Friday, August 29, 2014

Today's thoughts on ISIS

Just like our President, I don't yet have a strategy with regard to ISIS. I'm not even sure whether they're worth defeating. 

The fact that President Obama has refused to be rushed by the media into taking action is refreshing; then again, it's typical Obama restraint that at other times is so frustrating. When our troops' lives and billions of dollars are on the line, his restraint is atypical of balls-to-the-wall Presidents trying to look tough, and who pay for it with the nation's credit card and somebody else's children.

Pop quiz: How many fighters does ISIS have?  You probably don't know. If you nevertheless feel we must defeat ISIS, little facts like this one are important.

Spot check: If there were no YouTube videos or reports of ISIS carving off Westerners' heads, would you feel the same way about them?  The answer is probably no. So is emotion -- or revulsion, as the case may be -- a proper basis for going to war?

My impression is that many Americans -- driven by FOX and talk radio -- have an ill-informed, fear-based, apocalyptic view of ISIS. Maybe ISIS is indeed worth our trouble to "take out," but let's be real: an Islamic state they are not. Al Qaeda they are not.

Because as I've said so many times before: conflict and religious extremism are encouraged by failed states, not vice-versa. ISIS is the orphan of Syria to the west and Iraq to the east, who got a huge, unexpected inheritance from its rich Uncle Sam with lots of guns who lives across the ocean.

Today I was listening to talk radio. First, Rush Limbaugh. He was slamming Obama's "no strategy yet" statement, naturally, but also Obama's caveat that we cannot "perpetually" destroy ISIS: as soon as we would leave, they would reconstitute. "Can you imagine FDR telling the American public that we couldn't perpetually defeat Nazi Germany?" Rush asked, incredulous, in perpetual outrage mode.

Bam.  Rush hit one of my pet peeves: comparing everything with Nazis and WWII.  Hell, Russia's president Putin is doing it right now, comparing Ukraine's army's actions against terrorists in its own country to the actions of Nazis in the siege of Leningrad.  Crazy, right?  Well it's crazy here, too. 

Because ISIS is not a state. They may have pretensions or plans to statehood, but a state they are not. There is no infrastructure of theirs to blow up -- they'd probably blow it up first, just for the hits on YouTube.  They have no political apparatus -- they are strictly a paramilitary organization.  And ISIS has none of the other trappings of a state with which we'd go to war and eventually have to make peace with.  

Incidentally, Obama is right: ISIS can be hurt or even crippled by the U.S., but with failing states and the ensuing anarchy in Syria and Iraq, not to mention volunteers from all over the world, and donations from our "allies" the Saudis, ISIS surely would come back. Indeed, they are not Nazi Germany. They don't intend to rebuild anything or hold any borders. All ISIS needs to do is re-arm. 

So we should be careful about declaring war on groups of irregular soldiers with tons of outside support, some of it from our "allies." The U.S. is the most powerful and richest country on Earth; when we bend down to crush an ant, suddenly that ant gains status

Do we really want to grant ISIS such "enemy" status? Methinks that is exactly what ISIS wants, that's why they're executing our citizens after demanding ridiculous ransoms they know that nobody will pay.  ISIS wants the U.S. to get involved.  Hey, there's no better recruiting and donations tool than the Great Satan as your adversary.

I mean, think for a second without emotion. Let's say the U.S. declares war on ISIS.  Then we wipe them off the battlefield, winning every fight along the way.Then we go home, or leave yet another small training and security force in Iraq. And then... two months later ISIS is back.  It doesn't matter in what guise. Nevertheless they're back on YouTube, back to taking hostages, back to seizing unprotected villages in the desert, whatever. Suddenly -- and this is important -- ISIS can say that it "defeated" the United States. It wasn't destroyed. All ISIS has to do to win is live, in whatever form, to fight another day.   

Understanding that, if you were POTUS, would you want to commit yourself to total victory over ISIS in Rush Limbaugh's terms? Or would you hedge? Or would you even consider doing nothing at all? What's the upside?  Does ISIS really represent a clear and present danger to the U.S.?  No.  To our allies?  Well, yes (Iraq), no (Syria) and maybe (Saudi Arabia, et al). Meanwhile, those allies do not have armies capable of defending themselves -- they rely on the U.S. 

Even worse, meanwhile, some of those allies -- cough, Saudi Arabi! cough! cough! -- spend billions exporting Wahhabist and jihadist religion all over the world that bites themselves and us in the ass. 

And meanwhile, sadly, as our small attention span is captured by masked men with dull knives in the desert, a European country is being invaded for the first time since WWII by an honest-to-God scary military power. THAT'S where the WWII analogies should be drawn. THAT'S where America's attention should be.

Alas, our media loves sensation and so do we.  Folks, let's be smarter and shrewder, eh? 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Guns in Kroger and the myth of the open-carry Old West

You never know what mortal dangers you might face at the Kroger pharmacy, so be packing!

This story from HuffPo gives me deja vu from February 2013, because gun nuts have chosen Kroger stores to carry their AR-15s into as a display of their "rights." My response then still applies:

Imagine being with your child or grandchild and seeing this guy walk into the Kroger or Walmart before you toting an AR-15. At that moment, I guarantee that you won't be thinking, "Hooray for the Second Amendment!" You'll immediately go into fight-or-flight mode, fearing for the life of your child. You might use your own gun, preemptively, if you have one, creating all kinds of deadly confusion.

You might dial 911 and precipitate a costly and dangerous emergency, or a standoff situation if the guy is itching for it. In any case, I guarantee that you wouldn't not feel terror, it's just human instinct.

This is the country that the NRA and GOP have given us. This is not the country of our grandparents; there's nothing "conservative" or traditionally American about a guy casually walking into a grocery store with a deadly weapon that can fire more than 120 rounds per minute.

On the flip side, I have a second protest against an open-carry society: ironically, it would dull the instincts of those who carry guns to protect themselves and put them in danger. I mean, if everybody's carrying a gun and there's nothing alarming about that anymore, then how much time would you have to react if one of those folks in the crowd decides to point and shoot you? A second, maybe. Whereas if you see a guy with a gun today, in most cases, you're either immediately running away, calling the police or getting ready to defend yourself.  

That's why even in the Old West, where today we imagine everybody and his granny was packing, in fact many towns practiced gun control, for example in famous Dodge City, as my man Leonard Pitts recently pointed out: "Forget that myth about open carry’s Old West roots."

By Ben Hallman
August 18, 2014 | Huffington Post

News digest / Catching up on news (08.24.2014)

Here's a news roundup from the past few weeks. Sorry I haven't had time to re-post these with the thoughtful and incisive commentary that you've come to expect from me:

"How Isis came to be," By Ali Khadery, August 22, 2014, Guardian. URL:  -- FASCINATING, ESP. CONSIDERING THE U.S. HAS ARMED ISIS TWICE ALREADY

"Obama's legacy could be a revitalized NATO," By Anne Applebaum, August 22, 2014, Washington Post. URL: -- A SCARIER RUSSIA DEMANDS A STRONGER NATO

"New Study Debunks Big Corporations' Tax Inversion Arguments," By Ben Hallman, August 19, 2014, Huffington Post. URL:  -- THE FACTS DON'T SUPPORT INVERSION

"Left out in the cold by the ice bucket fad," By Michael Hiltzik, August 21, 2014, Los Angeles Times. URL: --  DONATE MONEY; CONSERVE WATER

"US still has time to stake out a position of strength in Ukraine," By John Bolton, August 21, 2014, Los Angeles Times. URL: -- USUALLY I DISAGREE WITH 'YOSEMITE SAM' BOLTON, BUT HE'S BASICALLY CORRECT

"Shoddy US roads, bridges take a toll on the economy," By Don Lee, August 17, 2014, Los Angeles Times. URL:  -- WHY LIBERALS AND DEMOCRATS CAN'T RUN AND WIN ON THIS SIMPLE FACT IS BEYOND MY UNDERSTANDING

"Among world leaders, the trend for acting like Vladimir Putin is catching on," By Adam Taylor, August 14, 2014, Washington Post. URL:  -- JUST TAKE YOUR SHIRT OFF IF YOU WANT TO BE LIKE PUTIN!

"The GOP’s war on voters continues in Virginia," By Editorial Board, August 14, 2014, Washington Post. URL: -- PESKY VOTERS! WISH THEY'D JUST STAY AT HOME!

"The case for free tampons," By Jessica Valenti, August 14, 2014, Guardian. URL: -- IT GENERATED A LOT OF BUZZ ON THE INTERNETS

"Economic inequality, not just wages at the bottom, needs to be addressed," By Harold Meyerson, August 13, 2014, Washington Post. URL:  -- AMEN BROTHER

"WATCH this to understand the level of Russia’s sickness," August 9, 2014, YouTube. URL: --EVER WONDERED WHAT FASCIST STATE THEATER LOOKS LIKE?  HERE YOU GO

"Teenagers in US prisons: it's time for the savagery and neglect to finally end," By Sadhbh Walshe, August 7, 2014, Guardian. URL: -- OUR COLLECTIVE SHAME

Ukrainian Independence Day parades: Compare & contrast

Whereas Ukraine put on a somber and patriotic Independence Day parade in Kyiv, in traditional national dress, without cursing or mocking anybody...

... the terrorists and rebels in Donetsk garishly paraded Ukrainian POWs on the street to cheers of "fascists," "f-ing demons" and "faggots," then symbolically "washed" the street after them with a water truck:

UPDATE (08.25.2014): The forced march and intentional public humiliation of Ukrainian POWs in Donetsk was likely a war crime under the Geneva Conventions: "Donetsk POW March: When Is A Parade A War Crime?
The misled and brainwashed crowd in Donetsk was ready to tear their brothers apart like animals. 

Reconciliation in Eastern Ukraine will be a decades-long endeavor, but first Ukraine's victory there against Russian aggression must be secured.

Happy Independence Day to my Ukrainian friends!  You have suffered much already; may you endure till the end.  Glory to Ukraine!  Glory to the heroes!  Слава Україні -- Героям слава!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

U.S. economy stinks because of greedy corporations?

Blodget accurately uses the word "greedy" and "short term" to describe how U.S. corporations are acting -- by cutting back staff, freezing most workers' wages, and buying back stock. 

Yet there's another way to look at these trends: from an orthodox business perspective. Indeed, in my finance course in business school, we were taught that corporate decisions such as buying back shares and issuing big dividends may be popular among investors; yet such actions must also be eyed skeptically by long-term investors, since they are a signal that the corporation can currently find no better use of its profit, such as R&D or capital investment.

 Now jump to the "job creators" myth, and you'll understand why this is relevant: every time Wall Street cheers these short-term gains in stock price, U.S. workers are losing out again, because either somebody's not getting hired or somebody's not getting a raise. And this means less consumption and economic activity (about 70 percent of U.S. GDP).  

And this gets back to the idea of depressed aggregate demand, and why the "job creators" myth is bullshit, because the capitalists (people with money) and the corporate owners (shareholders) and officers, when acting rationally in a system where their customers don't have as much money as they once did to buy their products, stop investing and producing as much, because this seems like the sensible thing to do. And they all do this at once. They are prisoners in the same system that wage-earners and consumers inhabit; they're not divorced from it, at least not in the long term. 

So this idea that job creators, if government would only get out of their way and/or cut their taxes, would behave much differently than they are now, is totally bogus and irrational, because although they are at the top, they are not the commanders of the system, nor do they stand apart from it. 

In fact, as Paul Krugman pointed out back in 2010, and just about every business survey since then has supported, lack of demand (sluggish sales) is the key business problem, not taxes or regulation or general "uncertainty."  

By Henry Blodget
August 19, 2014 | Business Insider

GDP Growth
Business Insider, St. Louis Fed
GDP growth.
The U.S. economy is still sputtering. (See GDP growth chart above.)
Why is growth so slow and weak?
One reason is that average American consumers, who account for the vast majority of the spending in the economy, are still strapped.
The reason average American consumers are still strapped, meanwhile, is that America's companies and company owners — the small group of Americans who own and control America's corporations — are hogging a record percentage of the country's wealth for themselves.
In the past five years, American corporations have boosted their profits and share prices by cutting costs (firing people) and buying back stock. As a result, unemployment remains high. And wage growth for the Americans who are lucky enough to be working has been pathetic — the slowest since World War II.
Meanwhile, America's corporations and their owners have never had it better. Corporate profits just hit another all-time high, both in absolute dollars and as a percent of the economy. And U.S. stocks are at record highs.
Even Scrooge would be appalled.
Many people seem confused by this juxtaposition. If corporations and shareholders are doing so well, why is the economy so crappy?
The answer is that one company's wages are other companies' revenues. Americans save almost nothing, so every dollar we earn in wages gets spent on products and services (including, in some cases, those of the companies we work for). The less that American companies pay their workers, the less American consumers have to spend. And the less American consumers have to spend, the slower the economy grows.
This isn't a complex concept. We're all in this together. People make it complicated by casting it as a political issue and inflaming partisan tensions. But it has nothing to do with politics.
Importantly, it doesn't have to be this way.
There's no "law of capitalism" that says that companies have to pay their employees as little as possible. There's no law of capitalism that says companies have to "maximize short-term profits." That's just a story that America's owners made up to justify taking as much of the company's wealth as possible for themselves.
Ironically, this short-term greed on the part of America's owners is most likely reducing their long-term wealth: Companies can't grow profits by cutting costs forever, because their profits can't grow higher than their revenues. At some point, revenue growth needs to accelerate. But that won't happen until companies start sharing more of the wealth they create with the folks who create it — their employees.
Let's go to the charts ...
1) Corporate profit margins just hit another all-time high. Companies are making more per dollar of sales than they ever have before. (Some people are still blaming economic weakness on "too much regulation" and "too many taxes." That's crap. Maybe little companies are getting smothered by regulation and taxes, but big ones certainly aren't. What they're suffering from is a myopic obsession with short-term profits at the expense of long-term value creation.)
Corporate profits
Business Insider, St. Louis Fed

Profits as a percent of the economy.
2) Wages as a percent of the economy just hit another all-time low. Why are corporate profits so high? One reason is that companies are paying employees less than they ever have as a share of GDP. And that, in turn, is one reason the economy is so weak: Those "wages" represent spending power for consumers. And consumer spending is "revenue" for other companies. So the profit obsession is actually starving the rest of the economy of revenue growth.
Business Insider, St. Louis Fed
Wages as a percent of the economy.
In short, our obsession with "maximizing profits" is creating a country of a few million overlords and 300+ million serfs.
Don't believe it?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Deion Sanders' sports charter school -- FACEPALM

[HT: RE]. Everybody will say that "Neon" Deion Sanders, aka Prime Time, running a sports charter school is ridiculous -- and it is -- but it is not really so far from many other public and private high schools that are basically athletic scholarship factories sponsored by shoe and apparel companies, where coaches and athletes, not teachers and administrators, rule the school.

This is what happens when two American education trends -- sports craziness and corporate sponsorship -- pull education down to its nadir. Enjoy.

By Michael Powell
August 9, 2014 | New York Times

Web pioneer: Can the 'Net's 'original sin' be undone?

As the Internet as we know it turns 20, one of the Internet's pioneers (and inventor of hated pop-up ads) hopes it's not too late to build a different kind of Web, one not built on ad revenue:

I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services. Through successive rounds of innovation and investor storytime, we’ve trained Internet users to expect that everything they say and do online will be aggregated into profiles (which they cannot review, challenge, or change) that shape both what ads and what content they see. 

Building the Web on ads leads directly to the thing we like the least about it: lack of data privacy:

Once we’ve assumed that advertising is the default model to support the Internet, the next step is obvious: We need more data so we can make our targeted ads appear to be more effective. Cegłowski explains, “We’re addicted to ‘big data’ not because it’s effective now, but because we need it to tell better stories.” So we build businesses that promise investors that advertising will be more invasive, ubiquitous, and targeted and that we will collect more data about our users and their behavior.

Even so, Zuckerman admits that our ad-supported Web has made it "flat" and accessible:

The great benefit of an ad supported web is that it’s a web open to everyone. It supports free riders well, which has been key in opening the web to young people and those in the developing world. Ad support makes it very easy for users to “try before they buy,” eliminating the hard parts of the sales cycle, and allowing services like Twitter, Facebook, and Weibo to scale to hundreds of millions of users at an unprecedented rate.

Zuckerman argues that there are four main downsides to an ad-supported Web:

  • First, [...] it’s hard to imagine online advertising without surveillance. 
  • Second, [...] it creates incentives to produce and share content that generates pageviews and mouse clicks, but little thoughtful engagement.
  • Third, the advertising model tends to centralize the web. [...] Companies like Facebook want get as much of that money as possible, which means chasing users and reach. Using cash from investors and ad sales, they can acquire smaller companies that are starting to build rival networks. 
  • Finally, [...] personalization [of the Web] means that two readers of The New York Times may seen a very different picture of the world, and that two users of Facebook certainly do, shaped both by our choice of friends and by Facebook’s algorithms. [T]hese personalized sites may lead us into echo chambers, filter bubbles, or other forms of ideological isolation that divide us into rival camps that cannot agree on anything, including a set of common facts on which we could build a debate.
So on what business model would a different Internet run? Perhaps pay-forward schemes such, and two-tiered, pay-for-Premium services, says Zuckerman. Meanwhile, online payment systems must be revamped to lower transaction costs, perhaps by switching to digital currencies. 

It doesn't sound too likely -- and Zuckerman sounds more apologetic about his role in creating this mess than hopeful it can be changed -- yet it's important to stop and realize that our young Internet didn't really have to turn out this way.

By Ethan Zuckerman
August 14, 2014 | The Atlantic

VIDEO: John Oliver critiques U.S. police militarization

I've been posting against police militarization since 2012, following the reporting of Radley Balko at HuffPo and WaPo. So I'm glad to see it's finally getting national (actually global) attention, and Balko is recognized as the foremost expert.

As Oliver notes, the big issue is not small-town police's Pentagon-provided equipment,  but rather how police have come to see those whom they are supposed to serve and protect as a hostile Other, and see themselves as armed Occupiers.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Will: In lame defense of tax inversions

In defense of foreign tax inversions by U.S. corporations, conservative George Will is obliged to argue that company managers have an obligation to company shareholders to maximize returns. Yet this is an assumed obligation, not a legal obligation, and not necessarily a moral one either, as the case of social enterprises proves. 

Moreover, I haven't heard about any shareholders' meetings where the crowd clamored for the corporation to abandon America and set up shop in Ireland or the Bahamas. Or about a Wall Street corporate analyst who ever urged such? Have you?  

The public's urging corporations like Walgreen's to remain in the U.S. and pay taxes where they actually operate and retain their headquarters is likewise a moral argument. Which is a stronger moral argument, patriotism or maximizing shareholder value? That's for individual companies' directors to decide; but nobody should dismiss patriotism as irrelevant. Nor should conservatives like Will, so fond of moralizing in other contexts, criticize our leaders such as President Obama for first exercising moral suasion to curb tax inversions before resorting to the big hammers of legislation or executive orders.

Next, Will labels the "race to the bottom" (something I have written about often) as "entrepreneurial federalism." This term is the acme of goobledygook: take two unrelated words that mean something, cram them together, and forfeit the meaning of both. Conservatives like Will assure us all the time that government cannot be entrepreneurial; that's business's turf. And federalism refers to various forms of political organization where national sub-units are subordinated to the national government in some matters, but retain their right to act freely in others. Federalism has nothing to do with states' respective policies and incentives meant to attract capital investment; nor does federalism refer to interstate economic competition. So, put these two terms together and you get... nothing. (Tom Friedman probably wishes he'd thought of it first.)

Also, Will summarily dismisses the idea that corporations that get rich partly thanks to U.S. roads, ports and other infrastructure, the U.S. legal system, patent protection, U.S. trade negotiations, not to mention U.S. public schools that educate their workers to be the most productive in the world, have some moral obligation to the U.S. to pay taxes or give something back. Corporations aren't people! say progressives. So Will replies, Then non-people cannot have any moral obligations!  Such petulance is typical of Will. 

Moral obligations are of the company's directors, primarily, and secondarily of the shareholders to keep the directors in line. Moral obligations are not necessarily legal obligations. Whereas the Citizens United and the Hobby Lobby cases turned on whether corporations had some of the same legal (First Amendment) rights as people: to make political donations and practice religion, respectively. Morality and law should not be conflated.

Beyond that, Will unwittingly offers up two contradictions in his own op-ed, and perfectly illustrates why the U.S. cannot win the race to the bottom. 

First, he tells the story how Airbus located a subsidiary in Alabama, a right-to-work state, "because capital, being mobile, goes where it is wanted and stays where it is treated well." Will picked an unfortunate example, because Airbus, as a consortium of European aviation firms, is heavily dependent on EU subsidies and contracts for its survival. Moreover it is headquartered in France. And Airbus employs over 60,000 workers in pro-union, "socialistic" Europe.  So Airbus would never dare to "invert" outside the EU to win some tax benefits! Obviously, multinational companies make their plans based on much more than tax rates and cost of wages.

Second, he tells the story how Maytag moved its production from Illinois to Mexico because, allegedly, Illinois was not a right-to-work (read: anti-union) state. Yet he doesn't attempt to explain why Maytag didn't move to a right-to-work state instead. Because he can't. Because no matter how low wages and taxes will be in Alabama or elsewhere, they will always be lower in some poorer, developing nation.  The U.S., the largest economy in the world, cannot hope to attract and retain businesses by trying to be "poorer" than poorest nations; or lower its taxes to the rates of tiny islands like Bermuda or New Zealand.  That's idiotic. Yet that's just what conservatives like Will advise: "the sensible corporate tax rate would be zero." Whoa! "This is so because," explains Will, "corporations do not pay taxes, they collect them, necessarily passing on the burden as a cost of doing business."

Hmm... I suppose that likewise, ordinary citizens do not actually pay taxes; they simply collect them from their employers, passing on the burden as a cost of staying alive.

Moreover, the Maytag example betrays Will's muddled thinking: he starts out discussing tax inversions, then switches to unions and labor. These are completely separate issues! Indeed, Walgreen's and other tax inverters have not publicized any plans to shut down their U.S. locations; they simply wish to re-locate on paper, for the tax benefit. And in fact Whirlpool Corporation, which owns Maytag, is based in Benton Harbor, Michigan, not Bermuda or Ireland.

Will's lame defense of tax inversions betrays an inverted worldview unfortunately shared by many conservatives: Government is but a burden and an annoyance barely tolerated by corporations, for whom the nation exists.  

This is not to say that the nation exists to serve the government. No.  Even so, I'll put Big Government above Hobby Lobby, Walgreen's or the Kochs any day, because at least I have some say in what my government does; and government is legally accountable to all its citizens, not just the wealthy.

By George Will
August 15, 2014 | Washington Post

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Study: Healthcare prices 'irrational'

Here's yet more evidence to prove what I've been saying all along: healthcare does not, and cannot, operate like a business.  "The charging system and payment system are irrational," i.e. not based on any known criteria, concluded a recent study:

One California hospital charged $10 for a blood cholesterol test, while another hospital that ran the same test charged $10,169 — over 1,000 times more.

For another common blood test called a basic metabolic panel, the average hospital charge was $371, but prices ranged from a low of $35 to a high of $7,303, more than 200 times more.

[...] Earlier studies by [Dr. Renee] Hsia [the study's leading author] identified variations in listed charges for labor and deliveries and for appendectomies in California, with labor and delivery charges varying eight to 11-fold between hospitals, and charges for a routine appendectomy ranging from $1,500 to $182,955.

So what does the healthcare industry have to say for itself?

Officials with the California Hospital Association dismissed the report as irrelevant, saying that the vast majority of patients pay discounted rates that have been negotiated by their insurance plans.

"Charges are meaningless data — virtually no one pays charges," said Jan Emerson-Shea, the association's vice president for external affairs.

That's right, my free market-loving, Tea Partying friends: prices are meaningless.  That's the way it was before Obamacare, and that's the way it is now.

But if the hospitals aren't the problem, then private health insurance must be. What's the answer? Make private health insurance unnecessary, (or an added luxury for those who want it), by introducing a single-payer insurance system, aka "Medicare for everybody."  

Medicare already negotiates the best prices on health care and prescription drugs, better prices than you or I can get, or our insurance providers. That's why this year the Obama Administration was the first ever to publicize the prices that Medicare pays for all kinds of health services, in the vain, (let's say misguided) hope that it would spur health "consumers" to ask tough questions of their providers and insurers and *shop around.

(*Just to illustrate the absurdity of "shopping" for healthcare, let's take the above-mentioned example of an appendectomy that could cost anywhere from $1,500 to $183,000. Nobody in the world researches prices on an appendectomy when they are healthy and able to choose where they get medical care; it is almost always an emergency procedure performed amid searing abdominal pain and the life-threatening risk of organ rupture. Anyway, the local EMT decides what hospital to go to, not the patient!)  

By Roni Caryn Rabin 
August 15, 2014 | NPR

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ukraine may be alone against Russia, but it is finally a nation

This is my hope exactly, as I've shared with my Ukrainian friends [emphasis mine]:

But while Ukraine may have lost Crimea, and may struggle to get a large slice of Donbas back under its control for an extended period of time, and while Europe has yet again disappointed, the big “win” for Ukraine is that the nation has been born.

Finally, after 23 years, Ukrainians do feel a sense of identity and affinity with the state of Ukraine. They have been willing to lie down their lives for the state, and will likely be willing to struggle to ensure its survival and success, irrespective of Russia having lopped off bits of its territory.

This is the big chance for Ukraine, to live to European values, and modernise the economy – because it has to, rather as Georgia did in 2008. Russia may have outmaneuvered the West and Kyiv to a stalemate, even a short term tactical victory over Crimea and Donbas. 

But importantly, over the longer term Russia has failed in allowing a new nation to be forged – 2014, could be the defining moment for Ukraine, equivalent to 1848 or 1861 in Europe, 1776 in the US, et al. 

Russia may hence have gained Crimea, and possibly bits of Donbas, but may have lost Ukraine permanently.

Such words, I know, are likely cold comfort to Ukrainians still reeling from the loss of Crimea, embroiled in a deadly war on their eastern border, and suffering from economic recession. 

Even so, Ukrainian nationalists have always known that breaking free of Russia's grasp would not be easy. Over the years Russia has used every means at its disposal to control Ukraine: trade sanctions; bankrolling pro-Russian political candidates, NGOs, political parties, academics and journalists; military pressure; infiltrating the government and other key organizations; gas exports; etc.  

Now, at last, Ukraine is breaking free. Let's just hope Ukraine doesn't break up in the process!...

By Timothy Ash
August 15, 2014 | Kyiv Post

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Germans have united against their old partner Russia (NYT)

Seventy percent of 1,003 [German] adults polled last week by Infratest dimap for the public broadcaster ARD approved of stricter sanctions; just 15 percent viewed Russia as a reliable partner in a poll with a three-percentage-point margin of sampling error.

Germans are certainly feeling the pain of economic sanctions on Russia, much, much more so than the U.S., but without their leadership in the EU, there cannot be a united European response to Russian aggression against Ukraine. The UK, Netherlands and Eastern European states are not enough; the core of "Old Europe" must be on board.

Clearly, the downing of MH flight 17 was the straw that broke the camel's back vis-a-vis EU and Western public opinion; the attack by Russian-backed fighters in Ukraine showed Russia to be an unpredictable, reckless and dishonest "partner."  

Indeed, said German Social Democrat Gernot Erler, former deputy foreign minister and now commissioner for Russia and former Soviet states:

"The policy of Vladimir Putin is destroying reserves of trust with breathtaking speed. Russia is not naming its goals and has suddenly become unpredictable. And being unpredictable is the greatest enemy of partnership."

That phrase jumped out at me: "Russia is not naming its goals."  That's precisely it.  Putin seems to be taking a wait-and-see approach, with some weapons and fighters here, some diplomatic and economic pressure there, but not really saying what he thinks would be a realistic and desirable outcome for Russia. I suspect that Putin's cagey silence is as much about avoiding uncomfortable questions at home (where feverish nationalism could turn on its master) as it is about keeping the West guessing.

Yes, Putin has urged the establishment in Ukraine of a unique version of "federalism" for "Novorossiya" (Luhansk and Donetsk), where each federal state has its own domestic and foreign policy; but such a confederate (not federal) model would be completely unacceptable for Ukraine and the West, and certainly not practicable: it would make Ukraine a hobbled, disunited state always prone to political infighting. If this is Putin's ultimate goal then it's understandable why he cannot openly say so.

By Alison Smale
August 13, 2014 | New York Times

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Haaretz journo: 'Israel is only a democracy for those who fall in line'

Don't just take my word for it, listen to an Israeli Jewish journalist, who recounts how Israel's public discourse has been deformed and coarsened by decades of government aggression against Palestinians and official censure of any Israeli citizen who questions that aggression.

Gideon Levy echoes my words from last week about how Israel's government and media have effectively dehumanized the Palestinians, leaving them open to whatever punishment they "deserve" from the IDF and its supplier of deadly weapons, the United States [emphasis mine]:

But the biggest problem is not the marginal extremist who cheers for the killing of Palestinian children in Gaza, or applauds every Israeli bomb that falls on a private residence. The biggest problem is the Israeli mainstream, which spoke with one voice during this war, and which had zero tolerance for any kind of dissent, or even the simplest human compassion with Palestinian sacrifice, suffering and bloodshed.

It is all about dehumanization. As long as Israelis don't perceive Palestinians as equal human beings, there will never be a real solution. Unfortunately, dehumanizing the Palestinians has become the best tool to strengthen the occupation, to ignore and deny its crimes and enable the Israelis to live in peace, without any moral dilemmas. If the Palestinians are not human beings, there is no question about human rights. This process climaxed in this war and this is the real basis for the moral blindness which has covered Israel.

American sympathizers with Israelis' plight and the cause of Zionism must be aware: Israel is not a democracy as we know it. It's a system where something more brutal than Jim Crow is codified in law and justified by self-serving morality:

Israel likes to describe itself as "the only democracy in the Middle East," but it's really only a democracy for its Jewish citizens who are quick to fall in line with the mainstream every time Israeli tanks roll across the border.

Americans should not express kinship with that kind of democracy. Eventually, we Americans rejected the physical and cultural genocide of native Americans, expressed our sorrow and made reparations. Eventually, we rejected the codified injustice of slavery, Jim Crow and "separate but equal," and we are a better nation for it. 

We Americans mustn't stoop down now after having passed through all that and commiserate with a nation that exceeds our worst historical sins, simply because we abhor the Holocaust and support the idea of a Jewish homeland. We must push Israel hard to listen to its better angels, its liberal dissenters, and transcend the original sins of its founding, just as the U.S. has done.  

By Gideon Levy
August 8, 2014 | CNN

The West should tell Russia: 'We don't need you'

There's a chilling, little-known factoid about Putin at the end.  This one's worth reading in full! 

Fortunately, the White House has said publicly that any Russian incursion into Ukraine, even for "humanitarian" or "peacekeeping" purposes, without the formal, express consent and authorization of the Ukraine government would be "unacceptable and a violation of international law."

By Yuri Yarim-Agaev
August 7, 2014 | CNN

The killing of 298 innocent people on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was a crime, a consequence of the war against Ukraine that Vladimir Putin started, and which he supplies, directs and controls. The Russian President bears full responsibility for this war, including the downing of the Malaysian airliner.

The main problem with our reaction to Russian aggression is not even the mildness of our sanctions, but the lack of clarity of their purpose. Our message to Putin is very confused. Do we want him completely out of Ukraine, or do we want his help in dealing with that country? They are two very different requests.

Despite Putin's offenses, Western leaders apparently still want him to play an active role in securing peace and stability. According to the White House, on July 17, "President Obama called on President Putin to take concrete steps to de-escalate the situation, including pressing separatists to agree to a cease-fire."

After the Malaysian airliner was shot down, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Putin to use his influence with the rebels to ensure a cease-fire. In recent appearances on several TV shows, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asked Putin to take "immediate and clear action to reduce tensions in Ukraine," "to step up and make a difference," and "to use all his influence."

Despite their harsh words for Putin, leaders of the West still want his help. British Prime Minister David Cameron summed it up best when he said: "We sometimes behave as if we need Russia more than Russia needs us."

Putin is only too glad to put on sheep's clothing and assume the role of peacemaker that he has pretended to be throughout the war that he himself started. According to him, annexing Crimea, shooting down airplanes and supporting separatists has only one purpose: to protect the Ukrainian people from alleged right-wing extremists.

If you want Putin's help, beware of what you are asking. He would be glad to broker a "diplomatic solution" with the separatists, thus legitimizing his terrorists and entrenching them on Ukrainian territory.  If that option doesn't work, we can imagine the following completely different scenario: Russian tanks roll over Donetsk. Instead of supporting the separatists, Putin arrests leaders of the Donetsk republic and persecutes them for terrorizing the local population. Blaming the Ukrainian government for its inability to protect people from the terrorists, he establishes full control over the territory, and leaves Russian troops there to secure law, order and tranquility.

[Putin is just devilish enough to try this! - J]

How would the world react to such a "peacekeeping mission"? Would the Ukrainian army fight Russian troops? Would Western political leaders accept this as a plausible option? I do not know. But what is more important, Putin doesn't know either. We should make very clear that we would not accept Putin as a peacekeeper and we want him out of Ukraine.

Western governments should not implicitly accept the aggressive doctrine called the "Russian World," which was endorsed by Putin, and which gives him the right to intervene into the affairs of virtually any sovereign nation, as he did in Ukraine, using the pretext of protecting Russian-speaking citizens.

The major concern of Western leaders is that by taking a strong stand against Putin, we may lose him as a useful partner in the world arena. We shouldn't worry about that. History clearly demonstrates that in all major international trouble spots in which we accepted Putin as our partner, Russia has always taken the side of the West's enemy. Such has been the case with Iraq, North Korea, Syria and Iran.

It was only natural for Putin to use any invitation on our part as an opportunity to damage us. One should not expect anything different from a person with the background of a KGB officer, for whom America always has been enemy No. 1, and for whom anti-Americanism is a pillar of his power.

If America is Russia's enemy, Putin's Russia cannot be our ally. Whether we like it or not, such relations are reciprocal. And from an enemy we do not need help. We need only check its aggression. For that purpose we should take the following steps:

1. Publicly recognize that Putin is not our ally or partner, but rather our foe, and make this position clear to him and to the rest of the world.

2. Ensure that our demands to Russia be absolutely clear. Stop supporting separatists in Ukraine. We do not need Putin as a broker or peacemaker. Putin must completely get out of Ukrainian territory and Ukrainian politics.

3. Make clear that Putin's help is not needed in any other part of the world. Exclude Russia as our partner or as a mediator from any international arrangements and negotiations.

4. Reiterate our position of not accepting the annexation of Crimea. Demand that it be returned to Ukraine.

5. Stop propagating Putin's propaganda. Instead, counter it with all the power of America's media. Expand broadcasts by Radio Liberty and other radio stations.

6. Make it clear that we consider the "Russian World" policy a threat to world peace and stability. Insist that Russia officially renounce that doctrine and repeal supporting legislation as necessary conditions for Russia's readmission to the community of civilized nations.

7. To stop aggression against Ukraine and to prevent aggressions against other countries, make Russia pay a high price by introducing sector and other serious economic sanctions. Be ready to accept the cost of those sanctions.

8. Take immediate steps to reduce that cost and any dependence on Russia. Develop new energy sources and transportation systems in America and Europe.

9. Provide help, including military assistance, to those who are under immediate attack or potential aggression by Russia.

10. Revisit communism, an ideology that remains important in Russia as well as other countries. Educate new generations about its atrocities and bankrupt ideology.

Opponents of strong action against an aggressor wrongly equate political confrontation with war. They believe that admitting that the second largest nuclear power is our enemy would usher in another Cold War and make the situation much more dangerous.

History teaches us, however, that to ignore reality and appease our enemy is a more dangerous approach than to clearly articulate our principles and disagreements.

When in 1983 the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Ronald Reagan denounced them as enemies of the United States and the entire world. Reagan's strong stand against the Soviet communism that threatened us for decades with nuclear war helped stop its expansion and eventually led to its complete capitulation. If we could stand against the mighty Soviet Union, we can manage Putin's much weaker Russia.

In February 2000, only two months into his presidency, Vladimir Putin presented one of his first state awards to Air Force Gen. Anatoly Kornukov. In 1983, Kornukov was commander of Sokol Airbase in Sakhalin. His order to the fighter pilot was: "Destroy the target!"

The target was Korean Air Lines Flight 007.