June 21, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 8:23 PM


C.I.A. Said to Aid in Steering Arms to Syrian Opposition (ERIC SCHMITT, 6/21/12, NY Times)

A small number of C.I.A. officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey, helping allies decide which Syrian opposition fighters across the border will receive arms to fight the Syrian government, according to American officials and Arab intelligence officers.

The weapons, including automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons, are being funneled mostly across the Turkish border by way of a shadowy network of intermediaries including Syria's Muslim Brotherhood and paid for by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the officials said.

The C.I.A. officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said. The Obama administration has said it is not providing arms to the rebels, but it has also acknowledged that Syria's neighbors would do so.

The clandestine intelligence-gathering effort is the most detailed known instance of the limited American support for the military campaign against the Syrian government. It is also part of Washington's attempt to increase the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who has recently escalated his government's deadly crackdown on civilians and the militias battling his rule. 

Posted by orrinj at 8:22 PM


Supreme Court says union must give notice to nonmembers before collecting dues increase (Associated Press, 6/21/12)

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that unions must give nonmembers an immediate chance to object to unexpected fee increases or special assessments that all workers are required to pay in closed-shop situations. [...]

"When a public-sector union imposes a special assessment or dues increase, the union must provide a fresh ... notice and may not exact any funds from nonmembers without their affirmative consent," Alito said.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed with the judgment but wrote their own opinion.

Posted by orrinj at 8:18 PM


How to make U.S. healthcare even worse (David Lazarus, June 22, 2012, LA Times)

Put simply, by eliminating the individual mandate but leaving in place what's known as "guaranteed issue" of coverage, the Supreme Court would be giving Americans a green light to wait until they get sick before seeking health coverage.

Why spend thousands of dollars on insurance when you're young and healthy? Without a mandate but with guaranteed issue, you could just put off paying annual premiums until you actually need medical care. It would be almost foolish to do otherwise.

This would have enormous ramifications for the insurance industry. It would essentially mean that insurers would be covering only sick people, rather than spreading their risk among the entire population, healthy and unhealthy.

Posted by orrinj at 5:39 AM


How Skilled Immigrants Create Jobs: The Employ American Workers Act has achieved three things: Lost ideas. Lost jobs. Lost taxes. (MATTHEW J. SLAUGHTER, 6/20/12, WSJ)

Won't more immigrant graduates staying in America mean fewer jobs for Americans? No. On the contrary, they will create jobs for Americans--in large corporations and new companies alike. Large companies that hire skilled immigrants tend to hire more U.S. nationals as well. Bill Gates has testified that for every immigrant hire at Microsoft, an average of four non-immigrant employees are hired.

As for start-ups, a 2007 study by researchers at Duke and UC Berkeley found that 25% of all U.S. high-technology firms established between 1995 and 2005 had at least one foreign-born founder. In 2005, these new companies employed 450,000 workers and generated over $50 billion in sales.

Skilled immigrants have long supported U.S. jobs and living standards. They bring human capital, financial capital, and connections to opportunities abroad. Despite all this dynamism, U.S. policy toward skilled immigrants has long been far too restrictive. The H1-B program, which accounts for nearly all of America's legal skilled immigration, imposes a cap of 85,000 visas annually--65,000 with at least a bachelor's degree and 20,000 with at least a master's degree. For years, demand far exceeded the supply. In 2007, the year before the financial crisis struck, more than 150,000 H1-B applications were submitted on the first day.

Since the financial crisis, America's immigration policy has further tightened. Buried in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was the Employ American Workers Act, which restricted H1-B hiring at any U.S. company that received government support from either TARP or new Federal Reserve credit facilities. This act foolishly hurt hundreds of finance companies by limiting their talent pool precisely when they needed new talent the most.

Posted by orrinj at 5:33 AM


What kind of mandate should "the right" have supported? (Tyler Cowen, June 20, 2012, Marginal Revolution)

The conservatives and libertarians who earlier supported a mandate, ideally, should have been looking for the following qualities in a health care policy:

1. A very small number (one?) of categories for health care coverage and also reimbursement rates.  Mandates for everyone, in other words.  No Medicare, no Medicaid, no separate set of people in an employer-based, tax-subsidized health insurance sector, rather a unified system.  Switzerland comes relatively close to this, and of course some commentators hope ACA will evolve into this ("means-tested vouchers"), though I suspect the scope of the mandate and the cost of the subsidies will prevent this.

2. A rejection of health care egalitarianism, namely a recognition that the wealthy will purchase more and better health care than the poor.  Trying to equalize health care consumption hurts the poor, since most feasible policies to do this take away cash from the poor, either directly or through the operation of tax incidence.  We need to accept the principle that sometimes poor people will die just because they are poor.  Some of you don't like the sound of that, but we already let the wealthy enjoy all sorts of other goods -- most importantly status -- which lengthen their lives and which the poor enjoy to a much lesser degree.  We shouldn't screw up our health care institutions by being determined to fight inegalitarian principles for one very select set of factors which determine health care outcomes.

3. A modest bundle of guaranteed coverage and services.  I am very influenced by David Braybrooke's book on meeting basic needs.  Yet for me basic needs truly are basic and do not involve cable TV or small probability chances of delaying death from prostate cancer.

4. Price transparency (mandated if need be) and real competition in the health care sector, including freer immigration for doctors, nurses, and other caregivers, and relaxation of medical licensing and encouragement of retail medical clinics, a'la WalMart style.  This helps keep the cost of the mandate to reasonable levels.  Most cost-saving innovation should come through markets.  The man strapped to a gurney, bleeding, while negotiating a price with his doctor is the exception in this sector, not the rule.  In any case the insurance companies can prearrange the price for that one.

...universal HSAs from birth, with public funding for those who could not otherwise afford them.  While such a system returns market pressures to the health care industry, more importantly it is a Trojan Horse for boosting peoples' savings/wealth.  Modern democratic polities demand health coverage, but they don't need it.  So give it to them in a form that actually does some social good.

Posted by orrinj at 5:33 AM


UNPOPULAR MANDATE: Why do politicians reverse their positions? (Ezra Klein, JUNE 25, 2012, The New Yorker)

On March 23, 2010, the day that President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, fourteen state attorneys general filed suit against the law's requirement that most Americans purchase health insurance, on the ground that it was unconstitutional. It was hard to find a law professor in the country who took them seriously. "The argument about constitutionality is, if not frivolous, close to it," Sanford Levinson, a University of Texas law-school professor, told the McClatchy newspapers. Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine, told the Times, "There is no case law, post 1937, that would support an individual's right not to buy health care if the government wants to mandate it." Orin Kerr, a George Washington University professor who had clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy, said, "There is a less than one-per-cent chance that the courts will invalidate the individual mandate." Today, as the Supreme Court prepares to hand down its decision on the law, Kerr puts the chance that it will overturn the mandate--almost certainly on a party-line vote--at closer to "fifty-fifty." The Republicans have made the individual mandate the element most likely to undo the President's health-care law. The irony is that the Democrats adopted it in the first place because they thought that it would help them secure conservative support. It had, after all, been at the heart of Republican health-care reforms for two decades.

The mandate made its political début in a 1989 Heritage Foundation brief titled "Assuring Affordable Health Care for All Americans," as a counterpoint to the single-payer system and the employer mandate, which were favored in Democratic circles. In the brief, Stuart Butler, the foundation's health-care expert, argued, "Many states now require passengers in automobiles to wear seat-belts for their own protection. Many others require anybody driving a car to have liability insurance. But neither the federal government nor any state requires all households to protect themselves from the potentially catastrophic costs of a serious accident or illness. Under the Heritage plan, there would be such a requirement." The mandate made its first legislative appearance in 1993, in the Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act--the Republicans' alternative to President Clinton's health-reform bill--which was sponsored by John Chafee, of Rhode Island, and co-sponsored by eighteen Republicans, including Bob Dole, who was then the Senate Minority Leader.

After the Clinton bill, which called for an employer mandate, failed, Democrats came to recognize the opportunity that the Chafee bill had presented. In "The System," David Broder and Haynes Johnson's history of the health-care wars of the nineties, Bill Clinton concedes that it was the best chance he had of reaching a bipartisan compromise. "It should have been right then, or the day after they presented their bill, where I should have tried to have a direct understanding with Dole," he said.

Ten years later, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, began picking his way back through the history--he read "The System" four times--and he, too, came to focus on the Chafee bill. He began building a proposal around the individual mandate, and tested it out on both Democrats and Republicans. "Between 2004 and 2008, I saw over eighty members of the Senate, and there were very few who objected," Wyden says. In December, 2006, he unveiled the Healthy Americans Act. In May, 2007, Bob Bennett, a Utah Republican, who had been a sponsor of the Chafee bill, joined him. Wyden-Bennett was eventually co-sponsored by eleven Republicans and nine Democrats, receiving more bipartisan support than any universal health-care proposal in the history of the Senate. It even caught the eye of the Republican Presidential aspirants. In a June, 2009, interview on "Meet the Press," Mitt Romney, who, as governor of Massachusetts, had signed a universal health-care bill with an individual mandate, said that Wyden-Bennett was a plan "that a number of Republicans think is a very good health-care plan--one that we support."

It's not surprising they reacted against the mandate once Democrats adopted it.  But it is startling that they've convinced themselves their own idea is sudden;y unconstitutional, though Eric Hoffer would recognize the phenomenon.

Posted by orrinj at 5:26 AM


The Intervention Dilemma (Joseph S. Nye, 21 June 2012,ISN Blog)

[A]fter a genocide that cost nearly 800,000 lives in Rwanda in 1994, and the slaughter of Bosnian men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, many people vowed that such atrocities should never again be allowed to occur. When Slobodan Milošević engaged in large-scale ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution recognizing the humanitarian catastrophe, but could not agree on a second resolution to intervene, given the threat of a Russian veto. Instead, NATO countries bombed Serbia in an effort that many observers regarded as legitimate but not legal.

In the aftermath, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan created an international commission to recommend ways that humanitarian intervention could be reconciled with Article 2.7 of the UN Charter, which upholds member states' domestic jurisdiction. The commission concluded that states have a responsibility to protect their citizens, and should be helped to do so by peaceful means, but that if a state disregarded that responsibility by attacking its own citizens, the international community could consider armed intervention.

The idea of a "responsibility to protect" (R2P) was adopted unanimously at the UN's World Summit in 2005, but subsequent events showed that not all member states interpreted the resolution the same way. Russia has consistently argued that only Security Council resolutions, not General Assembly resolutions, are binding international law. Meanwhile, Russia has vetoed a Security Council resolution on Syria, and, somewhat ironically, Annan has been called back and enlisted in a so-far futile effort to stop the carnage there.

Until last year, many observers regarded R2P as at best a pious hope or a noble failure. But in 2011, as Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi prepared to exterminate his opponents in Benghazi, the Security Council invoked R2P as the basis for a resolution authorizing NATO to use armed force in Libya. In the United States, President Barack Obama was careful to wait for resolutions by the Arab League and the Security Council, thereby avoiding the costs to American soft power that George W. Bush's administration suffered when it intervened in Iraq in 2003. But Russia, China, and other countries felt that NATO exploited the resolution to engineer regime change, rather merely protecting citizens in Libya.

In fact, R2P is more about struggles over political legitimacy and soft power than it is about hard international law. Some Western lawyers argue that it entails the responsibility to combat genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes under the various conventions of international humanitarian law.

And since the regimes are undemocratic they are illegitimate.  Essentially, the onus is on the Realists to justify not intervening.  Since there is no justification for not aiding the Syrian people, we will do so.

Posted by orrinj at 5:22 AM


The Measured Man: Larry Smarr, an astrophysicist turned computer scientist, has a new project: charting his every bodily function in minute detail. What he's discovering may be the future of health care. (MARK BOWDEN, July/August 2012, The Atlantic)

When Socrates exhorted his followers, "Know thyself," he could not have imagined an acolyte so avid, or so literal, as Larry. You've heard of people who check their pulse every few minutes? Amateurs. When Larry works out, an armband records skin temperature, heat flux, galvanic skin response, and acceleration in three dimensions. When he sleeps, a headband monitors the patterns of his sleep every 30 seconds. He has his blood drawn as many as eight times a year, and regularly tracks 100 separate markers. He is on a first-name basis with his ultrasound and MRI technicians, who provide him with 3-D images of his body, head to toe. Regular colonoscopies record the texture and color of his innards. And then there are the stool samples--last year Larry sent specimens to a lab for analysis nine times.

Larry is a mild, gentle soul, someone generally more interested in talking about you than about himself. He does not go out of his way to get your attention, and nothing about him is remotely annoying or evangelical. But if you show an interest in his project and start asking questions--look out. Beneath the calm and the deference, Larry is an intellectual pitchman of the first order. His quest to know burns with the pure intellectual passion of a precocious 10-year-old. He visibly shudders with pleasure at a good, hard question; his shoulders subtly rise and square, and his forehead leans into the task. Because Larry is on a mission. He's out to change the world and, along the way, defeat at least one incurable disease: his own. (More on this in a moment.)

Larry is in the vanguard of what some call the "quantified life," which envisions replacing the guesswork and supposition presently guiding individual health decisions with specific guidance tailored to the particular details of each person's body. Because of his accomplishments and stature in his field, Larry cannot easily be dismissed as a kook. He believes in immersing himself in his work. Years ago, at the University of Illinois, when he was taking part in an experiment to unravel complex environmental systems with supercomputers, Larry installed a coral-reef aquarium in his home, complete with shrimp and 16 other phyla of small marine critters. It was maddeningly fragile. The coral kept peeling off the rocks and dying. He eventually discovered that just five drops of molybdenum, a metallic element, in a 250-gallon tank once a week solved the problem. That such a tiny factor played so decisive a role helped him better grasp the complexity of the situation. And as he fought to sustain the delicate ecosystem in his tank, he developed a personal feel for the larger problem his team was trying to solve.

Today, he is preoccupied with his own ecosystem. The way a computer scientist tends to see it, a genome is a given individual's basic program. Mapping one used to cost billions. Today it can be done for thousands, and soon the price will drop below $1,000. Once people know their genetic codes, and begin thoroughly monitoring their bodily systems, they will theoretically approach the point where computers can "know" a lot more about them than any doctor ever could. In such a world, people will spot disease long before they feel sick--as Larry did. They will regard the doctor as more consultant than oracle.

Not everyone sees this potential revolution as a good one. Do people really want or need to know this much about themselves? Is such a preoccupation with health even healthy? What if swimming in oceans of bio-data causes more harm than good?

"Frankly, I'd rather go river rafting," says Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, and the author of Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health. "Data is not information. Information is not knowledge. And knowledge is certainly not wisdom." Welch believes that individuals who monitor themselves as closely as Larry does are pretty much guaranteed to find something "wrong." Contradictory as it sounds, he says abnormality is normal.

"It brings to mind the fad a few years ago with getting full-body CT scans," Welch says. "Something like 80 percent of those who did it found something abnormal about themselves. The essence of life is variability. Constant monitoring is a recipe for all of us to be judged 'sick.' Judging ourselves sick, we seek intervention." And intervention, usually with drugs or surgery, he warns, is never risk-free. Humbler medical practitioners, aware of the sordid history of some medical practices (see: bloodletting, lobotomy, trepanning), weigh the consequences of intervention carefully. Doing no harm often demands doing nothing. The human body is, after all, remarkably sturdy and self-healing. As Welch sees it, "Arming ourselves with more data is guaranteed to unleash a lot of intervention" on people who are basically healthy.

Not to mention creating an epidemic of anxiety. In other words, the "quantified life" might itself belong to the catalog of affliction, filed under Looking too closely, hazards of.

In that sense, the story of Larry Smarr might be less a pioneering saga than a cautionary tale.

Posted by orrinj at 5:22 AM


Dirtying Up Our Diets (JEFF D. LEACH, June 20, 2012, NY Times)

Increasing evidence suggests that the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders during the past few decades is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to microorganisms that once covered our food and us. As nature's blanket, the potentially pathogenic and benign microorganisms associated with the dirt that once covered every aspect of our preindustrial day guaranteed a time-honored co-evolutionary process that established "normal" background levels and kept our bodies from overreacting to foreign bodies. This research suggests that reintroducing some of the organisms from the mud and water of our natural world would help avoid an overreaction of an otherwise healthy immune response that results in such chronic diseases as Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis and a host of allergic disorders.

In a world of hand sanitizer and wet wipes (not to mention double tall skinny soy vanilla lattes), we can scarcely imagine the preindustrial lifestyle that resulted in the daily intake of trillions of helpful organisms. For nearly all of human history, this began with maternal transmission of beneficial microbes during passage through the birth canal -- mother to child. However, the alarming increase in the rate of Caesarean section births means a potential loss of microbiota from one generation to the next. And for most of us in the industrialized world, the microbial cleansing continues throughout life. Nature's dirt floor has been replaced by tile; our once soiled and sooted bodies and clothes are cleaned almost daily; our muddy water is filtered and treated; our rotting and fermenting food has been chilled; and the cowshed has been neatly tucked out of sight. While these improvements in hygiene and sanitation deserve applause, they have inadvertently given rise to a set of truly human-made diseases.

While comforting to the germ-phobic public, the too-shiny produce and triple-washed and bagged leafy greens in our local grocery aisle are hardly recognized by our immune system as food. 

Posted by orrinj at 5:13 AM


Why the War of 1812 still matters (Alexandra Deutsch, 6/18/12,BBC)

Externally, the mutually beneficial "special relationship" that has grown between Great Britain and the United States since that period developed in the aftermath of the war that pitted those nations against one another. [...]

Speaking volumes about the modern relationship between the US and Great Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife made their first official foreign trip this year in March, and it was to the United States.

As President Barack Obama joked during his public welcoming remarks: "It's now been 200 years since the British came here to the White House under somewhat different circumstances. They made quite an impression, they really lit up the place!"

Jokes aside, the two countries have come a long way from the War of 1812. Even after the conflict ended, tensions continued between the two nations in the 19th Century, but by the 20th Century they had established a valuable partnership of trust and support.

From the occupation of Europe during World War II to today in Afghanistan, Great Britain and the US tend to globally present a united front.

Posted by orrinj at 5:07 AM


LeRoy Neiman dies at 91; artist depicted sports in bold strokes (Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2012)

LeRoy Neiman, a wildly successful American artist who was famous for his colorful portraits of athletes in motion and who became an artistic fixture at such major sporting events as the Olympics and the Super Bowl, has died. He was 91.

Neiman, who was also a longtime contributor to Playboy magazine, died Wednesday in New York, said his longtime publicist, Gail Parenteau. A cause was not disclosed.

The accessible works of art he painted depicted sports and other leisure activities with bold, distinctive strokes on a canvas that invariably brimmed with color.

He was so successful that as early as 1976 The Times called him "in market terms ... a bigger success than Rembrandt -- or any other painter. He is the first sports artist of America. More significantly, Neiman is first by so far nobody knows who's second."

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