via Situation Report – Foreign Policy Magazine – by Kate Brannen with Nathaniel Sobel – 31 July 2014
* * * * What does $104 billion get you in Afghanistan? The world and most of Washington may be distracted from what’s going on in Afghanistan, but the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction is not. A new report from his office shows that despite outspending the U.S. Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War Two, the United States is not getting infrastructure that Afghans can sustain on their own. FP’s Elias Groll:“Instead, the funds have mainly bought empty buildings, malfunctioning power plants, and a corrupt government that will be wholly dependent on Western — read: American — aid well into the future.”
Most of the money is for the Afghan security forces.“… Of the $104 billion the United States has poured into Afghanistan since fiscal year 2002, some $62 billion has gone toward creating the Afghan army. (It should be noted that when comparing the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan with the Marshall Plan that in the aftermath of World War II, the United States did not have to stand up any European armies.) To save money, the size of that force is being reduced from 352,000 to 228,500 men. Even at that reduced size, the Afghan government takes in far less money than will be required to fund the army: an estimated $4.1 billion annually.” More here.
Meanwhile, the audit of June’s election continues as Secretary of State John Kerry is urging Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to move forward with plans to form a unity government. It remains to be seen whether the two candidates will actually implement what they agreed to in private. The WaPo’s Karen DeYoung:“‘The time for politics is over,” Kerry wrote in an op-ed published online Wednesday by Afghanistan’s TOLOnews in English as well as in Dari and Pashto, the two official Afghan languages.
‘The time for cooperation is at hand,’ he wrote …”Kerry’s intervention came amid a crescendo of what a senior Obama administration official called ‘misinformation and background noise’ about the terms of the still-secret accord they reached in their July 12 emergency talks with him.” More here.
“I have become less pro-Israel,” admits Jonathan Chait in a powerful piece for New York Magazine. But I don’t think Chait has become less pro-Israel. I think he’s become more pessimistic about Israeli policy. And so have I.
Chait and I used to argue a lot about Israel, in part, I think, because we disagreed about what it meant to be pro-Israel. In his post, Chait gives his definition: “a sympathy for the country’s history vis-à-vis its critics, or an ongoing support for its political stance in relation to its international foes.” I don’t equate support for Israel with support for the current policies of any particular Israeli government, any more than I equate support for America with support for the particular policies of President Bush or President Obama. My definition of being pro-Israel was always more basic, and, admittedly, more subjective: I want to see Israel succeed. I want to see it thrive. And that makes this moment in Israeli history painful to watch.
The state of Israel is supposed to make Jews safer. But Israel itself is terrifyingly vulnerable: it is home to 6 million Jews in a tiny sliver of land surrounded on all sides by enemies. Israel is a fortress built in hostile territory. Its survival, and its strength today, is something of a miracle. But the nightmares are easy to conjure: the Six-Day War ending another way, or a dirty bomb detonating in Tel Aviv.
Israel’s political ideals are similarly imperiled: it is a liberal democracy that intends to remain a Jewish state. The problem is that Jews might become a minority in the territory they control (though there’s disagreement about the demographic projections behind that fear), and even if they don’t, liberal democracies do not deprive millions of their native residents of a say in their government.
THE CONTINUED GROWTH OF THE SETTLEMENTS IS MORALLY INDEFENSIBLE, BUT IT’S ALSO DEEPLY COUNTERPRODUCTIVE
Israel’s problems aren’t easy to solve — and Israel cannot solve them without moderate leadership in Palestine and the region. But in recent years Israel seems to be making its problems insoluble. The continued growth of the settlements is morally indefensible, but it’s also deeply counterproductive: every Israeli home built in the West Bank makes a two-state solution that much harder. Israel’s peace movement has collapsed, and its government has become more bellicose and aggressive: Avigdor Lieberman’s presence in the cabinet is painful proof that Israel’s fear is outpacing its hope.
The excuse used to be that Israel did not have a partner for peace, and that was true. But it’s clear today that Israel itself is not much of a partner for peace, either. As Chait writes, the best account of the recent talks show that “Netanyahu appeared on several occasions to approach the brink of agreement, but pulled back in the face of right-wing pressure within his coalition.” Continue reading On becoming more pessimistic about Israel
Tyson takes on climate deniers and challenges scientists to speak up before it’s too late.
Salon followed up with Tyson to learn more about how he positions himself: as an educator, as a highly visible minority in a STEM field who’s spoken, in the past, of the societal barriers that stood in his way, and as a cultural icon who, while putting the science first, is still aware of how many retweets he gets from his 2 million-plus followers.
Oh, and while he’s not a policy guy, he does have some ideas about how to solve the world’s problems. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.
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Lindsay Abrams: Through “Cosmos” and in recent comments you’ve made, you’ve become something of a spokesperson for the effort to fight climate change and especially to fight climate-change deniers. But you’ve also said you won’t debate deniers or creationists because the science should speak for itself. Where do you draw the line between education and advocacy?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: People, I think, may occasionally think of me as an advocate, but in my mind, I’m not. I’m just trying to get people as fully informed as they can be so that they can make the most informed decisions they can based on their own principles or philosophies or mission statement. What concerns me is that I see people making decisions, particularly decisions that might affect policy or governance, that are partly informed, or misinformed, or under-informed. And so I think there’s value as an educator, and especially as a scientist, to get as much of that information out there for people to respond to. And then I just go home and they do with it what they want, whether they reject it or embrace it or whatever. But I don’t have the energy, the interest or the urges to debate people on any topic at all. It’s just not due as an educator.
LA: Do you think that scientists should play any role in helping to shape policy or in leading calls to action from the public? Or is that just not the domain of scientists and educators?
NDT: There’s a long, storied history of scientists as advocates, scientists as major social/cultural spokespeople. And a lot of that stemmed from the Cold War where the major Cold War weaponry was completely traceable to the brain efforts of physicists — basically the Nuclear Age. So what you had were physicists who knew everything there was to know about these bombs and felt that it was not the way the world should go. And so you had these sort of “physics pacifists,” if you will, who were quite outspoken — Einstein was among them. Even though you can see in his equation the foundation of the energy derived from those bombs: E=MC². So I would say that during the entire Cold War there was a long and distinguished train of scientists who were quite visible and quite outspoken about their views on war, weaponry and this sort of thing.
In modern times, I find it odd that people turn to me to comment on these other matters. I’m an astrophysicist. But there are people who are climate scientists. I think more climate scientists should step up to the plate and serve that same corresponding role that the physicists played during the Cold War, and if they want, to empower lawmakers and the citizenry to make informed decisions about the future of the country. So I think it should happen more than it has happened. But, like I said, many of these issues are not directly at the center of my professional expertise and we have others for whom it is. So in the way that nuclear physicists stood up, I think we should have climate scientists standing up.
With any issue that comes up, when we have an emergent scientific truth, we can’t just sit back and watch people debate a scientific truth — they should be debating the politics that would follow from the emergent scientific truth. That’s really what the debates should be about, but they haven’t been. And I’m disturbed by that, because I don’t know what kind of democracy that is, if you’re gonna run around cherry-picking the results of science, of emergent scientific consensus because it conflicts with your philosophy and you want to be responsible for the governance of the nation, which involves thoughtful planning for the future of our health and our wealth, the state of the economy, all of the above.
LA: We talk about science with a capital S, as something that’s “true whether or not you believe in it” — especially settled science. And I’m wondering if that’s where some of the pushback might come from, because scientists do get things wrong sometimes, or scientific thinking changes.
NDT: So unfortunately that sentence — which I have uttered, and I think some people even have put on t-shirts, with my name on it — to fully understand what it means requires some qualification. In science, when you perform experiments and observations, and when the experiments and observations begin to agree with one another, and they’re conducted by different people — people who are competitive with one another, people who are not even necessarily in your field but do something that relates to your field — you start seeing a trend. And when that trend is consistent and persistent, no matter who’s doing the experiment, no matter where the experiment is being done, no matter whether the groups were competitive or not, you have an emergent scientific truth. That truth is true whether or not you believe in it.
On the frontier of science, stuff is wrong all the time. I mean, if I have an experiment — what typically happens is, if it’s an interesting result that nobody expected, the press will come, and then they’ll write about it and maybe my host institution will send out a press release which will feed this… state. And the press will say “New results: scientists say…” and then they say cholesterol is good for you. And then a few weeks later, cholesterol is bad for you. And the public is wondering, what the hell is going on? Do scientists even know what they’re doing? How come they don’t agree? Well, on the frontier, we don’t agree. That’s what the frontier means. That’s why there is a frontier; that’s the whole point of the frontier. If we all agreed on it, it would just be in the textbooks and we’d move on.
So people often confuse the raggedy, bleeding edge of scientific research with the established truths that consensus of observation and experiment reveal. And so that’s the whole, full explanation for that one sentence, which is hard to put into one quip. So, Earth is going around the Sun, whether or not you believe that’s true: that has been experimentally, observationally identified and demonstrated and we’ve moved on to the next question. The Sun is going around the center of the galaxy. Earlier people didn’t know that or they doubted it, some people thought we were the center of the galaxy — that was an active area of research. The evidence mounts and we learn that the Sun — in fact, there was a whole debate on this, back in 1920, to be precise — and we concluded, after better data became available, that the Sun is just orbiting the center of the galaxy, in much the same way the Earth is orbiting the Sun. And now that’s a closed issue and we’re on to other questions. So I think people are confusing the bleeding edge of science with established science, and somehow thinking that all science is like the bleeding edge, where that’s not true.
LA: It sounds like a lot of that is a communications problem and probably a lot of it is the media’s fault. But that has to make you worry about the power you have as a scientist, when you can slap a headline on something and say “Scientists say…”
NDT: Yeah, so, the press wants to be out ahead of any results, right? And it’s only an interesting headline if what the scientists found was different than what people were thinking or expecting that preceded it. So I understand that urge, but what the press doesn’t say is: “this result still needs to be verified by other experiments.” Something isn’t true because one scientist has one result from their one experiment. And I think not enough of the press recognizes this, and they need to, otherwise they’re giving a distorted view of what science is and how it works in the hearts and minds of the public.
LA: At the Beacon last month, you spoke a bit about the importance of STEM literacy. Obviously not everyone is going to go into the math, science and engineering fields, but do you have a conception of what every responsible citizen should know? Is it enough to watch “Cosmos” and get the basic concepts, or is there another level of understanding the public needs?
NDT: Excellent question. So I have an unorthodox definition of science literacy, and I’m trying to get more people to think about it in this way. I think typically when we think of science literacy, it’s “do you know what causes the seasons?” or what the DNA molecule is, or how our internal combustion engine works or what the Big Bang is or “what is evolution?” And this is chalked up as evidence of whether you’re scientifically literate or not. And while that’s an aspect of it, I think what’s more important than even that is how is your brain wired for thought, for inquiry and for curiosity.
If you are curious, and you want to learn more about something, and you question what it is you see in search of answers that would support or deny what you see, that to me is science literacy. And so it’s, how do you approach someone who makes a statement to you? Do you say “Oh, that’s great, that’s gotta be true! Tell me more” or is it “Well, why is that true? How did you come to arrive at that conclusion? What are the consequences of it? How does it affect others, how does it affect me, how does it affect civilization or culture?” To me, the capacity to even know to ask those questions is at the center of what it is to be scientifically literate.
Now, given that, we don’t want a whole world where everybody is a STEM professional; that would be boring. There would be no artists and comedians and poets, and novelists and journalists and the rest of what fleshes out what we call civilization. But at a minimum, I think everyone should be scientifically literate, no matter their profession, because here’s what could happen: Suppose we’re going into space in a big way and we’re tapping a whole generation of STEM professionals, but you’re not a STEM professional; you say “I want to become a lawyer” and so you go to law school. But then there are people worrying about who owns the rights to asteroid mining, and then you say, “Well, I understand asteroids, and I know what they are and I know what they’re made of and maybe I want to be that lawyer.”
And all of a sudden, society begins to participate on the moving frontier of STEM professionals. Artists will say, “Take me to the far side of the moon because there is a new sculpting series that I want to start and I need the inspiration that that would bring me.” Or there’s a new story that could be told about the crew of seven that was alone with one another on a generational ship. It’s a source of creativity among artists as well as others who flesh out, like I said, what we come to define civilization to be. And then everyone’s a participant.
LA: There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about science being under attack, and it seems like that could be the kind of thing that could help people become more aware of what’s going on, and maybe less hostile toward science. Or would you argue that that kind of scientific literacy would just be a way to get people to have science more involved in their lives than it otherwise would be?
NDT: Yeah, that’s a perceptive question and comment. I would say that the reason people even think that they can attack science is because they think science is this thing, this edifice. And when they choose to walk up to it, that’s when they address it and they query it, without realizing that science is so fundamentally all around us, in everything we do and say and think about. And one of the messages of “Cosmos” was how thoroughly dependent we are on science and its cousin, technology. And once you recognize that, you’re not going to say, “Today I’m not going to do science” or “I didn’t do well in science in school so I’m just going to ignore it.” It’s all around us and it invites you to embrace it. That will make you a more informed citizen of a democracy, where you elect people who will govern your lives with laws that they pass. You want them to be enlightened and informed, as enlightened and as informed as is humanly possible.
LA: After the Beacon event, you mentioned a time you got into a trouble for something you tweeted about education, that seems similar to what you’re saying now — that good teachers need to engender a love of learning. Why do you think that was so controversial?
NDT: What was controversial was that I said, “Why is it that you’re more likely to hear a teacher say ‘These students don’t want to learn’ than a teacher say ‘I suck at my job.’”
Some people said “he’s clearly never taught” but clearly they’ve never read my CV: it has all my teaching experiences clear and explicit there and it goes very far back. So, yes, it’s a strong tweet, and I just don’t ever want a teacher to put the blame of a student not learning on the student. You’re not there to just put up a lesson plan and hope that they follow it. You are if you’re a college professor, because people are paying big money to attend the school, and if they flunk out, it’s not your problem. But in the public schools, I think we should measure teachers by how much improvement their efforts bring about in the progress of students. Not by how many straight-A students they might put forth as a display of the excellence of their educational talent. A straight-A student gets straight As because the teaching talent of the teacher is irrelevant. That’s what straight As means. It means you got an A in every class you took — and that’s only possible if the variation in the teaching skills in the teachers of each of those classes is irrelevant to you.
You perform no matter how good or bad the teacher is. So the least illuminating student you can put on display at your school are the straight-A students. The one who is the greatest display of whether or not you’re a good teacher is the student who was flunking but is now maybe getting a C. Or the student who was getting a C and now is getting a B+ because of your intervention as teacher, because of your effort to think about how that student learns relative to someone else.
Now, that’s hard, particularly in big cities, especially in New York, where you might have 34 kids in a class. It may even be impossible to find the right key for every student. But the reason they’re not learning is not because they don’t want to learn; it’s because the system has not allowed you the time to find the key to every one of the students. And so the answer should not be “they don’t learn because they don’t want to learn,” it should be “they want to learn but the system does not allow me the time to figure out what their formula is.” And by the way, it’s something called individualized learning; it’s not a new educational concept. They need much smaller classes to enable that. But who I was indicting is those people who say that students don’t want to learn.
I spend every day of my life that I reach the public asking myself first “What are the receptors that exist in the audience I’m about to address?” Is it culture, is it sports, is it food, is it entertainment, is it movies? And I spend some effort of my life acquainting myself with all of these ancillary elements, so that when I do have a conversation with a person and I’m not reaching them by some traditional way, I access my utility belt that I’ve assembled for myself and say “Oh, this person likes this set of movies; I saw those movies, let’s start there.” And now the person gets excited, their eyes brighten up, and now the receptors are ready to engage in the science, which was my object of the lesson plan. You know, that’s a simplified example of what I’m trying to get across here, but you get the point.
LA: Somewhat related to that, when we talk about people who are going into the sciences — women and minorities are still significantly underrepresented in STEM — do you have thoughts about what we can do to lessen that gap? Or to encourage people who don’t traditionally go into these fields?
NDT: I don’t have a silver bullet there, but I’m thinking long and hard about that problem. And maybe I’ll have a solution or some insights that I could share with people in a couple of years but right now I don’t have deep insights to it. And there are interesting other questions: For example, there are other fields that are predominately women that don’t get the same level of analysis as the fields that are predominantly men. For example — maybe this exists but I haven’t seen it — no one is asking why veterinarians are 85 percent women. There’s no movement to reduce that number so that there’s equal numbers of men. And veterinary school is harder to get into than medical school in terms of percentage of applicants they accept. So, I wonder if the answer to that is more broadly, deeply embedded in society than just pointing to the cultural climate in one branch of science versus another.
You know, the NBA is 80 percent black — are we saying we have to reduce that number so that the blacks in the NBA are the same percent as in the population, so that there’s room for white people to play? Are we saying that? Well, we’re not. Why not? Well, there’s some expectation that there is equal opportunity for everyone, so if you can believe there’s equal opportunity, then things just shake out however they do and no one complains about it. So the challenge will be to ask, do women and minorities have an equal opportunity to study in the sciences? And if so, does that mean that that will ultimately become half women? And 12 percent black, or whatever the number is in the United States. If there are other fields where there is equal opportunity and we don’t recover the numbers that we have in society, and no one is studying why that’s the case, then that will make these other questions harder to address, is my point. So, I don’t have an answer; these are the questions that I’m posing to myself as I continue to think about the problem.
LA: So you need to figure out why this is happening before you can find a solution.
NDT: I think what would be interesting would be to go around society and look at fields that are dominated by some demographic well out of numbers to their proportion of the population. So, veterinary medicine: 85 percent women. Nursing: 95 percent women. Men could be nurses, but they’re not, so what’s going on there? Again, the NBA. You just go around and look at the list. Then you have particle physics or whatever that’s 85 percent men. So what’s the difference between particle physics and veterinary medicine? Are there opportunities that are in one place and not the other? Do we believe men have equal access to veterinary medicine? Is there discrimination against men in that field? If not, then what is attracting the women to it? Whatever that is that’s attracting the women to it, does that not exist in particle physics? And if it did exist, would it? So, I’m just saying, these are a zillion questions that are coursing through my head.
LA: To talk a bit again about climate change — not so much from a climate scientist perspective but in a general sense — in “Cosmos” you talk about the promise of green energy, but there’s also a lot of discussion lately about it being too late at this point to make meaningful change, and of people feeling discouraged. Do you think we have what it takes as a society to reverse course?
NDT: In my read of history, when things get very bad, people tend to come into agreement about what next steps they need to take and there’s less arguing. For example, in 1939, 1940 there were nationalists in America who didn’t want to engage in the war in Europe. There were strong debates in Congress and the executive branch — and then we get attacked at Pearl Harbor, and at that point everyone is aligned. And we, at the time, had the tenth or something largest army in the world — something much lower than other countries that were actively engaged in this war — but once all of our pistons were aligned, we built a military machine that tipped the balance of power in the world over a four-year period. We felt threatened, we felt down, we felt like we had to act as one.
So I’ve seen this country do that. On multiple occasions: We did it for Sputnik. If someone wants to fly over your country in the air, there’s a law, you need permission to allow them to do that. But if they’re above the air, they’re in space where there is no law that controls that — so there was Sputnik, launched in 1957, flying over the United States. A Soviet piece of hardware, launched on a vessel that would otherwise be used to carry intercontinental ballistic missiles. We freaked out. All of our pistons became aligned, and within 12 years of Sputnik going up, we are walking on the moon. We alluded to that in “Cosmos,” with reference to Kennedy’s speech about doing things not because it’s easy but because it’s hard.
So I think maybe we have to sink lower before the pistons of Congress and the electorate align to take meaningful action, to protect the planet going forward. And this idea about being too late, well that’s defeatist of course. That’s saying, “Well, okay, we don’t know what to do so therefore let’s do nothing.” By the way, I can imagine — I mean, I’m making this up, but it’s not far-fetched to imagine that someone invents some CO² scrubbing device — “scrubbing” is the word they use in the industry — where air blows in one on side and there’s some thing inside that just takes CO² and makes solid bricks out of it and it’s very effective, like the buried limestone of the cliffs of Dover. And then if you have that you can continue with industry. Because we’ve now removed the CO² that we put in, keeping Earth in equilibrium.
I mean that’s an interesting option; why isn’t anybody thinking of that? And by the way, that’s an entire world outside of my professional expertise. That’s engineering and climate and air and chemistry. So, people should know by now that if Kennedy says — before we have any spacecraft that can fly a human being without killing them — “let’s go to the moon before the decade is out,” and we go to the moon, well I remember that go-getter attitude; I’m old enough to remember that. It meant anything was possible, or at least was within technological reach — the laws of physics do prevent some things from ever happening, but technologically, there’s no limit.
LA: Because you do have this public platform and people are listening to you, are there other issues that you would want to bring to the public’s attention or that you think more attention should be paid to, be they social, political or environmental?
NDT: Yeah, people like dividing up all the problems and creating movements surrounding each one. And I think at the end of the day what we’re really missing maybe is widespread, rampant curiosity. The kind of curiosity that children have. We need more of that in adults. Because if you’re curious, then you’ll say, “Oh, I wonder why that works that way.” You didn’t have to take a class in it, your own curiosity forces you to go to Wikipedia, or get a book on it, or rent a video. And that curiosity grows the knowledge base of everyone.
I’ve tweeted multiple times on the concept and idea of curiosity and those, by the way, are some of my heavily retweeted tweets. One of them was comparing the curiosity of children to the curiosity of the adults raising them. And I was worried that if an adult loses curiosity then they won’t even see it in their children and they’ll squash it because they’ll interpret it as a destructive force in the household, when all the kid is doing is exploring what’s in the drawers or what happens if you drop a glass on the kitchen floor — things that are definitely destructive to your house but are the manifestation of just kids being curious. I was in New York the day before yesterday, and it had just rained so there were puddles in the walkway. And there was a little girl with boots and a little umbrella over her shoulder, and she’s walking straight towards the puddle. And I said, “Oh, this will be fun, I bet she jumps in with two feet.” And the mother says “No, don’t jump in the puddle, walk around it.” And I said, “There it is! There is a little bit of curiosity being squashed.”
Because what happens if you jump in the puddle? You get to — you’re losing the experiment on what a splash zone will look like and how big is the splash based on how hard you jumped in it and could you clear the puddle, based on having jumped in it? And then you learn the puddle is there because there’s a slight depression in the pavement, and so water collects where it’s a slightly low point compared to other points, that’s why it didn’t roll down the hill. There’s a whole experiment there that the kid would have done but did not because the parent didn’t want to clean the clothes.
So I promise on this: If all people were curious, that would just solve everything, I think. Almost everything. It’ll solve so much of what today we identify as problems that need separate solutions.
Corporate ‘Inversions’ Are The Latest Ploy To Upend The US Tax Code
by Author: Gary Reber – Friday, July 25, 2014 2:59 PM
Esteban Felix | AP Photo
Chiquita Brands is one of the companies that did a corporate “inversion” deal this year
On July 24, 2014, John W. Schoen writes on CNBC:
A once-obscure tax dodge known as a corporate “inversion” is turning the debate over U.S. tax reform upside down.
In an inversion, a U.S. company sets up or buys another company in a country with a lower corporate tax rate and then calls the new country home—thereby dodging U.S. taxes it would otherwise have had to pay.
The trick is more than three decades old, but a wave of inversions this year has prompted the Obama administration to call on Congress to slam the loophole shut.
When a company undertakes an inversion, it’s basically just moving its legal address outside the country for tax purposes. That lets companies move some of their profits to their new homeland and pay less in taxes to the U.S. Treasury. Nothing else moves; it’s business as usual for their American operations, employees and customers.
The White House estimates the Treasury could lose out on as much as much as $20 billion over the next decade. So the administration wants to require companies that claim they’re no longer American to be more than 50 percent owned by foreigners. That would make new inversions much more difficult to pull off.
But aren’t corporate taxes higher in the U.S than most developed countries?
It’s true that the statutory tax rate—including state and local taxes—is close to 40 percent, the highest among the developed world. But U.S. companies apply a long list of tax credits, subsidies, loopholes and other giveaways, so most of them pay much less than the top rate. Some, according to an analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice, have figured out how to pay no tax at all.
Total corporate federal taxes fell to about 12 percent of profits from U.S.-based activity in 2011, according to a Congressional Budget Office report. In a separate study, the CBO found that the average tax rate in 2011 among developed countries was 3 percent of gross domestic product—compared with 2.3 percent of GDP in the U.S.
So how much money is Uncle Sam losing from these corporate tax dodgers?
So far this year, only nine companies have flipped their corporate tax base upside down, including banana distributor Chiquita Brands International and drug maker AbbVie. But those moves have drawn lots of attention—and prompted other U.S. multinationals with large overseas holdings to consider heading for the corporate tax exit.
Some companies have already stashed assets and accumulated earnings outside the country—hoping that Congress will eventually lower the tax rate and allow them to pay less when they bring that money home. By some estimates, as much as $2 trillion in corporate cash is sitting outside the U.S.—money that could otherwise be reinvested at home to expand domestic operations and create more jobs.
Why doesn’t Congress just clean up the corporate tax code?
Corporations have been lobbying Congress for years to lower the corporate tax rate—which would mean paring back a thicket of tax credits, subsidies and complex rules that everyone agrees needs an overhaul. But each of those loopholes has a company or industry lobbying to protect it.
A wave of inversions could make it even harder for Congress to pull off a “revenue neutral” tax reform package. To offset the money lost by lowering the top rate, Congress would have to close loopholes and subsidies. But if more companies dodge the American tax code altogether, those added revenues will be harder to find. The more companies shrink the overall pipe of corporate tax revenues, the harder it will be to make tax reform “pay for itself.”
In any case, the tax reform debate has become mired in the ongoing political dysfunction that has already pushed the country near a debt default, temporarily shut down the government and, most recently, exhausted the highway fund that’s needed to fix a national pothole epidemic. Given that track record, it’s hard to see how Congress will ever be able to tackle an issue as complex and divisive as tax reform. So some companies aren’t waiting.
The Jews gradually are having to depend more and more on themselves, and have recently found a new trick. They knew the good-natured German Michael in us, always ready to shed sentimental tears for the injustice done to them. One suddenly has the impression that the Berlin Jewish population consists only of little babies whose childish helplessness might move us, or else fragile old ladies. The Jews send out the pitiable. They may confuse some harmless souls for a while, but not us. We know exactly what the situation is.
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Rather than lard up the point with numerous defensive caveats about what is and is not being said here (which, in any event, never impede willful media distorters in their tactics), I’ll simply note three brief points:
(1) To compare aspects of A and B is not to posit that A and B are identical (e.g., to observe that Bermuda and Bosnia are both countries beginning with the letter “B” is not to depict them as the same, just as observing that both the U.S. in 2003 and Germany in 1938 launched aggressive wars in direct violation of what were to become the Nuremberg Principles is not to equate the two countries).
(3) Anglo-American law has long recognized that gross recklessness is a form of intent (“Fraudulent intent is shown if a representation is made with reckless indifference to its truth or falsity”). That’s why reckless behavior even if unaccompanied by a desire to kill people – e.g., randomly shooting a gun into a crowd of people – has long been viewed as sufficient to establish criminal intent.
One can say many things about a military operation that results in more than 75 percent of the dead being civilians, many of them children, aimed at a population trapped in a tiny area with no escape. The claim that there is no intent to kill civilians but rather an intent to protect them is most assuredly not among them. Even stalwart Israel supporter Thomas Friedman has previously acknowledged that Israeli assaults on Lebanon, and possibly in Gaza, are intended ”to inflict substantial property damage and collateral casualties” because “the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians” (which, to the extent it exists, is the classic definition of “terrorism”).The most generous claim one can make about what Israel is now doing in Gaza is that it is driven by complete recklessness toward the civilian population it is massacring, a form of intent under centuries of well-settled western law.
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American journalism is frequently criticized with great justification, but there are a number of American journalists in Gaza, along with non-western ones, in order to tell the world about what is happening there. That reporting is incredibly brave and difficult, and those who are doing it merit the highest respect. Their work, along with the prevalence of social media and internet technology that allows Gazans themselves to document what is happening, has changed the way Israeli aggression is seen and understood this time around.
Every single ocean has a giant swirling plastic garbage patch
by Brad Plumer – 12 July 2014
What happens to our plastic bottles and lids and containers after we throw them out? This turns out to be something of a scientific mystery. There are 35,000 tons of plastic floating in the ocean — and more may be hiding elsewhere. We know that the vast majority of plastic trash ends up in landfills, just sitting there and taking thousands of years to degrade. A smaller fraction gets recycled (about 9 percent in the United States).
But another large portion finds its way into the oceans, either by people chucking litter directly into the sea or by storm-water runoff carrying plastic debris to the coasts. One conservative estimate suggests that at least 1 million tons of plastic has entered the ocean since the 1970s. Now here’s the catch: We still don’t know where all that oceanplastic actually went. Scientists have recently identified massive swirling garbage patches in each of the world’s oceans that contain up 35,000 tons of plastic.
But those patches account for less than 1 percent of the plastic thought to be in the oceans — and no one quite knows where the other 99 percent went. One possibility is that fish are eating the rest of the plastic and it’s somehow entering the food chain. But no one quite knows for sure.
Every ocean has a massive plastic garbage patch
Concentrations of plastic debris in surface waters of the global ocean. Colored circles indicate mass concentrations (legend on top right). The map shows average concentrations in 442 sites (1,127 surface net tows. Cozar et al, 2014.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Great Pacific garbage patch — a giant patch of trash that’s accumulated in a swirling subtropical gyre in northern Pacific Ocean. Well, it turns out that there are at least five of these floating garbage patches around the world. That’s according to a recent study in The Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, led by Andres Cózar of the Universidad de Cadiz and informed by the results of a 2010 circumnavigation cruise.
These garbage patches aren’t visible from space — or even, necessarily, from a passing boat — since most of the plastic is bobbing just beneath the surface, and most of the particles are smaller than 1 centimeter in diameter. Over time, the plastic bits get broken down into ever smaller pieces as they get battered by waves and degraded by the sun. But these garbage patches are massive, collectively holding some 7,000 to 35,000 tons of plastic in all. The patch in the North Pacific was by far the biggest — containing about one-third of all the floating plastic found. (Much of the plastic debris from eastern China, for instance, collects here.)
And yet, what was most surprising to researchers was how small these plastic garbage patches were. Conservative estimates had suggested that there should be millions of tons of plastic in the oceans. But these subtropical gyres only contained up to 35,000 tons. In particular, there seemed to be much less plastic smaller than 1 millimeter in diameter. So what gives? Where’d the rest of the plastic go? Continue reading What happened to all the garbage?
via N.Y. Times Commentary by Paul Krugman
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How many Americans know how health reform is going? For that matter, how many people in the news media are following the positive developments? I suspect that the answer to the first question is “Not many,” while the answer to the second is “Possibly even fewer”… And if I’m right, it’s a remarkable thing — an immense policy success is improving the lives of millions of Americans, but it’s largely slipping under the radar.
How is that possible? Think relentless negativity without accountability. The Affordable Care Act has faced nonstop attacks from partisans and right-wing media, with mainstream news also tending to harp on the act’s troubles. Many of the attacks have involved predictions of disaster, none of which have come true. But absence of disaster doesn’t make a compelling headline, and the people who falsely predicted doom just keep coming back with dire new warnings. …
Yes, there are losers from Obamacare. If you’re young, healthy, and affluent enough that you don’t qualify for a subsidy (and don’t get insurance from your employer), your premium probably did rise. And if you’re rich enough to pay the extra taxes that finance those subsidies, you have taken a financial hit. But it’s telling that even reform’s opponents aren’t trying to highlight these stories. Instead, they keep looking for older, sicker, middle-class victims, and keep failing to find them.
Oh,… the overwhelming majority of the newly insured, including 74 percent of Republicans, are satisfied with their coverage.
You might ask why, if health reform is going so well, it continues to poll badly. It’s crucial … to realize that Obamacare, by design, by and large doesn’t affect Americans who already have good insurance. As a result, many peoples’ views are shaped by the mainly negative coverage in the news… Still, the latest tracking survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that a rising number of Americans are hearing about reform from family and friends, which means that they’re starting to hear from the program’s beneficiaries.
And as I suggested earlier, people in the media — especially elite pundits — may be the last to hear the good news, simply because they’re in a socioeconomic bracket in which people generally have good coverage.
For the less fortunate, however, the Affordable Care Act has already made a big positive difference. The usual suspects will keep crying failure, but the truth is that health reform is — gasp! — working.
When Akihiko Takahashi was a junior in college in 1978, he was like most of the other students at his university in suburban Tokyo. He had a vague sense of wanting to accomplish something but no clue what that something should be. But that spring he met a man who would become his mentor, and this relationship set the course of his entire career.
Takeshi Matsuyama was an elementary-school teacher, but like a small number of instructors in Japan, he taught not just young children but also college students who wanted to become teachers. At the university-affiliated elementary school where Matsuyama taught, he turned his classroom into a kind of laboratory, concocting and trying out new teaching ideas. When Takahashi met him, Matsuyama was in the middle of his boldest experiment yet — revolutionizing the way students learned math by radically changing the way teachers taught it.
Takahashi quickly became a convert. He discovered that these ideas came from reformers in the United States, and he dedicated himself to learning to teach like an American. Over the next 12 years, as the Japanese educational system embraced this more vibrant approach to math, Takahashi taught first through sixth grade. Teaching, and thinking about teaching, was practically all he did. A quiet man with calm, smiling eyes, his passion for a new kind of math instruction could take his colleagues by surprise. “He looks very gentle and kind,” Kazuyuki Shirai, a fellow math teacher, told me through a translator. “But when he starts talking about math, everything changes.”
Takahashi was especially enthralled with an American group called the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, or N.C.T.M., which published manifestoes throughout the 1980s, prescribing radical changes in the teaching of math. Spending late nights at school, Takahashi read every one. Like many professionals in Japan, teachers often said they did their work in the name of their mentor. It was as if Takahashi bore two influences: Matsuyama and the American reformers.
Takahashi, who is 58, became one of his country’s leading math teachers, once attracting 1,000 observers to a public lesson. He participated in a classroom equivalent of “Iron Chef,” the popular Japanese television show. But in 1991, when he got the opportunity to take a new job in America, teaching at a school run by the Japanese Education Ministry for expats in Chicago, he did not hesitate. With his wife, a graphic designer, he left his friends, family, colleagues — everything he knew — and moved to the United States, eager to be at the center of the new math.
As soon as he arrived, he started spending his days off visiting American schools. One of the first math classes he observed gave him such a jolt that he assumed there must have been some kind of mistake. The class looked exactly like his own memories of school. “I thought, Well, that’s only this class,” Takahashi said. But the next class looked like the first, and so did the next and the one after that. The Americans might have invented the world’s best methods for teaching math to children, but it was difficult to find anyone actually using them.
It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it. The same pattern played out in the 1960s, when schools gripped by a post-Sputnik inferiority complex unveiled an ambitious “new math,” only to find, a few years later, that nothing actually changed. In fact, efforts to introduce a better way of teaching math stretch back to the 1800s. The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices.
The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them. One 1965 Peanuts cartoon depicts the young blond-haired Sally struggling to understand her new-math assignment: “Sets . . . one to one matching . . . equivalent sets . . . sets of one . . . sets of two . . . renaming two. . . .” After persisting for three valiant frames, she throws back her head and bursts into tears: “All I want to know is, how much is two and two?”
Today the frustrating descent from good intentions to tears is playing out once again, as states across the country carry out the latest wave of math reforms: the Common Core. A new set of academic standards developed to replace states’ individually designed learning goals, the Common Core math standards are like earlier math reforms, only further refined and more ambitious. Whereas previous movements found teachers haphazardly, through organizations like Takahashi’s beloved N.C.T.M. math-teacher group, the Common Core has a broader reach. A group of governors and education chiefs from 48 states initiated the writing of the standards, for both math and language arts, in 2009. The same year, the Obama administration encouraged the idea, making the adoption of rigorous “common standards” a criterion for receiving a portion of the more than $4 billion in Race to the Top grants. Forty-three states have adopted the standards.
The opportunity to change the way math is taught, as N.C.T.M. declared in its endorsement of the Common Core standards, is “unprecedented.” And yet, once again, the reforms have arrived without any good system for helping teachers learn to teach them. Responding to a recent survey by Education Week, teachers said they had typically spent fewer than four days in Common Core training, and that included training for the language-arts standards as well as the math.
Carefully taught, the assignments can help make math more concrete. Students don’t just memorize their times tables and addition facts but also understand how arithmetic works and how to apply it to real-life situations. But in practice, most teachers are unprepared and children are baffled, leaving parents furious. The comedian Louis C.K. parodied his daughters’ homework in an appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman”: “It’s like, Bill has three goldfish. He buys two more. How many dogs live in London?”
The inadequate implementation can make math reforms seem like the most absurd form of policy change — one that creates a whole new problem to solve. Why try something we’ve failed at a half-dozen times before, only to watch it backfire? Just four years after the standards were first released, this argument has gained traction on both sides of the aisle. Since March, four Republican governors have opposed the standards. In New York, a Republican candidate is trying to establish another ballot line, called Stop Common Core, for the November gubernatorial election. On the left, meanwhile, teachers’ unions in Chicago and New York have opposed the reforms.
The fact that countries like Japan have implemented a similar approach with great success offers little consolation when the results here seem so dreadful. Americans might have written the new math, but maybe we simply aren’t suited to it. “By God,” wrote Erick Erickson, editor of the website RedState, in an anti-Common Core attack, is it such “a horrific idea that we might teach math the way math has always been taught.”
The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work. As a nation, we suffer from an ailment that John Allen Paulos, a Temple University math professor and an author, calls innumeracy — the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read. On national tests, nearly two-thirds of fourth graders and eighth graders are not proficient in math. More than half of fourth graders taking the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress could not accurately read the temperature on a neatly drawn thermometer. (They did not understand that each hash mark represented two degrees rather than one, leading many students to mistake 46 degrees for 43 degrees.) On the same multiple-choice test, three-quarters of fourth graders could not translate a simple word problem about a girl who sold 15 cups of lemonade on Saturday and twice as many on Sunday into the expression “15 + (2×15).” Even in Massachusetts, one of the country’s highest-performing states, math students are more than two years behind their counterparts in Shanghai.
Note: Robert Rubin’s team provide strong evidence that failing to address the environmental affects of climate change will absolutely have a negative effect on business. Full PDF report is available here:
Even if you see the joke coming, it’s still pretty good. Jon Stewart begins to introduce a segment on the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict but on saying the word “Israel” is immediately shouted down by overly zealous supporters of Israel (what we in the business call “pro-Israel trolls”) who accuse him of unfair double-standards, being a self-hating Jew, and so on. He says the word “Hamas” and is mobbed again, now told he supports the murder of Palestinian children and is a Zionist pig.
Just to be clear: this is a zero-exaggeration, 100 percent accurate portrayal of what it is like to cover Israel-Palestine during times of conflict.
An article about Palestinian casualties from Israeli air strikes is met with outraged accusations that the author hates Israel and secretly wishes for the deaths of Israelis; an article about Israelis suffering under Palestinian rocket fire is met with outraged accusations that the author hates Palestinians and is complicit in their deaths. On any given day during periods of conflict, the New York Times is accused of both.
To be clear, that’s not to whine about how covering Israel can be difficult — Western journalists are obviously just bystanders in the conflict, which causes actual real-world harm to Israelis and Palestinians far beyond the mild annoyance of getting yelled at by people. But there is a serious point to be made here: starting and having an actual, reasonable public conversation about the conflict is made next to impossible by this effect, to the point that non-partisans have fewer opportunities to learn about it, and that partisans have almost no opportunity to discover the shades of grey, or god forbid the humanity of people on the “other side.”
Why is the Israel-Palestine conversation so uniquely polarized, and so angry? There are many reasons: decades of enmity, broken agreements, and violence only explain so much. Partly, it’s the stakes, which go beyond even the risks of death. Both sides see their very nation, and thus their identity, at danger of being wiped out, and they’re not wrong. Both sides see themselves as the entrenched, encircled, endangered minority.
Crucially, both sides also believe that the world could be on the cusp of imposing an outcome either to their favor or disfavor; this sense of an imminent and decisive judgment from the outside world compels partisans on both ends to litigate their worldview as aggressively as possible. The fact that the world has not yet come around to your preferred side’s obvious righteousness and moral superiority just proves that the media is unfairly skewing against you. And that makes shouting down any public conversation less 100 percent compliant to your worldview not just justified, but a moral imperative. Given that the outside world does play an important role in mediating the Israel-Palestine conflict, the fact that public discourse around it is broken has real-world implications way beyond just making it annoying for people in the media like Jon Stewart.
At the turn of the 21st century, the Anglo-Australian Observatory made a large survey of galaxies in our universe, known as the 2-degree-field galaxy redshift survey (2dFGRS). It measured the spectra and redshifts of more than 230,000 galaxies. The main goal of the survey was to determine the distribution of galaxies within a radius of about 4 billion light years. A statistical analysis of this distribution could then be used to put constraints on things like dark matter and neutrino mass (which I’ll talk about another day).
But with the spectra of 200,000 galaxies you can also look at the average spectra of all of them, and in 2001 and 2002, Karl Glazebrook and Ivan Baldry did just that. The average spectrum is useful because it shows the wavelengths that are more common and less common, which in turn tells us the type of spectra stars typically have. This is important because the spectra of a star changes over time. So this gives us an idea of the evolution of stars on average.
Of course you can also take this one step further to determine the color of the universe. You just have to determine the color we would see if we looked at the average spectrum of all the galaxies at the same time. This is a bit more challenging than you might think.
For one, since different galaxies are redshifted by different amounts, you have to account for their redshift. This was done when determining the average spectra of the galaxies, and is pretty straightforward. More challenging is accounting for just how we would observe such a spectra, because sometimes the colors that reach our eyes are not the colors we see.
For example, consider the color yellow. If you look at a yellow square on your computer monitor, your eyes are not actually detecting yellow light. You are actually looking at red and green pixels. The red and green light stimulates the red and green cones in your retina similar to the way truly yellow light stimulates both of them, so the square appears yellow. In a sense, the yellow square on your monitor is a simulated yellow.
Another aspect to deal with is the fact that the sensitivity of our eyes depends on the color. Our eyes are most sensitive in the green region, and less sensitive in the red and blue. Then there is the fact that colors appear differently in different light. When we determine an average color, should it be for daylight adjusted light, dark adapted vision, or some other condition (known as the white point).
Glazebrook and Baldry decided that the best version would be a dark adapted (equal energy) white point, with a gamma correction of 2.2 to account for observed brightness. The result is a pale tan seen in the image below. It represents the color we would see if we could observe all the surveyed galaxies at once (and at rest relative to us). The color was given the name Cosmic Latte.
The color of the universe gradually changes over billions of years. In the past, when the universe was populated with younger stars, the color was lighter and more blue. In the future, as larger stars age and die the color will become darker and more red.
Perhaps in a few billion years we will have to change the name to Cosmic Mocha.
We generally think of comets and asteroids as two distinct types of bodies. Comets are “dirty snowballs” of mostly ice, which vaporizes to form long tails when they approach the Sun, while asteroids are dry, rocky bodies that typically live in the asteroid belt. It is generally true that comets tend to have an icy surface of volatiles that can evaporate off its surface, and asteroids generally don’t. But it also turns out that the two are far more similar than they are different.The idea of comets as dirty snowballs isn’t very accurate. For one thing, asteroids and comets are both rocky bodies, although asteroids can also contain large amounts of metals. Long period comets, originating from the Oort cloud, can have significant ice, and are closer to the traditional view of comets. Short period comets often have much of their ice evaporated away, so that they look more like asteroids. Asteroids can also have pockets of ice beneath their surface. As these pockets are exposed to sunlight they can create comet-like streams.
Another way to distinguish comets is by their orbits. Comets tend to have more elliptical orbits, while asteroids tend to have more circular ones. This can be summarized in a quantity known as the Tisserand parameter, which is a measure of a body’s orbital size and eccentricity compared to the orbit of Jupiter. A Tisserand parameter between 2 -3 usually means an object is a comet, while a value greater than 3 tends to be an asteroid.
But there are also object that seem to cross the line between comet and asteroid. For example, an object known as P/2013 P5 has an asteroid like orbit and composition, but was observed to have six comet-like tails. Or consider the object known as Ceres. It is now considered a dwarf planet, but was once considered to be an asteroid. It has an asteroid object, and is both rocky and metallic. It also has water vapor plumes, and even a faint atmosphere derived from the water vapor. Ceres is a large asteroid with faint comet-like plumes.
As we learn more of both asteroids and comets, we find they are just two types of a range of small solar system bodies.
In the 1860s James Clerk Maxwell published a set of elegant and beautifully subtle equations now known as Maxwell’s equations. Maxwell’s equations describe charges and magnets not by the forces between them, but by their fields of electricity and magnetism. Thus, a charge is surrounded by a field of electricity, a field that other charges can detect. Charges possess electric fields, and charges interact with the electric fields of other charges. Likewise, magnets possess magnetic fields, and interact with magnetic fields.
This was a radically new way of looking at things, but with that change of view Maxwell demonstrated that electricity and magnetism were connected by their fields. A moving electric field creates a magnetic field, and a moving magnetic field creates an electric field. Not only are the two connected, but one type of field can create the other. Maxwell had created a single, unified description of electricity and magnetism. He had united two different forces into a single unified force, which we now call electromagnetism.
In the late 1800s J. J. Thompson had discovered the electron, and in the early 1900s Ernest Rutherford demonstrated that atoms consisted of a dense nucleus surrounded by electrons. This led Rutherford to suppose that atoms behaved similar to the solar system. Just as the massive Sun lies at the center of the solar system, with the lighter planets orbiting the Sun, the massive nucleus lies at the center of the atom, with the lighter electrons orbiting it.
But according to Maxwell’s theory this couldn’t possibly be true. If an electron orbited the nucleus, its motion would create electromagnetic waves (light). Those waves would carry energy away from the electron, causing the electron to spiral into the nucleus. Within a fraction of a second an atom would collapse in a flash of light. There seemed no way out of this conundrum. Experiments proved that electrons were particles. They proved that atoms had a nucleus. They proved that moving charges created electromagnetic waves. How then was it possible for atoms to exist?
The initial solution came from Niels Bohr. Bohr knew that atomic gases do not emit a continuous range of colors when heated. Instead they emit only particular colors. The colors they emit are known as spectral lines. Each type of atom or molecule emits a unique pattern of spectral lines, and serves as a kind of fingerprint. By observing the spectral lines of stars, for example, we can identify the elements that make up those stars. The measurement and analysis of spectral lines from stars, nebulae and galaxies has long been a useful tool in astronomy.
Bohr proposed that somehow electrons don’t radiate energy as they orbit the nucleus. Instead the have specific orbits. Rather than continuously radiating energy, electrons would only emit energy when they jumped from a larger orbit to a smaller orbit. Likewise electrons could absorb energy to jump from a smaller to a larger orbit. In other words, the orbits of electrons were quantized, and electrons must make a quantum leap to move from one orbit to another.
It’s time to take a more skeptical look at what the NY Times calls the hottest start-up on earth.
by Allegra Kirkland – Alternet – 22 June 2014
Now that Uber has received an $18.2 billion valuation from investors, making it worth more than rental car giants Hertz and Avis combined, it would seem the ride-sharing company’s days as a scrappy young tech startup are done. But in the days since the valuation was made public, the Uber hype machine—which insists that the company is revolutionizing the monopolistic, overly bureaucratic taxi industry—has gone into overdrive.
In one of the eight articles on Uber that the New York Times has published in the last two weeks alone, Farhad Manjoo refers to the company as “the hottest, most valuable technology start-up on the planet.” In the opinion of Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University, “Uber is transforming mobility in big cities and has been one of the great innovations in transportation in the last decade.”
With its revolutionary “disruptive” potential, app-based technology and clever marketing—one campaign involved a kitten delivery service in honor of National Cat Day—the service is almost a parody of the quintessential millennial company. But make no mistake: despite the populist, user-focused language of Uber promoters and company reps, the ride-sharing service is a prime example of the neoliberal economic model at work. Uber’s brand of tech sector neoliberalism relies on deregulation, an absence of government oversight and a healthy amount of political spending to sway the rules in their favor. By adhering to the narrative of innovation, efficiency and market disruption, for the good of the people, powerful tech companies can avoid discussing other topics: how their services compromise existing industries, fair labor practices, the security of passengers and drivers. Here are five ways that Uber is just like any other exploitative capitalist enterprise,
Why are the cheerleaders of slaughter, who have been wrong about Iraq since before the invasion, still urging us toward ruin?
(by Chris Hedges – Truthdig: 23 June 2014)
The black-clad fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, sweeping a collapsing army and terrified Iraqis before them as they advance toward Baghdad, reflect back to us the ghoulish face of American empire. They are the specters of the hundreds of thousands of people we murdered in our deluded quest to remake the Middle East. They are ghosts from the innumerable roadsides and villages where U.S. soldiers and Marines, jolted by explosions of improvised explosive devices, responded with indiscriminate fire. They are the risen remains of the dismembered Iraqis left behind by blasts of Hellfire and cruise missiles, howitzers, grenade launchers and drone strikes. They are the avengers of the gruesome torture and the sexual debasement that often came with being detained by American troops. They are the final answer to the collective humiliation of an occupied country, the logical outcome of Shock and Awe, the Frankenstein monster stitched together from the body parts we left scattered on the ground. They are what we get for the $4 trillion we wasted on the Iraq War. Continue reading Iraq’s Destruction Is a Reminder of the Ugly Face of American Empire
The “sharing economy” – typified by companies like Airbnb or Uber, both of which now have market capitalizations in the billions – is the latest fashion craze among business writers. But in their exuberance over the next big thing, many boosters have overlooked the reality that this new business model is largely based on evading regulations and breaking the law.
For the uninitiated, Airbnb is an internet-based service that allows people to rent out spare rooms to strangers for short stays. Uber is an internet taxi service that allows tens of thousands of people to answer ride requests with their own cars. There are hundreds of other such services that involve the renting or selling of everything from power tools to used suits and wedding dresses.
The good thing about the sharing economy is that it facilitates the use of underutilized resources. There are millions of people with houses or apartments that have rooms sitting empty, and Airbnb allows them to profit from these empty rooms while allowing guests a place to stay at prices that are often far less than those charged by hotels. Uber offers prices that are competitive with standard taxi prices and their drivers are often much quicker and more reliable – and its drivers can drive as much or as little as they like, without making a commitment to standard shifts. Other services allow for items to be used productively that would otherwise be gathering dust.
But the downside of the sharing economy has gotten much less attention. Most cities and states both tax and regulate hotels, and the tourists who stay in hotels are usually an important source of tax revenue (since governments have long recognized that a modest hotel tax is not likely to discourage most visitors nor provoke the ire of constituents). But many of Airbnb’s customers are not paying the taxes required under the law.
Airbnb can also raise issues of safety for its customers and nuisance for hosts’ neighbors. Hotels are regularly inspected to ensure that they are not fire traps and that they don’t pose other risks for visitors. Airbnb hosts face no such inspections – and their neighbors in condo, co-ops or apartment buildings may think they have the right not to be living next door to a hotel (which is one reason that cities have zoning restrictions).
Charlatans, Cranks and Kansas by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times
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Two years ago Kansas embarked on a remarkable fiscal experiment: It sharply slashed income taxes without any clear idea of what would replace the lost revenue. Sam Brownback, the governor, proposed the legislation — in percentage terms, the largest tax cut in one year any state has ever enacted — in close consultation with the economist Arthur Laffer. And Mr. Brownback predicted that the cuts would jump-start an economic boom…
But Kansas isn’t booming — in fact, its economy is lagging both neighboring states and America as a whole. Meanwhile, the state’s budget has plunged deep into deficit, provoking a Moody’s downgrade of its debt.
There’s an important lesson here — but it’s not what you think. Yes, the Kansas debacle shows that tax cuts don’t have magical powers, but we already knew that. The real lesson from Kansas is the enduring power of bad ideas, as long as those ideas serve the interests of the right people. …
For the Brownback tax cuts didn’t emerge out of thin air. They closely followed a blueprint laid out by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which has also supported a series of economic studies purporting to show that tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy will promote rapid economic growth. The studies are embarrassingly bad, and the council’s Board of Scholars — which includes both Mr. Laffer and Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation — doesn’t exactly shout credibility. …
And what is ALEC? It’s a secretive group, financed by major corporations, that drafts model legislation for conservative state-level politicians…. And most of ALEC’s efforts are directed, not surprisingly, at privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.
And I do mean for the wealthy. …ALEC supports … cutting taxes at the top while actually increasing taxes at the bottom, as well as cutting social services.
But how can you justify enriching the already wealthy while making life harder for those struggling to get by? The answer is, you need an economic theory claiming that such a policy is the key to prosperity for all. So supply-side economics fills a need backed by lots of money, and the fact that it keeps failing doesn’t matter.
And the Kansas debacle won’t matter either. Oh, it will briefly give states considering similar policies pause. But the effect won’t last long, because faith in tax-cut magic isn’t about evidence; it’s about finding reasons to give powerful interests what they want.
Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun, but that wasn’t always the case. To be more precise, there was a time when it was thought our solar system had a planet even closer to the Sun, known as Vulcan.
While there were speculations about a planet closer than Mercury going back to at least the 1600s, it wasn’t until the 1850s that Urbain Le Verrier discovered the first indirect evidence for such a planet. Le Verrier carefully calculated the orbit of Mercury, and determined that the orientation of its orbit rotated slowly over time. This is known as a perihelion advance, and it is due to the small gravitational pulls from other planets.
The perihelion advance of Mercury is about 574 seconds of arc per century (a second of arc is 1/3600 of a degree). About 531 seconds of arc is due to the gravitational pull of the (then) known planets, which meant about 43 seconds of arc was unaccounted for. Le Verrier proposed that this deviation must be due to a planet orbiting closer than Mercury.
This was generally seen as solid evidence for a new planet. Le Verrier has used similar calculations of the orbit of Uranus to predict a more distant planet. This new planet, now known as Neptune, was discovered in 1846 exactly where Le Verrier predicted. Thus, this new prediction started a race to discover yet another planet in our solar system.
Observing such a planet would be extremely difficult. It’s extreme closeness to the Sun would mean that either it would need to be observed during an eclipse of the Sun, or at a time when it would pass in front of the Sun (known as a transit). Without knowing Vulcan’s orbit, the chances of observing a transit were unlikely, although there were some claimed observations of such a transit from a few astronomers. These observations never panned out, and were likely sunspots mistaken for a planet.
Then in 1878 James Watson and Louis Swift announced the observation of Vulcan during a solar eclipse. Unlike many claimed discoverers, Watson and Swift were renowned and experienced astronomers, so this was seen as the discovery of Vulcan for a time. But further observations failed to agree with their discovery. Some observations were later proven to be due to stars aligned close to the Sun. By the end of the 1800s there was considerable doubt of Vulcan’s existence. And yet the 43 second of arc advance of Mercury’s perihelion was confirmed and still unexplained.
Then in 1915, Albert Einstein proposed a new theory of gravity known as general relativity. One prediction of his theory was that planetary motion would deviate very slightly from the elliptical motion predicted by Newton. For Mercury, that deviation would be a perihelion advance of 43 seconds of arc per century. Mercury’s strange motion was due not to a missing planet, but to the subtle working of Einstein’s gravity.
With Einstein’s prediction, any last support for the existence of Vulcan was destroyed. Vulcan became the planet that never was. Since then there have been searches for smaller bodies within Mercury’s orbit. These proposed asteroid-like objects are sometimes referred to as Vulcanoids, and the range of their proposed orbits are seen in the figure below (http://goo.gl/fptMr). But so far none have been found. In fact, modern observations by solar observatories such as STEREO have shown that there are no Vulcanoids larger than about 6 kilometers across.
In some ways Vulcan is a cautionary tale for astronomy. What began as a search for a new planet ended as evidence of a revolutionary understanding of gravity. Sometimes what you look for isn’t nearly as interesting as what you find.
• There are 62 million U.S. women in their childbearing years (15–44).  About 43 million of them (70%) are at risk of unintended pregnancy—that is, they are sexually active and do not want to become pregnant, but could become pregnant if they and their partners fail to use a contraceptive method correctly and consistently.
• Couples who do not use any method of contraception have an approximately 85% chance of experiencing a pregnancy over the course of a year.
• The typical U.S. woman wants only two children. To achieve this goal, she must use contraceptives for roughly three decades.
WHO USES CONTRACEPTIVES?
• More than 99% of women aged 15–44 who have ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method.
• Some 62% of all women of reproductive age are currently using a contraceptive method.
• Eleven percent of women at risk of unintended pregnancy are not currently using any contraceptive method.
• The proportion of women at risk who are not using a method is highest among 15–19-year-olds (18%) and lowest among women aged 40–44 (9%).
• Eighty-three percent of black women who are at risk of unintended pregnancy currently use a contraceptive method, compared with 91% of their Hispanic and white peers, and 90% of Asian women.
•Ninety-two percent of at-risk women with incomes of 300% or more of the federal poverty level are currently using contraceptives, compared with 89% among those living at 0–149% of the poverty line.
• A much higher proportion of married than of never-married women use a contraceptive method (77% vs. 42%). This is largely because married women are more likely to be sexually active. But even among those at risk of unintended pregnancy, contraceptive use is higher among currently married women than among never-married women (93% vs. 83%).
• Cohabitors fall between married women and unmarried noncohabitors; 10% of at-risk cohabitors are not using a method.
• Contraceptive use is common among women of all religious denominations. Eighty-nine percent of at-risk Catholics and 90% of at-risk Protestants currently use a contraceptive method. Among sexually experienced religious women, 99% of Catholics and Protestants have ever used some form of contraception. 
• Knowledge about contraceptive methods is a strong predictor of use among young adults: Among unmarried women aged 18–29, for each correct response on a contraceptive knowledge scale, the odds of currently using a hormonal or long-acting reversible method increased by 17%, and of using no method decreased by 17%.
The Hobby Lobby decision wasn’t the Supreme Court’s last word on birth control.
Late Thursday, six justices signed onto an injunction that allows Wheaton College, a religious university, more flexibility to not comply with Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate. It led to a scathing dissent from the court’s three female members.
“Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, in a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. “Not today.”
Sotomayor went on to argue that the injunction would risk stripping “hundreds of Wheaton’s employees and students of their legal entitlement to contraceptive coverage.”
The Wheaton College case centers on a Christian liberal arts college in Illinois. It is part of another wave of lawsuits against Obamacare’s contraceptives mandate that the recent Hobby Lobby decision did not resolve.
These lawsuits challenge the flexibilities that the Obama administration has already offered religious non-profits, arguing that the existing accommodations don’t do enough to protect religious liberty.
What is the Wheaton College case about?
Back in February 2012, some religiously-affiliated non-profits (particularly universities and hospitals) successfully pushed the Obama administration to offer an “accommodation” that would allow them to opt-out of the contraceptives mandate. The idea behind the compromise: non-profits wouldn’t pay for contraceptives themselves but instead have their health insurance plan foot the bill for birth control.
In order to apply for this compromise, non-profits are supposed to use a very specific form to certify their opposition to providing their employees with contraception. The form, for the especially curious, is Employee Benefits Security Administration form 700 (EBSA 700).
After that form is filed, insurers are supposed to pay for the contraception themselves without passing the cost on to the religious organizations. Insurers recoup their losses through reduced fees paid to the government.
Since the early 1920s, aviators and mariners have used the word MAYDAY to signal distress.
On the sea, when another captain hears that call, there is an obligation to lend aid.
At MayDay PAC, we are calling a MAYDAY on this democracy. Americans from across the political spectrum believe our government is broken. More than 90% of us link that failure to the role of money in politics.
And yet our politicians do nothing to break that link. Instead they spend endless time raising campaign funds from the tiniest fraction of the 1%.
Our democracy is held hostage by these funders of campaigns. We have announced a plan to get it back.
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Janus is a small moon of Saturn. It is somewhat oval in shape and has a diameter of about 180 kilometers. Epimetheus is another moon of Saturn, with a diameter of about 120 kilometers. The two moons are very similar, even down to their orbits. They share the same orbital plane, and at the moment the orbit of Janus is only about 50 kilometers closer to Saturn than that of Epimetheus. In other words the gap between the orbits is less than the size of the moons.
You might think this is a recipe for unpleasantness. After all, since the orbit of Janus is closer to Saturn, Janus moves around in its orbit faster than Epimetheus. So over time Janus will catch up to Epimetheus, and would overtake its sister moon if it weren’t for that fact that it is in the way. Surely it’s only a matter of time before the two moons collide.
Except that isn’t what happens. Instead of an imminent collision, the two moons do a little dance. Janus and Epimetheus are not only of similar orbits, they are of similar mass. Similar in this case means that Janus is only about four times more massive than Epimetheus, rather than hundreds or thousands. So as Janus begins to approach Epimetheus, the gravitational pull of Janus will cause the orbit of Epimetheus to get a bit smaller. As a result, the speed of Epimetheus will increase. Likewise the gravitational pull of Epimetheus will embiggen the orbit of Janus a bit, causing it to slow down. You can see this in the figure.
So instead of colliding, the two moons do a gravitational dance where they effectively exchange orbits. Janus catches up to Epimetheus (to within about 10,000 kilometers), they do their gravitational dance, and then Epimetheus races ahead of Janus. Eventually Epimetheus catches up to Janus and another dance brings them back to where they started. This exchange happens about once every four years.
Imagine the president, speaking on Iraq from the White House Press Briefing Room last Thursday, as the proverbial deer in the headlights — and it’s not difficult to guess just what those headlights were. Think of them as Benghazi on steroids. If the killing of an American ambassador, a Foreign Service officer, and two CIA private security contractors could cause almost two years of domestic political uproar, unending Republican criticism, and potential damage to the president’s “legacy,” consider what an Iraq in shambles and a terrorist state stretching across “the Levant” might do. It’s hardly surprising, then, that a president regularly described as “reluctant” nonetheless stepped before the press corps and began the slow march back into Iraq and toward disaster.
It was a moment of remarkable contradictions. Obama managed, for example, to warn against “mission creep” even as he was laying out what could only be described as mission creep. Earlier that week, he had notified Congress that 275 troops would be sent to Iraq, largely to defend the vast U.S. embassy in Baghdad, once an almost three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar symbol of imperial hubris, now a white elephant of the first order. A hundred more military personnel were to be moved into the region for backup.
Then on Thursday, the president added 300 “military advisers” drawn from Special Operations forces and evidently meant to staff new “joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the terrorist threat.” (If you are of a certain age, that word “adviser” will ring an eerie Vietnam-ish bell. You should, in fact, already be hearing a giant sucking sound somewhere in the distance.) He also spoke vaguely of positioning “additional U.S. military assets in the region” into which the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, accompanied by a guided-missile cruiser and destroyer, had already sailed. And mind you, this was only the reasonably public part of whatever build-up is underway. While the president spoke of being “prepared to take targeted and precise military action” in Iraq, at least one unnamed “senior administration official” was already at work opening up the possibility of air strikes in Syria. “We don’t restrict potential U.S. action to a specific geographic space,” was the ominous way that official put it.
In other words, short of combat troops on the ground in significant numbers, that table on which “all options” are always kept open was visibly moved into Washington’s War Room of the Levant. It’s quite a development for a president who took special pride in getting us out of Iraq (even though that departure was engineered by the Bush administration, while Obama’s officials tried to negotiate leaving a force behind, only to be thwarted by the Iraqi government). In tandem with the military moves, the president and his national security team, perhaps reflecting through a glass darkly the “democracy agenda” of the Bush era, also seemed to have dipped their fingers in purple ink.They were reportedly pressuring Iraqi politicians to dump Prime Minister Maliki and appoint a “unity” government to fight the war they want. (Adding to the farcical nature of the moment, one name raised for Maliki’s position was Ahmed Chalabi, once the darling of Bush-era officials and their choice for that same post.)
There is, however, no way that an American intervention won’t be viewed as a move to back the Shia side in an incipient set of civil wars, as even retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus warned last week. In fact, in opinion polls Americans overwhelmingly reject military intervention of any sort, just as every experience in the post-9/11 era should signal one simple lesson: Don’t do it! But Obama and his top officials evidently can’t help themselves. The rising tide of criticism-to-come is undoubtedly already pre-echoing in their heads — previewed by the endless media appearances of Senator John McCain and a stream of op-eds from former vice president Dick Cheney, former occupation proconsul L. Paul Bremer III, and others from the crowd of “experts” who created the Iraq disaster and for whom being wrong about that country is a badge of honor.
We are clearly in the early stages of the intervention sweepstakes. The initial moves may even be greeted as auspicious, but watch out for the long-run destabilizing effects in an already chaotic region. Washington only imagines it can control such combustible situations. In reality, it hasn’t in the past and it won’t be able to this time either, which means unexpected ugliness will ensue. (And just wait until, in one of those joint operation centers or elsewhere, the first Iraqi soldier, like his Afghan counterparts, turns his gun on one of those special ops advisers.)
All that’s missing at the moment is the final touch on the Obama version of mission creep. I’m talking about the signature gesture for this administration in its conflicts across the Greater Middle East (and increasingly Africa). If you listen carefully, you can already hear the theme music for the era rising in the background and — with apologies to Stephen Sondheim for mangling his beautiful elegy to a lost relationship — it’s clearly “Send in the Drones.”
In the meantime, whatever the president is saying, he never mentioned oil. No one does. Nor, generally, did the Bush administration when it invaded and occupied Iraq. If you paid attention to our media, you would never know that it sits on one of the great, easily accessible fossil-fuel reserves on the planet, though that should never be far from anyone’s mind. Fortunately, sociologist Michael Schwartz, an old-time TomDispatch regular, is back after a long absence to remind us of The One Fact in Iraq, the one we should never forget. Tom
Events in Iraq are headline news everywhere, and once again, there is no mention of the issue that underlies much of the violence: control of Iraqi oil. Instead, the media is flooded with debate about, horror over, and extensive analysis of a not-exactly-brand-new terrorist threat, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). There are, in addition, elaborate discussions about the possibility of a civil war that threatens both a new round of ethnic cleansing and the collapse of the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Underway are, in fact, “a series of urban revolts against the government,” as Middle Eastern expert Juan Cole has called them. They are currently restricted to Sunni areas of the country and have a distinctly sectarian character, which is why groups like ISIS can thrive and even take a leadership role in various locales. These revolts have, however, neither been created nor are they controlled by ISIS and its several thousand fighters. They also involve former Baathists and Saddam Hussein loyalists, tribal militias, and many others. And at least in incipient form they may not, in the end, be restricted to Sunni areas. As the New York Timesreported last week, the oil industry is “worried that the unrest could spread” to the southern Shia-dominated city of Basra, where “Iraq’s main oil fields and export facilities are clustered.”
Under the seething ocean of Sunni discontent lies a factor that is being ignored. The insurgents are not only in a struggle against what they see as oppression by a largely Shiite government in Baghdad and its security forces, but also over who will control and benefit from what Maliki — speaking for most of his constituents — told the Wall Street Journal is Iraq’s “national patrimony.”
You’ve surely heard about the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs. A number of veterans found themselves waiting a long time for care, some of them died before they were seen, and some of the agency’s employees falsified records to cover up the extent of the problem. It’s a real scandal…But the goings-on at Veterans Affairs shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of a much bigger scandal:… the Veterans Affairs scandal, while real, is being hyped out of proportion by people whose real goal is to block reform of the larger system.
The essential, undeniable fact about American health care is how incredibly expensive it is — twice as costly per capita as the French system, two-and-a-half times as expensive as the British system. You might expect all that money to buy results, but the United States actually ranks low on basic measures of performance…
As you might guess, conservatives don’t like the observation that American health care performs worse than other countries’ systems because it relies too much on the private sector and the profit motive. So whenever someone points out the obvious, there is a chorus of denial… It turns out, however, that such claims invariably end up relying on zombie arguments — that is, arguments that have been proved wrong, should be dead, but keep shambling along because they serve a political purpose.
Which brings us to veterans’ care. … It’s still true that Veterans Affairs provides excellent care, at low cost. Those waiting lists arise partly because so many veterans want care, but Congress has provided neither clear guidelines on who is entitled to coverage, nor sufficient resources to cover all applicants. …
And here’s the thing: Health reform is working. Too many Americans still lack good insurance, and hence lack access to health care and protection from high medical costs — but not as many as last year, and next year should be better still. Health costs are still far too high, but their growth has slowed dramatically. We’re moving in the right direction, and we shouldn’t let the zombies get in our way.