Archive

September 21st, 2016

Paychecks haven't changed much in rural America

    In the mostly very positive report on U.S. income and poverty in 2015 that the Census Bureau released this week, there was one sour note. As the Wall Street Journal reported:

    "Income gains were spread across nearly all age groups, household types, regions and racial or ethnic groups. One exception: Incomes didn't rise for households living outside metropolitan areas."

    In fact, the Census Bureau reported that the median household income outside the nation's metropolitan areas fell from $45,534 in 2014 to $44,657 (both in 2015 dollars), although it didn't make a big deal out of that because the difference was less than the survey's margin of error. The increase in median household income inside metropolitan areas, from $55,920 in 2014 to $59,258, was way more than the margin of error.

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Mourning the Syria that might have been

    Earlier this week, when the latest ceasefire in Syria's long-running civil war took effect, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seized the opportunity to embark on a triumphant tour of a place that has long defied him. He paid a visit to the city of Daraya, a Damascus suburb where rebels managed to resist his forces for four long years until they finally agreed to give up control in the last week of August.

    For those four years the government threw everything it had at Daraya. The troops surrounding it tried to starve it out, refusing to let aid convoys bring food to residents. Syrian helicopters pounded the city with barrel bombs, weapons of indiscriminate terror that have little or no military utility. In August, the Syrian air force used rockets and napalm to obliterate the city's last surviving hospital. Some observers believe this was part of a calculated effort to make the place completely uninhabitable.

    We've seen the same brutality in far too many places in this war. But there was something different about Daraya - something that helps to explain why Assad was so keen to celebrate its fall.

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It's still the economy, stupid

    Because they are tailored to appeal to voters, all political platforms are, to some extent, "populist." But what sets the wave of populism currently sweeping across the Western world apart from politics as usual is its impatience with constraints placed on democratic governments - in other words, its authoritarianism. When Fox News host Brett Baier suggested that the military would refuse Donald Trump's orders to torture captured jihadis, the latter responded simply, "They're not going to refuse me." The notion that leaders elected by popular majorities can flout legal norms, constitutional rules, and democratic checks and balances is at heart of the "illiberal democracy" promoted by Viktor Orban in Hungary and the ethos of Poland's Law and Justice Party, which has held power since October.

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Five myths on presidential health

    When Hillary Clinton announced a diagnosis of pneumonia last week, soon after leaving a Sept. 11 memorial service, she elicited a predictably partisan response. Fans of Donald Trump speculated that she wouldn't survive the year, while her own supporters pointed out that hardworking people get sick all the time. Both presidential candidates have been pressured to release more information about their health. But this information may not be as useful as we think. Past assumptions about the health of presidents and candidates often have been shrouded in myth.

 

Myth No. 1

    Franklin D. Roosevelt gave away Eastern Europe to the Soviets because he was sick.

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Fear of Clinton dominates some voters' choice

    One of the hardest things for a foreigner to understand in U.S. politics, especially its rather extreme 2016 version, is the willingness of voters to support candidates they deemed unacceptable earlier in the campaign. Because the U.S. presidential election narrows to a two-candidate race, the calculus of voters and political operatives shifts in spectacular ways.

    Plenty of this was on display in New Hampshire this week. On Wednesday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was in the state, which gave him his best performance of the primary season -- 7.4 percent of the vote -- to push a simple message to Republicans. "If you are a Republican and you are not working for Donald Trump over the next 55 days, you are working for Hillary Clinton," he said at a party "unity breakfast."

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Does globalization hurt poor workers? It's complicated.

    Political economists have long debated whether globalization started a "race to the bottom" throughout the developing world - that is, a lowering of labor and environmental standards as governments fiercely compete to attract multinational corporations and supply chain contracts.

    The evidence that this is the case, however, is decidedly mixed. In some cases, globalization can worsen labor standards, and international investment agreements can sometimes shift bargaining power toward multinational firms and away from developing countries' go vernments. But, in other instances, globalization offers mechanisms to improve the conditions faced by workers. Moreover, the sources of poor working conditions are often as much domestic as they are international.

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Chemical weapons watchdog continues hunt for Syria's elusive nerve agent

    When Syria disclosed its long-secret chemical weapons program in December 2013, it presented international weapons inspectors with a hard-to-swallow story: One of the regime's premier chemical weapons facilities - an underground laboratory on the outskirts of Damascus that was designed to fill Scud missiles with a lethal nerve agent - had never in fact produced Sarin.

    The inspectors decided they would have to check for themselves. In three visits to the site, known as Hafir 1, specialists from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons started to believe they had caught Syria lying about the extent of its secret chemical-weapons development.

    Samples collected at the site revealed the unmistakable presence of Sarin in the equipment used to mix the banned warfare agent and pour it into Soviet-era Scud or Tochka tactical ballistic missiles. They also betrayed traces of precursors for another, even deadlier nerve agent, VX, that Syria did not initially acknowledge using at the site. More signatures of Sarin were detected in two mobile filling units parked aboveground at the complex.

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September 20th

The reason the Lehman moment still is with us

    Sept. 15 is the eighth anniversary of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. Not enough time has passed yet for me to recall those anxious days without getting angry.

    Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, has used the occasion of this anniversary to suggest the next administration should "investigate and jail" those Wall Street bankers who committed crimes. Although I doubt there will be any perp walks, I do have some ideas about how to proceed.

    Before we look into the senator's suggestion, it is time for an honest appraisal of one of the lingering mysteries of the financial crisis: Why were there were no prosecutions of major executives?

    It's a fair question. I believe there were 10 areas where fraud and abuse took place. These were the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems; mortgage pools; securitization; "misplaced" mortgage notes; force-placed insurance; servicing fees; fake documents; false affidavits, perjury and robo-signing; foreclosure mills; and active military members losing homes while on duty.

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A sharper focus on North Korea

    North Korea's accelerating nuclear and missile programs, including its recent nuclear test, pose a grave and expanding threat to security, stability and peace in Asia and the rest of the world. This threat affects close U.S. allies - South Korea and Japan - and U.S. personnel and facilities in the region. In the coming months and years, it will create increasing danger for the United States. It is likely that the next president will face a North Korea that has gained the capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons.

    President Barack Obama's administration has succeeded in strengthening U.S. alliances in Asia and deterring a war, but, like its predecessors, has failed to change Pyongyang's assessment that defiance is preferable to conciliation. It is clear that the next president will have to sharpen Pyongyang's choice: offer greater benefits for cooperation and promise greater costs for continued defiance.

    For the past several months, we have led a task force to assess the state of U.S. policy toward North Korea and to propose a new comprehensive strategy for the region.

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The 24/7 Sneeze Factor

    Hillary Clinton is recovering from a mild case of pneumonia. However, shortly after she collapsed at Ground Zero while part of the 15th annual memorial of 9/11, her campaign staff said she was just exhausted and suffered heat exhaustion. It took a couple of days for her to reveal the extent of her medical issue.

    Donald Trump, who had many times this past year questioned Clinton’s health and suggested she should leave politics, now tweeted he was hoping his Democratic opponent would have a quick recovery. However, the Renegade Republicans, fueled by scandal-makers of the conservative media, think Clinton is a piñata, and are hitting her hard—she has Parkinson’s disease; she suffered from a concussion; the Democratic National Committee is working on how to replace her because she is so ill; she is on her death-bed, and a body double is the one the public is seeing.

    Prior to Clinton’s bout with pneumonia, she had released a two page letter from her physician stating medical specifics about her health; he concluded Clinton is in excellent health.

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