Archive

January 2nd, 2017

The last act of Obama's Israel drama may be his best

    The Israeli government's settlement policy puts it on the wrong side of history, justice, demography, the law, its own interests - and therefore the interests of its friends and allies. For each of these reasons, Israel should neither be surprised nor outraged at the recent U.N. Security Council resolution condemning those settlements. Nor should they be offended by the U.S. government's policy with respect to that vote, a policy that was well-articulated and defended by Secretary of State John Kerry in an address Wednesday.

    The Obama administration's abstention, which enabled that resolution to pass, should for the same reasons not be seen as a betrayal. Indeed, as a friend of Israel, the United States should have gone further and actively supported Resolution 2334, which passed with 14 votes in favor and just Washington abstaining. The settlements are hurting Israel, and true friends have the courage to tell each other what they need to hear, even when they don't want to hear it.

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Pruning Wall Street's thicket of conflicts

    Financial advisers no longer use telegrams and pneumatic tubes to execute customer orders, but they charge their customers based on an equally outdated and inefficient model: compensation is based on commissions for individual orders. With changes to the market, the law governing financial advisers should also evolve because their roles have changed.

    The need for reform has long been clear. Twenty years ago, a Securities and Exchange Commission task force on compensation recognized that the stockbroker commission structure creates far too many conflicts of interest. Instead of fixing the problem, Congress and financial self-regulators have simply slapped patch after patch on our increasingly outdated Depression-era regulatory infrastructure.

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Please, no more calls to 'drain the swamp.' It's an insult to swamps.

    Recent political discourse in the United States has been, shall we say, lacking in civility. Then again, we're talking about politics, a human endeavor that thrives on conflict between competing groups. But recently I've been dismayed, as an ecologist, by politicians using "swamp" as a derogatory term for our nation's capital and what goes on there. During his campaign and now as president-elect, Donald Trump turned the phrase "drain the swamp" into a rallying cry, pledging to restore "honesty, accountability, and change to Washington." Though his dedication to this principle has been called into question, Trump joins an illustrious list of politicians from both sides of the aisle who have invoked the swamp metaphor, including Ronald Reagan and Nancy Pelosi.

    My extensive experience working in and studying swamps allows me to see just how terrible the analogy is. Given the sea of misinformation we currently find ourselves swimming in, I feel this is as good a time as any to clarify what swamps actually are and why they should be regarded as wonderful and valuable parts of nature rather than objects of derision and hatred.

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January 1st

On EU trade, Brexiteers to the rescue!

    Let us imagine a world where "leave means leave," and "Brexit means Brexit." The United Kingdom would promptly trigger Article 50, close its borders, and say cheerio to its special single-market EU privileges. In doing so, Britain might slowly fade into irrelevance as banks, business opportunities, and immigrants flee to the continent.

    Yet, like a picky child, lead Brexiteers appear to still hope they can finagle leaving the nastier, more difficult bits of the single market European Union sandwich (the crust, if you will) by the wayside while simply enjoying the tasty benefits - like free trade.

    In a recent letter to business groups in the 27 other countries muddling along in the EU, Leave Means Leave pressure group co-chairmen Richard Tice and John Longworth called for continuing an uninterrupted flow of goods between the U.K. and EU. They also sought a wide-ranging trade deal "that has close to zero tariffs as is possible."

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Obama mastered his demons. Trump nurtures his.

    Politicians are desperate people. That was the premise of a question David Axelrod posed to President Barack Obama in a podcast earlier this week. Their exchange on the topic will become especially poignant on Jan. 20, when the erstwhile non-politician Donald Trump is sworn in as Obama's successor.

    "Most politicians have some sort of wound," said Axelrod, who has worked with dozens of candidates for House, Senate and statewide offices as a Democratic media consultant. "I find, especially at a higher level, that something happened in their childhood, and they really need the approbation of the crowds and the affirmation that comes with being elected."

    What Axelrod was asking the president was the big question I've always harbored about Obama: Where's the hole? Where in Obama is the insatiable hunger, the vast, unfillable void that drives someone to the daily madness of running for the American presidency?

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Nine 'amazing' moments from the Obama presidency

    Talking to Valerie Jarrett about her time as senior adviser to President Barack Obama and specifically about that time he sang "Amazing Grace" in Charleston, S.C., on June 26, 2015, got me to thinking about other amazing moments of the Obama presidency. So, before Obama nostalgia hits full-tilt after New Year's Day, here are nine "amazing" moments from his presidency.

    "Donald Trump is here tonight!"

    Donald Trump loves being the center of attention, even negative attention. But as we learned this year, the roasting of the Big Apple builder by Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Association dinner "accelerated [Trump's] ferocious efforts to gain stature within the political world."

    "Donald Trump is here tonight! Now, I know that he's taken some flak lately, but no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that's because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter -- like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?"

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If we knew what things cost, they might cost less

    The U.S. is a place where the big things -- health care, infrastructure and asset management to name a few -- just cost too much. Price transparency is an underrated tool for bringing down those costs.

    In economics classes, we teach something called the law of one price -- the cost of the same good or service shouldn't be much different for different buyers. In some markets, that law holds very well -- the differences in the prices different traders pay for a share of Apple Inc. stock at any given time, for example, are tiny.

    But in other markets, the law doesn't hold well at all. For example, until the rise of internet pricing services like TrueCar, auto salesmen could figure out how to get some buyers to pay much more for the same car than others -- a technique known in econ as price discrimination. Because car buyers didn't know what other buyers paid, they had no way to know if they were getting a good deal or not. They could find out only by laboriously shopping around. Now, the price transparency brought by the internet is probably eroding dealers' gross profit margins, to the benefit of consumers.

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Five myths about the President's Daily Brief

    David Priess, a former analyst and daily intelligence briefer at the CIA, is the author of "The President's Book of Secrets: The Untold Story of Intelligence Briefings to America's Presidents From Kennedy to Obama."

    We've learned that President-elect Donald Trump has declined many intelligence briefings, delegating the daily task instead to Vice President-elect Mike Pence. "I get it when I need it," Trump said. "I'm, like, a smart person. I don't need to be told the same thing and the same words every single day for the next eight years." In some ways this is a departure from the approach of past presidents. But there's also widespread misunderstanding of the President's Daily Brief (PDB) and the traditions surrounding it. Here are five erroneous beliefs worth correcting.

 

    Myth No. 1

    The PDB has traditionally been for the president's eyes only.

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UN has great potential for Trump

    "After January 20th things will be different at the UN," President-elect Donald Trump tweeted ominously after a historic Security Council vote to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank passed over a U.S. abstention last week. Trump had turned to Twitter days earlier to implore President Barack Obama to veto the resolution at the request of the Israelis. The split between incoming and outgoing U.S. presidents over the measure led to a few days of turmoil and a delay in the vote only to culminate in a highly public rebuke by the Security Council of Israel's policy. It seems all but certain that the fleeting display of unity in New York over the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict will quickly be subsumed by an even more polarized posture once Trump takes office.

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Trump Wishes Us All A Happy Thermonuclear New Year

    Now that the presidential election is over, will it ever really end? Not if Donald J. Trump and the cable news networks get their way. Having made the election into a pro-wrestling spectacle, the Twitter-addicted president-elect and his ratings-hungry enablers at CNN, Fox News, etc. appear determined to turn the United States government into an endless reality TV program.

    The hallmark of reality TV, of course, being sheer unreality. Absent terrorist attacks and weather-related catastrophes, however, political melodrama is the best known way to keep people watching what we quaintly call "news."

    CBS Chairman Les Moonves admitted as much last February. "It may not be good for America," he said of the GOP primary contest, "but it's damn good for CBS."

    Trump's role in the spectacle, he said, was great for ratings.

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