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Congratulations to North Korea!

Those of us who hope for the downfall of the North Korean regime are forced nevertheless to tip our hats to the skill and resourcefulness of the regime’s internal security forces. They have captured Merrill Newman, an 85 year old American veteran of the Korean War, and have convicted him for “hostile acts.” Why, they have even televised his confession–one freely given, I am sure–so the North Korean allegations against Mr. Newman must be true. Reading the story, one readily sees how much of a threat to North Korean peace and security Mr. Newman must have been. The North Koreans really dodged a bullet by catching him, eh?

I guess this story ought to make us rethink our plans to use the CIA (Centenarian Intelligence Agency) to foment dissent and internal strife in North Korea. Also, we may not want to use the NSA (National Society for the Aged) to eavesdrop on conversations between higher-ups in the North Korean government and military, or to start up a cyber war with the Hermit Kingdom.

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On Obamacare “Improvements”

Before reading this story and the excerpt that immediately follows, ensure first that your expectations are as low as they can possibly be.

Done? Good. Now read:

Administration officials are preparing to announce Sunday that they have met their Saturday deadline for improving HealthCare.gov, according to government officials, in part by expanding the site’s capacity so that it can handle 50,000 users at once. But they have yet to meet all their internal goals for repairing the federal health-care site, and it will not become clear how many consumers it can accommodate until more people try to use it.

Government and outside technical employees worked through the night on the latest upgrade, intended to increase the Web site’s capacity for consumers seeking to go through the early stages of registering for an account and then logging in. The upgrade was successfully completed about 4 a.m. Saturday, according to a government official familiar with the project, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe details that the administration was not publicly disclosing.

But it was not immediately apparent, the official said, whether the improvement meant that the site can now meet one of the Obama administration’s internal goals — for 80,000 people per hour to be able to register and 320,000 per hour to be able to log in — and added that the overnight tinkering was, at least for now, causing a slight increase in error messages on the site.

An official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency overseeing the federal health insurance exchange, said the site’s true capacity is somewhat murky because workers need to see how it performs under “weekday traffic volumes” when demand is at its peak.

Even with rock-bottom expectations, it is hard to be impressed by any of this. To be sure, I imagine that the website will be substantially improved over time, but that is only because it is difficult to see how its performance could possibly be any worse than it has been ever since the rollout of Obamacare. So the improvements we may see don’t amount to anything worth bragging over, and unless the above represents a lot of spin from the White House that is designed to lower expectations in advance of a better-than-anticipated performance by the website, we won’t see much in the way of substantial improvements anytime soon, despite the president’s “tech surge” to fix the website.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration appears set to miss today’s deadline for improving the website. And although we are now seeing “‘hundreds of enrollments’ a day,” instead of mere dozens, these recent stats still represent a subpar performance for the website. And people are still having problems. Lots of them:

Guy Dicharry of Los Lunas, N.M., said he had been in limbo at the identity-verification stage since Oct. 5, despite giving the site personal information several times so it can confirm his income. He hasn’t heard back about a paper application submitted Nov. 1.

“This has been botched and is not getting fixed. If it’s not fixed, I’ll be ringing in 2014 as a newly uninsured person. I suspect that is the opposite of what the ACA was supposed to achieve,” said Mr. Dicharry, who described himself as a supporter of the Affordable Care Act. Because of their age and income, Mr. Dicharry and his wife stand to gain valuable subsidies toward the cost of coverage, but only if he buys it through the website.

Ronald Gallagher of Paradise Valley, Ariz., said he had been helping his daughter shop for coverage. After 16 hours over four days starting Oct. 1, they were told her identity was verified and she could pick a plan. But when they logged in to the website, it said her application was “In Progress.”

After failing to get help from a call center, father and daughter filled out an application over the phone in early November, but they still haven’t received a letter telling what insurance plans she qualifies for. “So far, nothing the government has done has worked,” Mr. Gallagher said.

Even when people successfully enroll, insurers say they sometimes get incorrect data. Ms. Bataille, the government spokeswoman, said officials have seen “marked improvements” in the information transmitted to insurers but “we know there are still issues that remain.” An HHS official also said that there had been improvements in identity verification, but that the agency knew it wasn’t fully fixed.

Mr. Lewis of Maine Community Health Options also worried about a larger volume of applicants, especially since insurers have now been told to find ways to process applications that come in from people as late as Dec. 23 in time for their coverage to begin Jan. 1, rather than a previous Dec. 15 deadline.

If “there’s an avalanche on that last date, I don’t know if the system will be able to support all that,” he said.

The president still believes that people trust him, facts be damned:

A CNN Poll of Polls complied Thursday showed the president’s approval rating at 41%, near a low of his five years in office. The numbers have dipped as Obama’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act, faces problems with its website and the number of Americans whose health plans are being canceled.

Obama has taken responsibility for the website’s flaws, saying he should have been told earlier about the serious issues with HealthCare.gov’s digital infrastructure. He’s also apologized for his vow that people who liked their plans could keep them.

In Friday’s interview, Obama said he was looking for answers soon on why the rollout failed so spectacularly.

“Obviously my most recent concern has been that my website’s not working,” Obama said. “We’re evaluating why it is exactly that I didn’t know soon enough that it wasn’t going to work the way it needed to. But my priority now has been to just make sure that it works.”

Note that sentence: “We’re evaluating why it is exactly that I didn’t know soon enough that it wasn’t going to work the way it needed to.” Well, one reason might be that the president, per Todd Purdum’s description, is not exactly an engaged manager or leader. So perhaps the mystery behind the breakdown in information processing in the administration would be solved if the president of the United States took the opportunity to look at himself in a mirror at some point.

Meanwhile, Timothy Egan puts on his tinfoil hat, and informs us that the reason the website signups are working in some states have to do with the “fact” that there are “no Koch-brothers-sponsored saboteurs trying to discourage people from getting health care.” Of course, he provides no proof whatsoever that there are “Koch-brothers-sponsored saboteurs trying to discourage people from getting health care,” but I don’t imagine that either Timothy Egan or the New York Times care much about proof when they are busy letting their ideological flags fly. The rest of the column is equally muddled, confused, and populated with incoherent side rants–including the absurd claim that “a major political party and its media arm [are] so actively rooting for fellow Americans to lose.” Not that I expect Egan to understand this, but Republicans live in the United States, are Americans, and therefore very likely don’t want Americans to “lose,” if only because they might be among the Americans who “lose.” Of course, Egan seems to think that “disagreeing with the likes of Timothy Egan” means “actively rooting for fellow Americans to lose.” And apparently, so does the Times editorial staff. I don’t know how this claptrap makes it into the editorial pages of a newspaper that likes to think of itself as the most respectable publication since Gutenberg printed the Bible, but there you have it; another indication that Big Media is giving up the ghost intellectually and–if you read the comments–so are a number of Times readers.

A Friendly Note to the Obama Administration

Not that you aren’t aware of this, guys (at least, I hope that you are aware of this), but the Chinese are testing you. Try not to fail the test by actually allowing the Chinese to expand their air defense zone. Rather, inform the Chinese–quietly but firmly–that the United States will not recognize the expansion of the zone by filing any flight plans with the Chinese, and state that the Chinese will be responsible for any and all confrontations that may occur in the future.

Additionally, let it be noted that there is absolutely no need whatsoever to inform others of any conversations that you may have with the Chinese; we don’t want them to lose face in the event that they decide to back down. It was, after all, Sun Tzu who told us to “[b]uild your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across,” and the less willing you are to build that bridge, the less willing the Chinese will be to walk across it.

This is a major test for American diplomacy, Obama administration peeps. Pass it, and you might restore some credibility to our foreign policy in the aftermath of the abandonment of (a) the president’s red lines on Syria, (b) the bizarre willingness to let the Russians dictate terms in Syria and re-enter the Middle East diplomatically, and (c) the incredibly bad nuclear deal with Iran. Fail it, and . . . well . . . get ready to be beset with even more challenges from less-than-friendly nation-states that will give you more headaches, and will erode American national security in the process.

The Semi-Autobiography of Walter Bagehot

It comes highly recommended. And it now goes on my must-read list. A taste of what one might expect:

The tragedy is that Bagehot, in the vast range of his writings, left no autobiography. But that lacuna has been splendidly filled by an American scholar of Britain, Frank Prochaska, who has taught at Yale and at Oxford, where he was a visiting fellow at All Souls College. He has written on the British monarchy, and on women and philanthropy and Christianity in Victorian England, and has immersed himself so deeply in the life and times of Bagehot that the man’s voice appears to be speaking to us eerily from the grave.

Written in the first person, the book daringly presents itself as Bagehot’s own memoir. Pedants may question this impertinence, particularly when Prochaska writes of such personal matters as the mental illness of Bagehot’s mother. (“Every trouble in life,” Bagehot once remarked, “is a joke compared to madness.”)But Prochaska has delivered a work of extraordinary scholarship and profound human sympathy that is also a pleasure to read. He ranges across his subject’s varied interests—from finance to poetry, from governance to national character, from the science of evolution to the mysteries of religion. And all is peppered with Bagehot’s epigrammatic wit. It is not the real thing, but it comes exceedingly close.

The Amazon link for the book can be found here.

Your Government at Work

The next time someone tells you that a larger, more intrusive federal bureaucracy is just what the doctor ordered, refer that someone to this:

Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Director George Cohen is resigning only days after learning he is a target of a congressional inquiry spurred by a Washington Examiner series.

The Examiner series reported that FMCS employees spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on luxuries and that top officials retaliated against employees who questioned the spending.

“I have notified President Obama that I intend to resign as Director, effective December 31, 2013,” Cohen told employees in a memo obtained by the Examiner.

“I am happy to report that I leave the agency in very good shape with the admiration and respect coming from private parties, federal government agencies, and public sector organizations and their respective union representatives.

“I also gave Scot and Allison special thanks for their untiring efforts and the superb quality of their performances,” he said, referring to his deputies.

Allison Beck-Chernikoff and her sister-in-law, Bonnie Chernikoff, who is Cohen’s administrative assistant, participated in no-bid contracting and spending on luxury items, emails reviewed by the Washington Examiner showed. Scot L. Beckenbaugh is another deputy of Cohen’s.

Asked whether Obama White House officials pressured Cohen to resign, FMCS spokesman John Arnold would say only that “we are in contact with the committee. Director Cohen has no further comment.”

Cohen is a union man who is receiving a pension from the United Steelworkers of America and held a position with the National Hockey League Players’ Association at the time President Obama appointed him in 2009.

At a salary of $165,000, he oversaw the 230-person agency with a budget of $50 million that provides non-binding, voluntary arbitration between private companies’ and governments’ managers and unions.

“Let me give you the honest truth: A lot of FMCS employees don’t do a hell of a lot, including myself. Personally, the reason that I’ve stayed is that I just don’t feel like working that hard, plus the location on K Street is great, plus we all have these oversized offices with windows, plus management doesn’t seem to care if we stay out at lunch a long time. Can you blame me?” said an FMCS employee who asked for anonymity.

“The agency really needs to be incorporated back into the Department of Labor, the way it was back in the early days, or totally eliminated,” the employee said.

Upset by this story? Well, I am about to make it worse by inviting you to contemplate all of the other instances of corruption and abuse that are likely occurring at the highest reaches of the federal bureaucracy–abuse which we don’t even know about yet.

An Absolute Coincidence, I’m Sure

There is no way–none whatsoever–that there could be any kind of low political cunning behind this:

The new U.S. Treasury/Internal Revenue Service rules aimed at clarifying what constitutes political activity for tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations are likely to give more heartburn to conservative groups than their liberal counterparts.

In 2012, conservatives pumped nearly eight times the money through their 501 (c) groups than liberals did, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org website. (CRP has a handy description of what the different advocacy groups are legally allowed to do.)

CRP reported that conservatives spent $265.2 million through 501 (c) groups compared to $34.7 spent by liberal groups during the 2012 cycle.

Like I wrote, I am sure that it is just happenstance that these new rules end up inconveniencing conservatives more than they do liberals. We all know that the Obama administration would never try to structure policy in order to gain any kind of political advantage, don’t we? And as we are all well aware, the IRS itself is clean as a whistle.

So, I guess that we can all sleep well at night secure in the knowledge that good government is having its day and absolutely no politics whatsoever are being played by the Treasury Department and the IRS. After all, what could possibly cause us any fear or concern regarding this story?

Green Shoots of Sanity

There is plenty of craziness in the world; including, among other things, war, famine, corruption, broken political systems, and a botched healthcare rollout. So when a story comes along about obsessive fans of the Dutch masters, it actually serves to restore my faith in humanity.

In writing that, I don’t pretend to opine on behalf of anyone other than myself, and of course, I recognize that for some, the thought of arranging jobs, vacations, lists of friends and entire personal lives around the viewing of a certain set of paintings might sound more than a bit crazy. But all it takes is a look at the news to see that there are worse ways to spend one’s life, so to all fanatical devotees of 17th century Dutch paintings who may be reading this blog, I say: Keep on keeping on. You may well be among the most well-adjusted people currently in existence, and perhaps, thanks to you, one day, we can have nice things. May that day come speedily, and in our time.

Plaintive Plea of the Day (Part Deux)

Can we please stop pretending that China is the equal of the United States on the world stage? Because it’s just not true:

Many people around the world believe that China’s rise to the role of dominant global player is inevitable. A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this year found that in 23 of 39 countries surveyed, a majority of respondents said China is already, or will soon become, the “world’s leading superpower.”

Even in America, just 47 percent told Pew they believe the United States will remain in that role, and the survey was conducted before Washington’s recent shutdown hardened opinions about America’s political dysfunction.

But although China’s economic influence is growing — it is now the lead trade partner for 124 countries, compared to just 76 for the United States — its power to influence other nations is slight. It has achieved little of what policymakers call “capture,” a condition in which economic or security dependence of one country on another allows the more powerful to drive the other’s policy making.

Read the whole thing for some much-needed perspective.

Plaintive Plea of the Day

Can the Obama administration please realize that the 2008 presidential election has come to an end? I mean, it’s almost 2014. I never thought I would have to put in such a request, even considering the fact that presidents of one party regularly run down predecessors of another party.

It would be nice to have the Obama administration take some responsibility for its actions without shouting “George W. Bush!” at some point during the president’s second term; we were deprived of such luxuries between January 20, 2009-January 20-2013. What precisely does it take for so modest a dream to come true?

That Interim Deal with Iran Sure Didn’t Last Long!

Recall the following from my post on the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (excerpted from this site):

Even with improvements, the interim agreement fails to bring Iran into compliance with its key international legal obligations as spelled out in United Nations Security Council resolutions. The agreement comes closest on compliance with the resolutions’ requirement that Iran “suspend” work on “all heavy water-related projects” including “construction” of the Arak reactor. While the Geneva agreement commits Iran to refrain from the most significant activities at Arak, it does not preclude Iran from general construction work at the site. Iran will easily be able to restart or threaten to restart the more dangerous work at Arak when the six-month interim period ends.

It would appear that the Islamic regime didn’t even wait that long before violating the agreement:

Iran will pursue construction at the Arak heavy-water reactor, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was quoted as saying on Wednesday, despite a deal with world powers to shelve a project they fear could yield plutonium for atomic bombs.

France, one of the six powers that negotiated Sunday’s landmark initial accord with Iran to curb its disputed nuclear program, said in response to Zarif’s statement that Tehran had to stick to what was agreed in the Geneva talks.

The uncompleted research reactor emerged as one of several big stumbling blocks in the marathon negotiations, in which Iran agreed to restrain its atomic activities for six months in return for limited sanctions relief. The agreement is intended to buy time for talks on a final settlement of the dispute.

Western powers fear Arak could be a source of plutonium – one of two materials, along with highly enriched uranium, that can be used for the core of a nuclear weapon – once it is operational. Iran says it would produce medical isotopes only.

According to the agreed text, Iran said it would not make “any further advances of its activities” on the Arak reactor, under construction near a western Iranian town with that name.

This goes well beyond violating the spirit of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1. It violates the actual letter of the agreement as well. Am I still supposed to believe that this deal is a good one?

I’m Supposed to Believe that the Implementation of Obamacare Is Improving . . .

And I’m supposed to believe it based on reports like this one from Ezra Klein, who tells us the following:

A spin through HealthCare.Gov this morning went smoothly. The site loaded quickly. The process progressed easily. There were no error messages or endless hangs. I didn’t complete the final step of purchasing insurance but, until then, the site worked — or at least appeared to work — exactly as intended.

My experience isn’t rare. There are increasing reports that HealthCare.Gov is working better — perhaps much better — for consumers than it was a few short weeks ago. “Consumer advocates say it is becoming easier for people to sign up for coverage,” report Sandhya Somashekhar and Amy Goldstein in the Washington Post. “The truth is, the system is getting stronger as it recovers from its disastrous launch,” writes Sam Baker in the National Journal. Applying “was no problem at all, with no delays,” says Paul Krugman.

Reports from inside the health care bureaucracy are also turning towards optimism. People who knew the Web site was going to be a mess on Oct. 1st are, for the first time, beginning to think HealthCare.Gov might work. Data backs them up: By mid-November, the pace of enrollment in the federal exchanges had doubled from what it was in October.

The Obama administration is certainly acting like they believe the site has turned the corner. Somashekhar and Goldstein report that they’re “moving on to the outreach phase, which had taken a back seat as they grappled with the faulty Web site. Next week, the White House will host an insurance-oriented ‘youth summit’ aimed at people ages 18 to 35, an age group whose participation in the health-care law will be critical to its success.”

The White House had held off on this kind of outreach because they believed it would simply drive people to a useless Web site. If they’re restarting the outreach, it’s because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that HealthCare.Gov will be able to convert the interest into enrollments.

(Emphasis mine.) A number of lemmings port side bloggers linked to Klein’s post, pounded their chests, and proclaimed that the problems with HealthCare.gov were coming to an end, and that soon, for Obamacare critics, their uppance would come. And remember, Klein claims that the White House is now “restarting the outreach” to get users to go back to HealthCare.gov because the White House believes that the website “will be able to convert the interest into enrollments.”

Won’t Klein–and the lemmings port side bloggers who cite him–be disappointed when they read this?

White House officials, fearful that the federal health care website may again be overwhelmed this weekend, have urged their allies to hold back enrollment efforts so the insurance marketplace does not collapse under a crush of new users.

At the same time, administration officials said Tuesday that they had decided not to inaugurate a big health care marketing campaign planned for December out of concern that it might drive too many people to the still-fragile HealthCare.gov.

I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t strike me as a description of a website that is ready for prime time. To be sure, the New York Times article does say that the White House is trying anew to generate interest in the website, but if the site is still unable to handle new users, then the premise behind Klein’s reporting–and the cries of jubilation on the part of his lemmings port side bloggers who cite Klein–are all for naught. According to the Times article, the site is only able to handle 50,000 users at a time, and the White House is worried that 250,000 users might crash it. This is pathetic. No website worth its salt has these kinds of problems, and to call this situation “an improvement” only serves to reinforce just how deep a hole Obamacare has dug for itself, for the Obama administration, and for all who support the Affordable (ha!) Care Act. Expectations for the program must be rock bottom indeed, if people actually believe that things are coming up roses for Obamacare.

From one of Klein’s co-bloggers, more evidence that Klein and his lemmings port side bloggers who cite his optimistic forecasts are full of taurine fertilizer:

The Obama administration announced Wednesday it would delay a significant piece of the health-care law: the online small business insurance marketplace.

The Small Business Health Options Program, known as the SHOP exchange, will not offer online enrollment until November 2014, a one-year delay from a launch that was initially planned for this past October.

Administration officials characterized the decision as one made necessary as they prioritized fixes to the individual health exchange, which the White House has promised will “work smoothly for the vast majority of users” by Dec. 1.

“What’s important in our work is to continue to prioritize the best consumer experience for those who are coming to us online,” Medicare spokeswoman Julie Bataille said. “These decisions all reflect [that] reality.”

How many Obamacare delays does this now make?

It should be noted that recently, Secretary Sebelius, who very much serves as the human face of the Obamacare calamity, was confronted with the consequences of her incompetence, and that of the Obama administration as a whole:

After the botched rollout of Obamacare, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made a stop in Orlando Tuesday morning in an attempt at damage control.

WFTV reported earlier this month about cancer patient, Gloria Canter, who received a cancellation notice from her health insurance company due to the Affordable Care Act.

Reporter Lori Brown asked Sebelius about the issue and she argued that patients forced to get new plans will benefit from them.

But Canter said she strongly disagrees.

[. . .]

. . . the Canters said they were happy with their old plan.

They said Florida Blue told them that their new plan will be more expensive.

The canters [sic] said they feel people like them with individual plans are being ignored simply because they don’t represent a majority of patients.

“We are not, Mr. President, faceless human beings,” Jay Canter said.

No, they aren’t. But they are treated that way by an administration that promised them better than what they are getting. An administration that promised people like the Canters that if they liked their health care plan, they could keep it. An administration that deliberately misled people like the Canters in making that promise.

And remember: The president and his allies didn’t just say that we could keep our health care plans if we liked them. He and his allies also told us that we could continue to see our doctors and hospitals if we wanted to. That promise has been broken as well, but it is nice to see that there are people who are fighting back against the loss of doctor/hospital choice:

Officials in at least a half dozen states are pushing back against health plans in the new insurance markets that limit choice of doctors and hospitals in a bid to control medical costs.

The plans don’t start offering coverage until January but they’re facing regulatory action, possible legislation, and in at least one case involving a high-profile children’s hospital, litigation.

The pushback against “narrow” provider networks recalls the backlash against managed care and health maintenance organizations  in the 1990s. Protests from consumers and hospitals eroded those attempts to restrain expenses by narrowing provider networks.

Now criticism of limited networks has risen as consumers realize that, despite President Barack Obama’s pledge that they could keep their doctors, their Affordable Care Act insurance may not include the physicians or hospitals they’ve been seeing.

The critique feeds into the politically damaging outcry over the millions of people whose health plans were cancelled. It’s unclear whether the limited choice of doctors and other providers will be as much of a concern to uninsured people who will be gaining subsidized coverage through the state-based marketplaces.

Still regulators and elected officials in a few states have already forced changes. Others are weighing legislation that could expand the networks.  Legal fights are brewing. In some cases, the officials are responding to complaints of health care systems or providers that were excluded.

May these folks go from strength to strength. Of course, it should be emphasized that they are providing leadership the Obama administration promised but failed to provide.

Meanwhile, I guess I am supposed to feel sorry for Capitol Hill aides now:

Veteran House Democratic aides are sick over the insurance prices they’ll pay under Obamacare, and they’re scrambling to find a cure.

“In a shock to the system, the older staff in my office (folks over 59) have now found out their personal health insurance costs (even with the government contribution) have gone up 3-4 times what they were paying before,” Minh Ta, chief of staff to Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), wrote to fellow Democratic chiefs of staff in an email message obtained by POLITICO. “Simply unacceptable.”

In the email, Ta noted that older congressional staffs may leave their jobs because of the change to their health insurance.

Yeah, I’m just not feeling the sympathy. Maybe this makes me a bad person, or something, but there you have it.

Can we mention anew that the Obama administration is playing fast and loose with the laws of its signature legislation? I think it is worth a mention myself; all those who decried the supposed imperial presidency of George W. Bush–and who believed that Barack Obama would set things right from a constitutional perspective–should be thoroughly disabused of their illusions at every opportunity. Equally fanciful is the notion that this administration is in any way “reality-based”:

Top White House and health officials feared that HealthCare.gov would not work correctly and would set off a wave of bad publicity, according to emails sent shortly before the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare enrollment website.

The emails, released Wednesday evening by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, included a picture of an error message that has become emblematic of the launch debacle. They were dated Sept. 25 — less than a week before the enrollment portal opened — and immediately created a crisis for the White House.

A White House spokesman said the emails — which use technical terms — focused on problems that could arise if there was high traffic to the site, not on a fear that the site wouldn’t work at all.

Presumably, this last paragraph is supposed to inform us that the White House didn’t have any fears that the website would not work. Yet another indication that pride goeth before the fall, I suppose.

Anyone still believe that Obamacare has turned a corner? Because the evidence would seem to suggest otherwise.

I’ll Know that We Live In a Small Government World . . .

When the federal government doesn’t arbitrarily move to destroy businesses like 23andMe. Incidentally, I find the following to be a very good question:

Is it relevant that governments themselves, through their law enforcement agencies, run elaborate saliva-, blood- and DNA-collection operations that are hedged with few of the protections of voluntariness, privacy and openness that one finds with 23andMe?

You can, of course, anticipate my answer.

UPDATE: More on this issue from Alex Tabarrok.

In Shocking News, Obamacare Continues to Flounder

Let’s go through the lowlights:

Why the Deal with Iran Is Less than Good

By now, you have likely heard that the United States and five other countries (Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany–also known as “the P5+1 ,” with “P5″ standing for the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council), have entered into an interim nuclear deal with Iran. The deal’s provisions are supposed to expire in six months, at which point the P5+1 hope that they will be replaced with a permanent treaty dealing with Iran’s nuclear capability. This report does a good job in detailing the terms of the interim deal, which are as follows:

  • To the extent that Iran has uranium stockpiles that have been enriched to 20%, those stockpiles need to be diluted until they are only at 5%, since 5% enrichment is all that is needed for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. As the CNN report notes, this is important because “once you’re at 20%, you’re about 80% of the way” to a nuclear weapon.
  • Iran also has to “cut back on constructing new centrifuges and enrichment facilities, and freeze essential work on its heavy-water reactor under development at Arak.”
  • Iran must “provide daily access to inspectors from the international agency, IAEA.”
  • If Iran fails to abide by the terms of the interim agreement, the P5+1 may push for more sanctions.
  • In return for Iranian cooperation, Iran will get $6-7 billion in sanctions relief.

The United States claims to be happy with this deal, with President Obama and Secretary Kerry presenting it as a tremendous diplomatic victory. The other members of the P5+1 claim to be very happy with the deal as well. Iran and its allies also claim to be happy with the deal. The two most unhappy countries around are Israel and Saudi Arabia, which feel threatened by a nuclear Iran and which do not for a moment believe that Iran will content itself with peaceful nuclear energy. Although the other Gulf states have not said much about the deal, one presumes that they do not feel warm and fuzzy about a nuclear Iran either, and the Gulf states may well join Saudi Arabia in seeking nuclear weapons of their own in order to balance against a potential Iranian threat. We may be seeing the beginnings of an arms race in the Middle East.

It is worth noting that the Iranians claim the interim agreement recognizes their right to enrich uranium, while the Obama administration claims that it recognizes no such right. It is also worth noting that the agreement does not place a 3.5% enrichment level ceiling on Iranian stockpiles of uranium, and that not a single centrifuge needs to be dismantled. As the second bullet point says, Iran need only “cut back on constructing new centrifuges and enrichment facilities,” which implies that centrifuges and enrichment facilities can continue to be built, but should be built at a slower rate. Additionally:

Even with improvements, the interim agreement fails to bring Iran into compliance with its key international legal obligations as spelled out in United Nations Security Council resolutions. The agreement comes closest on compliance with the resolutions’ requirement that Iran “suspend” work on “all heavy water-related projects” including “construction” of the Arak reactor. While the Geneva agreement commits Iran to refrain from the most significant activities at Arak, it does not preclude Iran from general construction work at the site. Iran will easily be able to restart or threaten to restart the more dangerous work at Arak when the six-month interim period ends.

[. . .]

The U.N. resolutions require Iran to “provide such access and cooperation as the IAEA requests” to resolve the International Atomic Energy Agency’s concerns about Iran’s research into nuclear-weapons design. Multiple IAEA reports, including from March 2011 and November 2011, have provided extensive descriptions of Iranian research involving activities related to the development of a nuclear explosive and noted that some of the research “may still be ongoing.” Yet the interim agreement does almost nothing to gain such access and cooperation or to require Iran to come clean or provide access and cooperation to ensure that such research is not continuing.

Remarkably, not even the agreement’s “elements of the final step of a comprehensive solution” make clear reference to Iran revealing its past nuclear-weapons research. Thus, Iran’s affirmation, in the interim agreement preamble, that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons” is, with respect to weapons-design research, all trust and next to no verify.

The Security Council resolutions also explicitly require Iran to “not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” However, the interim agreement includes no Iranian commitments related to its ballistic-missile program. Not even the agreement’s “elements of the final step of a comprehensive solution” make any reference to Iran halting its activity related to ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons.

In the absence of verifiable Iranian commitments not to proceed with nuclear-weapon and ballistic-missile research, there is nothing to stop Iran from having a designed bomb and ballistic missile ready to go. Once Iran completes a dash to weapons-grade uranium, it can insert the warhead and quickly have a deliverable nuclear weapon.

Thus, even if Iran faithfully implements each of its commitments under the interim agreement, it could find itself, in May 2014, a mere month further away than it is now from having weapons-grade uranium—but six months closer to having the rest of a deliverable nuclear weapon.

David Sanger characterizes the agreement thusly:

The deal does not roll back the vast majority of the advances Iran has made in the past five years, which have drastically shortened what nuclear experts call its “dash time” to a bomb — the minimum time it would take to build a weapon if Iran’s supreme leader or military decided to pursue that path.

There is an additional problem related to the deal, as Josh Rogin points out:

Obama previously set a red line regarding Syria, warning that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would trigger an international response. Following the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack there that killed over 1,400 Syrians, Obama decided to launch limited military strikes against Syria and then reversed himself when Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons capabilities.

Several foreign officials said that the Syrian red line episode had eroded the Obama administration’s credibility around the world, which raises questions over promises made about Iran.

“When you draw red lines and then they are crossed and you don’t do anything about it, two things happen: Your enemies become emboldened and your allies become less sure,” said British Member of Parliament Liam Fox, a former Secretary of State for Defence. “That’s been the problem.”

Being exposed as a bluffer, it seems, has its consequences. More problems with the deal are revealed by Michael Doran of the Brookings Institution:

. . . On the nuclear question specifically, I don’t see this as stage one. In my view, there will never be a final agreement. What the administration just initiated was, rather, a long and expensive process by which the West pays Iran to refrain from going nuclear. We are, in essence, paying Ayatollah Khamenei to negotiate with us. We just bought six months. What was the price?

We shredded the six United Nations Security Council resolutions that ordered the Islamic Republic to abandon all enrichment and reprocessing activities. We exposed fractures in the coalition against Iran. And we started building a global economic lobby that is dedicated to eroding the sanctions that we have generated through a decade of hard, very hard, diplomatic work.

That’s the price that we can see clearly before our eyes. But I also wonder whether there were hidden costs — in the form of quiet commitments to Iran by third parties. I assume that the Iranians demanded economic compensation for every concession that they made. Will all of the promised payments appear in the text of the agreement? Did parties less constrained than our president by US congressional oversight also offer up sweeteners on the margins? At this point we do not know whether there is, in effect, a secret annex to the deal. Only time will tell.

But a hidden cost that is more easily verified is the free hand that the United States is now giving to Iran throughout the region. This is the price that troubles me most.

I would like to think that the interim agreement is a step forward in the West’s dealings with Iran. I would like to think that it will serve as a prelude to a comprehensive treaty that will replace the interim agreement and will provide a just and fair resolution to the West’s dispute with Iran over the latter’s burgeoning nuclear capability. I would like to think that the interests of American allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel–and thus, the interests of the United States itself–are met by this interim agreement and will be further met by a comprehensive treaty in the future.

But given the foregoing evidence, I just can’t believe that, I’m afraid. This deal wasn’t Munich, but the Iranians got more out of it than did the United States and its allies. Much more.

Related to this issue, I hope and trust that others were appalled and disgusted by former Carter administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s noxious suggestion that if Israeli jets are sent to attack Iran, the United States should “be serious about denying them that right. That means a denial where you aren’t just saying it. If they fly over, you go up and confront them. They have the choice of turning back or not. No one wishes for this but it could be a ‘Liberty’ in reverse.” We all know what buttons Brzezinski was trying to push with his “Liberty” reference. One waits to see whether or not he will also advocate attacking Saudi fighter jets that decide to launch bombing campaigns against Iranian nuclear facilities, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Brzezinski’s rhetoric on this issue is pretty much par for the course.

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