ARTICLES AND COMMENTARY
IN THE NEWS
February 01, 2012
Record-low temperatures in parts of Eastern Europe pushed the death toll from
Arctic conditions to at least 89 people on Wednesday. In Ukraine, 43 people have
died in the past five days. Overnight temperatures sank as low as -27F and
hundreds of heated tents have been put up to shelter the homeless.
European weather alert network Meteoalarm warned of "extremely dangerous"
conditions in several parts of eastern Europe, including Serbia, where a fourth
person was found dead overnight in the southwestern Suvobor mountains.
Thermometers in parts of Bulgaria plunged to record lows freezing ATM cash
machines in Sofia, the daily newspaper Trud reported. Eight people in Bulgaria
and 14 in neighboring Romania have now died in the cold snap.
Meanwhile in Slovenia, winds of up to 180 kph (112 mph) blew off roofs and
prompted authorities to close some schools, authorities said.
- Arab News
February 01, 2012
The breast cancer awareness organization Susan Komen for the Cure is defending
its decision to revoke funding for the Planned Parenthood. The key in the Komen
decision is the grant criteria it uses to make grants. Planned Parenthood does
not perform mammograms at any of its centers across the United States, and Komen
says it is implementing "more stringent eligibility standards to safeguard donor
dollars." Its new guidelines also prevent it from funding any group under
congressional investigation, but the breast screening issue reportedly has the
effect of ending Planned Parenthood's funding even if the current Congressional
probe finds Planned Parenthood free of any wrongdoing.
- Life News
November 30, -1
Horrified eyewitnesses described how Egyptian police officers stood by as
violent clashes between rival fans at a soccer match in northeastern Egypt left
scores dead. When the referee blew the final whistle, thousands of Al-Masry home
team fans stormed the pitch despite their team's hard-fought 3-1 victory.
Amr Khamis, an Ahly supporter told CNN at the train station in Cairo after
returning from the match, "Officers refused to open the gates of the stadium so
we could not escape and had to face thousands of Al-Masry hooligans attacking
with rocks, knives, swords and anything else you can imagine." Egypt has
recently experienced a breakdown in security, with several armed robberies,
kidnappings and random killings taking place across the country in the past week
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ARTICLES AND COMMENTARY
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM VERSUS CONTRACEPTION COVERAGE - (Print)
The Obama administration shocked the Catholic Church last Friday by requiring
that religious organizations offer their employees contraceptive services,
including sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, as part of their health
plans. While churches themselves are exempt, religiously based businesses,
including colleges and hospitals, will be required to violate their beliefs in
obedience to the new law. In response, Catholic churches across America read a
letter on Sunday in protest.
The Department of Health and Human Services announced in January that
church-linked groups will be required to abide by new health insurance
requirements that mandate coverage for contraception, sterilization, and drugs
that induce abortions – not only to cover them, but to offer them without
out-of-pocket costs. Religious organizations have one year to get on board.
This is equivalent to requiring all health food stores, even those run by
vegans, to offer a dairy section because it's healthy and people might want eggs
and milk. It's like demanding all delis, even kosher ones, to offer bacon
because non-Jews might come shopping, and to offer that bacon for free. The
Catholic Church is up in arms at the government's interference and disregard for
the strongly held religious beliefs of millions of Americans.
In a letter of protest, Catholic churches in parishes across the country read
variations of a letter which declared in part: "[T]he Obama Administration
has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,
denying to Catholics our Nation's first and most fundamental freedom, that of
religious liberty… We cannot—we will not—comply with this
unjust law. People of faith cannot be made second class citizens. We are already
joined by our brothers and sisters of all faiths and many others of good will in
this important effort to regain our religious freedom. Our parents and
grandparents did not come to these shores to help build America's cities and
towns, its infrastructure and institutions, its enterprise and culture, only to
have their posterity stripped of their God given rights…"
The decision is not just a disappointment to Catholics. The National
Association of Evangelicals had also lobbied against the requirement on
religious grounds. Tom McClusky of Family Research Council Action condemned the
law in a statement, saying, "Despite the fact that certain drugs and
devices approved by the FDA can work after conception to destroy a newly
developed baby, the Obama Administration mandate still forces all insurance
plans to carry these drugs and devices even if employers are morally
By directly and specifically mandating that religious groups put aside their
moral beliefs, the government has placed the opinions of its agents over the
values of the people and has therefore violated the First Amendment.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"
The rule does exempt churches themselves, but church-affiliated universities,
schools, and hospitals are not exempted, even though the same belief systems
apply. On Friday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius gave religious institutions a
half-hearted boon by offering a year grace period, as though giving religious
groups a year to violate their consciences was a good compromise.
On the other hand, family planning groups were pleased with the decision.
"This is good news for millions of women whose access to contraceptive
services under this new benefit was being questioned," said Sen. Patty
The issue is not whether millions of women will be forced to bear children when
they would rather not. Contraceptive services are still available across the
country. The issue is that those religious groups that believe certain forms of
contraception are wrong should not have to pay for them.
Michael Walsh ranted about the matter on National Review Online, pummeling the Catholic Church for not
considering its options to be more than "either violate our consciences, or
to drop health coverage for our employees." He wants the Catholic Church to
say that they refuse to recognize the law's moral authority and simply ignore
its provisiont. Referring to Poe's short story, "The Cask of
Amontillado," Walsh chides, "Once Montresor's got you inebriated and
chained to the wall, and is just about to cement the last brick in place, it's
way too late to figure out that you're in big trouble. And here you thought he
was your friend and neighbor…"
Yet, it is not the end of religious freedom as we have known it. The Supreme
Court just recently ruled in favor of religious institutions in the case of
Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission (2011), in which the justices unanimously gave
religious groups the freedom to hire and fire whomever they wanted without the
same danger of discrimination cases feared by other employers.
"The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination
statutes is undoubtedly important," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote
in a sweeping, broad decision. "But so, too, is the interest of religious
groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry
out their mission." It isn't the government's job to interfere in such
matters, the justices said.
On one hand, the very purpose of most religious institutions is to care for
people, to provide for them and give them assistance and provision as sources of
help and comfort in an often hostile world. When the government dictates to
religious groups how to accomplish these goals, contrary to their moral codes,
the job of the people is to tell the government, "You've overstepped your
bounds. You need to step back."
THE DAMASCUS HIGH WIRE: RUSSIA'S TIES TO SYRIA - (Print)
Since before the fall of the old Soviet regime, Russia has been a looming force
in Middle East geopolitics. While the U.S. has remained an ardent supporter of
Israel, Russia (formerly as part of the U.S.S.R) has backed the Palestinians -
not through any particular economic need or even ideological alliance, but
rather as a counter balance - to stop the spread of "Western
influence" in the region. Key ingredients to Russia's power and influence
in the region has been its economic and military ties to Syria, ties that are
still strong to this day.
Moscow's friendly relationship with Damascus has gotten a bit more tricky of
late, however. On one hand, Assad's heavy-handed mess in Syria is not the
stuff to win international popularity polls, not even throughout the Middle
East. Russia's continued support for the wildly unpopular Shiite regime in
Syria could destroy its credibility with the rest of the Arab League. On the
other hand, losing Syria as an ally would greatly hamper (if not make
practically impossible) a strong military presence in the region.
The Cold War may be over, but Russia still enjoys its role of countering U.S.
influence. Keeping its hand strong in Syria also means retaining an ability to
back Palestine at the negotiating tables as an effective mediator. In an
2004 interview, shortly before he died, Muhammed Abbas, one-time leader of the
Palestinian Liberation Front, was clearly bitter when he said Russia has
"not declined but has come to an end," and that Russia no longer
played any meaningful role in the region. According to Abbas, "Russia is
not carrying out the duties of a mediator on a par with the U.S. Even if Russia
does accomplish something, it does it shyly, as if by accident."
Yet Russian military and economic ties to Syria are anything but
"shy." According to some reports, recent Russian arms sales to Syria
are worth $4 billion, including fighter jets and advanced missiles. Russian
business investments in Syria encompass infrastructure, energy and tourism,
amounting to nearly $20 billion. A Russian engineering company, Stroytransgaz,
is constructing a natural gas processing plant about 200 kilometers east of
Homs. The Syrian regime also provides Russia with a key strategic asset: a deep
warm-water port at Tartus.
Tartus presently garrisons Moscow's growing Mediterranean fleet, and is
therefore worth defending to the Kremlin. The recent shipment of arms delivered
to the port underscored Russia's commitment to its multibillion-dollar arms deal
while ignoring an E.U. arms embargo. The port is being upgraded to accommodate
larger vessels, and Assad declared the port would eventually be home to some of
Moscow's nuclear-armed warships. The importance of the port may not be as great
as it was in Soviet times, but unfettered access to the high seas remains a
driving force for Russian strategic thinking as Russia's main ports are either
ice-locked for much of the year or land-locked by straits controlled by other
Ignoring The World:
Normally, financial investment is trumped in the face of international
criticism, especially for a country attempting to maintain its influence as a
mediating force in foreign affairs. For instance, The United States had billions
invested in the Mubarak regime in Egypt, yet halted its support as the people
rioted. Yet this seems to be less of a concern for Russia, which, as the world's
largest oil producer and second largest exporter, is in no need of oil supplies
from the Arab world. Moscow also reaps the benefits of controlling regional
energy markets. Russia therefore has no need to appease the predominately Sunni
Arab bloc, which is currently acting in tandem with the West in opposing the
Assad regime. Instead, Russia has major geopolitical and strategic
considerations that dictate supporting Damascus, and for this reason, it appears
more important for Russia to demonstrate a confident and sovereign foreign
policy in defiance of the West.
In the end, Russia's bold declarations and actions in support of the Assad
regime may be, as The New York Times
notes, "cold calculations meant to revive its position as a global
superpower." This may be true, however, there is an ideological interest in
Russian support for Assad's minority regime. Russia has had its share of
problems with Islamic dissident groups (c.f. Chechnya), and thus has an interest
in "sending a message" to prevent rebellions within its own
For whatever the ideological or strategic reasons, Russia has chosen to back
Assad against the U.S., U.N., and Arab League resolutions calling for his
abdication, and a re-chartering of Syrian government. The final ramifications of
this decision remain to be seen, but one thing is clear: Russia may be forced to
choose between a strengthening of its military and economic presence in the
Middle East versus its presence as a source of anti-Western influence.
THE STATE OF THE UNION - (Print)
President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech last week presented a
struggling but succeeding America, a country successfully climbing from its
financial hole and taking strides to fix its problems. His speech presented an
America with hope. The President had a great deal to say that could appeal to
both sides of the political aisle, from giving tax breaks to new businesses to
keeping college education costs down. As is often the case, however, the
reality is much harsher and grandiose plans much more difficult to accomplish
than are expressed in a few pleasant words on a January evening.
There's a lot to be said about giving a man hope. Hope encourages and inspires.
It spurs people to attempt what appears to be the impossible. President Obama
has long been good at presenting the future as one of hope. Unfortunately, thus
far his ability to paint lovely pictures has proved much more deft than his
ability to make those pictures a reality.
President Obama promoted a number of healthy ideas for America in his speech.
He called for policies that would encourage manufacturers to return their
factories from abroad to the shores of the United States. He called for
cleaning up Congress and for keeping taxes low for the middle class. He praised
America's military and reminded us that the hunt for Osama bin Laden is over.
He also said some things worth looking at twice.
Trimming The Fat:
Late into his speech, President Obama said, "I've asked this Congress to
grant me the authority to consolidate the federal bureaucracy so that our
Government is leaner, quicker, and more responsive to the needs of the American
people." His offer to streamline the government with Congress' authority
appeals to those who want a smaller, less behemoth government. He did not give
examples, so it's not certain what his "leaner" government would look
like. Regardless, if the President truly wants to trim the fat in government,
he already has the authority to do so right now. Remember when Reagan fired
11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981? They were replaced, but the
President does have the authority to get rid of people. Obama could go on a
spree of firing government workers in the Executive Branch, and America would
applaud. (If he wanted to get serious, the President could eliminate the
Department of Education, for example, and leave education decision making to the
state and local governments. After all, the federal government's involvement
hasn't helped much to improve the U.S. education system since 1980, and Obama
noted in his speech that the schools should have more flexibility to make
Instead, however, President Obama informed the American people that he is in
fact creating more government. For instance, he is forming The President Trade
Enforcement Unit to investigate unfair trade practices in countries "like
China." He is creating a special unit of federal prosecutors and state
attorneys to investigate risky mortgage lending practices. Whether or not these
prove useful, they also don't fall into the category of trimming government.
Regarding the sub-prime mortgage fiasco that contributed to the current
financial crisis, President Obama said, "mortgages had been sold to people
who couldn't afford or understand them. Banks had made huge bets and bonuses
with other people's money." On one hand, the President wants to
investigate risky lending practices, and he rebuked banks for selling mortgages
to people who shouldn't have taken out those loans. On the other hand, he said,
"I'm sending this Congress a plan that gives every responsible homeowner
the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at
historically low interest rates. No more red tape. No more runaround from the
It is not the responsible loan-seekers who are getting turned down for
refinancing; those of questionable
responsibility are the ones having a harder time getting new loans –
especially right now. The banks were badly burned when streams of homeowners
defaulted on their mortgages, leaving behind houses worth much less than their
loan amounts, and banks don't want to risk new loans on people who aren't quite
so responsible. If America refuses to offer any more bailouts, as the President
warned in his speech, the government shouldn't force the banks to offer loans to
people considered reasonable risks.
Oil and Clean Energy:
On the subject of energy, President Obama took a whatever-we-can-get approach.
America is hungry for energy, and the President recognized that fact. He said
America would expand offshore drilling, and he encouraged the tapping of natural
gas resources. He pressed for the United States to be competitive in developing
He also said he wanted to "help" manufacturers and businesses to waste
less energy by upgrading their buildings. It remains to be seen what that
"help" means. Offering tax incentives would certainly help.
Burdening companies with heavy "energy-saving" requirements, on the
other hand, might just weigh down already struggling businesses.
The President did not mention the Keystone Pipeline, which, considering the
massive controversy surrounding it, was probably politically wise of him. In
January, Obama rejected a move by Republicans to approve the pipeline, which
would have created thousands of jobs and brought oil from Alberta's Athabasca
Oil Sands to several locations in the United States. Serious environmental
concerns have brought the project to a halt, but not without frustration from
those who see the oil and job production as worth the trouble, especially while
millions of Americans are desperately looking for work.
Then there's deficit spending. Anything great that the Executive Branch wants
to do must take into account the fact that America is having financial problems
along with most of the world. The Congressional Budget Office projects the
federal budget deficit as $1.1 trillion for fiscal year 2012 if current laws
remain unchanged. That's an "improvement", down from $1.3 trillion
last year and $1.4 trillion in 2009, but fantastically higher than the 2008
deficit of $248 billion and surpluses at the turn of the century. There are a
number of factors involved in these record high deficits - from attempts to
infuse the economy with massive federal "stimulus" packages, to wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the fact that tax revenues drop during a recession.
The harsh reality is that the federal government is in a serious hole of debt,
and it gets deeper every minute that goes by. When the President says things
like, we should, "give more young people the chance to earn their way
through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five
years," while keeping interest rates on student loans from doubling, the
prudent question is then, "Okay. How are we going to pay for that?"
Mark Kantrowitz notes in The New York Times
that 700,000 additional federal work-study jobs would come with a $1
billion-a-year price tag, on top of the $7 billion it would cost to continue
offering students Stafford loans at a low 3.4 percent interest rate. It's true
that subsidizing student loans and work study jobs are widely helpful to
financially strapped students, and yet, the federal government has already had
to cut back on Pell Grants to low-income students, dropping the income threshold
for those can receive a full Pell Grant from $32,000 to $23,000. If the
government is cutting back on Pell Grants, it doesn't have money to add more
work study jobs while at the same time extending a 3.4 interest rate for
subsidized Stafford loans to 7.4 million students. It's not a matter of
what would be nice to do, it's a matter of what is practical.
The same goes for infrastructure projects. The President spoke of crumbling
infrastructure and said, "In the next few weeks, I will sign an Executive
Order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects.
But you need to fund these projects. Take the money we're no longer spending at
war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some
nationbuilding right here at home."
The problem is that much of our war spending has been deficit spending. We've
spent a good $2.3-2.7 trillion in rooting out al Qaeda for 10 years in
Afghanistan. That's about $250 billion per year – less than the average
deficit during the Bush (43) years. If we want to cut the deficit, we cannot
divert the money we were using on wars to other projects because we were
borrowing that money in the first place. The stimulus packages were already
supposed to have provided money for fixing infrastructure, but every state has
its extensive wish list, and the possibilities are endless. Would a high-speed
rail line from New York to Washington be useful? Certainly. Would it be nice to
have high speed internet in the Appalachians? Yes. Is it the right time for the
federal government to spend billions of dollars on these projects? Not if we
are digging ourselves into an ever deepening hole.
Taxing The Rich:
The President's answer to our money problems is to tax the super wealthy at a
mandatory 30 percent rate. Warren Buffet, Obama declared, uses loopholes to
pay a lower rate than his secretary. It would definitely behoove America to
simplify the tax code, and if we want to talk "fair", a word the
President used repeatedly through his speech, it is certainly more fair to tax
everybody, rich and poor, at the same rate. The President doesn't actually
want fair, though. The President simply wants the rich to take a bigger chunk of
the tax burden. (Not that the middle or lower classes should be taxed more. Who
wants somebody pushing by on $25,000 or even $50,000 per year to pay 30 percent
of their income in taxes? Have a mercy and let them keep as much of their money
as possible.) It may indeed hurt the multi-millionaire less than the
blue collar worker to pay a larger portion of his income, but fairness really is not the issue.
In the end, though, even if the law said rich folks should hand over 50 percent of their income each year, that
would not guarantee those tax revenues would land in the government's coffers.
As Thomas Sowell noted last November, "[T]he genuinely rich are likely to
be the least harmed by high tax rates in the top brackets. People who are
looking for jobs are likely to be the most harmed, because they cannot equally
easily transfer themselves overseas to take the jobs that are being created
there by American investments that are fleeing high tax rates at home. Small
businesses — hardware stores, gas stations, restaurants — are
likewise unable to transfer themselves overseas. So they are far more likely to
be unable to escape the higher tax rates that are supposedly being imposed on
“millionaires and billionaires,” as President Obama calls them.
Moreover, small businesses are what create most of the new jobs."
What's more, the Buffet Rule does not really deal with the innate problems in
the tax code. "They're using a baseball bat, rather than a scalpel" by
applying the 30 percent minimum rate, said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at
the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. "By proposing the Buffett Rule, they're
saying: 'We don't like how the tax code is working. We're worried that there are
some very wealthy people who aren't paying a fair share,' " he said.
"But instead of eliminating deductions and simplifying the tax code,
they're just introducing more bells and whistles."
Choosing Our Own Light Bulbs:
The U.S. government has gotten increasingly bulky and has become patient with
owing vast amounts of money. The U.S. paid off its debts after the
Revolutionary War and again after the Civil War. The American government hasn't
paid back what it's borrowed since the 1930s and WWII, and the prospects are not
getting prettier. America is still breathing and so hope remains, but there are
extremely serious matters that the United States needs to squarely face before
it gets too much later.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels responded to the President's speech, saying,
"The President did not cause the economic and fiscal crises that continue
in America tonight. But he was elected on a promise to fix them, and he cannot
claim that the last three years have made things anything but worse: the
percentage of Americans with a job is at the lowest in decades…In word
and deed, the President and his allies tell us that we just cannot handle
ourselves in this complex, perilous world without their benevolent protection.
Left to ourselves, we might pick the wrong health insurance, the wrong mortgage,
the wrong school for our kids; why, unless they stop us, we might pick the wrong
We need to take responsibility for ourselves and for each other, and demand that
the federal government cut its spending and its overwhelming need to be involved
in every aspect of our lives. When talking about the auto industry, President
Obama spoke of depending on Americans. "We bet on American workers. We bet
on American ingenuity," he said. For the state of the union to improve,
the U.S. government needs to really take those words to heart, to depend on
Americans without having to constantly look over their shoulders. More
importantly, we the American people need to take charge of ourselves, work hard,
use ingenuity, and not depend on Washington to feed us. If we want to free
ourselves from debt, if we want to live in a country of liberty rather than
slavery, we need to be a wise and self-governed people. If we manage ourselves
well, there will be no need for a burdensome and expensive nanny-state
government, regardless of who sits in the White House.
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