Friday, June 22, 2012

NEWS BLOG: An encounter with a ‘mag crew’

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 10:41 AM

Do you know what a "mag crew" is? Neither did I, until about 8 last night. A young girl rang my doorbell -- I'd say she was between 15 and 19 -- and said she needed me to judge her public speaking skills.

She was extremely enthusiastic, uncomfortably over-familiar, and scattered. Her name was Tiffany... I think. And she said she was from North Carolina.

I suspected a scam, so I asked questions. She insisted she wasn't pushing religion and expressed contempt for those who do. So then I knew it was probably a sales pitch. Sure enough, she pulled out some laminated materials with a list of magazine titles. She said she was trying to earn enough points to open a business -- a salon. My next-door neighbors had just bought a bunch of stuff, she said, and she was only one point away.

Uh huh.

But I got on the Internet after I shooed Tiffany away and learned, through the New York Times, about the sordid world of "mag crews": largely unregulated traveling sales crews. They're often run by unscrupulous people who promise especially vulnerable young people the world, and then abuse them emotionally and sometimes physically, often separating them from their families. There are stories of drug abuse, rape, burglary, and everything else you can imagine.

I called 911, and watched as the cops talked to the girl and the rest of her crew. I hope she was honest with the cop and that she spoke up if she was truly in trouble. I wish I had asked her.

There's a web site devoted to mag crews and tells you what to do if you encounter one, so you can be better prepared than I was.

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NEWS BLOG: Should we let Iran develop nuclear weapons?

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 1:15 AM

More reading material to prepare for the presidential campaign: "Why Iran Should Get the Bomb" in the current issue of Foreign Affairs (payment required, unfortunately, although you can get a free summary).

Kenneth Waltz, a senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and a Columbia adjunct professor of political science, argues that the current US policy has it wrong. Rather than being dangerous, a nuclear-armed Iran would help stabilize the Middle East. You'll need to read it to see his rationale.

This will be a controversial article, to put it mildly, but it's worth reading. Among Waltz's arguments: the international discussion about Iran has been "distorted by misplaced worries and fundamental misunderstanding of how states generally behave in the international system." The justification for resisting Iran's nuclear-weapons development has been that Iran can't be trusted with nuclear weapons. Waltz's response: "Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, Iranian policy is not made by 'mad mullahs' but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leaders."

Provocative or not, Waltz's article is worth reading and thinking about. Waltz believes sanctions are not likely to force Iran to stop developing nuclear capability. If that's the case, US leaders are likely to face a terrible decision in the not-distant future: if Iran continues to try to develop nuclear weapons, what's our response? Is there an option other than bombing that country?

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

NEWS BLOG: Wall Street’s lesson – Take the money and run

Posted By on Thu, Jun 21, 2012 at 10:12 AM

A real estate broker friend of mine used to jokingly refer to some roofers and contractors with a couple of favorite prefixes. "You know, fly by night [roofer's name]," he would say. Or "Take the money and run [contractor]."

As investigators looked into the country's financial meltdown, they found that corruption in the banking and home mortgage industries was so widespread that some employees used an acronym: "IBGYBG."

It stands for: I'll be gone, you'll be gone.

IBGYBG got public attention during a congressional committee hearing. A financial ratings agency employee testified that a banker used the acronym when he questioned him about a deal the two were working on.

According to the ratings agency employee, when the banker was questioned about some of the documentation, he said, let's just do the deal: "IBGYBG."

The saying has recently resurfaced as Congress questioned Wall Street heavyweight Jamie Dimon about JP Morgan's recent $2 billion loss of its investors' money. Watching the hearings on TV was like watching a comedic tragedy.

For one thing, it's hard to imagine that some members of Congress can be so naive about how investment brokers and salespeople on Wall Street are paid, usually by a commission on the deals they close. Do they gamble with other people's money? What a silly question. Of course, they do.

But on Wall Street, the rewards can be extraordinarily high. And the incentive to close deals seems to have overtaken a sense of ethics: IBGYBG.

It's not surprising that so many Americans were upset about the bank bailouts.

IBGYBG got rewarded, and from listening to Dimon this week, not much has changed.

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NEWS BLOG: New York state budget flaw could mean conservation funding loss

Posted By on Thu, Jun 21, 2012 at 9:53 AM

The other day, Audubon New York sent out a press release warning that language in the state budget may cause the state to lose some federal conservation funding.

The state might have to forfeit $20 million worth of federal conservation funding if the state legislature doesn't fix the issue by the end of the session, says the Audubon release. Well, today is the last day of the session. And legislators haven't introduced any legislation to correct the issue, says Sean Mahar, Audubon's director of government relations.

The issue at hand is fund sweeps and transfers. In his budget proposal earlier this year, Governor Cuomo included language that would let him move money between agencies and authorities without the legislature's approval. The final budget passed by the legislature included that authority, though in a scaled-back version.

The budget authorizes sweeps and transfers from special revenue accounts, including the state Conservation Fund, which holds revenues from fishing and hunting licenses. Audubon's press release says that the state is required to put up matching funds for the federal conservation programs, and that the state's share comes from the Conservation Fund. The federal government is already withholding its funding, which goes toward wildlife management area maintenance, wetland habitat restoration and mapping, and fisheries research.

Fund sweeps have long been a sore issue with environmentalists. Republican and Democratic governors have pulled money from the Environmental Protection Fund to close budget gaps; the Adirondack Council says almost $450 million has been swept from the fund in the past six years. The money is supposed to be used for environmental, open space, and recycling projects, as well as landfill closures.

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NEWS BLOG: Are covert-action voices overruling US diplomats’?

Posted By on Thu, Jun 21, 2012 at 8:36 AM

In his Washington Post piece this morning, David Ignatius added to my concern about the Obama administration's anti-terrorism policy in Pakistan, Yemen, and other areas.

The issue is whether ambassadors to countries like Pakistan should be able to veto CIA plans - the use of drones, for instance - that they believe will be harmful. How, in other words, "covert weapons should coexist with the goals of statecraft," Ignatius writes.

Cameron Munter, the outgoing US ambassador to Pakistan, has been trying to strengthen our relationship with that country, and he has been concerned that the Obama administration's ramped-up use of drones is making things worse.

Obama, Ignatius writes, has decided to let the decision about that question rest with the CIA director and himself. That gives diplomacy a back seat: not a positive change.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

NEWS BLOG: Obama and Romney campaigns shouldn’t trivialize the presidential race

Posted By on Wed, Jun 20, 2012 at 9:27 AM

Oh, the irony.

In a lengthy piece, a couple of writers for Politico are bemoaning the smallness of the 2012 presidential race, which they say is due to Twitter and the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week news cycle. Politico embodies aspects of what a Columbia Journalism Review article calls the "hamster wheel approach" to news. But at least the writers admit this:

"The endless news cycle, infused with partisanship thanks to cable news and coupled with the Internet-age imperative to produce faster, more provocative copy, has amplified every cynical and self-indulgent impulse of the political press -- POLITICO included."

But enough of my cynicism. The article is excellent for the points it makes, for the truth it contains, and for the fact that two respected political reporters - Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns - explain how the media and the candidates are shortchanging voters.

"The Obama and Romney campaigns spend all day strafing each other on Twitter, all while decrying the campaign's lack of serious ideas for a serious time," they write. "Yet at most junctures when they've had the opportunity to go big, they've chosen to go small. Obama has spoken in broad strokes about his accomplishments but has not yet outlined a detailed agenda for a second term. Romney has openly declared that he will not detail his policy proposals -- slashing the size of government, for example -- so as to avoid giving his opponents ammunition."

Voters deserve to know presidential candidates' positions and ideas. It shouldn't matter if that'll provide fodder for opponents. Disagreement and substantial debate are what big elections are about, or should be about.

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NEWS BLOG: Monroe County’s other Congressional contest

Posted By on Wed, Jun 20, 2012 at 7:53 AM

The Congressional primary between Republicans Christopher Collins and David Bellavia hasn't received as much local attention as Monroe County's main House race: the general election matchup between Democrat Louise Slaughter and Republican Maggie Brooks. And yet the primary election will be held next week.

Collins and Bellavia are running for their party's nomination for Congress from the 27th District, which includes Hamlin, Wheatland, Rush, Mendon, and part of Clarkson. The winner will run against Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul.

The primary campaign has been low-key, at least on the Rochester end of the district. The candidates haven't engaged in an ad war, but rather have gone directly to local committees and voters. The candidates should be familiar to many primary voters in the district anyway. Bellavia, an Iraq War veteran, has run for Congress before, and Collins is the former Erie County executive. It's a race where platform and grassroots support will make the most difference.

And in terms of grassroots support, Bellavia appears to be ahead. He has active supporters in the Monroe County part of his district, in Wyoming County, in Orleans County, and in Genesee County, his home county. He's also received endorsements from the Orleans, Livingston, and Wyoming County parties. (Not all county parties in the district made endorsements.)

Collins picked up an endorsement from the state Conservative Party, and he's got some support among Erie and Niagara County leaders.

In the past, the winner of this primary would have had very good odds of winning the general. The 26th District was always reliably Republican, and redistricting, when it was redrawn as the 27th, only increased the Republican enrollment advantage.

That's hardly guaranteed at this point. During last year's 26th District special election, Hochul demonstrated that a Democrat can win the district. She has the benefit of incumbency and is expected to run an aggressive campaign. If the Republicans want to take back the seat, their candidate will have to be equally aggressive.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

NEWS BLOG: Burglary snapshot for Rochester

Posted By on Tue, Jun 19, 2012 at 8:29 AM

Burglar Arrests

Although crime is at historic lows in Rochester, the recent spate of shootings and a not-insignificant jump in robberies has many people worried. During a recent budget hearing, City Council member Jackie Ortiz said that Rochester feels like a war zone.
Another area where Rochester has had trouble is burglaries. According to the RPD's annual report, burglaries climbed steadily from 2008 to 2010 (data from 2011 was not available). There were 2,808 burglaries in 2008; 2,899 in 2009; and 3,448 in 2010.
The Center for Public Safety Initiatives at the Rochester Institute of Technology has done an analysis (above) of Rochester's 2009 and 2010 burglary arrests. It's different to discern patterns from only a two-year study, but the information is interesting.
Burglars, in general, are lazy, the report says, and tend to commit their crimes within walking distance of their own homes. That's most likely because they know the layout of the area, the report says, and they won't stick out.
"In some cases, friends and family are even fair game," the report says.
Generally, the arrested burglars traveled between 1.7 miles and 2.1 miles from their homes to the crime scene.
Also interesting: although 399 people were arrested for burglary in Rochester in 2009 and 2010, there were 6,347 burglary reports, meaning that less than 10 percent of the reports resulted in arrests. That sounds bad, but it's on par with the national average, which is about 12.4 percent for those same years.
Add the low clearance rate to the fact that approximately 50 percent of burglaries are not reported to police, according to the CPSI report, and the problem suddenly becomes much larger.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

NEWS BLOG: Lessons on government’s role from LBJ

Posted By on Mon, Jun 18, 2012 at 1:17 PM

I've embarked on reading way too many really long books lately, but the one I just started is going to be a treasure, regardle

I've embarked on reading way too many really long books lately, but the one I just started is going to be a treasure, regardless of its 614 pages (plus source notes).
The book is Robert Caro's highly praised "The Passage of Power," the fourth in his "Years of Lyndon Johnson" series.


            Caro's a fantastic writer. And Johnson is a fascinating subject. And while this is pretty recent history, Caro fleshes out that history, offering new details and insight.
He also reminds us of some important principles that have been swept aside in the years since the Johnson presidency. Those reminders are good lessons for politicians today, and the lessons start right in the book's introduction.
For instance, there's the story of Johnson, less than a week into his presidency after John Kennedy's assassination, listening to advisers as he discussed a speech he was preparing to give to Congress. Don't mention civil-rights legislation, they warned, because it will upset the Southerners in Congress, and a civil rights bill had "no chance of passage anyway."


            One adviser "told him to his face that a President shouldn't spend his time and power on lost causes," writes Caro, "no matter how worthy those causes might be."
Johnson's response, says Caro: "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?"
In the early part of 1964, still just months into office, he introduced his plan for a War on Poverty in his State of the Union Address. His vision, Caro writes, was literally a crusade, for better schools, health care, housing, jobs, job training - "not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it, and, above all, to prevent it."
Johnson was a complicated man, to put it mildly, and his disastrous Vietnam policy led many of us to rail against him and literally drive him out of an office he had wanted nearly all his life. But he had a vision of the presidency, and a vision of the role of government and this country's responsibility to its neediest people, that is missing in much of Washington today. And we badly need to bring that vision back.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

NEWS BLOG: The presidential campaign and our war on terror in Yemen

Posted By on Thu, Jun 14, 2012 at 1:55 PM

If you haven't read Ibrahim Mothana's "How Drones Help Al Qaeda" in today's New York Times, do so.

Mothana is an activist and writer in Yemen, and in his Times article, he argues that the Obama administration's use of drones in Yemen is doing far more harm than good. It is, Mothana writes, "leading to the Talibanization of vast tribal areas and the radicalization of people who could otherwise be America's allies in the fight against terrorism in Yemen."

US anti-terrorism policy ought to be a key discussion in this year's presidential election. But if it is, I doubt that the discussion will be a rational one; Republicans have made it clear that they want to ramp up the reliance on the military, and some Democrats seem inclined to agree with them, whether out of conviction or fear for their own skins. And yet many foreign-policy experts (not to mention on-site observers like Mothana) warn that our military action, including our drone attacks, is killing innocent civilians, serving as a recruitment tool rather than effective anti-terrorism measures.

Hawks will portray that kind of language as weakness, and in tight races for the House, the Senate, and the presidency, candidates may find it hard to fight that argument.

In his 2008 presidential campaign - and in some of his early appointments - President Obama seemed eager to take us down a different path. But that was then.

A friend asked me last night whether, given my concern about Obama's anti-terrorism policy, I would still vote for him. Of course; of course. But I'll do it with a certain amount of sadness that my vote endorses, in effect, a policy that likely does more harm than good, to countries like Yemen, and to us.

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