Opinion

The Great Debate

Remember the movie ‘Outbreak?’ Yeah, Ebola’s not really like that.

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The Ebola outbreak continues to spread in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the countries hardest hit by the disease. More than 1,000 people have now died from the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued its highest-level alert for a response to the Ebola crisis. The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The disease is intensifying in West Africa, but the epidemic poses minimal risk to Americans. So why are we so afraid?

Scientists think about the risk of Ebola in terms of how likely someone will get it and die. That probability of someone in this country dying from Ebola is miniscule. But how the average person thinks about risk is more complicated. Other factors — including fear of the exotic, dramatic and gruesome — heighten our anxieties and capture our imaginations.

The Zaire strain of Ebola out of control in West Africa is the most virulent form of the virus and comes from the “heart of darkness” itself. Many Americans still think of Africa as a failed continent plagued by disease, poverty and war — and we’re afraid of it. There’s a certain xenophobia to our fear of Ebola. Representatives Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) and Larry Buschon (R-Ind.) have gone so far as to voice concerns that the children from Central America crossing the U.S.-Mexico border might be carrying the Ebola virus. Gingrey is an obstetrician and Buschon a heart surgeon. But there is no Ebola in Central America.

We picture the disease liquefying organs and its victims spewing blood and other bodily fluids, eventually bleeding to death. But Ebola kills by lowering blood pressure and weakening the immune system. When vital organs don’t receive enough blood, they fail and die. When the immune system is impaired, the risk of other infections increases. Ebola can cause problems with blood clotting, but this typically causes oozing not massive bleeding.

We’re far more likely to die of heart disease, stroke or diabetes in this country, but these diseases are familiar and don’t terrify us like Ebola. It is, to some extent, normal to downplay the risks that we have to live with everyday. We continue to smoke, eat poorly and not exercise even though these behaviors put us at real risk. More than 50,000 Americans die of influenza and pneumonia each year, but we still don’t get our shots.

Less than human: Do some police take a step beyond simple prejudice?

Riot police clear a street from demonstrators in Ferguson

When I tried to engage a friend in a conversation about the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, my friend wearily waved his hand for me to stop.

“Can’t do it,” he said politely. “It happens so often I’m inured to the pain.  If I think too long about it I might just …” His voice trailed off.

My friend is a black man. He is raising a black man. His response is one of three that tended to follow Saturday’s tragic news. You can either protect yourself by neutralizing your rage, as he did.  You can defend your community and your principles by protesting. Or you can look away entirely, inured to the sense that Brown’s death is a sad but inevitable casualty of policing in poor black neighborhoods.

For once, the situation in Iraq wasn’t caused by an intelligence failure

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate

President Barack Obama, in an interview earlier this year with New Yorker editor David Remnick, offered an unfortunate comparison. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate,” the president said, “is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

The president’s jayvee jihadists were the Islamic State militants.

Remnick called the analogy “uncharacteristically flip.” After all, the group’s flag then flew over Fallujah.

Today, the Islamic State boasts a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, a cadre of battle-hardened fighters that dwarfs the membership of core al Qaeda and an international following large enough to support a brick-and-mortar gift shop in Turkey.

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Can I invert myself and not pay taxes?

The Pfizer logo is seen at their world headquarters in New York

The hot tax-dodging business trend of the summer is inversion. A U.S. company buys a company in a country with a lower corporate tax rate, relocates its headquarters there and funnels its income through the new head office. As long as it does not repatriate profits, the self-exiled company can avoid paying U.S. corporate taxes.

The United States is the only country that taxes its citizens on their worldwide income.  Wherever you earn money, the Internal Revenue Service wants a slice of it. But if, as the 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said and U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled in Burwell v Hobby Lobby and Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission, corporations are people, shouldn’t the converse be true? Why can’t all Americans relocate their places of domicile abroad and dodge taxes just like a company?

If only it were that easy.

Let’s take it one step at a time. There has been considerable alarm at U.S. companies’ rush to the exits. Under a fiduciary duty to maximize dividends and share prices for stockholders, businesses are seeking to avoid the 35 percent federal corporate income tax they are liable for here. Many American business leaders believe high corporate tax rates put their companies at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the world. As do many business-leaning, tax-hating and federal government-loathing politicians.

from Breakingviews:

Alibaba payments cleanup makes for neater IPO

By Peter Thal Larsen

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Alibaba just can’t stop tinkering with its corporate structure. Weeks before the Chinese e-commerce juggernaut is due to start a roadshow for an initial public offering, it has tidied up relations with its payments affiliate. Though the new arrangement is still messier than shareholders might want, it should make for a neater IPO.

Alibaba’s relationship with Alipay is complex and sensitive. The unit processes more than three-quarters of the transactions on the Chinese group’s websites, but has been owned by a private vehicle controlled by founder Jack Ma since 2011. That business, known as Small and Micro Financial Services Company (SMFSC), is also home to other ventures like its fast-growing money market funds. For customers, the units connect seamlessly. The corporate links are more complicated.

With or without Maliki, Iraq will tear itself apart

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The word out of Washington is Nouri al-Maliki must go. A new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will unify Iraq with American help.

We’ve seen this movie before — an attempt at a quick fix of Iraq’s problems. Like every other quick fix tried, this one will fail, too. The United States is ignoring the inevitable: Iraq will eventually dissolve into separate nation-states. Efforts are needed to manage that process, not to hope it will go away.

Some history. Following the regime change of 2003 and the elimination of Saddam Hussein, the United States failed to create any civil structure to fill the vacuum. Religious, ethnic, tribal and geographic tensions in Iraq were unleashed (I’ll label it all Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd as shorthand, though the reality is much more complex.) A U.S.-patched-together “government” (the Governing Council, of which Abadi was a part) accomplished little more than marking the first failed quick fix in the Iraq story.

Robin Williams: Appreciations of his talent, his work and his life

File photo of actor Williams arriving at premiere of "World's Greatest Dad" during Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah

Robin Williams, the 63-year-old comedian and Oscar-winning actor who died Monday in an apparent suicide at his home in Northern California was rare. Not just in his talent, his success, or his fame or fortune, but in how universally he was loved by the public.

Since he leapt to the world’s (not just America’s) attention in the late 1970s, he never disappeared from the public eye for long. We all knew that he’d struggled with drugs and depression. At least we could have known if we were interested. His battles were out there, on the record.

Today, though, many writers are choosing to remember him for his work and the joy he brought.

Putin’s already paying dearly for Ukraine – and looks willing to sacrifice much more

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin has adopted a “go it alone” approach throughout the Ukraine crisis and regularly describes his country as “independent” and nonaligned. But Moscow is not as isolated as Putin makes out. The fact that he cannot see this reality — or chooses to ignore it — has produced a series of decisions that has seriously undermined Russia’s global role.

For the past two decades, Moscow has viewed its foray into global institutions as a major success. It has increasingly integrated into the global economy.  Those achievements, however, now present Putin with a major dilemma.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia signed multiple treaties and joined numerous international organizations, including the Council of Europe, the G7 (which became the G8) and the World Trade Organization.

from Stories I’d like to see:

The price of a life and George W. Bush post-White House

A spectator smokes a cigarette as she waits for the start of the Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai

1. How government accountants value life:

Last week, the New York Times reported: “Buried deep in the federal government’s voluminous new tobacco regulations is a little-known cost-benefit calculation that public health experts see as potentially poisonous: the happiness quotient. It assumes that the benefits from reducing smoking -- fewer early deaths and diseases of the lungs and heart -- have to be discounted by 70 percent to offset the loss in pleasure that smokers suffer when they give up their habit.”

I hope editors at the New Yorker or Sixty Minutes noticed.

Did you know that a federal agency -- the Office of Management and Budget, which did the cost-benefit analysis described by the Times -- actually employs people who calculate how many lives will be saved by government regulations; then calculates the dollar value of the lives saved, and then weighs that value against the “cost” of the regulation?  Apparently in this case, part of the cost to be calculated was the cost of the lost pleasure from quitting smoking.

According to this report to Congress, OMB must make a cost-benefit analysis for every rule where the projected cost of compliance is more than $100 million. The agency with the most rules falling into that category has been the Environmental Protection Agency, and OMB has consistently found that the value of the lives saved exceeds the cost of compliance.

Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Gaza are falling apart and John Kerry’s not helping

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry is pictured aboard a replica of Captain Cook's ship 'Endeavour' during his visit to the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney

In what is almost certainly his last job in public service, Secretary of State John Kerry is bumbling his way around the world, ricocheting from crisis to crisis. The idea of the last chapter of his biography portraying him as a punch line can’t sit well. But is it Kerry’s fault, or is he simply being swept up in an American foreign policy in historic disarray?

America lashed out after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and a decade later has substituted strategic incoherence for idiotic decisiveness. A common meme is that Kerry is at worst a bad actor stuck in an even worse movie, contributing little to lift it up but at the same time not baring any real responsibility for the flick’s failure.

There’s truth in that, but it misses Kerry’s genuine capacity for haplessness. Over decades, this kind of serial failure just did not happen to previous secretaries of state. Not Schultz, not Baker, not Powell, not Albright, not Clinton.

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