Iraqi troops expected to drive ISIS from Ramadi in days: State TV
Iraq’s army chief was quoted on Wednesday as saying he needed only days to drive Islamic State from the city of Ramadi, whose fall in May exposed the weakness of the Baghdad government and dampened hopes of restoring control in the north and west. Iraqi troops began advancing on Tuesday in an offensive complicated by rivalries and suspicions harbored by local Sunni tribes and by Shia militia backed by Iran. U.S. officials, concerned also by militant operations over the border in Syria, have expressed frustration at delays in seizing back the city. “In the coming days will be announced the good news of the complete liberation of Ramadi,” Iraqia TV cited army chief of staff Lt. General Othman al-Ghanemi as saying. Government troops are now concentrating on the last district held by the militants in the center of Ramadi, a Sunni Muslim city on the river Euphrates some 100 km (60 miles) west of Baghdad and capital of Anbar province. If it is captured, it will be the second major city after Tikrit to be retaken from Islamic State in Iraq. It would provide a major psychological boost to Iraqi security forces after the militant group seized a third of Iraq, a major OPEC oil producer and U.S ally, in a sweeping advance last year.Progress has been slow because the government wants to rely entirely on its own troops and not use Shi’ite militias in order to avoid rights abuses such as occurred after the recapture of Tikrit from the militants in April. Iraqi officials say Shi’ite militias are reluctant to yield power amassed with Iranian backing, making it hard to forge a unified strategy. Operations are also complicated by competition for influence in Baghdad between Washington and Tehran.
EU gets one million migrants in 2015, smugglers seen making $1 billion
More than 1 million refugees and migrants came to the European Union this year, while almost 3,700 died or went missing in perilous journeys which reaped huge profit for smugglers, the International Organization for Migration said on Tuesday. “This is three to four times as many migrants and refugees coming north as we had in 2014, and the deaths have already far surpassed the deaths last year,” IOM chief William Lacy Swing told Reuters. Almost all those arriving came across the Mediterranean or the Aegean Seas, and half were Syrians fleeing the war. Another 20 percent were Afghans, and 7 percent were Iraqis, IOM and the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said in a joint statement. People smuggling operations probably accounted for the majority of journeys and likely earned at least $1 billion, Swing said, taking “anywhere from $2,000 to maybe $6,000 depending on how many members of the family and depending on which smuggling ring it is”. IOM estimates people smugglers in Europe have made $10 billion or more since 2000, maybe much more. “They are certainly getting very well paid for their services,” Swing said. Out of a total of 1,005,504 arrivals to Greece, Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, Malta and Cyprus by Dec. 21, the vast majority — 816,752 — arrived by sea in Greece, IOM said. IOM spokesman Joel Millman said it was impossible to forecast how the flow of migrants would evolve in 2016. “So much is in the balance, the resolution of the Syrian war, and the disposition of the European border protection moves that are being contemplated,” he said. “We never thought it would reach this level. We just hope people are treated with dignity.” The record movement of people into Europe is a symptom of a record level of disruption around the globe, with numbers of refugees and internally displaced people far surpassing 60 million, UNHCR said last week.
Turkey Moves to Clamp Down on Border, Long a Revolving Door
IZMIR, Turkey — The Turkish Coast Guard has stepped up nighttime patrols on the choppy, wintry waters of the Aegean Sea, seizing rafts full of refugees fleeing war for Europe and sending them back to Turkey. Down south, at the border with Syria, Turkey is building a concrete wall, digging trenches, laying razor wire and at night illuminating vast stretches of land in an effort to cut off the flow of supplies and foreign fighters to the Islamic State. On land and at sea, Turkey’s borders, long a revolving door of refugees, foreign fighters and the smugglers who enable them, are at the center of two separate yet interlinked global crises: the migrant tide convulsing Europe and the Syrian civil war that propels it. Accused by Western leaders of turning a blind eye to these critical borders, Turkey at last seems to be getting serious about shoring them up. Under growing pressure from Europe and the United States, Turkey has in recent weeks taken steps to cut off the flows of refugees and of foreign fighters who have helped destabilize a vast portion of the globe, from the Middle East to Europe. Smugglers who used to make a living helping the Islamic State bring foreign fighters into Syria say that it is increasingly difficult — though still not impossible — to do so now. Border guards who once fired warning shots, they say, now shoot to kill. “Whoever approaches the border is shot,” said Omar, a smuggler interviewed in the border town of Kilis who insisted on being identified by only his first name because of the illegal nature of his work. “And many have been killed.” Another smuggler, Mustafa, who also agreed to speak if only his first name was used, said, “Two months ago, you could get in whatever you liked.” He said he used to bring in explosives and foreign fighters for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. That allowed him to continue his regular business of smuggling food and other items, like cigarettes, into Syria. Now, he said, “the Turkish snipers shoot any moving object.” More:
U.S. lifted Uzbekistan’s rights ranking as cotton field abuses continued
The news reached Dmitry Tihonov in Uzbekistan’s rural heartland as the labor activist quietly recorded the arrival of thousands of teachers, nurses, laborers, students and other conscripts sent to the fields to pick cotton. A fire had destroyed Tihonov’s home office. When he returned to search the debris on Oct. 29, his reports for international monitors documenting the annual mobilization had vanished. Human rights groups say Tihonov is a victim of Uzbekistan’s efforts to conceal a massive, state-orchestrated forced labor system that underpins its position as the world’s fifth-largest cotton exporter. They cite regular arrests, intimidation and harassment of activists. The activist from Angren, a town about 62 miles (100 km) east of the capital Tashkent, says he’s under constant surveillance by local authorities to remind people “it’s better to keep away from me” – an allegation that Reuters could not independently confirm. Persecution of activists is among many abuses cited by witnesses and human rights groups that fueled discord in the Obama administration this year over how much criticism Central Asia’s most populous nation deserved in the U.S. State Department’s annual report on modern slavery. In a previously undisclosed memo, analysts in the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons called forced labor “endemic” during the cotton harvest and said Uzbekistan had “failed to make significant and sustained efforts” to improve its record. The early 2015 memo, reviewed by Reuters, recommended keeping Uzbekistan in the lowest tier of the report’s rankings, raising the specter of economic sanctions on a country whose cotton is used in yarn and fabric that play a significant role in the global supply chain. But senior U.S. diplomats rejected the recommendation, downplaying concerns about human rights in a strategically important country.
Record highs predicted for bitcoin in 2016 as new supply halves
2016 could prove to be the year that the price of bitcoin surges again. Not because of any dark-web drug-dealing or Russian ponzi scheme, but for an altogether less sensational reason – slower growth in the money supply. Bitcoin is a web-based “cryptocurrency” used to move money around quickly and anonymously with no need for a central authority. But despite being championed by some as the digital money of the future, it is often dismissed as a currency that is too volatile to invest in. The reason 2016 looks set to be different is that bitcoin’s price is likely to be driven in large part by similar factors to a traditional fiat currency, following the age-old principles of supply and demand. Instead of being controlled by a central bank, bitcoin relies on so-called “mining” computers that validate blocks of transactions by competing to solve mathematical puzzles every 10 minutes. In return, the first to solve the puzzle and thereby clear the transactions is currently rewarded with 25 new bitcoins, worth around $11,000 BTC=BTSP. But when it was invented in 2008 by the mysterious “Satoshi Nakamoto”, who has yet to be identified, the bitcoin program was designed so that the reward would be halved roughly every four years, in order to keep a lid on inflation. The next time that is due to happen is July 2016. Bitcoin was also designed to emulate a commodity by having a finite supply of 21 million bitcoins, which will be reached in around 125 years, up from around 15 million today. Hence, also, the use of the term “mining”. Daniel Masters, co-founder of Jersey-based Global Advisors’ multi-million dollar bitcoin hedge fund, started his career as an oil trader at Shell in the mid-1980s and spent 30 years trading commodities before crossing over to bitcoin. Now he reckons the price of bitcoin could test its 2013 highs of above $1,100 next year and then pick up speed to rise to $4,400 by the end of 2017. That would be due to a number of factors, Masters said, including an increased acceptance of payments in bitcoin by big companies and authorities, rapidly growing interest and investment in the “blockchain” technology that underpins bitcoin transactions, and also more demand from China as its currency weakens and the economy slows.
Trump uses vulgar term to describe Clinton’s 2008 presidential run
WASHINGTON – Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump used a vulgarity to describe Hillary Clinton’s loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential race and then derided her over the time she took for a bathroom break during a debate. Trump’s off-color comments about the Democratic front-runner at a campaign appearance on Monday night came a day after he called Clinton a liar for saying his proposal to ban entry of all foreign Muslims to the United States aided Islamic State’s propaganda efforts. “She was going to beat Obama,” Trump said of Clinton in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “… She was going to beat – she was favored to win – and she got schlonged. She lost.” “Schlong” is a Yiddish slang term for a man’s genitals. Trump, who is leading the Republican field for the 2016 presidential nomination, also made a reference to Clinton returning to the stage late after a bathroom break during a Democratic debate on Saturday night. “I thought she gave up,” Trump said. “Where did she go? Where did Hillary go? They had to start the debate without her. Phase II. I know where she went. It’s disgusting. I don’t want to talk about it,” Trump said. Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director, tweeted on Tuesday that the campaign would not respond to the comments but was scathing about the language Trump used. “We are not responding to Trump but everyone who understands the humiliation this degrading language inflicts on all women should,” Palmieri said. News reports after the debate said the women’s bathroom was farther from the stage than the men’s room. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday found that Trump would lose to Clinton in a hypothetical head-to-head contest if the presidential election were held today. Trump appeared to struggle with women in a Quinnipiac Poll released on Tuesday. Six in 10 women said they would be “embarrassed” if the billionaire were president, compared to four in 10 men, the poll found. Trump’s blunt and sometime outrageous style and comments about Hispanics, women, Muslims and his rivals for the nomination have set much of the tone for the Republican race. He also is known for jousting with hecklers at his events, as he did Monday night. Some were ejected from the venue and the real estate tycoon suggested they might be “drugged out.” He chided another group for being “so weak” they would not resist security guards’ directions to leave. More:
VETERANS STILL SUFFERING FROM POOR VA CARE DESPITE FIXES TOUTED IN WASHINGTON
OKLAHOMA CITY — Sometimes an affliction that’s right there, plain to see, is overlooked, despite the best intentions. So it was for Charles Hand and George Washington Purifoy, two men who served their country but whose country failed them. Both sought care at Veterans’ Affairs medical facilities in Oklahoma. And in their cases and others, medical professionals missed or misdiagnosed their conditions resulting in life-altering consequences. Hand and Purifoy are two of an untold number of veterans still suffering from shortfalls in care at the VA. Their stories suggest that the government’s attempted fixes have not yet translated into better health care for veterans at facilities across the country. The VA has struggled to meet unprecedented demand as new waves of veterans with complex needs return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time Vietnam veterans are aging and requiring more care. Its failures have played out in crisis after crisis in recent years, from the benefit-claims backlog that reached more than a half million applications in 2013 to the revelation last year that patient wait-time records were manipulated while veterans died waiting for care. Former VA secretaryEric Shinseki stepped down, President Obama installed a new secretary, and Congress passed legislation trying to fix the agency. But on the front lines, it can be hard to tell the difference. The Oklahoma City VA Medical Center has had five directors in three years and is awaiting the appointment of a sixth. By the VA’s own statistics, the facility has consistently ranked among the lowest performing in the country — one out of five stars. Measures of patient safety — the rates of in-hospital complications and adverse events following surgeries and procedures — are among the highest of VA facilities across the country, as are mortality rates for patients suffering from pneumonia or congestive heart failure. The Oklahoma City VA also has among the highest turnover rates for registered nurses. More:
Virginia to Stop Recognizing Concealed Gun Permits From 25 States
WASHINGTON — Virginia will no longer recognize concealed-handgun permits issued by 25 other states, its attorney general announced Tuesday, a stark change in a state known for its expansive gun rights. Attorney General Mark R. Herring, a Democrat and a strong proponent of gun restrictions, used his authority under state law to bar permit-holding residents of the 25 states, which span the country from Alaska to Florida, from carrying concealed weapons in Virginia. He is revoking Virginia’s so-called reciprocity agreements with those states. “We hear that we don’t need new gun laws, we just need to enforce the ones we have,” Mr. Herring said in a telephone interview, echoing the argument of the gun rights movement. “Well, I’m going to be enforcing the ones we have.” Mr. Herring made the decision, his office said in a statement, after “months of research and evaluation,” including an audit of 30 states whose concealed-handgun permits have been considered valid in Virginia. All but five of them, he said, grant permits to people who would be barred from carrying concealed weapons in Virginia. He called revoking the agreements a “common-sense step.” More:
What Ted Cruz said behind closed doors
In June, Ted Cruz promised on NPR that opposition to gay marriage would be “front and center” in his 2016 campaign. In July, he said the Supreme Court’s decision allowing same-sex marriage was the “very definition of tyranny” and urged states to ignore the ruling. But in December, behind closed doors at a big-dollar Manhattan fundraiser, the quickly ascending presidential candidate assured a Republican gay-rights supporter that a Cruz administration would not make fighting same-sex marriage a top priority.
In a recording provided to POLITICO, Cruz answers a flat “No” when asked whether fighting gay marriage is a “top-three priority,” an answer that pleased his socially moderate hosts but could surprise some of his evangelical backers. While Cruz’s private comments to a more moderate GOP audience do not contradict what the Republican Texas senator has said elsewhere, they demonstrate an adeptness at nuance in tone and emphasis that befits his Ivy League background. Indeed, the wording looks jarring when compared with the conservative, evangelical rhetoric he serves at his rallies, which have ballooned in size and excitement as he has moved to the front of the pack in Iowa. And it’s a potential vulnerability that Cruz’s opposition aims to exploit in the hectic January run-up to the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. The claim about Cruz by rival campaigns isn’t so much that he changes his message to different audiences, but that the prioritization of his agenda changes.
The quiet impact of Obama’s Christian faith
President Obama was flying over Los Angeles in June as he listened to the first accounts from a courtroom in Charleston, S.C., where family members of nine dead parishioners who were gunned down at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had just addressed the accused killer. He heard the words of a daughter who had lost her mother: “May God forgive you. I forgive you.” He listened to the plea of a mother who had lost her son: “Every fiber in my body hurts . . . but may God have mercy on you.” The president paused, the thump of the helicopter’s blades filling the otherwise silent cabin. He had planned to tweet some statistics later that day comparing gun violence in the United States and other developed countries, but now he told his staff to cancel that. Instead, in the Oval Office two days later, he seized upon something that seemed more important to him than any argument about gun control — an idea central to his political identity and his conviction that he could unify the divided nation. “The essence of what is right about Christianity is embedded here,” he said of the families, according to notes taken during the meeting. As Obama saw it, the parishioners and their families met the most demanding teachings of Christ. “They welcomed the stranger,” he said in the Oval Office meeting. “They forgave the worst violence.” These were Obama’s thoughts as he prepared to deliver the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. He wanted to use the moment to talk about the example that the pastor, who was killed in the attack, his parishioners and their families had set for a country that had grown so suspicious and gridlocked over the course of his presidency. “How do we conduct ourselves?” he asked. “Don’t we have to do something more than just praise how wonderful these folks were and then go about our daily lives?” Obama did not grow up in a religious household and became a practicing Christian as an adult. He has written more extensively about his spiritual awakening than almost any other modern president, addressing it in two books before he was elected to the White House and in more than a dozen speeches since. His faith had been central to his identity as a new kind of Democrat who would bring civility to the country’s political debates by appealing to Republicans through the shared language of their Judeo-Christian values. With just one year left in his second term, Obama now holds a different distinction: No modern president has had his faith more routinely questioned and disparaged. Recent polls show that 29 percent of Americans and nearly 45 percent of Republicans say he is a Muslim. He has repeatedly said in recent months that one of his biggest regrets is that he will leave behind a country that has grown more polarized and distrustful during his two terms in the White House. “There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics,” Obama said in a recent interview. To understand why he so deeply believed that he could close that gap and why he largely has been unable to do so, it is essential to understand his faith and how it shapes his politics. That faith also explains why he has not given up. In his final year in office, Obama hopes to work with Republicans and evangelical Christians on criminal justice reform. He will make a renewed push on gun control and the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
For Martin Shkreli and Others, ‘No Comment’ Is Not in the Script
It used to be that money managers and entrepreneurs charged with a crime or civil securities fraud would keep their mouths shut and routinely refer any questions to their lawyers. But in the age of social media, those days are gone. For some media-savvy defendants there is a new script: They jump on Twitter to tell the world they are innocent, even though lawyers think doing so is a terrible — and legally risky — idea.
Two days after the pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli was arraigned on federal securities fraud charges, which accused him of defrauding investors in his former hedge funds and looting a drug company he once ran, he proclaimed his innocence in a Twitter post after pleading not guilty in court.
“I am confident I will prevail,” Mr. Shkreli, 32, wrote to Twitter followers on Saturday. On Tuesday, he wrote, “I’m not a criminal,” in response to a comment on Twitter. Mr. Shkreli, best known for raising the price of a decades-old drug by 5,000 percent and later paying $2 million to buy the only known copy of an album by the rap group Wu-Tang Clan, has tried to present a carefree attitude online since his arrest on Thursday. He has also posted streaming videos of himself on YouTube sitting at his computer — combing his hair, playing chess and strumming a guitar — and responding to comments from his supporters as if the possibility of going to prison were just a bump in the road. Last spring, Lynn Tilton, a private equity executive, embarked on a similar public relations strategy after federal securities regulators filed a civil lawsuit that charged her with defrauding investors in distressed-debt securities managed by her firm, Patriarch Partners. Ms. Tilton, 56, posted a video online defending herself and denying the charges and later used Twitter to attack the Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision to bring her case before an administrative law judge, as opposed to filing the matter in federal court. And in a twist on the strategy, Charlie Shrem, an early proponent of the digital currency Bitcoin and chief of the money exchange service BitInstant, gave a speech via Skype to a Bitcoin conference while under house arrest before he pleaded guilty in 2014 to aiding and abetting the operation of an unlicensed money transmitting business. Mr. Shrem, 26, has continued to post on Twitter, with the assistance of some friends, from federal prison.
His Twitter profile describes him as “Bitcoin pioneer & first felon.” In April, shortly after beginning to serve his two-year sentence, Mr. Shrem posted, “I’m in prison for a victimless crime” and invited people to write to him. More:
Mitch McConnell and the Coal Industry’s Last Stand
A ballad called “Coal Keeps the Lights On” took singer-songwriter Jimmy Rose of tiny Pineville, Ky., all the way to the finals of America’s Got Talent in the summer of 2013. AGT judges Howard Stern, the radio shock jock, comedian Howie Mandel, and supermodel Heidi Klum cheered and clapped. “That was a damn good song,” Stern declared. Rose, a 36-year-old former coal miner, says highlighting the industry’s plight was a deliberate choice: “It’s a song about a way of life that’s in danger of disappearing.”
Almost exactly a year later, the singer’s minor celebrity took him to a less likely venue: the ornate main hearing room of the Environmental Protection Agency, where he testified at the invitation of Mitch McConnell as part of the Senate majority leader’s defense of coal. The effusive Rose and the dour McConnell made an odd pair. When Rose stood to lead a spontaneous Pledge of Allegiance, an evidently surprised McConnell had to scramble awkwardly to his feet. Rose went on to outshine McConnell with a passionate condemnation of EPA regulations he said are turning eastern Kentucky into “a war zone.” “You won’t come to this poverty-stricken area,” he lectured EPA officials. “You won’t come and look my people in the eye.” Rarely dramatic, McConnell read his testimony in a characteristic drone. Even though he’s from Kentucky, the lawmaker doesn’t claim long-standing ties to coal. Before coming to the Senate, he says, “as a lawyer in Louisville, was I paying attention to coal? Not much.” But since President Obama took office in 2009, vowing to combat climate change, McConnell has positioned himself as coal’s bulwark—a central element of his across-the-board campaign to thwart the president politically. Coal needs all the friends it can get. The industry is under siege from federal regulation, most recently Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which went into effect on Oct. 23 and seeks to reduce carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030. Consumers and activists, meanwhile, are persuading utilities to close aging coal-fired power plants. With funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign has helped shut down more than 220 coal facilities over the past five years. Even more damaging than pressure from environmentalists has been competition from plentiful, inexpensive natural gas—a cleaner-burning source of electricity increasingly favored by utilities. Coal provides 39 percent of the nation’s power, down from 50 percent a decade ago. Some 8,000 jobs have disappeared just from the coalfields of eastern Kentucky since 2010. Says Rose: “A lot of people are counting on Senator McConnell to figure something out.” More:
After Paris accord, most U.S. Republicans back action on climate
A majority of U.S. Republicans who had heard of the international climate deal in Paris said they support working with other countries to curb global warming and were willing to take steps to do so, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Tuesday. The desire for action is notable for an issue that has barely made a ripple on the campaign trail among 2016 Republican presidential candidates. Few of the Republican White House contenders have said much at all about the United Nations summit in Paris this month, though Democratic candidates, such as Hillary Clinton, have welcomed it. More than half, or 58 percent, of Republicans surveyed said they approved of U.S. efforts to work with other nations to limit global warming, the poll showed. Forty percent said they would support a presidential candidate who did so. Sixty-eight percent, meanwhile, said they either somewhat or strongly agree that they are willing to take individual steps to help the environment, such as cutting down on air-conditioning or buying a more efficient car. Republicans surveyed were split on whether they would support a candidate who believes climate change is primarily man-made, with 30 percent saying they would vote for such a candidate and 27 percent saying they would not. Republicans were less enthusiastic about fighting climate change than Democrats, but more willing to address it than the party’s presidential candidates. Ninety-one percent of Democrats approve of the United States taking action. In the run-up to the November 2016 election, Republican contenders have widely criticized President Barack Obama and leading Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton for listing climate change as a critical national security issue, saying the assertion understated the threat of terrorism. Declaring that no challenge poses a greater threat to current and future generations than a changing climate, Obama launched in August his final Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants and boost development of solar and wind power.
Kentucky‘s old governor gave thousands the right to vote. The new governor took it back.
Right before he left office, former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, signed an executive order that let most convicted felons in the state vote once they complete their sentences. But on Tuesday, the new governor, Republican Matt Bevin, undid the executive voter, meaning at least 100,000 people may not gain the right to vote after all. Ex-felons who already had their voting rights restored will not lose their rights. But those who didn’t yet regain their voting rights will have to appeal through the old process, which involves individual applications and is seen as slow and largely impossible by civil rights groups. Bevin said he supports restoring voting rights for people who served sentences for nonviolent felonies. But he believes that Beshear’s order violated the principles of the state constitution, and that any change that restores voting rights should be passed by the legislature, according to the Courier Journal. The move puts Kentucky back into the category of states — the others being Iowa and Florida — that bans people with felony convictions from voting. But these three states are far from alone in restricting the voting rights of people with criminal records: All but two states have at least some restrictions in place. More:
FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin ordered the state to prepare new marriage licenses that do not include the names of county clerks, in an attempt to protect the religious beliefs of clerk Kim Davis and other local elected officials. Bevin said he directed the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives to issue the revised marriage license forms to all county clerks. The executive order comes after Davis, the Rowan County clerk, spent five days in jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Davis said she could not issue the licenses because they had her name on them. “If one person has the courage to stand, it can change and give other people encouragement, “Davis told CBS News in September. Bevin said he issued the executive order to “ensure that the sincerely held religious beliefs of all Kentuckians are honored.” It was one of five executive orders he issued Tuesday, the first of his administration, that mostly revised or suspended recent actions by former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. “Today, I took action to uphold several commitments I made during my campaign so that we can implement real solutions that will help the people of Kentucky,” Bevin said in a news release. It’s unclear how Bevin’s order will affect a federal lawsuit brought by four couples against Davis. One of Davis’ deputy clerks has been issuing altered marriage licenses to eligible couples since September. They do not include Davis’ name or the name of the county. More:
Good news for Obamacare: more young people are signing up
About 8.3 million people have signed up for health coverage through Healthcare.gov’s 2016 open enrollment period, the Obama administration announced Tuesday. That beats last year’s total of 6.4 million people who had signed up at the same point in time. That’s a significant jump, and one that suggests that the growing penalty for not carrying insurance (the so-called “individual mandate”) is successfully encouraging more people to obtain coverage. But the most important numbers isn’t necessarily that topline figure. Instead, it’s a more granular look at who is signing up for insurance. There, you see the Obamacare population is increasingly made up of young enrollees who likely have lower health-care costs. This is especially good news after the wave of big premium spikes that this year’s shoppers faced. It suggests that the higher price tags didn’t scare off insurers’ most-desired customers: young people who tend to have fewer medical needs. More:
Amazon Seeks to Ease Ties With UPS
As the clock counts down to Christmas, workers at United Parcel Service Inc. are busy hustling packages along loading docks and conveyor belts at its Louisville, Ky., hub—part of a costly, intricate system built in part to cater to Amazon.com Inc., its biggest customer. But the symbiotic relationship between the two giants has come under increasing strain, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former UPS and Amazon executives. Rising package volumes and costs have Amazon seeking alternative delivery routes—shifting the online retailer’s role from key ally to a potentially disruptive competitor. Amazon has held talks with air-cargo companies to lease airplanes and build its own freight operation. The company is already using its own trucks, drivers and a fleet of couriers for the final and most-expensive leg of an order’s trip. It has been making its own deliveries in certain high-density regions and relying more heavily on the U.S. Postal Service. Eventually, it hopes to get drones to drop packages into backyards. Such steps are part of a much broader plan at Amazon, which counts shipping costs as one of its fastest-growing expenses, totaling 11.7% of revenue in the third quarter, up from 10.4% a year ago. The goal is to reduce its reliance on carriers like UPS, according to people familiar with the matter. “Amazon’s interest is not in doing what may be good for UPS,” said Satish Jindel, a parcel-industry analyst with SJ Consulting Inc. “Their interest is in getting control over logistics.” Amazon declined to comment. A spokesman for UPS said “we will continue to work closely with Amazon and all our customers to help them solve their growth and customer service challenges.”
NORAD Prepares to Track Santa’s Journey
Peterson Air Force base is getting ready for its annual holiday mission — tracking Santa’s storybook sleigh ride around the world. The North American Aerospace Defense Command has been working for weeks to tackle the one-day mission. Miles of wire, dozens of computers and 157 telephone lines will greet hundreds of volunteers Thursday, The (Colorado Springs) Gazette reported (http://bit.ly/1PjRGGa). Volunteers will be answering calls from an estimated 125,000 children around the globe looking for Santa’s whereabouts. “We keep adding stuff every year,” said Staff Sgt. Kyle Kelly after he and a team of airmen taped down phone wires in the call center Monday. The call center in a training building will be staffed for 23 hours and Christmas Eve. Volunteers will also share Santa’s location on Facebook and Twitter. Last year, Santa got 1.6 million Facebook likes. “We start in November,” Kelly said. “We have to test every phone before we bring it in here.” NORAD’s 60th year of tracking Santa involves more than the military. The program is underwritten by contractors who pay for the phones, the computers and the website. First lady Michelle Obama is expected to volunteer, with calls forwarded to her on Christmas Eve. Volunteers will field a growing number of calls from curious kids from outside the United States. “We get a lot of calls from Europe, Australia and New Zealand,” said NORAD’s Stacey Knott, who has organized the Santa tracking for three years. Bilingual volunteers handle the foreign-language inquiries. On the bilingual front, NORAD, a partnership between the U.S. and Canada, has a distinct advantage. “The great thing about having Canadian forces here is they can speak in French,” Canadian Maj. Jennifer Stadnyk said. NORAD is responsible for defending the skies and monitoring the sea approaches for both nations. Its control room was originally inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs in a shelter designed to withstand a nuclear attack. The control room is now at Peterson Air Force Base, also in Colorado Springs.
To find out where in the world Santa is on Christmas Eve, check out www.noradsanta.org
The State Where Racism Is Enshrined in the Constitution
The Alabama state constitution, which is 310,000 words long, was written with the purpose of disenfranchising blacks. As the presidential race heats up and the American public becomes consumed with the drama that will inevitably engulf the campaign, we should not forget that democracies are intended to be based on voter enfranchisement, and that in many ways America is still lacking in this regard. There are many techniques that America could employ to increase voter turnout, but one of our most pressing obstacles is the states that have consistently worked toward disenfranchising large swaths of their electorate. In this election cycle, Alabama may be the most egregious offender. You probably think you know all the reasons for this, but here’s one reason I bet you don’t know: It’s all in the state’s constitution. To put it mildly, Alabama’s constitution is an absurd document. It is the longest still-operative constitution in the world at more than 310,000 words long. It is 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution and 12 times longer than the average state constitution. Alabama’s constitution is insanely long because it gives the state legislature the power to administer over most counties directly, and as a result about 90 percent of the constitution consists of nearly 900 amendments. Some of the amendments cover mundane issues such as salary increases for county officials or the regulation of bingo games in Macon and Greene counties. The U.S. Constitution, in comparison, has only 27 amendments. Alabama’s constitution places the majority the state’s political power in the hands of a small coterie of officials, leaving counties and municipalities forced to essentially ask permission from the legislature regarding almost any form of self-governing. Alabamans for a long time have railed against the inefficiencies and ridiculousness of this constitution. But the racial undertones and the fact that it disproportionately harms and disenfranchises persons of color should not be overlooked. In fact, it should be the focal point when attempting to understand the constitution that governs Alabama. The document was ratified in 1901 following a wave of racial terror that engulfed the South after the Civil War and during Reconstruction. Essentially, the constitutions of most Southern states follow a similar pattern. Prior to 1861 they all had their own various constitutions, but at the start of the Civil War they created new constitutions pledging their allegiance to the Confederacy. Following the defeat of the Confederacy these constitutions were no longer valid, and starting in 1868 each state had a new constitution overseen by the federal government that outlawed slavery and ensured black Americans were able to vote, to seek and hold elected offices, and to participate in their governments at the local, state, and national level. To put it mildly, white Southerners did not embrace this societal change, and rather quickly a wave of terror engulfed the South directed toward freed blacks and Northern carpetbaggers—many of whom were also black—who had moved to the region with the intention of ensuring that the new constitutions and federal regulations were followed. The first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan was formed during this period. More:
Hoover will build $70 million sports complex near Hoover Met
The Hoover City Council approved plans Tuesday to build a $70 million sports complex near the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The complex will include six soccer or football fields, eight baseball and softball fields, 15 tennis courts, a walking track, playground, splash pad and a 141,000-square-foot indoor facility that can be used for other events, the Hoover Sun reported. The indoor facility will also be able to accommodate a football or soccer field, nine basketball courts, 12 volleyball courts or six tennis courts, the newspaper reported. Hoover Mayor Gary Ivey told reporters the indoor facility will also seat 2,400 for banquets and 5,000 for events with general seating. The project is projected to have an economic impact of $27 million to $33 million dollars, and it will be built on 120 acres near the Hoover Met.
Once Birmingham issues permit, Uber could be operating within hours
Uber will be up and running in Birmingham as soon as a business permit is issued, but that has been delayed over the past few weeks by the city code. At a city council meeting Tuesday, the agenda included updates to the business license code to address the on-demand model of transportation network companies like Uber. The council several weeks ago approved an ordinance allowing TNCs to operate in Birmingham. Trevor Theunissen, Uber’s public policy manager for the Southeast United States, addressed the council during the meeting to describe the company’s work toward launching in Birmingham. They have fulfilled the requirements outlined in the city’s newly passed TNC ordinance: paid the $10,000 fee, submitted insurance information, notified the police department. “We’ve done all we have been asked to do by this body and a permit still has not been issued to us,” he said. “Once a permit is issued, I could turn the app on within hours.” As written, the code would have necessitated an additional $8,000 permit fee and individual licensing of drivers employed by TNCs, which Theunissen described as “an additional bureaucratic hurdle.” The companies also would have to turn over a list of all drivers. Uber contends that the list of drivers in Birmingham is a proprietary trade secret and turning it over to the city would make it accessible to competitors through public records requests, Theunissen said. The items were withdrawn from consideration Tuesday so the legal department can make adjustments. The council will reconvene Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. to again consider the changes. Mayor William Bell said city officials have assured him any existing issues can be resolved quickly. “We’re going to sit down and work out the minor details that are standing in the way of moving forward,” he said Tuesday. Several council members expressed concerns about further days, saying they had hoped to see Uber operating in time for the Birmingham Bowl on Dec. 30. Councilman Steven Hoyt said that as long as TNCs remain in limbo, money is lost and much-needed jobs can’t be filled. “We need to fix this and fix it now because we’re going to miss out on thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars that we could make next week as a city,” he said Tuesday. Council President Johnathan Austin said he expects those relatively minor issues to be resolved when the updated code comes before the council Wednesday morning. Uber representatives, while frustrated by continued delays, remain encouraged and hopeful that they will receive a permit in time to be operating by the end of the year, Theunissen said. “We’ve on-boarded hundreds of drivers across Birmingham, and we’re ready to turn on the app as soon as that permit is issued,” he said.
Shelby vows action as Alabama-Georgia water war flares up
WASHINGTON – Interstate tensions flared up in the final hours of the congressional session last week when Georgia’s delegation killed legislation they said would have given Alabama an unfair advantage in a 25-year-old battle over water rights. Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama responded by announcing that the appropriations subcommittee he chairs will investigate withdrawals of water from reservoirs located upstream from Alabama and Florida. “Farmers, environmentalists, power companies and other constituents in Alabama and Florida have expressed sincere and well-founded concerns that local water supply entities in Georgia are violating federal contracts and significantly disadvantaging the citizens, commerce and environments of Alabama and Florida as a result,” Shelby wrote to U.S. Attorney Kenyen Brown in Mobile. In his letter, Shelby asks Brown and other Justice Department officials to meet with him in January about enforcement of water usage agreements. Alabama, Florida and Georgia have a long history of legal and political skirmishes over water rights. The current battle involves whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is letting local water authorities in metro Atlanta take more water than they’re allowed, shortchanging everyone else downstream. In the latest dramatic twist, Georgia’s congressional delegation appealed all the way up to House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to edit a paragraph Shelby had added to a $1.1 trillion catch-all federal spending bill. The original provision, part of a regular appropriations bill written earlier this year, would have required the Justice Department to audit all water usage contract violations reported by the Army Corps in the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa river basin that starts in north Georgia and flows through central and southwest Alabama. The provision was later broadened to apply to all water contract violations in all river basins, but the Georgia delegation was still alarmed. “We feel like this infringes on the states’ rights issue of dealing with the waters between Georgia, Florida and Alabama,” Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., told the House Rules Committee on Dec. 16. “The best solution here is for Congress to stay out.” Ryan agreed. “There was a concern that someone was trying to place a thumb on the scale in this water war, and we wanted to make sure that was not the case,” Ryan said Friday. After he intervened, the spending bill was changed to say, “The agreement does not adopt language in either the House or the Senate report regarding Federal water usage violations.” The House and Senate passed the spending bill on Friday. After President Obama signed it later that day, Georgia lawmakers declared victory. “I am pleased (Alabama’s) efforts to inject the federal government in a purely state issue and cost Georgia potentially millions more in legal costs were thwarted,” Collins said. “Ongoing negotiations about Georgia’s water and how it is allocated should be handled at the state level, and pending court cases will be allowed to proceed unimpeded.” Florida officials have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review their dispute with Georgia over water flows from Atlanta into Apalachicola Bay, where oyster beds need a flow of fresh water. The issue of water contract violations has come up before. In a congressional hearing two years ago, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., alleged that one Georgia county was pulling more water from Lake Allatoona than authorized and that the Army Corps hadn’t done enough to stop it. A Corps official responded that there had been previous infractions, but the county was currently in compliance and withdrawals were monitored daily. Lake Allatoona is at the top of the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin, which supports dams, lakes, rivers and streams throughout most of central Alabama, including Montgomery. The state has argued for years that the Corps, which operates the federal reservoir, has been too stingy releasing water during dry periods and too deferential to metro Atlanta’s needs for drinking water supply.
BUSH SURGES TO WIN IN M.M. CONTEST — A late rally helped former Florida governor Jeb Bush win the M.M. 2016 prediction contest both for the candidate most likely to win the GOP nomination and the White House. Bush received 75 votes to win the nomination followed by Marco Rubio with 50, Ted Cruz with 21, Donald Trump with 7, John Kasich with 4 and Chris Christie with 2. Paul Ryan and Ben Carson each received one vote.
Bush picked up 69 votes as the candidate most likely to win in November, narrowly edging out Hillary Clinton with 63 votes. Rubio received 15, Cruz 3 and Trump 2. Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Kasich, Carson and Mike Bloomberg each received 1 vote. The highly unscientific survey clearly reflects that M.M.’s readership skews to Wall Street, which still sees a path for Bush to do well in New Hampshire and then emerge as the establishment alternative to Cruz or Trump.
GUESSES on the unemployment rate ranged from a low of 4.6 to a high of 8 percent, something that would require a major economic catastrophe.
BIG EVENTS — A lot of respondents cited more ISIS attacks on the homeland or a big crisis in the Middle East (especially Syria) as the type of events most likely to change the direction of the presidential campaign. Trump running as an independent was also a popular choice. Here’s a sampling of responses, both serious and light-hearted.
Paul Equale: “The election will morph into a ‘past vs future’ choice, just like 1992. Difference is that this time, if they nominate Rubio/Kasich, the GOP will be the ‘future party.’”
Adam Kerns: “Unexpected economic growth both in the US and abroad”
Joe Maurici: “A Military clash with China over its presence in the South China Sea.”
Frank Stalzer: “Pain created in the U.S. by debt payments as a results of increased interest rates.”
Stan Collender: “One of two: Either the Yankees will win the World Series and all will seem right again in the world, or ultra conservatives will be staying home this election and strongly considering a 3rd party for 2018 and beyond. Many will be saying this could be the end of the GOP.”
Kenneth Wrightson: “Trump pursues gender reassignment surgery in a last ditch effort to secure the LGBT and woman vote. In case you were wondering, it doesn’t work, so he later joins Caitlin in their own spin off of the Kardashians.”
George Moriarity: “Trump wins early states, drawing Bloomberg in as third party candidate before either primary, disaffected centers of both parties give him office with larger popular vote than Clinton ‘92.”
Chris Rupkey: “I predict the stronger economy will lift all the voters boats and make them vote for Hillary. There are more voters with paychecks this year and this will make people want to vote for more of the same”
Billy Oorbeek: “Economy dips into recession that will hurt Clinton and launch Rubio into the White House. Economic anxiety overtakes ISIS as the primary driver of the election.”
And M.M.’s favorite comes from Edward Neal: “Washington wins Super Bowl 50.”
SANDERS TOO BIG TO FAIL? — A little birdie emails: “I can’t help watching what happened with Sanders campaign last week and note the incredible hypocrisy. If an employee(s) at any corporation had done something like this, he would have used it to argue the corrupt culture of corporate America. Maybe the Sanders campaign has become too big and needs to be broken up.”
GOOD WEDNESDAY MORNING — This is the last Morning Money until Jan. 4. Hope everyone has a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
THE BIG IDEA: WHY THE KIDS ARE STILL AT HOME — Goldman Sachs: “The share of young people living with their parents increased 4 percentage points (or 3 million individuals) from 2006 to 2012 and has not declined recently despite a much better job market. … About ¾ of the rise in the US share of 25-34 year olds living with parents is explained by an increase in the percentage of underemployed youth who live with their parents. A smaller portion is explained by an increase in the share of underemployed in the young adult population.
“Given the mix of cyclical and structural factors, we are not expecting the ‘at home’ share to fully normalize. But even a small reversal should help boost household formation, and we see a faster decline as an upside risk to our homebuilding outlook.”
VICE INVESTING IN VIRGINA — Bloomberg’s Max Abelson and Lauren Etter: “No one manufactures more guns in the U.S. than Sturm Ruger & Co .. and no one owns more of its stock than the London Co. of Virginia. The $11.2 billion investment adviser also has stakes in dozens of companies, including makers or sellers of bullets, missiles, prisons, cigarettes and caskets” http://bloom.bg/1J3T1Q9
A GAME OF YUAN-UPSMANSHIP — POLITICO’s Francesco Guerrera: “As the Federal Reserve prepared for a landmark rise in U.S. interest rates earlier this month, China realized it could not stand still. Beijing’s move to change the way it controls the yuan — made just a few days before the Fed duly raised rates last week — will have repercussions on trade relations between China, the U.S. and Europe and could lead to significant changes in the way investors trade the currencies of those three big economic blocks. … The Chinese leadership had long been worried that the end of nearly a decade of low U.S. rates would hamper their efforts to pump up the domestic economy, according to people familiar with Beijing’s thinking.
“China feared that, by increasing the attractiveness of the dollar for investors, the Fed’s widely-expected rate hike would also push the yuan higher, since the Chinese currency was basically tied to the greenback. That, in turn, would have increased the price of Chinese exports on overseas markets such as Europe and the rest of Asia, choking one of the main engines of growth for the country’s economy” http://politi.co/1YwbwnC
FOX ANNOUNCES DEBATE CRITERIA — Per Fox Business Network release: “The debates will factor in both national polls, as well as those based in Iowa and New Hampshire conducted and released prior to Monday, January 11th at 6PM/ET. The primetime debate will feature candidates that place in the top six nationally, and place within the top five in Iowa or New Hampshire, while the remaining candidates will be invited to the early debate.
THEN THERE WERE SIX — POLITICO’s Hadas Gold: “The criteria for the next Republican debate could shrink the debate stage to just six candidates, potentially pushing John Kasich, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul out of the main event and into the undercard debate … There’s no limit on the number of candidates on the main stage. But according to POLITICO calculations based on only the national polling available as of Tuesday, the prime-time debate stage would include Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio, retired neurologist Ben Carson, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Chris Christie.” http://politi.co/1V5CNYm
TRUMP TAX PLAN WOULD CUT REVENUE BY $9.5 TRILLION — WSJ’s Richard Rubin: “Donald Trump’s tax plan would cut federal revenue by $9.5 trillion over a decade and boost the after-tax incomes of the wealthiest households by an average of more than $1.3 million a year, according to an analysis released Tuesday. The Republican presidential candidate’s proposal would lower income tax rates and exempt millions of low-income households, requiring significant new borrowing or unprecedented spending cuts beyond anything Mr. Trump has detailed in his campaign. “Mr. Trump’s plan, first released in September, would eliminate 22 percent of federal revenue over 10 years, radically shrinking the government, according to the Tax Policy Center …
“The billionaire real-estate developer is proposing the largest, most aggressive tax overhaul of all GOP contenders. The center this month estimated former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s plan would cut federal revenue by $6.8 trillion over a decade. Mr. Trump’s website says his plan would be revenue-neutral. According to the center, the limits on tax breaks proposed by his campaign are nowhere near enough to overcome the tax-rate cuts” http://on.wsj.com/1Mvd30Y
SUPER PACS TAKE ON NEW ROLES — NYT’s Nick Corasaniti and Matt Flegenheimer: “Soaring advertising costs in early primary states are compelling major ‘super PACs’ to realign their tactics, de-emphasizing costly broadcast commercials in favor of the kind of nuts-and-bolts work that presidential candidates used to handle themselves. They are overseeing extensive field operations, data-collection programs, digital advertising, email lists, opposition research and voter registration efforts. The shift away from the broadcast television buys that had been the groups’ main role in past presidential campaigns is among the most significant developments in outside political spending since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which paved the way for super PACs.
“Originally conceived as a vehicle to raise and spend unlimited money on television, the most expensive part of a White House run, the groups now are seeking to relieve campaigns of much of the vital infrastructure that candidates would otherwise have to assemble and manage. The results of their efforts, which cannot be coordinated directly with the candidates, are unproven. It is not yet known whether field and data efforts spearheaded by outside groups will be as effective as they are in the hands of a candidate” http://nyti.ms/1OmFk1a
WAITING FOR A STATESMAN-BANKER — Robert Jenkins in the FT: “The recently appointed chief of Deutsche Bank says he would willingly work hard even if he happened to be paid less. John Cryan went on to question the entire banking bonus culture. The pronouncement was not only refreshing, it was statesmanlike. Statesmanship among banking leaders has been absent since the crisis. This is curious. Crises normally bring forth a talent or two that tower above the rest. By this I do not mean richer, louder or street smart. I mean statesmanlike. So what qualities constitute statesmanship and who comes closest? …
“Since the financial crisis, I have waited in vain for a banking leader to rise above the fray, acknowledge the industry’s failings and shape the reform agenda in a way that ranked the public good ahead of private gain. Naive, I know. But it is precisely because statesmanship is so rare that history venerates statesmen.” http://on.ft.com/1ZowXE3
PENTAGON COULD BLOCK MERGERS — Reuters: “The Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies should complete a legislative proposal in coming weeks to let regulators block proposed mergers for national security reasons, instead of just antitrust concerns … Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall, who oversees arms weapons acquisitions and industrial base issues for the Pentagon, made the comments in an interview, after first mentioning the legislative push in September.
“In September he raised concerns about further consolidation among the biggest players in the U.S. weapons industry, warning that big weapons makers were not hesitant to use the power that came with increased size for their own corporate advantage. The comments came days after the U.S. Justice Department approved Lockheed Martin Corp’s $9 billion takeover of Sikorsky Aircraft from United Technologies Corp, one of the biggest acquisitions in the weapons industry in years” http://reut.rs/1PjwCO4
STAR WARS DRIVES HOLLYWOOD OVER $11B — Bloomberg: “The record debut this month of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ along with blockbusters like ‘Jurassic World’ earlier in the year, have put the U.S. movie industry on track to crack $11 billion in ticket sales for the first time ever. The North American box office, which includes U.S. and Canadian theaters, is forecast to rise 6.3 percent to $11.01 billion in 2015, Rentrak Corp. said Tuesday in an e-mailed statement. That would surpass the current record of $10.92 billion set in 2013. While the overall number signifies health, studios with massive event movies are outperforming their rivals” http://bloom.bg/1kg7GMv
President Obama today is vacationing in Hawaii.
Congress is in recess for the holidays.