- Associated Press - Friday, December 23, 2016

Excerpts of recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New England newspapers:

Norwich Bulletin (Conn.), Dec. 20, 2016

The president-elect’s handling of the Department of Energy transition has rightly come under intense scrutiny since revelations that a member of his transition team sought to single out employees involved in climate change work. While Donald Trump’s camp has disavowed the survey in question and says it has disciplined the person who sent it, some congressional Democrats, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, are pressing the issue.

The senator, along with eight of his colleagues, last week called on the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to probe the incident, citing in particular the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 which is meant to protect against partisan coercion of civil servants. Blumenthal and his colleagues wrote that questions about DOE employees who attended climate conferences “seem to demonstrate a clear intent to retaliate or discriminate against federal employees.”

While it is not easy to ascertain where Trump himself stands on climate change, fears about a political witch hunt are, in our view, justified. While it’s far from the only gaffe that’s plagued the Trump transition, it does suggest that he or certain members of his team desire to identify those who believe the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, perhaps the greatest and gravest environmental challenge of this or any age. We can only speculate about what they’d do with that information, but the implications are dark.

Trump loves to remind Americans just how accomplished he is in the world of private business, where executives might successfully seek to chase out employees for personal or political motives. Thankfully, the law protects civil servants from such harassment and persecution.

It is worth getting to the bottom of this matter, if for no other reason than to make it abundantly clear to Trump and his team that the government is not another one of his business enterprises where power can be asserted according to executive whim. In this case it is not a few people’s livelihoods that are on the line, but all people’s lives. For if the intent is to staff the DOE with climate change flat-earthers and undo what meager progress the U.S. has made on climate issues, it won’t be long until civil servants’ rights become the least of our worries.




The Portland Press Herald (Maine), Dec. 15, 2016

There weren’t many points of agreement between the two contenders in the brutal 2016 presidential campaign, but the need to invest in infrastructure offered a rare moment of harmony.

That’s why we expect Congress to put forward a massive public works bill, an issue that should receive strong bipartisan support.

Since Election Day, the president-elect has renewed his commitment to this kind of investment, and his rhetorical focus has been on building roads, bridges and airports, a 21st-century reprise of the massive interstate highway system project started during the Eisenhower administration.

That kind of investment is important, but the new administration should not stop there. It’s time for a real 21st-century infrastructure program, one that focuses on bringing high-speed, broadband internet to rural areas.

Reliable internet service is as important to economic development today as the highway system was in the 1950s. Connecting rural areas to the world creates business opportunities in places that have lost traditional jobs. More people move to areas that have high-speed internet capacity, and they often bring jobs with them.

Broadband investment also provides more opportunities to start new businesses, and not just ones in “tech” fields. Retail, hospitality, agriculture, medicine and a wide range of other enterprises rely on their ability to share information quickly and dependably.

A strong commitment to rural infrastructure would bring the economic recovery into areas that have been left behind during the economic recovery that started in 2009. Places like rural Maine that have been hit hard by a loss of manufacturing jobs would benefit more from investment in high-speed internet in their towns than they would from expensive airport overhauls in New York or Boston.

Internet expansion has a proven impact on economic development. According to a study by the Information & Technology and Innovation Foundation, 250,000 jobs are created for every $5 billion in infrastructure development; with every percentage point increase in new broadband distribution, employment expands by 300,000 jobs.

Maine was the beneficiary of a major investment in broadband infrastructure with the 2012 construction of the Three Ring Binder, a 1,100-mile system of fiber-optic cable that was built with a $25.4 million federal grant and $7 million in private investment. The project provides the core of a 10-gigabit network that serves 110,000 homes, but it passes by many more that don’t have the ability to connect.

“It’s like having a highway with no exit ramps,” said Maine Sen. Angus King, an advocate for rural broadband expansion. “We’ve got a tremendous backbone, but we need to solve the ‘last-mile’ problem.”

King, an independent, has assembled a bipartisan group of senators in the Senate Broadband Caucus, which is working to get places like rural Maine connected with the rest of the world. He says there is no one solution for the problem, but there is a need for public investment and policies that encourage private entities to complete the system.

A major infrastructure program that does not put significant resources into rural broadband will not do for 21st-century America what the highway program did for this nation in the 20th.

King and his colleagues should keep pushing to let the whole country benefit from the economic opportunity that has been unleashed by the information revolution.




The Cape Cod Times (Mass.), Dec. 18, 2016

Richard Spencer, the 38-year-old figurehead of white nationalism who coined the term “alt-right,” was in Texas recently to address attendees at a privately funded event on a public university campus.

In his speech at Texas A&M;, he explained his rationale for wanting to turn the U.S. into a “white ethno-state”: “We won,” he said about the Revolutionary War (not the 2016 election), claiming for himself brotherhood with the Founding Fathers. “And we got to define what America means. We got to define what this continent means. America, at the end of the day, belongs to white men.”

Now, there is a lot left unsaid in that statement - to the detriment of honesty, integrity, and history.

Primarily, it frightens us that he has ignored that the white men who defined “what America means” used the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to do it, and their words refute Spencer quite explicitly. It also frightens us that Spencer has conveniently forgotten that many of the white men who helped found this country also exploited and killed the native people who were here first.

In a studio interview earlier this month, Spencer left no confusion about whom he thinks America belongs to today:

“The illegal immigration is not really the problem. I support a crackdown, I support the wall, but, at the end of the day, that is not the real issue. The real issue is the demographic change that is occurring through legal immigration. And that is, these people come, they’re here to stay. They’re coming by the millions… . They’re certainly integrated into the welfare system. That is the big problem. We just have to say, ‘This is not your country’.”

Just a few months before Spencer spewed this hatred, 50 immigrants in Massachusetts, who came to the U.S. legally, waited five years, learned to read, write, speak and understand English, paid taxes, obeyed the laws, studied and learned U.S. history, and publicly swore an oath of allegiance to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic” became U.S. citizens on the Fourth of July at the federal courthouse in Boston.

U.S. District Judge George O’Toole Jr. presided over the ceremony for citizenship candidates from 31 countries, including Argentina, Bangladesh, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran, Kenya, Mexico and Nicaragua. The federal government, through an extensive vetting process, found them all to be of good moral character.

Those 50 new Americans, who came here not to steal something others worked hard for, but to work hard themselves and for their families to make their new home better, represent a resounding salvo in the battle to save American democracy.

“Being an immigrant, it’s kind of pathetic, to be honestly (sic),” Spencer told his interviewer. “You’re kind of like shuffling off from your own country and you’re just entering another one, and you’re just kind of taking advantage of what other people have built.”

Is that so? Spencer’s white male “winners” were taking advantage of about one-eighth of the population back in the 1800s to fuel their agrarian economy. The machinery of white male prosperity was greased with the labor of black men, women and children.

From our perspective, we see those 50 new Americans as the vessels of the courage and integrity that will provide a bulwark against the twisted, depraved, false and dangerous ideology of the alt-right. They deserve our encouragement, and Spencer deserves nothing but scorn and repudiation.




Concord Monitor (N.H.), Dec. 21, 2016

We have no idea what President-elect Donald Trump really thinks about Social Security and Medicare, those mainstays of old America.

On the campaign trail, he said nice things about both. We do know that Trump promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, this era’s effort to improve the lot of the uninsured. We also know that all three will be under attack in a matter of weeks when the new president and new Congress take office.

Three Republican members of Congress were named as the leaders of the coming assault, Reps. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Sam Johnson of Texas and Tom Price of Georgia, who is Trump’s choice to be secretary of Health and Human Services. What, aside from their antipathy to federally subsidized programs, makes these three men feel safe attacking social programs that, in the case of Social Security and now Medicare, are considered the “third rail” of politics? A look at their congressional districts might explain not only that, but why political partisanship runs so deep and the nation is so polarized.

Take Meadows, a former businessman and chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, which is lobbying for “reform” of Medicare and Social Security. Meadows represents North Carolina’s 11th District, which covers the far western corner of the state. According to the U.S. Census, the district has a population of 728,488, of which 664,942 are white, 23,758 black and 12,834 American Indian or Alaska Native.

Nearby North Carolina’s District 12 has a population of 770,194, of which 297,746 are white, 392,085 black and 3,412 American Indian. That district’s representative is Alma Adams, an African-American woman and a strong backer of Medicare, Social Security and especially SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps.

Price, the leader of the Obamacare repeal effort, is a retired orthopedic surgeon who represents Georgia’s 6th District. It’s just north of Atlanta. Its population of 729,643 breaks down as 509,184 white, 95,974 black, 6,904 American Indian and 80,651 Asian. Adjacent District 5’s population of 736,978 has 425,941 African-Americans, 245,099 whites, 33,375 Asians and 3,059 Native Americans. Its representative is the acclaimed civil rights leader John Lewis, a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You can guess where he stands on the issues.

Leading the charge against Social Security, along with Meadows, is Texas 3rd District Rep. Sam Johnson, a decorated fighter pilot who flew missions during the Korean and Vietnam wars and spent seven years in North Vietnam as a prisoner of war. Though the population of Texas is 39 percent Hispanic, they make up just 15 percent of Johnson’s district, which is just north of Dallas. Further south in the Lone Star State is District 15, a narrow, tortured jigsaw puzzle of politics whose population of 766,342 has 635,560 whites and 16,199 blacks. Hispanics account for 617,572 of the whites. That district’s congressman is Reuben Hinojosa, a Democrat and staunch supporter of Medicare, Social Security and the Affordable Care Act.

Politically safe districts allow representatives to grab the third rail because if they don’t, their opponent in a primary will promise to do just that. That helps to explain the attack on Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act. The battle will begin next month.




The Providence Journal (R.I.), Dec. 16, 2016

An internal study of Pentagon spending found the organization was bloated and top-heavy, spending about a quarter of its budget on overhead. The study’s authors suggested the Pentagon could save $125 billion over five years through attrition, reduced use of contractors and improved information technology services. But the Pentagon, startled by the scope of the waste and wary of the possibility that Congress might cut its budget, swept the study under a gold-fringed rug.

That’s the broad-brush summary of this month’s report by The Washington Post, which cited a study conducted by the Defense Business Board, an advisory group. Since the story emerged, the Pentagon has downplayed it, saying the internal study didn’t include enough “actionable recommendations.”

In a season of political outrage, this feels like run-of-the-mill government behavior - or misbehavior. Surely it’s not surprising that the Pentagon is inefficient and would prefer to pretend it’s not.

But Americans shouldn’t gloss over this report. While it may not be shocking news, it is nonetheless troubling. And it has serious implications for every agency jockeying to protect its budget as a new administration takes office.

The work of the Pentagon, the operational arm of the Department of Defense, is carried out by an army of military personnel, civilians and contractors. Its budget at the time of the report was roughly $580 billion - more than half of all federal discretionary spending.

The study cited by The Washington Post says the Pentagon is spending almost a quarter of its money on overhead; that is, on administrative functions such as human resources, accounting and property management. The authors said it could save a meaningful amount by making adjustments that wouldn’t include layoffs.

As the Post put it, the Pentagon has almost as many people working desk jobs in its business operations, 1 million, as it has on active duty, 1.3 million. Some 268,000 of the desk jobs were filled by civilian contractors.

As one defense official explained it in a speech cited by the Post, each of these administrative jobs is costing American taxpayers about $200,000.

Further, each of the active duty services, according to the Post, was employing its own contingent of civilian contractors at similar rates.

The inefficiency of administering the Pentagon looms large as Congress and the White House debate how much to spend on Medicaid, education, energy and all the other critical parts of the federal budget. Republicans have vowed to limit the federal government in many sectors. It wouldn’t do if the organization responsible for the largest chunk of discretionary spending is spending billions of dollars unnecessarily.

Further, as the old rule of politics goes, the cover-up is worse than the crime. The study’s authors encountered resistance all along the way as they sought to document the way the Pentagon spends its money. And when they finally presented their findings, pointing out that $125 billion in savings could be reallocated to upgrade military equipment and other frontline needs, top Pentagon officials got squeamish, fretting that Congress might choose instead to cut the defense budget.

In time, the report was killed. Pentagon officials deny that they buried the findings of the Defense Business Board, but called them “unrealistic.” They never surfaced as any sort of defense spending reform. Most people never heard about the report.

That’s troubling. Sen. John McCain, a fierce military advocate and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the apparent lack of disclosure “may have denied taxpayers the transparency they deserve.”

He’s right. The Pentagon is entrusted with one of the most critical functions of government and consumes a massive chunk of the federal budget.

When it comes to understanding what the Pentagon does with all that money, more sunlight, not less, is needed.




Barre-Montpelier Times Argus (Vt.), Dec. 21, 2016

The assassination was caught on video and seen around the world: A young Turkish man dressed in black and wielding a handgun shot the Russian ambassador to Turkey from behind as the ambassador addressed a gathering in Ankara. The ambassador suddenly disappeared from the screen, and the camera found the gunman ranting that God was great. Soon, he, too, was dead.

Russia has entered the maelstrom of the Middle East by siding with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Turkey had been seeking to depose. Lately, Russia and Turkey had been working to mend relations strained by their differences on Syria.

Before he was killed, the assassin in Ankara shouted, “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!” Russia has been part of Assad’s ruthless assault on civilians in Aleppo, and the assassination seemed like an act of revenge.

The murder of diplomats is rare. News reports said a Soviet ambassador had been killed in Poland in 1927. Before that a famous assassination occurred in the 19th century when a Russian ambassador was killed in Iran. The United States has lost ambassadors in Libya and Afghanistan.

Also on Monday, someone drove a truck into a marketplace in Berlin where Christmas shoppers were crowding the streets. Twelve died, and more were injured. It was said to be a terrorist attack, much like an attack earlier this year in Nice, France. The ripples of war in the Middle East continue to spread.

It is a level of chaos, desperation and brutality that we are not used to. The refugee tide sweeping into Europe is devastating, first of all, for the millions of displaced people. But it is also putting strains on those nations receiving millions of refugees, including Turkey. The politics of Europe and the United States, reflecting people’s apprehensions, have lurched to the right. The burgeoning chaos and the new authoritarianism spawned by these changes are pleasing to Russia, which has been working to undermine democracy where it can. Exacerbating the war in Syria and hacking the U.S. election both serve these purposes.

President Barack Obama expressed his frustration about these events at his press conference last week. His failure to halt the war in Syria or to curb the violence of Assad has been called the biggest failure of his presidency. Indeed, the Syrian situation is nothing but a failure - a failure of humanity and a descent into barbarism.

Obama described his struggle, looking at every option over the years and seeing that they were all bad. It is often said that he could, at least, have established no-fly zones early on, and aided more forcefully the moderate rebels who were fighting both the repressive Assad regime and the Islamist extremists who have caused so much harm. It might have persuaded Assad that he could never win and would have to settle. Instead Russia entered on Assad’s side, and they decided on their own that unbridled violence would settle the case.

In that sense Obama was outplayed. He was not as willing as they to adopt a policy of ruthlessness. He had no doubt gamed out the options, and his conclusion was that arming the moderates more aggressively would have prolonged the war but would not have yielded a winner with the standing or power to end it or govern the nation afterward. It would have made the war worse without moving any closer to resolution. We will never know.

The conflict in Syria was such an intractable mess that only the most ruthless were likely to survive, and their survival will cost them dearly. The knives are out, figuratively speaking, among Syrians of all persuasions, and among Turks, Russians and many others. It is a tragedy vast in scale and still not played out. The assassination of the Russian ambassador is another in a long catalog of despicable crimes that will not only solve nothing, but will make things worse on all sides. It would be satisfying to chart a heroic course of action that would end this tragedy. The only course that seems open now is to help the suffering to the extent that we can. We are part of this epic struggle, and that is the least we can do.




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