Opinion

The Great Debate

from Breakingviews:

Few people know who this man is, and he’s probably better off that way

By Rob Cox

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

Quick, who’s the chief executive of MetLife? That the name Steve Kandarian doesn’t roll off the tongue for almost anyone who isn’t deeply steeped in the insurance business is probably a good thing for his shareholders. How he handles his company’s inevitable designation later this week as a systemic threat to the financial industry could change that. A Jamie Dimon-style public spat with regulators would be foolish. Better to speak softly, and keep the CEO’s relative anonymity intact.

It’s understandable that MetLife objects to being labeled a systemically important financial institution, or SIFI. At a minimum, it imposes a higher level of oversight from regulators. It also would probably force the insurer to submit to cumbersome stress tests. More ominously, it could require MetLife, with its $890 billion of assets, to set aside a lot more capital, potentially lowering returns or forcing it to exit certain businesses. The precise rules on how insurers will be treated haven’t been worked out, however.

Insurers do not obviously pose the level of systemic harm that investment banks and other financial institutions do, a fact conceded even by Barney Frank, whose name adorns America’s post-crisis financial reform.

For starters, their liabilities, which are effectively the claims of the insured, are matched with corresponding assets. The disparity of long-term investments funded by short-term money befell many banks during the last crisis. Moreover, insurers are not at the same risk of a run as banks by their depositors. And, strictly speaking, there are few historical instances of pure insurance businesses creating system-wide ruin.

Putin’s anti-American rhetoric now persuades his harshest critics

People I know in Russia, members of the intelligentsia and professionals who have long been critical of President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western stance, have suddenly turned into America-bashers. Many have been swept away by Putin’s arguments that the United States, not the Kremlin, is destabilizing Ukraine.

Since the current crisis broke in Ukraine over its efforts to side with the European Union rather than Russia, Putin has been at war with the United States. He seems intent on proving that a U.S.-centric world order is over and that Europe should decide on its own what its relations with Russia will be.

Putin’s big lie reached fever pitch after Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 went down over eastern Ukraine on July 17. Putin swiftly placed the blame on the Kiev government and its reputed U.S. masters — not even bothering to express proper condolences about the dead.

What do John Oliver, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock have in common? Hard truths.

 Comedian John Oliver poses for photographers backstage during the 41st International Emmy Awards in New York

Until a few weeks ago, I’d met very few Americans who could name the prime minister of my homeland, Australia. But that was before John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight, on HBO, ran a short segment about him. Suddenly, Americans I met were joking about Tony Abbott, the social conservative best known for being photographed in Speedos and telling people to vote for him because his daughters are so good-looking. Oliver’s recurring segment, “Other Countries’ Presidents of the United States,” profiles various world leaders — France’s François Hollande has also received the Oliver treatment — and handles them with the same comic contempt with which the show treats American politicians.

Oliver spent many years as a correspondent on Comedy’s Central’s The Daily Show before moving to HBO to host Last Week Tonight, which premiered in April. In addition to informing the American viewing public about the most laughable parts of Australian politics, the show is doing something truly remarkable: Making comedy out of some of the darkest and dullest issues in American and global politics.

Oliver’s addition to the news-comedy landscape demonstrates the value of a half-American’s perspective on American politics and culture. He was born and grew up in Britain, moved to the United States as an adult, and has a strong Birmingham accent. He has been living here for almost a decade, is now married to an American, and has become a citizen. He is at once an outsider and an insider, a powerful position from which to critique and mock the United States.

from Stories I’d like to see:

The Russian sanctions information gap

Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region

There are so many gaps in the reporting about the effort to use economic sanctions against Russia to get President Vladimir Putin to pull back support for the Ukraine separatists that it makes sense to devote my whole column this week to listing them.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to identify the gaps than to do the reporting to fill them. Still, many are so obvious that it suggests that for all the resources spent on getting great video of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site, interviews with the victims’ families and reports from the war front in eastern Ukraine -- all important stories -- there is more heat than light being produced when it comes to the most critical, long-term question related to the Ukrainian conflict: If economic sanctions are the global economy’s modern substitute for using military force in repelling aggression, how is that playing out in the first test of that strategy against a global economic player like Russia?

The Dutch:

For starters, we need to see some reporting from the Netherlands, a country that, as we have been repeatedly reminded, lost a higher proportion of its population in the missile attack on the Malaysian airliner that left from the country’s flagship airport than America lost in the September 11 attacks.

CDC mishaps show live flu viruses are nothing to play with

ISRAELI MEDICAL PERSONNEL PREPARE SMALLPOX VACCINE IN JERUSALEM.

Over the past two months, a series of mishaps at the CDC and NIH — involving mishandled anthrax, mislabeled influenza and misplaced smallpox — has alarmed the scientific community. The common theme surrounding all of them is human error.

In June as many as 75 workers were exposed to live anthrax when researchers, failed to properly verify that anthrax spores were sterilized before moving them out of the high-level biosafety laboratory. In early July, NIH researchers discovered previously unknown stores of live smallpox at the NIH and transported them to the CDC for secure storage. Around the same time, the CDC disclosed that last March, several vials of supposedly mild influenza had been cross-contaminated with the highly lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu, exposing researchers to unanticipated risk of infection. A senior-level CDC director has now resigned and a major review of biosafety security protocols at the CDC and NIH is currently underway — but more should be done.

These mishaps show why we need to stop conducting certain types of research on strains of flu virus that could cause worldwide epidemics, or pandemics. In these types of research — which involve live, intact viruses that can spread from person to person — the risks outweigh the benefits. The scientists who are investigating these strains hope to develop vaccines capable of preventing the spread of the viruses. But it’s possible that they could accidentally cause what they are trying to prevent. Additionally, actively trying to make these types of flu more dangerous, in order to develop vaccines against a pandemic virus, and publishing the recipes provides a handbook for potential bio terrorists who might create and release the viruses.

The government is punishing some struggling parents, and it will backfire

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All parents worry about whether they’re doing a good job, but few would want Uncle Sam’s opinion on the matter.

The parenting skills of Debra Harrell, a single mother from South Carolina, were up for public scrutiny recently after she was arrested for letting her 9 year-old play in a park unattended while she worked her shift at McDonalds.  Harrell was charged with unlawful conduct toward a child, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail.  Her daughter was temporarily taken into the care of social services and, to top it off, McDonald’s has reportedly fired her. 

Harrell’s arrest provoked a national discussion about whether enough is being done to support families. Some have even gone so far as to accuse the government of “criminalizing parenthood.”

from Breakingviews:

Memo to Wall Street: more Ace Greenberg please

By Antony Currie

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

Wall Street needs more leaders like Alan “Ace” Greenberg. The onetime Bear Stearns boss, famed for his pithy missives to staff, died on Friday. He was 86. Though he was no longer in charge, the firm’s 2008 collapse is a notable blemish on an otherwise illustrious career. The industry could use more of Greenberg’s scrappy PSD: poor, smart and driven.

The shorthand was how he described the people he wanted to work for Bear, perhaps in his own image. Even after he became chief executive in 1978, and until 1993, his office was the trading floor not the executive suite. And unlike most bosses, he answered his own calls. Greenberg also believed in sharing at least some of the wealth, insisting that his senior managing directors donate at least 4 percent of their income to charity.

from Anatole Kaletsky:

Markets: Exuberance is not always ‘irrational’

A pedestrian holding his mobile phone walks past an electronic board showing the stock market indices of various countries outside a brokerage in Tokyo

With the stock market continuing to hit new highs almost daily despite the appalling geopolitical disasters and human tragedies unfolding in Ukraine, Gaza, Syria and Iraq, there has been much head-scratching about the baffling indifference among investors. Many economists and analysts see this apparent complacency as a symptom of a deeper malaise: an “irrational exuberance” that has pushed stock prices to absurdly overvalued levels.

The most celebrated proponent of this view is Robert Shiller, the Nobel Prize-winning, Yale University economist who is often credited with predicting both the 2000 stock market crash and the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble. Shiller may or may not have deserved a Nobel Prize for his academic work on behavioral economics but as a practical guide to investing, his approach has been thoroughly refuted by real-world experience.

Robert Shiller, one of three American scientists who won the 2013 economics Nobel prize, attends a press conference in New HavenShiller’s status as an investment guru owes much to the timing of his book “Irrational Exuberance,” published just days before the collapse of Internet and technology stocks in March 2000. What is less widely advertised, however, is that for decades, both before and after that predictive triumph, the stock market strategy implied by his analysis has turned out to be plain wrong.

from Equals:

The problem with being a female football fan

Baltimore Ravens Rice reacts after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter in their NFL football game in Denver

It’s a weird time to be an avid NFL fan – particularly when you’re also a woman.

Beginning in September, I treat each Sunday as a holy day of chicken wings, beer and screaming at TVs. I play on an intramural football team. I own three Patriots jerseys (two, regrettably, bearing the name of a certain blue-eyed wide receiver who shall remain unnamed). I own the Patriots beanie, Patriots vintage tee, Patriots Christmas ornament and two Patriots beer koozies. I have funneled hundreds of dollars into the National Football League’s coffers.

When my fiancé and I recently went apartment hunting, we assessed each unit with our priorities clear: Where can we put the TV? Is the building wired for Verizon FiOS (NFL RedZone) or DirecTV (NFL Sunday Ticket)? Are there enough sports bars nearby?

‘When Harry Met Sally’ got it wrong 25 years ago

 harry1

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the beloved romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally… Directed by Rob Reiner and written by the late, great Nora Ephron, the movie that gave us one of the most famous one-liners in Hollywood history — “I’ll have what she’s having” — has become a modern classic with good reason. It asks a question that is as relevant in 2014 as it was in 1989: Can men and women be “just” friends without, as Billy Crystal’s Harry put it, “the sex thing getting in the way”?

When Harry Met Sally… concludes that friendship between men and women is possible but ultimately unsustainable. Sooner or later, the friendship will involve sex and, in Harry and Sally’s case, love. Like so many other Hollywood romantic comedies, the movie posits that friendship between men and women is a holding pattern en route to the most desirable kind of relationship they can have. Harry and Sally’s friendship is based on respect and honesty, and it’s mutually beneficial; these are two people who care about and for each other. And yet, that’s not enough for them — or for the audience.

The notion of friendship as a consolation prize is the basis for the “friendzone,” a term that did not exist in 1989 but that would have made complete sense to a man like Harry. The friendzone is, in 2014 thinking, the place to which women cruelly relegate men in whom they have no sexual or romantic interest, with whom they want to be “just” friends. It is a hellish place, cultural wisdom tells us, a purgatory devoid of sex where men are forced to enjoy women’s affection, support and admiration without any coitus whatsoever. To be friendzoned is to be stuck at the halfway house with no hope of reaching your desired destinations: Sexburg and Boyfriendville.

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