Today we begin the use of randomized categories. Also note that there is a news item that I’m extremely angry about below. It takes a lot to rile my temper on news but hopefully you’ll understand why when you read the one in question. Also, the briefings of late have been a bit Ukraine heavy but I hope that’s understandable enough. Enjoy this week’s briefing.
- The Massachusetts Supreme Court just acquitted a man accused of taking pictures up a girl’s skirt because state anti-peeping laws apparently only protect women in dressing rooms or bathrooms, but not in public. Nobody, not a single person, would ever accuse these justices of overzealous activism if they ruled otherwise but apparently they saw fit to ignore any rational expectation of privacy. They (barely) saved a smidgen of face by saying that such actions should be illegal and thankfully, the lawmakers on Beacon Hill immediately responded by promising to update the statutes. The worst part of this isn’t even the ruling; it’s the fact that the defendant’s lawyers said that such photographs are apparently free speech…and to think there are still people idiotic enough to believe misogyny and sexism are dead in America.
- The United States Energy Department is seeking a budget increase of $534 million to modernize the aging nuclear arsenal. While it is certainly true that, if for no other reason than saftey, the nuclear arsenal needs upgrades and adjustments, there are huge concerns surrounding the enormous budgetary costs for such investments. To top it off, with no apparent progress being made on global disarmament, we seem to be stuck in this endless funding-request loop for the immediate future.
- Representative Joe Crowley (D) has put forward a proposal to provide all newborn children in the United States with a savings account funded with three sources: initial seed capital, the Child Tax Credit, and private funds. The $2 billion proposal has potential bipartisan backing especially since both sides have highlighted the importance of savings in their economic platforms.
- Mt. Gox, the world’s largest so called Bitcoin exchange, has officially filed for bankruptcy in the wake of several issues including failing to comply with U.S. money service regulations, shoddy operational practices, losing 750,000 bitcoins, and a breach of contract lawsuit. The failure highlights that bitcoin firms are just as vulnerable to the kinds of shocks and failings that have traditionally brought down mainstream financial firms.
- President Obama has put forward his yearly budget proposal valued at $3.9 trillion and he slowly seems to trending back towards liberal budgetary aims. The proposal drops any attempt at Chained-CPI; it also offers an expansion of the EITC, and increased discretionary spending in pre-K, education, research, etc. Surprisingly, it also calls for an overhaul of the tax code thereby shifting the tax burden on to wealthier Americans.
- Quartz is out with an excellent series of economic indicators from Russia that may affect its upcoming actions and biases in the Ukraine crises. The markets have already punished Russian stocks and the Ruble but its unclear at this point how the government will respond, indeed if it will respond. It’s also unclear as to the magnitude of the mentioned indicators.
- A Marginal Revolution blog post found several points on which to criticizes Paul Ryan’s new welfare proposals; what makes it so interesting is that MR is actually leans libertarian in most of its economic postings. Disregarding the various liberal criticisms (which will be touched on in future posts), even from a conservative perspective, the proposal is far too focused on program specifics and fails to prioritize desirable market solutions like immigration or cash transfers through programs like the much lauded EITC. It’s worth a read.
- Foreign policy officials from the United States, United Kingdom, French, German, and Russian governments are currently engaged in talks held by President Francois Hollande. Early consensus in the West seems to revolve around the need for international observers and for direct mediated talks between the Russian and Ukrainian governments. Meanwhile, the EU is considering a $15 billion dollar aid package for Ukraine just as two other missile sites have been seized by the Russians and an administrative building in Donetsk repeatedly changes hands.
- The term, environmental refugee, is taking on new meaning in China as wealthy residents in the cities are fleeing abroad or to rural Chinese regions to avoid the suffocating industrial pollutants in the air. The pollution is being pushed east by prevailing winds and even affects the West Coast here.
- NPR points out that, for a myriad of economic reasons, several key European players might be dissuaded from punishing Russia with economic or trade sanctions even though they have spoken out strongly against Russian intervention.
I’m looking to make some changes to future briefings to make sure they don’t become stale 5-5 ratios of domestic and international news. I’ll always have at least ten articles but I may decide to switch up categories and focus, for example, on some economic or green energy stories one day and then international stories another. But these are all experiments that happen as we go along. For now at least, enjoy today’s briefing!
- The new Federal Reserve Chair, Janet Yellen, testified before Congress that the Federal Reserve currently has no legal power to regulate Bitcoin but that it would be appropriate for Congress to decide what’s considered appropriate in our monetary system. Yellen was responding to a series of concerns raised by Senator Manchin who pointed to harsher stances on Bitcoin held by both European and Asian governments. For now at least, Yellen stated that U.S. regulatory law would suffice.
- New reports by the Treasury confirm that our budget deficit fell faster last year than at any point since World War II. While the economy may be improving, the bulk of the decline comes from austerity and rising tax rates which are actually holding the economy back from performing even better than it would ordinarily.
- The United States Navy is looking to update its naval plans for the Arctic as new reports show that up to 160 days of open water activity per year could be available by 2020 with the melting of polar ice caps. The U.S. joins Canada and Russia in looking to expand its foothold in a region that will see increased commercial activity and resource exploitation.
- The Environmental Protection Agency has revealed a new rule that would require oil refiners to strip out sulfur from American gasoline, citing the potential economic benefits of reducing sulfur related diseases. Oddly enough, the regulation isn’t drawing the usual level of opposition (the Governor of Utah even offered positive remarks). However there is dispute as to how much this could affect gasoline prices with EPA estimates ranging around 1 cent/gallon and the American Petroleum Association’s reaching around 9 cents per gallon.
- The Republicans, spearheaded by Paul Ryan, are about to announce a series of sweeping welfare reforms that claim to overhaul a huge number of social welfare programs, including medicare and medicaid. However, if this report is anything like his infamous budget proposals from two years ago, then it will be nothing more than calls to radically slash spending, bring in more privatization, or (in the case of more minor programs) eliminate them entirely.
- The United States Government has conceded at this point that Russia has “operational control” over the Crimean Peninsula. In the wake of the remarkably smooth Russian occupation, the West is essentially powerless to do anything besides the usual diplomatic wrist-slaps. It could suspend Russia from the G8, pursue travel bans, economic sanctions, etc. While certainly worth considering, it’s not clear if these actions will in anyway help the floundering Ukrainian Transition Government. For now at least, the focus is definitely on whether Russia intends to invade Eastern Ukraine.
- The Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, has ordered the closings of private schools owned and operated by the influential cleric Fethullah Gulen whom he accused of undermining and attempting to overthrow Turkey’s current government. Erdogan himself has faced a number of corruption charges alongside massive protests in recent months and has lashed out at Gullen, who’s famous for preaching respect for democracy, science, and inter-faith dialogue, for allegedly being behind corruption probes.
- Israel is experiencing massive protests by members of the ultra-Orthodox community against proposals to end their exemptions from military enlistments. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, now approaching 20% of Israel’s population, have long enjoyed these special exemptions on the claim that they devote themselves entirely to studying the torah. It seems they worry about the direction their youth will take should they be exposed to broader Israeli society.
- A new report by the HSBC Purchasing Manager’s Index shows that Chinese manufacturing declined for a third straight month. While possible reasons could include Chinese New Year celebrations, the report raises concerns about possible a possible slowdown in the Chinese economy. The government is set to keep the growth forecast around 7.5% of GDP.
- China is blaming possible Xinjiang separatists for the mass stabbing attack conducted by a group of men and women in a Kunming train station this past Saturday. The Chinese government has repeatedly sounded alarm bells about Uighur separatists and Islamic extremists in Xinjiang though some have seen it as a justification for crackdown in a region that the then newly formed PRC annexed in 1949. In the meantime, outpourings of grief and outrage at the attacks have poured in from across China with state media even describing it as China’s 9/11.
It’s good to be back. I apologize for my extended absence but Mock Trial is a demanding mistress. Nevertheless, I have an intriguing list for you. Enjoy!
- The Pentagon is planning a series of cuts to the army that would leave it at its smallest size since before World War II. Budget cuts, the winding down in Afghanistan, and the changing nature of warfare are making the justification of a large land army more and more difficult.
- A newly released survey indicates that the number of American farms has continued to decline. At the same time, the agriculture market, buoyed by government aid and the foreign market, is doing better than ever. The report is certainly not an excuse to ignore the deficiencies in our subsidy policies, import tariffs, or the abysmal state of rural poverty .
- The Supreme Court has temporarily halted the consideration of further gun-rights cases. While this is a reprieve, it doesn’t hide the fact that the Supreme Court seems very critical of existing gun regulations and that speculation has focused on what they will knock down rather than what they’ll uphold.
- Scott Walker (R), the governor of Wisconsin, has gotten himself in a bit of trouble regarding a treasure-trove of emails that were disclosed by a former deputy. The emails don’t seem to be releasing anything illegal yet though the allegations of racism certainly don’t help him or the Republican party. Is anyone really surprised?
- The Supreme Court is out with a new decision that says if two people disagree over whether to let the police come in and check their home without a warrant, the police may enter and arrest the disagreeing party.
- Attorney General, Eric Holder, has said in a statement to state AGs that it may be wise for them, after careful review of state gay marriage bans, to disavow defending them in court. It’s the same tactic used by the Obama administration during the legal battle over DOMA but it raises concerns over how far state legal personnel should be able to go if they disagree with the law. My tentative response would be that refusing to defend a law is as much of a policy and legal statement as defending it is, especially when the tide of opinion is shifting so strongly on an issue as it has for gay marriage bans.
- Tensions have risen in Ukraine since the ousting of President Yanukovych. Presidential elections are set for this May but worries of Russian intervention and the rise of separatist movements are plaguing foreign policy experts in the European Union and the United States. Russia has already denounced the events in Ukraine and has referred to it as a country-wide mutiny. Mutiny against whom though?
- Just like we say in Egypt, revolutions and uprisings are never good for the economy. The crisis in Ukraine largely started due to different trade deal options for Ukraine with the EU or a $15 billion gas deal with Russia. Now, the economy desparetly needs aid if the government is to fund expenses past May and if the possibility of Pro-Russian and Pro-Eu sectarian trouble is to be staved off.
- The United States has informed the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, that it will prepare to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan unless the Karzai administration agrees to a bilateral security agreement. The BSA, not unlike the one that was proposed for Iraq two years ago, would grant the U.S. permission to stay in Afghanistan with certain legal privileges for U.S. troops. It was the failure of the Maliki government to sign the Iraqi BSA that allowed the U.S. to follow the original Status of Forces Agreement and pull out of Iraq. If that pattern repeats here, we may finally be out of Afghanistan for good.
- The Mt. Gox Bitcoin exchange has failed following a security flaw that allowed for bitcoins to be stolen; indeed, over 700,000 bitcoins did turn up missing. Quartz put out an interesting article detailing that the Mt. Gox firm, which had been one of the largest exchanges for bitcoins, tried to declare itself too big/important to fail. Sound familiar? If bitcoin truly wishes to distinguish itself from the dollar, then perhaps mimicking the behavior of the 2008 financial institutions and pushing aside valid concerns with its stability and security is not the best course of action.
- Egypt once again has a new Prime Minister as the crackdown on protesters continue and the upcoming presidential election seems set to be one by the overwhelming favorite, Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, the popular defense minister who helped overthrow the Mubarak government. All this does not change the fact that the situation in Egypt will not improve until the economy is put back on a growth footing. Ironically, that may be why the government seeks to put so much emphasis on stability and order, though it comes at the risk of massive human rights abuse.
- Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda, has signed the extremely controversial anti-gay bill that has been heavily criticized by the West. What with LGBT rights gaining traction in the West, this serves as a depressing reminder of the situation faced by the LGBT community elsewhere in the world.
- Smog in China has gotten so bad that a man even decided to sue the government over it. Scientists studying the smog in recent years have noted that it may be starting to reach the point where it affects photosynthesis levels among plants; it already poses a serious threat to Chinese agriculture. What’s more, a recent report by the Chinese research organizations even claimed that the smog made Beijing “barely suitable for life.” Perhaps some environmental legislation is order?
Less on this briefing today than last time’s since I hope to do one more before the week’s out. Enjoy!
- President Obama unveiled further emissions standards for large delivery trucks, set to take effect by March 2016. Alongside the President’s new fuel efficiency standards for coal plants and private vehicles, this is welcome news for emissions regulation but, like most measures, it does not represent any sort of comprehensive innovation in climate policy.
- A recent CBO report was released showing that the proposed minimum wage hike to $10.10/hour by 2016 could cost the country nearly 500,000 jobs. At the same time the report indicates that the hike could push nearly a million workers out of poverty and drastically raise wages.
- The Arkansas legislature is currently debating whether to continue the state’s Private Option, a unique compromise on the Obamacare Medicaid expansion that allowed Governor Mike Beebe (D) to push it through with some Republican support. However, this model for conservative medicaid expansion may fail should it not receive the necessary votes leaving behind worrying repercussions both for Arkansas and the national discussion on Medicaid expansion.
- The failure of a unionization vote for a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee spells worrying signs for the future of Southern labor. However, concerns are also being raised about statements made by Republican politicians like Senator Bob Corker that may have influenced the vote.
- The ongoing protests in Kiev, Ukraine have reached a new level of bloodiness. Some 18 people were killed and a protest encampment went up in flames during renewed clashes between the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and the anti-government protesters. For now at least, no clear conclusion seems visible to this crisis.
- Venezuelan protests have escalated even further against President Maduro’s government. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez has surrendered himself while anti-government cries escalate against rising inflation, crime, and food shortages.
- Protests in Thailand have also escalated since the police seem to be losing their reluctance to use force; at the same time, protesters and police opened negotiations on Tuesday. The protests seem focused on corruption surrounding Prime Minister Yingluck’s government, particularly on the influence of money in the Thai political system.
- China has rejected the recent United Nations report that accused North Korea of war crimes and warned that the report will do little to advance human rights in the Hermit Kingdom. It’s possible that China’s angst arises from the criticisms it received in the report, particularly surrounding its policy of returning North Korean defectors.
Welcome to The Briefing. This is Roosevelt Talk’s newest means of communicating what we feel you should pay attention to both here and abroad. I’ll usually be the one writing for it but my colleagues are also along for the ride. So without further ado, let’s begin.
P.S. I’ve taken the liberty of linking articles beneath each respective bullet should any of you need the full details.
- The Italian Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, has stepped down following divisions in his party. The likely successor is thought to be Matteo Renzi, the charismatic Mayor of Florence. Regardless of the situation’s politics, if Renzi hopes to succeed he’ll need to address electoral reform in Italy along with the economic fears ravaging the debt-mired nation. One wonders whether he’ll change anything about Italy’s austerity policy?
- Unsurprisingly, a United Nations Committee of Inquiry Panel found reasonable grounds to accuse North Korea of Crimes Against Humanity. It seems to be the first step toward the usual international legal action but I wouldn’t suspect this to change things at the border in any meaningful way.
- The French are boosting their presence in the Central African Republic by 400 troops to a total of 2000. The violence against Muslims by Christian tribes is to the point where Ban Ki-Moon has mentioned the possible necessity of an even larger peace keeping force. All the while, worries of genocide and ethnic cleansing abound.
- The Germans are pushing the possibility of a European Communications Network to bypass American servers. What effect this will have on the ongoing NSA-reform debate in the United States is up for grabs.
- A United Nations mediator, Lakhdar Brahimi, has issued an apology for the lack of progress in ongoing Syrian Peace Talks. Though we must hold out hope, there is absolutely no indication that Syria is any closer to seeing an end to the violence.
- The number of American soldiers being outed for illegal conduct is rising; particular focus should be given to those outed for sexual assault. It seems that, now that the wars are slowly winding down, the military is finally paying closer attention to the behavior and quality of its recruits.
- I have two links on this one. Banks have been given careful and tentative permission to do business with Marijuana providers in states that would allow it. However, banks appear wary if only for the lack of more specific legal guidance. Regardless, it’s a first step to securing marijuana as a legitimate industry and can only help in the fight for full legalization.
- There are huge concerns regarding the possible merger of Time Warner and Comcast. Given our nation’s past experiences with telecommunication monopolies, it’s worrying why there isn’t a more significant chance that the government will block the merger on anti-trust grounds.
- Companies as a whole are scaling back matching contributions to 401(K) plans. Those in retirement policy should take note considering that Washington seems to have a particular fixation on entitlement reform; there’s only so much more that the remnants of the three-legged stool can take.
- The scale of the GOP’s weakness in urban areas is captured by the following statistic. The two largest cities with Republican mayors are San Diego and Indianapolis respectively. Democrats should tap into that weakness and reenergize their urban policies and platforms should they wish to increase their chances at the state and national levels.