Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for December 24th, 2016

The stolen Supreme Court seat

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The editors of the NY Times have a strong editorial regarding the GOP’s refusal to act on Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee:

Soon after his inauguration next month, President-elect Donald Trump will nominate someone to the Supreme Court, which has been hamstrung by a vacancy since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. There will be public debates about the nominee’s credentials, past record, judicial philosophy and temperament. There will be Senate hearings and a vote.

No matter how it plays out, Americans must remember one thing above all: The person who gets confirmed will sit in a stolen seat.

It was stolen from Barack Obama, a twice-elected president who fulfilled his constitutional duty more than nine months ago by nominating Merrick Garland, a highly qualified and widely respected federal appellate judge.

It was stolen by top Senate Republicans, who broke with longstanding tradition and refused to consider any nominee Mr. Obama might send them, because they wanted to preserve the court’s conservative majority. The main perpetrators of the theft were Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, and Charles Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. But virtually all Republican senators were accomplices; only two supported holding hearings.

The Republican party line — that it was an election year, so the American people should have a “voice” in the selection of the next justice — was a patent lie. The people spoke when they re-elected Mr. Obama in 2012, entrusting him to choose new members for the court. And the Senate has had no problem considering, and usually confirming, election-year nominees in the past.

Of course, Supreme Court appointments have always been political, and the court’s ideological center has shifted back and forth over time. But the Senate has given nominees full consideration and a vote even when the party in power has opposed a president’s choice. That is, until this year, when Republicans claimed that though the Constitution calls for the Senate’s “advice and consent,” senators aren’t obligated to do anything. This is a bad-faith reading of that clause, even if there is no clear way to force a vote. It certainly obliterates a well-established political norm that makes a functioning judicial branch possible. As Paul Krugman wrote in his column on Monday, institutions are not magically self-sustaining, and they “don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms.”

This particular norm is of paramount importance because the court’s institutional legitimacy depends on its perceived separation from the elected branches — a fragile concept in the best of times. By tying the latest appointment directly to the outcome of the election, Mr. McConnell and his allies took a torch to that idea — an outrageous gambit that, to nearly everyone’s shock, has paid off. But while Republicans may be celebrating now, the damage they have inflicted on the confirmation process, and on the court as an institution, may be irreversible.

The slope is both slippery and steep. If Republicans could justify an election-year blockade, what’s to stop Democrats in the future from doing the same? For that matter, why should the party controlling the Senate ever allow a president of the opposing party to choose a justice? Indeed, in the weeks before the election, Senate Republicans were threatening, with the encouragement of leading conservative thinkers, never to confirm anyone to fill the vacancy if Hillary Clinton won.

Can anything be done to repair the harm? One step . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2016 at 9:19 pm

Time for some snooker: Amazing clearance by Ronnie O’Sullivan

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From the 2012 World Snooker Championship Final.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2016 at 6:57 pm

Posted in Games, Video

Good example of irony

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2016 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Daily life, Election

“Donald, we need to talk about Russia”

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Mark Lawrence Shrad writes at Oxford University Press blog:

Congratulations on a hard-fought campaign, Mr. President-Elect. As a reward, you now get the onerous task of governing the United States, and establishing its foreign-policy priorities! The campaign was crazy, with speculation about your personal and business links to Russia and your coziness toward Russian President Vladimir Putin giving way to evidence of a coordinated Kremlin attack on American sovereignty and the sanctity of our democracy. While you may deny American intelligence as a political nuisance or distraction, like it or not, your response to Russia is going to be central to both your administration’s foreign and domestic agendas.

While you’ve repeatedly and non-hawkishly advocated for better relations with Russia, many of us are in the dark about what that means and how you intend to go about it, since you admitted that you “know nothing about Russia,” and have shown little interest in learning. Moreover, since you’ve alienated both liberals and experienced conservatives within the foreign-policy establishment, you’ll probably be playing with a short bench of knowledgeable advisors, or those whose international expertise is limited to the business realm. So, to help you out, I’ve put together ten pro-tips on US-Russian relations from a foreign-policy perspective.

1. Russia matters. Russia is a vital player on the world stage, deserving both our attention and respect. They’ve got nuclear weapons, abundant resources, extensive cyber-capabilities, and a veto on the UN Security Council. You cannot ignore or dismiss Russia in global politics and hope to get far. Since you’ve already affirmed the Kremlin’s importance in the campaign, and have even appeased them by nominating Putin’s friend, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, to not follow this respect with a comprehensive, strategic approach to Russia now would be unforgivable.

2. This isn’t the Cold War. Don’t buy the media spin about a “new Cold War.” The Cold War was an ideological struggle within a bipolar international system: the United States and NATO against the USSR and their Warsaw Pact. That’s gone. We’re in a multipolar world now. The Soviet Union collapsed, their economy was destroyed, and most of those Warsaw Pact countries are now our NATO allies. Russians don’t like to be reminded of any of that. Just don’t ignorantly claim that Ronald Reagan destroyed the USSR. It fell in spite of Reagan, not because of him, as Russians know better than anyone.

3. Russia is not the Soviet Union. In 1946, George Kennan—the architect of our “containment” doctrine—argued the main drivers of Kremlin foreign policy were “ideology and circumstances.” But Marxist-Leninist ideology is dead. Vladimir Putin isn’t pushing a global proletarian revolution, or any ideology for that matter. Much like yourself, he is a pragmatic realist, and he wants to not “look like a loser.” What Russian foreign policy lacks in grand design, it makes up in improvisation—so Kennan’s “circumstances” become even more important. Putin will capitalize on any perceived opportunity to advance Russia’s national interests—economic growth, domestic stability, and confronting perceived security threats. It’s naive to assume Russia’s national interests will always correspond with ours; it’s crazy to think they won’t pursue them anyway.

4. You’ve got the chips, but don’t know the game. In casino talk: imagine you, Rex Tillerson, or whoever becomes Secretary of State, and your foreign-policy bros just swaggered into the room with a huge pile of chips. America’s GDP is 13 times larger than Russia’s, the United States has the largest military in the world, and spends ten times as much on its military than Russia. So in pure power terms, you’ve got far more chips than anybody. But Russia just invited you to sit at a green-felt table where you don’t know what game is being played. Is this blackjack? Billiards? The rules of the game matter to whether you win or lose, and how you play. The guys across from you—Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov—have been playing at this table for years. They’re the wily old pros. They may not have as many chips, but they’ve worked their way up to the championship table of global powers by mastering the game. They expertly know how to play a bad hand, since Russia’s historically been dealt mostly bad hands. You should probably figure out how to play this game, and quick. One thing we do know is that you snuck a wildcard up your sleeve—your fundamentally unpredictable character—which has usually been dealt to Putin’s hand. Since you brought it, hopefully you know how to play it responsibly.

5. Russia needs us more than we need them. . .

Continue reading. The list goes up to 10.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2016 at 3:26 pm

Fish Pepper: Resurrecting Baltimore’s Chili Pepper Past

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I’m making the horseradish sauce from this recipe for tomorrow’s roast beef (a different cut from the one at the link):

Whisk together:

2 cups crème fraîche
1/4 cup white horseradish
Grated zest of half an orange
Salt and pepper

I sent the recipe to my daughter who lives in Baltimore and said I would probably use white pepper, and she said that in Baltimore, people often used dried ground “fish pepper” – a white chile pepper – for this purpose, and sent me this link. From the link:

There are few peppers as beautiful, and as rare, as the fish pepper. Along with its lovely flowering plant, the fish pepper follows one of the most unique coloration paths (among chilies) while maturing.

With its heat that’s capable of topping a serrano, the fish pepper was a favorite during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Baltimore and the mid-Atlantic states, spicing up crabs and fish dishes in particular. But its popularity wained, and this jewel of a chili nearly became lost to us all. Now, though, it’s making a comeback both as a cooking chili and as an ornamental pepper plant.

This is one of those chilies that became part of a region’s fabric, at least for a period. The fish pepper was brought to the mid-Atlantic region – it’s believed – from the Caribbean in the late 19th century (1870s). The African-American communities of the Chesapeake Bay area and major cities of the region (Baltimore and Philadelphia in particular) took to the chili and made it a culinary staple for oyster and crab houses. That’s where the name for this chili was coined.

But the fish pepper was more of a cooking secret than something well-documented. These fish houses typically used the white-hued versions of the chili (very early in the chili’s maturation process), so that the pepper blended perfectly into cream sauces – keeping the fish pepper low-profile in meals. There were few (if any) recipes written down, just the knowledge passed down orally from generation to generation.

As urbanization in the mid-Atlantic spread in the early 20th century, the fish pepper nearly became a casualty of the changing times. With few written recipes and an evolving cultural landscape, its use in the region slipped. In fact, the fish pepper essentially disappeared.

It was only in the 1940s that the fish pepper was saved from being an after-thought on the Scoville scale. A Pennsylvanian named Horace Pippin, while seeking some bees for an arthritis folk remedy, exchanged a selection of seeds to a beekeeper name H. Ralph Weaver. In the bunch were fish pepper seeds.

These seeds stayed in the Weaver private collection until H. Ralph passed down the seeds to his grandson William Woys Weaver. In 1995 – nearly a century after the top of its popularity – the fish pepper was reintroduced by William to the public. That’s some journey back to the kitchen. . .

Read the whole thing. There’s more info at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2016 at 1:12 pm

Posted in Food, Recipes

In American Towns, Private Profits From Public Works

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Governments are not intended to produce a profit. “Tax and spend” is the very essence: taxes are at a level that pays for the services (the “spending” part) with no extra money collected for profit or savings. Tax and spend is exactly what the government is supposed to do, not “tax and save.”

Private corporations, in contrast, must collect enough money not only to cover costs but also return a profit—and the goal is a healthy profit, though sometimes the profit is too obese to really be healthy.

Thus turning government services over to private corporations means that the citizens will pay more. Danielle Ivory, Ben Protess, and Griff Palmer report in the NY Times:

Nicole Adamczyk’s drinking water used to slosh through a snarl of pipes dating from the Coolidge administration — a rusty, rickety symbol of the nation’s failing infrastructure.

So, in 2012, this blue-collar port city cut a deal with a Wall Street investment firm to manage its municipal waterworks.

Four years later, many of those crusty brown pipes have been replaced by shiny cobalt-blue ones, reflecting a broader infrastructure overhaul in Bayonne. But Ms. Adamczyk’s water and sewer bill has jumped so much that she is thinking about moving out of town.

Even as Wall Street deals like the one with Bayonne help financially desperate municipalities to make much-needed repairs, they can come with a hefty price tag — not just to pay for new pipes, but also to help the investors earn a nice return, a New York Times analysis has found. Often, these contracts guarantee a specific amount of revenue, The Times found, which can send water bills soaring.

Water rates in Bayonne have risen nearly 28 percent since Kohlberg Kravis Roberts — one of Wall Street’s most storied private equity firms — teamed up with another company to manage the city’s water system, the Times analysis shows. City officials also promised residents a four-year rate freeze that never materialized.

In one measure of residents’ distress, people are falling so far behind on their bills that the city is placing more liens against their homes, which can eventually lead to foreclosures.

In the typical private equity water deal, higher rates help the firms earn returns of anywhere from 8 to 18 percent, more than what a regular for-profit water company may expect. And to accelerate their returns, two of the firms have applied a common strategy from the private equity playbook: quickly flipping their investment to another firm. This includes K.K.R., which is said to be shopping its 90 percent stake in the Bayonne venture, a partnership with the water company Suez.

Rich Henning, a Suez spokesman, said that “Bayonne had chronically underinvested in their water and sewer infrastructure, which has certainly contributed to rate increases during the past few years.” He added, “We understand that these increases create stresses for ratepayers.” [unspoken: “But we really don’t care about that: the important thing is to make a good profit with a healthy rate of return.” – LG]

President-elect Donald J. Trump has made the privatization of public works a centerpiece of his strategy to rebuild America’s airports, bridges, tunnels and roads. Members of his inner circle have sketched out a vision, including billions of dollars of tax credits for private investors willing to tackle big infrastructure projects. And Mr. Trump himself promised in his victory speech “to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none.”

Private equity firms like K.K.R. have already presented themselves as a willing partner, and Bayonne provides an important case study. Its arrangement is one of a handful of deals across the country in the last few years in which private equity firms have managed public water systems. While these deals are a small corner of private equity’s sprawling interests, they represent the leading edge of the industry’s profound expansion into public services.

For residents, the financial trade-offs from these water deals can be painful.

The Times analyzed three deals in which private equity firms have recently run a community’s water or sewer services through a long-term contract. In all three places — Bayonne, and two cities in California, Rialto and Santa Paula — rates rose more quickly than in comparable towns, which included both publicly and privately run water systems. In Santa Paula, where Alinda Capital Partners controlled the sewer plant, the city more than doubled the rates. A fourth municipality, Middletown, Pa., raised its rates before striking a deal.

Now, some of these cities are trying to take back their water. Missoula, Mont., wrested away its water system, which had been owned by the Carlyle Group. Apple Valley, Calif., whose waterworks were also owned by Carlyle, has filed a similar lawsuit. Santa Paula bought its sewer plant from Alinda last year.

Of course, there’s a reason many communities look for private partners to begin with: Their water systems are in poor shape. Budget shortfalls and political mismanagement can represent a real threat to both infrastructure and citizens. For evidence, look no further than the crisis in Flint, Mich., where the drinking water became tainted with lead.

“Keeping rates down may sound like the ultimate righteous good for ratepayers, but the truth is, not if you’re failing to provide basic care and maintenance,” said Megan Matson, a partner at Table Rock Capital, the boutique private equity firm that invested in Rialto’s water and sewer system. She added that it helps for deals to “provide more obvious public benefits,” noting that her firm partnered with Ullico, the nation’s only labor-owned insurance and investment company. . .

Continue reading.

Pay taxes to support needed services, or pay even more for the services when a profit also is required.

And it’s worse than that. Because profits must grow, private corporations running services (prisons, hospitals, and the like) start to cut costs, which improves profits directly: a dollar saved in costs drops directly to the bottom line, whereas a dollar increase in revenue has costs deducted before a profit is realized. So private hospitals and prisons usually are understaffed for mission requirements, and crowded with too many patients or prisoners (to increase revenue).

It’s much better if governments manage government services and pay those costs via taxes, with citizens holding the government accountable.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2016 at 9:03 am

How doctors will try to thwart healthcare reform

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The issue is not to ensure that patients get adequate medical care but to ensure that doctors continue to have high incomes. (I do understand that not all doctors are driven by monetary considerations, but it’s a matter of historical fact that the US medical profession has steadfastly opposed any effort to increase the number of people with access to medical care.) James Surowiecki writes in the NY Times:

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump made many promises he doubtless won’t keep and a few he apparently doesn’t remember. But his nomination of Representative Tom Price, a hard-core conservative from Georgia, to be Secretary of Health and Human Services is a sign that repealing Obamacare is one promise he’d like to carry out. In every Congress since the Affordable Care Act was passed, Price has sponsored a bill to replace it. And there’s something else that should worry supporters of Obamacare: he’s a doctor.

To be fair, that makes Price more qualified than most of Trump’s Cabinet picks. But doctors have a history of opposing health-care reform of all kinds. The most famous instance is the American Medical Association’s campaign against the creation of Medicare. (In 1961, it hired an actor named Ronald Reagan to warn of the dangers of socialized medicine.) But the pattern emerged much earlier. In 1917, during the First World War, Californians voted on whether to institute universal health insurance. As Paul Starr recounts in “The Social Transformation of American Medicine,” a doctors’ group called the League for the Conservation of Public Health denounced the idea as a “dangerous device” imported from Germany and helped defeat the initiative. New Dealers pushed for Social Security to include health insurance, but public attacks by the A.M.A. convinced Franklin Roosevelt to steer clear, in order to save the rest of the bill. When Harry Truman proposed a universal-insurance plan, after the 1948 election, the A.M.A. put an end to it with the most expensive lobbying campaign that America had seen. And it helped derail Bill Clinton’s health-care plan, too.

It’s not only government reforms that doctors have resisted; it’s almost any plan that has threatened to reduce their income or autonomy. In the thirties, there were experiments with “pre-paid medical groups,” in which customers paid a flat fee to a set of doctors in exchange for care. The A.M.A. did its best to drive these groups out of business—it was fined for antitrust violations—and state medical societies ostracized doctors who joined up. The A.M.A. did tentatively endorse Obamacare, in a break with tradition, but only after helping nix the so-called public option. Since then, doctors have been among the program’s loudest critics.

Doctors have typically framed their opposition to reform in terms of the need to protect the doctor-patient relationship from outside interference. That’s understandable and legitimate. But many doctors have also fought reform because it runs counter to their financial interests. As an A.M.A report once said, doctors “display a consistent preoccupation with their economic insecurity”; more bluntly, “They think about money a lot.”

There’s plenty of evidence that financial considerations affect medical decisions: for instance, studies show that doctors who have a financial stake in imaging equipment like MRI machines order many more unnecessary MRIs. So it’s no surprise that the medical establishment’s criticism of reforms often hinges on money. The 1917 California insurance plan was attacked for offering treatment “at bargain counter prices.” The pre-paid medical groups were competition for traditional fee-for-service doctors. Doctors opposed universal health insurance in part because they feared that government involvement would drive down fees, and they tried to stop Medicare for the same reason. (They needn’t have worried: doctors’ incomes rose steadily in the years after Medicare was enacted, because they added more patients without having to cut their fees.)

Doctors, then, have behaved like a classic political interest group, and they’ve been very successful. They are now more likely to be in the top one per cent of earners than members of any other industry. They don’t have things all their own way—there are more administrative burdens, and insurance companies and the government are more intrusive than before—but the profession has been the single biggest beneficiary of the boom in medical spending in the past four decades, and doctors’ incomes have remained relatively untouched by attempts to rein in health-care costs.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; it’s how interest-group politics work. But what’s fascinating is that doctors are a powerful lobby in part because voters think of them as above the fray. Doctor regularly ranks as one of the three most trusted professions. People love their doctors and respect their expertise and work ethic. So it’s easier for politicians to go after reliable villains like insurance companies and drug companies. Suggesting that doctors might not always be disinterested policy advocates is a losing tactic.

We can expect to hear Tom Price invoke his medical background as he tries to roll back Obamacare. (He’s an orthopedic surgeon—according to one study, the most politically conservative field in medicine.) . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 December 2016 at 8:46 am

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