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America’s Other Other Other Other War: Somalia

By: Tuesday September 2, 2014 6:54 am

So much time is spend talking about our military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, our drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen, and the possibility of airstrikes in Syria that the fact that we are getting more militarily involved in Somalia barely registered as a major news event. It isn’t the top story on most major news sites. From CNN:

U.S. military forces conducted an operation Monday against the Al-Shabaab network in Somalia, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said.

“We are assessing the results of the operation and will provide additional information as and when appropriate,” he said.

No other information was immediately available. The Pentagon did not say who was targeted, where in Somalia the operation took place nor why the operation was happening now.

But the governor of Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region said a suspected drone strike hit a small rebel-held village between the towns of Dhaab Tubaako and Haaway.

 This is a perfect example of the dronification of American foreign policy at work.

One of the only significant restraints on military action by the United States has been the political/PR concern of American service members getting hurt. Polling has constantly show that the public is far more reluctant to get involved if it puts any Americans at risk.

Thanks to air superiority, and more importantly the development of weaponized drones, the President can use them with little fear of political or legislative fallout. There will never be a Black Hawk Down drama about a fallen robot.

While Democrats have rather quietly accepted this situation because it is their guy holding the joystick, I wonder if they will regret these years spent setting this precedent when President Rick Perry is able to drone strike anyone anywhere with impunity.

Americans Overwhelmingly Support Requiring Paid Vacations

By: Friday August 29, 2014 12:04 pm

Paid vacations, we want them, we need them

In honor of Labor Day weekend here is an important reminder of how poorly we treat the American work force.

The United States is the only advanced country in the world which doesn’t guarantee workers a paid vacation, but that isn’t because the idea is unpopular. An overwhelming 75 percent of Americans think companies should be required to provide paid vacation time to their employees, according to a new Huffington Post/YouGov. Only 17 percent oppose mandatory paid vacations, while another 8 percent are undecided.

In a sane democracy you would then expect such a law to be quickly adopted. It has broad popular support and we have plenty of evidence from other countries, like Canada, to study to see it wouldn’t cause any significant problems. There is no good reason not to adopt a similar measure.

When there is such a huge gap between what regular people want and what their representatives support, that is a sign of serious problems with political leadership.

Pennsylvania to Expand Medicaid

By: Friday August 29, 2014 10:25 am

Gov. Corbett stepped up agreeing to a plan for Medicaid expansion in Pennsylvania as part of the Affordable Care Act

After much negotiation, Pennsylvania is finally going to take part in the Medicaid expansion which was part of the Affordable Care Act. From ABC News:

A half-million more low-income Pennsylvanians are in line to get federally funded health insurance after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday approved the state’s plan to accept Medicaid expansion money under the landmark 2010 federal health care law.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration and the federal agency agreed to a plan that lets private insurers administer Medicaid-funded coverage that adheres to Medicaid’s existing rules. The plan vastly expands a Medicaid program that already covers 2.2 million adults and children in Pennsylvania.

Because of the demands of Gov Tom Corbett the new coverage is going to be needlessly stingier and more complicated than was originally intended. Since Corbett insisted on using subsidized private insurers it may also end up costing tax payer more as well.

That said, this compromise should help hundreds of thousand of poor residents in Pennsylvania gain insurance coverage starting next year, and some of its rules will likely be improved when Corbett loses re-election this November. Polling found him an incredible 25 points behind his Democratic opponent, Tom Wolf.

Thanks to the Supreme Court decision which made the expansion optional and Republican opposition to the the Affordable Care Act there are still 23 states which haven’t taken part in the Medicaid expansion. This, though, is the latest sign that the Republican opposition is slowly eroding thanks to heavy lobbying by hospitals, medical providers, and activist groups.

What Consumer-Driven Health Care Really Means

By: Friday August 29, 2014 8:20 am

Ask to speak to a surpervisor

The much touted goal of “consumer driven” health care ends up being people struggling alone through an incredibly complex set of rules and fighting with a private insurance industry that has every incentive to make the rules as confusing as possible so you end up paying more than you should. Over at the New York Times, Charles Ornstein has a good story about getting his child’s prescription filled. What makes great is how boring common this is. From the NYT:

Pam, the first customer service agent with whom I spoke at my insurer,Oxford Health Plans, a division of UnitedHealthcare, told me that it looked as if there was a mistake with the refill, and that I was entitled to a $15 refund. She gave me a tracking number and told me to call back in two to five business days.

Dutifully, I did so, and talked to another agent, named Mike. He told me that there had been a mistake, but that it was with the first prescription. The co-pay should have been $30, not $15, but as a courtesy because of its error, the plan would not seek to recoup the money. The baby’s prescription was on a higher-cost tier because it was for granules of the drug, essentially a powdered version, and not for tablets, which are in the lowest-cost tier.

But a look at Oxford’s website and at its drug list, also known as a formulary, revealed that Montelukast is listed as a Tier 1 drug, with the lowest cost. No distinction is made between tablets and powder.

Ornstein’s advice if you have a problem is to track all your health care actions, carefully check your insurer’s website, call your insurance plan, and ask to speak to a supervisor. If that doesn’t work then contact a health advocate.

This advice isn’t bad considering the current reality but it shows what consumer-driven health insurance means in practice. It is often making sick people or their families spend hours making sure you aren’t getting ripped off. The hours spent fighting makes it not even worth it sometimes.

Bringing this dynamic to a much bigger scale is the glorious future many Democrats and Republicans see for our health care system with plans to make everyone switch to buying individual policies on exchanges.

Congress Must Vote on Military Action in Syria

By: Thursday August 28, 2014 7:09 am

This matters.

Now that it sounds like President Barack Obama is moving towards direct involvement in the war in Syria it is critically important for Congress to do their duty by weighing in officially.

There is no immediate and pressing danger to Americans, which means there is time to take the issue to Congress, so it must be taken to Congress.

At this moment I don’t want to debate the relative “evilness” of the different factions in Syria or if involvement in a war could even advance our stated goals. Right now I only want to discuss the law and the need to uphold the principles of the Constitution.

One thing the Constitution wisely did was give the war making power to Congress. It is an important and necessary check on the Presidents far-reaching powers as commander-in-chief.

Sadly, as our recent involvement in the war in Libya showed, the President and most of Congress see this important constitutional duty as a quaint artifact that no longer needs to be followed. As a people, though, we shouldn’t accept lawlessness purely for political expediency. If members of Congress are afraid to take the big important votes they don’t deserve to be in office.

Once is precedent, twice is a pattern, and after multiple times it becomes an expected norm. That would be a tragedy. Obama has already left this critical part of the Constitution in tatters. We shouldn’t accept it being completely shredded and that happens if the public stops demanding our government follow the rules.

If we are going to become militarily involved in yet another sovereign nation I demand it is done according to the Constitution. If Congress isn’t willing to vote for it then it shouldn’t happen.

Sen. McCaskill: No Federal Grants for Police Without Body Cameras

By: Wednesday August 27, 2014 8:41 am

McCaskill says body cameras on every officer will not only protect citizens against police misconduct, but also protect officers from wrongful accusations

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has a pretty good idea for improving police departments around the country. She wants to greatly increase the number of police wearing body cameras by making it a prerequisite for getting federal grants. From CNN:

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said Tuesday that police officers across the country should be required to wear body cameras in order for their departments to qualify for federal funds.

McCaskill believes that the ubiquity of cameras gives way to incidents in which only part of the story is recorded, seen or understood. So, a body camera on every officer will not only protect citizens against police misconduct, but also protect officers from wrongful accusations.

The research has shown this to be the case. Body cameras seem to make both the police and the public behave better. When police in Rialto, California began using the technology there was an 88 percent decline in public complaints against the police and nearly a 60 percent reduction in officers using force.

Body cameras alone aren’t going to fix what is wrong with policing in this country, that is the product of decades of terrible policies, but it should be a step in the right direction. Whether the issue goes anywhere or is forgotten as Congress switches to campaign mode for the next several months is yet to be seen.

It Sounds Like Obama is Moving Towards Airstrikes in Syria

By: Wednesday August 27, 2014 7:14 am

Last night at the American Legion National Convention the President used interventionist language when talking about ISIL

There has been no official word on whether or not the United States Government will use airstrikes against ISIL but it definitely sounds like President Obama is moving in that direction.

First, on Friday Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes let it be known that when dealing with ISIL, “we’re not going to be restricted by borders.”

Then we learned that this week President Obama authorized surveillance flights over Syria to gain more intelligences about the military situation inside the country. This information could be used for selecting targets for possible air or missile strikes.

Finally, last night at the American Legion National Convention the President used interventionist language when talking about the group. Obama said “we’ll continue to take direct action where needed to protect our people and to defend our homeland.  And rooting out a cancer like ISIL won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. ”

The phrase ‘rooting out’ is an interesting and powerful rhetorical choice. By definition you root out something by attacking it at its roots, and for ISIL that means destroying the foundations they’ve laid in Syria. That is where the metaphorical “roots” of the organization are currently located.

It definitely sounds like we are ready to get your war on, although of course it won’t be called a war, instead it will probably be labeled something silly like a “limited engagement kinetic military action.”

Official White House photo by Pete Souza

Obama Defenders Will Never Let the Filibuster Myth Die

By: Tuesday August 26, 2014 9:57 am

The most annoying and ultimately destructive defense of President Obama’s legislative record is to constantly cite the filibuster myth. It is the argument that poor weak Obama couldn’t do anything without 60 votes in the Senate. The latest in a long line of examples comes from Jonathan Chait’s criticism of Cornel West.

But West, and much of the American left, doesn’t merely believe that. It also believes that a world where Obama can govern without constraints is the actual world we live in, or, at least, a reasonable approximation thereof. More inspiring speeches, harder fighting, or some other unspecified application of willpower is all it would take to have forced Olympia Snowe to vote for a larger stimulus or Scott Brown to go along with tougher financial regulation. Because they cannot conceive of any limits to Obama’s power, betrayal and haplessness are the only causes they can imagine for their distress. (West: “What I hear is that, ‘[Obama] pimped us.’ I heard that a zillion times. ‘He pimped us, brother West.’”)

While people often overstate the power of the Presidency, continuing to pretend the filibuster was an insurmountable hurdle is just plain silly. As we saw just last year when Democrats changed the rules regarding executive nominees, a simple majority of senators can easily amend or completely eliminate this minor procedural issue.

I’m not upset Obama couldn’t get Snowe to play nice — I’m disappointed he actively refused to go around her. For example Democrats could have used reconciliation to adopt a larger stimulus with only a simple majority, or just eliminated the filibuster. This is exactly what George W. Bush did to get his tax cut when a Senate minority tried to stand in the way.

While House Republicans are currently a real impediment, from 2009-2010 the Republicans were not the problem, because they were a minority with no actual power. The problem was that Democrats had a majority but actively refused to use it. As a result, the blame for that time rests entirely with them.

Sadly, nothing will improve next time Democrats win back a majority if writers like Chait make it clear they will always find excuses so Democrats are never held accountable for their choices.

Americans Support Government Not Paying Ransom for People Kidnapped by Militants

By: Tuesday August 26, 2014 9:11 am
james wright foley

James Wright Foley

According to a new Reuters-IPSOS Poll, 62 percent of Americans agree with the government’s policy of refusing to pay ransom for Americans kidnapped by militant organizations. Only 21 percent disagree with the policy and would be open to paying ransoms.

Many European countries have taken a different approach and do pay ransom in exchange for the safe return of their citizens. This has potentially saved several individuals but at the cost of greatly enriched rebel groups and terrorist organizations. It also potentially makes citizens of these countries bigger targets for future kidnapping attempts.

According to the New York Times, Al Qaeda and its affiliates have made at least $125 million from ransoms since 2008. It is now a major funding source for many of these groups.

Big Data Knows When You’re Sleeping and Knows When You’re Awake

By: Monday August 25, 2014 10:50 am

After a 6.0 earthquake hit Napa Valley the fitness tracking company Jawbone released an interesting piece of user data. They found 93 percent of people in the immediate area wearing a Jawbone UP were awake when the quake hit but there was relatively little response from people living over 75 miles away. From Jawbone:

This is a fascinating, although mostly useless, compilation of data but it does draw attention to something that is going to get dramatically more important in the coming years.

The number of connected devices with sensors has been growing at an exponential rate. They are  constantly getting cheaper and more accurate. This gives people access to a vast quantity of data, and  a truly unprecedented insight into the lives of individuals and the collective behavior of communities. The already impressive amount of data out there now is only going to be a tiny fraction of what it will be in a generation. Every single movement, action, and your physiological response to them could soon be recorded.

The type of data can be used to significantly advance the public good, like redesigning streets to reduce  accidents and deaths. Or for relatively bland for-profit motives, like determining the best location for a new store.

It can also easily be used for extremely nefarious ends by governments or companies. The insight which could soon be gained makes the monitoring done by Orwell’s Big Brother seem childish by comparison — a truly mythic level near omniscience.

Control and regulation of all this data could easily end up the biggest political and economic issue of the 21st century.