Opinion

The Great Debate

from Jack Shafer:

The landslide of news

Of the many ways nature can kill you, the landslide must be the most cruel. Not as cosmically spectacular as the tectonic tantrum of the earthquake or as catastrophic as pure weather-borne calamities (floods, hurricanes, tornados), the mudslide lies in wait like a heart attack, springing its localized force without much, if any, warning. It's filthy, it's bone-crushing, and it's suffocating. Any trust you have in terra firma will promptly be upended.

The press coverage of Saturday's landslide in Oso, Wash., which as of this writing has claimed 24 dead and confirmed missing, has expressed this horror with hours of broadcast and thousands of column inches of newsprint -- and continues. Today's New York Times makes the Oso landslide its top story, complete with slideshow and interactive map of the disaster.

Landslides produce more terror than other disasters whose death counts go much higher -- plane crashes, earthquakes, fires, freak weather, et al. -- because they are so rare. Thanks to television news, our minds have become socialized to the damage done by hurricanes and tornados. But landslides introduce us to the unfamiliar. "It feels like you are in not a junkyard, but in a landfill," said the sister of one of the Oso victims as she surveyed the site. "You've got sewer pipes. You've got dirty diapers."

Not to diminish the cataclysm and the human loss, but for all its fearful power and creepiness, the landslide isn't much of a killer -- at least not in America. According to a Wikipedia chart of major landslides worldwide since 1900, only 11 have struck the United States, including the one in Oso. When you factor out landslides propagated by exploding volcanos (Mount St. Helens), earthquake-tsunamis (Seward, Alaska, and Lituya Bay, Alaska) and hurricanes (Nelson County, Va.), the death count falls very low. Before Oso, fewer than two dozen people had died in all other major U.S. landslides, which you could count on two fingers (Gros Ventre, Wyo., and La Conchita, Calif.).

The rarity and low death counts of landslides make them no less fearsome. Like snow rollers, ice circles, supermoons, ball lightning, sun dogs, mammatus clouds, sun pillars, and other exceptional and mysterious phenomena, the landslide commands our attention and that of journalists. The loss of life -- especially corpses that can't easily be recovered or located -- has given the Oso story legs that will likely carry it for weeks. There probably exists somewhere in a mathematician's imagination a news formula that could predict how and why a story keeps rolling in the news, a topic I recently studied in my column about the alleged "over-coverage" of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, a story which is still on Page One.

Swift U.S. jury verdict gives lie to Gitmo

The government’s charges against Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law looked pretty thin. Washington was basically claiming that the Kuwaiti imam had made a few inflammatory speeches — one praising the September 11 attacks and another warning that more attacks on tall buildings were soon to come. It didn’t sound like much, given that the charges were providing “material support” for terrorism and conspiring to kill Americans.

But less than a year later, 48 year-old Suleiman Abu Ghaith stands convicted on all counts, following a jury trial in a U.S. federal court. Over the three-week trial the government managed to convince a jury that the cleric’s actions — giving a handful of speeches for al Qaeda, some on camera seated next to bin Laden — made him responsible for the September 11 attacks, the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, and the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, a Navy ship docked in Yemen. Abu Ghaith didn’t even make his first videotaped speech until September 12, 2001.

It’s an odd quirk of U.S. conspiracy law. If someone joins a conspiracy, though it may be years after it started, he’s still liable for all the murder and mayhem his co-conspirators caused, even if it was long before he came along.

Putin’s new ‘values pact’

Now that Russia President Vladimir Putin has swallowed Crimea, the question becomes: What if the peninsula doesn’t satisfy his appetite for new Russian territory? What if the only thing that will satiate his hunger for power is the goulash known as eastern Ukraine? Or does he then move on to Moldova, and then on and on?

Indeed, while the world watched the protests in Kiev and the Sochi Olympics last month, the Moldovan territory of Gagauzia quietly held a referendum about whether or not to join Russia if the rest of the country opts for stronger ties to the European Union. Its citizens, just like those in Crimea, have argued that they would be economically better off on Putin’s planet, rather than as meager satellites in the Western solar system.

The prospect of joining Russia, of course, sounds far better on paper than in reality. The promise of benefits is likely to evaporate when robust Western sanctions throw Russia’s economy into a steeper downturn. The ruble has already lost almost 9 percent of its value this year against the dollar. Many have argued (myself included) that very soon Putin won’t be able to survive the international blowback.

from Reihan Salam:

What the GOP can learn from the Koch brothers

 

Republicans are very enthusiastic about this year’s midterm congressional elections, and it is easy to see why. Obamacare, the president’s signature domestic policy legislation, remains unpopular. Turnout during midterm elections skews older and whiter than turnout during presidential elections, and Republicans tend to fare better among older and whiter voters.

And then there is the fact that Democrats are defending a number of Senate seats in states that tend to back Republican presidential candidates. Nate Silver, the editor of FiveThirtyEight, best known for his eerily good job predicting the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, forecasts that Republicans will retake the Senate.

So can the GOP sit back and relax? Not quite. As Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post reminds us, even if Republicans barely retake the Senate in 2014, the GOP faces a much tougher Senate map in 2016, when the electorate will be younger and more diverse. If Republicans want to achieve ambitious goals like replacing Obamacare and implementing pro-growth tax reform, holding the Senate for two years under a lame-duck president will do them little good.

Self Help is no help for inequality

For all the howls of rage from plutocrats like Tom Perkins and Ken Langone over possible tax rate increases, there has been relatively little public anger about the increasing wealth disparity in the United States — especially compared to the past.

During the Progressive era in the early 20th century and the Great Depression, we saw violent strikes and marches on Washington. These days, we have an army of sometimes-intemperate bloggers and a labor movement so bereft the United Auto Workers union recently failed to mobilize workers in a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Occupy Wall Street, meanwhile, is now a distant memory, even as more than half of all Americans say they believe the nation remains in an economic recession.

So what changed? Kathleen Geier speculates in the Washington Monthly that the mainstream media no longer reflects the values of the working class. That’s true, but it’s more complicated than that. In fact, the media reflects our values all too well.

In defense of the NCAA

As the annual March Madness basketball tournament returns, so does our collective ambivalence toward college sports operated by the NCAA. Many find it outrageous that with so much money at stake, the players aren’t paid.

This debate normally leads to two different solutions: either pay student-athletes and acknowledge their true status as university employees, or focus on universities’ true purpose — education — and only admit academically qualified students, effectively ending Division I college sports as we know it. Supporters of the latter argue we should drop the charade that these players are amateurs, and replace the NCAA with a minor league for football and basketball, where players are paid.

From an economic perspective, however, the current system is a better alternative for most athletes. The NCAA college-athlete model, where pay consists largely of scholarships, is a good one because it overcomes a market failure that would arise if all promising high school athletes went straight to the minor leagues. Replacing the NCAA with a pay-for-play system is not the answer. Instead, we should embrace the model we have and adjust it to serve the majority of athletes.

Combatting TB 2.0

Earlier this month, health officials in Los Angeles confirmed they are treating a patient for extensively drug resistant tuberculosis — a deadly form that does not respond to most of the antibiotics. The United States is one of 100 countries that have reported cases of “XDR-TB” since it was discovered in South Africa less than a decade ago.

Congress is holding public briefings Tuesday and Wednesday to look into the threat posed by tuberculosis, seeking expert recommendations to help develop a U.S. response. To be effective, public health efforts must adapt to the ways TB is evolving.

Tuberculosis is often described as an “ancient” malady, evident in Egyptian mummies. But today’s tuberculosis epidemic, which kills around 1.3 million people a year, is unlike its predecessors genetically, clinically and epidemiologically. Defeating TB 2.0 will require innovative approaches designed to fight this modern epidemic.

Why corporations don’t deserve religious freedom

On March 25 the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, whose outcomes will decide whether corporations can exempt themselves from provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), based on religious beliefs. The cases challenge a provision of the ACA that requires employer-provided insurance plans to include contraception coverage.

The rulings’ importance extends beyond the ACA, however. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, its companion case, are also about Citizens United — which established that corporate personhood includes freedom of speech, exercised, in part, by giving money to political causes. Now the court will decide whether corporations have freedom of religion as well, and whether on the basis of those rights, corporations can deprive services to others.

The court should reject this dangerous assertion. Corporations exist as separate legal entities precisely to distinguish their activities from those of their owners. It is that separation that Hobby Lobby threatens to erase.

Nuclear terrorism prevention at a crossroads

The crisis in Ukraine underscores the prescience of the international efforts to eliminate all nuclear weapons and weapon-grade material there after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their success lowered the danger of deadly nuclear assets falling into the wrong hands.

President Barack Obama and the more than 50 world leaders meeting at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on Monday need to show the same vision. They must seek to eliminate the persistent weak links in the global nuclear security system that can make dangerous materials vulnerable to nuclear terrorists.

There has been progress in securing nuclear materials because of the two previous nuclear summits. Removal of weapons-grade material, for example, has accelerated in 12 countries.  But, unfortunately, the earlier summits focused on what is acceptable by consensus rather than on what is needed to prevent nuclear terrorism.

Ukraine: U.S. hawks regain their voice

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression is having an unintended effect on U.S. politics. It is generating a backlash against America’s retreat from world leadership.

That retreat was itself a backlash against President George W. Bush’s overextension of U.S. military power in Iraq and Afghanistan. Putin’s actions spotlight the consequences of America’s world wariness. Internationalists in both parties are expressing alarm about the shrinking U.S. role around the globe.

Republican hawks, long on the defensive after the war in Iraq and the missing weapons of mass destruction, have found their voice again. They are attacking President Barack Obama as weak and feckless. Even some Democrats are calling for a tougher response.

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