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Obama: Netanyahu's Speech Fails to Offer "Viable Alternatives" on Iran

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 4:27 PM EST

President Barack Obama weighed in on Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial address to Congress on Tuesday, saying the Israeli prime minister's remarks did not provide any "viable alternatives" to preventing Iran from securing a nuclear weapon.

The Associated Press reported that after reading a transcript of the speech, Obama noted that Netanyahu used essentially the same language as when the United States brokered an interim deal with Iran, a deal the president said Iran followed through on by scaling back its nuclear program. White House officials also slammed the address:

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu characterized the negotiations—which would ease sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on the country's nuclear program—as a "bad deal" that would inevitably strengthen Iran's nuclear capabilities, rather than stopping them.

"I don't believe that Iran's radical regime will change for the better after this deal," Netanyahu said. "This regime has been in power for 36 years and its voracious appetite for aggression grows with each passing year. This deal would whet their appetite—would only whet Iran's appetite for more."

In January, House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak before Congress without consulting the White House—a move that received widespread condemnation from Republicans and Democrats as a clear attempt to undermine the president's authority. As many as 60 Democrats boycotted Tuesday's speech.

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DOJ Finds Pervasive Racial Bias at Ferguson Police Department

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 3:10 PM EST

The Department of Justice has concluded that the Ferguson Police Department engaged in racially biased practices, including disproportionately arresting African-Americans during routine traffic stops. The findings are the result of an investigation launched back in September, which found that systematic biased behavior, including "racist jokes about blacks" on police email accounts, have resulted in fractured race relations in the Missouri community and a deep mistrust of police officials. From the Times:

In compiling the report, federal investigators conducted hundreds of interviews, reviewed 35,000 pages of police records and analyzed race data compiled for every police stop. They concluded that, over the past two years, African-Americans made up about two-thirds of the city’s population but accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, 93 percent of arrests and 88 percent of cases in which the police used force.

The full report is expected to be released on Wednesday.

The findings are separate from an FBI investigation focused on Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown last August. According to previous reports, the Justice Department is planning to clear Wilson of civil rights charges.

Brown's shooting death and a Ferguson grand jury's decision not to indict Wilson sparked a national debate on police brutality and racist police practices.

Tea Party Loses Big in Today's Vote on Clean DHS Funding Bill

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 3:00 PM EST

It looks like the conventional wisdom was correct:

The House will vote as soon as Tuesday afternoon on a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for the rest of the fiscal year. The measure will not target President Obama's executive actions on immigration, giving Democrats what they have long demanded and potentially enraging conservatives bent on fighting the president on immigration.

…The decision marks a big win for Democrats, who have long demanded that Congress pass a "clean" bill to fund DHS free of any immigration riders. For weeks, Boehner and his top deputies have refused to take up such a bill, as conservatives have demanded using the DHS debate to take on Obama's directives, which include action to prevent the deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants.

I thought the most likely course was a brief DHS shutdown (a week or two) just to save face, followed by a pretty clean funding bill. But I was too pessimistic. Apparently the House leadership wasn't willing to take the PR hit that would inevitably involve.

I wonder if Republicans could have gotten a better deal if the tea party faction had been less bullheaded? Last week's debacle, where they torpedoed even a three-week funding extension, surely demonstrated to Boehner that he had no choice but to ignore the tea partiers entirely. They simply were never going to support anything except a full repeal of Obama's immigration actions, and that was never a remotely realistic option. The subsequent one-week extension passed only thanks to Democratic votes, and that made it clear that working with Democrats was Boehner's only real choice. And that in turn meant a clean funding bill.

But what if the tea partiers had signaled some willingness to compromise? Could they have passed a bill that repealed some small part of Obama's program—and that could have passed the Senate? Maybe. Instead they got nothing. I guess maybe they'd rather stick to their guns than accomplish something small but useful. That sends a signal to their base, but unfortunately for them, it also sends a signal to Boehner. And increasingly, that signal is that he has no choice but to stop paying attention to their demands. There's nothing in it for Boehner, is there?

Summers: Yes, the Robots Are Coming to Take Our Jobs

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 12:58 PM EST

Jim Tankersley called up Larry Summers to ask him to clarify his views on whether automation is hurting middle-class job prospects. Despite reports that he no longer supports this view, apparently he does:

Tankersley: How do you think about the effects of technology and automation on workers today, particularly those in the middle class?

Summers: No one should speak with certainty about these matters, because there are challenges in the statistics, and there are conflicts in the data. But it seems to me that there is a wave of what certainly appears to be labor-substitutive innovation. And that probably, we are only in the early innings of such a wave.

I think this is precisely right. I suspect that:

  • Automation began having an effect on jobs around the year 2000.
  • The effect is very small so far.
  • So small, in fact, that it probably can't be measured reliably. There's too much noise from other sources.
  • And I might be wrong about this.

In any case, this is at least the right argument to be having. There's been a sort of straw-man argument making the rounds recently that automation has had a big impact on jobs since 2010 and is responsible for the weak recovery from the Great Recession. I suppose there are some people who believe this, but I really don't think it's the consensus view of people (like me) who believe that automation is a small problem today that's going to grow in the future. My guess is that when economists look back a couple of decades from now, they're going to to date the automation revolution from about the year 2000—but that since its effects are exponential, we barely noticed it for the first decade. We'll notice it more this decade; a lot more in the 2020s; and by the 2030s it will be inarguably the biggest economic challenge we face.

Summers also gets it right on the value of education. He believes it's important, but he doesn't think it will do anything to address skyrocketing income inequality:

It is not likely, in my view, that any feasible program of improving education will have a large impact on inequality in any relevant horizon.

First, almost two-thirds of the labor force in 2030 is already out of school today. Second, most of the inequality we observe is within education group — within high school graduates or within college graduates, rather than between high school graduates and college graduates. Third, inequality within college graduates is actually somewhat greater than inequality within high school graduates. Fourth, changing patterns of education is unlikely to have much to do with a rising share of the top 1 percent, which is probably the most important inequality phenomenon. So I am all for improving education. But to suggest that improving education is the solution to inequality is, I think, an evasion.

Also read Kevin's #longread all about this stuff: Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don't Fire Us?

This is the key fact. Rising inequality is almost all due to the immense rise in the incomes of the top 1 percent. But no one argues that the top 1 percent are better educated than, say, the top 10 percent. As Summers says, if we improve our educational outcomes, that will have a broad positive effect on the economy. But it very plainly won't have any effect on the dynamics that have shoveled so much of our economic gains to the very wealthy.

The rest is worth a read (it's a fairly short interview). Summers isn't saying anything that lots of other people haven't said before, but he's an influential guy. The fact that he's saying it too means this is well on its way to becoming conventional wisdom.

Netanyahu and Obama Agree: Global Warming Is a Huge Threat

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 12:15 PM EST

Today Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress on Iran's nuclear ambitions, at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The speech has caused a considerable flap, with Democrats criticizing it as an unprecedented affront to President Barack Obama.

But while the president and Netanyahu might have vastly different visions for how to deal with the threat posed by Iran, they do seem to agree on one thing: the threat posed by climate change. Over the past few months Obama has repeatedly emphasized the dangers associated with global warming. In his State of the Union address in January, he said that "no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations" than climate change. And in a recent national security document, Obama called climate change an "urgent and growing threat." Despite GOP protestations to the contrary, Obama's concerns are legitimate: New research released yesterday, for example, found that man-made climate change was a key factor in the Syrian civil war.

It seems Bibi had the same thought as early as 2010, when his cabinet approved a wide-reaching plan to reduce Israel's carbon footprint. At the time, the prime minister said that "the threat of climate change is no less menacing than the security threats that we face." From the Jerusalem Post:

At the UN Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009, Israel pledged to reduce emissions by 20 percent from a "business as usual" scenario by 2020.

"The recent dry months, including the driest November in the history of the state, are a warning light to us all that the threat of climate change is no less menacing than the security threats that we face. I intend to act determinedly in this field. In a country that suffers from a severe water shortage, this is an existential struggle," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at the cabinet meeting.

Israel doesn't face the kind of political resistance from climate change deniers that is all too common in the United States, said Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of EcoPeace Middle East. But the country is struggling to meet its carbon emission and renewable energy targets because government spending is so heavily concentrated on defense, he said.

"They've given the issue a great deal of lip service," he said, "but in practice none of these [targets] have been met."

Still, Israel has been at the forefront of developing seawater desalination technology to confront drought. The country has the biggest desal plant in the world, and last year Netanyahu signed a deal with California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to share research and technology for dealing with water scarcity.

There's Really No Plan B on Iran, Is There?

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 11:08 AM EST

Yesterday was one of my bad days, but one consequence of that is that I zoned out in front of the TV for long stretches. This allowed me to hear an endless procession of talking heads spend time talking about what we should do about Iran.

The striking thing was not that there was lots of criticism from conservatives about President Obama's negotiating strategy. The striking thing was the complete lack of any real alternative from these folks. I listened to interviewer after interviewer ask various people what they'd do instead, and the answers were all the weakest of weak tea. A few mentioned tighter sanctions, but without much conviction since (a) sanctions are already pretty tight and (b) even the hawks seem to understand that mere sanctions are unlikely to stop Iran's nuclear program anyway. Beyond that there was nothing.

That is, with the refreshing (?) exception of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who sounded a bit like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men after being badgered a bit by Wolf Blitzer. Military action? You're damn right I want to see military action. Or words to that effect, anyway. But of course, this sentiment was behind the scenes everywhere, even if most of the hawkish talking heads didn't quite say it so forthrightly. I noticed that even President Obama, in his interview with Reuters, specifically mentioned "military action," rather than the usual euphemism of "all cards are on the table."

In my vague, laymanish way, this sure makes me wonder just how seriously military action really is on the table. I mean, I realize there are no really great options here, but a major war against Iran sure seems like a helluva bad idea—so bad that even the hawks ought to be thinking twice about this. That's especially true since I've heard no one who thinks it would permanently disable Iran's nuclear program anyway. It would just cause them to redouble their efforts and to do a better job of hiding it.

I'm not saying anything new here. It only struck me a little harder than usual after watching so many interviews about Iran in the space of just a few hours (and I wasn't even watching Fox at all). There's really no Plan B here, and even the hawks are mostly reluctant to explicitly say that we should just up and launch a massive air assault on Iran. It's a weird, almost ghostly controversy we're having.

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Why the Duke Basketball Sexual-Assault Story Won't Go Away Quickly

| Mon Mar. 2, 2015 4:32 PM EST

The Duke University student newspaper reported today that a player recently dismissed from the school's powerhouse men's basketball team had been twice accused of sexual assault. Moreover, it found that athletic department officials, including Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski, knew about the allegations as early as last March but failed to act for months.

According to the Chronicle, two different women claimed that junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon had sexually assaulted them during the 2013-14 school year. In October 2013, a woman told classmates at a retreat that Sulaimon had assaulted her; at the same retreat in February 2014, another woman made a similar claim. The Chronicle reported that the team psychologist was made aware of the allegations in March 2014, and that several key members of the athletic department—including Krzyzewski, several assistant coaches, and athletic director Kevin White—found out shortly thereafter.

At a press conference, Krzyzewski declined to comment on the Chronicle article. But here are three reasons why this particular story won't be going away anytime soon:

  • Slow response: Neither woman filed a complaint with the university or went to the local police in part due to "the fear of backlash from the Duke fan base," according to the Chronicle. Nonetheless, the allegations reportedly were brought to the coaching staff shortly after the second incident was disclosed. According to the Chronicle, most Duke employees are required to report sexual assault; under Title IX, the university must investigate any such allegations. "Nothing happened after months and months of talking about [the sexual assault allegations]," an anonymous source told the newspaper. "The University administration knew."
  • It's Duke, and Coach K: It has been nearly nine years since the Duke lacrosse rape case, which fell apart after months of intense scrutiny and media attention. Given the prominence of Krzyzewski and his program—he has the most wins of any Division I men's coach in history, and the Blue Devils are ranked No. 3 in the country—this story could gain a lot more traction as March Madness nears. Sulaimon was the first player Krzyzewski has dismissed in his 35 years at Duke; here's how the coach described the decision in a January 29 press release: "Rasheed has been unable to consistently live up to the standards required to be a member of our program. It is a privilege to represent Duke University and with that privilege comes the responsibility to conduct oneself in a certain manner. After Rasheed repeatedly struggled to meet the necessary obligations, it became apparent that it was time to dismiss him from the program."
  • It's yet another sexual-assault accusation against a college athlete: The Sulaimon story comes just days after a former Louisville University basketball player was charged with rape and sodomy. On January 27, two former Vanderbilt University football players were convicted on multiple counts of sexual battery and aggravated rape, a case dissected in a Sports Illustrated feature last month. And in another highly publicized recent case, Jameis Winston, Florida State University's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and the likely No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft, was accused but never charged of raping a fellow student. (The school recently cleared Winston of violating its code of conduct.)

This post has been updated.

Watch John Oliver Turn America's Doomed Infrastructure Into a Summer Blockbuster

| Mon Mar. 2, 2015 11:24 AM EST

America's infrastructure system—from its dams, bridges, roads, airports, etc.—is deteriorating and in need of a serious renovation. It's an issue most people agree on, and as John Oliver noted last night, even has the attention of a "total idiot" like Donald Trump. Despite all this, the country remains pretty uninterested in doing anything about it.

"The lack of political urgency in tackling this problem is insane," Oliver explained. "And you cannot tell me that you are not interested in this, because every summer, people flock to see our infrastructure threatened by terrorists and aliens."

In hopes to cure America's blissful apathy to our crumbling infrastructure, Last Week Tonight took a cue from our movie-going habits by producing a gripping, Armageddon-like summer blockbuster to get people freaked out enough and finally start working on this major problem. Watch below:

 

 

 

 

Tikrit is an Early Test of Iraq vs. ISIS

| Mon Mar. 2, 2015 11:09 AM EST

Well, here we go:

The Iraqi military, alongside thousands of Shiite militia fighters, began a large-scale offensive on Monday to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State....Monday’s attack, which officials said involved more than 30,000 fighters supported by Iraqi helicopters and jets, was the boldest effort yet to recapture Tikrit and, Iraqi officials said, the largest Iraqi offensive anywhere in the country since the Islamic State took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June. It was unclear if airstrikes from the American-led coalition, which has been bombing Islamic State positions in Iraq since August, were involved in the early stages of the offensive on Monday.

From a military perspective, capturing Tikrit is seen as an important precursor to an operation to retake Mosul, which lies farther north. Success in Tikrit could push up the timetable for a Mosul campaign, while failure would most likely mean more delays.

This is a test of whether the American training of Iraqi troops has made much difference. If it has, this latest attempt to take Tikrit might succeed. If not, it will probably fail like all the other attempts.

It's worth noting that 30,000 troops to take Tikrit is about the equivalent of 200,000 troops to take a city the size of Mosul. So even if the Iraqi offensive is successful, it's still not clear what it means going forward. Stay tuned.

O Glory! Pops Staples Was Magnificent—and Rockin'

| Mon Mar. 2, 2015 6:00 AM EST

The Staple Singers
Freedom Highway Complete – Recorded Live at Chicago's New Nazareth Church
Legacy

Pops Staples
Don't Lose This
dBpm/Anti-

What a monumental legacy Roebuck "Pops" Staples left behind! From the mid-1950s on, his family group, the Staple Singers, was a premier gospel act. In the '70s, they scored a number of uplifting R&B hits, including "Respect Yourself" and "I'll Take You There." Up until his death in 2000, Pops Staples continued making compelling, moving music.

Freedom Highway Complete, recorded in April 1965, captures Pops and his kids, Mavis, Yvonne and Pervis, at the height of their testifying powers, electrifying a churchgoing audience the month after Dr. King's history-changing marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. From the exuberant title track to the foot-stomping "Samson and Delilah," it's a thrilling concert, thanks to the interplay of the Staples' robust voices, Pops' shimmering, pithy guitar licks, and spirit-lifting rhythms. It's magnificent—and rockin'!

Don't Lose This collects 10 songs that Pops recorded in 1999 but never finished. Last year, daughter Mavis took the incomplete recordings to Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who worked on her more recent solo albums, and together they turned the tracks into a proper album, adding voices and instrumentation. (If Tweedy took the liberty of mimicking Pops' distinctive guitar in places, he did a great job.) Mavis' rousing voice is prominent, but it's still her dad's show. His tender yet forceful singing on "Somebody Was Watching Me" and on Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" is sure to inspire. The album is a fitting memorial to this endearing genius.