Opinion

The Great Debate

Putin’s Occupation Olympics

The upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi has naturally led to a critical look at the host country’s human rights record, with particular focus on issues such as the treatment of gays and journalists.

Yet in a less-noticed offense, Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the Olympics to advance his violations of international law — namely, as a tool for expanding Russia’s control over the occupied Georgian territory of Abkhazia. Despite the conquest of a neighboring nation — an action almost unheard of since World War Two and banned by the U.N. Charter — the international community has scarcely protested.

Russia has used the proximity of the Olympics to solidify its latest conquest. The main town of Abkhazia, Sukhumi, is a short drive from Sochi. Much of the materials for the massive Olympic construction projects — rock and cement — are taken from Abkhazia. Russia has quartered thousands of construction workers for the Games in Sukhumi, further blurring the lines between Georgian territory and Russia proper.

Russia and Georgia had clashed over the latter’s border provinces since the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 2008, Russia fought Georgia, its tiny neighbor, in a brief war that resulted in Moscow fully conquering two pockets of territory — South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In international law, these territories remain occupied parts of sovereign Georgian territory.

After the war, Russia recognized occupied Abkhazia as an “independent” state. Following the lead of Turkey’s “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” Russia sought to present the situation as one of cession and self-determination rather than aggressive conquest.

Transforming Post Offices into banks

The U.S. postal service inspector general put out a report last week suggesting an intriguing way to shore up the ailing institution’s finances: Let the mailman double as a bank teller.

The plan? The post office would offer services designed to appeal to America’s unbanked and under-banked — the more than 50 million adults who either have no checking or savings account, or use high-cost, predatory services like payday loans to supplement traditional banking needs.

This sounds like a win-win. Americans — particularly low-income Americans — clearly need greater access to low-cost financial services. At the same time, many financial institutions have been complaining for years that providing banking services to low-income Americans is costing them money. So much so that they can barely bring themselves to open bank branches in anything less than well-heeled neighborhoods.

Populism: The Democrats’ great divide

One day after President Barack Obama called for moving forward on trade authority in his State of the Union address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared, “I am against fast track,” and said he had no intention of bringing it to a vote in the Senate.

Reid’s announcement came after 550 organizations, representing virtually the entire organized base of the Democratic Party outside of Wall Street, called on Congress to oppose fast track. Though obscured by the Democrats’ remarkable unity in drawing contrasts with the Tea Party-dominated Republicans in Congress, the debate between an emerging populist wing of the Democratic Party and its still-dominant Wall Street wing is boiling.

For a constantly disputatious “big tent” party, Democrats are remarkably unified behind the jobs and inequality agenda the president ticked off in his State of the Union address — raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, paycheck fairness for women, paid family leave, investment in infrastructure, education and research and development, and an “all of the above” energy strategy. Republicans block action on all these relatively modest reforms, providing ammunition for Democrats in the November midterm elections.

Dylan: The times have changed

In the third quarter of the most-watched TV event in U.S. history, Sunday’s dull Super Bowl, there was one memorable moment: Bob Dylan’s solemn commercial for American craftsmanship generally and the Chrysler Corporation specifically. The Internet buzzed over Dylan’s alleged treachery in extolling a car. One site called it “surreal.”

Dylan’s ad seemed to signify not just that the 1960s are officially over, with Dylan’s “selling out,” but that the United States is a country of clichés so overpowering that they overpowered the artist who built his career challenging them. No matter how much you may try to resist America, it wears you down. Or so it would seem.

Dylan’s moment came when we heard that reedy twang of his, but his words weren’t about things roiling society or the wearying pangs of lost love or human wreckage — his standard subjects. He was talking about America’s greatness — “Is there anything more American than America?” he asks — about the power of her workers, and about the things that this country does well. Basically, about making automobiles.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and the middle-aged drug epidemic

 

Celebrated actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death at age 46 from an apparent heroin overdose is yet another indictment of the ongoing failure of drug war officials, interest groups, and politicians to confront the rising, decades-long epidemic of middle-aged abuse of illicit drugs, which now kills an American age 40-64 every 20 minutes.

Press reports in the wake of Hoffman’s death and recent campaigns by politicians have claimed the increase in opiate-related deaths — which include both prescription drugs like Oxycontin, and street-level drugs like heroin — is recent. Yet opiate and other illicit-drug deaths have been increasing for three decades. Although public service campaigns have long invoked “new” scourges of heroin and opiates that afflict middle-class young people, the group that most frequently dies from the most-abused drugs — street and pharmaceutical opiates — is white, middle-aged adults, not teenagers and young adults.

Over the nearly 30 years that Washington has waged an intense “war on drugs,” more than 30 million Americans have been arrested and five million have been imprisoned for drug offenses. Yet deaths from illicit drug abuse have also skyrocketed during this time. Drug abuse is now the United States’ leading cause of premature death, topping traffic accidents, guns fatalities and AIDS.

Drones: From bad habit to terrible policy

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently lambasted legislation that may prevent the White House from transferring the lethal drone program from the CIA to the Defense Department. The provision is in a classified part of the bill, so the public may never know what it says.

This culture of secrecy underscores the reality that real drone reform is on the verge of conclusively failing to launch. Despite months of political fury and negative press, the drone program and its worst impulse — to kill without accountability for who is killed and why — are poised to become a permanent part of the way the United States conducts counterterrorism.

If there is to be any real reform on drone strikes, it must come this year — while the revelations over National Security Agency surveillance are keeping heat on the White House. Secrecy is the common denominator of the criticism the White House faces on both issues. President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on transparency and reform will always trigger cynicism so long as his administration’s practices of official secrecy continue.

from Stories I’d like to see:

Is NBC soft on Sochi terror threats, political stalling, and the lawyer who could nail Christie

1. Is NBC soft on Sochi terror threats? Or are its rivals overdoing it?

I may be imagining it, but while the other network news organizations are giving full, even avid, coverage to the threat of terrorism at the coming Sochi Olympics, NBC -- which is televising the games -- seems to be playing it down. Or at least not playing it up.

It’s no surprise that NBC has been full of segments featuring the arrivals or practice sessions of members of team America, especially the good-looking ones. That’s a time-honored, if cheesy, effort to use ostensible news shows to boost the games’ ratings.

But it also seems that its coverage of the security threats and accompanying precautions is nothing like what we’re seeing on CBS, ABC, Fox or CNN -- where images of barb wire-encased arenas and helmeted Russian security forces abound.

The other inequality is structural

For the second year in a row, the issue of economic inequality was featured in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address. Even some Republican lawmakers have now dared to speak the “i-word.”

Though Obama predictably avoided comparisons between the earnings held by the top 1 percent and the 99 percent of Occupy Wall Street fame, the message was familiar: The widening income gap between the very rich and everyone else is a stain on the social compact and a serious problem for future economic growth.

Focusing on this income inequality is crucial. Lower incomes create an oxymoronic class of “working poor.” Inadequate pay hurts consumption and reduces tax revenues. People simply do more for themselves with more money, growing it into wealth for future generations — and as a cushion against economic downturns. A good job, as the president said, remains the best access to the promise of opportunity.

Moscow fiddles, while Kiev burns

Timing is everything in politics, and this adage could not be truer for the whirlwind now enveloping Russia and Ukraine. Both countries are in the headlines — Russia for the coming $50 billion Winter Olympics extravaganza, and Ukraine for an economic and political collapse that has left the country on the cusp of revolution.

The confluence of these two events has created a unique set of circumstances unlikely to change until the Olympic flame is extinguished on February 23. For the prestige of hosting the Olympics — and the huge international spotlight that accompanies the spectacle — limits Moscow’s ability to act decisively toward Ukraine as it might have otherwise.

This unexpected inaction can be traced to a failure of Russian soft power and a large segment of the Ukrainian population’s unwillingness to be bought off.

Shhh. The president is sleeping

President Barack Obama is out of gas. Pooped out. Gone fishing. Or rather, golfing. He’s just not that into it anymore. The republic is safe from any further vast left-wing legislative prescriptions for our ills.

But Obama’s increasing job fatigue is, paradoxically, cause for serious concern. While he sits back, aides in the White House and in the agencies are busy enacting a stealth agenda of rules and regulations. And on the world stage, Washington’s withdrawal threatens national security.

The president on display at Tuesday’s State of the Union is one who has shrunk from the pretension of becoming a president on the order of Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt into the purveyor of a list of puny policies that tinker at the margins.

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