Saturday, January 2, 2016

Happy New Year. Now solve the old year problems.

We ended 2015 with such a plethora of unsolved world problems, chief among them the war in the Middle East.    Lately, in the crisis of Syria/Iraq, we have tended to overlook the 60+ year Israel-Palestine problem.   In fact, many have simply given up hope of solving that -- at least while Netanyahu and Likud are in control.

This following article from Al Jazeera Online is an important reminder of the inter-connectedness and the necessity of solving the Israel-Palestine conflict as part of the whole.   It was written by Rami G. Khouri, a Jordanian-Palestinian national, is a senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut and a senior fellow of the Harvard Kennedy School of International Affairs.
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"To Defeat ISIL, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Must Be Resolved 
A top Obama administration staffer admits that the long-running conflict is an obstacle to regional peace"

"Last week the National Security Council’s Robert Malley offered an unusually sensible statement on Middle East issues. Malley, President Barack Obama’s senior adviser on countering the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), said that the United States must resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to defeat ISIL and similar Islamist extremists.

"Unusually for Washington, Malley knows the Middle East well from decades of engagement and understands both the nuances and the big picture. . . .  He said the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict benefits ISIL in two ways: by increasing the appeal of its recruiting tools, including “constantly” referring to the Palestinians’ situation, and making it “very difficultto secure cooperation from leading Arab states to bring about changes on the ground.  Despite much behind-the-scenes cooperation, countries such as Saudi Arabia cannot openly engage with Israel while the conflict persists.

"Acknowledging that resolving the conflict would not be a “magic wand” . . .  Malley made the critical point that 'the absence of a resolution is fueling extremism' and that . . . [resolving it] 'would be a major contribution to . . . the kind of cooperation that is needed [to take on] what should be a common challenge, which is the challenge of [ISIL] and of other extremist organizations.'"

[Khouri then adds his own views.]

"He [Malley] is correct, even if he carefully framed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in utilitarian terms rather than affirm the primacy of international law and the moral urgency of resolving it. . . .  [T]he Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the single most radicalizing and destabilizing force in the Middle East for nearly a century. Resolving it would contribute immeasurably to a more peaceful Middle East — just as leaving it unresolved for decades has contributed to the sort of mass frustration, humiliation and radicalization that ultimately spawned ISIL.

"Washington’s imbalanced diplomatic support for Israel contributes to chronic tensions between Arab citizens and their governments, which rely on Washington’s political and military support. . . . Washington’s total failure [at resolving the conflict] reflects its biased approach to the process, which favors Israeli perceptions over the equal rights of both sides. . . .

"A genuinely impartial mediation effort would quickly improve public perception of the U.S. throughout the Arab world. Polls have repeatedly shown that Arab public opinion has always judged the U.S. through the lens of how Washington deals with the Palestinian issue. . . .

"[M]any other tangible benefits would accrue to the region and the rest of the world by resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, the grotesque modern legacy of Arab military rulers . . .  who seized power by arguing that only their military rule could protect Arab states from Israeli threats and promote national development.  Their decades in power drove Arab economies and political systems into the ground . . . .  [and] contributed to a loss of popular faith in the performance and even the legitimacy of autocratic governments, which in turn contributed to the uprisings and civil wars of the past five years.

"The expansion of Israeli settlements fuels widespread Arab perceptions of Israel as an instrument of Western imperial and colonial power in the Middle East. . . .  Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah have grown steadily over the past half-century, in part because of popular resentments against Arab governments’ failure to check the Israeli threat to Palestinian territories . . .  ending it could improve relations on those fronts as well.
[Khouri concludes:]  "It is not clear if Malley’s statement on the urgency of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to defeat ISIL is a sign of White House policy or simply one knowledgeable man’s honest personal reflection.  Hopefully, it’s both."
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Please note that (1) Malley is a White House official and, we can presume, was reflecting its official position;  and (2)   he was speaking to two Israeli institutions, albeit liberal ones:  the Israeli newspaper Haarez and the New Israel Fund.  So he, and presumably the Obama administration, was not trying to hide this position from Netanyahu and his coalition.

Even if Malley was going beyond "official" White House policy, there is no doubt his point of view must be pretty well accepted within official discussions at the highest level.   Otherwise, he would not still be in his position or allowed to speak to such a gathering from that position.   Khouri, the author of the Al Jazeera article, obviously focuses on the Palestinian perspective and not the Israeli counter-perspective.   But I do not believe that he is wrong in his arguments.

How refreshing it is to see President Obama unleashed from the shackles of political constraint he has had to endure for the past 7 years.   Am I remembering the line right?   "Freedom is just another word for having nothing left to lose."


Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year: My favorite quote from 2015

About the religious right, led by Mike Huckabee, going crazy over Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis being jailed for failing to obey a court order to do the job she was elected to do, Rachel Held Evans tweeted out this:
"No one's being jailed for practicing her religion.   Someone's being jailed for forcing others to practice her religion.

Is TV political advertising dead?

Chris Hayes ("All In With Chris Hayes" MBNBC) showed the latest data from Real Clear Politics averages correlating national poll standing and amount of money spent on TV ads by Republican candidates.   It's very interesting in that, with the exception of Chris Christie ($8.6 million/4.6%), there is an inverse correlation between amount spent and poll ratings among some of the other leading candidates.

Amount spent/Poll standing/Candidate:

$    0.2 million     35.6%       Trump
$    1.4 million      18.6%        Cruz
$ 20.5 million     11.6%         Rubio
$ 46.1 million       4.4%         Bush 

Now, does this really mean that the more you spend, the lower your ratings?    Or is it that those who are low in polling decide to spend more on ads?    Obviously Donald Trump is an outlier exception to all the rules.   He knows how to play the media to get free air time, worth more than all Bush's ads.  And Bush has nothing much going for him but money.

So I don't think we can draw any firm conclusions . . . yet.   But at least it does seem that tv ads don't have the effect they used to.   Maybe we're reaching that saturation point where people just tune them out

Wouldn't it be great if we didn't have to wait for SCOTUS to overturn Citizens United -- and it just died because money no longer worked to buy elections.   That's one of my new year's wishes.


Thursday, December 31, 2015

Good news from 2015

Back in October of this year, I began to label some of my blogs "Good news."   Realizing that I was focusing so much on what's wrong with the world, and specifically with our country, and even more specifically with the Republican politicians, I wanted to shift that balance at least a little.    So in just these three months, I have posted 18 good news stories that caught my attention.

There were others throughout the year, before I started labeling them, that could also be put in that category.    Of course, a huge one would be the Supreme Court decision that made marriage equality the law of the 50 states.   Another major SCOTUS decision was upholding the legality of President Obama's subsidies that make the Affordable Care Act possible.

Not a SCOTUS decision, but another very important story was the response by South Carolina's governor and legislature to take down the Confederate Flag that flew over the capitol in response to the mass shooting of members of a black church by a white supremacist.   One of the ones killed was a member of the state legislature.   Fittingly, Paul Thurman, the son of former arch-segregationist Sen. Strom Thurman and himself a member of the state legislature, was one of the supporters of that bill in South Carolina.   As S. C. Gov. Nicki Haley said, "history has changed."

So as the year ends, I though I'd like to collect a summary of those 18 good news stories to share.    The year 2015 has been a difficult year:   the Middle East wars, police shootings at home, ugly rancor in Washington, mass shootings and one major terrorist attack, and the ridiculous and maddening Republican primary.   So let's finish the year looking at some bright spots -- and hope for a better 2016.
Happy New Year to all and thanks for reading ShrinRap.

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#1.   World poverty declines.  The World Bank has forecast that less than 10% of the world's population will be living in extreme poverty by the end of 2015, a decline from 37% in 1990.   The U.N. has set the goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030.

#2.  Global child death rates decline, and other improvements.   In 1990 12 million children died before age 3;  that has been cut in half.   In 1980 only half of girls in developing countries completed elementary schoolnow 80% do.  Specific diseases have been sharply curtailed.   Birth rates have been diminished.    

#3.  Australia conquers gun violence.    We needed this natural experiment to be able to demonstrate that gun control can work.   It did in Australia.   Following one of the worst mass shootings ever (35 dead and 23 injured), people said "Never again" and they meant it.  Parliament banned semi-automatic weapons and imposed rigid licensing.   A buy back program gleaned and destroyed nearly 1 million guns.   Licensing now requires background checks that can take months, and they have strict gun storage requirements.   In the decade since, firearm homicide rate fell by 59% and firearm suicide rate fell by 65% without a concomitqnt increas in other forms of suicide.  And no mass shootings since.

#4.  Prison debate team beats Harvard debate team.   Bard College sponsors a program for selected prison inmates that leads to a college degree.   One feature of the program is that the Bard debate coach also works with inmate-students on their own debate team.   Their hard work paid off to show what they could do -- and, it happens, to show what such a program can do.   In a debate match up with the Harvard team, the team from Eastern New York Correctional Facility won.   Probably the Harvard team thought they could win without preparing much;   but the ENYCF team were both prepared and sharp thinkers on their feet as well.

#5.   No more drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean.   After all the fighting to preserve the arctic ocean from effects of oil drilling, no more drilling permits will be issued and no existing permits will be renewed.   At least as long as Obama is president -- and probably as long as oil prices are so low.

#6.  U,S, budget deficit at an 8 year low,   Another success for Democratic strategy.   Under Obama as president, the deficit has shrunk by over $1 trillion dollars.   Yet, because of Republican rhetoric, 73% of the public believes that the deficit has gotten bigger.   It was actually under President George W. Bush that the huge deficit explosion occurred.  Starting a war and cutting taxes, instead of paying for the war, was completely irresponsible.

#7.  Potential good news:    If only Georgia's governor and legislators would expand Medicaid, here's what would be good news:   300,000 more Georgians with health care;  $33 billion in federal tax dollars coming into the state;  80,000 new jobs;  rural hospitals would not have to close.    Wouldn't you think they would want to be responsible for such good news for Georgia?    But they would rather stick to the Republican line of defeating Obama.   So none of those things are happening.  Saddest words in the English language:   "if only . . . "

#8.  Publix gorcery chain is employee-owned.   I had been buying groceries at Publix for years and didn't know that the chain is owned by its employees, from CEO to bag boys.   Each employee becomes a stockholder, and there are no owners not involved in the retail success of the stores.

#9.   National unemployment reached a new low of 5% in the 3rd quarter of 2015, with better than expected job growth.   Mitt Romney had run in 2012 on the promise to get it down to 6% by the end of 2017.   Good thing we didn't elect him president.    Proves once again that the economy does better with Democrats in the White House.

#10.  Hysteria over "refugee terrorists" did not sway Lousiana governor's election.  Republican candidate David Vitter devoted the last week of his campaign to demagoguing the issue in a desperate effort to save his failing campaign.   It didn't work.   He lost by 12% points.

#11.  Generosity begets generosity.   When 7 year old Jack Swanson gave $20 from his savings to a community mosque that had been defaced during a Muslim hate crime, his generosity was rewarded by some members of the mosque.   They found out he had been saving his money to buy an iPad, and they bought him one.   This story has one caveat, in my opinion.   I hope it doesn't turn a pure act of generosity into an expectation that one gets it back in spades.

#12.  Unfathomable wealth and generosity.  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Pricella Chan commemorated the birth of their first child with a promise to give 99% of their Facebook share (currently about $45 billion) to their charitable foundation  to help make a better world for their daughter's generaton to live in.

#13.   Minnesota economic success proves Democrats correct.   Democratic governor Mark Dayton, by increasing taxes on the wealthy, raising the minimum wage, and guaranteeing women equal pay has reversed a budget deficit to a $2 billion surplus and lowered unemployment.   Exactly the opposite of what Republicans said would happen.   In contrast, Kansas went the route of austerity and tax cuts, with disastrous results for their economy, for schools, and employment.

#14.  Bernie Sanders rejects Super PAC money.   Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is running a grass-roots funded campaign.   He has compiled over a million individual donors and has turned down offers to set up a SuperPAC for him -- proving that a billionaire sugar-daddy is not necessary if the people like what you're saying.

 #15.   Climate agreement in Paris.   186 nations meeting in Paris have agreed to speak with one voice on the necessity of acting to reverse the effects of climate change.   The significance of this major achievement is that this many nations have begun to act together to save our planet and human civilization.

#16.  Murder rate lowest in 50 years.   Contrary to what most people think, the U. S. gun murder rate is now lower than it has been in at least 50 years.   A Gallop poll found that 56% thought it had gone up and only 12% said it had gone down.

#17.  Congress passed a bipartisan budget bill that was, of course, a compromise in which both sides had to give up some of what they wanted and accepted some things they didn't want.    But, according to Elizabeth Warren, there was not a single provision to materially weaken the rules on Wall Street.

#18.  Success in retaking Iraq.   Iraqi forces, with the help of Americans, have retaken about 40% of the territory in Iraq that was conquered by ISIS last year.   This includes regaining control of most of the major city of Ramadi.

The year 2015 doesn't sound quite so bad when you look at all these good news stories. 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Good news #18. Success against ISIS in Iraq.

Success in retaking Iraq.   Iraqi forces, with the help of Americans advisers and air power, have retaken about 40% of the territory in Iraq that was conquered by ISIS last year.   This includes regaining control of most of the major city of Ramadi, an important victory.

Once upon a time, there were Republicans like this

Once upon a time, there were Republicans I might disagree with but were worthy of respect.  Do you wonder, as I do, where they are hiding now?   Here's something that Andy Katz wrote for DailyKos about his father:

"Ten Things My Conservative Father Believed"
". . . [D]uring this season of political insanity, I often consider what my Father would think about about today’s Republican party and its race for its presidential nomination.  You see, my Father was a proud Republican, “Goldwater conservative.”  As an owner of a small business, my Father was a true believer in limited government, low taxes, the free market system and the profit motive as a force for good.  Yet, I can easily think of 10 things my Father believed that are considered blasphemous in the Republican Party today.
"1.  My father believed that Americans should respect the office of the President of the United States and its occupant regardless of his or her political party.  

"2.  My Father believed that racism is wrong. 

"3.  My Father believed that politicians should not lie.

"4.  My Father believed that immigration is good for our country because immigrants come to the US in search of a better life, work hard when they get here and want nothing more than to have their children enjoy the benefit our society offers its citizens.

"5.  My Father believed that the First Amendment protected the religious rights of minority faiths and opposed all religious discrimination.

"6.  My father believed in limited government and also believed that that concept should be applied to the regulation of personal behavior.  In short, my father was pro-choice.

"7.  My Father believed that the government had a role in protecting the environment. 

"8.  My Father believed in reasonable gun control. 

"9.  My Father believed in equality between the sexes.

"10.  My Father believed that right and wrong did not change depending on the party affiliation of the actor whose conduct is in question."
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Andy Katz is right.    Those ten beliefs weren't the way we defined the differences between Democrats and Republicans.   Those used to be non-partisan beliefs.

I suppose, if candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination were saying things comparably outrageous to what we hear from the Republican politicians, I too would be hiding.    But isn't there some courageous proud Republican of the old persuasion who will speak up for those people who -- in my opinion -- might be wrong about some things but not on these issues that are basic to American values?


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

No, of course the police rookie who shot Tamir Rice was not indicted.

Yes, I thought this one might actually be different.    A rookie policeman, who had a badly flawed training record, including failure of several training tests and one trainer's assessment that he did not have the temperament for a police officer.   Yet he had recently been hired by a neighboring police department that didn't bother to check his records.

There's more.  A 12 year old boy playing in the park with his toy gun.    A surveillance video that contradicted the rookie's story by showing him firing at Tamir Rice even before the squad car came to a halt -- proving that his claim to have repeatedly warned him to drop his gun was a lie.    And no attempt to give first aid to the fatally wounded boy lying on the ground -- and brutally throwing his distraught sister into the back of the squad car without an iota of compassion.

Yes, I thought a grand jury might find all this worthy of some further investigation under an indictment.    But that presumes that the grand jury heard what I just wrote above.   Instead, a sympathetic prosecutor presented the case to them in his own version, explaining the rookie policeman's fear that he was facing "a man with a gun" pointed at him.   The police rookie was allowed to give his story, without cross-examinationNo one spoke for the victim.

That is the grand jury system we have.  Yes, I understand that a grand jury is not a trial.  It is only to determine if there should be a trial.  But if there is no indictment, there will be no trial -- and the family of the victim will never have a change to question the shooter or to testify.   Instead, the prosecutor called it "a perfect storm of errors, mistakes and mis-communication" -- whitewashing the injustice rampant when our police confront black males.


Monday, December 28, 2015

Why President Obama doesn't say "radical Islamic"

President Barack Obama and presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton avoid using the phrase "radical Islamic" in speaking of terrorists.  Some Republican candidates and conservative pundits try to portray that as a sign of weakness in the fight against ISIS.

Both Donald Trump and Chris Christie derided Obama's lack of using the term, claiming that it is "political correctness," and implying that not using that term somehow means we are not fully engaged in the kind of war they think we should be fighting.

But it was a Republican president, George W. Bush, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 who -- to his great credit -- spoke boldly to the nation, saying that "We are not at war with Islam."

In a New York Times Magazine article on 12/20/15, Emily Bazelon wrote that many Muslim's themselves reject the term "radical Islam."   She continues:  "They say that ISIS's reading of the Quran and other texts is so selective as to be unrecognizable as Muslim at all."

Bazelon quotes John McWhorter, a Columbia University linguist, as dismissing the president's critics on this as "childish," given the way it would be heard and distorted by anti-Muslim groups.    He explains that, when one hears a sentence like "We must eradicate radical Islam," people don't hear that as saying there is a radical fringe group who claim to be Islamic that must be defeated because of their radical violence.   One tends to hear "We must eradicate Islam."

McWhorter continues:
"The terms 'radical Christian' and 'radical Jew'  have little purchase, not because there aren't people who commit violence in the name of Christianity or Judaism but because they don't loom large in the public consciousness and threaten to swallow a religion's whole identity."

The man who killed three people at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic was described by his own wife as an "extremely evangelical Christian";   and the man who killed Kansas abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller, testified that his Christian faith  and his views about abortion went "hand in hand."    Yet there has been little written about "radical Christianity" being the culprit in the abortion debate.

As Bazelon concludes, "We assume that these men are outliers -- not exemplars."    Why can we not do the same for the billion Muslims who do not endorse violence?    I would like to think that this difference is a matter of ignorance on the part of most Westerners about the Muslim faith and the Muslim people.    But I'm afraid it's much more complex than that, and it has much more to do with a general fear and distrust of "the other" -- distressingly encouraged and exploited by the rhetoric of most Republican presidential candidates and the right wing media.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

Krugman: Obama is "one of the most successful presidents in American history."

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize economist and New York Times liberal columnist, who has often been critical of President Obama, nevertheless wrote several weeks ago that President Obama is "one of the most effective . . . successful presidents in American history."   He cited health care reform, financial reform, and economic management as being less than perfect but much more effective than many people think.

Others have added to the list of really significant accomplishments of the Obama administration that will go down in history as the Obama legacy.   They include:

1.  The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.   Far from perfect, but many millions more people now have health care coverage.

2.  The recent Paris global agreement to tackle climate change.   Far more significant than the details it actually requires is the simple fact that 186 nations of the world came together and reached an agreement to begin to work seriously to halt the devastation to our planet.

3.   Unemployment is down to 5% national average;  and we have had 69 straight months of private-sector job growth.

4.  The Iran nuclear agreement.   Again, far from perfect but undoubtedly better than any alternative.   Without strong U.S. leadership from President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, it would not have been possible.

5.  The opening to renewed relations with Cuba, again due to strong leadership from President Obama.

6.   Although the Supreme Court did it, President Obama helped accelerate the rapid social attitude change that led to their decision to make marriage equality the law of the entire land.   For example, he provided real leadership in getting rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, supported repeal of DOMA, used regulatory power to require equal treatment of LGBT people in government contracts.

Others would include the Trans-Pacific trade agreement, modifications in immigration enforcement within limits of executive authority, and numerous other important achievements.
There are real major accomplishments here;  and they were  achieved despite maximum resistence from a Republican Congress that was determined to see that this president failed.   It fact, Mitch McConnell, himself, said so at the beginning of the 2009 Obama administration:   The main goal will be to see that Barack Obama is a one-term president.

Perhaps, with such determined sabotage from the opposition, the simple fact that Obama won a second term should be listed as a major accomplishment.