• Scott Stantis’ Wonderful Cartoon on the Iran Nuclear Deal

    My friend, Scott Stantis, draws consistently insightful pieces for the Chicago Tribune.

    A member of their editorial board, he covers the full range of issues, capturing complex issues in a few well-chosen lines.

    His latest–on the Iran’s peaceful intentions–is brilliant.

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Friday, October 13

    Articles chosen with care. Your comments welcomed.
    Linked articles in bold purple

    ◆ Very good economic news, twice over

    Overall, a very strong report across multiple economic sectors, despite the hurricanes.

    The retail sales report is closely watched because it provides an early read on consumer activity each month. Consumer spending accounts for about 70% of the economy.

    U.S. economic growth likely slowed in the July-September quarter as the hurricanes shut down thousands of businesses, people were forced to miss work, and power was cut to millions of homes. Analysts forecast that the economy expanded at a 2% annual pace in the third quarter, down from a 3% gain in the April-June quarter.

    Yet the economy is expected to rebound in the final three months of the year as rebuilding and repair work accelerates. –USA Today

    Comment: Very good news, indeed. To keep it going, especially as interest rates rise and the job market gets tighter, the administration needs to keep reducing regulations and get a tax cut through Congress.

    Trump refuses to certify the Iran Nuclear Deal, saying it is not in America’s best interests

    He made a strong speech, which included an itemized list of Iran’s lethal attacks on Americans and its sponsorship of terror throughout the Middle East.

    The hardest immediate blow to Iran was Trump’s decision to label Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist entity. That’s important because the Revolutionary Guard is the regime’s enforcer and controls a huge chuck of the country’s economy.

    Next up: Congress has to determine whether to impose sanctions on Iran.

    If it does, then the US effectively withdraws from the multilateral “Joint Agreement.” But who knows what Congress will do, especially with Trump’s latest personal foe, Bob Corker, as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?

    As expected, the other signatories to the agreement didn’t like Trump’s decision.

    No improvement in the horrific California wildfires. Death toll above 30 and expected to rise (Los Angeles Times)

    15 fires have burned over 200k acres so far.

    Trump hits Obamacare with a double whammy, ending subsidies to private insurers and urging competition across state lines

    Without subsidies, the insurers will likely stop providing policies to lower-middle-class consumers. The poorest are not affected because they are on Medicaid. The better off are not affected if they have employer healthcare plans.

    Whether insurers can operate across state lines will depend on whether state regulators allow it. Right now, they don’t.

    Conservatives are furious at Mitch McConnell and establishment Republicans for the very slow pace at which Trump appointees are approved (Daily Signal)

    Comment: The pace is extremely slow. Trump has been slow to put forward nominees in some areas. The Democrats have opposed everything, tooth and nail. And the Republicans have refused to change any rules to speed things along, giving free rein to the Democrats’ delaying tactics. Since many establishment Republicans oppose Trump, the delays may be just fine with them.

    But rank-and-file Republicans and many donors are not happy. They especially want to see judicial nominees moved along expeditiously.

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Friday, October 6

    Articles chosen with care. Your comments welcomed.
    Linked articles in bold purple

    Leaks that Pres. Trump plans to “decertify” the Iran nuclear deal

    That action doesn’t kill the multilateral deal, but it does begin a process that could.

    When Trump makes his formal decision about Iran’s behavior, as he is required to do periodically by law, the Congress will then have to decide whether to reimpose sanctions.

    Comment: The issue is complicated because (1) the agreement is multilateral and most other signatories want to stay in, (2) Obama front-loaded nearly all the benefits for Iran, among the most incompetent negotiating moves ever, and (3) the agreement does not limit Iran’s deadly, malevolent action in other areas, including missile tests (another major shortcoming).

    Obama, Susan Rice, and John Kerry thought that Iran’s financial windfall would make them a more responsible actor.

    That magical thinking is best captured by a Yiddish phrase:

    More nasty weather headed our wayTropical Storm Nate could cause flooding in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (NOLA.com)

    It is expected to hit late Saturday night.

    Comment: The Mississippi Gulf Coast has no protection, but New Orleans has wetlands to the south, which ought to afford some protection. Unfortunately, those wetlands–and the protection they afford–have shrunk dramatically over the past few decades, thanks to canals cut for pipelines and ships. The water moving through those cuts has changed the local ecology and harmed the wetlands.

    Harvey Weinstein, film mogul and, according to interviews in the NYT, perpetrator of serial sexual harassment against actresses and employees

    The New York Times broke the story as an exclusive, with vivid details and on-the-record accusations (link here).

    Now, all the other news outlets are on the case.

    BuzzFeed reports that Weinstein, a major player in national Democratic politics, is relying on key Clinton and Obama aides to cope with the fallout. (link here)

    Normally, Gloria Allred appears as a plaintiff’s lawyer in the harassment cases, beginning with a huge press conference.

    But that doesn’t happen when the allegations are against a major Democrat. Actually, Gloria’s daughter, Lisa Bloom, is involved–working for Weinstein and, she says, trying to educate him that “times have changed.”

    Allred offered a half-hearted comment, saying she “would have declined” because she never represents people accused of harassment, only alleged victims. She offered no criticism of Mr. Weinstein.

    Comment: Expect gloating and finger pointing from Republicans, who are happy to gain a moment’s relief from their own scandal, an anti-abortion Congressman who is resigning after texts surfaced, urging his mistress to terminate her pregnancy.

     After Las Vegas, Republicans open to banning “bump stocks” used to convert semi-automatic rifles into fully-automatic ones (New York Times)

    The NRA seems open to some regulation, as well.

    Comment: Because passing a law would take time, many are urging the ATF to change its regulatory interpretation. That’s passing the buck–and evading what should be a Congressional and Presidential responsibility. We’ve gotten so used to passing everything by Presidential decree or bureaucratic regulations, even Republican congressmen want to avoid the normal, constitutional process for changing our laws.

    Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly (D) is facing a tough reelection in a Republican-leaning state. Now, he gotten more bad news: a non-partisan report rates him the least effective Democrat in the Senate (Indianapolis Star)

    Even when Democrats were in the majority, he accomplished almost nothing, they say.

    Comment: His prospective Republicans opponents were shocked, shock, and appalled. “Indiana needs….”

     Nobel Prizes

    • Literature: Kuzuo Ishiguro, author of “Remains of the Day”
    • Chemistry: 3 scientists who improved images of molecules
    • Physics: 3 scientists who detected gravitational waves, confirming a prediction of Einstein’s
    • Medicine: 3 scientists who discovered the genes regulating the body’s biological clock

    One of the winners in Medicine, Jeffrey Hall (emeritus, Brandeis) said that he collaborated with a Brandeis colleague, Michael Roshbash, because they shared common interests in “sports, rock and roll, beautiful substances and stuff.” He quit science ten years ago, he said at the time, because his grant funding ran out, the grant-review process was corrupt and biased, and he was fed up with academia. (story here)

    Comment: Looks like he was proven right about the bias.

    The Peace Prize will be given Friday. If they can find an innocent child or a do-gooder organization, fine. Otherwise, they should remember that they gave one to Arafat. They might want to think about what’s happening in Myanmar, either, since the country is headed by another Peace Prize winner and is now driving Rohingya Muslims out of the country.

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Wednesday, September 20

    Articles chosen with care. Your comments welcomed.
    Linked articles in bold purple

    Pres. Trump’s speech to the UN was blunt and aimed squarely at North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela 

    It combined two main elements:

    1. A traditional Republican assertion of US military strength and global engagements
    2. Trump’s own nationalist, anti-globalist agenda, praising “strong sovereign nations” (not international institutions) as the basis of global order

    The blunt language attracted a lot of attention. Conservatives (including many who don’t support Trump) were positive. Liberals cringed, longing for Obama’s soft tone, soft policies, and strategic patient.

    He called the nuclear deal with Iran “an embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the US has ever entered into.”  He spoke of Iran’s aggressive support of terror and expansion in the Middle East. He specifically spoke about the threat from “Radical Islamic Terror,” words his predecessor never used (and that Trump himself has used less often in recent months).

    He said nothing about “democracy promotion,” a centerpiece of George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

    His comment on Venezuela was equally blunt, saying they had turned a rich country into an impoverished failure and done so not because it misapplied socialist policies but because it applied them exactly as they were intended.

    Without using the term “axis of evil,” his speech clearly echoed those themes from Pres. Bush’s War on Terror.

    As CNN put it, “No American President has ever spoken to the world like this,” calling terrorists and some nations “evil.”

    The best comment about the speech came from

     

    Rich Lowery in the National Review Online:

    As someone said on Twitter, never before has been there so much murmuring of “holy sh**” in so many different languages.

     Two natural disasters: 

    1. Cat 5 Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico with 175 mph winds, the second major hurricane within a month
    2. Mexico suffers a 7.1 magnitude quake.

    Numerous casualties and fatalities from both, unfortunately.

    Comment: The best way to keep up with news about each is with your favorite breaking-news site online. The cable channels will show you the gritty aftermath but take hours to give you the hard news you can get in a few minutes reading.

    Republicans on the hill embrace big tax cuts, even if they increase the deficit (New York Times)

    Senate Republicans, abandoning a key fiscal doctrine, agreed on Tuesday to move forward on a budget that would add to the federal deficit in order to pave the way for a $1.5 trillion tax cut over the next 10 years.

    The Republican lawmakers, under mounting pressure to score a legislative win on taxes, say a tax cut of this magnitude will stimulate economic growth enough to offset any deficit impact.

    Yet critics say a deficit-financed tax cut is at odds with longstanding Republican calls for fiscal discipline, including that tax cuts not add to the ballooning federal deficit.

    Comment: Tax bills must originate in the House, which is dribbling out some information but not the key details. Those should come in the next week or so.

    Former Chicago cop, wanted for shaking down drug dealers, has been arrested in Detroit after 15 years on the run (Chicago Tribune)

    He and his gang of corrupt officers were tripped up in 2001 when they tried one ripoff while the dealer happened to be on the phone with his girlfriend. She mistakenly thought another drug dealer was the robber and called the cops. Honest cops showed up, saw what was happening, and that was the beginning of the end.

    Turkey increasingly uses its thuggish, dictatorial tactics in Western democracies. It did it again this week

    They did it in May, 2017, when Turkish security officers assaulted peaceful demonstrators in Washington, DC. (New York Times report here.)

    This week, they tried to stop a speaker at a conference in Philadelphia. The event was hosted by the Middle East Forum (MEF) for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, known as NATO-PA.

    NATO PA organizers asked that MEF remove a speaker, Emre Çelik, from the program in response to a demand issued by the office of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. MEF removed the speaker from the program, but invited him to address the gathering anyway.

    When Çelik rose to speak, the Turkish delegation grew visibly agitated and acted quickly to shut down the event. –Middle East Forum

    Daniel Pipes, who heads the Middle East Forum, spoke plainly about the incident, which was captured on video:

    President Erdoğan’s attempt to stifle free speech at a Middle East Forum event today was despicable. We did not accept it. –Daniel Pipes

    The MEF report on the incident is here.

    Paul Manafort wants investigations of leaks, which may have come from Special Counsel Mueller’s office, which is trying to rachet up the pressure on Manafort (Reuters)

    “If true, it is a felony to reveal the existence of a FISA warrant, regardless of the fact that no charges ever emerged,” [Manafort’s spokesman said].

    “The U.S. Department of Justice’s Inspector General should immediately conduct an investigation into these leaks and to examine the motivations behind a previous administration’s effort to surveil a political opponent,” he said.

    The special counsel’s office and the FBI both declined to comment on Maloni’s statement. They also did not comment on CNN’s original report about surveillance of Manafort. –Reuters

    Comment: There are several disturbing aspects of this story, all requiring serious investigation. Manafort’s role is obviously one. So is the apparent release of secret information, the presence of a government wiretap on the manager of a political campaign, the possibility President Trump was picked up on the surveillance, and the statements by several Obama administration intelligence officials that they knew of no such surveillance. It is unclear if those officials made false statements under oath.

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Friday, September 1

    Articles chosen with care. Your comments welcomed.
    Linked articles in bold purple

    ◆ The Fix was In: James Comey, then director of the FBI, drafted his memo exonerating Hillary before the key witnesses had been interviewed (CBS News)

    Fired FBI Director James Comey drafted a statement to announce the conclusion in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server before the FBI interviewed key witnesses, including Hillary Clinton herself, top Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee claim.

    Committee chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, reached that conclusion from transcripts of interviews with people close to Comey and provided by the Department of Justice’s Office of Special Counsel (OSC). Those transcripts, the Republicans said in a Thursday letter to current FBI Director Chris Wray, show Comey had already drafted a conclusion for his investigation before interviewing 17 key witnesses, including Clinton, and before the DOJ had reached immunity agreements with former Clinton aides Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson. CBS News

    The full text of Grassley and Graham’s letter to the FBI is here.

    ◆ Trump plans to end to DACA, perhaps on Friday (Austin Statesman)

    McClatchy’s bureau in Washington, D.C., was reporting Thursday that President Donald Trump is expected to announce and end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era program that had temporarily deferred deportation of undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children. –Austin Statesman

    Attorneys General from several states were suing to end the program as an unconstitutional overreach of Pres. Obama’s authority, something Obama himself acknowledged before actually doing it. The AGs’ suit says DACA

     confers eligibility for work authorization and lawful presence without any statutory authorization from Congress –quoted in Austin Statesman

    Comment: The details of Trump’s policy are crucial, and we simply won’t know them until the White House issues its decision.

    Here is what is most likely.

    • First, ending the program will mean stopping coverage for any new arrivals. They will simply be illegal immigrants (or undocumented, if you prefer), regardless of age.
    • Second, mass deportations of current DACA beneficiaries won’t happen.
    • Third, what is uncertain is whether DACA permissions to stay will renewed for current “dreamers.” Most likely, they will not. If so, then those people will lose DACA status at some future date. They will then be subject to deportation on a case-by-case basis, just as other illegal immigrants are.
    • Fourth, the status of Dreamers already in the US could be one of Trump’s bargaining chips in future negotiations about immigration reform and the wall.

    More on this as it develops.

    ⇒ Btw, expect calm, reasoned responses, like this one: Killing DACA is a ‘violent white supremacist priority’ The op-ed, written by a DACA recipient, also calls the Trump Administration white supremacist.  (op-ed by Belen Sisa in the Arizona Capitol Times)

     Oh, those Iranian mullahs. Now they have Al Qaeda affiliates mining uranium in Africa to send to them (Fox News)

    Meanwhile, remember how the IAEA (the Int. Atomic Energy Agency) was going to inspect the Obama deal? 

    Well, they aren’t doing it.

     To develop self-driving cars, manufacturers need a clear legal framework for road tests. The House will vote on one next week (Reuters)

    The bill would bar states from blocking autonomous vehicles and

    would allow automakers to obtain exemptions to deploy up to 25,000 vehicles without meeting existing auto safety standards in the first year, a cap that would rise to 100,000 vehicles annually over three years.–Reuters

    Comment: The coming changes in transportation will be enormous, the biggest since the introduction of cars.

    Take public transportation, for instance, where about three-quarters of the costs are wages, much of it for drivers (some for mechanics, who will still be needed). The cost of bus drivers is why the vehicles are large; you need fewer drivers that way. If driver wages are eliminated, the buses can be smaller and arrive more frequently. They can also serve less traveled routes.

    Ultimately, the biggest question is whether lots of drivers will switch out of car ownership and take self-driving Ubers in urban areas.

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    Hat tip to Clarice Feldman for the text of the Grassley-Graham memo and to Tom Elia for highlighting this latest Comey contretemps.

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Tuesday, August 15

    Articles chosen with care. Your comments welcomed.
    Linked articles in bold purple

    The aftershocks of Charlottesville continue

    The main story is the fallout from Pres. Trump’s initial failure to single out the instigators of the fatal attack. He has since issued a full-throated condemnation of the white nationalists, but not until he incurred serious political damage.

    The Washington Post makes an important point: “Turmoil in Virginia touches a nerve across the country

     Kim Jong Un backs down from his threat to Guam.  (Story here)

    Comment: The Chinese probably told him he went too far, but we don’t know the next shoe to fall. Kim has not been seen recently, which may indicate another test is near. In any case, the main problem remains, and there is no indication yet that China intends to resolve it.

    Henry Kissinger, writing an op-ed in the WSJ over the weekend, says the only solution lies in the US and China working out a joint plan to deal with North Korea. The incentive for China is that North Korea’s provocative behavior could lead to nuclear proliferation in the region, which would be very bad for China. (Op-ed in WSJ, subscription)

    Iran announces that it could restart its nuclear program within hours if the US pulls out of the agreement (BBC)

    Comment: Another problem with pulling out: Obama front-loaded all the benefits–ace negotiators, eh?–so the Iranians have already received them.

    Democratic Party flailing: Four-state tour to reconnect with workers (New York Times)

    The need for the Democratic Party and the labor movement to take stock of their historically close alliance became clear after November’s election when Hillary Clinton’s support among union voters declined by 7 percentage points from 2012 when former President Barack Obama was re-elected.

    For months, Democrats have been grappling with how to reconnect with the union and working class vote they once considered their base, prompting former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to lament after the election that “my party did not talk about what it always stood for.” –New York Times

    Comment: For the party of Nancy Pelosi, Tom Steyer, and Keith Ellison to connect with workers, they will need to hire an anthropologist.

    China’s economy continues to cool as Trump Administration looks into its unfair trade practices (US News and World Report)

    Comment: The investigation could lead to tariffs or other punishment. As for Chinese economic performance, it is hard to assess because no serious economist trusts Beijing’s official data.

    Today in teaching

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  • US-Russian Relations: What matters but isn’t covered in all the tabloid news

    Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 election matters. So do any possible connections to the Trump campaign

    But the media’s obsession with those issues is missing other major developments in US-Russian relations

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    The news about US-Russian-European relations goes far beyond the 2016 election interference and possible connections to the Trump campaign.

    On the international stage, Vladimir Putin has skilfully played a very weak hand, while the US misplayed its own for 8 years. Putin has taken an economy the size of Italy’s and returned it to status as an international power.

    It is Iran’s major outside supporter and a major player in Syria, where, in return for supporting the Assad regime, it has acquired major bases.

    It has used Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas for political leverage.

    And it has effectively offered to step in and assist North Korea if they want assistance beyond China’s.

    But he can only stay in power by running a corrupt kleptocracy, in close alignment with the oligarchs, with everything stage-managed from Moscow.

    That’s a good way for him to stay in power, but it is a terrible way to grow a diverse, modern economy. Over the long run, the Russian economy will continue to sputter as the US grows.

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    What has the Trump Administration done to cope with Putin internationally?

    The media focus has been entirely on US weakness, especially Trump’s mixed statements about NATO and his inexplicable reluctance to recognize the threat from Russia in clear, unambiguous language. There has been some focus on the recent cease-fire in Syria, too.

    But there is much more to the story. And all these other developments put pressure on a Kremlin ill-equipped to handle it.

    NATO

    On NATO, as I have noted, Trump is now a firm supporter but he still wants two major changes: a focus on terrorism and fair-share payments from European partners, as they promised. One reasonable interpretation of his threats to back away from NATO is that they are meant to get Europe to pay up.

    Poland

    In Poland, Trump did more than make a speech (a very good one in my opinion, a very bad one in the opinion of Democrats). He also agreed to an important arms sale the Obama Administration had refused.

    In a move set to counter Russia’s reinforcement on NATO’s borders, Poland and the U.S. have agreed that Warsaw will purchase the American-made Patriot air defense missile, the Polish government announced Thursday.

    Although Poland is a long-term advocate for more U.S. military presence in Europe, Russia’s decision to deploy Iskander missile systems on its borders in November made the demand for assistance more urgent. The S-400 surface-to-air missiles and nuclear-capable Iskander systems are set to be delivered in Kaliningrad, Russia’s exclave bordering Poland. –Newsweek, story here

    Ukraine

    Totally missing from news coverage is the startling news that Ukraine is now openly seeking NATO membership–understandable, given the Russian threat, but an open insult to the Kremlin, which refused even to let Ukraine strike a trade deal with the EU.

    The Reuters story is headlines: “Pledging Reforms by 2020, Ukraine Seeks Route into NATO

    [Ukraine’s] President Petro Poroshenko, whose country is fighting a Kremlin-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, revived the prospect of NATO membership during a visit by NATO Secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg who himself used the occasion to call on Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

    “Ukraine has clearly defined its political future and its future in the sphere of security,” Poroshenko speaking to reporters alongside Stoltenberg.

    “Today we clearly stated that we would begin a discussion about a membership action plan and our proposals for such a discussion were accepted with pleasure.”

    Russia, deeply opposed to enlargement of NATO toward its borders, weighed in quickly, saying the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine would not promote stability and security in Europe. –Reuters

    It’s unclear how NATO will approach this or what the Trump Administration will say (or even if it will speak with one voice).

    But the very fact that Ukraine has raised the NATO issue is sure to be a major irritant in US-Russian relations.

    Energy

    The Russian economy depends on oil revenues, and so does the Kremlin to retain support from oligarchs.

    The problem is that energy prices are under permanent, long-term pressure from the US, where shale technology is getting more and more efficient. The US is now a major (and growing) energy exporter, and Trump is doing everything he can to ramp up production and ramp down prices.

    The impact on Russia is not his primary concern here. He’s more concerned with the positive impact of lower prices on the US economy. But the impact on Russia is real, nonetheless, and Trump means to exploit it.

    On his recently completed trip, the president said:

    Let me be clear about one crucial point. The United States will never use energy to coerce your nations, and we cannot allow others to do so,” Trump said at a press conference flanked by European leaders. “You don’t want to have a monopoly or a monopolistic situation. –CNBC story here

    Trump did not name Russia, but everyone understood his message. After all, Russia had cut gas supplies to Europe in 2008 over a Ukraine dispute. Trump was saying, in effect, that we intend to stop that blackmail by giving you an alternative supplier.

    Bottom Line

    The possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign are worth a thorough investigation, as Mueller is doing.

    But don’t be mislead by Democrats’ talking tough: they did little to buttress Central European defenses during the Obama years. Pres. Obama had no intention of increasing US hydrocarbon production, if he could prevent it. (He couldn’t, thanks to new technology.) Lower energy prices it contradicted his broader concerns about fossil fuels and global warming. Fracking technology beat his regulatory onslaught, just as it beat the Saudis’ attempt to drive them out of business with low energy prices.

    For all Trump’s inexplicably warm language about Putin, his actions tell a different story. He’s selling arms to Poland, pressuring Europeans to pay up for NATO, unlocking American oil reserves to lower prices over the long-term, and working to ween Europe from Russian natural.

    Taken together, these actions put enormous pressure on a Kremlin underperforming economically, highly dependent on oil prices, and overstretched by its foreign commitment.