Archive

December 24th

Trump and Putin, in the Barn

    I was raised in an era when we spent a lot of time worrying about Russia. That was because of communism, which was such an obsession in my Catholic school that the countries on the map were colored red (communist-controlled), pink (leaning communist) or green (safe — for now). Only the United States and Ireland were green.

    For those of us who spent our childhoods getting drilled on how to be prepared to die for our faith in the event of a communist takeover, it was a relief when the Soviet Union broke up and nobody felt obliged to worry about Moscow any more.

    But now things are getting scary. Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, bombed the hell out of Aleppo, tried to interfere with our election. He’s just the kind of person Sister Mary Ingrid warned us about. But Donald Trump adores him. You can’t get into the Trump Cabinet unless you think Putin is a great guy.

    The bromance seems to have started in 2013, when Trump was preparing to go to Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant. He wondered — via a tweet, naturally — whether Putin would be going there, too: “If so, will he become my new best friend?”

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This is what the coming attack on climate science could look like

    My Penn State colleagues looked with horror at the police tape across my office door.

    I had been opening mail at my desk that afternoon in August 2010 when a dusting of white powder fell from the folds of a letter. I dropped the letter, held my breath and slipped out the door as swiftly as I could, shutting it behind me. First I went to the bathroom to scrub my hands. Then I called the police.

    It turned out to be only cornstarch. And it was just one in a long series of threats I've received since the late 1990s, when my research illustrated the unprecedented nature of global warming, producing an upward-trending temperature curve whose shape has been likened to a hockey stick.

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Stop playing whack-a-mole with public health

    When new parents see the words "BPA-free" on a baby bottle or sippy cup, they are meant to assume that the product is safe. This may well not be the case - quite to the contrary.

    In fact, in some cases, hormone- disrupting BPA, or bisphenol-A, has simply been swapped for a similar chemical - BPS, or bisphenol-S - that may well pose even greater dangers to child health. In this way, manufacturers have done an end run around on the much-publicized dangers of BPA without addressing the underlying problem.

    Even more disturbing: What's happened with baby products is the tip of the iceberg. It points to a phenomenon known in the world of public health as "regrettable substitution" - the cynical replacement of one harmful chemical by another equally or more harmful in a never-ending game being played with our health.

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Stereotypes are poisoning American politics

    I was born in West Virginia and spent all of 10 days there as an infant before my family moved to Ohio. Perhaps that's a license for me to say why Appalachians are poor, drink too much, and voted for Donald Trump. The best-selling and widely praised "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J.D. Vance, proceeds along those lines. But I shouldn't single out that book: Sloppy analysis of collections of people -- coastal elites, flyover America, Muslims, immigrants, people without college degrees, you name it -- has become routine. And it's killing our politics.

    Three laws guide this bogus analysis of groups. First, define the group by the outcome you are trying to explain. Second, invoke a stereotype and exaggerate it. Third, endow the group with innate permanent properties, akin to racial characteristics. Together, these errors establish a kind of collective guilt, blaming an entire ill-defined group for the failings of its individuals, even if the offenders are a tiny minority. This is both divisive and false -- and all the more toxic because of its flavor of intellectual propriety.

    Let's take each of these laws in turn.

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Something is broken at the FBI

    The more we learn about the Russian plot to sabotage Hillary Clinton's campaign and elect Donald Trump, and the failure of the FBI to adequately respond, the more shocking it gets. The former acting director of the CIA has called the Russian cyberattack "the political equivalent of 9/11." Just as after the real 9/11, we need a robust, independent investigation into what went wrong inside the government and how to better protect our country in the future.

    As the former chair of the Clinton campaign and a direct target of Russian hacking, I understand just how serious this is. So I was surprised to read in the New York Times that when the FBI discovered the Russian attack in September 2015, it failed to send even a single agent to warn senior Democratic National Committee officials. Instead, messages were left with the DNC IT "help desk." As a former head of the FBI cyber division told the Times, this is a baffling decision: "We are not talking about an office that is in the middle of the woods of Montana."

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Obama's vital last presidential act

    Before President Obama turns off the Oval Office lights for the last time, it's critical that he make good on his order for a definitive report from the full American intelligence community -- not just the CIA and the FBI -- on whether the Russian government hacked into U.S. cyberspace in ways that could have, or did, affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

    Nothing is more necessary to the credibility and integrity of the American political process than to have such a finding bearing the stamp of the executive branch, including Obama's National Security Agency, while he remains in power.

    It doesn't matter that President-elect Donald Trump may complain or Republicans may see whatever comes from the report as a partisan challenge to his Electoral College victory. Nor does the fact both houses of Congress have committed themselves to similar reviews negate the importance that the Obama Administration weigh in on this unprecedented allegation involving a major foreign power.

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December 23rd

Let civil servants do their jobs

    If President-elect Donald Trump wants to dramatically improve the functioning of government, here is one simple and straightforward thing he can do: refrain from flooding the Cabinet departments with politically appointed deputy assistant secretaries.

    For decades, administrations have extended the ranks of political appointees to lower levels. Eager and well-meaning but largely inexperienced individuals have been made deputy assistant secretaries to head offices within the departments. Often this is the first real job these individuals have ever held. I know the Defense Department well and have watched the phenomenon unfold there, but it has occurred across the government. There generally are two consequences.

    First, such appointees have little standing with the secretary, especially when they are handpicked by the White House and forced on the secretary to serve as an advance guard for the West Wing. And because they have little standing, they hunker down to protect their turf, amplifying whatever coordination problems exist within a department.

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How Russia overtook China as our biggest cyber-enemy

    In June 2015, the U.S. government discovered something horrifying: The Office of Personnel Management had been hacked by China. The attackers had stolen the Social Security numbers, performance ratings and job assignments of millions of current and former federal employees.

    It wasn't the first time the Chinese had been tied to security breaches in the government. They had gained access to the computers of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s top officials as well as sensitive data in government employees' security clearance files. The Chinese military was able to steal weapons designs, data on advanced technologies and insight into U.S. government policies. They had collected information about America's electrical power grid, gas lines and waterworks.

    Headlines about China's attacks bordered on the hysterical. "Successful hacker attack could cripple U.S. infrastructure," NBC blared. "China hacks the world," the Christian Science Monitor declared. The National Interest called China's data theft a "national security threat."

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Four ways to help the Midwest make a comeback

    When big Midwestern states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio voted for Donald Trump, they chose to roll the economic dice. It's not clear yet whether President-elect Trump will or can follow through on his promises to revamp U.S. trade policy. It's even more dubious whether that will have any kind of positive effect on the Midwest. But it's obvious that his promises resonated with a lot of people in that region.

    There are a number of economic and political lessons to take away from Trump's Midwestern conquests, but the first one should be that the Midwest needs help.

    There's no question that the region, once legendary for its manufacturing might, is struggling. A team of economists, including the distinguished Stanford economist Raj Chetty, recently found that "the largest declines [in economic mobility have been] concentrated in states in the industrial Midwest states such as Michigan and Illinois."

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Four ways to help the Midwest make a comeback

    When big Midwestern states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio voted for Donald Trump, they chose to roll the economic dice. It's not clear yet whether President-elect Trump will or can follow through on his promises to revamp U.S. trade policy. It's even more dubious whether that will have any kind of positive effect on the Midwest. But it's obvious that his promises resonated with a lot of people in that region.

    There are a number of economic and political lessons to take away from Trump's Midwestern conquests, but the first one should be that the Midwest needs help.

    There's no question that the region, once legendary for its manufacturing might, is struggling. A team of economists, including the distinguished Stanford economist Raj Chetty, recently found that "the largest declines [in economic mobility have been] concentrated in states in the industrial Midwest states such as Michigan and Illinois."

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