CRF Blog

Is Obamacare Sustainable?

by Bill Hayes

The New York Times’ Room for Debate lets various knowledgeable contributors discuss news events and other timely issues. One recent debate covered: Is Obamacare Sustainable?

Aetna and Oscar are the latest national insurance companies to pull out of certain state marketplace exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act, which were designed to lower costs for consumers by increasing competition between insurance companies. Many insurers are losing money on the exchanges because too few people have signed up for coverage.

Is Obamacare sustainable? What might make it more viable in the long-term? [more]

For free classroom lessons related to Obamacare and health-care reform, see “The Continuing Struggle for U.S. Health-Care Reform,” “The U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision on the Affordable Care Act,” and “Health Care: What Do Other Countries Do?” These lessons are available from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive. They are currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

Why Trump Was Inevitable

by Bill Hayes

In Why Trump Was Inevitable, the New York Review of Books looks at polling data showing high support among Republicans for many of Donald Trump’s policies.

One of the main reasons many political commentators were surprised by Donald Trump’s success in the primaries was his willingness to take extreme positions and use unusually harsh rhetoric in talking about immigration and related issues. Indeed, Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants and Muslims have been at the center of his campaign. And his pronouncements on these topics have greatly concerned many Republican leaders and elected officials who feared they would harm the party’s image and damage its electoral prospects. But how did his positions and comments play with Republican primary voters?

The clear answer is that they reflected the views of likely Republican voters extremely well. We asked a series of questions about Trump’s controversial proposals (banning Muslims from entering the US, building a wall on the Mexican border, and identifying and deporting illegal immigrants). On all three issues overwhelming majorities of likely Republican voters supported his positions: almost three quarters (73 percent) favored banning Muslims from entering the US, 90 percent favored identifying and deporting illegal immigrants as quickly as possible, and 85 percent favored building a wall on the Mexican border. [more]

The Assad Files

by Bill Hayes

In The Assad Files for the New Yorker, Ben Taub reports on documents that tie the Syrian regime to war crimes.

The investigator in Syria had made the drive perhaps a hundred times, always in the same battered truck, never with any cargo. It was forty miles to the border, through eleven rebel checkpoints, where the soldiers had come to think of him as a local, a lawyer whose wartime misfortunes included a commute on their section of the road. Sometimes he brought them snacks or water, and he made sure to thank them for protecting civilians like himself. Now, on a summer afternoon, he loaded the truck with more than a hundred thousand captured Syrian government documents, which had been buried in pits and hidden in caves and abandoned homes.

He set out at sunset. To the fighters manning the checkpoints, it was as if he were invisible. Three reconnaissance vehicles had driven ahead, and one confirmed by radio what the investigator hoped to hear: no new checkpoints. Typically, the border was sealed, but soldiers from the neighboring country waved him through. He drove until he reached a Western embassy, where he dropped off the cargo for secure transfer to Chris Engels, an American lawyer. Engels expected the papers to include evidence linking high-level Syrian officials to mass atrocities. After a decade spent training international criminal-justice practitioners in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, Engels now leads the regime-crimes unit of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent investigative body founded in 2012, in response to the Syrian war.

In the past four years, people working for the organization have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities. The documents are brought to the group’s headquarters, in a nondescript office building in Western Europe, sometimes under diplomatic cover. There, each page is scanned, assigned a bar code and a number, and stored underground. A dehumidifier hums inside the evidence room; just outside, a small box dispenses rat poison.

Upstairs, in a room secured by a metal door, detailed maps of Syrian villages cover the walls, and the roles of various suspects in the Syrian government are listed on a whiteboard. Witness statements and translated documents fill dozens of binders, which are locked in a fireproof safe at night. Engels, who is forty-one, bald and athletic, with a precise, discreet manner, oversees the operation; analysts and translators report directly to him.

The commission’s work recently culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad, coördinated among his security-intelligence agencies, and implemented by regime operatives, who reported the successes of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus. The brief narrates daily events in Syria through the eyes of Assad and his associates and their victims, and offers a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty. Such acts had been reported by survivors in Syria before, but they had never been traced back to signed orders. Stephen Rapp, who led prosecution teams at the international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and Sierra Leone before serving for six years as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, told me that the CIJA’s documentation “is much richer than anything I’ve seen, and anything I’ve prosecuted in this area.”

The case is the first international war-crimes investigation completed by an independent agency like the CIJA, funded by governments but without a court mandate. The organization’s founder, Bill Wiley, a Canadian war-crimes investigator who has worked on several high-profile international tribunals, had grown frustrated with the geopolitical red tape that often shapes the pursuit of justice. Because the process of collecting evidence and organizing it into cases is purely operational, he reasoned that it could be done before the political will exists to prosecute the case.

Only the U.N. Security Council can refer the crisis in Syria to the International Criminal Court; in May, 2014, Russia and China blocked a draft resolution that would have granted the court jurisdiction over war crimes committed by all sides of the conflict. Nevertheless, Wiley told me, the commission has also identified a number of “quite serious perpetrators, drawn from the security-intelligence services,” who have entered Europe. “The CIJA is very much committed to assisting domestic authorities with prosecutions.” [more]

Riding Rubber’s Boom

by Bill Hayes

In Riding Rubber’s Boom, National Geographic looks at the exploding market for rubber and its environmental impact on the planet.

[R]ubber today is grown almost exclusively in Southeast Asia, because the region has a unique combination of suitable climate and infrastructure. Despite all the ups and downs in the global economy, the demand for tires continues to grow, which has created something akin to a gold rush in Southeast Asia. For millions of people in this poor part of the world, the rubber boom has helped bring prosperity; Chin does not have the only new pickup in Tung Nha Noi. And rubber has helped end the region’s isolation. Brand-new “rubber highways” — the last finished in 2013 — now connect previously remote plantations in Southeast Asia to tire factories in northern China.

But the consequences of the rubber trade are not purely economic. Southeast Asia’s legions of Chins have set off what Jefferson Fox of the East-West Center in Hawaii calls “one of the biggest, fastest ecological transformations in human history.” In China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar rubber farmers have cut or burned down forests and planted row after row after row of H. brasiliensis. In the process, they are converting one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems into a monoculture as uniform as a Kansas wheat field, potentially threatening the basic ecological functions of an area inhabited by tens of millions of people. Each of the five tires on Chin’s truck — one on each wheel plus a spare — is like a small patch of tropical forest, stripped and compressed into a glossy black ring. So is every tire on my car and yours.

Monocultures are intensely productive — and intensely vulnerable. Just ask Henry Ford. Giant among industrialists, control freak extraordinaire, brilliant but possibly illiterate, Ford ran his own iron and coal mines, built his own power plants, logged his own timberlands. His River Rouge factory complex in Dearborn, Michigan, had a deepwater port, a steel foundry (the world’s biggest at the time), and a hundred miles of interior railroad. Every type of material needed to manufacture automobiles was made at River Rouge save one: rubber. In 1927 Ford acquired nearly 4,000 square miles in the Amazon Basin, original home of H. brasiliensis. [more]

Long they ruled

by David De La Torre

In Long they ruled, The Economist reviews The Romanovs: 1613–1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s story starts with the miserable, melancholic Michael, dragged to the smouldering ruins of the Kremlin by feuding boyars who were desperate for unity in the face of defeat by mighty Poland. It features the greats: Peter, manically debauched, and Catherine, the “regicidal, uxoricidal German usurper”; and also dismal failures such as Alexander III, who ruled Russia as a “curmudgeonly landowner”. It concludes with the pathetic Nicholas II, the last tsar, deposed and hurriedly murdered alongside his wife and children … by the Bolsheviks in 1918. His ill-starred reign was redeemed only by the “grace, patience, humour and dignity” which the doomed royal family showed in their captivity. [more]

Marx Is Back

by Bill Hayes

In Marx Is Back for Foreign Policy magazine, Charles Kenny argues that “The global working class is starting to unite — and that’s a good thing.”

[I]t is exactly because the rich and poor will look increasingly similar in Lagos and London that it’s more likely that the workers of the world in 2030 will unite. As technology and trade level the playing field and bring humanity closer together, the world’s projected 3.5 billion laborers may finally realize how much more they have in common with each other than with the über-wealthy elites in their own countries.

They’ll pressure governments to collaborate to ensure that their sweat and blood don’t excessively enrich a tiny, global capitalist elite, but are spread more widely. [more]

Crooks Are Using an International Messaging System to Rob Banks

by Bill Hayes

In Crooks Are Using an International Messaging System to Rob Banks, Bloomberg Businessweek reports on the latest cybercrime.

Since the Bangladesh job came to light, other banks have come forward. In Ecuador, a commercial bank said it was held up for $12 million last year. A bank in Vietnam said criminals tried, and failed, to steal $1.1 million in what experts say may have been a practice run for Bangladesh. By late May as many as a dozen more banks, mostly in Southeast Asia, reported break-ins. All of the attacks were committed by cybercriminals, and at least some made use of a messaging system run by the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, better known as Swift. [more]

The long march from China to the Ivies

by Bill Hayes

In The long march from China to the Ivies, 1843 looks at how Chinese students prepare to be admitted to top American universities.

It is one of China’s curious contradictions that, even as the government tries to eradicate foreign influences from the country’s universities, the flood of Chinese students leaving for the West continues to rise. Over the past decade, the number of mainland Chinese students enrolled in American colleges and universities has nearly quintupled, from 62,523 in 2005 to 304,040 last year, according to the Institute of International Education. Many of these students are the sons and daughters of China’s rising elite, establishment families who can afford tuition fees of $60,000 a year for America’s top universities — and the tens of thousands of dollars needed to prepare for the transition. Even the daughter of Xi Jinping, China’s president and the man driving the campaign against foreign ideas, recently studied — under a pseudonym — at Harvard University.

Among Western educators, the Chinese system is famous for producing an elite corps of high-school students who regularly finish at the top of global test rankings, far ahead of their American and British counterparts. Yet so many Chinese families are now opting out of this system that selling education to Chinese students has become a profitable business for the West. They now account for nearly a third of all foreign students in America, contributing $9.8 billion a year to the United States’ economy. In Britain, too, Chinese students top the international lists. And the outflow shows no sign of subsiding: according to a recent Hurun Report, an annual survey of China’s elite, 80% of the country’s wealthy families plan to send their children abroad for education.

Not every Chinese student is driven … by the desire to escape the grind of the gaokao and get a more liberal education. For many Chinese families, sending a child to a Western university is a way of signalling status — yet “another luxury brand purchase,” as Jiang Xueqin, an educational consultant, puts it. For students faring poorly in the gaokao system, moreover, foreign universities offer an escape valve, and a way to gain an edge in the increasingly competitive job and marriage market back home. And for wealthy families seeking a safe haven for their assets — by one estimate more than $1 trillion in capital left China in 2015 — a foreign education for a child can serve as a first step towards capital flight, foreign investment, even eventual emigration.

The vast majority of Chinese applicants end up in large state universities, many in the American Midwest, where populations of more than 4,000 Chinese students (out of student bodies of more than 30,000) can segregate into miniature Chinatowns on campus. But name-brand universities have a cult-like allure. Every aspiring overseas student in China can rattle off the names of the top ten or twenty American universities. Chinese bookstores are lined with memoirs and how-to guides with titles such as “Stanford Silver Bullet” or “Our Dumb Little Boy Goes to Cambridge”. The original bible of this motivational genre, “Harvard Girl Liu Yiting”, describes the “scientifically proven methods” that a couple used to turn their daughter into an academic star. In one of the tests they devised, she held ice in her bare hands for long periods to toughen herself up.

Competition for entrance into these schools is ferocious. Of the roughly 40,000 Chinese students applying to universities in the United States last year, around 200 were accepted into Ivy League schools. As a Beijing-based consultant puts it drily: “Harvard only accepts seven or eight Chinese students a year, and one of them is bound to be the offspring of a tycoon or a leader.” American applicants have it easy by comparison. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, accepted 9.7% of domestic applicants in 2015 — and a mere 3% of international applicants.

The application process can seem bafflingly complex. [more]

How to Stop Humans From Filling the World With Trash

by Bill Hayes

In How to Stop Humans From Filling the World With Trash, the Atlantic looks at how we can produce less trash.

The average American produces about 130 pounds of trash a month, and an article in the journal Nature estimates that global solid-waste generation will triple, to 11 million tons a day, by 2100. Meanwhile, we’re running out of space for landfills, especially in Japan and Europe. Here, drawn from interviews with scientists, environmentalists, and sanitation experts, are ideas for how to tackle this looming problem.

One way to get people to produce less garbage is to charge them for it. [more]

Forget It

by Bill Hayes

In Forget It for the New York Times Book Review, Gary J. Bass reviews In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies by David Rieff.

Worse, Rieff worries that memory could not just spark violence, but prolong it. In order to end a war, or get a dictator to yield power to democrats, it’s often necessary to negotiate with murderous leaders who will demand their own amnesty — blotting out their own past cruelties to assure future peace. (Nuremberg, the preferred precedent of human rights lawyers, is almost always the wrong example. It was only after a hard-won unconditional victory that the Allies could put Nazi Germany’s rulers on trial, but most wars don’t end so decisively.) While Rieff would prosecute war criminals whenever feasible, he rejects the legalistic “absolutism” of those human rights activists who insist on justice above peace or other worthwhile political goals. He prudently warns that Chile’s return to democracy could have been scuttled by a Spanish warrant for the arrest of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet. And in Bosnia, he convincingly argues that the injustice of a Dayton peace agreement that spared the bloodstained Slobodan Milosevic was still far better than continuing a ruinous war.

Rieff makes a powerful case for reconciliation and compromise, and exposes how politicized our nationalist histories are. [more]

Backgrounder on the Islamic State

by Bill Hayes

Backgrounders from the Council on Foreign Relations are primers on pressing world issues. They usually include histories, summaries, images, graphs, video, and links to additional resources.

A recent Backgrounder was on the Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State is a militant Sunni movement that has conquered territory in western Iraq, eastern Syria, and Libya, from which it has tried to establish the caliphate, claiming exclusive political and theological authority over the world’s Muslims. Its state-building project, however, has been characterized more by extreme violence than institution building. Widely publicized battlefield successes in 2014 attracted thousands of foreign recruits, while insurgent groups and terrorists acting in its name carried out attacks ranging from the United States to South Asia.

The group’s momentum in Iraq and Syria withered in 2016 as local forces, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, ousted Islamic State fighters from much of the territory they controlled. But major cities, including Mosul and Raqqa, remain in ISIS hands. In both Iraq and Syria there are few signs of the political progress that, analysts say, would likely be needed to sustain military gains. Meanwhile, across the region, and as far away as Europe and the United States, followers of the Islamic State have often eluded counterterrorism agencies, raising the possibility that the group will continue to motivate attacks even if it’s pushed out of Iraq and Syria. [more]

Interview of the Day: Steve Silberman

by Bill Hayes

In How Autistic People Helped Shape the Modern World, Wired magazine interviews Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.

WIRED: In your book you write about Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, who did early work on autism in the 1930s. Why is he so important?

SILBERMAN: The more that I discovered about Asperger’s conception of autism, the more it struck me as incredibly prescient. He saw autistic people as a subset of humanity that had accelerated the evolution of science and technology. They were a hidden thread in the weave of culture. They had always been here. Asperger conceived of autism as a condition that lasted from birth to death. It was not just a childhood disorder.

And yet he didn’t get credit for discovering autism. This guy Leo Kanner, who wrote a paper that came out in 1943 in English, got nearly all the credit for discovering it, and Asperger was reduced to a footnote. [more]

The Bail Trap

by Bill Hayes

In The Bail Trap for New York Times Magazine, Nick Pinto reports on how bond court keeps many people behind bars simply because they cannot afford bail.

Of the 2.2 million people currently locked up in this country, fewer than one in 10 is being held in a federal prison. Far more are serving time in state prisons, and nearly three-quarters of a million aren’t in prison at all but in local city and county jails. Of those in jails, 60 percent haven’t been convicted of anything. They’re innocent in the eyes of the law, awaiting resolution in their cases. Some of these inmates are being held because they’re considered dangerous or unlikely to return to court for their hearings. But many of them simply cannot afford to pay the bail that has been set.

Occasionally, these cases make the news. In June, Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell in Texas after failing to come up with $500 for her release. But often, they go unnoticed. The federal government doesn’t track the number of people locked up because they can’t make bail. What we do know is that at any given time, close to 450,000 people are in pretrial detention in the United States — a figure that includes both those denied bail and those unable to pay the bail that has been set. Even that figure fails to capture the churn of local incarceration: In a given year, city and county jails across the country admit between 11 million and 13 million people. In New York City, where courts use bail far less than in many jurisdictions, roughly 45,000 people are jailed each year simply because they can’t pay their court-assigned bail. And while the city’s courts set bail much lower than the national average, only one in 10 defendants is able to pay it at arraignment. To put a finer point on it: Even when bail is set comparatively low — at $500 or less, as it is in one-third of nonfelony cases — only 15 percent of defendants are able to come up with the money to avoid jail.

Bail hasn’t always been a mechanism for locking people up. When the concept first took shape in England during the Middle Ages, it was emancipatory. Rather than detaining people indefinitely without trial, magistrates were required to let defendants go free before seeing a judge, guaranteeing their return to court with a bond. If the defendant failed to return, he would forfeit the amount of the bond. The bond might be secured — that is, with some or all of the amount of the bond paid in advance and returned at the end of the trial — or it might not. In 1689, the English Bill of Rights outlawed the widespread practice of keeping defendants in jail by setting deliberately unaffordable bail, declaring that ‘‘excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed.’’ The same language was adopted word for word a century later in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

But as bail has evolved in America, it has become less and less a tool for keeping people out of jail, and more and more a trap door for those who cannot afford to pay it. Unsecured bond has become vanishingly rare, and in most jurisdictions, there are only two ways to make bail: post the entire amount yourself up front — what’s called ‘‘money bail’’ or ‘‘cash bail’’ — or pay a commercial bail bondsman to do so. For relatively low bail amounts — say, below $2,000, the range in which most New York City bails fall — the second option often doesn’t even exist; bondsmen can’t make enough money from such small bails to make it worth their while.

With national attention suddenly focused on the criminal-justice system, bail has been cited as an easy target for reformers. But ensuring that no one is held in jail based on poverty would, in many respects, necessitate a complete reordering of criminal justice. The open secret is that in most jurisdictions, bail is the grease that keeps the gears of the overburdened system turning. Faced with the prospect of going to jail for want of bail, many defendants accept plea deals instead, sometimes at their arraignments. New York City courts processed 365,000 arraignments in 2013; well under 5 percent of those cases went all the way to a trial resolution. If even a small fraction of those defendants asserted their right to a trial, criminal courts would be overwhelmed. By encouraging poor defendants to plead guilty, bail keeps the system afloat.

‘‘What, did they arrest all of Brooklyn today?’’ one court officer asked another on a recent Sunday night in one of the two bustling arraignment courtrooms in Downtown Brooklyn. Defendants, a vast majority of them black, paraded past the judge in quick succession: Unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle. Open container of alcohol in public. Marijuana possession. Riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. Misdemeanors, many of them minor, some aggravated by an outstanding bench warrant for failure to appear in court on another case, failure to complete court-ordered community service or failure to pay a fine. Hundreds of people were awaiting arraignment, first in central booking across the street, then in cells on the ninth floor and finally in a small communal cell called ‘‘the pen’’ behind the arraignment courtrooms on the ground floor. On this night, there were more than a dozen men in the cell waiting to see a lawyer, pacing, sitting on benches, crouching in corners. [more]

Charlie Rose Interviews Larry Wilmore

by Bill Hayes

Charlie Rose interviews Larry Wilmore, whose Comedy Central show was recently cancelled.


There’s scientific consensus on guns

by Bill Hayes

In There’s scientific consensus on guns — and the NRA won’t like it for the Los Angeles Times, Harvard professor of public health David Hemenway surveyed scientific researchers for their views on the safety of guns in homes.

I also found widespread confidence that a gun in the home increases the risk that a woman living in the home will be a victim of homicide (72% agree, 11% disagree) and that a gun in the home makes it a more dangerous place to be (64%) rather than a safer place (5%). There is consensus that guns are not used in self-defense far more often than they are used in crime (73% vs. 8%) and that the change to more permissive gun carrying laws has not reduced crime rates (62% vs. 9%). Finally, there is consensus that strong gun laws reduce homicide (71% vs. 12%). [more]