» Rick Moran
  
Get PJ Media on your Apple

The PJ Tatler

Rick Moran

Rick Moran is PJ Media's Chicago editor and Blog editor at The American Thinker. He is also host of the"RINO Hour of Power" on Blog Talk Radio. His own blog is Right Wing Nut House.
Follow Rick:

Islamic State to Release 29 Christians

Saturday, February 28th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that 29 Assyrian Christians recently captured by Islamic State forces in Northern Syria will be released. The information came to the monitoring group via an Assyrian Christian commander.

The 29 prisoners are just a fraction of the more than 220 Assyrian Christians thought to be held by the terrorists.

There has been no confirmation of the intended release from any other source. If true, it would mark the first time that the terrorists released non-Muslim prisoners.

CNN:

The Syrian Observatory said a self-proclaimed ISIS court ordered the release, and told the commander that the fate of the other kidnapped Assyrians has yet to be decided by ISIS Sharia jurists.

ISIS captured at least 220 Assyrians, all Christians, on February 23 during an attack on the villages around the town of Tal Tamer in the northern Syrian province of al-Hasakah.

The Syrian Observatory said its information indicates ISIS has taken the hostages to the Mount Abdelaziz area, southwest of Tal Tamer.

The founder of the Assyrian Human Rights Network, Osama Edward, puts the number of Assyrian hostages at more than 262. Edward is based in Sweden but has family in the area that was attacked, and says his information is from the network’s team on the ground.

The number of hostages has climbed steadily, from an initial estimate of between 70 and 100 people seized on Monday to 150 as of Wednesday, with women, children and the elderly among them.

The number of people executed by the terrorist group has also climbed steadily.

Since the declaration of its “caliphate” last June, ISIS has killed 1,969 people, the Syrian Observatory said Saturday. Nearly two-thirds of them — 1,238 people — were civilians.

Six were children and eight were women, the group said.

Of the rest, 95 were fighters from the al Qaeda-affiliated rebel group al-Nusra Front, the Syrian Observatory said, and 511 were officers and soldiers of regime forces.

ISIS also executed 125 of its own members for “exceeding the limits in religion,” the Syrian Observatory said.

Is ISIS getting soft as it ages? Not hardly. Fanatical groups like Islamic State run on their own internal logic and why they would release Christian prisoners cannot be fathomed. Perhaps they were given the chance to convert to Islam. Maybe they’re just playing with the loved ones of the prisoners and will refuse to release them after all.

You can be sure that regret, sympathy, empathy, or a troubled conscience are not the reasons they would release anyone. Those are the emotions of civilized men — a group to which Islamic State cannot lay claim.

Read bullet | Comments »

Chicago Nears Fiscal Freefall

Saturday, February 28th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

There may be a mayoral runoff going on in the nation’s third largest city, but whichever candidate wins the April 7 contest will probably wish they hadn’t.

Moody’s downgraded Chicago’s rating to just two steps above junk. The action may trigger a series of financial maneuvers with the city’s creditors that could cost tens of millions of dollars.

Chicago is already facing a $300 million structural deficit. The downgrade means they are going to have to spend a lot more to finance that deficit — if they can finance it at all.

Reuters:

Chicago drew closer to a fiscal free fall on Friday with a rating downgrade from Moody’s Investors Service that could trigger the immediate termination of four interest-rate swap agreements, costing the city about $58 million and raising the prospect of more broken swaps contracts.

The downgrade to Baa2, just two steps above junk, and a warning the rating could fall further still, means the third-biggest U.S. city could face even higher costs in the future if banks choose to terminate other interest-rate hedges against fluctuations in interest rates. All told, Chicago holds swaps contracts covering $2.67 billion in debt, according to a disclosure late last year.

“This is an unfortunate wake-up call for anyone still asleep over the fiscal cliff facing the city of Chicago,” said Laurence Msall, president of the Chicago-based government finance watchdog, The Civic Federation.

Chicago’s finances are already sagging under an unfunded pension liability Moody’s has pegged at $32 billion and that is equal to eight times the city’s operating revenue. The city has a $300 million structural deficit in its $3.53 billion operating budget and is required by an Illinois law to boost the 2016 contribution to its police and fire pension funds by $550 million.

Cost-saving reforms for the city’s other two pension funds, which face insolvency in a matter of years, are being challenged in court by labor unions and retirees.

State funding due Chicago would drop by $210 million between July 1 and the end of 2016 under a plan proposed by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner.

Given all the financial pressures, both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, which affirmed the city’s A-plus rating, warned on Friday that Chicago’s credit ratings have room to sink.

Moody’s said Chicago’s rating could be cut if Illinois courts find pension reform laws enacted to shore up the state’s financially ailing pension system and for two of Chicago’s retirement systems are unconstitutional. A ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court on one of the laws could come as early as this spring.

S&P warned of a multi-notch downgrade if the city fails to come up with a sustainable plan this year to pay its escalating pension contributions.

Why should we care if Chicago goes belly-up? It’s questionable whether the city could file for bankruptcy like Detroit. The $32 billion in unfunded pension liabilities is 10 times greater than the Motor City’s pension crunch. Chicago is nearly 4 times bigger than Detroit and any bankruptcy judge is going to be forced to cut police, firefighters, teachers, sanitation employees — the entire panoply of municipal workers, leaving residents underserved. Also, unlike Detroit, Chicago is not being depopulated. The city lost less than 1% of its population since 2010 while Detroit dropped 3.5%

Given that Chicago’s pension funds are funded, on average, only about 40%, and the city’s deficit is expected to grow thanks to an exodus of businesses and high income individuals, bankruptcy would probably not fix what ails the city. In fact, it would probably worsen the fiscal situation and cause civic chaos.

That’s why, unlike Detroit, Chicago might come begging to Washington for a taxpayer funded bailout before it goes bankrupt — something along the lines of the 1975 bailout of New York City that was first resisted by President Ford but eventually approved by Congress.

But before Washington accedes to the city’s needs, Congress should read this investigation of how city government finances itself:

When municipal officials want to build for the future, they have a powerful financial tool at their disposal: general obligation bonds that yield millions of borrowed dollars. The money is meant to let cities move forward on costly projects that will serve the community for decades.

But in an unprecedented analysis of Chicago’s finances, a Tribune investigation found that city officials have long abused their borrowing privileges, spending funds meant for long-term initiatives on problematic short-term expenses from library books to legal settlements.

Residents know little about it, as Illinois law doesn’t require Chicago to ask voters’ permission before issuing bonds. And when the city can’t pay what it owes, it uses yet more borrowed money as leverage to push off payments on old bonds.

This pattern of fiscal recklessness, which started under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, created a mountain of debt that threatens the financial future of the city. Now Rahm Emanuel is groping for ways to deal with the problem along with a looming pension crisis and chronic budget deficits.

Any bailout deal should make this practice illegal and require the city to come up with a sound plan to pay down that debt in a reasonable manner.

City government policies have driven businesses out of the city, made it difficult to start a business or relocate a business to the city, and punished taxpayers who are successful with ruinous taxes. This has resulted in a shrinking tax base — not nearly as bad as Detroit’s debacle but obviously serious enough to wreak havoc on Chicago’s budget.

This crisis is entirely of the city’s own making and before any federal bailout is granted, massive, meaningful reforms will be necessary that deal with the short term crisis as well as the potential debt bombs in the future.

Read bullet | Comments »

Congress Funds Homeland Security for 7 Days

Saturday, February 28th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

House Republicans agreed to fund the Department of Homeland Security for 7 days, after failing to pass a measure earlier that would have avoided a DHS shutdown for 3 weeks.

That bill, supported by Speaker Boehner and 200 Republicans, was blown up when 52 of their GOP colleagues joined the Democrats in voting against it. To say that many of those 200, who were left hanging by the 52 rebels, were mad is an understatement. Rep. Peter King had some choice words for the naysayers:

Republican Congressman Peter King said today that he’s incredibly frustrated with the “self-righteous, delusional” wing of his party that may shut down the Department of Homeland Security because they’re “obsessed” with stopping President Obama‘s immigration action. King appeared on MSNBC’s online platform Shift to tell Luke Russert that while he also has serious problems with the immigration action too, the GOP shouldn’t be playing politics on a life-or-death issue like this.

King said (hours earlier, before the initial failed House vote tonight on DHS funding) conservatives are fighting a losing battle and “putting people’s lives at risk” for an issue where they gain nothing. He explained that in conference, he said, “I’ve head it with this self-righteous, delusional wing of the party.”

All of this leads to the unsatisfactory conclusion that nothing at all has changed. Democratic senators will still block a DHS funding bill containing the amendments to defund the president’s immigration executive orders. House Republicans will apparently vote down any funding bill that doesn’t contain those riders. And despite the fact that it is the Democrats blocking the funding bill, the Republicans will get the blame.

Fox News:

Their insistence on using the DHS funding as leverage to reverse or undermine the president’s immigration agenda leaves Boehner in a tough spot.

At some point, he could potentially resolve the stand-off by steam-rolling his rank-and-file to work with Democrats and pass the kind of long-term “clean” funding bill they want. There was speculation in the run-up to the late-Friday vote that he and Pelosi had struck a deal to do exactly that next week. (A spokesman for Boehner denies this.)

But on the Senate side, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has already met Democrats’ demands to deal with the two issues separately. With his blessing, the Senate on Friday approved a longer-term, stand-alone DHS funding bill. However, House Republicans stalled that bill, voting instead for a so-called conference committee — a way for lawmakers to hammer out a compromise measure.

But Senate Democrats have called this a “non-starter,” and are trying to block it, teeing up another set of votes on that next week – unless the House takes a different tack. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats on Friday also blocked a separate bill undoing Obama’s immigration actions.

The complicated debate leaves unclear how lawmakers can resolve the impasse, with Democrats not budging and Republicans divided over how far to take their fight against Obama’s immigration plan, which gives millions of illegal immigrants work permits and a deportation reprieve.

Some argue that with a federal judge, for now, blocking the plan from going forward, there’s less urgency to use legislation to achieve the same goal. Other conservative Republicans say the legislation is necessary.

“Some folks just have a harder time facing political reality than others,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., speaking of other Republicans.

Since political reality is so unpalatable at this point, the GOP rebels will stick with the purely symbolic action of opposing the funding bill with the immigration orders intact. There is a legitimate question of whether Boehner can continue serving as speaker if he blows up his caucus by making a deal with Democrats to pass the funding bill. It’s something Boehner has to consider as he tries to find some way to fund DHS without igniting a full scale GOP civil war.

House Speaker John Boehner faces a looming threat from conservatives to oust him as speaker, and it’s tying his hands on funding the Department of Homeland Security.

Congress passed a one-week extension of funding just hours before the deadline on Friday night. It was that fear fueling Boehner’s resistance to a longer-term bill, as it might prompt backlash from conservatives. President Barack Obama signed the bill, which funds the Department of Homeland Security through Friday.

Two senior House Republican sources tell CNN there’s a serious concern among those close to the Speaker that if he allowed a vote on a clean DHS funding bill, conservatives would make a motion to vacate the chair, a direct challenge to his job.

Conservatives have demanded that any funding bill include a provision rolling back President Barack Obama’s executive action delaying deportations for illegal immigrants. Democrats, meanwhile, remain staunchly opposed to tying the two together, and that fight has kept Congress in a stalemate over the bill all week, sending DHS right up to the funding deadline.

While the Senate passed a clean bill funding DHS through the end of the fiscal year this week, it appears conservative opposition is currently discouraging Boehner from bringing up a similar bill in the House.

Moderate Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Charlie Dent acknowledged he has also heard about conservatives using the fight over this DHS bill to try to remove Boehner.

“Right now, we have to get serious, I think a lot of people better get serious about governing and it’s time for all of these, you know D.C. games to end. I mean all these palace coups or whatever the hell is going on around here has to end, and we have to get down to business of governing.”

As usual, whenever the idea of ousting Boehner is floated the question of who should succeed him forces his critics to drop the idea. Boehner’s successor would almost certainly be as unacceptable to conservatives as Boehner himself. Conservatives have yet to coalesce behind a single candidate, leaving Boehner’s allies — including the #2 Republican in the House, Kevin McCarthy — to back Boehner’s replacement.

It will probably come down to the wire again, but next time, Boehner will probably cave and bring to the floor a clean DHS funding bill, without the immigration orders defunded, that will be supported by most Democrats.

Read bullet | 12 Comments »

Prominent Putin Critic Gunned Down in Moscow

Friday, February 27th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Boris Nemtsov, a prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, was shot down crossing a bridge in Moscow not far from the Kremlin.

Nemtsov was shot seven or eight times from a car, according to authorities. He was killed just two days before he was to lead a massive opposition rally in Moscow.

Naturally, Putin condemned the killing — as he has condemned all the murders of politicians, journalists, and artists who have criticized him over the years.

Reuters reports:

Police cars sealed off the bridge close to the red walls of the Kremlin and Red Square, and an ambulance was on the scene.

“Nemtsov B.E. died at 2340 hours as a result of four shots in the back,” an Interior Ministry spokeswoman said by telephone.

A police spokesman on the scene said Nemtsov had been shot at from a passing white car that fled the scene. The woman was being interviewed by police.

Mikhail Kasyanov, a fellow opposition leader, told reporters at the bridge: “That a leader of the opposition could be shot beside the walls of the Kremlin is beyond imagination. There can be only one version: that he was shot for telling the truth.”

Kasyanov, a former prime minister under Putin, called Nemtsov a “fighter for the truth”.

Nemtsov had been quoted as saying he was concerned that the president might want him dead over his opposition to the conflict in Ukraine. Sunday’s opposition march is intended as a protest against the war in east Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels have seized a swathe of territory.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told Russian news agencies that the president had expressed his condolences and ordered the security agencies to investigate. He said Putin had called it a “brutal murder”.

Another opposition figure, Ksenia Sobchak, said Nemtsov had been preparing a report on the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine. The Kremlin strongly denies allegations by Kiev and Western capitals that it has sent troops and advanced weaponry to back the rebels.

Peskov said Putin had called it a “brutal murder”.

Like other opposition leaders, Nemtsov was a fighter against corruption. In other reports, he condemned massive overspending on the Sochi Winter Olympics by the Russian authorities and listed the many state buildings, helicopters and planes that Putin has at his disposal.

Nemtsov was also one of the leaders of mass rallies in the winter of 2011-12 that became the biggest protests against Putin since the former KGB spy rose to power in 2000.

A leading opposition politician is killed while walking along a busy Moscow street. It’s clear that Putin doesn’t care who knows he’s a murderous thug. His position is so strong and his supporters so enamored of his leadership that even large protests won’t come close to weakening his grip on power.

The protest scheduled for Sunday was to be the biggest Moscow has seen since the protests of 2011-12 following the sham election that brought Putin back to power. But Nemtsov’s murder is an act of intimidation designed to show the protestors the fate of those who oppose the Russian dictator. Will the Russian opposition be bullied by Putin’s murderous acts?

We shouldn’t blame them if they are.

Read bullet | 13 Comments »

Rahmbo Forced into April 7 Runoff

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel failed to muster 50% of the vote in the city’s non-partisan mayoral primary, which means he will face off against second place finisher, Cook County Board Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia on April 7.

Four years ago, Emanuel swept to an easy victory. But a rising murder rate, controversy over the closing of 50 public schools, and a $20 billion pension shortfall that threatens to bankrupt the city, has taken its toll on his popularity. Emanuel won only 45% of the vote while the relatively unknown Garcia took 33%.

More than the issues, there is a sense in Chicago that Emanuel is too cozy with the elites and has lost touch with ordinary Chicagoans. Blacks are upset over the school closings and the gang violence that makes their streets almost unlivable. Hispanics flocked to Garcia’s banner, and some analysts think that he has a chance to knock off the incumbent.

Reuters:

Mayoral underdog Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has a fighting chance in an April runoff election against well-funded incumbent Rahm Emanuel but political insiders say he must broaden his coalition beyond the Hispanic voters and disgruntled teachers who boosted him so far.

Garcia must also persuade tough-minded Chicagoans that he can do a better job than the mayor at keeping trains running and police on the streets as the city’s budget gap balloons past $1 billion.

The sometimes abrasive Emanuel displeased enough voters to help Garcia force the first mayoral runoff since Chicago adopted a non-partisan election format in the mid-1990s. Both candidates are Democrats.

While the mild-mannered Garcia appealed to many in the first round, “Chicago does not need a nice guy. … We need someone who can deal with enormous financial difficulties,” said Paul Green, professor of policy studies at Roosevelt University.

However, Emanuel, once seen as certain to win re-election, is vulnerable after getting substantially less than the 50 percent of votes he needed for an outright win in Tuesday’s first round.

The former White House chief of staff and investment banker will go head to head in the April 7 runoff against Garcia, a county commissioner and former Chicago alderman.

Garcia’s base is in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, and he has to overcome a reputation as being reluctant to slash spending. Emanuel, who did best in the wealthy lakefront on Tuesday, must play down his reputation for arrogance.

Garcia, who got very few endorsements from people with clout, will court non-committal public unions, wealthy liberals and working-class African Americans and white ethnic voters.

Emanuel has made things so bad in Chicago that voters may feel he’s the only one who can get the city out of its budget and fiscal mess. They may also see Emanual as better able to handle the new Republican governor in Springfield, Bruce Rauner, who wants to trim state payments to the city by a whopping $300 million.

That almost certainly won’t happen, as Democrats in the legislature are already circling the wagons to protect the pension and benefits of public unions, and will see to it that not a dime is cut from the state’s payments to Chicago. But Rauner may look to Emanuel as an ally in his efforts to reform the state pension system, giving the mayor some leverage he can use to extract more cash from the state.

Emanuel should win the runoff. But stranger things have happened in Chicago politics, including a little known alderman named Harold Washington defeating incumbent Jane Byrne in the Democratic primary in 1983. Washington, the only black mayor in the city’s history, came out of nowhere to beat Byrne, the Democratic establishment’s candidate. He did it by uniting north shore liberals, unions, and minorities — the same coalition that Garcia wants to form to beat Emanuel.

Contrary to popular belief, lightening does strike in the same place.

Read bullet | Comments »

Secret ‘Black Site’ Interrogation Center in Chicago Run by Police

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

The following occurred in Chicago, Illinois, USA and not some Communist dictatorship or theocratic backwater.

A secret interrogation site is being used by the Chicago police to hold suspects for up to a day or more without access to an attorney or being read their Miranda rights.

The facility is “off the books” — no one will acknowledge its existence despite the fact that Chicago criminal defense attorneys are very familiar with the site. Suspects are temporarily “disappeared” from police precincts and re-appear to be booked hours later.

The site is apparently used by special police task forces — anti-terror, anti-gang, anti-drug units.

The Guardian:

The facility, a nondescript warehouse on Chicago’s west side known as Homan Square, has long been the scene of secretive work by special police units. Interviews with local attorneys and one protester who spent the better part of a day shackled in Homan Square describe operations that deny access to basic constitutional rights.

Alleged police practices at Homan Square, according to those familiar with the facility who spoke out to the Guardian after its investigation into Chicago police abuse, include:

Keeping arrestees out of official booking databases.
Beating by police, resulting in head wounds.
Shackling for prolonged periods.
Denying attorneys access to the “secure” facility.
Holding people without legal counsel for between 12 and 24 hours, including people as young as 15.

At least one man was found unresponsive in a Homan Square “interview room” and later pronounced dead.

“If police “want money, guns, drugs”, or information on the flow of any of them onto Chicago’s streets, “they bring them there and use it as a place of interrogation off the books,” said one attorney.

The site also serves as a safe house where police informants can meet their handlers in a secure location. It also serves as an evidence locker and is a storage site for military-grade vehicles.

But secret interrogation sites have been a dark part of Chicago police history for at least 50 years.

“Back when I first started working on torture cases and started representing criminal defendants in the early 1970s, my clients often told me they’d been taken from one police station to another before ending up at Area 2 where they were tortured,” said Taylor, the civil-rights lawyer most associated with pursuing the notoriously abusive Area 2 police commander Jon Burge. “And in that way the police prevent their family and lawyers from seeing them until they could coerce, through torture or other means, confessions from them.”

Police often have off-site facilities to have private conversations with their informants. But a retired Washington DC homicide detective, James Trainum, could not think of another circumstance nationwide where police held people incommunicado for extended periods.

“I’ve never known any kind of organized, secret place where they go and just hold somebody before booking for hours and hours and hours. That scares the hell out of me that that even exists or might exist,” said Trainum, who now studies national policing issues, to include interrogations, for the Innocence Project and the Constitution Project.

Regardless of departmental regulations, police frequently deny or elide access to lawyers even at regular police precincts, said Solowiej of First Defense Legal Aid. But she said the outright denial was exacerbated at Chicago’s secretive interrogation and holding facility: “It’s very, very rare for anyone to experience their constitutional rights in Chicago police custody, and even more so at Homan Square,” Solowiej said.

There have been several previous torture scandals involving the Chicago police — organized groups of thugs who beat suspects and coerced confessions. This is, if possible, even worse. The lack of accountability and transparency as well as the routine application of physical abuse eats at the trust police need to effectively fight crime in the community.

In short, the police are only making their jobs harder by running a site like this.

Read bullet | 17 Comments »

McCain ‘Ashamed’ of US, Obama, Himself for Ukraine Response

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Senator John McCain said on CBS’s Face the Nation that he was ashamed of the country’s response to the war in Ukraine.

“I’m ashamed of my country, I’m ashamed of my president and I’m ashamed of myself that I haven’t done more to help these people,” McCain said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

He also had harsh words for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, whom McCain said “legitimized for the first time in 70 years the dismemberment of a country in Europe.”

Merkel and Hollande helped broker a recent cease-fire between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels in the eastern part of the country. The tenuous agreement has been violated several times already and is at risk of collapsing entirely.

McCain is one of the U.S. lawmakers who is pushing President Obama to provide the Ukrainian military with lethal weapons so it can extract a higher cost on Russia for territorial incursions.

“The Ukrainians aren’t asking for American boots on the ground; that’s not the question here. They’re asking for weapons to defend themselves and they are being slaughtered and their military is being shattered,” McCain said. “Some of the best Russian special forces are there and they will continue this aggression for as long as they can get away with it…[Russian President] Vladimir Putin wants Ukraine not to be part of Europe and he is succeeding in doing so.”

At a news conference with Merkel earlier this month, Mr. Obama said he has not yet made a decision on whether to send lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military but followed Merkel in continuing to call for a diplomatic resolution.

As long as much of the world pretends that Russia is not sending men and armor into Ukraine to fight alongside the rebels, no amount of weapons will make a difference for Kiev. You can understand McCain’s frustration but I think in this case, he’s missing the point. As long as Putin can continue to engineer these fake “cease fires” that really aren’t cease fires at all, the war will continue and the rebels will keep winning. In the meantime, the west is prevented from sending weapons by the possibility that Russia will escalate and more “vacationing” Russian troops and their armor will find themselves fighting in eastern Ukraine.

McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham have both stated that sending lethal aid to Kiev would force Russia’s hand and expose their involvement. That may be, but it could also lead to escalation and no one wants to start down that road. So much of the world keeps pretending that Putin is telling the truth, and the Ukraine government keeps losing its territory.

Putin won’t stop until he has a sizable chunk of Ukraine to form a buffer state. We can expect this cease fire to last only as long as the rebels need to regroup and refit.

Read bullet | 8 Comments »

Axelrod Puzzled About ‘Confusion’ Over Obama’s Beliefs

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Former advisor to President Obama David Axelrod says he doesn’t understand the confusion over his beliefs.

The Hill:

“You know it is interesting, I always believe that the last president kind of sets the terms of the next election and the last president was a very Manichean kind of guy, black and white, saw the world in those terms,” Axelrod replied. “America wanted someone who saw the gray, who saw the nuances, who understood the complexities of the world and who made decisions, and think about the long-term, and not just the next step and that is what they got in Barack Obama.”

“So I don’t know, you know I don’t know why there is confusion,” he added. “I think that there is nuance and there is an ability to see gray, which is really important in the world in which we live, that is true on foreign policy and national security it is also true on domestic policy. He thinks several steps ahead.”

The White House has pushed back hard on Giuliani’s comments, pointing out that Obama has said numerous times that he loves America.

“The most high-profile example that I can think of was actually the last line of this year’s State of the Union in which the president said, ‘God bless this country we love,’” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday.

Earnest also said of Giuliani, “It’s sad to see when somebody who has attained a certain level of public stature and even admiration tarnishes that legacy so thoroughly.”

What a magnificent exposition by Axelrod of the president’s ambivalence about America. Ernst can safely be dismissed as an idiot — Obama loves America because he says he does. The president has said a lot of things that aren’t true at all and some of those lies have been huge. He has also said a lot of things he didn’t mean, like his calls for bi-partisanship. Only 5 year olds and liberals take the president at his word for anything. And that includes whether he’s patriotic or not.

Obama’s “nuance” about patriotism, as well as Bush’s “Manichean” view of the world are both part of the narrative about Obama that has been pushed since he announced for the office in 2008. The implication is that the president is smarter than Bush, because as we all know, smart people are afflicted with the curse of never being able to see people or issues clearly. There’s always an opaqueness to Obama’s view of the world that can only be penetrated by “nuance” — giving equal weight to all viewpoints, no matter how ridiculous or stupid they are.

Bush was no philosopher but Obama is no leader. At least Bush had the ability to act decisively. He wasn’t always right, but ambivalence was not part of his make up. Obama on the other hand, never acts decisively. He allows situations to fester while he leisurely examines an issue from all angles — several times. A classic example was the interminable amount of time it took him to make up his mind about initiating a surge in Afghanistan. Some advisors said at the time they were called back into meetings with the president several times to repeat their positions. It was months before the president finally decided to order the surge — while at the same time setting a timetable for withdrawal.

It does not surprise me that Obama would have a nuanced view of his love of America. Most liberals do. There is absolutely no doubt that the president does not love America in the same way that most people on the right love America. The question is, does that delegitimize his patriotism?

I guess it boils down to if you think there’s only one way to love America. Conservatives see America as a young lover sees his sweetheart. She can do virtually no wrong, you overlook the blemishes and the warts, you are easy to forgive her, and you love her unconditionally. On the other hand, liberals see America as an older married man might see his wife. She sometimes burns dinner so she isn’t perfect, she hasn’t met the expectations of their youth, but you still love her — as long as she doesn’t play around on you or disappoint you in some other way.

Obama’s patriotism is not recognizable to me, but I have no reason to doubt it’s present. The simple minded notion that Obama is out to “destroy” America and therefore, hates our country fails to take into account the enormous historical forces of change at work in the world that have a lot more to do with what’s happening to America than anything Obama’s incompetence has unleashed.

Like most liberals, the president loves America’s potential for greatness, but is angry at our history which shows that we’ve not always lived up to our lofty ideals. Our history is inescapable, as is our destiny, which helps define our exceptional nature.

But left and right have different ideas about what America should be, where we should be going, how we should get there — dissimilar hopes and dreams. The questions being raised about the president’s patriotism reflect those differences, as well as the notion that holding a different view of America disqualifies someone from being considered a patriot.

Read bullet | Comments »

How Did You Celebrate World Pangolin Day?

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015 - by Rick Moran

000000

I know you probably missed it, but yesterday was “World Pangolin Day” throughout the world. It was also “Love Your Pet Day,” “Cherry Pie Day,” and “Handcuff Day” — and no off color jokes about that combination, please.

There’s a “day” for everything if you look hard enough. Congress is designating “days” all the time, but you can make up your own “day” if you want. I think tomorrow should be “Rick Moran Day” so please go to my website and hit the PayPal tip jar. I just need enough to finance my next trip to the casino.

But why “World Pangolin Day”? Pictured above, the pangolin, native to tropical areas of Africa and Asia, is one of the ugliest animals I’ve ever seen. And the fact that it’s the most illegally trafficked animal in the world should be celebrated. The sooner we can rid the world of this creature, the more beautiful our planet will be.

Not only is the pangolin ugly; it’s icky.

The physical appearance of a pangolin is marked by large, hardened, overlapping plate-like scales. The scales, which are soft on newborn pangolins but harden as the animal matures, are made of keratin, the same material of which human fingernails and tetrapod claws are made. The pangolin’s scaled body is comparable to a pine cone or globe artichoke. It can curl up into a ball when threatened, with its overlapping scales acting as armour and its face tucked under its tail. The scales are sharp, providing extra defense. The front claws are so long they are unsuited for walking, so the animal walks with its fore paws curled over to protect them.

Pangolins can also emit a noxious-smelling acid from glands near the anus, similar to the spray of a skunk. Pangolins, though, are not able to spray this acid as skunks do.[citation needed] They have short legs, with sharp claws which they use for burrowing into termite and ant mounds, as well as climbing.

I’ll bet when pangolins mate, the male puts two paper bags over the head of the female — just in case one slips off. They are slow, stupid, and useless. Their tongues are almost as long as their bodies, which does them little good when lions want to play with them.

0000

My cats could solve the riddle of the pangolin defense in no time. My tabby Lucky would have that thing rolling around on the kitchen floor until it got so dizzy it would leave an opening. Oops. Another pangolin bites the dust.

CNN’s John Sutter thinks we should do something about the illegal trafficking in pangolins. He wote of “7 Ways to Celebrate World Pangolin Day.” He also tweeted “5 Reasons to love the pangolin,” including the claim that it looks like a crocodile but is a mammal, it curls up into a “roly-poly ball” when it’s scared, and it swings from trees by its tail. I hate to point this out but we already have an animal that looks like a crocodile — the alligator. Armadillos and porcupines roll up into a roly-poly balls for protection, and any number of creatures hang by their tails from trees, including another useless animal, the sloth (but sloths move so slowly that they’re kind of fun to watch.).

So I ask you: What good is a pangolin? We’d never miss the ugly thing.

The pangolin is a mammal and probably tastes pretty good so I can’t decide whether to celebrate World Pangolin Day by frying or fricasseeing the rodent. Either way, my idea of how to celebrate the pangolin at least has the benefit of imbuing the creature with a reason to exist.

Dinner is served.

Read bullet | Comments »

CNN: Islamic State Luring Girls by Posting Pictures of Cats…and Nutella

Saturday, February 21st, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Jihadis around the world are ridiculing CNN for their contention that Islamic State is luring young women by posting pictures of cats and tweeting of a blissful life where they can eat Nutella just like at home.

The bizarre report appeared on the network last Wednesday, and since then, terrorists and their supporters have been posting some surprisingly inventive — and because it’s at the expense of CNN — humorous pictures of terrorists holding cats and jars of Nutella.

000000

0000

000.0000

000.000

This is the graphic that set off the social media storm:

000.1

Politifact felt compelled to weigh in on the silliness:

As fact-checkers, we felt beckoned to sort out the confusion. Was CNN’s segment just plain weird or onto something?

CNN did not return emails and calls for comment. We went to experts who track jihadist groups, including ISIS, on social media.

“The way that the CNN story was framed was kind of funny and eyeroll-inducing,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “but it’s largely correct.”

The online prowess of the Islamic State is a well-documented strength of the movement. From videos to online forums to journals to various social media websites, supporters disseminate propaganda messages (90,000 a day) that are more slickly produced and reach wider audiences than efforts from other terrorist groups (think of al-Qaida home videos showing Osama bin Laden speaking into the camera with little other detail).

ISIS even has plans for a 24-hour propaganda network, said Daniel Cohen, a research fellow and coordinator of the cyber security program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

[...]

And yes, the group’s supporters also speak in emojis, tweet pictures of themselves unwinding with Nutella and run Twitter accounts like @ISILCats showing jihadists cuddling with kittens and kittens cuddling with firearms. It’s all part of an effort to speak the same cultural language as potential recruits so that they don’t think life with the Islamic State is all beheadings and burnings, Cohen said.

“Most of the people sharing this content on social media came from Western culture,” Cohen said.

It makes them seem relatable and charismatic, said Gartenstein-Ross, adding that it’s nothing new for ISIS.

Richard Brennan, a Middle East expert at the RAND Institute, said the ISIS campaign “is much more sophisticated” than what was portrayed on CNN.

“It’s targeting the young men and women who want to be part of something greater than themselves to accept this movement for the validity that they believe the Koran is teaching,” he said.

It says something profoundly sad about the American media that a network like CNN would actually advance this theory seriously.  They obviously have no understanding of the terrorists or what motivates them. How can they critique or analyze the president’s policies if they’re that ignorant?

 

Read bullet | Comments »

The Greek Left’s Fantasies Destroyed by Reality

Saturday, February 21st, 2015 - by Rick Moran

There is something childlike in the Greek government’s view of the bailout that saved their country from utter ruin. The Marxist who plays at being the finance minister of a supposedly capitalistic country is especially endearing. Yanis Varoufakis has declared “victory” after the EU finance ministers forced Greece to do what Syriza promised the voters they’d never do; deal with the hated “troika (ECB, IMF, and EC) and extend the bailout.

EU finance ministers extended the Greek bailout under the condition that Greece continue to abide by the austerity measures that were imposed as a result of the loans Athens received to keep their country afloat. All the grandiose spending plans of Greek’s far left Prime Minister Alex Tsipras are now dead — at least as far as the EU is concerned. If Greece wants to spend profligately, European taxpayers won’t subsidize it any more.

But it still has a hard time sinking in, as Tsipras showed in his statement following the deal:

“We won a battle, not the war,” Mr Tspiras said on Saturday.

The deal is widely regarded as a major climb down for the PM, who won power vowing to reverse budget cuts.

He hailed the agreement as a “decisive step” that “achieved much” towards ending austerity, but added: “We have a long and difficult road ahead.”

The Greeks continue to cling to the fantasy that they control their own destiny:

The new left-wing government effectively crumpled Friday under pressure from the rest of the currency union and accepted it had to complete the reforms demanded of it two and a half years ago in return for continued access to the only financial lifeline it has. It also promised to honor all its debts and not to reverse any of the reforms undertaken so far under the 2010 and 2012 bailout programs, backing down from its most important pre-election promises.

In return, the creditors agreed to extend by four months the existing deal, meaning that Athens will still get some €3.6 billion from the Eurozone and European Central Bank, and a bit more from the International Monetary Fund this year. They also all but guaranteed to loosen the country’s budget targets, and to keep available nearly €11 billion earmarked for recapitalizing Greek banks if they get into trouble.

The best that Athens can say about the deal is that it gives the new government the opportunity to substitute some reforms of their own for the ones that they most dislike in the existing program. With energy and imagination, the Greeks could yet draft an alternative agenda that it could claim to co-own.

“We are no longer going to be following a script that was given to us by external agencies,” Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said at a press conference after a mercifully short meeting. The old program, he added, is “in abeyance.”

And Greece is by no means out of the woods. They must come up with a list of reforms by Monday and those reforms must be approved by EU finance ministers for the bailout to continue.

In the meantime, the Greek government is being kept on a very short leash. It only has until close of business Monday to present its list of alternative proposals to the same hated ‘Troika’ of technocrats–from the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund–that it promised to abolish. They only have until April to hammer out the finer points. As an indication of how much trust Greece has lost in the last month, the bank recapitalization money will be moved back from Athens to be kept safely under lock and key in Luxembourg, in case the government gets the urge to use it to fund the government’s deficit in the meantime. At the same time, the ECB will keep Greek banks on hunger rations, not restoring their former privileges until the Troika–sorry, ‘the Institutions’–say it’s safe to.

First reports out of Athens on the list of reforms don’t sound like the Tsipras government has grasped the idea of “reform.”

Greece’s list of reforms to be submitted to the euro zone on Monday comprises pledges on structural issues such as tax evasion and corruption over the next four months without specific targets, a government official said on Saturday.

Athens clinched a last-minute deal late on Friday to avoid a banking collapse by accepting a conditional extension of its bailout program. The accord requires Greece to submit by Monday a letter to the Eurogroup listing all the policy measures it plans to take during the remainder of the bailout period.

If the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund are satisfied, the Eurogroup is likely to endorse the list in a teleconference without the need for a formal meeting. Then euro zone member states will need to ratify the extension, where necessary through their parliaments.

Greek officials have been working on the reform list since Saturday morning and plan to submit a short list of pledges on areas such as tax evasion, corruption and public administration, the Greek official said.

There will not be specific figures or targets to be achieved tied to the goals, the official said, adding that the two sides had not yet discussed how Greece would be evaluated on the reforms.

Despite a climbdown from promises to end the bailout and stop dealing with the hated “troika” of EU, ECB and IMF, Athens has tried to stress that Greeks are now shaping their own destiny rather than having reforms imposed from abroad. The official said that what counted was that Greece had “ownership” of the program.

However, Athens has already promised not to take any action that could burden Greece’s fiscal targets.

Meanwhile, capital is fleeing the country — more than $1 billion on Thursday and Friday alone. If there is trouble on Monday with the EU finance ministers adopting the Greek “plan,” Athens may be forced to impose capital controls to avoid disaster.

European paymaster Germany comes out the big winner in all of this. Their firm stand probably saved the eurozone. If Greece had been allowed to make its fantasy a reality, the likelihood is that other bailout nations like Spain, Portugal, and Ireland would also demand “adjustments” to their repayment plans, thus throwing the entire bailout regime into crisis.

The question of whether the Tsipras government can survive this massive betrayal of its campaign promises may come down to how the people of Greece perceive the Tsipras surrender. If they see it as a pragmatic move to save the nation’s finances, they may reluctantly support it.

But Tsipras may have to pull a rabbit out of a hat if the EU finance ministers reject his plan. Time is running out and the potential of a Grexit only grows the longer the bailout extension is up in the air.

Read bullet | 6 Comments »

How Bad are Things in Afghanistan? This Bad

Saturday, February 21st, 2015 - by Rick Moran

The closer the date approaches when the last US soldier leaves Afghanistan, the more unstable the country becomes.

Evidence of that was displayed by some employees at a branch of Afghanistan’s central bank. One afternoon, a senior official at the bank, along with his son and brother-in-law — also employees of the bank — cleaned out the vault, stole the closed circuit camera recording their deed, and walked out with $1.4 million. The branch was located near the border with Pakistan and it’s believed that’s where the crooks went.

Reuters:

“Yesterday we could only open one of the treasury’s doors. We hope to open the next one today,” the central bank director for Afghanistan’s southwestern region, Fazel Ahmad Azimi, said.

Weak regulation undermines confidence in Afghanistan’s fragile banking system, which has yet to fully recover from a 2010 scandal over a bank that collapsed triggering a financial crisis.

An international financial watchdog last year threatened to place Afghanistan on a blacklist and has since warned it needs to do more to enforce laws to regulate its banking sector.

The Kandahar raid is believed to have been carried out by a senior official at the bank, an employee of nine years, with the help of his son and brother-in-law who were also on staff, according to Azimi.

The robbery at the branch in Spin Boldak near the border with Pakistan was discovered on Thursday and investigators believed the group has escaped to Pakistan.

The group had removed CCTV recordings before fleeing to Pakistan, Azimi said, but investigators were hopeful that footage might be recovered from the memory chip of the security cameras.

They don’t sound very hopeful, do they? In a way, you wonder why this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often in countries as screwed up as Afghanistan. These crooks proved how easy it is. Authorities apparently didn’t discover the theft for more than 24 hours.

It appears now that the Taliban — the “good” Taliban, mind you — may be willing to open negotiations with the Afghan government for the purpose of accepting their surrender.

Of course, no one is saying that. But does anyone believe any “power sharing” arrangement with the current Afghanistan government would not result in a complete takeover by the Taliban — perhaps in a matter of months?

Reuters:

Senior Pakistani army, Afghan and diplomatic officials said on Thursday the Afghan Taliban had signalled they were willing to open peace talks with Kabul.

The reports raised hopes for a breakthrough in peace efforts following the withdrawal of most U.S.-led troops last year, and of a boost for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The renewed push for negotiations appeared to be driven by evolving relationships between Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, which recently offered to help broker talks.

On Thursday, a senior Pakistani military official said Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, told Ghani during a visit this week the Taliban were willing to begin negotiations as early as March.

“They have expressed their willingness and there will be progress in March. But these things are not so quick and easy,” the official, who is close to the army chief, told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“But there are very clear signals … and we have communicated it to the Afghans. Now many things are with the Afghans and they are serious.”

Taliban representatives including official spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid cast doubt on the possibility of talks, saying they still opposed negotiations. The group has repeatedly said it will talk to the United States but not the Kabul government.

A senior member of the Afghan Taliban said by telephone from Qatar their negotiators would hold a first round of talks with U.S. officials in Qatar on Thursday.

But U.S. officials in Washington denied the United States was holding talks, direct or indirect, with the Taliban. A White House spokeswoman said the United States remained supportive of an Afghan-led reconciliation process in which the Taliban and the Afghan government engaged in talks.

New Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter says the US may extend our deployment beyond the 2016 deadline. If so, the Obama administration may be waking up to the fact that the Afghan army is incapable of ensuring security without help from the Americans. The Taliban we may or may not be talking to in Qatar are not the Taliban that is committing atrocities in Afghanistan. Until we can identify just who it is we should be talking with in the Taliban, any negotiations will be fruitless.

Read bullet | 6 Comments »

Senators, Soldiers Aghast at Revelations About Spring Mosul Operation

Saturday, February 21st, 2015 - by Rick Moran

An anonymous officer working at US Central Command headquarters briefed several reporters on an upcoming military operation to retake the Islamic State-held city of Mosul on Thursday and several Senators want to know who the briefer was and whether he was acting under orders from the Obama administration.

Since no one can figure out a military motive for the leak, there is a concern that the Obama administration is playing politics by hinting that more decisive action in the war against ISIS is coming.

Such a detailed briefing on the numbers of soldiers who will take part in the offensive, as well as their makeup, has raised eyebrows not only on Capitol Hill, but also among active and retired military.

Fox News:

Top Republican senators Friday demanded answers after a military official revealed “detailed operational information” about a looming Iraqi mission to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, saying the disclosure has put the mission at risk.

“Never in our memory can we recall an instance in which our military has knowingly briefed our own war plans to our enemies,” Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in a letter to President Obama.

“These disclosures not only risk the success of our mission, but could also cost the lives of U.S., Iraqi, and coalition forces.”

The senators asked who was responsible for the briefing, conducted Thursday by a military official, and whether they had White House approval. “Those responsible have jeopardized our national security interests and must be held accountable,” they wrote.

The letter follows criticism in other corners that the military may have revealed too much detail in previewing the operation.

On Thursday, the U.S. military official outlined plans to retake Mosul and said the “shaping” for the battle is currently underway. He said the Iraqi military hopes to begin operations in the “April, May timeframe” with the goal of retaking Mosul before Ramadan begins on June 17.

The official then went a step further and leaked that five Iraqi Army brigades will be used in the fight, as well as several smaller brigades, composing a total force of up to 25,000 Iraqi troops. Three brigades of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters will participate as well.

But the details, disclosed at the close of a White House summit on combating violent extremism, raised some concerns.

“That is pretty amazing that that information’s out there,” retired Gen. Jack Keane, former Army vice chief of staff and a Fox News military analyst, said Friday.

A current and former military intelligence officer also told Fox News that the decision to publicly announce the plan was counterintuitive because it “telegraphs” the timing and number of units involved. The officers said it would allow Islamic State, also known as ISIS, or ISIL, to prepare for the battle by laying improvised explosive devices.

Both officers questioned whether political considerations on the part of the Obama administration factored into the decision to announce the offensive.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government and military doubts its soldiers will be ready for such a complex operation by the Spring:

Questions persist about whether the struggling Iraqi military will be ready for the operation to retake the country’s second largest city from ISIS militants in just a few months.

Iraqi officials continue to insist they haven’t gotten the advanced weapons they need for the operation in the northern city of Mosul, and some question whether they will be ready for a spring offensive. But the Pentagon insists the U.S. has sent tens of thousands of weapons and ammunition and more is in the pipeline.

Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the security and defense committee in the Iraqi parliament, told The Associated Press Friday that “any operation would be fruitless” unless the brigades are properly prepared and have the weapons they need.

“I think if these weapons are not made available soon, the military assault might wait beyond spring,” he said. “The Americans might have their own calculations and estimations, but we as Iraqis have our own opinion. We are fighting and moving on the ground, so we have better vision and April might be too soon.”

Senior officers at the Pentagon were caught off guard by the leak, and say the plan is unworkable anyway:

Less than 24 hours after U.S. military officials publicly detailed their plans for a spring offensive on ISIS-held Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, many within the Pentagon privately questioned whether that timetable was plausible. They said that they were dubious that their partners in the Iraqi military—the troops supposed to lead the offensive—would be capable of conducting such a campaign by then.

“I really doubt it is going to happen that soon,” said one military officer who, like several others, served in Iraq between 2003-2011 and spoke on condition of anonymity. “And if it does, it will take months.”

The largely Shiite troops of the Iraqi army are unlikely to risk their lives to win back a Sunni dominated city, several U.S. military officers told The Daily Beast Friday. Indeed, when ISIS stormed the city last June, Iraqi forces walked away, leading the U.S. and 60 other nations to form a coalition against the terror group.

Even if the Iraqi troops do stand up and fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State, having a Shiite force move in and potentially ravage a major Sunni city in a bid to save it could have adverse affects on the Sunnis in Iraq and broader Sunni Arab world. Sectarian tensions, particularly in Iraq, run that deep.

“I cannot believe that Shiites would fight for Mosul,” one officer who served in the restive Sunni province of Anbar during the Iraq War told The Daily Beast.

It looks more and more like this leak was an attempt at disinformation — perhaps to pull ISIS forces from elsewhere into Mosul to resist any attempt to retake it. You have to believe it’s something like that because otherwise, it’s a monumental blunder. I can’t believe that officers at CENTCOM revealed this information on their own, which makes it likely that either the White House is behind the leak or top command at CENTCOM. If it was the White House, the incompetents should be fired. If it was CENTCOM top command, there is obviously some kind of psychological advantage they believe they’re getting.

Either way, the Iraqis aren’t ready and won’t be anytime soon.

Read bullet | 5 Comments »

What’s with Kim Jong-Un’s Hair?

Friday, February 20th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

0000000.0

Who would have thunk it? North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un a fashion maven?

Say it ain’t so, Kimmy.

“Quirky” is an understatement. It looks like a cross between a 1950s “rocket” haircut and a bad afro from the 1980s.

And check out those “emoticon” eyebrows. Does Kim plan to star in an anime porn film?

Kim Jong Un’s latest hack job created another international incident.

North Korea watchers combing through the supreme leader’s appearance at a politburo meeting Wednesday were struck by Kim’s new look.

Kim was photographed with shrunken eyebrows the size of emoticons and cartoonishly high hair.

“Kim Jong Un unveils sculpted eyebrow work and defined hair at Politburo meeting today,” NK News.org’s Frank Feinstein tweeted.

Adding to the accentuated features, the supreme leader’s face appears pudgier than a year ago when a report claimed that North Korean men were told to change their hairstyle to match Kim’s.

Here’s a before and after pic. He also appears to have put on some weight.

000

It’s a frightening concept to think that every man in North Korea — who wants to stay out of jail — has to wear their hair like the Dear Leader’s. What’s a barber to do? No doubt the barbers will be doing land office business over the next few weeks as men scramble to adopt the new hairstyle.

Hopefully, altering their eyebrows is optional.

Read bullet | 17 Comments »

Uproar Over Illinois Governor’s Budget

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner ran successfully for office against an incumbent Democrat, Pat Quinn, whom he accused of not being serious about addressing the state’s huge deficit.

Rauner is nothing if not serious about eliminating Illinois’ structural deficit.

He proved that by proposing a budget that, if nothing else, will wake up citizens and politicians alike that the time for kicking the deficit can down the road is over. The state has run out of time and the only option is pain…and more pain.

Chicago Sun Times:

To accept Rauner’s spending plan at face value is to say that state government has few responsibilities beyond promoting public safety and providing for the education of children — and damn near little of that.

The governor would cut funding to higher education by 31 percent. He would cut money to special education. He would cut Medicaid reimbursement rates, though Illinois already has one of the lowest rates in the country. He would cut funeral and burial services for the poor. He would cut homeless youth services. He would cut heroin treatment services. He would cut the budget of the Department of Children and Family Services, which — as we wrote in an editorial just this week — is struggling as it is to come to the aid of thousands of abused and neglected children.

Two proposed cuts in particular show just how damaging Rauner’s budget would be to people — and governments — that already are hurting.

Rauner would cut state services for former foster care children who have passed the age of 18. Anybody who works in the field of child welfare will tell you that is nuts.

It’s “just plain cruel,” Benjamin Wolf associate legal director of the ACLU of Illinois, told the Sun-Times. “If you want to increase homelessness and suffering, abandoning them at age 18 is a good place to start.”

And Rauner would cut by half the share of the state’s income tax that is forked over to local governments. For Chicago, a city already swimming in red ink, that would mean a loss in revenue of $135 million a year.

Rauner is goring every ox, every special interest, every entrenched bureaucracy in the state. Illinois is running a $6 billion deficit and already has the 5th highest tax rate in the country. How in the world can the state get out of this crisis without massive spending cuts?

Most of the $6.2 billion in cuts would come from the $32 billion general fund. Another $2.2 billion would come from transferring public employees into a less generous pension plan. The state set up a different pension system for employees hired after January 1, 2011 and Rauner wants current union employees to switch from their overly generous defined benefit plan, to a defined contribution plan. Rauner also wants to offer those workers the option of taking a lump sum payment and a defined contribution plan in return for a voluntary reduction in cost-of-living adjustments. The measure is expected to save the state more than $100 billion over the next 30 years — not enough to completely fix the pension system but certainly better than the weak tea passed by the legislature 3 years ago.

The $1.5 billion proposed cut in Medicaid has everyone screaming. Illinois already has one of the lowest reimbursement rates in the nation to doctors and hospitals and just added several million residents to the Medicaid rolls thanks to the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. Doctors are fleeing the Medicaid system, and lowering those rates further will probably make the exodus even worse.

The suburbs are howling about the massive cut in payments.

Gov. Bruce Rauner Wednesday proposed suburbs and downstate communities give up about half the money towns receive each year from state income taxes.

The proposal immediately sparked a chorus of local officials calling the idea a “non-starter” and saying municipalities have been “pickpocketed for years by Springfield.”

Rauner’s proposal came as part of his sweeping plans for budget cuts across state government intended to rescue the state’s troubled finances. He argues that many local governments are sitting on reserves that can be used and get a lot of state money from other sources, so taking away some of their income tax money is a sacrifice that has to be made.

His office says the proposed cut would be about 10 percent of the total money the state shares with local governments and that his budget doesn’t include, for example, cutting the local shares of sales taxes.

“Saying no is not popular,” Rauner said.

The University of Illinois system would lose fully 1/3 of its funding. Chicago’s mass transit system would lose $127 million. Orphans, widows, and the poor would all have special programs slashed. Rauner is also calling for a two year freeze on property taxes and no new income taxes.

Observers from both parties are declaring the budget DOA. The governor probably doesn’t expect many of his budget cuts to pass either. So, what’s the point?

From the Sun Times editorial:

But the governor’s fiscal year 2016 budget has zero chance of being passed into law by the Illinois General Assembly, as he well knows. Its real value then, which we’d like to believe is by design, is to sound the alarm like never before that Illinois is sliding fast toward becoming an economic backwater, a failed state among the 50 states. Time is running out. Hard and painful measures must be taken now.

If Rauner’s draconian plan has achieved that much, we’d say it’s about time.

The Illinois General Assembly — or at least the Democrats who run the joint — hate this budget, and so should we all. Even a half-broke state does not turn its back on its most basic moral responsibilities. But now it is the Legislature’s turn to respond with a budget plan of its own, one that we hope will strike a more balanced approach to spending and taxation.

The Democrats are proposing a “surcharge” on incomes over $1 million that is supposed to raise a billion dollars “for the kids.” They’ve got $5.2 billion to go and have no fresh ideas on cutting a budget that is almost as large as the Texas budget, despite Texas having a population more than twice that of Illinois.

Rauner is keeping his powder dry in his battle with the unions. The pension reform proposals aren’t going anywhere but are a very loud shot across the bow telling unions a new sheriff is in town and things are going to change.

Rauner is coming across as very tough and very confident. How much of that is real and how much is for effect remains to be seen.

 

Read bullet | 8 Comments »

One Honest Politician

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Tomorrow is the Lunar New Year on the Chinese calendar and, in his speech commemorating the event, the leader of Hong Kong, C.Y. Leung, committed a major league gaffe. Or did he? Leung urged Hong Kong residents to “take inspiration from the sheep’s character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future.”

This is what’s known as a “Kinsley Gaffe,” (named after former CNN Crossfire host Michael Kinsley) that reveals some truth that a politician did not intend to admit. But Leung’s intent is open to question. However, given the political tension in Hong Kong in recent months, this sort of thing plays right into the hands of the pro-democracy forces.

Reuters:

“Last year was no easy ride for Hong Kong. Our society was rife with differences and conflicts,” he said.

“In the coming year, I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep’s character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future.”

He described sheep as “widely seen to be mild and gentle animals living peacefully in groups”.

Chambers dictionary describes a sheep as “a creature that follows meekly, is at the mercy of the wolf or the shearer and displays tameness of spirit”.

Chinese officials have repeatedly stressed the need for a harmonious society in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Hong Kong returned to China under a “one country, two systems” formula that gives the city more autonomy and freedom than the mainland and a goal of universal suffrage.

But Beijing’s refusal to grant a fully democratic election for the city’s leader in 2017 infuriates pro-democracy activists and politicians who blame Leung for not standing up for their rights

Was Leung being extremely stupid or extremely clever? Taking the opportunity afforded by the new year being designated as the “Year of the Sheep,” Leung was spelling out exactly how much leeway protestors will have in the coming year; virtually none. The Chinese Communists will brook no opposition, will not compromise on the election issue, and will expect their subjects to quietly and obediently fall into line and cause no trouble for the authorities.

The Chinese government has no problem siphoning billions from Hong Kong for their own purposes. That’s why they allow the city a certain amount of economic freedom not enjoyed by businesses on the mainland.

But when it comes to political freedom — a freedom enjoyed by Hong Kong residents before the takeover in 1997 — the Communists have slowly been strangling the island, tying it ever closer to Beijing. What is supposed to be “one country, two systems” is rapidly disappearing, and the protestors who poured into the streets last September are angry about it.

By invoking the sheep as a symbol of ideal civic virtue, Leung is unmistakably giving fair warning to those who might consider rocking the boat; there’s a wolf in the neighborhood and the shepherd is on a lunch break.

Read bullet | Comments »

Boston Mayor: ‘This isn’t Loon Mountain, This is the City of Boston’

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh isn’t happy with some residents who feel the need to take a starring role on social media by leaping out of windows into the snowbanks below, and then recording their derring-do to share on various social media sites.

No doubt some of them fortified by liquid courage, young people are taking a header out of second and even third story windows into the 8-10 foot snowbanks below.

Fox News:

The mayor of Boston Tuesday warned the young adults making films of themselves diving head first from windows into snow piles to “stop their nonsense right now.”

Mayor Martin Walsh issued the unusual warning at a morning press conference that focused on snow removal and extreme cold, The Boston Herald.com reported.

“This isn’t Loon Mountain, this is the city of Boston, where we’re trying to remove snow off the street and it becomes very dangerous,” he said.

The Washington Post reported that these participants strip down to their underwear and dive into the huge banks of snow. Then they take to social media and post it under #BostonBlizzardChallenge.

The Post called the trend a “Bucket Challenge-esque show of bravery and machismo.”

And stupidity. This fellow isn’t risking much diving off his porch — except perhaps a case of pneumonia:

Not quite a swan dive, but give the guy some props for a 10 point entry. The Post calls them “knucklehead Bostonians.” Anyone at the Washington Post calling anyone else a “knucklehead” is like Iran accusing anyone else of “terrorism.” As for Walsh’s “Loon Mountain” crack, it turns out there is a New Hampshire ski resort named — you guessed it — Loon Mountain. They were pleased with the free publicity:

 

The resort was closed today because it was too cold.

When I was younger, I used to wonder why old people would move to Florida or Arizona when they retired. Now that I’m an old codger, I understand perfectly. Despite living in the Midwest for most of my life, the older I get, the less able I am to endure winter. The cold makes my joints ache, the snow is a bitch to drive in — largely because there are so many people who have a panic attack when they see a few flurries — and the raw, moist wind rips through your clothing chilling you to the bone.

We’re six weeks away from baseball’s Opening Day, which is irrelevant in Chicago. Several Opening Day games over the years have been cancelled because of snow storms. Technically, spring begins March 20th in these parts, but we won’t get spring weather for at least another month after that.

Winter is the longest, the slowest, the most depressing time of the year and if I live that long, I will move to some low tax, politically friendly state after I retire.

Meanwhile, in Boston, party on, dudes.

Read bullet | 12 Comments »

Greek Finance Minister: ‘There is no Plan B’

Monday, February 16th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

As expected, talks between the far left Greek government and European finance ministers broke down today with no agreement in sight and no viable way forward.

Greece wanted a 4-6 month extension of the current bailout terms — minus a few austerity measures that include further cuts to government pensions and an increase in the value added tax. In truth, the radicals were not elected to keep the status quo, which is the main reason for the total failure of the talks. On the other side, eurozone finance ministers can’t radically alter the terms of the $280 billion bailout because doing so would open a can of worms with other bailout countries like Ireland and Portugal who would want their own “adjustments” to their deals.

Bottom line: Greece doesn’t want to pay back their $318 billion debt and are demanding the rest of Europe fund its bloated welfare state. Of course, they deny this is their plan, but looking at details of what they have been offering after this proposed extension leads one to no other conclusions.

The Greek government has already taken a step back by agreeing to an extension of the bailout. But without the austerity measures they want taken back, they will not hit their deficit targets. This is simply unacceptable to the EU, as are Greek plans to roll back budget cuts, increase pensions, and cut taxes.

There just doesn’t seem to be any common ground.

Wall Street Journal:

During the meeting, ministers and other officials tried to convince Greece that the risks of leaving its rescue program behind without a new financing deal are too big. Mario Draghi , the president of the European Central Bank, warned ministers that the situation of Greece’s banks was deteriorating, as citizens and businesses withdraw deposits and economic growth slows, according to an official present at Monday’s talks.

The official said that Mr. Draghi didn’t say when the ECB may cut off liquidity support from Greece’s own central bank, but “it was clear from what he said that this is becoming an issue.”

Ministers from several countries, meanwhile, complained that Greece had failed to show what steps it was prepared to take in return for continued aid, the official said.

As ministers were holding talks in Brussels, they received press reports of Greek officials in Athens rejecting a statement that had been prepared by Mr. Dijsselbloem earlier in the day. The statement committed Greece to seeking a six-month extension to its bailout deal, but giving it some leeway on the budget cuts and economic reforms it has to implement in return.

Greek officials in Athens called the proposals “absurd and unacceptable,” adding that “there can be no agreement [on new financing] today.”

“That contributed to the [already negative] atmosphere,” said the official present at the Brussels talks. Shortly after, ministers decided to end the meeting.

In a news conference, Mr. Dijsselbloem said finance ministers were ready to hold another round of talks Friday, provided that the Greek government commits to a number of principles set out by the ministers.

Those principles included a promise by the Greek government not to roll back unilaterally already-implemented budget cuts and reform measures and to take any new measures only in coordination with the European institutions and International Monetary Fund. The government must also commit to repay all creditors, ensure the stability of the country’s financial sector—and conclude its existing bailout program.

The EU ministers have no clue who they are dealing with. The Greek radicals know or care little about high finance. They are seeking a political solution that will give both sides cover, rather than solve their deep and dangerous debt problems. They want to give the illusion that they are going to pay down their debt while grasping for new funding so they can go back to their profligate spending ways.

Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has proposed swapping euro zone loans for long-dated GDP-linked bonds that would pay interest as the economy recovers, and ECB holdings of Greek debt for interest-bearing perpetual bonds with no repayment deadline.

The Greek government also wants the interest returned on those bonds. And with no repayment deadline for the ECB bonds, the debt will continue to balloon.

Greek President Alex Tsipras has painted himself into a political corner. He can’t give in to the EU or his government would probably collapse. But he needs the EU or the Greek economy will collapse. Tsipras believes he has the rest of the EU over a barrel. He thinks Europe is terrified of a Greek exit from the eurozone and will eventually give him what he wants.

In this, he may be right. But the Greeks certainly aren’t winning friends and influencing people with their hardline attitude.

Read bullet | 5 Comments »

Should We Try to Call E.T.?

Sunday, February 15th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

A passionate scientific debate was held this week in San Jose at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science sponsored by the SETI Institute. SETI — Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence — wanted to bring together scientists of many disciplines to discuss whether efforts to contact alien civilizations should remain “passive,” i.e. listening for signals only, or go “active” by actually composing a message and targeting specific stars that might have an earth-like planet orbiting them.

The active/passive SETI debate has been going on since the early days of the program. Many scientists who support active SETI think that both listening for messages or evidence of intelligence as well as sending our own message to the stars increases the likelihood that we will eventually make contact.

But some passive SETI proponents believe that it’s too dangerous to send out a signal inviting contact. Even if the chances of a hostile alien race hearing the message and coming to earth to destroy us is extremely small, why take the risk? If the active SETI people are wrong, no one will be around to criticize them for it.

The aliens don’t even have to be hostile to be a threat. Earth’s own history is filled with examples of technologically advanced civilizations making contact with comparatively primitive cultures, only to see the primitives decimated. Surely a civilization advanced enough to travel through space to reach the earth knows this, which may be another reason we’ve received no indication of intelligence elsewhere.

The San Jose conference was held to examine these questions in a serious forum. Dr. Seth Shostak, long time head of the SETI project, thinks the time has come to adopt guidelines for active SETI research.

BBC:

High on the agenda is whether such a move would, as he put it so starkly, lead to the “obliteration” of the planet.

“I don’t see why the aliens would have any incentive to do that,” Dr Shostak tells me.

“Beyond that, we have been telling them willy-nilly that we are here for 70 years now. They are not very interesting messages but the early TV broadcasts, the early radio, the radar from the Second World War – all that has leaked off the Earth.

“Any society that could come here and ruin our whole day by incinerating the planet already knows we are here.”
Clash of cultures

His argument isn’t entirely reassuring. But neither is the one made by David Brin, a science fiction writer invited to speak at the AAAS meeting, who opposes the plan.

“Historians will tell you that first contact between industrial civilisations and indigenous people does not go well,” he told me.

Mr Brin believes that those in favour of active Seti have been “railroading the public into sending a message without a wide and detailed discussion of what the cultural impact might be”.

He does not fear a Hollywood-style alien invasion and thinks the likelihood of making contact is extremely low. But the risks, he argues, are extremely high and so merit careful consideration before anyone sends out a signal to potentially habitable worlds.

“The arrogance of shouting into the cosmos without any proper risk assessment defies belief. It is a course that would put our grandchildren at risk,” he said.

Shostak is being far too optimistic. Although we’ve been beaming radio programs, radar signals, and TV shows into the cosmos for 70 years, that encompasses only a miniscule percentage of the Milky Way galaxy. Any risk assessment would have to include the certainty that we’ve barely scratched the surface in reaching potential intelligent species.

We have explored only a small piece of the sky so far and there are several good reasons why we may have missed a message in past sweeps. We may not be technologically advanced enough to decode it. We may lack the imagination to recognize a message even though it’s been right in front of us. But the most likely reason we have yet to achieve success in our SETI efforts is that there just aren’t that many civilizations transmitting.

Does this mean that there are fewer advanced civilizations than we thought? This is a definite possibility. It could very well be that the deck is stacked against any intelligent civilization reaching our level of sophistication. Rouge asteroids or comets, an unstable sun or moon, a nearby supernova not to mention the possibility that the denizens of any technologically advanced society could blow themselves up all make it a distinct possibility that while intelligent life is abundant in the universe, it doesn’t necessarily stand to reason that it survives long enough to reach out and try and touch someone.

Something else to consider before we begin an active SETI program; the probability that the dominant life in the universe are intelligent machines:

University of Connecticut philosophy professor Susan Schneider certainly thinks so. In her new paper “Alien Minds,” she proposes that by the time civilizations are able to communicate by radio, they’re a few short steps away from developing artificial intelligence. One they reached that level of advancement, they may have opted to upgrade their biology to something that’s a biomechanical hybrid or something entirely synthetic. There could be a whole mess of Borg out there, in other words.

She also argues that those civilizations will be older than ours. If a dominant intelligent lifeform developed even a million years before humanity, and within centuries uploaded their brains to alien computers, those computers are likely to be vastly more intelligent than we can even fathom.

Such machines wouldn’t have an interest in spacefaring because they would have already unlocked the mysteries of the universe and would have little need to go exploring. Then again, if they thought we had something of value to them, they may decide to come and take it. It’s not likely they would have programmed altruism, pity, remorse, or another emotion into the system.

But if we were to undertake an active SETI program, what should we say?

Some involved in the discussions believe we should send a sanitised account of ourselves, leaving out parts of our history we aren’t proud of and putting a positive spin on our achievements – as if our species were attending a job interview or first date. Dr Shostak disagrees. He thinks the only way to win over the aliens is to be ourselves.

“My personal preference is to send the internet – send it all because if you send a lot of information then there’s some chance that they’ll work it out”.

I wonder what the aliens would make of porn?

Read bullet | 5 Comments »

Hezballah Chief Orders Followers Not to Fire Guns in the Air During Speech

Sunday, February 15th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Most rational people understand that what goes up, must come down. In the case of firing a gun into the air in celebration, most people realize that a descending bullet could kill an innocent person hundreds of yards away.

But Hezballah fighters are not “most people.” They are dumb fanatics who don’t care where the bullets land after firing their guns during the speeches of their leaders.

Hezballah spiritual leader Hassan Nasrallah is apparently so concerned about the possibility of innocent people dying, that he has ordered his followers not to fire off their guns in approval during his speech.

AFP:

The head of Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement on Sunday urged supporters to refrain from the volleys of celebratory gunfire that they unleash during his periodic speeches.

“I urge you… to abstain categorically from shooting,” Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said, asking the movement’s officials to ensure the request was respected.

Speeches by top Lebanese political figures are often accompanied by celebratory gunfire from their supporters.

On Saturday, cracks and pops of gunfire rang out in Beirut as former prime minister Saad Hariri spoke at a ceremony marking 10 years since the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri, another former prime minster.

But Nasrallah’s speeches, usually delivered from a secret location and broadcast on Hezbollah’s television station, tend to attract the most significant outpouring of fire.

The Hezbollah chief has raised the issue before, asking supporters during a speech to refrain from the fire, but to little effect.

Earlier this month, Lebanon’s justice minister threatened to prosecute those responsible for an unusually sustained round of gunfire during a speech by Nasrallah on a flare-up of violence between Hezbollah and its arch-enemy Israel.

A few statistics from the US would be sobering to most:

A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 80% of celebratory gunfire-related injuries are to the head, feet, and shoulders In Puerto Rico, about two people die and about 25 more are injured each year from celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Eve, the CDC says. Between the years 1985 and 1992, doctors at the King/Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, treated some 118 people for random falling-bullet injuries. Thirty-eight of them died.

Firearms expert Julian Hatcher studied falling bullets in the 1920s and calculated that .30 caliber rounds reach terminal velocities of 90 m/s (300 feet per second) A bullet traveling at only 61 m/s (200 feet per second) to 100 m/s (330 feet per second) can penetrate human skin.

A few days ago, a speech by former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was interrupted several times by celebratory gunfire by Sunni militias. The state prosecutor promised to find those responsible and prosecute them.

Lebanon is not the only country suffering from this problem. Somali militiamen have wounded several innocents with their constant firing. The Somalis apparently don’t need much of an excuse to fire their guns, as people have been injured at all hours of the day and night.

Hezballah fighters have the maturity of teenagers who don’t think of the consequences of their actions. Nasrallah can plead but it will probably do no good. Men with guns in Lebanon and elsewhere appear to be like little kids with toys — they have to play with them no matter the consequences.

Read bullet | Comments »

Copenhagan Terrorist Shot Dead by Police While Community Mourns Jewish Guard Killed at Synagogue

Sunday, February 15th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Danish police confronted a man near a Copenhagen railroad station who matched the description of the terrorist wanted in connection with shootings at a free speech conference and a synagogue, killing him when he opened fire.

Police believe the man is responsible for both attacks.

Meanwhile, Jewish leaders in the city are mourning the loss of a man who was killed guarding a community center near the synagogue when it was attacked. Dan Uzan, 37, was guarding a celebration at a Jewish community building near the synagogue when he was shot dead.

Fox News:

“He was a person who was always willing to help. An amazing, amazing guy,” said Melchior, speaking from Israel’s international airport before boarding a return flight to Copenhagen.

There are an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Jews in Denmark, including about 2,000 active members of the Jewish community, which operates its own security patrol that coordinates with police to protect Jewish institutions.

The community had previously asked police for enhanced security, and following last month’s attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, Denmark police began reevaluating security arrangements, Melchior said.

After an earlier shooting attack at a free speech event in the city, police beefed up security at the Jewish community building where the event was being held, Melchior said. The gunman who killed Uzan in the attack just after midnight on Sunday also shot and wounded two police officers outside the synagogue.

Uzan’s family is active in Copenhagen’s Jewish community, Melchior said, and Uzan attended Jewish school and joined the community’s security efforts from a young age. The slain guard was a talented basketball player, received a degree in politics, lived in Israel for a while and learned to speak Hebrew fluently, Melchior said.

Uzan wanted younger community members to replace him in the security detail, Melchior said, but the community pressed him to remain at his post.

Meanwhile, police are still conducting searches in the area, looking for a possible accomplice. Some reports said the gunman got into a car and drove away from the attack on the cafe hosting the free speech conference. Danish police are not releasing the terrorist’s name:

Jens Madsen from the Security and Intelligence Service told reporters the gunman “may have been inspired by the events that took place in Paris a few weeks ago”.

Mr Marsden said the man may “generally have been inspired by militant Islamist propaganda issued by IS (Islamic State) and other terror organisations”.

Police also said the man was “on the radar” of the intelligence service before the shootings.

Mr Madsen added that police had not yet ascertained if the man travelled to conflict zones “including Syria and Iraq”, but he said it was at “the absolute centre of investigations”.

Police were still carrying out search operations in different areas of Copenhagen on Sunday, Mr Madsen said.

[...]

The killing of the suspected perpetrator capped a massive police manhunt launched after the gunman fled the scene following both shootings.

The shootout took place shortly before dawn in the neighbourhood of Noerrebro, where police had been keeping an address under observation.

“We believe the same man was behind both shootings and we also believe that the perpetrator who was shot by the police action force at Noerrebro station is the person behind the two attacks,” chief police inspector Torben Molgaard Jensen told reporters.

Is this how Jews are to live in Europe, constantly on guard and protected by a massive police presence? Certainly, the police prevented a mass casualty attack in both instances in Copenhagen. But can Jews accept this “new normal” of being under threat at all times?

Would you?

Two great cities of Europe have now been the scene of attacks planned and executed by Islamic terrorists in the middle of the day and out in the open. There was nothing “random” about them. And if one of the goals of terrorism is that it makes citizens feel less secure, then you would have to say that both the Paris and Copenhagen attacks were a rousing success. The suddenness, the brutality, the very brazenness of the attacks is unsettling not just to Jews, but to everyone in Europe.

Another terrorist who was “on the radar”? David Spengler has thoughts on that here.

Read bullet | 6 Comments »

Gamblers’ Dreams Turn to Nightmares

Saturday, February 14th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

If you often play cards at the casino — Blackjack, Poker, or Baccarat — you’ve probably had a dream where you have a tremendous run of luck and walk home a big winner.

Just such a scenario happened at the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City. The only problem for the gamblers is that decks of cards destined for the Baccarat tables, which were to have been pre-shuffled by the manufacturer, were not randomized. Once the players realized that, they made a killing.

Fourteen players walked away with $1.5 million. But the casino challenged the players’ winnings on the grounds that the games were illegally conducted. On Thursday, a judge agreed with the casino and said the players must return their winnings.

Associated Press:

At issue were games of mini-baccarat played in April 2012 using decks of cards the casino had paid a manufacturer to pre-shuffle but that hadn’t been shuffled. Once players realized the pattern in which the cards were emerging they drastically upped their bets from $10 a hand to $5,000 and won 41 straight hands.

In the ruling, issued Monday and publicized by the casino on Thursday, the judge determined the games were illegal under state law because they didn’t conform to gambling regulations specifying the way each game must be played.

“The dealer did not pre-shuffle the cards immediately prior to the commencement of play, and the cards were not pre-shuffled in accordance with any regulation,” the judge wrote. “Thus, a literal reading of the regulations … entails that the game violated the (Casino Control) Act, and consequently was not authorized.”

She ruled that the gamblers must return any cash paid to them by the casino and any outstanding chips in their possession. The casino in turn must refund the gamblers the money they first put up to play.

The Golden Nugget was pleased with the court’s ruling, casino general manager Tom Pohlman said.

“We believe it was the right decision,” he said.

A lawyer for the gamblers did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the decision. A lawyer for the casino’s partner, Landry’s Inc., said he expects the decision to be appealed.

The Golden Nugget bought what were supposed to be pre-shuffled cards from a Kansas City manufacturer, which acknowledged in court it failed to shuffle them. The casino said its litigation with the manufacturer has been resolved but a confidentiality agreement prevents it from revealing details.

The judge’s ruling was the latest in a long series of decisions that have seesawed between favoring the casino and favoring the gamblers. The owner of the casino, Texas billionaire Tillman Fertitta, originally decided to let the players keep their winnings, but that offer was contingent on them dropping other claims they made against the casino, which they declined to do.

The casino paid out about $500,000 in winnings for the disputed games. About $1 million in chips remains outstanding.

The issue to me is responsibility. It was not the players’ fault that the cards weren’t shuffled. As far as the regulation goes, the games may have been illegally conducted, but that’s the casino’s problem, not the players. If the casino failed to randomize the cards, why should the players be denied their winnings?

No mention was made of the “other claims” made by the players against the casino. But like most gamblers, they apparently got too greedy and refused their windfall in hopes of reaching into the deep pockets of the casino for more. Now they’re left with less than nothing, as they owe for the cash they took home with them, rather than getting up from the table and leaving with their winnings intact.

I’d say let this be a lesson to gamblers who read this story, but I know better. You can have a great time gambling as long as you leave your credit cards and check book at home, and take with you only as much cash as you can afford to lose. But most gamblers refuse that kind of common sense advice and end up losing everything.

It’s still a personal responsibility issue, so I’m not saying ban gambling in the US. But gambling in the United States destroys as many lives as drugs and alcohol and those who get into financial trouble because of their gambling addiction should be barred for life from casinos.

Read bullet | 7 Comments »

Copenhagen Shooting at Free Speech Event Called ‘Terrorist Attack’

Saturday, February 14th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

A lone gunman opened fire outside of a cafe in Copenhagen that was hosting an event titled “Art, blasphemy and the freedom of expression.” One person was killed and 3 police officers were wounded.

The meeting was being held to mark the anniversary of the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie issued by Ayatollah Khomeini after Rushdie penned The Satanic Verses.

The shooter never made it into the cafe thanks to the police presence. He managed to fire about 200 shots into the cafe before fleeing in a car with a possible accomplice.

Inside the cafe was Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who has faced death threats for caricaturing the prophet Muhammad. He is best known for his infamous 2007 cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad’s head on the body of a dog.

The Guardian:

“They fired on us from the outside. It was the same intention as [the 7 January attack on] Charlie Hebdo except they didn’t manage to get in,” Zimeray told AFP.

“Intuitively I would say there were at least 50 gunshots, and the police here are saying 200. Bullets went through the doors and everyone threw themselves to the floor,” the ambassador added.

“We managed to flee the room, and now we’re staying inside because it’s still dangerous. The attackers haven’t been caught and they could very well still be in the neighbourhood.”

Neither Vilks nor Zimeray were injured, but at least one person was killed in the attack at about 3pm GMT. The gunmen fled the scene by car.

Eyewitnesses said that the police officers were injured outside the cafe.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Danish police, in a statement, said they were looking for the perpetrators who drove away in a dark Volkswagen Polo after the shooting. The victim was a 40-year-old man who was inside the cafe attending the event. He has not yet been identified.

The Danish security service said in a statement the circumstances surrounding the shooting “indicate that we are talking about a terror attack”.

Niels Ivar Larsen, one of the speakers at the event, told Denmark’s TV2: “I heard someone firing with automatic weapons and someone shouting. Police returned the fire and I hid behind the bar. It felt surreal, like in a movie.”

Helle Merete Brix, one of the meeting’s organisers, said: “I saw a masked man running past. I clearly consider this as an attack on Lars Vilks.”

Several plots to kill Vilks have been thwarted by authorities. A 2010 plan by 7 jihadists was foiled and the suspects arrested. At the same time, a US woman known as “Jihad Jane” was arrested for trying to recruit gunman for a hit on Vilks. In 2013, Vilks made it to the Al-Qaeda’s list of “Most Wanted,” along with Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Stéphane Charbonnier, who was killed in the Paris attacks last month.

Vilks had a $100,000 bounty on his head placed there by Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007. AQIA eventually became Islamic State after joining the Syrian civil war.

It’s very tempting to connect the dots from the Charlie Hebdo shooting to Copenhagen, and project potential attacks against other al-Qaeda targets like Geert Wilders and the cartoonists from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten which published Muhammad cartoons in 2006. Islamic State, or al-Qaeda, or both may have decided to settle long standing scores against their most hated enemies.

If that’s the case, another attack may be imminent.

Read bullet | Comments »

Dem Mega Donor Tied to Oregon Governor Scandal

Saturday, February 14th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber was forced to resign over allegations that his fiancee received money from green organizations and companies who wanted to influence the state’s environmental policies.

The Washington Free Beacon has uncovered a web of connections between some of those green organizations and Democratic Party mega donor Tom Steyer. The hedge fund billionaire funded at least one of the groups seeking contracts from the state of Oregon, and several of his associates worked for the organization implicated in the scandal.

The controversy centers on Gov. John Kitzhaber’s fiancée, Cylvia Hayes. She was paid $118,000 by the Clean Economy Development Center (CEDC) to advocate for environmentalist policies in Oregon.

Hayes never disclosed those payments, despite acting as an informal adviser to the governor as he pushed a low-carbon fuel standard for the state.

Dan Carol, then a strategic adviser to CEDC, helped Hayes land the position. He was given a $165,000-per-year job in the Kitzhaber administration.

Kitzhaber is expected to resign today under intense scrutiny over the scandal. The scandal could extend beyond Oregon given Steyer’s involvement. Steyer has donated millions to a group that helped finance Hayes’ position, which could ensnare one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent fundraisers in the scandal.

Hayes was reportedly a fellow at the CEDC in 2011 and 2012, but as of late as August of last year, she was still listed on a since-deleted page of its website.

Also listed on that page was Kate Gordon, a member of the CEDC’s board. Gordon leads the energy and climate division of Next Generation, an environmental nonprofit group founded by Steyer.

Another director of the group, according to the website, was Mike Casey. Casey runs a media and public relations firm called Tigercomm that does polling and advertising work for Steyer’s Super PAC, NextGen Climate Action.

Casey reportedly wrote NextGen’s communications strategy for its involvement in elections in Massachusetts and Virginia in 2013. NextGen and another Steyer group, the CE Action Committee, paid Tigercomm $387,000 that year.

Former CEDC board members include Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union. His former assistant, Josie Mooney, is a strategic adviser to NextGen.

David Chen, a former member of CEDC’s advisory board, has hosted Steyer at events held by his investment firm, Equilibrium Capital. Steyer also sits on the board of the Center for American Progress, whose senior fellow in energy and environmental policy, Bracken Hendricks, was listed as a CEDC adviser.

As his team and others to which he has ties helped run CEDC, Steyer steered funds to the group financing Hayes’ fellowship.

Note how easily cash moves from politics, to activism, to politics, to lobbying — it’s almost seamless. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars from a very few, very rich individuals and closely held companies.

These guys make the Koch Brothers look like beginners.

Looking at the evidence separately, Steyer could claim some of these connections are tenuous, at best, and damn near invisible at worst. But if you step back and look at the overall picture, it’s fairly easy to see all the interchangeable parts of the same whole. I’m not saying there’s some overall “plan” or conspiracy at work here. In fact, we see something similar to the so-called military/industrial complex. The easy movement of people among government, foundations, think tanks, and boards and commissions set up by the Pentagon (of which there are dozens) is made possible through a web of common connections and interests. They have an outsized influence on the national security state because most of them, regardless of party, tend to have a similar outlook on national defense.

The same could be said of this “Environmental/Political Complex.” The axis revolves around a few rich men and companies who not only personally distribute funds and make available experts to be employed at other organizations, they have a say in how other organizations make grants and donations.

The Kitzhaber scandal has unmasked a layer or two of these connections that reveal Tom Steyer to be a bigger player in the environmental movement than even some activists may have realized. It will be fascinating to watch as the investigation into wrongdoing in the Oregon governor’s office continues to unravel the threads that bind the green movement together.

Read bullet | 7 Comments »

Apocalypse Maybe: 12 Really Cool Ways Civilization Could End

Saturday, February 14th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

A new scientific study from Oxford University examines 12 ways that civilization could end in the next 100 years and applies probabilities to each one where possible.

This isn’t a bunch of sci-fi writers sitting at a bar, knocking back shots, and coming up with the most creative way the world will end. The study was conducted by the Future of Humanity Institute, which is described as “a multidisciplinary research institute at the University of Oxford” that “enables a select set of leading intellects to bring the tools of mathematics, philosophy, and science to bear on big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects.”

Financial Times:

The report itself says: “This is a scientific assessment about the possibility of oblivion, certainly, but even more it is a call for action based on the assumption that humanity is able to rise to challenges and turn them into opportunities. We are confronted with possibly the greatest challenge ever and our response needs to match this through global collaboration in new and innovative ways.”

There is, of course, room for debate about risks that are included or left out of the list. I would have added an intense blast of radiation from space, either a super-eruption from the sun or a gamma-ray burst from an exploding star in our region of the galaxy. And I would have included a sci-fi-style threat from an alien civilisation either invading or, more likely, sending a catastrophically destabilising message from an extrasolar planet. Both are, I suspect, more probable than a supervolcano.

The choice of end times scenarios is interesting:

A few of the existential threats are “exogenic”, arising from events beyond our control, such as asteroid impact. Most emerge from human economic and technological development. Three (synthetic biology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence) result from dual-use technologies, which promise great benefits for society, including reducing other risks such as climate change and pandemics — but could go horribly wrong.

Do scientists at the institute believe we are more likely to destroy ourselves than Doomsday occurring as the result of phenomena from space? I might take issue with that theory simply because, if anything, we have proven over the last 75 years or so that we are capable of managing the man-made threats to our existence. With clean air and clean water regulations fairly common the world over, it doesn’t appear that we’re going to poison ourselves. And the nuclear war scenario has — so far — been offset by self-preservation among nuclear powers. No one has been stupid enough to launch a nuclear weapon thinking someone wouldn’t launch one back at them.

Are we smart enough to manage these threats?

Artificial intelligence

AI is the most discussed apocalyptic threat at the moment. But no one knows whether there is a real risk of extreme machine intelligence taking over the world and sweeping humans out of their way. The study team therefore gives a very wide probability estimate.

Probability: 0-10%

Bad global governance

This category covers mismanagement of global affairs so serious that it is the primary cause of civilisation collapse (rather than a secondary response to other disasters). One example would be the emergence of an utterly incompetent and corrupt global dictatorship. The probability is impossible to estimate.

Probability: n/a

Extreme climate change

Conventional modelling of climate change induced by human activity (adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere) has focused on the most likely outcome: global warming by up to 4C. But there is a risk that feedback loops, such as the release of methane from Arctic permafrost, could produce an increase of 6C or more. Mass deaths through starvation and social unrest could then lead to a collapse of civilisation.

Probability: 0.01%

Synthetic biologyGenetic engineering of new super-organisms could be enormously beneficial for humanity. But it might go horribly wrong, with the emergence and release, accidentally or through an act of war, of an engineered pathogen targeting humans or a crucial part of the global ecosystem. The impact could be even worse than any conceivable natural pandemic.

Probability: 0.01%

Nanotechnology

Ultra-precise manufacturing on an atomic scale could create materials with wonderful new properties but they could also be used in frightening new weapons. There is also the “grey goo” scenario of self-replicating nanomachines taking over the planet.

Probability: 0.01%

Quick — someone tell Al Gore, and Drs. Mann and Hanson that there’s a 0.001% chance of us all dying as a result of global warming. Not that it would matter to them.

Reality is always more difficult to predict than it might appear. “Bad global governance” includes governments building up astronomical amounts of debt to fund their welfare states and then — collapse. Money wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s printed on and the resulting social unrest would destroy civilization. Some would put the likelihood of that scenario at better than 50-50. Governments have shown so far that they are completely incapable of addressing their debt problems, even when catastrophe stares them in the face. Greece is just the tip of the iceberg.

As for the concern over artificial intelligence and other technological threats, I agree that they are extremely unlikely to come about. Those who believe the threat is significant fail to take into account the “boiling frog” fallacy where we just sit and do nothing as the machines get smarter and smarter. AI that evolves to the point that could threaten humanity will not be a bolt from the blue; it is far more likely to be a gradual improvement of computer capabilities that we will be able to manage just fine.

I agree with the author that the scientists should have included the alien invasion scenario. After all, what’s a list of possible Doomsday events without the prospect of little green men coming to earth to kill us all? The list just doesn’t seem complete without it.

Read bullet | 27 Comments »

Greece Continues to Bite the Hand That Feeds It

Friday, February 13th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

The new radical left government of Greece is making a habit of tweaking the Germans in one way or another. As part of the deal they’re proposing to get the rest of Europe to fund their welfare state, they want “reparations” from Germany for their actions during World War II.

They also constantly mock and insult German Chancellor Angela Merkel, referring to her derisively as the “austerity queen.”

But the ruling party in Greece may have taken things a bit too far. A newspaper closely identified with Syriza, the party that came to power on a platform to end the bailout and the austerity measures that went with it, published a cartoon of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble in a Nazi uniform “making comments that invoke the Holocaust.”

Germany condemned on Friday a cartoon published in a Greek leftist newspaper close to the new ruling party in Athens that depicts Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble in a Nazi uniform making comments that invoke the Holocaust.

In the cartoon, carried in the daily Avgi (The Dawn), mouthpiece of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza party, Schaeuble says “we insist on soap from your fat” and “we are discussing fertilizer from your ashes”, references to the fate of Jews in the Nazi death camps of World War Two.

“I always uphold the principle of free speech but on a very personal level I find this caricature offensive and the cartoonist should be ashamed,” German finance ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger told a regular news conference.

Relations between Germany, Europe’s paymaster, and debt-ridden Greece have become particularly strained since the Jan. 25 election that swept the anti-austerity Syriza to power.

Earlier this week, during a visit to Berlin, Greece’s new foreign minister pressed his government’s claim for World War Two reparations over Nazi Germany’s brutal occupation of his country. Germany says all reparation issues have been settled.

During Greece’s years-long debt crisis, anti-austerity protesters have often depicted German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a Nazi uniform or with a Hitler moustache. Schaeuble has long been a leading advocate of the tough austerity program.

Avgi captioned the cartoon on the back page of its Feb. 8 edition “Negotiations have begun”, in a nod to talks held in Brussels over how Greece can shift to a new support program.

Greek Prime Minister Alex Tsipras has already had a humiliating climb down. After swearing not to talk to the hated “troika” of the European Commission, the IMF, and the European Central Bank, he had to agree — at the point of a financial gun held to Greece’s head by the ECB — to talk to the creditors this weekend. In return for speaking to the troika, the ECB will keep the Greek banks from folding by supplying them with $5 billion in Emergency Lending Assistance (ELA) — a direct shot of cash into the Greek banking system. Another tranche is scheduled for February 18 — after the Greek government meets with EU finance ministers on Monday.

Clearly, the ECB wants to keep Greece on a short leash.

The swagger is gone from the leftists, who believed the rest of the EU was terrified of a Greek exit from the eurozone. Their silly demands that the rest of Europe keep funding its out of control welfare state aren’t even being considered. How gently the finance ministers will let the Greek government down next week is an open question, but given their behavior since being elected, they are likely to get a stern lecture from the grown ups and a demand to pay back the money they owe.

Read bullet | Comments »

SUV Launches 60 Feet Off of Bridge, Lands Upright

Friday, February 13th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

A pretty remarkable story of survival from Hackensack, New Jersey. An SUV swerved to avoid another car on a bridge, climbed up a snowbank, and was catapulted 60 feet to the pavement below.

It not only landed upright, but the two passengers survived with only minor injuries.

From the Associated Press:

An SUV driver swerving to avoid striking another vehicle on a highway Friday hit a snowbank along a guardrail and catapulted 60 feet off a bridge. Incredibly, authorities say, the two occupants suffered only minor injuries, and the vehicle landed upright.

The Toyota Rav4 was headed east on Interstate 80 when the accident occurred at around 7:15 a.m. in Hackensack, police said.

The driver, 25-year-old Elizabeth Wolthoff of Bergenfield, veered sideways after her vehicle was cut off, officials said. The SUV then hit a snowbank that formed after plows had pushed excess snow up against the guardrail.

The SUV flew off the bridge and landed upright beneath the Hackensack River bridge, missing the river by about 40 feet. Wolthoff and her passenger, 25-year-old Rebecca Winslow, also of Bergenfield, called 911.

“The snowbank served almost as a ramp,” Hackensack Police Director Michael Mordaga told The Record newspaper. “They’re very lucky the way the vehicle landed.”

State Police Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Williams said both women were wearing their seat belts.

Firefighter Michael Thomasey, one of about 20 firefighters who responded to the accident, told the newspaper that Winslow asked where she was and remembered the crash.

“I told her: ‘You’re in Hackensack. Don’t worry. We’re here. We’ll get you out of the car,’” he said. “‘Just sit tight. We’re going to work for a few minutes. It’s going to be noisy. We’re going to get you out of here.’”

It’s amazing that both women were conscious after falling that far. The SUV, however, won’t be taking the kids to soccer practice anytime soon.

000000

(The photo is of the car after the Jaws of Life go through with it.)

If I were to interview those women, I’d ask what went through their minds in the few seconds it took to drop 60 feet. What would go through your mind?

Read bullet | Comments »

VIDEO: Ukrainian Politicians Brawl Outside Parliament Chamber

Thursday, February 12th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Not exactly Fight Club, that’s for sure. But these two Ukrainian politicians from fringe parties fight with just about as much skill and enthusiasm as you would expect from members of parliament.

Samopomich (“Self Reliance”) party deputy Yegor Sobolev and Batkivshchyna (“Fatherland”) party deputy Vadim Ivchenko demonstrate pretty good form, but my grandmother could have taken either one.

The gentlemen were suspended for 5 days, presumably because neither one could punch their way out of a paper bag.

To be sure, they are pikers compared to other legislative brawls. Taiwanese parliament sessions should be made into a reality show considering how often fisticuffs break out in that chamber.

You almost wish we had such excitement in our own legislature. In fact, we once did. In the decade leading up to the Civil War, there were several notable brawls, including one involving about 30 members of Congress in 1858:

The most infamous floor brawl in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives erupted as Members debated the Kansas Territory’s pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution late into the night of February 5-6. Shortly before 2 a.m., Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt exchanged insults, then blows. “In an instant the House was in the greatest possible confusion,” the Congressional Globe reported. More than 30 Members joined the melee. Northern Republicans and Free Soilers joined ranks against Southern Democrats. Speaker James Orr, a South Carolina Democrat, gaveled furiously for order and then instructed Sergeant-at-Arms Adam J. Glossbrenner to arrest noncompliant Members. Wading into the “combatants,” Glossbrenner held the House Mace high to restore order. Wisconsin Republicans John “Bowie Knife” Potter and Cadwallader Washburn ripped the hairpiece from the head of William Barksdale, a Democrat from Mississippi. The melee dissolved into a chorus of laughs and jeers, but the sectional nature of the fight powerfully symbolized the nation’s divisions.

Members routinely came armed to the House chamber, giving life to the saying “An armed populace is a polite populace.”

Of course, the most notorious incident of violence that occurred during that time was the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Rep. Preston Brooks. Sumner had insulted Brooks’ kinsman and the South Carolina hot head caught the Massachusetts senator sitting at his chair in the Senate chamber with his back turned. Sumner, a leading light of the nascent GOP, was never the same after the beating. The writing was on the wall that a civil war was in the offing when hundreds of southerners sent Brooks canes, many of them saying “hit him again.”

The last reference to a House or Senate brawl I could find comes to us courtesy of the Senate historian:

On February 22, 1902, John McLaurin, South Carolina’s junior senator, raced into the Senate Chamber and pronounced that state’s senior senator, Ben Tillman, guilty of “a willful, malicious, and deliberate lie.” Standing nearby, Tillman spun around and punched McLaurin squarely in the jaw. The chamber exploded in pandemonium as members struggled to separate both members of the South Carolina delegation. In a long moment, it was over, but not without stinging bruises both to bystanders and to the Senate’s sense of decorum.

Although Tillman and McLaurin had once been political allies, the relationship had recently cooled. Both were Democrats, but McLaurin had moved closer to the Republicans, who then controlled Congress, the White House, and a lot of South Carolina patronage. When McLaurin changed his position to support Republicans on a controversial treaty, Tillman’s rage erupted. With McLaurin away from the chamber, he had charged that his colleague had succumbed to “improper influences.”

On February 28, 1902, the Senate censured both men and added to its rules the provision that survives today as part of Rule XIX: “No senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”

As for possible matches today, Ted Cruz vs. Chuck Schumer might draw some interest. Both are feisty sorts and probably hate each other anyway. In the House, it wouldn’t be GOP vs. Dem. It would be Tea Party vs. Establishment Republicans. How about Justin Amash vs. Boehner? The speaker is getting along in years but is a fairly big man and could probably handle himself.

Who do you think would match up well in the House and Senate? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

Read bullet | 7 Comments »

Massacre of the Monarch Butterflies

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

I don’t think it’s true anymore, but when I was a kid, just about every child on the block had a butterfly net and a mounting board. Butterfly collecting — like hula hoops before that time — was all the rage and I don’t think anyone could quite figure out why. The parents were pleased because it got the kid out of the house every day during the summer for a few hours. And it was a safe, fun way to learn about the natural world.

In Illinois, there were Sulfurs, Whites, the beautiful and rare Yellow Swallowtail, Skippers and the biggest prize of all; the Monarch. The Monarch was most sought after because first, it was so beautiful, and second, it was so hard to catch. A seven or eight year old kid doesn’t run very fast and once the Monarch knew you were stalking it, it would spread those big wings and head for the hills. It took guile and cunning to sneak up on a Monarch and catching one was always a thrill.

That’s why this story about nearly a billion Monarch butterflies dying off since 1990 as a result of pesticides and a dwindling habitat hit me a little harder than most extinction stories. And the Monarch is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire class of insects that faithfully pollinate our flowers and plants is disappearing at an alarming rate. The die-off of honeybees threatens not only our flowers, but also the thousands of products that use honey as an ingredient. Wasps are also under pressure, as are most species of beetle.

The Monarch is a “keystone” species and losing it would set off a chain reaction that would severely damage the eco-system. Beyond the practical, there are esthetic reasons for trying to save the insect.

Monarch butterflies are a keystone species that once fluttered throughout the United States by the billions. They alighted from Mexico to Canada each spring on a trek that required six generations of the insect to complete. Afterward, young monarchs about the quarter of the weight of a dime, that know nothing about the flight pattern through the United States, not to mention Mexico, fly back, resting, birthing and dining on milkweed. Only about 30 million remain.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has started a crash program to grow more milkweed — the plant the Monarch depends on for food and a home. Farmers and homeowners have drastically reduced the numbers of milkweed plants which, in turn has catastrophically affected the Monarch.

Fish and Wildlife is reviewing a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity to list monarch butterflies as an endangered species that requires special protection to survive. The agency is studying whether that’s necessary and also trying to do more to help restore the population.

The agency is providing $2 million for on the ground conservation projects. As part of an agreement, the federation will help raise awareness about the need for milkweed, provide seeds to anyone willing to plant it and to plant the seeds in open space — roadsides, parks, forests and patio flower boxes, to name a few places. Another $1.2 million will go to the foundation as seed money to generate a larger fundraising match from private organizations.

Fish and Wildlife will chip in to plant milkweed seeds in refuges and other areas it controls to create 200,000 acres of habitat along the Interstate 35 corridor from Texas to Minnesota, where 50 percent of monarchs migrate. Fish and Wildlife will encourage other federal and state agencies to do the same on public lands and is working with the governments of Mexico and Canada to help restore the iconic butterfly.

The monarch butterfly’s round trip to and from Mexico takes it past a killing field of agriculture. But farmers aren’t entirely to blame for the insect’s decline, said Dan Ashe, director of Fish and Wildlife. “We’ve all been responsible. We are the consumers of agricultural products. I eat corn. American farmers are not the enemy. Can they be part of the solution? Yes,” Ashe said.

Some readers of this site may cast a jaundiced eye at such conservation efforts. Indeed, the EPA can be overbearing and arbitrary about saving some species. But saving the pollinators from our own folly benefits everyone. And a good first step is to stave off extinction for the Monarch.

Read bullet | Comments »

Colorado Dems Don’t Mind if EBT Cards Can be Used to Buy Pot

Sunday, February 8th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

This is one of those stories that you just kind of shake your head and wonder if some politicians have anything between their ears at all.

The Electronic Benefit Transfer Cards (EBT) given out by the government in place of the old paper food stamps has many advantages both for users and businesses. They’ve actually helped cut down on fraud in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and they make record keeping a lot easier for retailers who accept them.

But you are not supposed to be able to buy beer, wine, or liquor with them. Accordingly, Cash machines located in liquor stores cannot dispense cash via an EBT card. You can, however, use them to get the cash portion of your benefits — even if an ATM machine is located in a marijuana shop.

Republicans want to change this. Democrats apparently don’t see anything wrong with it.

Washington Times:

Everyone in Colorado from Republicans to marijuana moguls wants to stop welfare cash from being used to buy recreational pot, but standing in their way are the state’s formidable legislative Democrats.

Despite mounting evidence that “welfare for weed” is more than an urban myth, Democratic legislators are balking at a bill that would add marijuana dispensaries and strip clubs to the list of places, along with casinos and liquor stores, where debit-style benefits cards cannot be used to withdraw cash from automatic teller machines, or ATMs.

Democrats killed a similar bill last year, but now the stakes are higher. States had two years to align their statutes with a 2012 federal law banning the use of electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards at gambling and adult-entertainment venues.

As of this year, states that fail to take action risk having their federal grants under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program reduced by 5 percent.

While pot shops aren’t on the federal list, Colorado officials are concerned that failing to disable ATMs at marijuana dispensaries for EBT cards would violate the spirit of the law and provoke the ire of the Justice Department, which is keeping the legalized pot industry in states like Colorado and Washington on a short leash.

“Even though it’s not part of that ban requirement, marijuana is illegal at the federal level, and we just want to be proactive and ahead of that,” said Levetta Love, director of Office of Economic Security for the Colorado Department of Human Services, in testimony last week in support of the bill before a Senate committee.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Vicki Marble, noted that President Obama’s nominee for attorney general, New York federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch, took a hard line on states that legalize marijuana at last month’s Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings.

Beyond the question of federal benefits being used to purchase a product illegal in almost the entire country, you have to ask how much intelligence it takes to give access to people receiving nutritional assistance to a drug that even proponents agree alters consciousness, impairs motor skills, and with chronic use, leads to lethargy and a lowering of ambition.

Taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing marijuana use any more than they should be subsidizing the use of alcohol. But Democrats aren’t convinced there’s a problem:

Last year, Democrats said they were worried about limiting access for welfare recipients, many of whom don’t have bank accounts and may find it difficult to locate nearby ATMs in their neighborhoods. Democrats were also dubious about whether EBT cardholders were really blowing public dollars on pot.

Those arguments were raised once again at last week’s Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee hearing, where the bill passed 3-2 on a party-line vote.

“My county still expresses concerns about this bill, and they don’t know how big a problem it is as far as people using this money for the activities listed here, so I’m going to be a no,” said Democratic state Sen. Matt Jones.

Liberals in Colorado and elsewhere have mocked concerns about welfare recipients getting high on the taxpayers’ dime, exemplified by a headline in September from Media Matters, which said, “Right-Wing Media’s Mythological ‘Welfare for Weed’ Campaign Has Resulted in Actual GOP Legislation.”

A TV investigative report concluded that 17 pounds of marijuana was purchased using EBT cards last year. That’s a small percentage of the total amount of marijuana sold in the state. But it kind of blows up the notion that “welfare for weed” is a myth.

This bill is a no brainer to support given the ubiquitousness of ATM machines these days. The notion there’s some kind of “ATM desert” in Colorado cities is absurd. The bottom line is it’s crazy to give people who need federal assistance to survive access to a mind-altering drug.

Read bullet | Comments »

Kerry: No Extension of Iran Nuke Talks

Sunday, February 8th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Has Secretary of State John Kerry and the administration suddenly seen the light? Has the wool been pulled from their eyes and are they now seeing clearly?

Well, not really.

Kerry told Meet the Press today that an extension of the nuclear talks, scheduled to run through June, is “impossible.”

But there’s a huge caveat,as The Hill reports:

“The only chance I can see of an extension at this point in time would be you really have the outlines of the agreement,” Kerry said in an interview that aired on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“But if we’re not able to make the fundamental decisions that have to be made over the next weeks, literally, I think it would be impossible to extend,” he said.

“I don’t think we would want to extend at that point. Either you make the decisions to prove your program is a peaceful one or, if you’re unable to do that, it may tell a story that none of us want to hear,” he added.

And how far down are they going to dumb “the outlines of the agreement”? Basically, agreement outlines can be anything the administrations says. They can be as nebulous or specific as the president decides.

But it’s possible that Iran is tiring of the game and wants to pick up it’s nukes and go home, as the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested:

“I do not think another extension is in the interest of anyone, as I do not believe this extension was either necessary or useful,” Zarif told a global security conference, meeting in the southern German city of Munich.

“In my view extension is not useful, not conducive to an agreement, and all my energy and focus and that of my colleagues and I’m sure my negotiating partners …. are all focused on reaching an agreement as early as possible.”

Iran will continue to talk as long as the US and western powers continue to give in to their demands. If Kerry wants to declare that an “outline” of a deal has been achieved in order to continue the talks indefinitely — even though the “outline” is largely imaginary — no doubt the Iranians will agree. They have absolutely nothing to lose. And the longer they negotiate, the more desperate the west becomes to avoid a confrontation over their nuclear program.

Iran can afford to be patient. If they wait long enough, they should get everything they need to continue to develop their enrichment program in order to build a nuclear bomb. For those stakes, Supreme Leader Khamenei may be willing to wait until hell freezes over.

Read bullet | Comments »

David Brooks Praises Obama for Calling out our ‘Self-Righteousness’ in Prayer Breakfast Speech

Sunday, February 8th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

You would think after more than 6 years of listening to speeches by President Obama, that most intelligent people would have figured out that, more than any recent chief executive, Obama’s rhetoric rarely appeals to the better angels of our nature. Rather, we are constantly taken to task for our failings and shortcomings, as he reminds us of the dark places we’ve been in our history.

It’s not that what Obama says is necessarily false, although his interpretation of history can raise some eyebrows. It’s that he defeats the purpose of his speech when he believes he’s giving us “hard truths” about our past before spouting insincere platitudes about how we can become greater if we only acknowledge our sins and, presumably, feel as guilty about them as he does.

This may be an overgeneralization of the president’s rhetorical style, but it’s striking how often President Obama feels the need to remind us of our less than perfect past. Liberals listening in cheer him on because they agree with his worldview, and frankly, don’t think we deserve to be lifted out of ourselves. You must feel guilt about our past or you’re just a mindless patriot with no soul.

David Brooks apparently subscribes to this philosophy. His appearance on Meet the Press this morning was notable for his clarifying exactly what it is about Obama’s speeches that so enthralls the left.

“I’m totally pro-Obama on this,” Brooks said.

DAVID BROOKS, NEW YORK TIMES: I think he said the right thing. Listen, it was a gospel of humility. What sorts of people need a little gospel of humility, people in Washington, pundits, religious believers, I happen to be all three of those things. And so we’re told to we’re told to walk humbly in the path of the Lord, the Lord’s ways are mysterious and so you’re saying we’re prone to zealotry as John said we’re fallen. And that’s useful in Washington today, that’s useful always…

CHUCK TODD, MEET THE PRESS: You do sit here and you say, the president himself, David, and you’ve spent a lot of time with him off the record, he wants to have more conversations like this. But, perhaps presidents can’t? You can’t do it until after you leave office? Imean is that, is that where we’re at?

BROOKS: No, I think he was right. He gave the race speech. It was a beautiful speech. He’s given a whole series of great speeches, Trayvon Martin. This was really fine. This is exactly the moment you want to say this. We’re at most the moral danger to ourselves when we’re caught up in a righteous fervor against an evil foe which is what we have. And while we exercise hard power we have to take morally hazardous action or we’re going to be prone to get caught up in our own self-righteousness. This is exactly the moment we needed this.

Was making ridiculous comparisons between Christian knights who fought in the crusades and Islamic State terrorists designed to make us more humble? If so, why was this a good thing?

Putting aside the president’s dubious grasp of the complexities surrounding the reasons for the crusades, the atrocities committed by Christian knights were not done solely because they were filled with religious “zealotry.” The kind of religious fanaticism found in the Islamic State camp was missing among most crusaders, who were only acting in the same, brutal manner that conquering armies of the time acted. Islamic State fighters believes Allah is commanding them to chop off heads. Christian knights did it because it was a normal part of warfare at the time.

But why is it a good thing that the president seeks to humble us in our fight against IS? This is a bizarre notion that only someone besotted with guilt could possibly agree with. Can you imagine FDR trying to humble us in our fight against the Nazis by reminding us how evil parts of our past has been?

The only conclusion you can draw is that both Brooks and Obama don’t believe we hold a morally ascendant position over Islamic State because of events that occurred 900 years ago. While a prayer breakfast may not have been the proper venue for a rousing, martial speech — a call to arms to defeat a threat to our civilization — neither was it a place to tell us that our shortcomings make us no better than terrorists. Only a president confident in the ultimate goodness of our cause can inspire us to support a war that will probably last a decade or more. Calls to check our self-righteousness at the door are not going to fill the bill.

Read bullet | 46 Comments »

New FCC Internet Regs: Worse than we Imagined

Sunday, February 8th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

The Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is warning that the new regulations governing the internet, which will be voted on later this month, will grant government control of the net, increase taxes, and require hidden fees that will make the internet less free, more expensive, and less innovative.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai issued a statement on Friday that highlighted some of the changes in the internet being sought by the government. Indeed, some of the details are alarming. The FCC’s plan regarding “net neutrality” may not even be legal, considering that the last two efforts to regulate the internet have resulted in court decisions that threw them out.

Daily Caller:

“President Obama’s plan marks a monumental shift toward government control of the Internet. It gives the FCC the power to micromanage virtually every aspect of how the Internet works,” Pai said. “The plan explicitly opens the door to billions of dollars in new taxes on broadband… These new taxes will mean higher prices for consumers and more hidden fees that they have to pay.”

In his initial cursory overview of the plan, the commissioner said it would hinder broadband investment, slow network speed and expansion, limit outgrowth to rural areas of the country and reduce Internet service provider (ISP) competition.

“The plan saddles small, independent businesses and entrepreneurs with heavy-handed regulations that will push them out of the market,” Pai said. “As a result, Americans will have fewer broadband choices. This is no accident. Title II was designed to regulate a monopoly. If we impose that model on a vibrant broadband marketplace, a highly regulated monopoly is what we’ll get.”

n an op-ed detailing the core aspects of his net neutrality plan published earlier this week, Wheeler described lumping ISPs under Title II of the 1996 Telecommunications Act — which based its authority on that used to regulate telephone monopolies at the dawn of the communication age — as the cornerstone.

“Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC,” Wheeler wrote Wednesday. “These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services.”

The plan described by Wheeler would ban wired and wireless ISPs like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable from establishing tiered lanes of service speeds with varying prices for content creators like Netflix, Google, YouTube, Facebook and others based on speed and bandwidth use. It would also prevent ISPs from throttling, segregating or blocking traffic.

“Courts have twice thrown out the FCC’s attempts at Internet regulation,” Pai said recalling the lawsuit that struck down the FCC’s Internet authority last year, setting off the year-long debate. “There’s no reason to think that the third time will be the charm. Even a cursory look at the plan reveals glaring legal flaws that are sure to mire the agency in the muck of litigation for a long, long time.”

Treating the internet as a utility so that the government can use the Telecommunications Act to regulate it would be a disaster for consumers and businesses alike. While it is desirable that companies not be allowed to charge big broadband customers more for faster internet access (thus slowing down the net for the rest of us), any plan that dictates rates, or the way the internet is configured would make service more expensive and the internet less competitive. This would stifle innovation in an industry that thrives on it.

Is there a better example of the adage “If it ain’t broke, dont’ fix it”? Going forward, one can agree that intelligent regulation is needed to keep the internet vibrant and free. But the kinds of regulations being proposed by the FCC aren’t necessary to achieve that goal, and will only serve to empower government to stick its nose where it doesn’t belong.

Read bullet | 5 Comments »

US Attorney: Christie Not Target of Investigation — MSNBC Hit Hardest

Saturday, February 7th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

That noise you hear is the sound of the wind going out of the sails of an entire news network. MSNBC had wall to wall coverage for weeks at a time of the investigation into the closing of the George Washington bridge by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie supposedly to retaliate against a Democrat who wouldn’t support his re-election. Every rumor, every dubious claim was given loving and extensive coverage.

On Thursday, a former county prosecutor told the media that he had been talking to the New Jersey US attorney’s office about an incident in 2010 where he was fired for complaining that several Christie supporters weren’t indicted for wrong doing.

Bennett Barlyn alleges that he was fired from his job as a Hunterdon County prosecutor in 2010 after objecting to the dismissal of indictments against a number of Christie supporters.

Barlyn said he had spoken with federal investigators on Wednesday about his claims, the International Business Times first reported on Thursday.

According to Barlyn, the prosecutor’s office secured indictments against a sheriff and other officials before the Christie administration took over the investigation and got the indictments overturned, saying they were not based on strong evidence.

Barlyn has also filed a whistleblower lawsuit that remains open. He told ABC News he was unsure if investigators had spoken to others about the case.

Christie’s office has denied the allegations of wrongdoing, previously calling the allegations “conspiratorial nonsense,” according to ABC.

The federal probe reportedly is focused on why New Jersey’s then-Attorney General Paula Dow dismissed the indictments.

MSNBC pounced on this information like a starving dog Unfortunately for the network, the US attorney in New Jersey has shot down the idea that Christie is under investigation:

The U.S. Attorney’s office in New Jersey dismissed media reports that it has launched a new criminal investigation into Gov. Chris Christie (R) as “a tremendous leap forward” in a statement provided Friday to MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

At issue is an allegation that Christie’s office helped scuttle indictments against the governor’s allies and that a former county prosecutor who tried to blow the whistle was fired. An International Business Times report from Thursday claimed that prosecutors launched a formal investigation into the matter.

Ben Barlyn, the former county prosecutor who says he was fired for pushing back on the indictments, told the news organization that he met with members of the Attorney’s office this week. He added that he spoke for more than an hour about his accusations and gave them what he referred to as “critical evidence.”

But while the Attorney’s office didn’t confirm or deny that it spoke to Barlyn, it characterized such conversations as not necessarily indicative of a full investigation.

“We talk to people all of the time,” a spokesman told MSNBC.

“It doesn’t mean we’re investigating anybody. Any characterization that we are investigating the governor about this is just not true.”

Barlyn also told the network that he “never characterized this as a full-blown investigation.”

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, emailed quotes from Maddow’s segment on Saturday to news organizations, in an effort to push back on various reports that had picked up on the IBT story, including one from The Hill. He said in an email that while the reports gave “the false appearance” of a new investigation, “new reports clearly debunk that allegation.”

Christie is reportedly considering a presidential bid in 2016, but he has been enmeshed in ethical controversy in the recent past.

The network clearly has a vendetta against Christie — as have most New Jersey Democrats. All of this scandal churning has had the effect of raising questions in Republicans’ minds about Christie’s fitness for high office — even though there has never been any evidence of wrongdoing on his part.

If you can’t beat ‘em, smear ‘em.

Read bullet | Comments »

Williams Takes Leave of Absence for ‘Several Days’

Saturday, February 7th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Embattled NBC anchor Brian Williams will take a leave of absence from his job at the network for “several days,” according to several sources.

Brian Williams said on Saturday that he will step aside as anchor of his nightly NBC News broadcast for “several days” as a result of the controversy generated by his comments about his reporting during the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina.

In a memo to NBC News staff made public by the network, Williams wrote, “As managing editor of NBC Nightly News, I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days, and Lester Holt has kindly agreed to sit in for me to allow us to adequately deal with this issue. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”

Meanwhile, NBC President Deborah Turness sent out a staff memo, informing NBC employees of the investigation into Williams’ statements:

All,

This has been a difficult few days for all of us at NBC News.

Yesterday, Brian and I spoke to the Nightly News team. And this morning at the Editorial Exchange, we both addressed the wider group. Brian apologized once again and specifically expressed how sorry he is for the impact this has had on all of you and on this proud organization.

As you would expect, we have a team dedicated to gathering the facts to help us make sense of all that has transpired. We’re working on what the best next steps are — and when we have something to communicate we will of course share it with you.

Since joining NBC News, I’ve seen great strength and resilience. We are a close-knit family, and your response this week has made that even clearer.

As a relentless news agenda marches on, thank you again for continuing to do what we do best — bring the most important stories of the day to our audience.

Deborah

“Make sense of all that has transpired”? What has transpired is that the face of your news network is on record admitting he made up a story and pushed it as part of his bio for 12 years.

Rumors are running wild that Williams will be out by sometime next week. The leave of absence would seem to confirm that rumor. By letting Williams soften the blow by exiting temporarily, they at least allow the anchor to maintain some dignity, rather than abruptly firing him.

Read bullet | 10 Comments »