Guns v. Country

It’s tough to surpass The Onion with their synopsis of conservatives’ gun policy: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The New York Daily News had their own snappy headline: “God Isn’t Fixing This” – as they mocked four conservatives for their usual empty platitudes in the wake of yet another mass shooting. The New York Times issued its first front-page editorial in nearly 100 years, calling for a ban on high-powered weapons, and lamenting the disgrace of conservative gun policies.

Following San Bernardino, conservatives werent content to offer their customary palliative – prayer, and a call for even more guns. As a special bonus, they defeated a law that would have made it illegal for people on terror watch lists, the mentally ill and convicted felons to buy guns. The stupid never ends.

There’s an unfortunate resemblance between conservatives’ approach to this issue, and their approach to universal health care. The US ranks near the bottom of the developed world in every health measure: infant mortality, child mortality, adult mortality and life expectancy. And Americans pay more than double the OECD average in per capita healthcare expenses. The thing sets the US apart from those other countries is that it does not have universal, government-paid health insurance. The US has spent decades trying to reinvent the wheel, though the cure for poor health and high healthcare costs has been well-known for ages, with success stories the world over.

It’s the same with gun control. The solution has been effected in every other developed western country, with excellent results: make all guns harder to obtain; and ban the most dangerous guns altogether. Instead the US has done nothing – and to go with the easiest access to guns in the western world, the US not coincidentally has by far the highest rate of gun violence. The murder-by-gun rate in the US is at least eight times higher than it is in every country in Western Europe. It’s 60 times higher than the UK rate.

America’s gun troubles extend to every corner of the country. 49 US states have higher gun-murder rates than every country in Western Europe. (The rate in Vermont is a bit lower than that of Portugal.) At the high end, Missouri’s gun-murder rate is 25 times higher than the typical Western European country. Louisiana’s rate is nearly 40 times higher.

Moving beyond comparisons with Western Europe: the US gun-murder rate is 50% higher than that of Argentina; triple that of Chile; 3.5 times that of Israel; six times that of Greece; seven times that of Canada; twelve times that of India; 35 times that of Australia; and 175 times that of Poland.

In response to a 1996 mass-shooting, Australia passed strict gun control legislation – and hasnt had a single mass shooting since. Australia’s gun murder rate has dropped by 60%; it’s violent crime rate has dropped by more than 20%; and studies show that the price of guns on the black market has gotten so steep, that criminals lack the means to purchase them.

Meanwhile, the US has had more than 350 mass shootings in 2015 alone, and is on track for 30,000 dead from guns by year’s end – making for a very typical year. We neednt wonder what a solution might look like, or whether it might succeed. The cure for the national scourge of gun violence is gun control – same as it’s been everywhere, the world over.


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Editor’s note: The Field Guide is off for winter break – we’ll see you in the New Year.



Nice paper showing how gun prices make it harder for criminals to obtain guns, when stricter gun control is adopted:

Stupidity from the usual suspects:

Success stories abroad:

The US body count:

We at the Field Guide offered our own market-based solution: require that gun owners buy insurance to cover any harm their gun may do – including harm done after it’s stolen. Then sit back and watch as the insurance market prices guns into oblivion. Sorry for trying to reinvent the wheel – we just like listening to conservatives argue against free markets.




Guns, Bees, Terrorists and the Flu

About 3000 died in the 9/11 attacks. In the flu season that followed, about 30,000 Americans died – which made for a very typical flu season. And in the 14 years since 9/11, very few Americans have been harmed by domestic terrorism – while the flu has killed about 500,000.

Even in the worst of cases, the threat to life posed by terrorism is one or two orders of magnitude smaller than the threat posed by the flu. In its effort to fight terrorism, the US has invaded two (or three) countries, spent trillions, and killed far more people in the process than terrorism ever has. Meanwhile, unfailingly, the flu kills ten times 9/11 every season – with no speeches, no outrage, and no troops sent to foreign shores.

Watching the local news, there’s never a shortage of stuff to be freaked out about. Aspiring to be freaked-out rationally, Americans should be scared by the flu. By comparison, terrorism never amounts to very much, and the cure has proved to be far worse than the disease.

Unfortunately, we cant apply the same approach to diminish the threat posed by gun-violence. That’s because, unlike terrorism, guns actually kill a huge number of Americans – about 30,000 per year, very similar to the flu. About 1.25% of all US deaths each year are attributable to guns and the flu respectively. Terrorism: not so scary. Guns and the flu: scary.

So as we construct our narrative for what happened recently in San Bernardino, the key fact isnt that the perpetrators were Muslims. Muslims comprise 1% of the US population, but are responsible for just 0.6% of the mass shootings in the US in 2015 (2 out of 353) – making Muslims 40% less likely to commit mass shootings than everyone else in the US. You’re way more likely to be shot by a Christian.

That the attack in San Bernardino was an act of terrorism also isnt terribly crucial. This year, twice as many Americans will die of bee stings as they will from domestic acts of terrorism. Four to eight times as many will die from peanut allergies. Ordering these threats from largest to smallest: peanuts, bees and terrorists are really not all that scary.

The story out of San Bernardino is that yet another American went nuts, availed himself of his nation’s cheap and plentiful gun supply, and shot a whole lot of people. This story has played out so many times in recent US history that we hardly need to recite the litany of Columbine, Charleston, Sandy Hook, Colorado, Oregon, etc.

The US does not have a problem with domestic Muslim violence. Nor does it have very much of a problem with domestic terrorism. America has a gigantic problem with guns.

More next week….


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We’re All French – Let’s All Be Smart Too

The Paris attack is a tragedy – it is not a call to arms. Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, we observed,

In the fall and winter that followed Sept 11, 2001, about 30,000 Americans died of the flu – ten times the number that died on 9/11. We should be thankful that in the greater scheme of things, even the worst terrorist attack in history doesnt amount to a whole lot. The US reaction to 9/11, particularly its ill-considered invasion of Iraq, has had far more terrible and enduring consequences. We should bury our dead and mourn, but we should not let our hunger for justice or security erode our most precious liberal institutions and values.

Nothing has changed. In a free society, bad people can more easily do bad things. When they do, our biggest mistake is to make our society less free. As Paul Krugman put it, “the biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire.”

French President Francois Hollande has asked to extend the state-of-emergency for an additional three months, expanding the power of the police – a far less dire assault on liberty than was the Patriot Act. But one New York Times editorial writer now argues for a full-scale invasion of Syria and Iraq – seemingly incognizant of the fact that the rise of ISIS is the direct consequence of the last US invasion. According to Roger Cohen,

To defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq will require NATO forces on the ground. After the protracted and inconclusive Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is reasonable to ask if this would not be folly. It is also reasonable to demand – and many will – whether military action will only have the effect of winning more recruits for ISIS as more lives and treasure are squandered. Terrorism, the old nostrum has it, can never be completely defeated. Such arguments are seductive but must be resisted…. Crushing ISIS in Syria and Iraq will not eliminate the jihadi terrorist threat. But the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.

“Inconclusive” is a charitable term to describe the outcome of the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Utter and abject failure” better conveys the reality that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan exist any longer, and that Iraq is now a training ground for international terrorism – something it never was before the US occupation.

As for “the good” that might come of invading Iraq (again) and Syria, we might learn from the example of Israel, which, despite its half-century long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, failed to curb terrorism through military force. The British military similarly failed in Northern Ireland. This is because terror networks, like ISIS, Hamas and the IRA, are primarily political organizations. They lack proper armies that can be met on the field and destroyed. Their personnel can seamlessly disappear into villages and towns in the face of an invasion, and can persist in the shadows for decades. The power of such organizations lies mainly in their ability to attract new adherents. And while movements come into and go out of fashion, their half life is often measured not in years but in decades.

The Paris attack was ideally calculated to produce fear and anxiety in the people of the city – targeting its best loved playground. The Canal-St-Martin neighborhood is a weekend destination for almost everyone, with hip bars and cafes, inventive restaurants, and a street-life that’s impressive even by Parisian standards. No one who has lived in Paris can fail to appreciate how easily they might have been one of the victims.

Though it’s far easier to type than to actually live by this advice – our best response is to mourn for those we lost; to trust in time to heal our psychological wounds; and above all: to carry on.


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Editor’s note: The Liberal Field Guide is off next week for Thanksgiving.




Liars, Damned Liars, and Republicans

We’ve spent the past couple of weeks scrutinizing the farce that is the Benghazi investigation. Conservatives’ central preoccupation is that Hillary Clinton may have lied to the public, ascribing the attack to a spontaneous protest over a video, when she knew it was planned. Of course Hillary Clinton never told the public that the attack proceeded from a protest over a video. The big lie that we’ve uncovered is the fact that the GOP has pursued the current congressional investigation into Benghazi – the eighth such inquiry – primarily to harm Clinton’s presidential campaign – not to discover whatever “truth” managed to escape detection by seven previous congressional investigations.

Real liars are readily found among the GOP’s miserable field of presidential candidates. Ben Carson is presently dealing with two whoppers, one old and one new. In his self-aggrandizing memoir, he claims he was accepted into West Point. We’ve now learned that that was an utter lie – that he never even applied to the school. But we might regard that as the lesser of two lies he’s recently been called on. CNBC took him to task during the debate over the fact that his tax plan would put the US back into trillion-dollar deficits. In Carson’s defense, we leave open the possibility that he isnt a liar, but a math illiterate instead.

Then we have Marco Rubio’s tax plan, which Rubio pitches as a boon to low and middle-income workers. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, the richest 1% of Americans would get six time more tax relief than the poorest 20 percent. In fact, the poorest 20% would receive just 6% of the plan’s total tax relief – while the richest 20% would rake in nearly two-thirds. And Rubio has yet to explain his exploits with Florida GOP credit cards.

Donald Trump famously slandered Mexican immigrants, implying that the bulk of them are criminals. But the Wall Street Journal reported on several studies that bear on this issue. They begin with a threshold observation: that in the past 25 years, as the undocumented immigrant population has tripled, crime rates have fallen by nearly half. Looking at the US prison population, we find that immigrants’ incarceration rate is 63% lower than that of native-born Americans. Among young men, immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador all have especially low incarceration rates. Looking just at California, which has by far the largest population of undocumented immigrants, we find that people born outside the US comprise 35% of all Californians, but just 17% of California’s prisoners.

Then there’s Chris Christie. In the second GOP debate, Christie said, “I was appointed United States attorney on Sept. 10, 2001″ – and made much hay on how the world dramatically changed the very next day. However Christie wasnt even nominated until Dec. 7th, 2001 – and wasnt sworn into office until January 17th, 2002. This doesnt change the fact of his hands-on participation in the war on terror – but the truth makes for a less dramatic narrative – which may be why Christie lied to embellish it.

Remarkably, Carson, Trump and Rubio have all done okay despite their campaigns’ troubled relationship with the truth; Christie’s is tanking for other reasons. This tells us something that we’ve long suspected about the conservative electorate, and their own tenuous relationship with reality. Conservatives have an airtight approach to dealing with information that conflicts with their belief system: they ignore it. This, in fact, is the real secret to maintaining any belief system, no matter the new facts that arrive, nor how the world changes. Lies are as essential to conservatism as facts are to the rest of us.


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A Tale of Two Intelligence Failures

The GOP hopes that by repeating the same lie again and again, people will come to believe it. And some have. But Hillary Clinton never asserted that the attack on Benghazi occurred spontaneously out of a protest over a video. Her comments immediately after the attack condemned the use of violence to further religion, and specifically condemned those who would justify such violence as a response to an offensive video. It would have been difficult for her to avoid any mention whatsoever of the video, given that the official CIA assessment of the attack on Benghazi embraced the protest theory, and did so for nearly two weeks after the attack.

On Sept. 16th 2012, five days after the attack, Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, made the Sunday morning talkshow rounds. Relying on the best and latest CIA intel, she advanced the theory that the Benghazi attack may have begun as a protest over a video. For three years the GOP has tried to conflate Clinton’s comments with Rice’s, insisting that the protest story was a cover-up dreamed up by Democrats to help President Obama in his reelection bid.

We hearken back to Colin Powell’s testimony before the UN, in which he assured the world that he knew that Iraq had WMD. He even had satellite imagery to back his story. On February 5, 2003, Powell told the world,

My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence…. There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more…. Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons…. We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction; he’s determined to make more.

No one has ever suggested that Powell lied. (Whether he was lied to remains an open issue.) He seems to have been a well-meaning public servant, who had the bad luck – or poor judgment – to rely on faulty intel for the most important public statement of his career.

The United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigated the intelligence failure that led the US to erroneously believe that Iraq possessed WMD, and scrutinized Powell’s speech specifically. The Committee concluded in its report that “[m]uch of the information provided or cleared by the CIA for inclusion in Secretary Powell’s speech was overstated, misleading, or incorrect.” Powell has since disavowed his UN speech.

That investigation – into how the Bush Duh administration managed to invade the one country in Bush Duh’s “axis of evil” that did not have a WMD program – lasted slightly more than a year. That’s about the same amount of time taken by the Senate Watergate Committee, which culminated in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. By comparison, this eighth (!) investigation into Benghazi is still rolling after nearly 18 months – and that’s on top of the seven previous congressional investigations.

The seventh congressional investigation into Benghazi, undertaken by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, looked into and discovered the source of the protest story – and found that it began in the CIA. For nearly two weeks after the attack, the official CIA assessment held that the attack on Benghazi emerged spontaneously from a protest over a video. Though that initial assessment proved to be incorrect, it was nonetheless based on numerous sources. The CIA shaped Susan Rice’s talking points, and no doubt the Secretary of State was privy to their assessment too.

Colin Powell and Susan Rice – and to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton – have all been the victims of intelligence failures on the part of the CIA. Coming after seven previous Congressional investigations, the current inquiry is no more than a political smear campaign, operated by the GOP, and paid for by taxpayers. That opinion is supported by public statements from high-ranking GOP officials, including former speaker John Boehner, one-time speaker aspirant Kevin McCarthy, GOP congressman Richard Hanna, and former Benghazi investigator Major Bradley F. Podliska. Benghazi was a tragedy – but it has been exhaustively investigated. What continues today is the GOP’s exploitation of that tragedy for political gain.


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scroll down in the NYT article above to find this nugget:

Senior Republican officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing confidential conversations, said that Mr. Boehner had long been suspicious of the administration’s handling of the attacks and that Mrs. Clinton’s emails gave him a way to keep the issue alive and to cause political problems for her campaign.



Benghazi: From Scandal to Farce

This past Sunday, Bob Woodward made the talkshow rounds and, doing his level best to impersonate a reasonable person, he expressed a nuanced opinion of the eighth (!) congressional investigation into Benghazi. Woodward accepted the GOP’s position that there are “legitimate questions,” subject to the Democrat’s qualifier that there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. He said,

You have inconsistencies. This is a tragedy, and it should be investigated…. But there’s no crime here on [Hillary Clinton’s] part. And to try to criminalize it and suggest, as some people have said, ‘Oh, she’ll be in jail.’ There’s no evidence of a crime. There is evidence of inconsistency. I mean, my God, this is our business, our lives — people saying one thing privately and saying something different publicly.

The only problem with Woodward’s position is that there are no “inconsistencies” between the public and private statements of Hillary Clinton on the subject of Benghazi. Woodward’s fault is common among journalists: the fact that are two sides to any given story does not mean that both merit repeating.

Hillary Clinton’s public statements immediately after the attack on Benghazi continued the themes of a statement given just hours before the attack, by the US Embassy in Cairo, while it was dealing with a large protest over a video on the internet about the prophet Muhammad, which many Muslims found offensive:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions…. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

Clearly, the embassy was trying to defuse the situation, by expressing sympathy for people who had been offended. Secretary Clinton’s public statement later that same day, after the attack on Benghazi, picks up on the same themes:

Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.

as does her public statement the day after the attack:

Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our Embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the internet. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear – there is no justification for this, none. Violence like this is no way to honor religion or faith.

Before and after the Benghazi attack, the State Department and Secretary Clinton remained remarkably consistent: (1) recognizing the right to free speech; (2) but condemning the use of that speech to denigrate religion; (3) while reserving their strongest condemnation for those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion.

We have since learned that there was no protest at Benghazi, and that the attack was pre-planned and carried out by Islamist militants. Clinton suspected as much, writing just hours after the attack, in a private email to family members, that the attack was carried out by an “al-Qaeda-like group.” She also told Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil the following day, “We know that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack—not a protest.”

The GOP has tried to turn this into a scandal – claiming that Clinton and others were publicly pushing the theory that the attack on Benghazi was a spontaneous protest over a video, in order to provide political cover for President Obama in the heat of his reelection campaign. They say that Clinton dishonestly espoused the spontaneous protest theory in public, revealing in private communications that she knew that the attack was planned beforehand, and carried out by Islamist militants – that it had nothing to do with the video.

But Clinton never asserted – publicly or privately – that the Benghazi attack developed spontaneously out of a protest over a video. She merely observed the fact that “Some… sought to justify…” the attack on Benghazi as a response to the video. That remark doesnt even bear upon who was behind the attacks, or what precipitated them – it merely condemns a particular reaction to the attack: those who would “justify” violence in the furtherance of religion.

Whence the notion that the Benghazi attack arose spontaneously out of a protest over a video? Was it cooked up in a back room of the State Department or the White House? Nope. The seventh (!) congressional investigation into Benghazi, undertaken by the House Intelligence Committee, asked this very question, and they found that the protest story originated in the CIA. For nearly two weeks after it happened, the CIA’s official assessment of the attack on Benghazi held that it emerged spontaneously from a protest over a video. While that theory ultimately proved incorrect, it was backed by a significant amount of intelligence.

The Field Guide’s analysis continues next week.


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Click to access




Conservatism: the Movement of Stupid

As president, he issued the executive order that established the Environmental Protection Agency. He supported and ultimately signed the Clean Air Act into law. He oversaw the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). He was a longtime advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and the civil rights movement, including affirmative action. He launched the “war on cancer,” and tried to pass a law that would have mandated employers to provide health insurance to their employees. Following up on a campaign promise, he dramatically drew down US ground forces in Indochina, and ultimately ended the draft. Meet Richard Nixon – whose liberal creds compare well with any president since.

Next consider Jimmy Carter’s record. He oversaw deregulation of aviation, trucking, rail, communications and finance. He reestablished the selective service, the precursor to the draft, while increasing military spending. And he appointed Paul Volcker to head the Fed, whose brand of conservatism has been the model for every Fed chair since, prioritizing the control of inflation over the maximization of employment.

Jimmy Carter, to be fair, was quite liberal in many important ways, initiating or improving numerous programs to help the poor, children, workers and women. And like every recent democratic president, Carter’s term in office was a period of fiscal restraint, with annual deficits never rising above 3% of GDP, and the overall debt, as a fraction of GDP, smaller when he left office than when he entered. (One of Carter’s earliest political missteps was a confrontation with Congress over pork-barrel spending.)

Many forget that Carter came to office – and left – as a southern moderate with a conservative bent, not dissimilar to Bill Clinton. While he had many pet programs to help the disadvantaged, he generally sought to reduce the presence of government in everyday life, as evidenced above all by the fact that he left behind a US government that was slightly smaller than the one he inherited from Gerald Ford.

Many also forget that Nixon’s domestic policies were almost uniformly liberal. While it is often remarked that Reagan would be rejected by today’s GOP for being insufficiently conservative, it is rarely appreciated that Nixon would today stand to the left of many democrats. So it was that the postwar era was a sort of golden age for America, when the DNC and GOP were both dominated by liberals, with conservatism enjoying no more than a regional popularity in a few isolated backwaters.

Above all, one must appreciate that, like LBJ and JFK, Nixon and Carter were each exceptional men. Nixon was renowned for a discerning mind; Carter’s brilliance has only become more apparent in the most spectacular post-presidential career in modern times. Not coincidentally, all were liberals, certainly by today’s standards.

It says much about American politics that, in just 20 years, the nation went from having a nuclear engineer for president (Carter), to one who could not even pronounce the word nuclear (Bush Duh), while enduring two terms of a GE spokesmodel in between. This is not a coincidence. Reagan’s legacy is the dumbing-down of presidential politics, if not the presidency itself – paving the way for a deluge of Quayles, Bush Duhs, Palins, Santorums, Bachmanns, and other lightweights who lack the mental acuity to be Washington DC’s sewer commissioner, much less pretend to the oval office. Conservatism is and has ever been the movement of stupid, for stupid, and by stupid, as exemplified by the exceptionally low quality of candidates it offers for national office, including the presidency.


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The Benghazi Scandal: Now Under GOP Ownership

The GOP intended Benghazi to be the big scandal that would tear down Hillary Clinton. Benghazi is still hurled about by conservatives seeking to invoke the belief that Democrats are dishonest, soft on security and naive in international dealings. But now Benghazi is fast becoming a byword for the GOP’s incompetence in governing, and their preference for posturing and obstructionism in place of policy making and problem solving.

House majority leader Kevin McCarthy’s public statement – that congressional investigations into Benghazi are deemed successful because they have negatively impacted Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers – should come as a shock to no one. And now a whistleblower has emerged, claiming that the GOP was directing investigative efforts almost exclusively at Clinton. Major Bradley Podliska told CNN that he was dismissed for seeking the truth of the matter, not going along with the witch hunt. Podliska, an Air Force Reserve intelligence officer, is a self-described libertarian who plans to vote for the GOP nominee in 2016.

The nominal purpose of the investigation was to gain insights on making American diplomats safer. When McCarthy revealed that it was really about slinging mud at Hillary Clinton – with taxpayers footing the nearly five million dollar bill – he collapsed under the burden of simultaneously managing reality, along with the GOP lie to conceal it. And now McCarthy is out of the running for Speaker – for speaking the truth!

Consider the extent to which we’ve reduced expectations for the GOP-controlled Congress. As one might praise a puppy who succeeds in watering a square of newspaper, Americans today are encouraged when Congress narrowly avoids government shutdowns, or keeps the nation from defaulting on its debts. No one expects them to address the major issues of the day. Immigration? Banking reform? Tax reform? Entitlements? Gun control? The GOP cant even select a House Speaker – one can hardly expect them to actually govern.

The difference in substance between GOP and DNC presidential debates is striking. Democrats offer specific, workable solutions to real-world issues. The Affordable Care Act is just one example of Democratic legislation, which has since succeeded in reducing the budget deficit, slowing the growth of healthcare costs to the lowest rate ever recorded, while insuring millions more than ever before, with the economy and employment growing all along the way.

By comparison, when GOP presidential candidates are asked about how they would improve the economy, they trot out the same tax cuts for the wealthy that drove the country deeply into debt when similar policies were enacted in the distant and recent past. When asked about their solution for health care, they tell you to pay through the nose, go to the ER, and accept impoverishment and early death – though never in so few words. Gun control? Stuff happens. Global warming? Far better would it be to evacuate Florida than to tax wealthy GOP patrons job creators. Simply put: the GOP has a problem with reality.

Just as McCarthy strained to separate the real world from GOP-scripted fictions, so the real Benghazi is breaking through the facade. It is the story of a tragedy, exploited for political gain, by a party that has lost its ability to govern, for whom leadership is all about the maintenance of fictions, not the identification of issues and the elaboration of solutions.


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Putin’s Syrian Sideshow

On the right, there’s a bizarre narrative. Obama is cast as a weak and ineffective leader, and Putin as strong and decisive. Though those depictions are utterly ludicrous, they are superficially reinforced by goings-on in Syria today, where Putin has deployed the Russian Air Force, ostensibly to support the Assad regime, while the Obama administration quietly funnels aid to the Free Syrian Army.

For the record, Obama has the most successful foreign policy of any president since World War II. He didnt just get the US out of two dead-end wars, killing Osama bin Laden along the way. The Iran deal was an outright coup. The US got China to agree to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reversed decades of bad policy when it restored relations with Cuba. Obama secured an ABM treaty with Russia, but also, audaciously, presided over Ukraine’s defection to the US sphere. History books will look back on Kiev’s alignment with the US, EU and NATO as marking the end of the Russian Empire.

By comparison, Putin has overseen a period during which Russian power and influence has shrunk to its lowest ebb in three centuries. While he was President in 2004, the Baltic States – each former constituents of the USSR – joined NATO; as did former Warsaw Pact members Bulgaria and Romania. Albania, another former Warsaw Pact member, joined NATO in 2009, while Putin was Prime Minister.

Putin’s greatest defeat is the loss of Ukraine, which has been politically united with Russia for most of the past 300 years. Ukraine’s population is one-third of Russia’s. An analogous loss for the US would be every state from the Rockies to the Pacific – California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Alaska and Hawaii – seceding to form an alliance with China. That’s Putin’s legacy.

Even Putin’s efforts to hang on to Crimea and Donetsk – crumbs from the table – have come at a steep price: US and EU sanctions, coupled with low oil prices, have wrecked the Russian economy. And in the end, that’s really what Russia’s ongoing foray in Syria is all about: a cynical sideshow to distract Russians from the consequences of Putin’s disastrous tenure.

Putin has otherwise chosen an odd time to come to the aid of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Between defections, casualties, and lack of support among Alawites, Assad has lost sixty to seventy percent of his army since 2012, and now controls perhaps twenty percent of Syria. In the wake of Russian bombing runs, Assad lacks the infantry to move in and capture new territory – loyalist forces are straining to hang on to the little they still hold.

There remains little role for foreign powers in the Syrian Civil War, and Obama is wise to largely remain on the sidelines, and not add to the misery of a conflict that has now killed more than 300,000, and displaced upwards of seven million. Funneling aid to the Free Syrian Army – the most liberal of the several belligerents – is a reasonable policy. Bombing ISIS assets from the air might be constructive, but it’s a messy business, with frequent loss of innocent life. Comparable US policies in Iraq have had limited success, even when coordinated directly with the Iraqi army.

With the GOP paralyzing Congress, Obama has been focusing on foreign policy for years, and the fruits of those efforts are impressive. Obama’s reserve in dealing with Syria is to be commended. Putin’s dalliance, by comparison, is an act of desperation, and yet another hardship for the beleaguered Syrian people to endure.


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VW Buggin’ Out

News of Volkswagen’s fraudulent evasion of EPA and EU regulations is astonishing. Emerging facts show that VW sold 11 million cars and trucks that were secretly designed to run clean only when they were being emissions-tested, but to run dirty otherwise. The difference between clean and dirty performance is enormous. Under dirty operation, VW diesels emit up to forty times more nitrogen oxides (NOx) than they do under clean operation. NOx is known to cause respiratory problems – sickening and killing many thousands of people each year.

The consequences that VW now faces are no less staggering. In the US alone, where fewer than 5% of the relevant vehicles were sold, potential EPA fines exceed $18 billion. Individual states might also sue, and about 25 class-action suits on behalf of consumers have already been initiated. Criminal prosecution is also a possibility.

VW officials have admitted to covertly incorporating a “defeat device” in some of its diesel engines. According to EPA regulations,

(§86.1803-01) Defeat device means an auxiliary emission control device (AECD) that reduces the effectiveness of the emission control system under conditions which may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal vehicle operation and use….

VW isnt the first automaker to get caught trying to sneak one past EPA. In the 1990s, Ford, GM, and several truck manufacturers paid fines for employing similar cheats, to misrepresent vehicle emissions for the benefit of EPA, while enabling those vehicles to have far better fuel economy than they could have otherwise attained.

And thus we come to our point. Lots of waste comes out of a car’s tailpipe, and present technology allows us to make tradeoffs between different kinds. In many cities – Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, London, Paris and Beijing, for example, where air pollution is a problem – we prefer to minimize the release of NOx. But we pay a price with diminished fuel economy, releasing significantly more carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile driven. While NOx directly harms human health, CO2 contributes to global warming. And there are many parts of the world that arent given to air pollution, where it would be preferable to allow cars to achieve better fuel economy, releasing more NOx, but less CO2.

EPA has always taken a one-size-fits-all approach to automobile emissions, which is reasonable, given that cars are mobile. A car sold in Florida, which has good air quality, can readily find itself in California or New York. But today, used in conjunction with a GPS sensor, VW’s engine software could be husbanded for a good purpose. Depending on a vehicle’s location and the time of year, an engine could alternatively tune itself to achieve the highest possible fuel economy – releasing the least possible CO2 in areas where NOx pollution is not a health hazard – but then tune down to minimize NOx release in localities where air quality is problematic, accepting poorer fuel economy as a tradeoff.

We arent excusing VW for its considerable wrongdoing. Rather, we’d take this occasion to consider the options that modern engine technology affords us, in light of our competing environmental objectives.


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