explain how most modern economists think about wealth redistribution. If you discuss welfare, taxes or inequality with an economist, you're bound to run into a concept called the equity-efficiency tradeoff. It's the idea that there's a fundamental tradeoff between the size of the economic pie and the equal distribution of said pie.

    Suppose you're a really rich person. You have $50 billion in wealth, though it fluctuates day to day depending on the financial markets. But even if the markets take a tumble, you will still have enough to buy almost anything you want -- mansions, private jets, super yachts. You can afford to give hundreds of millions to political causes, universities or charities each year without putting a noticeable dent in your net worth.

    Now suppose some hacker comes and steals $10,000 out of one of your brokerage accounts. Unless you have a very careful accountant, you probably won't even notice the theft. The difference it would make in your purchasing power would be negligible. The loss would be no larger than what you probably suffer a hundred times a day from the random movements of the markets.

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Even the first Thanksgiving was political

    Thanksgiving is a political holiday. It honors and mythologizes the comity -- based on a formal treaty - - between two peoples who needed what the other had to offer at a particular point in time.

    Delighted not to be starving, the Puritans of what is now Massachusetts feasted for three days in 1621, and entertained the local Wampanoags as their guests. Neither group was "American" in any recognizable sense, because no such thing existed. What brought them together was not shared identity but shared interests: Trade. Protection from common enemies. Mutually valued exchanges of technology and skills.

    Having sized up a hostile physical and political environment, from rocky soil to angry neighbors, the settlers found the Wampanoags worth cultivating, and opted to give the Indians a seat at the table.

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Don't risk economy by rolling back Wall St. reforms

    A few weeks ago, Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together to pass a two-year budget agreement. The compromise lifts the spending caps imposed by sequestration to allow for meaningful investments in the middle class and keeps our economy moving forward. Congress can build on this progress in coming weeks by passing legislation to keep the government open past Dec. 11, but without the kind of brinkmanship that in recent years has risked real damage to the economy.

    Unfortunately, rather than focusing on the needs of American families, some in Congress are attempting to use this funding process to roll back crucial provisions of the reforms to the financial system we put in place after the financial crisis of 2008. The Obama administration strongly opposes this misguided effort to undermine critical elements of financial reform.

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Black Friday or not, we can still shop like crazy

    Going shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving? That's still OK, I think. But "Black Friday" sure seems to have become unfashionable.

    By this I mainly mean the practice of encouraging turkey- sated shoppers to stampede into stores in search of deals. This used to happen around 6 a.m. on Friday. In 2011, several big U.S. retailers moved their opening times to midnight; in 2012, Wal-Mart crossed the Rubicon and opened its stores at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.

    These Thanksgiving intrusions aren't over. According to TheBlackFriday.com, Wal-Mart will open its stores at 6 p.m. this Thursday, as will Target, Kohl's, Macy's and Sears. J.C. Penney will open at 3 p.m., Old Navy at 4, Best Buy at 5. But after last year's Thanksgiving weekend retail sales fell 11 percent from the year before while overall holiday sales rose, some retailers have been reconsidering.

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Anti-Semitism that can't be ignored

    Ordinarily I'd ignore the anti-Semitism. Not this week.

    Invective goes with the columnist territory. To judge by commenters, emailers and tweeters, I am ugly and fat, a dried-up old hag, a leftist moonbat and spiteful Obama-hater.

    Also, and I gather this is supposed to be another insult, a Jew.

    I woke up Saturday morning -- I was going to synagogue to say "kaddish," the mourner's prayer, for my father, who died this summer -- to this lovely tweet:

    "Oh, what a diverse panel, two Jews and a shabbos goy," the tweeter, who shall go unnamed, wrote about my scheduled appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation" with Atlantic Media's Ron Brownstein and Republican strategist Karl Rove.

    (The Rove reference, by the way, refers to a gentile helper who performs certain tasks during the Sabbath. My tweeter meant it in a derogatory way, as an enabler of Jews and Jewish causes.)

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