- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in the United States and abroad:

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Feb. 17

The Los Angeles Times on the Zika virus:

Now that researchers have identified a tangible link between the Zika virus and fetal brain deformation, pregnant women and those of childbearing age in the Latin American countries hardest hit by the mosquito-borne virus will have to make tough decisions about their reproductive future. Use birth control? Abstain? Abort if there’s evidence of potentially lethal birth defects?

Or at least that’s how it ought to go.

In reality, women in many Latin American countries have almost as little control over their bodies as they do the weather. They are subject to rampant sexual violence, have received little or no sex education and may have limited access to birth control. When they do get pregnant, abortion is illegal in most countries, though some have exceptions in cases of rape, fetal impairment or danger to the life of the mother. In El Salvador the strictures are particularly harsh. There are no legal abortions, and women may go to jail for the “crime” of suffering miscarriage.

These realities make the paltry governmental response in El Salvador and like-minded countries - warning women not to get pregnant until the Zika crisis is over - all the more ludicrous. Just how does it help to scare women while offering no tools or information? It’s unrealistic, and even irresponsible, to expect women to somehow stave off pregnancy when birth control isn’t an option and rape is widespread. Although condoms are easily accessible, they can be unaffordable to poor women. Emergency contraceptives are even pricier or, in the case of Honduras, banned outright.

The World Health Organization declared Zika an international public health threat Feb. 1 based on its “explosive” spread throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. At the time, medical experts strongly suspected that the virus was implicated in microcephaly in more than 4,000 newborns in Brazil and feared that might be related to an uptick in another neurological condition, Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Since then, the evidence connecting Zika to microcephaly has mounted. Last week researchers in Slovenia confirmed microcephaly, brain injury and the Zika virus in the brain of a fetus whose mother had gotten pregnant while in Brazil. This week, researchers in Brazil said they found the virus in the brains of two infants with microcephaly who died just hours after birth. More studies will be needed before the Zika connection is certain, but it’s not looking good.

Complicating the unfolding crisis is the assertion by a group of Argentine physicians that the rash of microcephaly cases is due to a larvicide, pyriproxyfen, used to control mosquitoes. Though there’s not a shred of scientific evidence that this is the case, the Brazilian government has stopped spraying, which may only worsen the Zika epidemic in that country.

Even before this new evidence came to light, the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Latin American countries to repeal their policies restricting reproductive rights and give women the help they need to avoid pregnancy if they wish. It fell on deaf ears. With a stronger link established, other voices must join in the effort to persuade lawmakers to launch public awareness campaigns that target both men and women (men in Latin American counties are often averse to using condoms) and provide free birth control to any woman who needs it.

Doctors and public health authorities also have a duty to appeal to their countries’ leaders to give women access to birth control and abortion - at the very least until a Zika vaccine has been created or researchers rule out the virus as the cause of brain defects. That could be months or a year away. Their involvement is especially important, given that one pillar of culture in Latin America - the Roman Catholic Church - won’t be offering any help. Catholic leaders have said unequivocally that Zika changes nothing about the church’s stance against birth control, let alone its ban on abortion. Nor has Pope Francis addressed the Zika crisis this week as he tours Mexico speaking out against economic disparity.

Left unsaid is that the inability of women to control their bodies in a most basic way has a direct impact on their economic situation - and that the Zika epidemic could make things even worse for them and their families.

Online:

http://www.latimes.com/

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Feb. 17

The New York Times on Hillary Clinton and the federal hourly minimum wage:

On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has eloquently defined workers’ rights as human rights. She could assert both more forcefully by championing a stronger federal minimum wage of $15 an hour.

So far, Mrs. Clinton has proposed lifting the federal hourly minimum to $12, from its current level of $7.25 an hour. Bernie Sanders is pushing for $15. Under both proposals, the increase would be phased in over five years, which means 2022 at the earliest, assuming that legislation to raise the minimum becomes law in 2017, the first year of the next president’s term.

Reasonable people can disagree about the ideal level for the minimum wage. There is no doubt, however, that the longer it takes to get to a new minimum, the higher it should be, and that by any political or practical calculation, 2022 is a long way off. This alone argues for Mr. Sanders’s more generous proposal.

Mrs. Clinton has argued that $15 might be too high for employers in low-wage states, causing them to lay off workers or make fewer hires. There is no proof for or against that position. There is solid empirical evidence showing that moderate increases in the minimum wage do not harm employment. But there is no similarly rigorous research on the effects of large increases, mainly because there haven’t been very many, either in the United States or internationally.

The question is what to do in the face of uncertainty. Mrs. Clinton’s argument for $12 overlooks the fact that a long phase-in would give employers and the economy time to adjust to a higher, $15 minimum.

Her minimum-wage proposal is also inconsistent with her larger agenda to increase middle-class wages. Historically, a robust minimum is one that equals at least half the average wage for typical workers, recently $21 an hour. Assuming Mrs. Clinton’s plan raised middle-class wages - through profit-sharing, paid sick and family leave, updated overtime-pay rules, fair-scheduling policies and labor-law enforcement - then $15 in 2022 would be a logical goal for the federal minimum wage.

But instead of embracing $15, Mrs. Clinton fights on for $12, saying that states could set their own, higher minimums. That is cold comfort. Experience has shown that without a robust federal minimum, state minimums also tend to be inadequate. Today, 21 states still do not have minimums higher than the federal level, and of the 29 that do, none have minimums high enough to cover local living expenses for an individual worker.

Worse, Mrs. Clinton’s stance misses the big picture, which is that the risk in keeping the minimum too low is bigger than the risk of raising it too high. One reason a third of Americans today live in or near poverty is that many jobs in the United States do not pay enough to live on. This is due in part to the steady erosion in the minimum wage - even as labor productivity, corporate profits and executive compensation have gone up. A raise to $12 an hour in 2022, or a mere $24,000 a year for a full-time job, would only lock in that dynamic. Even a $15 minimum works out to only $31,000 a year.

Economic obstacles are not standing in the way of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Misplaced caution and political timidity are. The sooner Mrs. Clinton overcomes those, the stronger her candidacy will be.

Online:

http://www.nytimes.com/

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Feb. 16

The Boston Herald on President Obama’s proposed budget:

President Obama’s proposed record $1.4 trillion budget landed on Capitol Hill last week, so dead on arrival it’s a pity real trees had to die in its creation.

The budget proposes to increase taxes over the next decade by a whopping $2.6 trillion. And just to show how serious Obama was about this effort, that’s nearly double the $1.4 trillion he proposed and failed to get in last year’s budget. Hmmm.

So let’s say the Congress actually lost its senses and went along with the tax and spending plan for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Obama’s own forecast shows it would run a $9.8 trillion deficit over the next decade.

“President Obama will leave office having never proposed a budget that balances - ever,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said. “This isn’t even a budget so much as it is a progressive manual for growing the federal government at the expense of hardworking Americans.

“The president’s oil tax alone would raise the average cost of gasoline by 24 cents per gallon, while hurting jobs and a major sector of our economy.”

The proposed $10 a barrel tax on crude oil - $319 billion over the next decade - would be used to fund “alternative transportation” programs aimed at halting, of course, global warming.

The president did finally awake from his seven-year slumber to discover the cybersecurity threat on our doorstep. The hacking of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and its files on millions of employees and applicants and that nasty hacking and cyber-attack on Sony Pictures apparently tipped him off that there is a problem.

So the budget will include $3 billion to, as Obama put it in an op-ed in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, “kick-start an overhaul of federal computer systems.”

“It is no secret that too often government IT is like an Atari game in an Xbox world,” he added.

And he proposes to create a new federal position of chief information security officer. Again, a breathtaking, why-did-no-one-think-of-that-before moment!

In this his final year in office you’d think President Obama might want to “get real” on the budget. But why start now?

Online:

http://www.bostonherald.com/

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Feb. 16

The Telegraph, United Kingdom, on Parliament debating the referendum over membership in the European Union:

A quarter of a century ago, John Major headed to Maastricht for a crucial summit that led to the creation of the European Union and paved the way for a single currency. This was an epochal event that merited a two-day debate in the House of Commons before the Prime Minister set off, bolstered by a majority of more than 100 for his negotiating position.

What a contrast with now. David Cameron is preparing to go to Brussels this week for what is arguably the most important meeting attended by a British premier since Maastricht and the Commons is not even sitting. More than that, this week’s Cabinet has not been convened because 16 ministers are away during the parliamentary recess. It is extraordinary that what has been portrayed as a significant moment for the UK’s relationship with Europe is taking place with virtually no parliamentary input.

This is, after all, a parliamentary democracy. Constitutionally, the sovereignty of Westminster trumps the outcome of the referendum. The 1975 referendum on the Common Market had no direct legal effect, though the Labour government made clear that it would be bound by the result, as has Mr Cameron for the EU vote expected in the summer.

There are imponderables, however. If there was an Out vote on a low turnout and the Government fell, another administration could be re-elected intent on staying in the EU. A new parliament would not be bound by decisions of its predecessor. However fanciful such an outcome might appear, the ramifications are hard to predict, another reason why it is odd that Parliament has effectively been by-passed by this whole process.

Mr Cameron has also largely sidelined the Cabinet - not surprisingly perhaps given the divisions among his senior ministers. Downing Street announced last night, however, that there will be a meeting on Friday to consider the package that Mr Cameron expects to agree in Brussels. This will free Eurosceptic ministers intending to campaign against the deal to set out their stall immediately and is a sensible move since the Prime Minister would have faced a weekend of complaints from opponents that he was not playing fair. A statement to the Commons is planned for Monday but a debate should follow. Although we all have a vote, on such a momentous matter we should hear the views of our representatives.

Online:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

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Feb. 15

The Wall Street Journal on the Supreme Court after Justice Scalia’s death:

With the death of Antonin Scalia, Democrats and the media are graciously offering Republicans an ultimatum: Give them control of the Supreme Court now, or they’ll use the vacancy as a political club to hold the White House and retake the Senate. False choices don’t get more false than that.

The reality is that no one President Obama is likely to nominate for the Court this year has a chance to be confirmed in a GOP Senate. Republicans could vote for José Cabranes of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, but he’s 75 years old and too independent-minded for Democrats. Conservatives would revolt if Republican Senators voted to confirm any other Obama appointee.

And well they should. The stakes are simply too great with the High Court now split 4-4 on so many legal issues. The most important aren’t even the social issues like abortion and gay marriage that preoccupy the media. Roe v. Wade isn’t going to be overturned by replacing Justice Scalia, so the disputes would be over laws that regulate abortion in late term or to protect the health of the mother. Same-sex marriage won’t be overturned either.

The more consequential cases are over the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers that President Obama has so abused to serve his political goals. Take the First and Second Amendments. The Friedrichs case on coerced union dues that the Court is scheduled to rule on this year is probably now a 4-4 tie. That would let stand the mistaken Ninth Circuit ruling that denies workers their right not to support political causes they oppose. The Little Sisters of the Poor are also now likely to lose their religious-liberty challenge to ObamaCare’s coerced subsidies for abortion.

A new 5-4 liberal majority would also take aim at the conservative precedents of recent years. These include the 5-4 rulings upholding individual gun rights in D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who read her Heller dissent from the bench, gave a speech saying she expected that a future Court would overturn Heller.

Also in peril would be Citizens United and other rulings that struck down limits on financing political campaigns. The lawyer for the Obama Administration said during oral argument for Citizens United that even books could be banned as an independent campaign expenditure. Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton say they want to rewrite the First Amendment to limit campaign donations, and it would take a brave liberal to buck that pressure.

Justice Scalia’s death also means the Court lacks the votes to correct Mr. Obama’s illegal expansions of executive power. These include the House challenge to his rewriting of ObamaCare and the Texas case against his unilateral legalization of four million illegal immigrants. If the Court ties 4-4 on immigration, as it probably will, the Fifth Circuit’s stay on Mr. Obama’s order will continue until the courts rule on the merits. But a 5-4 liberal majority is all but certain to uphold anything a Democratic President does on so political a subject.

We know this because this is how all Democratic Justices have voted for more than a generation. Not since Byron White retired has any Democratic appointee broken with the liberal lockstep on issues that truly matter to the left. Justice Stephen Breyer provided a rare sixth vote after the Sixth Circuit said the people of Michigan couldn’t ban racial preferences (Schuette, 2014), but the liberals had already lost that case.

Otherwise the four current liberals are a solid bloc that never breaks. Among Mr. Obama’s appointees, Elena Kagan is a more nuanced thinker than Sonia Sotomayor, but on big cases they vote the same. By contrast, Republican appointees Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy and John Roberts all broke with conservative political preferences on major legal issues. For that matter so did Justice Scalia, albeit for more principled legal reasons.

The larger point is that progressives have made the Court so political that it’s understandable that Republicans want to let the next President fill Justice Scalia’s vacancy. A GOP Senator who voted to confirm an Obama nominee would demoralize his own supporters. Meanwhile, the outrage among Democrats over being denied a vote is entirely synthetic as they use the issue to mobilize their own partisans. (See Chuck Schumer nearby.)

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley are right to say that the Senate should refuse to consider any nominee this year. An election-year hearing and vote would only politicize the Court more and be unfair to the nominee.

So ignore any complaints you read about “unprecedented” GOP “obstruction.” As Justice Scalia warned (our Sunday editorial on his legacy can be found on wsj.com), legal progressives made the Court a partisan cause by making value judgments that are best left for voters to decide. One result is that Democrats will have to fight and win an election in 2016 to replace the greatest contemporary Justice.

Online:

http://www.wsj.com/

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Feb. 15

The Khaleej Times on Turkey and Kurdish militants:

Ankara’s desire to take on the separatist Kurds is posing as its biggest security detriment. At a time when Turkey should focus its energies on fighting Daesh, its eagerness to open two fronts simultaneously is worrisome. Reports say Turkish forces shelled the Menagh airbase, which was seized on Thursday from Syrian rebels by a Kurdish militia group known as the YPG. This action in northern Syria is likely to have serious repercussions.

Turkey already has a serious problem at home with the Kurds, who have been campaigning for political autonomy, and these new skirmishes on the borders will further exacerbate the situation. Ankara’s push into Syrian territory, as its tanks were spotted on the borders, will invite more trouble as it is already at odds with Damascus. This development has come just a day after Turkey announced its plans to opt for a ground invasion of Syria with Saudi forces. Turkey has every right to defend its territory from foreign incursions, but it should watch out that it is not taking any step in haste.

The United States and its allies have categorically advised Turkey to stop shelling the Kurds and focus on fighting the Daesh. But Ankara fears that Kurds are waging a campaign against security forces and undermining Turkish sovereignty by benefitting from the war in Syria. Turkey is in a fix, and is unable to clearly chalk out its priorities. This is evident from the geopolitical task that it has assigned itself by vowing to dislodge President Bashar Al Assad in Damascus. At the same time, it is at war with Daesh and the Kurds. Ankara should take stock of changing ground realities in the wake of Russian involvement in Syria and the lackluster military response from the West. There is no room for any misadventure at home and on the international frontiers.

Online:

http://www.khaleejtimes.com

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Feb. 11

The Chicago Sun-Times on student loan debt:

Jaywalking is illegal. But cops don’t ticket much for jaywalking. They know that’s a waste of time and money when they’ve got bigger fish to catch.

So, too, with the federal government and young people right out of college. Why are the feds wasting time and money going intensely after kids who can barely pay their rent in this changing economy? We need a new system that helps students pay for college, but that doesn’t leave them in an inescapable financial snarl afterward.

Right now, the government is spending money in the wrong places. BloombergBusiness reported Wednesday it takes federal debt collectors seven months to recoup what they spend on a 30-minute call to someone who is more than 270 days late on student loan payments. Collectors even went after a young woman jailed after an Occupy Wall Street protest whose debt on one of her student loans loan shot up 35 percent before she got out, leaving her more than $100,000 in the hole.

According to a 2014 report by researchers at Elon University and the University of Michigan, the federal government’s system of contracting out debt collection discourages contractors from taking the time to assist borrowers with distressed loans. Last year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that sloppy practices by loan-serving contractors make it harder to repay loans, raise costs, cause distress and push struggling borrowers into default.

Why is this necessary? Young people right out of college are struggling to make a decent paycheck, certainly compared with Americans who got out of college 40 years ago. Meanwhile, college tuition has soared. Just between August 2003 and August 2013 it rose at twice the rate of inflation.

No former students who can afford to pay should blithely walk away from their loans. But the bigger question here is why we allow so many young people to be saddled with such enormous debt. As a group, student loan borrowers owe $1.2 trillion. Piled in a stack, those dollars would reach a quarter of the way to the moon. One in four borrowers is in default or struggling to stay current.

As a nation, we have to make higher education more affordable again. Some politicians, including President Barack Obama, have suggested free community college tuition. Jeb Bush has proposed replacing loans with a $50,000 line of credit to be repaid based on income. Other politicians are pushing for allowing especially hard-hit former students to discharge their loans in bankruptcy, like a bad car loan, something that’s nearly impossible to do now.

Any solution has to be affordable and not undermine the entire student loan system. But if not these ideas, then what? The current reality is unacceptable, in which college costs and their attendant loans are increasingly beyond the reach middle-income and lower-income young people.

Unlike jaywalking, that’s something that demands action.

Online:

http://chicago.suntimes.com/

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