Ferguson was back in riot mode this weekend as Governor Nixon ordered the National Guard in to control looting and violence among protesters. Up until now, the police and the media have been the two main institutions present, with the courts yet to enter the fray, and politicians still trying to calm things down in order for investigations to proceed. So we have lots of footage of clouds of tear gas and angry mobs confronting heavily armed police – is there any other way to face molotov cocktails? – interspersed with Reverend Sharpton’s raging calls for justice. Does any of this this help calm things down? Dr. Ben Carson wondered out loud on television who exactly the looters were, or more precisely, whether they were from Ferguson or elsewhere. And he also asked what exactly do they want? Mob violence is a dangerous phenomena that takes a lot of energy and skill – and involves considerable risk – to bring to an end. Ben Carson’s call for dialogue is understandable, but the question is how do you get there? Any dialogue at this point will surely be nothing more than a shouting match – shouting is of course preferable to firebombs and looting.
So by all means, start the shouting, but stop the rioting as well please. There is evidence that is being released piecemeal and what is needed is an expedited investigation to clear up the facts. That does not mean a rush job. It just means avoiding any unnecessary delay. We will have had at least 3 autopsies by the time investigators truly get to work and some reports are suggesting that Michael Brown was charging the officer by the nature of the bullet wounds in his body. In Missouri’s long hot August, these investigations will have to be handled as cooly as possible. It is an impossibility that they will satisfy all of those concerned but the only other option is charging security forces with containing rioters night after night. Let’s remember how the Detroit riots left a scarred city that is still trying to recover its former glory. Ferguson is not Detroit nor will it become a little Detroit so to speak. But expediting the judicial process, as Dr. Ben Carson suggested, would clearly set things in the right direction.
In Texas, Umphrey Lee Elementary School has fallen from grace. The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) has uncovered cheating – teachers coaching and preparing students with near exact versions of the exam questions – on the STAAR tests taken by students. After 5 teachers were transferred out of Umphrey Lee, the scores dropped dramatically as the school fell from the top of the rankings right to the bottom. The DISD unfortunately failed to let parents know of the scandal until very recently. What is STAAR? Why that would be State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, a state-mandated standardized test born on the grave of TAKS – Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills which was killed by the state senate in 2007 in a bill demanding a return to end-of-course assessments instead of TAKS approach of testing general core subjects. TAKS in turn was begat by TAAS – Texas Assessment of Academic Skills – which saw light in 1991 after being begat by TEAMS – Texas Assessment of Minimum Skills which was laid to rest in 1990.
It is not at all cute to say that these twisted tangles of acronyms are in fact the Genesis of state mandated testing. It started in Texas, and it seems Texas is still trying to get it right. Who needs Common Core when you can have all kinds of fun with battling versions of what an appropriate standardized test should look like? Or perhaps one should ask, should it be easy to come up with a schools standardized test? And what are they intended to be used for, compared to what they are actually used for?
In a piece published on ASCD’s site – formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development which saw light in 1943 – James Popham criticized the use of standardized tests for evaluating the quality of education. He stated that: Standardized tests are a one-size-fits-all and do not measure “curricular diversity.” What is taught in a particular classroom anywhere around the country might not match the focus on a standardized test. Secondly, in order to differentiate between students, tests are constructed in such a way that questions that a large majority of students tend to answer correctly are eliminated from the test. Questions that most students fail to answer correctly are also eliminated. That means items that students understand well are often not on the standardized tests. As well, questions that measure student’s “in-born intellectual abilities” are not a measure of how well they have been taught, according to Popham. Finally, he takes a shot at out-of-school learning which is often reflected in these tests, placing lower-income students at a disadvantage, although he is careful not to use the term. Throw in the conflict over intelligent design’s place in any curriculum, especially as regards the Texas Education Agency, TEA, and it seems that constructing a standardized test that will please all so-called stakeholders is an impossible task.
Unfortunately, some sort of standardized tests are necessary if students abilities to do math and science and read and write are to be assessed. How much weight should be given to any of the test results is a matter that each state will be grappling with for some time.
In Ferguson, Missouri, businesses are cleaning up after a little rioting. A candlelight vigil for Michael Brown, who was shot during a scuffle with a policeman, turned ugly. Stores were looted, cars vandalized and over 30 people were arrested but the looting was widespread, literally, and it was hard for the police to track down all those involved. Ferguson mayor James Knowles was concerned over the violence and what it would do to Ferguson’s reputation. St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley had a different view. “Right now, I’m just worried about people, not property.” County Police Chief Jon Belmar had yet another perspective centered more on the incident itself. One of the two men (young men presumably) had pushed a police officer into his vehicle after the officer confronted or spoke to the man. Belmar is trying to clear up what happened inside the vehicle, where a shot was fired. The “scuffle” – which seems to have been a police officer fighting off an attacker inside his own squad car – then spilled out onto the sidewalk and more shots were fired. Brown was fatally shot.
One hopes that whatever investigation is carried out, some sort of clarity can be achieved on what exactly happened in Ferguson. Whether that will be enough – assuming the investigation is prompt and thorough – to ease tensions remains to be seen. The confrontation occurred outside an “apartment complex” and one can imagine that the suspicion of drugs may have played a role, but that as well remains to be seen. If the officer was indeed pushed backwards into his vehicle, what right does that officer of the law have to defend himself? The question might seem tautological – self-defense is part of the job description – but the question will be whether the self-defense was justified. Race will be cited as factor between Ferguson’s majority African-American residents and the Police Department but the right to self-defense hangs heavily over the incident.
The Florida stand your ground law and the Indiana self-defense statute, for example, share the view that you are not required to flee or retreat when you have the right to defend yourself, especially in your home or vehicle – whether before another individual or even before a public servant in Indiana’s case. When exactly you do have the right to defend yourself is a matter of law, whether in Florida, Indiana, or elsewhere. Laws,however, are not always clear until the courts clear them up and that takes years. A confrontation involves split-second decisions, especially if you’re a police officer struggling for control of your own weapon inside your own squad car. It is clear that arbitrary detention, along with taxation without representation, were the kindling for the revolt of the colonies, so the roots of these self-defense laws run deep. It would be a grave mistake, however, to shackle the police’s ability to enforce the law under the banner of self-defense. And it’s absurd to think that anyone will be safer in Ferguson because people rioted and looted.
Voting in Mississippi is again in the spotlight with Chris McDaniel likely to challenge the June 24 run-off vote for Senator in circuit court. McDaniel, who has Tea Party support, lost a close race to GOP incumbent Thad Cochran, and has leveled accusations that Democratic voters – prohibited from cross-voting in different primaries – were illegally recruited by Cochran’s campaign. The McDaniel campaign compiled a list of crossover votes, “irregular votes”, and “improperly cast” absentee ballots. The total comes to about 15,000 votes which is about double Senator Cochran’s margin of victory. Unfortunately for McDaniel, the Mississippi GOP will not be hearing his challenge, and the courts seem the next move on his part.
Thad Cochran had graduated from college, served 2 years in the navy, gone back for his law degree and successfully campaigned for and won a seat in the House before Chris McDaniel was born in 1972. He has been in the Senate since 78, and if re-elected will likely break even more length-of-tenure records. He has been popular for a long time, or was popular in the past and is less so now. Aside from the question of whether he broke state voting laws – violations are considered a misdemeanor – it seems clear change is coming, if not as fast as McDaniel would like. The run-off vote might not be a scandal, but it does raise the issue of voter laws at the state level. The initial vote in early June and the run-off were the first time Mississippi’s new voter ID laws were put into practice. In the days before the June 3 vote, scrutiny was being cast over the voting procedure to ensure that voters were not denied their rights, and the state seemed to bend over backwards to make sure no one was denied a chance to have their say at the ballot box: 1000 government ID’s were handed out free to those who apparently lacked an acceptable photo-ID card. You had a choice of 10 types of ID cards you could present when voting as well. When the courts take up Chris McDaniel’s likely challenge, they will have to decide if, rather than being denied rights, voters in the primary run-off took advantage of their rights, or let someone else take advantage of their rights in order to win a close race.
While Joseph Lawler’s piece in the Washington Examiner on why Americans keep getting inflation “wrong” might not have been front-page, headline-making news, it certainly did evoke a cluster of consistently angry responses from readers. As the readers quite bluntly suggested, the CPI is not an accurate reflection of the cost of living they face. Are the readers right, and the sources quoted by Lawler – the unforgettably named Wandi Bruine de Bruin, a psychologist hired by the New York Fed, and Mary Burke, a Boston Fed researcher – wrong? There is a growing viewpoint that suggests that that is indeed the case. In the first case, the CPI is used to index wages of government workers, including the Bureau of Labor statisticians who cobble together the omnipresent index. This is a clear conflict of interest as it obviously is in the interest of government to present a low – but not negative – CPI in order to keep the cost of government wages down. The second point is that the CPI is an artificially assembled basket of prices of goods and services that an “average” household supposedly consumes. By definition, it is not representative of any household or individual whose actual expenditures deviate from this mean. Do you spend a higher percentage of your budget on food and gas compared to the CPI mean? Then you have a higher cost of living than that measured by the index.
Thirdly, and most controversially, the methodology used to put together the CPI has changed over the years, as Congress has put its very visible hands on the process to ensure that inflation is not “overstated.” In its original form, the CPI was calculated as a Cost of Goods Index (COGI); the change in the price of a fixed basket of goods and services over two time periods. It is now a Cost of Living Index (COLI). This is a far different beast; it involves making value judgments about what goods and services must be consumed to maintain a certain quality of life. The quality of the good or service consumed (mostly processing power in your CPU and bells and whistles in your vehicle) is taken into account and weightings are changed continually. That usually means less weightings over time for the stuff that costs more like food and gas, and higher weightings for the stuff that costs less or that costs more but gives you more, according to the Bureau of Labor statisticians.
Some economists call for a return to COGI which would mean current CPI is running over 5% annually according to some estimates. Others call for commoditiy price indexes which are the leading indicators of inflation in their view with CPI as a lagging indicator. This methodology gives you an inflation rate of around 8% annually. Then there is the Austrian school of economics – and others – who view inflation as an increase in the money supply which devalues any currency by the rate of the increase. M2 (cash, checking and savings deposits and money market funds) increased almost 5% last year. Clearly, there is a huge disconnect between these indicators and the offical CPI that is running at less than 2%. Who do you believe?
Philadelphia schools are back in the spotlight with the Pennsylvania Legislature apparently unable to agree on a tax bill to fund a shortfall in the city schools budget. A $2-a-pack cigarette tax is the magic formula being pleaded by Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and Schools Superintendent William Hite, but it has not been enough to convince the State legislature to vote the measure into law. Philadelphia City Council and Mayor Nutter are Democrats while the State Legislature’s Republican majority apparently is divided over tacked-on amendments to the bill. The mood among some House members does not seem to be one of overwhelming urgency. House Appropriations Chairman Bill Adolph said a compromise could be reached “once we’re back in session.” That would be September 15, a week after the official start to the school year.
Would it be a tragedy if schools were delayed a week? Perhaps not, but this seems to be another skirmish on a ship that is not sinking but definitely needs to change course. The city’s schools have been rising and Governor Tom Corbett (R) on Wednesday criticized the city teachers union for not making enough concessions. Schools are being closed but costs continue to escalate. But it goes deeper than just what share of the pie should go to the school system. Philadelphia seems to have become the battleground in the debate over education reform.
One can begin with the fact that Philadelphia city school kids, on average, are performing below national levels. After this point, there is very little agreement between opposing groups on how to achieve a solution. In one corner sits – or stands shouting is more like it – is Diane Ravitch, former Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush padre and Clinton. After being part of the education reform movement, she made an about face four years ago and is now vehemently against voucher systems and teacher merit pay and insists the public school system does well by international standards and when it doesn’t, those standards don’t matter anyway. As you can expect she states “the best predictor of low academic performance is poverty – not bad teachers.” Her opponent is former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. If Ravitch is about collaboration, increasing taxes and hard-nosed teachers unions; then Rhee is about competition and merit, and performance. Both have spoken in Philadelphia in the last year or so, both recognize the city’s schools as a battleground in the debate on how to improve public education. So if the State Legislature takes a few weeks to decide how to fund a school system that seems to be failing, maybe it’s not such a great tragedy if Philadelphia schools open a week late.
What does it take to ensure a secure border? More than the resources – billions of dollars worth of materials and manpower – it is the clarity and fortitude to defend the border from within the sovereign state that is itself defined by that very border. Defined, that is, in more than just geographical terms. And to defend that border the state has to define – again, with clarity and strength – who can cross and who cannot cross that border. The nation’s laws begin precisely, in every sense of the word, at the border. After decades of increasing assaults on America’s sovereignty we now have another fatality. A US Border Patrol Agent shot to death by two illegals who had been deported multiple times and at least one of whom possesses a lengthy rap sheet. Shot to death wihile off duty fishing with his family, including a young child. Shot to death because the agent tried to defend himself from a robbery.
The robbery occurred near the border in Texas. In other words, it could have been anyone that day who might have been fishing with their family. It might have been a car salesman, a store clerk, a nurse with her husband. Anyone might have been exposed to the deadly assault that took away the agent’s life. The border area seems to becoming a no man’s land – it is worth remembering the term arose from the trenches of WW I – where those who are willing to break the law to enter the country mingle with those who break the law because they are hardened criminals looking for victims. How do you impose the law when people like Gustavo Tijerina and Isamael Vallejo, the two suspects, can enter and re-enter seemingly at will? You can’t say we’ll stop the bad guys but we’ll let the kids in. You either defend the border or you end up with the bad and the ugly coming in, and the good dying trying to defend themselves and uphold the law. The United States of America begins on that first square inch of territory that people like Tijerina and Vallejos step foot on. In the name of all those who defend the nation – on the border and overseas and within the borders – let us hope and pray that the Administration somehow, someday understands that the border is a matter of law, the first matter of law for anyone seeking to cross it.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) – mandated in 2010 to protect consumers in the financial sector and set up in 2011 – is hard at work as the investigations start piling up. Problem is, they’re investigating themselves and not financial institutions. An employment report released last spring that was critical of the workplace environment, especially from the perspective of African-American employees, is now going to be reassessed by means of another investigation; this time by an Atlanta law firm with long-standing ties to the Democratic party and whose founding partner was the late civil rights lawyer, Donald Lee Hollowell, who represented Martin Luther King and secured his release from prison in 1960. The problems center around the CFPB’s Consumer Response Unit, nicknamed “The Plantation” by African-American employees.
This is clearly a two-pronged effort to: 1) Clean up the reputation of CPBR managers accused of discrimination and, 2) intimidate employees into cooperating and prevent further whistleblowing. Washington employment attorneys are in a fuss over the case and Rep. Patrick McHenry R – N.C. was disturbed by Margaret Plank, senior CFPB lead counsel who is leading the new investigation, having been the opposing counsel in the previous investigation. An agency that did not exist a few years ago is already embroiled in the minutiae of bureaucratic process as investigations and counter-investigations are rolled out. Do we really need all this?
In his book What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, James Q. Wilson states, “…in government (where) the need to maintain external support for an agency is so great as to divert all but the ablest and most energetic executives from careful task definition.” In other words, never mind what we’re supposed to be doing, what kind of spin are we getting? CFPB Consumer Response assistant director Scott Pluta is in the crosshairs, being singled out as an intimidating manager. He was, of course, an Obama campaign worker who was awarded the position in the game of political partisanship where rewards are handed out to loyal foot soldiers. As a result, we have a muddied agency that still is defining what exactly it needs to do and is now bogged down in yet another internal investigation supported from the outside by an “independent” law firm with deep ties to Democrats. This is the agency that’s going to protect voters against bad practice in the financial sector?
In Philadelphia, your local school may become a one-stop welfare center if proposed city council legislation becomes law. The Department of Public Health, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and several mayoral programs that hand out food subsidies to low-income households would all be present at selected schools under the proposed bill. Why? Because “services should be provided in a coordinated, comprehensive manner, and ideally at one nearby location so that children, and their parents, grandparents, or guardians do not have to expend precious time and resources navigating from one agency to another.” These ” neighborhood-based community hubs” would “increase the likelihood that those children would thrive both in school and in their homes.” Junior, Dad, and Grandma all together collecting government handouts.
One wonders if it was a freudian admission of guilt on the part of city council members by bringing 3 generations of potential welfare candidates together at their proposed community “hubs”, or if it was a defiant salute to those who believe in personal responsibility. More disturbingly, it may not have been either. Maybe council members supporting the bill didn’t even consider the fact. Maybe they share the view of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK whose study decided that 3 generation welfare families was a myth after carefully interviewing 20 unemployed families and asking them about their aspirations for themselves and their children. The causes of long-term persistent unemployment was found to be the result of “complex, multiple problems associated with living in deep poverty over years.” And what were these complex problems? Educational underachievement, problematic drug and alcohol use – as opposed to recreational drug and alcohol use??, offending (as in criminal) and imprisonment, domestic violence and family instability, and physical and mental ill-health. Maybe these people consistently made the wrong choices and ended up ruining their lives?
Yes, poverty sucks. No, it is not easy to work your way out of poverty or to overcome joblessness, but perhaps government subsidies should not be too easy or convenient if they do have to exist. The meaning of the term entitlement deals precisely with the problem of temporary aid or subsidies to those who are truly desperate becoming seen and demanded as legitimate rights owed to the recipients on the back of working taxpayers. At the end of that road of course one finds the hideous phrase “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” This wretched slogan was in fact coined by French socialist Louis Blanc and greedily taken up and disseminated by Marx with the resulting wreckage in lives ruined or lost littered across the 20th century. Perhaps Philadelphia in reverence to its historic role in the forging of liberty and personal freedom would let its city council know that one-stop welfare shopping might not be the best solution to chronic unemployment.
As the NYPD assigns a team of dozens of detectives to solve the Brooklyn Bridge case, we are left with two main concerns. Vulnerability to terrorism is the first one; how could four or five intruders have climbed the bridge and replaced the flags, including blocking out the spotlights, without being noticed? One of NYC’s most iconic structures was easily breached. It is beyond doubt that when their identities are established and more is known, measures will be put in place to ensure it never happens again. The why will be important to find out, but the how is even more important to help the NYPD establish the right procedures to stop this type of assault.
The second concern is symbolic speech and flag desecration. A few years ago, UCLA Law professor Eugene Volokh in an op-ed piece argued that American law has long recognized symbolic expression and verbal expression as legally and constitutionally equivalent. Symbolic expressions like freedom poles – a form of protest against government tyranny – were argued in court as a matter of apeech according to the professor. The First Amendment thus conveniently protects flag-burning and other desecrations. Well maybe not. Even professor Volokh admits that many Founding Fathers placed very clear limits on the concept of free speech itself. Flag desecration would have been seen as sedition, and was prohibited accordingly. It has been 25 years since Texas v Johnson and the swing vote in that case was Justice Kennedy who was appointed instead of Robert Bork, who would have voted the other way. Perhaps what is most infuriating is that most acts of desecration are not explicitly intended to express an idea, but are a instead an intentional degrading of an idea; the values that a flag symbolizes. Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the 5 marines and the navy corpsman raising the Stars and Stripes on Mount Surbachi at Iwo Jima is one of the world’s most popular images and for good reason. No posed sculpture or painted image can capture the purpose and valor, and deliberate, unified action of those men. Three of them: Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, and Michael Strank gave their lives in battle in the following days. When we know the names of those who desecrated the flags that once again fly from the Brooklyn Bridge, it will be good to keep in mind those marines who gave their lives defending the Stars and Stripes. Let us hope that SCOTUS at some point places limits around the concept itself of free speech, in recogntion of what some symbols, like a flag, represent.
Concerning the Democratic Party, it would appear as almost certain that Hillary Clinton will be a contender in 2016 for the party’s presidential nomination. Now though it appears that Vice President Joe Biden is making moves in anticipation of running himself. Biden has long been rumored to be seeking the presidency in 2016 but he has failed to make any significant moves himself until recently. If Biden were to run, it would be his third attempt at securing the Democratic nomination having failed before in 1988 and 2008. Now it must be said that in polls he is trailing Clinton by around fifty points in several polls though this doesn’t mean he should be discounted so early. Biden brings with him decades of experience in government and is well liked, both qualities which generate support.
Biden recently reached out to former staffers and campaign workers, a move he described as a long overdue attempt to keep in touch. Others though see this as a move by Biden to begin laying the groundwork for a potential campaign. Additionally he has increasingly been speaking before large and influential groups such as the NAACP and the Urban League, perhaps as a way to woo minority voters which have been critical two the Democrats in the last two presidential elections. This can also be part of an attempt to become the more liberal voice of possible 2016 contenders. Where Clinton is closer to the center, Biden might be seeking to gain the support of traditional liberals.
Earlier this month Biden conceded before Generation Progress that the “hope and change” promises that were made in 2008 have failed to materialize. This can be viewed as a way for Biden to distance himself from President Obama. While any Democratic contender will be linked to the president in one way or another, the fact that Biden served as Obama’s vice president makes his situation more precarious. With approval ratings of Obama as low as they are, being the No. 2 in the administration doesn’t generate a massive flood of positive support. Despite this and other instances where distancing from the president was evident, Obama remains loyal having recently told the New Yorker that Biden would make a “superb” president.
Compared to Clinton, Biden is in a unique position in some ways. His gaffes are comical while Clinton’s make one cringe. The talk by Clinton about her fake poverty upon leaving the White House has damaged her in some ways. Biden on the other hand can continue to play on the fact that he isn’t rich, his “regular Joe,” working class background which is ultimately more endearing. While Clinton comes off as cold and calculating, Biden is affable and his typical smile brings with it a measure of trust.
Any quest for the nomination by Biden though is hampered in several ways. A Pew and Washington Post survey asked people which single word they would use to describe Biden and it was found that “good” and “idiot” to be the most used. Mind you both responses were nearly equal in number. Neither speak very positively for a person who seeks the presidency. Of course “idiot” has its negative connotations while “good” can be equated to adequate, not a source of enthusiasm. Biden himself is experienced and is a generally affable person. It is rumored that Obama has sought his opinion on a variety of foreign policy situations. On the other hand Biden is prone to gaffes and with the nature of the media, the gaffe-prone Biden will be seen more than the experienced-Biden. Also the issue of age will be brought up; if Biden were to ultimately win the presidency in 2016, he will be 74, the oldest person to ever be inaugurates as president.
Who can tell what will transpire in 2016? Personally, I don’t believe Biden has a chance to win the Democratic nomination. This despite the fact that no incumbent vice president has ever lost the nomination of their party if memory serves me correct. Biden was offered vice president for his foreign policy experience and to have a familiar face in the administration. In that role he is fine but as presidential material, I don’t believe so. I have been wrong though before. Honestly though, the GOP would have a field day with Biden if he won the nomination and I can assure one thing, 2016 will be a bad year for the left. Personally I feel that Biden will continue to show interest in seeking the nomination and pursue it to a degree but will stop short of declaring himself as a candidate right as other competitors declare their candidacies. The realization of the upward struggle he would face would lead to this decision.
Nearly 300 people are dead, their burnt and mangled remains spread out over Eastern Ukraine where someone launched a surface-to-air missile and brought down a passenger airliner. Vacationers, scientists on the way to an AIDS conference, people on a commercial flight. People who were going about their lives and trying to get back home or take a holiday, or do some work down under or in Asia. Intercepted calls seem to show pro-Russian separatists discussing the incident with a Russian official. They seem to show that the crazed separatist-terrorist who fired the missile thought the plane was a cargo plane disguised as a passenger liner, and carrying spies.
The problem isn’t just that separatists in the region are out of control. Russia is out of control. Putin is out of control. Putin and Russia are now enemies of the West. There is no way left to think of Russia as a partner anymore. Even assuming common interests in combating islamic extremism around the world. Russia is not just untrustworthy. Russia incites violence and constantly confronts the West. Reagan’s words to Gorbachev come back yet again to haunt and remind us. It is important to remember that “trust but verify” is a Russian proverb that Reagan used deliberately in the intense, intimate theatre of cold war negotiations between himself and Gorbachev. In fact it worked in the opposite direction. Verify in order to begin to trust was more like the process involved. Kerry’s pun of “verify and verify” is hardly even funny now if it ever was. There is no trust, arguably since Putin assumed office. And how can you verify if no one even claims to have shot the plane down? It is time now to mistrust and contain when it comes to Russia. The hope that ties of commerce and trade would bind us are no longer realistic. Whether Russia was involved directly with the shooting down of the Malaysian Airliner is unimportant. The violent chaos in Eastern Ukraine is Putin’s doing. The blood of this tragedy is on his hands.
On Thursday July 17th, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. On board were 298 passengers and crew who perished. Immediately a blame game emerged between the Ukrainian, Russian, and pro-Russian separatists as to who was responsible. So far it seems most likely that the separatists shot down MH17 after confusing it for a Ukrainian military transport. There are also reports that the Russians gave assistance to the separatists in using the missile system and are now helping to destroy evidence. This is an absolute tragedy but in that tragedy, there is a glimmer of hope; it is up to the international community to use the memory of those murdered to end this conflict now.
The shoot down of MH17 represents a game changer for the conflict in the Ukraine. Right now, it is strongly suspected that the missile which downed the jet was a Buk missile launched by pro-Russian separatists. If it is true that the separatists were responsible, support for the Ukraine to defeat them will swell. Already the Ukrainian military which has scored numerous successes against the separatists in recent weeks seems hell bent on finishing the job. Russia has without a doubt already questioned the degree to which it will continue to arm the separatists lest they become any further embroiled in any future tragedy. And if Russia is found to have played a part in this the outrage from the world, particularly the EU will be enormous. This isn’t a situation of a few foreigners getting killed in a conflict zone; this is 298 innocents needlessly murdered.
Additionally, MH17 has forced the world to turn its attention again to the Ukraine. In U.S. news media particularly, the conflict in the Ukraine has for the most part been ignored since Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. The media must stop saying that the situation is inching closer to civil war; it has been a civil war for some time now and to say otherwise is to sugarcoat it. In recent days the level of violence has escalated with some even considering the near-term possibility of the Ukraine and Russia engaging each other in conflict. The tragedy of MH17 should provide the impetus for the international community to work towards solving this savage conflict.
Also, the shoot down of MH17 should send a message to the airlines and to civil aviation authorities. Many airlines have chosen even prior to this to circumvent the Ukraine. It is an active war zone where SAMs (surface to air missiles) have been in use. True, changing flight routes to avoid eastern Ukraine does come at a price which is increased fuel consumption. On the other hand, I as a passenger would gladly pay a surcharge on my ticket if I knew my flight would not be placed in harm’s way. Regardless of how many planes have safely traversed the Ukraine, the airline should value safety first. Bear in mind, this isn’t the first airliner to be shot down over a conflict zone.
If we allow the tragedy of MH17 to just fade away we will be doing a massive disservice to those who were died. In their memory, the international community must work to stop this conflict. Russia must stop supporting these separatists; the fact that the separatists are impeding the investigation of MH17 speaks volumes about their integrity. The world must take an active interest again. President Obama was right to come out immediately about the incident but he must take further steps. The new sanctions placed on Russia had already been in the works. He should go further. Furthermore, the airlines should work towards agreeing on new rules for future flight plans to avoid such a tragedy from occurring again. 289 innocents have died; we must not allow them to be forgotten.
Recently a scandal has emerged in Germany concerning U.S. intelligence activities in that country. A senior CIA official at the U.S. embassy in Berlin has been expelled from the country in response to two instances of alleged spying by the U.S. This comes at a bad time for the U.S. whose intelligence agencies have already been implicated in a variety of otherwise questionable activities over the past few years between domestic spying and spying on allies. In light of all that has happened one would think that the U.S. would take more precaution to avoid situations such as this, especially at a time when U.S. world power is slipping. Regardless, what has transpired should have been prevented if this administration actually cared to learn from its mistakes.
Now let’s be honest for a minute. The issue of the U.S. spying on its allies isn’t anything new; this is what we do, this is what many others so though it doesn’t make it right. Nor does it improve the image of the U.S. at a time when the world is in flames, our power is diminishing, and when we need friends the most. Germany is unarguably the powerhouse of Europe and is a major world player economically. We have been strong allies for over a half century and though that relationship has had its ups and downs, it is a strong relationship and one we should be keen to maintain. Unfortunately we are doing the exact opposite.
The Germans view spying in a somewhat different light than Americans. Remember that up until a decade and half ago, Germany was a divided state. Those who lived in the DDR (East Germany) remember all too well the activities of the Stasi, the state security service of the DDR. A combination of secret police and an intelligence agency, the Stasi is regarded as one of the most effective organizations of its type in history. The Stasi was brutally efficient in spying on citizens, turning citizens into informants, turning families and friends against each other and rooting out opposition. In a state where one can never be too sure if the person they are talking to is friend or foe, naturally the idea of spying is one to be hated. Now the issue of friend spying on friends has returned.
This matter is made all the worse as German Chancellor Angela Merkel was born and raised in the DDR. The memories of spying are ingrained in her mind. In December 2013, revelations emerged in the German news magazine Der Spiegel that the NSA was listening in on her personal mobile phone. At the time Merkel was furious and rightfully so, even confronting President Obama and stating “This is like the Stasi.” Angered not only by the possibility that her phone may have been tapped for over 10 years and that the U.S. had an extensive electronic surveillance program in Berlin was that the U.S. couldn’t be trusted with information it gathered as evidenced by the massive leaks from Edward Snowden.
Now I understand the president doesn’t know everything that is going on and can’t sign off on every decision for our intelligence agencies. One would think though that after the revelations last year, the president would sign an executive order to our intelligence agencies to stop such activities in Germany. Unfortunately it seems that Obama has failed to and now we are where we are today. So much for Obamas promises that we wouldn’t spy on our allies overseas anymore. Though one could have foreseen a situation such as this occurring since Obama rejected a proposed “no-spy” agreement with Germany that Merkel was pushing for. Now we find that the NSA has been using two Germans, one in the German defense ministry and another in the BND (the German equivalent to our CIA) to gather documents of interest. In response Germany has demanded a CIA official at the embassy in Berlin to be expelled from the country immediately.
What has the U.S. gained from these spying programs? Reportedly one of the Germans was gathering documents concerning a German parliamentary group that has been established to research U.S. spy programs in Germany. Additionally the Germans have claimed that the information gathered for the NSA was of little value. If such allegations are true, then the U.S. has sacrificed much for very little. Already Germans are screaming for a harsh rebuke of the U.S. and polls recently conducted find that Germans overwhelmingly view the U.S. as untrustworthy. For the Germans, who needs enemies when you have the U.S. as a friend, a U.S. which mind you in a situation such as this is its own worst enemy.
The relationship with Germany is at an all-time low. Merkel who has in the past been able to balance support and criticism for the U.S. might not be able to do so much longer. These latest spying allegations have brought Germany to a tipping point and it’s not only the opposition screaming but a majority of the country. There is a distinct deficit of trust that is only worsening. We could have stopped our spying activities after last year’s revelations but we didn’t. Because the president has failed to take action and to restrain the NSA and work towards treating Germany as an actual friend and ally, we have repeated the same mistakes but now the repercussions are for worse.
In Oklahoma, Common Core advocates have lost a battle with the state legislature as the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the legislature was in its rights when it repealed CC standards in English and math. A parent who attended the hearings with her two daughters described Common Core as “cognitive abuse.” Robert McCampbell, an attorney representing pro-CC groups stated, “Supervision of instruction is vested in the Board of Education.” He had argued that the repeal of CC standards in the state was an unconstitutional extension of the legislature’s powers.
Once again, the debate over Common Core seems to divide between two approaches to arguing the issue: Who should decide educational standards versus what those standards should be. Process and substance yield very different criticisms: Education standards should be handled at the local and state level. Or, Common Core standards are too demanding. One can argue that by having standards set locally, they will more likely be of an appropriate level for students. Unfortunately, that runs up against the requirements of the modern workplace, where employers insist they need students graduating with better math and communication skills than is currently the case. As well, CC standards seem to have included other goals like diversity, complicating the issue even further.
How much should the country worry about achieving levels of math skills that exist in Japan or China or South Korea for example? Ask how many crucial innovations that have revolutionized the workplace have come from the US. Or more importantly (the answer is a lot) are those innovations still coming at a healthy rate? Norm Augustine, former Lockheed Martin chairman, is worried. In a Forbes article written a couple of years ago he points an accusing finger at secondary math teachers. After retiring from Lockheed Martin he was unable to qualify for a job teaching 8th grade kids math. Instead he taught a highly rated course at Princeton. He points out that since 2009, more than half the patents granted in the country go to foreign corporations. He also calls for improved math and science education for K – 12th grade. See the problem? The same big shot calling for improved education was rejected by education bureaucrats for a position where he would have performed wonderfully in all likelihood. Might the problem with Common Core be the very departments of education that CC advocates insist should design and implement any new standards? Unfortunately for that Oklahoma parent, her kids will have to learn more science and math than she did if innovation is to continue to be a backbone of the economy. Fortunately, local state officials and local groups may get more of a say in how that gets done.
The Detroit Land Bank is overwhelmed. There are so many abandoned homes in Detroit, as well as empty lots, that they can’t keep up. What they need is dozens of crews roaming the city and accurately mapping what is left of the worst neighborhoods. But wait. They now have a new weapon that will mobilize concerned citizens and all you need is your smartphone. It’s called blexting, short for blight texting, and it’s an app you can download that allows you to take pictures of derelict properties which you then text to a public database. The city will use the database to decide whether to renovate or demolish the blighted structures. How many blighted structures are there in Detroit? About 85,000 of which about 73,000 are residential buildings.
Will blexting lead Detroit onto the path of recovery? No, but one supposes by encouraging citizens to get involved documenting the sorry state of parts of their city, it is a step forward. It is literally grass roots, a sad but unavoidable pun for a city that now sports what some are calling “urban prairie”. Demolishing derelict structures will lower drug dealing and other criminal activities but what is needed is for business to come back. And the city realizes this. Decades of top down chaotic administration of the city seem to finally have come to an end. Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert has bought 3 million square feet of property in the city and has invested about a billion dollars. He has brought his 7,600 employees downtown and has also brought dozens of start ups to the buildings he owns. It is an enormous vote of confidence by a very successful entrepreneur, but what is needed is a critical mass of independent businesses choosing to set up shop in the city for all the right reasons: reasonable tax rates, coherent regulation, reliable services and manageable levels of crime. Let us hope that an increasing number of businesses find good reasons to agree with Dan Gilbert’s optimism.
House Republicans want to ensure that the $3.7 billion package that is being requested by President Obama to deal with the border crisis is focused on border security measures and does not end up being a blank check that can be spent on anything from daycare for recently arrived illegal minors to the construction of lavish detention centers where the minors would be cared for before being placed with their supposed families in the US. Their counter proposal could theorectically be married with the original legislation that was supposed to deal with sex-trafficking of minors, and ended up having, as they say, unintended consequences. Will the House and Obama be able to agree on some sort of package?
A study by MacGillivray and Smith at NYU on agent-specific punishments examines how conditional punishment strategies make cooperation between states possible. In other words, if America conditions its punishment of a rougue state on that state removing its leader, it incentivizes the rouge state to replace its leader and change its policies. It depends on the long-term gains of cooperating outweighing the short-term benefits of exploiting the partner, i.e. America. The problem with the border crisis is how to decide who is the agent that you should direct your punishment against. Is it the government of Mexico, or El Salvador, or Guatemala, or Honduras? Is it the smugglers, of people, drugs, or weapons, that work the southern border? Or is the agent, if you are a member of the House majority, the administration and its various departments?
To expect cooperation from Mexico or any Central American state on controlling illegal immigration is a non-starter. They conveniently define away illegal immigration as undocumented workers and they tout the rights they should have. That leaves two possible agents: the smugglers, or the administration itself. In this case, maybe House Republicans are already following a conditional-punishment strategy on both levels. Beefing up border security means getting serious with the coyotes that run people, narcotics, and weapons over the border. Withholding approval of the emergency package means letting Obama know that the House wants to be sure the money will be spent on things that solve the crisis and don’t encourage further illegal minors to try their luck at the border. The House should use it’s financial levers to ensure this package helps and does not make things worse. If that involves sending clear messages about consequences to the White House, all the better.
On Tuesday, July 1st, Russian President Vladimir delivered a boisterous foreign policy speech to assembled Russian diplomats in Moscow. In it he addressed the situation in the Ukraine and the issue of western interference in the near abroad (the independent republics that emerged out of the Soviet Union upon its disintegration). Among his arguments were numerous scathing criticisms of Washington and its foreign policy. Putin came off as highly hypocritical on numerous points in his speech but one must also admit that some of his views are not without merit.
For starters Putin spoke of the issue in the Ukraine, a situation which has largely receded from U.S. news outlets. Putin blames increasing violence squarely on the shoulders of Ukrainian President Poroshenko. Poroshenko has the Ukrainian military engaged in a large offensive against pro-Russian separatist forces across the entire Eastern part of the Ukraine. Blaming the Ukrainians solely for the situation is absurd; then again Putin claimed that the pro-Russian forces in the Crimea prior to its annexation were most certainly not Russian forces so the veracity of his claims are questionable. Never mind that those “separatists” were equipped with the newest Russian body armor and in pristine new vehicles.
On the other hand he spoke of the non-interference principle regarding the West and the Ukraine and the potential for disastrous consequences. Truth be told, there is little doubt in my mind that western nations had a hand in Euromaiden, the riots which eventually brought about the collapse of the pro-Russian Ukrainian government. True, the Ukraine is part of Russia’s near abroad and Putin is keen on preventing further encroachment by the West in the forms of the EU and NATO in bordering countries. Though the interference of the west is minuscule next to that of Russia, a Russia which mind you immediately swept into a sovereign Ukraine and annexed and incorporated the Crimea. Do Putin’s ideas of non-interference extend to also arming groups engaged in internal struggles in foreign nations? Last time I looked it’s Putin arming pro-Russian rebels in the Ukraine. If Putin is sincere also regarding his stand that Russia won’t interfere in Ukrainian internal affairs, then perhaps he should make good on his statement.
Putin also spoke of how the West should stop turning the world into a “global barracks.” He claimed that we should push our agendas and political ambitions aside in the interest of building better relations with the rest of the world. Since when did Russia become the friend of the world? Furthermore, since when did Putin decide to ditch his agenda and become the standard-bearer of world peace? Russia, along with China routinely overlook human rights violations in the world when votes come up to the UN Security Council while both nations sell weapons to whoever will buy them. Indeed Putin points to the Russia-China relationship as one which the West should seek to emulate as it is built not on a military alliance but cooperation.
Putin is a blatant hypocrite though this isn’t to say that the west, particularly the U.S. pursue an ideal foreign policy. We scream about Russia breaking international law by invading the sovereign states of Georgia and the Ukraine over the past several years. The truth is we do it as well, be it in Iraq or with our repeated drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere. We rail about Russia interfering in the affairs of countries along its borders while we interfere in the affairs of countries across the world. We demand that Russia take a more active interest in the conflicts of nations it sells its weapons to while we actively support rebel groups with aid and weapons.
Ultimately speeches of the type that Putin gave are meant to excite audiences and to provide strength to a leader on the world stage. Rarely are they translated into direct policy or for that matter even reflect existing policy. Was Putin’s speech hypocritical? Yes. Did he know it? Most certainly yes. It’s no different from foreign policy speeches of other world leaders who rail about one thing yet a cursory examination of their policy reveals them to be liars as well. Ultimately, these speeches typically tend to have tucked in them messages that represent reality. In this speech it was Putin recognizing the need for continued U.S.-Russia relations and that any calls to end them are essentially foolish.
Foreign policy, a collection of lies, innuendos, obfuscation, and agendas.
As House Republicans have carefully explained to the press, voters in Virginia are to blame for the lack of a comprehensive alternative plan to Obamacare. With Cantor gone and Kevin McCarthy getting up to speed as the new house majority leader, the best that can be hoped for is some policy principles cobbled together that candidates can campaign around in November. There is a lack of “bandwidth” as David Drucker puts it in the Washington Examiner, meaning, one supposes, that no one McCarthy is hiring as staff will want to touch the issue until some time much later.
I wonder if someone forgot to tell Ben Carson that he lacks bandwidth? There he is touring on his bus without the benefit of a well funded House Majority Leader team of staffers to do all the right polling and tell their boss not to touch the issue. Yes, he is a doctor, but more than that, he has a very clear idea of what health care should look like and is not at all reluctant to articulate it. Turning the question around, would someone like Ben Carson ever make it to House Majority Leader? It is likely the good doctor is not interested in taking that route, and would probably admit that someone like Kevin McCarthy or even Eric Cantor is more suited to the job. It makes you wonder if policy ideas – real ideas on what government should or should not do, and how they should do it – are just not possible late in a mid term election year in the House of Representatives. And mid-summer is late by any election year standard. Unfortunately for that theory, Newt Gingrich and Richard Armey wrote the Contract With America and then introduced it 6 weeks before the 1994 elections, dealing the Clinton Administration it’s first serious electoral defeat. The catalyzing issue? Clinton’s failed 1993 Health Care Reform. Maybe someone on Kevin McCarthy’s staff has a copy of both plans. It would make for useful reading.
The ISIS forces are not just Al Qaeda affiliated terrorist forces, they are also an army with a goal: establishing a caliphate, or islamic state led by a supreme religious and political leader, in Syria, Iraq and adjacent lands as well. Bin Laden himself apparently mourned the collapse of the Ottaman Empire a century ago. Their crazed, fanatical intentions are abundantly clear whether they in fact have the military organization or not to achieve and maintain some sort of caliphate in the region. Putin is a little more indirect, if not quite subtle. Crimea is back in Mother Russia’s fold and Eastern Ukraine is still up for grabs at this point. While Russia – and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan – has suffered it’s share of terrorism, Putin also seems to harbor a little nostalgia for that evil empire, if you will, that crumbled around him as he worked as a KGB officer in East Germany from 1985 to 1990.
Western Representative Democracies have had to face numerous threats over the odd two centuries that they have been in existence: Monarchy, Bonapartism, Fascism, Communism, and Islamic Extremism come to mind for example. Monarchism has long since been folded into Representative Democracy, despite an unfortunate hiccup, to put it mildly, with Kaiser Wilhelm II. Napoleon met his Waterloo, a cliche nowadays, but a pivotal event at the time. Fascism was defeated in WW II despite local outbreaks in South America and elsewhere. Communism seems to have all but collapsed in the last two decades, and perhaps what is happening in Russia and Ukraine has more to do with Nationalism. The war with Islamic Extremism continues meanwhile. The problem becomes choosing your allies, even if temporarily, in a situation like Syria for example which seems to boil down to either siding with a Putin ally Bashar al-Assad, or sunni extremists with links to al Qaeda. Since the Soviet war in Afghanistan, balancing between Soviet or Russian forces and Islamic extremists has been a dangerous but perhaps necessary strategy. Who can be trusted between these two choices? Perversely, sunni terrorists can be trusted to be absolute enemies of America and Western Democracy. Putin, the elected President – again – of Russia is less trustworthy precisely because he is an elected official who harbors ambitions that threaten neighboring states. That does not mean you side with ISIS, it means you can trust them to be terrorists from start to finish. With Putin, the matter is far less clear.