Archive

February 6th, 2016

Drowning the Oil Industry

    With oil cheaper than bottled water, the average American driver saved $540 at the pump last year.

    But oil prices are also battering Alaska’s economy, rattling the stock market, and leaving thousands of workers in states like North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas jobless.

    Can things get any worse for the oil industry and the folks who rely on it? Sure.

    The biggest short-term reason is Iran. Having honored the terms of its landmark nuclear deal, the Middle Eastern nation is now at liberty to export more oil after years of sanctions. That’s why the commodity has slid as low as $26.55 a barrel — about half of what it fetched a year ago. And that was following a steep slide from the summer of 2014.

    Iran has oodles of oil ready to ship at a time when global producers are already pumping 2 million more barrels daily than consumers need. The market is also bracing for a long-term gusher. Iran, with the world’s fourth-largest reserves, could eventually ramp up its exports by another million barrels a day.

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Government Keeps Rural West Going

    The 187,000 acres on which sits the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge never belonged to the state of Oregon, much less the band of cowboy exhibitionists who'd taken it over. This and other federal lands were acquired through conquest over, purchases from or treaties with Mexico, Russia, Spain, England, France and Native Americans.

    The federal government lets loggers, ranchers and other businesses make a subsidized living off public land, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. The fees ranchers pay for grazing on federal land are considerably below those charged by private landowners. The government loses money on nearly all timber sales on public land.

    Now that we've gotten this off our chests, let's sympathize with the hardworking people of the rural West, losing a beautiful way of life to harsh economic realities. The growing poverty in the sparsely populated high desert of south central Oregon is shared by communities far from the region's booming cities.

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Donald Trump says something that is true, and it should end his campaign

    On Sean Hannity's show Tuesday night, Donald Trump placed part of the blame for his second-place finish in Iowa on the fact that "we didn't have much of a ground game."

    "We could have done much better with the ground game," he said .

    This would not be a fatal admission for another candidate. But Trump based his candidacy on his uncommon ability to get things done, honed by years building things in the private sector. To critics who say he ignores facts and offers little or no realistic policy details, he responds with some version of this: " It's called management ." He will get " great people," like himself, to fix it all. Yet his incompetent campaign got outmanaged in Iowa.

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From steadfast Iowa to contrarian New Hampshire

    Strong showings in the Iowa caucuses by Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio sent them roaring into next week's Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire with a head of steam at the expense of a deflated Donald Trump.

    On the Democratic side, the virtual tie between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders puts intense pressure on Clinton to rebound in New Hampshire and foreshadows a protracted struggle in a race she expected to dominate.

    New Hampshire is renowned for its independence and contrarian voting habits and anything can happen there. Trump and Sanders enjoy big polling leads that they now need to turn into New Hampshire victories. That will be a test of whether Sanders can retain the enthusiasm of his youthful supporters, and whether Trump fans still consider him a winner after losing the first contest of the 2016 campaign.

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February 5th

Finding the path between Zika panic and complacency

    No matter how things play out with the fast-spreading Zika virus, people are likely to end up angry at public health authorities.

    It's possible the situation will become worse than expected, both worldwide and in the U.S., where some spread can't be ruled out. Zika may be blamed for some U.S. cases of microcephaly - the birth deformity tentatively linked to the outbreak in Brazil. If that happens, health officials will be slammed for downplaying danger, as they were during the 2014 Ebola crisis.

    Or the epidemic may turn out to be smaller than expected and may never spread within the U.S. In that case, the public will accuse the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization of scaremongering and overreaction, as happened following two fizzled flu outbreaks, bird flu in 2004 and H1N9 in 2009.

    It will be easy in hindsight to pinpoint how the authorities got it wrong, but for the time being they are doing one thing right. In their attempts to impart an appropriate level of concern, both the CDC and WHO are being straightforward with the public about how little is known.

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Can U.S. consumers thrive if corporations don't?

    U.S. workers and consumers (who are for the most part the same people) seem to be doing pretty well at the moment. Businesses, not so much. As Bloomberg reported last week:

    "Consumer spending grew last year by the most since 2005, in spite of a slight slackening in the fourth quarter. Nonresidential business investment, meanwhile, rose at its slowest pace since 2010 as oil and gas companies sharply curtailed spending."

    The story suggested this was a temporary juxtaposition; eventually consumers would pull businesses up, or businesses would drag consumers down. Most economists predict it will be the former and the U.S. economy won't fall into a recession, the story said. Either way, the assumption is that businesses and consumers will eventually get back in sync. That's how things have worked in the past.

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An inequality in well-being matters more than an income gap

    The hot topic in economic policy discussions is inequality. Lots of kinds of inequality have been increasing in the U.S. -- income, wealth, housing, longevity and almost everything else. New data has caused economists and the public to become more alarmed about the extent of the rise, and has allowed people to start having a productive discussion about causes and solutions.

    People on the political right, especially libertarians, are always asking why we should even care about inequality in the first place. That might sound insensitive, but it's actually a very good question. We might worry about inequality because an unequal society grows more slowly, or is more politically unfair or corrupt, or even is less healthy. But one big reason is simply that we care about our fellow citizens, and about other human beings in general. When one person has much more than another, it just feels wrong to many people.

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What Bernie Sanders gets about millennials

    Bernie Sanders is the oldest candidate in the presidential race, but as of now, he seems to be the younger generation's candidate. According to a recent survey, Sanders is favored by 46 percent of voters ages 18 to 34, where Hillary Clinton is preferred by 35 percent.

    What's going on here? Here are two stories, which offer some clues.

    In 2009, the vast majority of Republican senators opposed my nomination to serve as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Democratic senators were overwhelmingly supportive (with the exception of a few relative conservatives). Just one liberal threatened to join the opposition: Sanders, the Vermont senator.

    Before the vote, he agreed to talk to me about his objection. It was simple: I didn't want to regulate "the banks."

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The Trump foreign policy doctrine is revealed

    The whole world is struggling to decipher the worldview and guiding principles Donald Trump would apply as president. It may not be a prominent feature of his campaign, but his advisers say he does have a doctrine that informs his positions on foreign policy and national security.

    Some leading foreign policy pundits are convinced Trump is shooting from the hip on foreign policy, making up glib answers to serious questions like how to defeat the Islamic State or deal with an aggressive Vladimir Putin. Top Republican national security officials who advise other candidates routinely tell reporters they have not heard from the Trump campaign, which leads them to believe he has not sought any expert input before his provocative statements, like lashing out against China or Saudi Arabia.

    Trump's advisers say they're happy to be perplexing. The Washington foreign policy establishment has no idea what to make of Trump's string of declarations, such as his promises to "take" the Islamic State's oil, force Mexico to pay for a wall on the southern U.S. border, or bar all Muslims from coming to the U.S.

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Rubio and Sanders are the real winners in Iowa

    By the numbers, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton, by a millimeter, won the Iowa caucuses.  Still, the race for the top spot was not the big news of the night -- or, in Clinton's case, far into the following day, when the Associated Press finally called the race for her. The real winners were Marco Rubio, with his remarkably strong third-place finish, and Bernie Sanders, with his virtual tie.

      In the short term, Donald Trump was the biggest loser -- true of any front-runner but even truer of a candidate whose campaign raison d'etre is that he is a winner.  Yet in the longer term, if the legacy of Iowa is that it helps propel Rubio to the nomination -- and, sure, that's a big if at this point -- the even bigger loser could be Clinton, facing a general election challenger far more daunting than Trump or Cruz.

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