Thursday, February 28, 2013

The United States Plans to Further Aid the Terror-, I Mean Rebels!

These aren't the rebels you're looking for Assad
They say that one's terrorists are another one's freedom fighters. The question for the United States is who we consider the Syrian rebels to be.

The New York Times reported that the United States is considering increasing its assistance to Syrian rebels resisting Assad's regime. The rebels will receive military advice, equipment, and training at a base in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry actively called for the United States to provide additional assistance to the Syrian rebels while visiting Paris. While this good fortune for the rebels, what does this mean for the United States? Getting dragged into yet another military conflict in the Middle East seems contradictory to President Obama's hopes that the Afghanistan War would end within a year so that the troops come return safely. If the United States chooses to expand the range of its assistance to the rebels, there is the distinct possibility that our troops could be deployed there.

As The Christian Science Monitor points out, President Obama's possible decision to provide more "nonlethal" aid to the rebels steps on morally questionable grounds. To be fair, without direct intervention, radical Islamist groups are gradually gaining support in Syria. Providing defensive military equipment to hold back potential future terrorists is not a bad idea. The problem is that the Syrian rebels themselves are technically terrorists. They could be just as dangerous as radical Islamist groups if they choose to give some of the equipment to terrorist groups or begin using them to slaughter civilians as they see fit. As thousands of people are dying in Syria, perhaps the act of doing nothing is casting the United States in a bad light, forcing President Obama to call for more intervention. Of course, polls show most Americans aren't itching for a fight.

On Thursday, John Kerry will attend a meeting in Rome to discuss the Syria situation and will probably call for more international aid for Syria. USA Today quotes the director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics for noting that "I think we are going to see the Obama administration directly engaging the armed opposition inside Syria - a flow of U.S. (aid) to the armed opposition, including various material and also training, and command and control intelligence." That's definitely more than a little help, in my opinion. With the United States backing the rebels, they have a good chance of overthrowing Assad. However, there could be future consequences. It is always possible that the United States may be indirectly arming Al-Qaeda if the rebels ever choose to follow the terrorist group's mindset. Should we act rashly, we could endanger the fate of Syria.

Do you feel the United States should get more involved in the Syria conflict? Should we encourage other countries to help out as well? What are the chances of American support actually helping the rebels win? Are the rebels actually better than Assad in the long-run? These questions and more need to be answered if we are to take the correct path in Syria.

Here's a video news report on this issue for your viewing convenience.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Endgame on Sequestration Countdown - Is All Hope Lost?

"Sorry President Obama, but you're too late!"
Is there any hope left for America? The $85 billion sequestration cuts that begin on Friday has already led many government agencies to reduce cuts and tell employees off. There is little expectation among both Republicans and Democrats that the two parties will be able to put aside partisan issues and work together in time for the cuts. On Thursday, I feel it is more likely that any debate over the sequestration cuts will just be political fanfare, nothing substantial. The Democrats want to move an omnibus spending package for the rest of the year. However, the 60 votes that would be necessary to pass this package is unlikely due to Republican concerns.

The result of the cuts would have dramatic consequences for the economy, more likely than not. The Republicans are worried about the cuts giving too much power to President Obama's administration, spending money without any of their input or consensus. Some Republicans also fear President Obama will use this opportunity to shift money and help his health care plan, which they obviously have no great love for. Politico quotes Mike Simpson as saying that "One of the things that they mention is that we've been able to control spending in Obamacare, and if we give [the White House] flexibility, they may fund all these parts of Obamacare we don't want to fund." It is quite disheartening that even in such a crisis, politicians still have a tendency to focus on things like Obamacare instead of hurriedly working out a bipartisan solution.  Pew isn't helping either. But then, we can't say we aren't used to this.

President Obama himself is not too happy with the way things are going. He fully expects that these cuts will cause businesses to "tumble downward." Of course, his concerns are not going to prevent the probable budget battles that are erupting even before Friday. Fiscal gridlock is not a pleasant idea. However, John Boehner and President Obama have come no closer to finding a final deal than before. The New York Times quotes Stan Collender for saying that "I don't think there's a grand bargain out there - not this year, not next year, maybe not until after 2016."

Well that's certainly a depressing thought. I think we should be prepared for the worst. What do you think is going to happen? Will a miracle allow Democrats and Republicans to suddenly work together? How will the rest of the world respond? I doubt Adam Smith saw this coming when he first described the market system.

For more information, feel free to watch this video.

Jack Lew Confirmed as Treasury Secretary ... Well, After He Signs

"Mr. Lew is a great master (of the budget process). He's as experienced as Hillary Clinton and as creative as his signature." 
Not too long after Hagel's appointment was confirmed, the Senate has voted to approve Jack Lew as President Barack Obama's new Treasury Secretary. In a less nail-biting finish, the majority of senators, including all the Democrats, supported Lew in a 71-26 vote. While there was some Republican complaints over Lew's connections to big banks after he left New York University to work at Citigroup Inc. (especially regarding his approximately $1 million bonus) as well as his signature, the former Office of Management and Budget Chief and Chief of Staff pulled through without too much of a struggle.

Of course, now that Lew has been appointed, he has the happy job of having to land smack in the middle of the current budget crisis. One of Lew's priorities is to find a compromise that will prevent any serious reprecussions from $85 billion spending cuts that will take effect the beginning of Friday. Hopefully his experience will allow him to perform competently as Tim Geithner's replacement. However, this humorous Salt Lake Tribune writer thinks differently. Rick Lowry sarcastically claims that "at Citi, Lew established beyond a doubt his expertise at getting paid. In 2008, as the bank nearly blew up and laid off one-seventh of its employees, Lew ran its disastrous Alternative Investments unit - and got paid $1.1 million." Also, during the 2011 debt ceiling talks, he and his team were the ones who helped create the original idea for the cuts, but they weren't taken too seriously at the time.

Thankfully, President Obama seems confident in this appointment. Politico quotes Obama as saying that "As my chief of staff, Jack was by my side as we confronted our nation's toughest challenges... His reputation as a master of fiscal issues who can work with leaders on both sides of the aisle has already helped him succeed in some of the toughest jobs in Washington." Senator Orrin Hatch, the top Republican party member on the Senate Finance Committee, stated before the vote that "I intend to vote in favor of Mr. Lew's nomination and obviously my vote in favor of Mr. Lew comes with no small amount of reservation." Whether or not that comment means anything depend on your interpretation. However, at least the seat of Secretary Treasury is filled when we need it most.

I personally believe that Jack Lew's experience working under both President Obama and Clinton should indicate that he will make a capable Treasury Secretary. It is worth noting that he became Treasury Secretary without as much trouble as Chuck Hagel or his predecessor had in their final vote counts. But what's your opinion on Lew? Will Lew be able to handle his new job? Can he get enough bipartisan support for any policies he might have in mind? Does he read The Wealth of Nations in his bedroom? Comment as you see fit.

If you want to watch Lew's nomination, watch this video.

Illegal Immigrants Will Not Be Tolerated ... Unless We're Facing a Budget Problem

The United States of America: The Land of Opportunity. Even the Illegal Ones Benefit!

As mandatory budget cuts are about to take effect, many illegal immigrants held in United States prisons are going to be released. The Department of Homeland Security has chosen to release these immigrants because they feel that the jails should hold inmates who, as Gilligan Christiansen said, "pose more of a threat to public safety." The Republicans are simply going livid. In the words of Bob Goodlatte, "By releasing criminal immigrants into the streets, the administration is needlessly endangering American lives."

I personally find Mr. Goodlatte's statements a bit extreme. I doubt illegal immigrants are going to instantly go on killing sprees once they are released. Besides, the National Immigrant Forum revealed that it costs approximately $164 a day to keep an illegal immigrant jailed for being, well you know, illegal. President Obama has already promised in his State of the Union address to help improve immigration policies so that legal and illegal immigrants have a less difficult time entering the United States. The economy is bad enough with JP Morgan and perhaps soon other banks laying off their workers. Wasting money to hold immigrants who probably just want to find work and support their families is not very productive, in my opinion. However, perhaps there are certain trade-offs that I have not identified. Maybe these illegal immigrants will start stealing jobs from normal, legal Americans who also desperately need work. Would that be fair? Compare your views with the views in this graph.

Overall, the budget costs are the most likely reason why so many illegal immigrants are starting to be released. Sheriff Paul Babeu had little love of this policy, calling it a "mass budget pardon" that Obama is using as a "political tactic in this sequester battle." While allowing all illegal immigrants to go free might not be the best policy ever, Obama probably has to make some hard choices and compromises in order to deal with the current economic crisis. Illegal immigrants has some costs, as this video shows.

It's not total chaos though. The New York Times has stated that "Under supervised release, defendants in immigration cases have to adhere to a strict reporting schedule that might include attending appointments at a regional immigration office as well as wearing electronic monitoring bracelets." Still, that doesn't mean every illegal immigrant is being monitored. It's impossible for the federal government to account for every man running around in this country.

So share your thoughts. Is this the best plan for the government to follow under the current circumstances? Is there a better path? And will these illegal immigrants actually lead to serious disorder in the country, as Republicans are worried about?

The Post's View: "The Voting Rights Act's work isn't finished"

As you may know (and this NPR article fully explains), the Supreme Court will consider the future application of some provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on Wednesday. Currently, the Voting Rights Act requires certain states and localities to clear proposed changes to voting rules with the federal government (much like a sort of "prior review" for areas with a history of discrimination). The question in consideration by the Supreme Court is whether such "pre-clearance" is now an undue and unwarranted burden on jurisdictions that must still legally comply. 

Shelby County, Alabama is arguing that "immense progress since 1965 in rooting out official discrimination" renders the provision baseless, "unjustifiably subjecting some states to unequal treatment and violating their constitutional prerogative to regulate elections within their borders." In addition, the county's lawyers assert, " The formula Congress used to sort out which states are subject to pre-clearance and which aren’t... is out of date."

However, the Editorial Board of The Washington Post disagrees, citing persistent voting discrimination techniques (they call gerrymandering for the sake of "slic[ing] and dic[ing] minority populations into myriad districts to limit their electoral influence" an "oil poison in new bottles") as evidence that "the Voting Rights Act's work isn't finished."

Their thesis concludes, "In reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act seven years ago, a bipartisan majority of lawmakers — 390 to 33 in the House, 98 to 0 in the Senate — determined that the evidence justified maintaining pre-clearance. Shelby County and its allies have not given the high court reason enough to repudiate Congress’s resounding judgment."

Do you agree with the WP Editorial Board that "the Voting Rights Act's work isn't finished?" If so, what evidence is there to support the need for the "pre-clearance" provision? If not, what evidence is there to demonstrate that this provision of the Voting Rights Act did its job and is ready to retire?

TL;DR? Time to look ourselves in the mirror, nation. How much have we really changed?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

You Won Chuck! So What's With the Face?

Why so Serious?
The drawn-out, partisan battle and controversy over Chuck Hagel's nomination for Defense Secretary has finally come to a close on Tuesday. While Hagel is a Republican, he has been accused of not being tough enough to handle issues on Iran and being anti-Israel by members of his own party. Even India has its complaints. Though the Republicans tried to block Hagel's nomination, he managed to barely move through an up-or-down vote with an end result of 58-41. Four Republicans chose to back President Obama's nomination in the end, clearing the way for Leon Panetta's replacement. Personally, I am relieved that this contentious nomination spectacle has finally come to a close and President Obama can focus more on dealing with the country's economic woes rather than getting a nominee through Congress. However, Rand Paul's decision to support Hagel might have more to do with backlash from libertarians than from genuine support.

So what's next? Well, the former Nebraska senator has quite a bit on his plate. The military budget has to be cleared up. As President Obama recently stated in his State of the Union Address, cyber-crime and terrorism are still prominent in the world and the government must move to increase security in order to handle those threats. Hopefully, Chuck Hagel might be able to bring in fresh new viewpoints and ideas to the Defense Secretary position.  But even though Hagel has survived the nomination process, that does not mean the Republicans will suddenly jump to support him. Senator John Cornyn of Texas noted that: "[Hagel] will take office with the weakest support of any defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective on his job." Hagel's going to need all the support he can get in the coming months. Issues from North Korea's nuclear program to the returning American soldiers from Afghanistan will serve to test Chuck Hagel's ability to handle this new responsibility. 

So  what do you think? Do you feel glad that the nomination process is finally over and that Chuck Hagel is now the United States's official Defense Secretary? Do you believe he will be able to handle the new threats President Obama mentioned? And, if you know, please tell us what the opportunity cost of Chuck Hagel becoming Defense Secretary is.

For a general overview of whether Hagel is "the man for the job," check this video.

Crisis At Coastal Carolina University

"The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means"
The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution holds that "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Ever since District of Columbia v. Heller, the individual posses the right to have a firearm, though some call for regulation (click here for a cartoon). However, recent gun violence incidents such as the Aurora and Newtown shootings have prompted serious push from interest groups and other people to push the NRA and federal government into creating stricter restrictions on this right.

Unfortunately, another of those gun violence incidents has recently occurred at Coastal Carolina University, where over 9000 students reside, in Conway, South Carolina. As has been so far determined, at least one person has been wounded by gunshot at 7:22 p.m. outside the University Place Apartments. The victim has not been named yet, but was swiftly transferred to the Grand Strand Regional Medical Center at Myrtle Beach. Students remained in the dormitory for their safety until the crisis is over. NBC News said that they were contacted via an "active shooter alert" email that warned students about the gunman. The shooter fled quickly in an unknown vehicle after the shooting, but the authorities are currently searching for him.

UPI reported that Kaitlin Eriksen, a University Place resident, claimed that four or five gunshots were fired. She said that "[The victim] took about two steps back and then collapsed. He just fell out there." The Dean of the students' Twitter page said at the time that "the shooting is not ongoing. Police continue to search for one suspect. Please stay indoors. At around 9:50 p.m. students were allowed to leave the classrooms but those in dorms were asked to stay as a precautionary measure.

Hopefully the victim of this shooting will be able to survive this frightening incident. But what do you think? Do you think this will generate any more sympathy or momentum for the anti-gun violence movement? Do you have any other valued alternatives to President Obama's gun plan? How do you think this incident helps shape the future of this country?

Click here for a short news report until more information will be released by the authorities.

JP Morgan Cuts Its Losses, and Its Jobs

A standard JP Morgan Building
Adam Smith stated that "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." Right now, JP Morgan feels its interest to profit requires job cuts, a lot of job cuts.

JP Morgan Chase and Co., whose US branch network is surpassed only by Wells Fargo and Co's, has recently announced its plan to cut about 3000 jobs during 2013, which is almost 1.5% of its consumer bank workforce. The great United States bank has also predicted that about 17,000 jobs would be cut by 2014. Obviously, the current economic conditions are not exactly ideal as before, and even JP Morgan needs to make a few adjustments in order to profit. The Chicago Tribute has stated that in order to increase its profits and add more branches, JP Morgan will try to add more salespeople to support good and services that will boost revenue.

Jobs are being cut ... literally
RBC Capital Market banking analyst Gerard Cassidy has noted that "The industry has elevated costs because of the recession and the financial crisis." And as the crisis has slowly been improving, "the big banks don't need those people anymore. As JP Morgan moves to cut jobs to earn about $3 billion in savings, that loss will not prove beneficial to job seekers at this time. Though JP Morgan is not exactly doing badly, the current economic situation has flattened revenue as banking and trading profits are being squeezed.

JP Morgan will reveal more details in time. As of now, The New York Times has reported that "Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JP Morgan Chase, vowed on Tuesday to change how the bank deals with Internet-based payday lenders that automatically withdraw payments from borrowers’ checking accounts. "

Do you think JP Morgan is making a wise move in the long-run? Does this signal further economic headaches for President Obama to handle? Will other banks follow in JP Morgan's footsteps and announce further cuts as well? Obviously, Adam Smith wasn't kidding when he said the Wealth of Nations was not a blueprint for Utopia.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dear Gecko, Is Greed Really Good? (The BP Oil Spill Trial Begins...)

Left: Activists protest outside the New Orleans, Louisiana trial. Right: An oil-coated bird in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit." But, evidently, greed also dumps 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. 

Today, three years after a rig explosion caused the largest crude oil spill in American history, the trial against BP finally met an array of federal and state prosecutors in court. The New York Times reports that the trial will focus on questions about BP's share of responsibility in the disaster as well as "a last-minute settlement proposal offered by the Justice Department and the five affected gulf states — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — that are demanding that BP pay $16 billion in spill-related fines and penalties." The company has already pleaded to criminal charges and paid roughly $4 billion in fines (which The Los Angeles Times notes is "the largest environmental penalty in U.S. history"), but BP may face up to $17 billion in fines if the court finds evidence to support that it was "recklessly negligent" — and thus far, it is clear that prosecutors intend to prove just that.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the prosecution illustrated a picture of heedless malfeasance, saying, “With the drilling of its deepwater Macondo well running behind schedule and $50 million over budget, energy giant BP was under intense financial pressure to save money, setting in motion a reckless disregard for safety that led to the [spill]… BP officials were portrayed as placing profits over safety and encouraging a ‘culture of entrepreneurial risk-taking.’” (Hmm... reminds me of Gecko's "essence of the evolutionary spirit...")

The evidence cited to support the claim that BP and its contracted partners (Transocean, Halliburton, and Cameron International) were "cutting corners" includes seemingly below-standard rig equipment, a captain and crew untrained in the rig's emergency systems, and failure to maintain key safety accessories, notes The Wall Street Journal. Luther James, Alabama's attorney general, has already proclaimed, "BP was blinded by greed... To BP, money mattered most. Greed devastated the gulf."

Do you agree with James that "[g]reed devastated the gulf?" Is greed really good, or is it just good for business? 

TL;DR? Greed may be good... but it isn't green. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Afghan President Orders Special Op. Forces out of "Key Afghan Province"

"An Afghan soldier and resident of Maidan Wardak Province" (New York Times). 

Following a meeting of Afghanistan's National Security Council, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that U.S. special forces currently located in Maidan Wardak, a province west of Kabul, must exit within two weeks. The demand stems from allegations that Afghans working for the American Special Forces have tortured and killed local villagers. However, much remains unclear, inciting a multitude of questions from all sides. 

Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for President Karzai, stated, "It is better to make the Special Forces withdraw from the province and let the local people understand that they are facing only Afghan forces... That will bring clarity to the situation." However, he also questioned, "Let's imagine that the U.S. Special Forces are not involved... Then how come they have not once heard about this? How come they do not know who is doing this?"

As for the ban's effects on security abroad, The New York Times says, "Maidan Wardak... is seen as a crucial area in defending the capital against the Taliban. If enforced, [the ban] would effectively exclude the American military’s main source of offensive firepower from the area, which lies southwest of Kabul and is used by the Taliban as a staging ground for attacks on the city."

Early questions about the action's political ramifications have also begun to stir. The Washington Post notes, "The announcement… is playing out as the White House and NATO leaders ponder their troop commitments to Afghanistan after the coalition finishes its combat mission here at the end of 2014." The Daily Beast also adds, "The news casts a new negative light to the war in Afghanistan just two weeks after President Obama awarded the prestigious Medal of Honor to a Former Army Staff Sergeant for his work there." 

What is your take on the effect of this announcement on U.S. military security and politics abroad? Is the Afghan government showing less tolerance for civil abuses allegedly related to foreign troops than it has before, and if so, what are your thoughts on this development?

TL;DR? Karzai demands that American Special Ops leave "key Afghan province" due to allegations of suspicious/unclear civilian deaths; questions about future involvement in Afghanistan ensue.