Weekly Roundup 1/30/2012

Private Snoops Find GPS Trail Legal to Follow
Erik Eckholm, The New York Times, Jan. 29, 2012

Synopsis: In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Jan. 23 decision limiting police use of GPS devices to surveill suspects (United States v. Jones), new attention is being focused on non-governmental use of the technology. GPS devices can be used by parents to monitor teenaged drivers, family members to keep track of elderly relatives and private investigators to get the goods on adulterous spouses. Many of the common uses are legal, according to veteran Times correspondent Eckholm, but the practice raises ethical concerns.

Takeaway: “To have this as a routine tool strikes me as pretty chilling,” commented Jonathan Zittrain, professor of law and computer science at Harvard University. “It cuts into someone’s autonomy to know where they are all the time and not give them the opportunity to opt out,” he said.

For CQ Researcher coverage of related issues, see Patrick Marshall, “Online Privacy,” Nov. 6, 2009, updated Sept. 14, 2010; Marcia Clemmitt, “Privacy in Peril,” Nov. 17, 2006; Patrick Marshall, “Privacy Under Attack,” June 15, 2001.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


New Drone Has No Pilot Anywhere, So Who's Responsible?
W. J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 26, 2012

Synopsis: Most military drones are flown by pilots on the ground, but some new ones are guided entirely by onboard computers. Ethicists say that a clear chain of human responsibility must be established for the potentially deadly actions of such unpiloted drones.

Takeaway:"'Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability, said Noel Sharkey, a...robotics expert. 'So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military's acquisition process?' Sharkey and others believe that autonomous armed robots should force the kind of dialogue that followed the introduction of mustard gas in World War I and the development of atomic weapons in World War II. The International Committee of the Red Cross... is already examining the issue."

For more, see Thomas J. Billitteri, “Drone Warfare,” Aug. 6, 2010

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


Will Israel Attack Iran?

By Ronen Bergman, The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 29, 2012

Synopsis: In fascinating detail, the military analyst for Israel’s largest newspaper examines the likelihood that Israel will attack Iran in an attempt to cripple its nuclear capability. He reports that defense minister Ehud Barak lays out three questions, all of which require affirmative responses before a decision is made to attack:

1. Does Israel have the ability to cause severe damage to Iran’s nuclear sites and bring about a major delay in the Iranian nuclear project?

2. Does Israel have overt or tacit support, particularly from America, for carrying out an attack?

3. Have all other possibilities for the containment of Iran’s nuclear threat been exhausted, bringing Israel to the point of last resort? If so, is this the last opportunity for an attack?

Takeaway: “For the first time since the Iranian nuclear threat emerged in the mid-1990s,” Bergman writes, “at least some of Israel’s most powerful leaders believe that the response to all of these questions is yes. “ What does Bergman himself think? “After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012.”

For background, see Jennifer Weeks, “Nuclear Disarmament,” Oct. 2, 2009 (updated Dec. 10, 2010) and Peter Katel, “U.S. Policy on Iran,” Nov. 16, 2007

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor

This Week’s Report: Youth Volunteerism

In recent decades, high schools and colleges have increased volunteer opportunities for students, sometimes mandating service as a graduation requirement. Nearly 90 percent of colleges offer service-learning programs that link class work with volunteer activities.

But as Staff Writer Marcia Clemmitt notes in this week’s report, the trend has had mixed reviews. Researchers have found that service work leads to greater civic engagement as young people grow older. But some worry that volunteer opportunities are more available to middle-class and affluent students than those from low-income families. And critics of mandatory service say it infringes on personal choice, though courts have ruled in favor of schools that require public service for graduation.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

Weekly Roundup 1/24/2012

Polarized news market has altered the political process in South Carolina primar
Marc Fisher, The Washington Post, Jan. 21, 2012

Synopsis: On the eve of the South Carolina primary, veteran Washington Post reporter-columnist Marc Fisher critically analyzes voters’ increased reliance on news sources that reinforce their political views. “There’s more campaign news and commentary out there than ever before, but more and more citizens are tucking themselves inside information silos where they see mainly what they already agree with,” Fisher writes.

Takeaway: Fisher writes: “The result, according to voters, campaign strategists and a raft of studies that track users’ news choices, is an electorate in which conservatives and liberals often have not only their own opinions but also their own sets of facts, making it harder than ever to approach common ground.”

For CQ Researcher coverage, see Tom Price, “Journalism Standards in the Internet Age,” Oct. 8, 2010; Tom Price, “Future of Journalism,” March 27, 2009, updated Sept. 3, 2010; Marcia Clemmitt, “Internet Accuracy,” Aug. 1, 2008.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


Why a President Romney Would Find It Hard to Repeal 'Obamacare'
Brian Beutler, Talking Points Memo, Jan. 18, 2012

Obamacare Reform Lags in Many States
Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, The Associated Press in Bangor (Maine) Daily News, Jan. 22, 2012

Synopsis: The health-care system is adjusting to health-reform-law changes that are already under way, potentially making repeal a dicey proposition that could trigger pushback from hospitals and some patients. Meanwhile, however, three out of four uninsured people live in states that have made little to no progress implementing the insurance-coverage portions of the law, leaving the federal government with a much harder job than anticipated to cover the uninsured by 2014.

Takeaway: Spurred by the law, providers "have been moving away from a paradigm in which they’re reimbursed for the volume of treatment...toward one that rewards good outcomes — a shift that will...cut deeply into per-patient profits," writes TPM's Beutler. "They bought into the law...because it also guarantees them millions of new patients — enough to keep them economically viable despite the payment reforms...If a GOP President tells hospitals, 'Surprise! Those new patients aren’t coming!' there will be hell to pay."

However, states were expected to be partners in implementing the law, setting up "exchanges" in which people can buy coverage, and only 13 states have implementation plans in place, writes AP's Alonso-Zaldivar. Many Republican governors and lawmakers say they won't cooperate because they oppose the law on ideological grounds.

For more, see Nellie Bristol's Jan. 6 report on Preventing Disease and my June 11, 2010, report (updated May 24, 2011) on Health Care Reform.

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


How U.S. Lost Out On iPhone Work
Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2012

Synopsis: Apple boasted not long ago that its products were American made. Now, almost all of apple’s tens of millions of iPhones, iPads and other products are manufactured overseas.

Takeaway: The overseas jobs created by Apple and many of its high-tech peers are not likely to return to the U.S. In addition to finding cheaper labor overseas, the authors write, “Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have [vastly] outpaced their American counterparts.”

For background, see the following CQ Researcher reports: “U.S.-China Relations” (May 7, 2010; updated May 24, 2011); “Emerging China” (Nov. 11, 2005); and “Future of GlobalizationCQ Global Researcher, September 2009.

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor

This Week’s Report: Financial Misconduct

In the aftermath of the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression, many Americans are pressing for stronger regulation of the financial industry and harsh punishment for banks and other institutions they say created the crisis.

But as Associate Editor Kenneth Jost writes in this week’s report, four years after the financial crisis began, no prominent financial executives have been prosecuted for central roles in the crisis. In one case, a federal judge rejected a proposed settlement with a major bank as too lenient. But some legal experts say that many of the practices that helped trigger the economic crisis were not necessarily illegal.

This is a strong report for classes and papers dealing with the economy, government regulation, economic history and institutional misconduct.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

Weekly Roundup 1/17/2012

The Benefits of Bain Capitalism
Ross Douthat, The New York Times, Jan. 15, 2012

America Isn’t a Corporation
Paul Krugman, The New York Times, Jan. 13, 2012

The C.E.O. in Politics
David Brooks, The New York Times, Jan. 13, 2012

Synopsis: With Mitt Romney’s victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, more attention is being focused on his record as a venture capitalist. Romney says his business experience proves his qualifications for the presidency and refutes criticism of Bain Capital for having destroyed, not created, jobs. Three New York Times columnists comment, from different perspectives. Ross Douthat argues the “private equity revolution” has benefited the economy but that Romney needs to acknowledge its costs. Paul Krugman criticizes Bain’s record and asks whether Romney “understands the difference between running a business and managing an economy.” And David Brooks concludes: “There’s little correlation between business success and political success.”

For CQ Researcher coverage, watch for the upcoming February report on the “Presidential Election.”

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


The Hidden Dangers of Low Interest Rates
David Cay Johnston, Reuters, Jan. 10, 2012

Synopsis: Longtime tax blogger and analyst David Cay Johnson explains the overlooked consequences, especially for retirees, of the Fed's low bank interest rates, which have been maintained near zero for years on the grounds that they will help the struggling economy by increasing the supply of money and credit.

Takeaway: "Low rates keep alive the banks that the government considers too big to fail and reduce the cost of servicing the burgeoning federal debt. Low rates also come at a cost, cutting income to older Americans and to pension funds. This forces retirees to eat into principal, and may put more pressure on welfare programs for the elderly."

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


Judith Clark’s Radical Transformation
Tom Robbins, The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 16, 2012

Synopsis: Judith Clark has been in a maximum security women’s prison for three decades for her role in the infamous Brinks robbery in upstate New York in 1981, which caused the death of a bank guard and two policemen. When she entered prison, she was an angry, unrepentant militant.

Takeaway: By all accounts – including the prison warden -- Clark has been a model prisoner who earned college degrees, helped hundreds of other inmates, and now deeply regrets the deaths she helped to cause. She has also served far more time than her accomplices, who played more crucial roles in the robbery. Given the apparent changes Clark has undergone, author Robbins asks, Why is she still in prison?

For background, see “Downsizing Prisons,” by Peter Katel, March 11, 2011.

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor

Restoring the Gulf Coast

Fifty years and $50 billion to rebuild Louisiana’s coast: That’s the price tag in a long-term plan just released by the state of Louisiana for restoring the state’s eroding marshes and protecting low-lying areas – including New Orleans – from storm surges. (See graphic and story.) State officials call the issue an emergency and say they can carry out the plan by combining a share of legal penalties from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill with federal appropriations and revenues from offshore oil drilling. Even if every step in the plan is carried out, it won’t stop coastal erosion, but it will slow the process significantly. By 2042, the plan forecasts, Louisiana would finally start gaining land every year instead of losing it to the ocean. For background, see my CQ Researcher report, “Gulf Coast Restoration,” Aug. 26, 2011.

--Jennifer Weeks, Contributing Writer

This Week’s Report: “Occupy” Movement

Thousands of activists have taken to the streets in recent months to protest income inequality and corporate greed, a movement that has invited condemnation from conservative politicians but captured the imagination of many economically struggling Americans.

The “Occupy” movement, which began last September in New York City’s Financial District and has spread to virtually every state, is changing the national dialogue on economic fairness, Staff Writer Peter Katel reports. It marks “the first time since the days of the anti-Vietnam War movement that ideas from the left have helped set the national agenda,” he writes.

With pro-con debates, charts, graphs and chronologies, this report is ideal for classes and papers on social policy, economics, labor and cultural history and politics.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

Stop Working -- Now!

Here in D.C. -- probably the workaholic capital of the world -- long days in the office are commonplace. Indeed, I remember reports of White House staff working 12 hours a day or more (though insiders said some were staying late because they'd gotten into an "arms race" over who could put in the most time -- and many were often just surfing the net or gossiping instead of working. But many organizations and companies are conscientious about helping workers maintain "work-family" balance, including our own CQ Press office, where fresh fruit is provided free to employees three times a week. Chevron, however, takes health care to another level. A friend who works in Chevron's government affairs office here told me employees' computers automatically switch off when a ceiling on work has been reached. The computers have ergonomic counters that turn the computer off when the limit on key strokes has been reached. What happens if there's a project that has to be finished and you're out of keystrokes? Workers can override the shut-off switch, but it gets reported to management. Why the limits? Chevron no doubt cares about its workers' health, but it's also good business. As Nellie Bristol's recent report on "Preventing Disease" made clear, keeping workers healthy significantly cuts insurance and other expenses.

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor

Weekly Roundup 1/9/2012

My Guantanamo Nightmare
Lakhdar Boumediene, The New York Times, Jan. 8, 2012 (print and online)

Notes from a Guantanamo Survivor
Murat Kuranz, The New York Times, Jan. 8, 2012 (online)

Synopsis: On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the opening of the U.S. prison camp for suspected enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba [Jan. 11], two men recount their experiences of having been there for years before being ruled innocent and released. Boumediene, a Bosnian immigrant working for the Red Crescent (part of the International Red Cross), was arrested with five others barely one month after 9/11, wrongfully suspected of plotting to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo. Kuranz, an immigrant to Germany from Turkey, was arrested in Pakistan, also not long after 9/11, apparently linked to a friend in Germany who was wrongly suspected as a terrorist. Both men waged hard legal battles during their captivity to clear their names and be released. Eventually, they were released: Kuranz returned to Germany through diplomatic efforts, Boumediene repatriated to France after winning a landmark Supreme Court case that bears his name.

Takeaway: Boumediene and Kuranz have left Guantanamo behind, but not their experiences there. “So long as Guantánamo stays open and innocent men remain there, my thoughts will be with those left behind in that place of suffering and injustice,” Boumediene writes. Kuranz too says he finds it “hard not to think about my time at Guantánamo and to wonder how it is possible that a democratic government can detain people in intolerable conditions and without a fair trial.

For CQ researcher coverage, see my reports “Closing Guantanamo,” Feb. 27, 2009, updated March 15, 2011; “Treatment of Detainees,” Aug. 25, 2006 (with Peter Katel); and “Prosecuting Terrorists,” March 12, 2010, updated May 26, 2011.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


Google’s Cloud Robotics Strategy – and How It Could Soon Threaten Jobs
Martin Ford, Huffington Post, Jan. 3, 2012.

Synopsis: We never got those individual jetpacks that futurists used to promise us. But the job-snatching robots? Apparently they’re on the way.

Takeaway: “Many…who dismiss the potential for robots and automation to dramatically impact the job market have not fully assimilated the implications of machine learning. Human workers need to be trained individually, and that is a very expensive, time-consuming and error-prone process. Machines are different: train just one and all the others acquire the knowledge….Imagine that a company like FedEx or UPS could train ONE worker and then have its entire workforce instantly acquire those skills with perfect proficiency and consistency….And, of course, machine learning will not be limited to just robots performing manipulative tasks -- software applications employed in knowledge-based tasks are also going to get much smarter.”

For more, see Patrick Marshall’s April 22, 2011, report, “Artificial Intelligence.”

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


The Myth of Japan’s Failure
Eamonn Fingleton, The New York Times, “Sunday Review,” Jan. 8, 2012

Synopsis: Japan is portrayed in the media as an economic disaster case. But that view doesn’t square with reality, writes the author. As a prominent Japan-watcher wrote after a recent visit: “There’s a dramatic gap between what one reads in the United States and what one sees on the ground in Japan. The Japanese are dressed better than Americans. They have the latest cars, including Porsches, Audis, Mercedes-Benzes and all the finest models. I have never seen so many spoiled pets. And the physical infrastructure of the country keeps improving and evolving.”

Takeaway: Americans view Japan as a failure at Americans’ own peril, says Fingleton. Japan should be held up as a model, not an admonition. … Japan’s constant upgrading of its infrastructure is surely an inspiration. It is a strategy that often requires cooperation across a wide political front, but such cooperation has not been beyond the American political system in the past. The Hoover Dam, that iconic project of the Depression, required negotiations among seven states but somehow it was built — and it provided jobs for 16,000 people in the process. Nothing is stopping similar progress now — nothing, except political bickering.

For background, see David Masci, “Japan in Crisis,” CQ Researcher, July 26, 2002

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor

This Week’s Report: “Preventing Disease”

With health care costs rising sharply, medical experts and policy makers – including the Obama administration – are placing more and more emphasis on preventive measures to ward off chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Key targets of the preventive-health movement are smoking and obesity– the nation’s two biggest killers.

But as veteran health reporter Nellie Bristol notes in this week’s report, the prevention push faces financial and ideological roadblocks. Concerns over the federal budget deficit could result in sharp cuts to a signature Obama program – the $15 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund, enacted as part of the 2010 health care reform law. And, as Bristol writes, “critics of the preventive health movement say the ‘obesity epidemic’ has been overblown by public health officials and is a ruse to allow meddling in personal choices.”

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

Weekly Roundup 1/3/2012

The most important losers in American politics
Scott Farris, The Washington Post, Jan. 1, 2012

Synopsis: Every presidential candidate wants victory, but even losers can have a huge impact, according to journalist Scott Farris. But from his book Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation, Farris highlights some of the defeated presidential candidates who helped change U.S. history – from William Jennings Bryan, who transformed the Democratic Party from a conservative, southern-based party to a progressive coalition of workers, farmers and crusaders; to Barry Goldwater, who helped turn the Republican Party decisively in a conservative direction. Some others: Al Smith, the first major-party Catholic nominee whose defeat made John Kennedy’s election possible; and Thomas Dewey, the GOP’s first post-FDR nominee who told the Republican Party not to campaign on a platform of undoing the New Deal.

Takeaway: “[W]inning an election is a narrow definition of success,” Farris writes. “A triumphant candidate may be stuck in the policies of the past and become no more than a footnote in history; a losing candidate can be prophetic and end up transforming our politics.”

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


Nuclear Power Play: Ambition, Betrayal and the 'Ugly Underbelly' of Energy Regulation
Ryan Grimm, Huffington Post, Dec. 29, 2011

Scuffle at NRC Has Stench of Industry Influence Behind It
J. Patrick Coolican, Las Vegas Sun, Dec. 12, 2011

Fight Among Nation's Top Nuclear Regulators Get Airing Before Congress
Mark Clayton, The Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 14, 2011

Synopsis: In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, some members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are accusing Chairman Gregory Jaczko of tyrannical behavior in pushing for safety upgrades at U.S. plants. Where some see an overzealous Jaczko bullying colleagues and the power industry to ram through expensive and possibly unnecessary changes, others see an understandably concerned chairman whose safety-improvement efforts have run into an industry-inspired roadblock, as nuclear-industry skeptics say has happened in the past.

Takeaway: In the state that's the site for the federal government's long-proposed nuclear-waste-disposal site, Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, many, understandably, seem to be on Jaczko's side. "People I talked to say this row is really about the strong record of Jaczko on nuclear safety and public health issues, including on Yucca Mountain," writes a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun. "The nuclear industry knows he won’t carry its water, so industry allies" on the Commission "are trying to force him out. According to one NRC observer, Jaczko is pushing hard for policies that will prevent blackouts at nuclear plants; much of the catastrophe at Fukushima can be pegged to power failures after the earthquake and tsunami there"

For more, see my June 10 report on Nuclear Power and Jennifer Weeks' Jan. 28 report on Managing Nuclear Waste.

-- Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


Pay Up Now
Joe Nocera, The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 1, 2012

Synopsis: You don’t have to be a fan of big-time college sports to be mesmerized – and taken aback -- by this fascinating look at the big money involved in college sports. For example, did you know that Mack Brown’s 2011 salary as University of Texas football coach was $5.1 million, while the combined value of the 2011 athletic scholarships for the UT football team was just $3.1 million. As writer Joe Nocera essentially says in this compelling report, Hmmm, what’s wrong with this picture?

Takeaway: Nocera proposes to end the inequity and false sentimentality of college athletics and pay college players for playing. He writes: “College sports will become more honest once players are paid and more honorable. Fans will be able to enjoy football and men’s basketball without having to avert their eyes from the scandals and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s true; paying players will change college sports. They will be better, too.”

For background, see Kenneth Jost’s “College Football,” CQ Researcher, Nov. 18, 2011.

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor