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The Former Eastern Ukraine?

April 15th, 2014

The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Ukraine Falters in Drive to Curb Unrest in East,” describes an untenable situation for the new Ukrainian government. If they undertake military action to wrest control of eastern towns from pro-Russian militants, they will be risking an affirmation of the Russian narrative, and the subsequent invasion by Russian troops. If they do nothing, the pro-Russian groups will capture more towns in the east and solidy the ones they already hold.

With eight towns already occupied, the Ukrainian government is facing an existential crisis. And if the government cannot hold the country together, isn’t it facing failure at its most basic function? Without providing security against invaders or other armed groups, Kiev, the Ukrainian capital in the west of the country, is revealed as powerless and its current pro-European government will not last for long.

And Europe and the United States have no tenable options. After expending so many lives and treasure needlessly in Iraq, they face a war-weary public more concerned about domestic issues. And if you are politically unable to use your army, you might as well not have a strong one in the first place.

Plus Ukraine is outside the self-protecting treaties of the Nato countries. That provides one more excuse for the West to ignore Russian aggression.

Climate Change Crisis

April 14th, 2014

The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Climate Efforts Falling Short, U.N. Panel Says,” describes the conclusion by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, namely that the nations of the world are not doing enough to thwart this very serious problem.

The effects of climate change could be dire: a rise in sea levels, an inability to grow enough food and mass extinctions of various forms of plant and animal life. And, according to the report, not enough is being done to stave off these calamities. The first decade of the 21st century saw a faster rise in carbon dioxide emissions than ever before.

There is some good news. Both China and the United States, the worst polluters, are grappling with the problem and making progress. But it is not enough. The use of fossil fuels needs to decline by 20 percent, and the use of clean energy sources needs to double. In the U.S., municipal governments have been able to address climate change in ways unachievable by treaties from the federal government.

The next climate change plan is being negotiated for ratification in 2015 and implementation in 2020. Let’s hope that the United States can play its usual constructive role and lead other nations along instead of being dragged kicking and screaming into a new accord.

Fracking Chinese

April 12th, 2014

The lead article in today’s New York Times, “China Takes on Big Risks in its Push for Shale Gas,” describes the effect of fracking on Chinese villages, focusing on a small town woken up by a huge explosion and a fireball.

Despite residents’ concerns about the effect on drinking water and fields, the farmers still support the fracking company because they can rent out their farms to energy executives for an amount greater than they earn all year with their rice crops.

China still relies mostly on coal plants, and many people die in coal mines every year. And China is the largest contributor to global warming and endures suffocating smog in its major cities.

But fracking is even more dangerous in China than in the United States. The energy companies have to dig two to three times deeper to get at the shale, creating a more dangerous and hazardous situation.

China would do well to keep its focus on solar energy rather than fracking. They have made huge strides in solar and are leading the world in their development of solar technology. This renewable, clean source of energy could give them many more benefits than switching to another form of oil-based energy.

And small villages would not be woken up in the middle of the night by a fireball.

So Long Sebelius

April 11th, 2014

The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Sebelius Resigns After Troubles Over Health Site,” was inevitable after the disastrous rollout of the HealthCare.gov website. Worse than the technical shortcomings was Sebelius’ inability to manage the crisis. Her soft-spoken and often flat performances did not do justice to the priority President Obama has placed on national healthcare.

Sebelius claims she was not forced out, but the events speak otherwise. In any case, she was given a big push to consider some other opportunity.

Even though the exchanges eventually did reach their goal of seven million participants, the inability of Sebelius to effectively serve as an advocate for national healthcare doomed her tenure. She will be replaced by a younger and more vibrant secretary, Sylvia Burwell, who has an economic background as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The main problem with Kathleen Sebelius — she was never an I.T. professional and could not be properly blamed regarding the website — was her poor political skills and inability to serve as a convincing advocate to turn around public opinion. As a result, Democratic candidates for the House and Senate could be adversely affected in their races by a Republican propaganda machine.

One hopes that Sylvia Burwell will be able to turn things around in a more effective way.

Profiling Policy

April 10th, 2014

The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Profiling Rules Said to Give F.B.I. Tactical Leeway,” describes what Attorney General Eric Holder had hoped would constitute an adequate revision of the excesses of the Bush administration, but, in reality, it provides a broad exemption for the very procedures previously used.

After 9/11, the F.B.I. had used techniques such as domain mapping to determine where specific immigrant communities were located based on nationality and religion. Now, these factors are no longer sufficient in themselves to allow these techniques. An urgent national security threat must be invoked in order to allow the practice to continue. But there is no outside authority used to approve or deny the assertion of this threat, so what we now have are prohibitions on paper that largely mean nothing.

Another reason for racial profiling during the Bush administration involved Hispanic communities and the enforcement of border crossings. Revision of these rules are in the works as well, and they must be completed before any rules changes take effect. One anticipates Congress may get involved here as well as illegal immigration has become a prominent issue for their party. Perhaps, the Republicans will even remind Latinos about how hostile they are to immigrant needs, and the reminder will be effective in bringing Hispanics to the polls.

Medicare Monopoly?

April 9th, 2014

The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Sliver of Medicare Doctors Get Big Share of Payouts,” describes new information, previously blocked by the AMA, about who receives the most reimbursement among doctors for Medicare billings.

The information, released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, shows that about two percent of the doctors received almost 25 percent of total reimbursements. Expensive procedures, especially to prevent or treat macular degeneration, a common eye disease among the elderly, are responsible.

The data will prove helpful in tracking the billing practices of doctors, especially those that prescribe a large number of tests in a pro forma way. Known as defensive medicine, this practice can be curtailed by locating doctors responsible. However, the AMA cautioned that there could be other reasons for high billings, such as doctors overseeing a larger group of interns.

At a time when Obamacare is being subjected to minute scrutiny, the release of this data will show how much reform was and is needed, and that it is not complete. The healthcare system is inherently subject to abuse when you have unknowledgeable subjects, the patients, dependent on anything a doctor says or does. Most doctors are kind, good-hearted souls, but it only takes a few bad apples to give them all a bad name.

Russia and East Ukraine

April 8th, 2014

The lead article in today’s New York Times, “In East Ukraine, Protesters Seek Russian Troops,” describes an increasingly tense situation, where demonstrators are calling for Russian intervention and are pledging to hold a referendum on secession no later than May 11. Three cities in East Ukraine were besieged by these protests, in a similar scenario to Crimea, where Russian troops entered the region and eventually annexed it.

Ukrainian government officials in Kiev will not let any Russian aggression go unchecked like they did with Crimea. Moats are being built, and Ukrainian soldiers are taking up positions to defend their nation. But against 40,000 Russian troops, it does not seem like they would have much success.

With Ukranian Presidential elections scheduled for May, the Russian influence is bound to affect the results, and the alignment of Ukraine with Europe seems increasingly unlikely. Some form of federalism to give Russian-speaking provinces autonomy seems almost inevitable, if only to keep Russian troops at bay.

Meanwhile, the IMF is demanding austerity measures if it is to help bail out the Ukrainian economy. And those legislative steps may be forestalled as Ukraine tries to maintain its territorial integrity and keep Eastern Ukraine as part of the country. Europe and the United States are watching these developments helplessly.

Immigration Standoff

April 7th, 2014

The lead article in today’s New York Times, “More Deportations Follow Minor Crimes, Data Shows,” provides a detailed look at a complex immigration situation where some advocates of reform are calling the President “the deporter in chief.”

The slogan is largely unmerited. The statistics showing nearly two million deportations are misleading because, unlike President Bush, the Obama administration is formally charging Mexicans who try to slip across the border rather than just sending them back. This inflates the number of deportations and leads to an unfair comparison.

Moreover, the President is largely leaving the immigration laws unenforced in the interior of the country as opposed to the Southwest where a more dangerous situation has developed, and Republicans are demanding enforcement of the borders. The President needs to show toughness in this area if he ever hopes to get immigration reform through Congress.

Due to the apples-to-oranges comparison of these statistics and the strident nature of advocates from La Raza and other immigrant advocates, Hispanics may stay home during the mid-term elections, and that would truly be a tragedy for immigration reform. Because the Republicans are stridently against what they call “amnesty,” an increase in their power would be universally detrimental for any who still hope for a pathway to citizenship.

Middle East Talks Collapse

April 5th, 2014

The lead article in today’s New York Times, “U.S. to Reassess Status of Talks on Middle East,” may be describing the beginning of the end for the talks scheduled to terminate at the end of April. Yet despite provocative moves, neither Israel nor the Palestinians truly want the talks to end, though sometimes it seems that the peace process is crawling forward, if that.

The latest blowup occurred when Israel delayed the final release of Palestinian prisoners, and Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, retaliated by applying to join 15 international organizations. However, he did not apply to the International Criminal Court, the organization that Israel fears the most because they could theoretically rule against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

The departure of Kerry could be calculated to force both sides to make painful concessions in order to keep the talks going. There is also the possibility of the United States presenting its own plan, and then have it modified by both parties. The idea that final resolution would be difficult should not surprise Secretary of State Kerry — there’s a reason why so many other people have failed.

If the talks totally collapse, there is a very real possibility of violence in the Palestinian territories, perhaps even another intifada. Benjamin Netanyahu needs to do everything possible to avoid that.

Karzai Influence

April 4th, 2014

The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Karzai is Trying to Keep his Sway after Term Ends,” describes what may be bad news for the United States, an effort by Hamid Karzai, the current Afghan President, to retain influence even after the election tomorrow is over.

Karzai, who refused to sign a security agreement with the United States, perhaps leading to a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, has shaped the current Presidential election, forcing his brother to bow out for example, and contributing large amounts of cash to two of the three main contenders.

Karzai may be hoping to retain influence up until the winner of the election takes office, despite the fact that the Americans have largely stopped dealing with him. This could lead to complications because U.S. troops may be vulnerable to the Afghan legal system should anything nefarious occur. And that is the prime reason the U.S. would leave the country unless a security agreement is signed.

Karzai also hand-picked the election supervisors, and if there is not a clean win tomorrow, or an obvious run-off, these supervisors would hold a great deal of power.

However, Karzai is also concerned with the same thing that occupies lame duck U.S. Presidents, shaping his legacy as an indispensable leader. That may keep him in line as the election season plays out.