Wednesday, December 30, 2015

GREED FILES - The Private Tax System

"For the Wealthiest, a Private Tax System That Saves Them Billions" by NOAM SCHEIBER and PATRICIA COHEN, New York Times 12/29/2015

The very richest are able to quietly shape tax policy that will allow them to shield billions in income.

The hedge fund magnates Daniel S. Loeb, Louis Moore Bacon and Steven A. Cohen have much in common.  They have managed billions of dollars in capital, earning vast fortunes.  They have invested large sums in art — and millions more in political candidates.

Moreover, each has exploited an esoteric tax loophole that saved them millions in taxes.  The trick?  Route the money to Bermuda and back.

With inequality at its highest levels in nearly a century and public debate rising over whether the government should respond to it through higher taxes on the wealthy, the very richest Americans have financed a sophisticated and astonishingly effective apparatus for shielding their fortunes.  Some call it the “income defense industry,” consisting of a high-priced phalanx of lawyers, estate planners, lobbyists and anti-tax activists who exploit and defend a dizzying array of tax maneuvers, virtually none of them available to taxpayers of more modest means.

In recent years, this apparatus has become one of the most powerful avenues of influence for wealthy Americans of all political stripes, including Mr. Loeb and Mr. Cohen, who give heavily to Republicans, and the liberal billionaire George Soros, who has called for higher levies on the rich while at the same time using tax loopholes to bolster his own fortune.

All are among a small group providing much of the early cash for the 2016 presidential campaign.

Operating largely out of public view — in tax court, through arcane legislative provisions and in private negotiations with the Internal Revenue Service — the wealthy have used their influence to steadily whittle away at the government’s ability to tax them.  The effect has been to create a kind of private tax system, catering to only several thousand Americans.

The impact on their own fortunes has been stark.  Two decades ago, when Bill Clinton was elected president, the 400 highest-earning taxpayers in America paid nearly 27 percent of their income in federal taxes, according to IRS data.  By 2012, when President Obama was re-elected, that figure had fallen to less than 17 percent, which is just slightly more than the typical family making $100,000 annually, when payroll taxes are included for both groups.

The ultra-wealthy “literally pay millions of dollars for these services,” said Jeffrey A. Winters, a political scientist at Northwestern University who studies economic elites, “and save in the tens or hundreds of millions in taxes.”

Some of the biggest current tax battles are being waged by some of the most generous supporters of 2016 candidates.  They include the families of the hedge fund investors Robert Mercer, who gives to Republicans, and James Simons, who gives to Democrats; as well as the options trader Jeffrey Yass, a libertarian-leaning donor to Republicans.

Mr. Yass's firm is litigating what the agency deemed to be tens of millions of dollars in underpaid taxes.  Renaissance Technologies, the hedge fund Mr. Simons founded and which Mr. Mercer helps run, is currently under review by the IRS over a loophole that saved their fund an estimated $6.8 billion in taxes over roughly a decade, according to a Senate investigation.  Some of these same families have also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative groups that have attacked virtually any effort to raises taxes on the wealthy.

In the heat of the presidential race, the influence of wealthy donors is being tested.  At stake is the Obama administration’s 2013 tax increase on high earners — the first substantial increase in two decades — and an IRS initiative to ensure that, in effect, the higher rates stick by cracking down on tax avoidance by the wealthy.

While Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have pledged to raise taxes on these voters, virtually every Republican has advanced policies that would vastly reduce their tax bills, sometimes to as little as 10 percent of their income.

At the same time, most Republican candidates favor eliminating the inheritance tax, a move that would allow the new rich, and the old, to bequeath their fortunes intact, solidifying the wealth gap far into the future.  And several have proposed a substantial reduction — or even elimination — in the already deeply discounted tax rates on investment gains, a foundation of the most lucrative tax strategies.

“There’s this notion that the wealthy use their money to buy politicians; more accurately, it’s that they can buy policy, and specifically, tax policy,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who served as chief economic adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.  “That’s why these egregious loopholes exist, and why it’s so hard to close them.”

The Family Office

Each of the top 400 earners took home, on average, about $336 million in 2012, the latest year for which data is available.  If the bulk of that money had been paid out as salary or wages, as it is for the typical American, the tax obligations of those wealthy taxpayers could have more than doubled.

Instead, much of their income came from convoluted partnerships and high-end investment funds.  Other earnings accrued in opaque family trusts and foreign shell corporations, beyond the reach of the tax authorities.

The well-paid technicians who devise these arrangements toil away at white-shoe law firms and elite investment banks, as well as a variety of obscure boutiques.  But at the fulcrum of the strategizing over how to minimize taxes are so-called family offices, the customized wealth management departments of Americans with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in assets.

Family offices have existed since the late 19th century, when the Rockefellers pioneered the institution, and gained popularity in the 1980s.  But they have proliferated rapidly over the last decade, as the ranks of the super-rich, and the size of their fortunes, swelled to record proportions.

“We have so much wealth being created, significant wealth, that it creates a need for the family office structure now,” said Sree Arimilli, an industry recruiting consultant.

Family offices, many of which are dedicated to managing and protecting the wealth of a single family, oversee everything from investment strategy to philanthropy.  But tax planning is a core function.  While the specific techniques these advisers employ to minimize taxes can be mind-numbingly complex, they generally follow a few simple principles, like converting one type of income into another type that’s taxed at a lower rate.

Mr. Loeb, for example, has invested in a Bermuda-based reinsurer — an insurer to insurance companies — that turns around and invests the money in his hedge fund.  That maneuver transforms his profits from short-term bets in the market, which the government taxes at roughly 40 percent, into long-term profits, known as capital gains, which are taxed at roughly half that rate.  It has had the added advantage of letting Mr. Loeb defer taxes on this income indefinitely, allowing his wealth to compound and grow more quickly.

The Bermuda insurer Mr. Loeb helped set up went public in 2013 and is active in the insurance business, not merely a tax dodge.  Mr. Cohen and Mr. Bacon abandoned similar insurance-based strategies in recent years.  “Our investment in Max Re was not a tax-driven scheme, but rather a sound investment response to investor interest in a more dynamically managed portfolio akin to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway,” said Mr. Bacon, who leads Moore Capital Management.  “Hedge funds were a minority of the investment portfolio, and Moore Capital’s products a much smaller subset of this alternative portfolio.”  Mr. Loeb and Mr. Cohen declined to comment.

Organizing one’s business as a partnership can be lucrative in its own right.  Some of the partnerships from which the wealthy derive their income are allowed to sell shares to the public, making it easy to cash out a chunk of the business while retaining control.  But unlike publicly traded corporations, they pay no corporate income tax; the partners pay taxes as individuals.  And the income taxes are often reduced by large deductions, such as for depreciation.

For large private partnerships, meanwhile, the IRS often struggles “to determine whether a tax shelter exists, an abusive tax transaction is being used,” according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.  The agency is not allowed to collect underpaid taxes directly from these partnerships, even those with several hundred partners.  Instead, it must collect from each individual partner, requiring the agency to commit significant time and manpower.

The wealthy can also avail themselves of a range of esoteric and customized tax deductions that go far beyond writing off a home office or dinner with a client.  One aggressive strategy is to place income in a type of charitable trust, generating a deduction that offsets the income tax.  The trust then purchases what’s known as a private placement life insurance policy, which invests the money on a tax-free basis, frequently in a number of hedge funds.  The person’s heirs can inherit, also tax-free, whatever money is left after the trust pays out a percentage each year to charity, often a considerable sum.

Many of these maneuvers are well established, and wealthy taxpayers say they are well within their rights to exploit them.  Others exist in a legal gray area, its boundaries defined by the willingness of taxpayers to defend their strategies against the IRS.  Almost all are outside the price range of the average taxpayer.

Among tax lawyers and accountants, “the best and brightest get a high from figuring out how to do tricky little deals,” said Karen L. Hawkins, who until recently headed the IRS office that oversees tax practitioners.  “Frankly, it is almost beyond the intellectual and resource capacity of the Internal Revenue Service to catch.”

The combination of cost and complexity has had a profound effect, tax experts said.  Whatever tax rates Congress sets, the actual rates paid by the ultra-wealthy tend to fall over time as they exploit their numerous advantages.

From Mr. Obama’s inauguration through the end of 2012, federal income tax rates on individuals did not change (excluding payroll taxes).  But the highest-earning one-thousandth of Americans went from paying an average of 20.9 percent to 17.6 percent.  By contrast, the top 1 percent, excluding the very wealthy, went from paying just under 24 percent on average to just over that level.

“We do have two different tax systems, one for normal wage-earners and another for those who can afford sophisticated tax advice,” said Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of San Diego who studies the intersection of tax policy and inequality.  “At the very top of the income distribution, the effective rate of tax goes down, contrary to the principles of a progressive income tax system.”

And while the lobbying clout of the wealthy is most often deployed through industry trade associations and lawyers, some rich families have locked arms to advance their interests more directly.

The inheritance tax has been a primary target.  In the early 1990s, a California family office executive named Patricia Soldano began lobbying on behalf of wealthy families to repeal the tax, which would not only save them money, but also make it easier to preserve their business empires from one generation to the next.  The idea struck many hardened operatives as unrealistic at the time, given that the tax affected only the wealthiest Americans.  But Ms. Soldano's efforts — funded in part by the Mars and Koch families — laid the groundwork for a one-year elimination in 2010.

The tax has been restored, but currently applies only to couples leaving roughly $11 million or more to their heirs, up from those leaving more than $1.2 million when Ms. Soldano started her campaign.  It affected fewer than 5,200 families last year.

“If anyone would have told me we’d be where we are today, I would never have guessed it,” Ms. Soldano said in an interview.

Some of the most profound victories are barely known outside the insular world of the wealthy and their financial managers.

In 2009, Congress set out to require that investment partnerships like hedge funds register with the Securities and Exchange Commission, partly so that regulators would have a better grasp on the risks they posed to the financial system.

The early legislative language would have required single-family offices to register as well, exposing the highly secretive institutions to scrutiny that their clients were eager to avoid.  Some of the IRS’s cases against the wealthy originate with tips from the S.E.C., which is often better positioned to spot tax evasion.

By the summer of 2009, several family office executives had formed a lobbying group called the Private Investor Coalition to push back against the proposal.  The coalition won an exemption in the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, then spent much of the next year persuading the S.E.C. to largely adopt its preferred definition of “family office.”

So expansive was the resulting loophole that Mr. Soros's $24.5 billion hedge fund took advantage of it, converting to a family office after returning capital to its remaining outside investors.  The hedge fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller, a former business partner of Mr. Soros, took the same step.

The Soros family, which generally supports Democrats, has committed at least $1 million to the 2016 presidential campaign; Mr. Druckenmiller, who favors Republicans, has put slightly more than $300,000 behind three different G.O.P. presidential candidates.

A slide presentation from the Private Investor Coalition’s 2013 annual meeting credited the success to multiple meetings with members of the Senate Banking Committee, the House Financial Services Committee, congressional staff and S.E.C. staff.  “All with a low profile,” the document noted.  “We got most of what we wanted AND a few extras we didn’t request.”

A Hobbled Monitor

After all the loopholes and all the lobbying, what remains of the government’s ability to collect taxes from the wealthy runs up against one final hurdle, the crisis facing the IRS.

President Obama has made fighting tax evasion by the rich a priority.  In 2010, he signed legislation making it easier to identify Americans who squirreled away assets in Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Islands shelters.

His IRS convened a Global High Wealth Industry Group, known colloquially as “the wealth squad,” to scrutinize the returns of Americans with incomes of at least $10 million a year.

But while these measures have helped the government retrieve billions, the agency’s efforts have flagged in the face of scandal, political pressure and budget cuts.  Between 2010, the year before Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, and 2014, the IRS budget dropped by almost $2 billion in real terms, or nearly 15 percent.  That has forced it to shed about 5,000 high-level enforcement positions out of about 23,000, according to the agency.

Audit rates for the $10 million-plus club spiked in the first few years of the Global High Wealth program, but have plummeted since then.

A Very Quiet Defense

Having helped foster an alternative tax system, wealthy Americans have been aggressive in defending it.

Trade groups representing the Bermuda-based insurance company Mr. Loeb helped set up, for example, have spent the last several months pleading with the IRS that its proposed rules tightening the hedge fund insurance loophole are too onerous.

The major industry group representing private equity funds spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year lobbying on such issues as “carried interest,” the granddaddy of Wall Street tax loopholes, which makes it possible for fund managers to pay the capital gains rate rather than the higher standard tax rate on a substantial share of their income for running the fund.

The budget deal that Congress approved in October allows the IRS to collect underpaid taxes from large partnerships at the firm level for the first time — which is far easier for the agency — thanks to a provision that lawmakers slipped into the deal at the last minute, before many lobbyists could mobilize.  But the new rules are relatively weak — firms can still choose to have partners pay the taxes — and don’t take effect until 2018, giving the wealthy plenty of time to weaken them further.

Shortly after the provision passed, the Managed Funds Association, an industry group that represents prominent hedge funds like D. E. Shaw, Renaissance Technologies, Tiger Management and Third Point, began meeting with members of Congress to discuss a wish list of adjustments.  The founders of these funds have all donated at least $500,000 to 2016 presidential candidates. During the Obama presidency, the association itself has risen to become one of the most powerful trade groups in Washington, spending over $4 million a year on lobbying.

The political challenge for the agency became especially acute in 2013, after the agency acknowledged singling out conservative nonprofits in a review of political activity by tax-exempt groups.  (Senior officials left the agency as a result of the controversy.)

Several former IRS officials, including Marcus Owens, who once headed the agency’s Exempt Organizations division, said the controversy badly damaged the agency’s willingness to investigate other taxpayers, even outside the exempt division.

“IRS enforcement is either absent or diminished” in certain areas, he said. Mr. Owens added that his former department — which provides some oversight of money used by charities and nonprofits — has been decimated.

Groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Tax Reform, which are financed partly by the foundations of wealthy families and large businesses, have called for impeaching the IRS commissioner.  They are bolstered by deep-pocketed advocacy groups like the Club for Growth, which has aided primary challenges against Republicans who have voted in favor of higher taxes.

In 2014, the Club for Growth Action fund raised more than $9 million and spent much of it helping candidates critical of the IRS  Roughly 60 percent of the money raised by the fund came from just 12 donors, including Mr. Mercer, who has given the group $2 million in the last five years.  Mr. Mercer and his immediate family have also donated more than $11 million to several super PACs supporting Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, an outspoken IRS critic and a presidential candidate.

Another prominent donor is Mr. Yass, who helps run a trading firm called the Susquehanna International Group.  He donated $100,000 to the Club for Growth Action fund in September.  Mr. Yass serves on the board of the libertarian Cato Institute and, like Mr. Mercer, appears to subscribe to limited-government views that partly motivate his political spending.

But he may also have more than a passing interest in creating a political environment that undermines the IRS  Susquehanna is currently challenging a proposed IRS determination that an affiliate of the firm effectively repatriated more than $375 million in income from subsidiaries located in Ireland and the Cayman Islands in 2007, creating a large tax liability.  (The affiliate brought the money back to the United States in later years and paid dividend taxes on it; the IRS asserts that it should have paid the ordinary income tax rate, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars more.)

In June, Mr. Yass donated more than $2 million to three super PACs aligned with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has called for taxing all income at a flat rate of 14.5 percent.  That change in itself would save wealthy supporters like Mr. Yass millions of dollars.

Mr. Paul, also a presidential candidate, has suggested going even further, calling the IRS a “rogue agency” and circulating a petition in 2013 calling for the tax equivalent of regime change.  “Be it now therefore resolved,” the petition reads, “that we, the undersigned, demand the immediate abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service.”

But even if that campaign is a long shot, the richest taxpayers will continue to enjoy advantages over everyone else.

For the ultra-wealthy, “our tax code is like a leaky barrel,” said J. Todd Metcalf, the Democrats’ chief tax counsel on the Senate Finance Committee.  ”Unless you plug every hole or get a new barrel, it’s going to leak out.”

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

CREDIT - At Capital One

"At Capital One, Easy Credit and Abundant Lawsuits" by Paul Kiel, ProPublica 12/28/2015


A ProPublica analysis of state court filings reveals that Capital One sues its customers far more than any other bank.

Several years ago, Capital One gave Oscar Parsons, 46, his first credit card.  At the time, he didn’t need a loan.  But he banked at a Capital One branch near his Bronx apartment, and when it was offered, he thought, “Why not?”

Initially, he had little problem keeping up with the payments.  But after a run of construction jobs came to an end, he fell behind and found himself ducking the bank’s collections calls, he said.  Each time the company’s TV commercials popped up, asking, “What’s in your wallet?”  Parsons thought: “It’s not enough to pay you back.”

This year, Capital One provided Parsons with another first, his first lawsuit.  For failing to pay his $1,800 debt, the company took him to court.  Currently on public benefits and in a job training program, Parsons has nothing Capital One can take.  But should Parsons find work, Capital One could use a court judgment to seize money from his bank account or take a portion of his wages.

It was a hard lesson — one learned by hundreds of thousands of the bank’s cardholders.  No lender sues more of its customers than Capital One, according to ProPublica's review of state court data.

Over the past year, ProPublica has sought to illuminate the scope of debt collection lawsuits, which, though they are often filed by public companies in public courts, are a largely hidden part of the nation’s financial life.  The suits hit workers who earn below $40,000 a year the hardest and federal garnishment laws provide scant protection.  Even workers near the minimum wage could have a quarter of their take-home pay taken or their bank accounts cleaned out.  State laws typically offer little more protection.

To identify which companies file the most collection suits, ProPublica obtained and analyzed court data from 11 states.  In every state, Capital One stood out.

During the years of the recession, particularly 2008 through 2010, when the number of credit card defaults surged, many banks filed more lawsuits.  But Capital One dwarfed them all, reaching levels never matched by any company before or since, according to ProPublica’s review of data going back to 1996.

By our estimate, the suits exceeded half a million per year nationally during those peak years.

Since 2011, Capital One’s suits have dropped considerably, though they have continued to far exceed the totals of any other bank.  For example, in Indiana counties for which court data is available — home to about two-thirds of the state’s population — the bank filed about 3,360 suits in 2014.  That’s about a quarter of the suits Capital One filed in 2010, but still more suits than all other national banks combined in 2014.  In Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, Capital One’s suits comprised about 40 percent of all suits by major banks.  In Miami-Dade County, Florida, the tally was about the same.


Monday, December 28, 2015

OPINION - Shields and Gerson 12/25/2015

"Shields and Gerson on Bernie Sanders’ debate influence, gifts for Obama and the GOP" PBS NewsHour 12/25/2015


SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join Judy Woodruff to discuss takeaways from the most recent Democratic debate, how Donald Trump’s popularity defies traditional political wisdom, plus special holiday gifts for President Obama and the Republicans.

GREED FILES - Gaming a 1980s Law

"How drug companies are gaming an old law for greater profits" PBS NewsHour 12/25/2015


SUMMARY:  In the 1980s, a law was passed to persuade pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs for small populations, but now that rule is being used to reclaim old "orphaned" drugs in order to raise prices and profits.  Gwen Ifill learns more from Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times.

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  We now turn to a story that continues to worry and to anger consumers, soaring drug prices, even sometimes for new versions of old drugs.

The latest case involves a drug that helps treat a rare autoimmune disorder.  Until recently, its manufacturer often offered it at minimal or no cost at all.  But now another pharmaceutical company, Catalyst, says it wants the FDA to approve a modified, and likely more expensive, version of the drug.

I recorded this conversation yesterday with reporter Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times.

Sabrina, I’m going to start out by asking you to define something that most people have never heard of.  That is orphan drugs.  What are those?

SABRINA TAVERNISE, The New York Times:  The orphan drugs, this is a law that was passed in the early 1980s to try to stimulate development of drugs for rare diseases.

So, it was specifically meant to get drug companies to come up with new ideas and new inventions for small populations of patients that wouldn’t otherwise have been profitable, so it gave some advantages to companies that wanted to — that agreed to develop these drugs.

GWEN IFILL:  And so now what you see is that some of these companies, some companies are repurposing some of these old drugs that were created under this — with this protection under this umbrella for profit?

SABRINA TAVERNISE:  So, essentially, what’s happened, Gwen, is that the — that companies are sort of scouting around in the landscape looking for older drugs to get approved under this law, so, essentially, not really doing any development work, not really doing any of the hard, you know, invention required to come up with something new.  Taking something that was old, that was already on the market and getting it approved, getting it special status under this law.

And so that gets them seven years of market monopoly, which is actually a very, very long period of time for the drug industry.


"Will the highway bill lead to funding problems down the road?" PBS NewsHour 12/25/2015


SUMMARY:  The scope of the $300 billion highway bill recently passed by Congress will touch roads and bridges in every state and most counties for a half decade.  Since 2009, there has been no long-term or stable federal funding to address needed transportation fixes.  But critics question where that funding for the new bill is coming from.  Political director Lisa Desjardins reports.

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  That trip over the river and through the woods might go a little more smoothly in future years, thanks to the big highway bill that became law this month.  It is the largest deal of its kind in a decade.

And, as political director Lisa Desjardins reports, it’s attracting both cheers and concern.

LISA DESJARDINS (NewsHour):  The scope of this highway bill is vast, over $300 billion that will touch roads and bridges in every state and most counties for half-a-decade, a dramatic law that hits very familiar places to Americans.

HANS RIEMER, Montgomery County Councilman, Maryland:  Behind me is one of the most congested intersections in the state of Maryland.  And we have had the designs completed for this upgrade of this intersection for maybe 10 years.  It’s shovel-ready.

LISA DESJARDINS:  Meet Hans Riemer, a man who thinks about transportation a lot.  He has to, as a councilman for traffic-heavy Montgomery County, Maryland, north of Washington, D.C.

Riemer showed us this intersection that is a major bottleneck each morning.  The county has had a fix ready for years, but it has been in limbo waiting for stable federal funding to help, because — listen to this fact — since 2009, Congress has limped through 34 short-term highway bills, and no stable funding to back big projects like this, until now.

HANS RIEMER:  If the concern is, well, the federal government is not going to be there on the other end, don’t — then there is a lot of pressure not to spend the money locally.  And that is, you know, a — that is just a downward spiral really for everybody.  So the fact that bill is done at least for a temporary funding fix is a great step forward.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, Majority Leader:  It would be the longest-term bill to pass Congress in almost two decades.

LISA DESJARDINS:  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushed the highway bill as a priority, and the mega-deal was put together by usual adversaries, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California and Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.  They hashed out a final agreement with House members and the new speaker.

REP. PAUL RYAN, Speaker of the House:  We’re going to have a highway bill, which will help families and workers by rebuilding our infrastructure and giving a boost to our economy.

Can you believe it?!  A Republican Speaker of the House that believes in (conservative explicative deleted) compromise.

ROMANIA - Students in Post-Communist Era

"Students face high stakes in post-communist Romania" PBS NewsHour 12/24/2015


SUMMARY:  In Romania, 8-year-old Raluca's family does not take economic security or education for granted. WNET's documentary series "Time for School" visits Bucharest to examine how opportunities have changed for young people in the post-communist era.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  But, first, we continue our coverage of the global education crisis with a look at our New York public station WNET's documentary series “Time for School.”

For 12 years, PBS has followed six children from around the world who are simply trying to get a basic education.

Tonight, we meet Raluca from post-communist Romania, whose parents have been working long hours to give her every opportunity in the country’s new free market economy.

RALUCA IFRIMESCU (through interpreter):  This is my bed where I sleep.  And this is Sylvester, the cat that I sleep with.

This is the drawer where I keep a lot of books.  And this is a book that shows you everything about nature: the earth, animals, people.  This book shows you everything.  You should buy it.  And this is from my mom and dad’s wedding.  They’re really wonderful people for me.

NARRATOR:  Raluca Ifrimescu is 8 years old and lives in Bucharest, Romania, with her parents, Cristi and Mirela.

CRISTI IFRIMESCU, Father of Raluca (through interpreter):  What counts is for the child not to lack anything.  We struggle for it.

NARRATOR:  Though Raluca's family seems to enjoy a comfortable life, economic security is not something they take for granted.  Romania is a work in progress.  When communism ended in 1989, the country began a transition to capitalism.

Raluca's parents are trying to give her every opportunity to succeed in the new free market economy, and they know the best possible education is essential.  Her family can’t afford a baby-sitter, so Raluca commutes 45 minutes to school on her own every day to attend a public school considered one of the finest in Bucharest.

AFGHANISTAN - Battling the Taliban

"Afghan forces battle Taliban surge with help from U.S. airstrikes" PBS NewsHour 12/24/2015

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Now, Afghanistan, where government forces are trying to blunt a Taliban drive in a key southern region.

Afghan troops had been losing ground, but officials say reinforcements and American airpower repelled the onslaught overnight, killing a Taliban commander and 50 fighters.  Afghan army convoys rolled north toward Sangin district, as police searched cars and people on a main road.  The strategically important section of Helmand Province has been under siege by Taliban insurgents.

Fighting spiked this week, but, today, the provincial governor rejected Taliban claims that they’d routed the defenders.

GOV. MIRZA KHAN, Helmand, Afghanistan (through interpreter):  The district is completely under the control of the government security forces.  The enemy never took control of Sangin district.  We have arrived there by air and by ground.  The military operation is ongoing now.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  They were helped by U.S. airstrikes overnight, hours after Afghanistan’s defense minister warned his forces aren’t getting air support.

MASOOM STANEKZAI, Acting Defense Minister, Afghanistan:  When the U.S. and the British forces were there, how many enablers they had, how many jets they had, how many helicopters they had, and how many we have today?  The way we are fighting today, I think you cannot compare with any of those forces.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The fighting in Helmand is one part of a Taliban offensive across much of Afghanistan that’s testing U.S. strategy.

President Obama came into office calling for a troop surge in 2009 to defeat the Taliban, and then:

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  We’re starting this drawdown from a position of strength.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  In 2011, the President announced a plan for phased withdrawals of combat units.  Then, in May of 2014, he said virtually all American forces would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

But, in October, faced with Taliban gains, Mr. Obama reversed course and ordered some 5,500 troops to stay into 2017.

"What can the U.S. and Afghanistan do to counter Taliban gains?" PBS NewsHour 12/24/2015


SUMMARY:  Why has security in Afghanistan deteriorated so much over the past year?  Former Defense Department officials David Sedney and Barnett Rubin join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

VIEWS ON ISLAM - Divergent Voices

"How do we reconcile today’s divergent voices of Islam?" PBS NewsHour 12/23/2015

IMHO:  ISIS is NOT Islam and has no right to speak for all of Islam.


SUMMARY:  With the rise of the Islamic State group, there have been questions about just who speaks for Islam and what the message should be.  Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner talks with Manal Omar of the United States Institute of Peace and Asra Nomani, co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement, about standing up to violent religious extremism.

MARGARET WARNER (NewsHour):  The recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, its perpetrators inspired by jihadist ideology, have reignited a long-running debate about the nature of Islam and its links to violent extremism.

In his address after the San Bernardino killings, President Obama urged Americans not to scapegoat all Muslims.  But he also called on Muslims to combat what he described as a dangerous trend in their faith.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  An extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities.  This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.

MARGARET WARNER:  The next day, leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on foreign Muslims entering the U.S. and a more watchful approach to those living here.

DONALD TRUMP, Republican Presidential Candidate:  We have to look at mosques.  And we have to respect mosques.  But, yes, we have to look at mosques.  We have no choice.  We have to see what’s happening, because something is happening in there.  Man, there’s anger.  There’s anger.  And we have to know about it.

MARGARET WARNER:  Democratic contender Hillary Clinton has taken the opposite tack in discussing Islam.

HILLARY CLINTON, Democratic Presidential Candidate:  Islam is not our adversary.  Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people, and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.

MARGARET WARNER:  This debate extends to the global Muslim community as well.  Jordan’s King Abdullah, who speaks often of a war within Islam, insists Islamic State militants are way outside the mainstream.

KING ABDULLAH II BIN AL-HUSSEIN, Jordan:  These are outlaws.  These are renegades.  They have nothing to do of understanding what our religion is about.

MARGARET WARNER:  The struggle to understand and agree on what Islam represents in an age of terror is sure to continue.

And, for more, we’re joined by two Muslim American women, both former journalists.  Manal Omar is associate vice president for the Middle East and Africa Center at U.S. Institute of Peace.  And Asra Nomani is co-founder of Muslim Reform Movement.  She’s also the author of “Standing Alone:  An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.”

AT THE MOVIES - "Concussion"

"New film tackles dangers of concussions in the NFL" PBS NewsHour 12/23/2015


SUMMARY:  Dr. Bennet Omalu was working in a Pittsburg coroner's office when he was asked to examine the body of a local football hero.  What he discovered would bring new attention to the hazards of head injuries.  A new film, "Concussion," chronicles the NFL's early efforts to discredit the research.  Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  “Concussion” follows the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith.  A Nigerian-born forensic pathologist, Omalu was working in a Pittsburgh coroner’s office in 2002 when he was asked to examine the body of a local football hero, former Steelers center Mike Webster.

He discovered protein deposits in Webster’s outwardly healthy brain, which he linked to repeated head trauma from football, and a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.  The film chronicles the league’s early efforts to discredit the research.

ACTOR:  If you retract, you will be fine.  This all goes away.

WILL SMITH, Actor:  Why are they doing this?

ACTOR:  They’re terrified of you.  Bennet Omalu is going to war with a corporation that has 20 million people on a weekly basis craving their product, the same way they crave food.  The NFL owns a day of the week.

DR. BENNET OMALU, Forensic Pathologist:  I knew nothing about football.  I knew nothing about the NFL

JEFFREY BROWN:  Recently, we had the chance to talk with the real Bennet Omalu.

DR. BENNET OMALU:  When I saw the pathologies of Mike’s brain, I reviewed all his medical records.  There was no single mention of any disease.  I thought America was a country made up of the most brilliant.  How come nobody has seen this?

JEFFREY BROWN:  An early ally, played in the film by Alec Baldwin, was Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon and former team doctor for the Steelers.  He told us of his early trepidation at going public.

DR. JULIAN BAILES, Former Team Doctor, Pittsburgh Steelers:  I remember remarking to my wife that this wasn’t going to be a fun journey.  I had been a football player.  It was my favorite sport.  I didn’t want it to be true, but I felt that it was, and that we needed to bring it forward and that Bennet Omalu needed the help from myself and others to do that.

TOUCHDOWN - Reusable Rockets

"What a reusable rocket means for the future of spaceflight" PBS NewsHour 12/22/2015


SUMMARY:  A SpaceX rocket made a historic landing Monday night.  After taking off from Cape Canaveral, the rocket booster landed gently back on Earth, suggesting a possible future for reusable rockets.  Science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the significance.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  It’s been a long time since a rocket’s descent has been big news, but, last night, there was a historic landing.  After SpaceX, a private company founded by Elon Musk, launched a rocket on Monday from Cape Canaveral in Florida, it stuck the landing, you might say.  The rocket booster landed gently on Earth, a feat cheered at SpaceX headquarters, and that suggested we may be able to create reusable rockets to explore further.

Our science correspondent, Miles O’Brien, joins me now.

Welcome, Miles.

So, how big a deal is this?

MILES O’BRIEN (NewsHour):  Judy, this is the Holy Grail for space.

Ever since the space age began, those of us who cared about exploring beyond have thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could reuse the craft?  We have been throwing them away virtually the whole time.  The space shuttle was an attempt to make it reusable.  Didn’t work out so well.

And so the idea that you could take the first stage of a rocket, kind of the money end of the rocket, if you will, and have it land intact gently to be fueled up, gassed up and launched again is truly a great moment.  So, yes, big deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Why was it so hard to do before now?

MILES O’BRIEN:  Well, part of it is, we didn’t try for a long time.  During the heady days of the space race, we were too busy trying to beat the Soviets to the surface of the moon, and so we were very happy just to throw things away, rather than try to figure this out.

There is a penalty.  You have to have extra fuel on obviously to bring it down safely.  Then we got kind of off on a tangent with the space shuttle, thinking that would be reusable, and that didn’t work out so well.  So we sort of didn’t think about it.

Then we went in the wrong direction.  And now with entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos looking at this idea in a more bottom-line manner than NASA would, dare I say, we might get some progress.

DRUGS - "Spice" Unpredictable and Dangerous

"What’s in that synthetic drug?  An unknown grab-bag of toxic chemicals" PBS NewsHour 12/22/2015


SUMMARY:  The synthetic drug Spice is known as "fake pot," but its effects are completely different from marijuana.  The hard-to-detect substances are often made in foreign facilities with an ever-changing cocktail of chemicals, meaning you can never be sure of what you're taking.  This year, poison control hotlines have seen a record number of calls across the country.  William Brangham reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Tonight, we have a story on the rise of the drug synthetic marijuana, commonly known as Spice or K2.

This year has seen a record number of calls to poison control regarding the substance, and law enforcement around the country are learning how to cope with the unpredictable, dangerous drug.

We now learn more about this deadly cocktail from “PBS NewsHour” correspondent William Brangham.

MAN:  Tonight, a local teen's personal account of his addiction to the synthetic drug K2.

MAN:  But this legal weed can have extreme, dangerous medical side effects.

MOLLY:  I hit it two times.

MAN:  Wrappers that look just like this.

MOLLY:  And then I don’t remember anything.

WOMAN:  Just as dangerous as pot, cocaine or meth, but one scary difference:  Your kids can buy it at local stores.

MOLLY:  I remember, I woke up in the hospital.  My throat hurt so bad, and I was like, why is my throat hurting?  And that was because they had to put a tube down my throat, because I couldn’t breathe.

WOMAN:  Synthetic marijuana.

MOLLY:  Then my mom told me what happened, and, apparently, I had a seizure at the park.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM (NewsHour):  Sixteen-year-old Molly is a resident at the Mountain Manor Treatment Center in Baltimore, and she’s here because of her experience using so-called synthetic marijuana, or what they call fake pot.

MAN:  Synthetic marijuana comes with a quick and powerful high, but it comes with a price.SCIENCE - Reusable Rockets

WILLIAM BRANGHAM:  These drugs have been in the news a lot lately, but, despite their street name, they’re not at all like actual marijuana.

MY MUSIC - Lera Lynn

"Lera Lynn makes her music dark with a Texas twang" PBS NewsHour 12/22/2015


SUMMARY:  In our series My Music, singer-songwriter Lera Lynn talks about gaining fans from the HBO show "True Detective" and channeling her Texas roots.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Finally tonight, a new occasional series here on the “NewsHour” that gives artists an opportunity to talk about their work.  We call it My Music.

We start with Lera Lynn, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter featured in the HBO series “True Detective” who recently completed her U.S. tour.

Take a listen:

LERA LYNN, Singer-Songwriter :  There is something really attractive about darkness to me.

I have read studies that listening to sad music actually creates positive emotion, so I’m just trying to change the world.


LERA LYNN:  Just kidding.


LERA LYNN:  My name is Lera Lynn.  And I’m an independent musician.

A lot of people that come into the shows these days have find out about me through “True Detective.”  Thankfully, they have dug a little bit more.  I think that’s the best possible scenario for me.

My family is Texan.  And I think, especially now, I’m really starting to feel the impact of their upbringing on me, because it’s coming out of the music in a big way.  There’s been a lot of country music, a lot of classic rock, even jazz.  My mom loved Joni Mitchell.

There was even, you know, a lot of Van Halen in the house.


"Popular health insurance co-ops ‘orphaned by politics’" PBS NewsHour 12/21/2015

Ah, yes.  Money before people's health (too expensive to pay for).  The God of Money is snickering in the background.


SUMMARY:  As consumers rush to enroll in the insurance exchanges, one change that's complicating signups is that more than half of the state-run health co-ops -- an alternative to private insurers -- were forced to shut down this year.  The government was supposed to offset the costs, but Congress sharply curtailed that money.  Special correspondent Mary Jo Brooks reports on the effects in Colorado.

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  But, first, the demand for health insurance and concerns over choice.

The federal government reported higher demand this year for people trying to enroll on insurance exchanges for coverage.  Six million had signed up by last week for coverage that begins next month.  More than two million of them were new customers.

But, in 11 states, there’s one change that’s complicating the picture this year:  Half of the state-run health co-ops were forced to shut down.

Special correspondent Mary Jo Brooks looks at what happened in Colorado.

MARY JO BROOKS (NewsHour):  It’s been a tough year for 36-year-old Jessica Peck, a Denver attorney and divorced mother of two.  Peck suffers severe vascular and neurological ailments which over the years led to soaring medical bills.

In 2014, she signed up with a brand-new health insurance company called Colorado HealthOP.

WOMAN:  The co-op provides health insurance that is built around all needs.

MARY JO BROOKS:  It was a nonprofit co-op formed under the Affordable Care Act and funded with loans from the federal government.  Peck says she chose it because the price was right.

JESSICA PECK, Colorado HealthOP member:  At least 50 percent in terms of premiums and out-of-pocket co-pays from the year before.

MARY JO BROOKS:  Fifty percent.

JESSICA PECK:  Fifty percent.  So this cost saving was a difference.  When I was at my sickest of being able to pay my bills, to be able to put gas in my car, and at one point having the difference in premiums was probably the only thing that kept me afloat.

MARY JO BROOKS:  At her sickest last year, Peck was forced to have her right leg amputated and was hospitalized for more than 23 days.  Peck is the first to admit that the co-op wasn’t perfect, including some billing errors she is still trying to sort out.  But she was dismayed when she heard the news that the co-op was being shut down.

JESSICA PECK:  Now I have to go back into a marketplace of players that I have worked with before, the big, big guys out there, who hurt me before, who sent me to collections on bills, who denied care that was absolutely 100 percent essential.  And I have to go back into that marketplace and pay twice as much as what I’m paying right now.

Colorado HealthOP was one of 23 co-ops started around the country as a concession to Democrats who wanted the ACA to include an alternative to private insurers.

Michele Lueck heads up the policy research group Colorado Health Institute.

MICHELE LUECK, Colorado Health Institute:  There were a number of politicians and legislators who wanted to have a government choice, something like Medicare that people could opt into.

And when that wasn’t politically feasible, an olive branch essentially that was offered to the left was this idea of creating co-ops, that this would be something that was owned and operated by the people who needed it the most.

PROTECTED - U.S. Law Protects Lions

"How a new U.S. law protects lions in Africa" PBS NewsHour 12/21/2015


SUMMARY:  African lions are getting new protections from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Five months after an American hunter killed an animal named Cecil in Zimbabwe, a new classification will help prohibit imports of lion trophies from Central and West Africa.  Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the change.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Central and West African lions as endangered, generally prohibiting importation of lion trophies from that region into the U.S.  Lions in Southern and Eastern Africa are now classified as threatened, which will allow U.S. trophy imports only under certain conditions.

The move comes five months after an American hunter killed a lion named Cecil outside a national park in Zimbabwe, and almost five years after U.S. conservation groups petitioned for greater protections for lions.

For more, I am joined by Daniel Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And welcome to you.

DANIEL ASHE, Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:  Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Why now?  Is it right to see the killing of Cecil as a kind of game changer that galvanized public attention and now government action?

DANIEL ASHE:  Well, we have been considering the listing of the lion for more than five years.  We were petitioned under the Endangered Species Act, so that’s been our responsibility.

And we proposed listing the lion back in October of 2014, before the controversy over Cecil the lion, but Cecil and that controversy certainly have galvanized public emotions about lions and I think brings us to where we are today.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Advocacy groups have wondered what took so long.

DANIEL ASHE:  Well, we are a scientific organization.  And we’re dealing with what many scientists call the sixth mass extinction.

So we have many, many priorities, a lot of work under the Endangered Species Act.  This is one of those things.  And we have had lots of comment and lots of science to pore through.

Friday, December 25, 2015

AMERICAN HOSTAGES - Compensation...... 36 Years Later

"Americans Held Hostage in Iran Win Compensation 36 Years Later" by DAVID M. HERSZENHORN, New York Times 12/24/2015

After spending 444 days in captivity, and more than 30 years seeking restitution, the Americans taken hostage at the United States Embassy in Tehran in 1979 have finally won compensation.

Buried in the huge spending bill signed into law last Friday are provisions that would give each of the 53 hostages or their estates up to $4.4 million.  Victims of other state-sponsored terrorist attacks such as the 1998 American Embassy bombings in East Africa would also be eligible for benefits under the law.

“I had to pull over to the side of the road, and I basically cried,” said Rodney V. Sickmann, who was a Marine sergeant working as a guard at the embassy in Tehran when he was seized along with the other Americans by a mob that overran the compound on Nov. 4, 1979.  “It has been 36 years, one month, 14 days, obviously, until President Obama signed the actual bill, until Iran was held accountable,” he said.

The law now stands to bring closure to an episode that riveted the nation and ruptured America’s ties with Iran.  The very agreement that won the hostages’ release in 1981 barred them from seeking restitution.  Their legal claims were repeatedly blocked in the courts, including an appeal denied by the Supreme Court.  Congress tried but failed to pass laws granting them relief.

But this year, vindication came in a decision that forced the Paris-based bank BNP Paribas to pay a $9 billion penalty for violating sanctions against Iran, Sudan and Cuba.  Some of that money was suddenly available for victims of state-sponsored terrorism.  Congress was also motivated by many members’ anger over the Iran nuclear accord.

Some of the hostages were subject to physical and psychological torture during their long ordeal, and many regarded the thaw as frustrating and premature.

Like most of the hostages, Mr. Sickmann learned of the imminent legislation in a conference call with their main lawyer, V. Thomas Lankford, on Dec. 16.

“It became clear that we were sort of inextricably linked to the nuclear negotiations,” Mr. Lankford said in an interview.  “Those negotiations resulted in an understanding that an inevitable next step in securing a relationship was to address the reason for the rupture, which was our kidnapping and torture.”

“As valuable as stopping the spread of nuclear arms is,” he added, “it’s equally important to establish the precedent that in one way, shape, form or another, a state sponsor of terrorism will not be permitted to walk away.”

It is not clear whether all the former hostages or their families will receive full payments.  In large measure that is because the $4.4 million total authorized by Congress depends on the outcome of efforts to collect on judgments won in earlier court rulings involving victims of terrorist attacks, as well as on the number of victims who file claims.

The law authorizes payments of up to $10,000 per day of captivity for each of the 53 hostages, 37 of whom are still alive.  Fifty-two hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981; a 53rd hostage had been released earlier because of illness.  Spouses and children are authorized to receive a lump payment of as much as $600,000.

Of the $9 billion penalty paid by BNP Paribas, about $1 billion will be put into a compensation fund for victims of terrorism, with more money and assets potentially added as a result of continuing litigation.  An additional $2.8 billion will aid victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and their family members.

Initial payments are to be disbursed within one year, according to a formula that will be overseen by a special master appointed by the Justice Department and that imposes limits on payments to victims who have won judgments in excess of $20 million.  The initial payments are expected to fall well short of the maximum.

Several of the surviving hostages and their families said that reparations were long overdue.  Many said they felt their ordeal had been long forgotten by the general public until the 2012 movie “Argo,” directed by Ben Affleck, which focused on six people who managed to escape from the besieged embassy and take refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor.

Some of the hostages also said the compensation award would serve as a reminder of the perils still faced by United States diplomatic personnel working in dangerous locations overseas, such as the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in 2012.

For years, the hostages pushed for relief from Congress.

“Time and time again, we thought we’d get a bill,” said David M. Roeder, a retired Air Force colonel who was an attaché at the embassy in Tehran when he was taken hostage.  “We were pushing toward the goal line, and our portion would get stripped out.”

Mr. Roeder called the experience “the epitome of the roller coaster ride.”  He added, “We were sent into harm’s way by our government and then nobody seemed to want to do anything about it.”

Over the years, the former hostages had numerous champions in Congress.  In recent years, some of their strongest advocates included the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada; Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia; Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut; Representative Sean Duffy, Republican of Wisconsin; and Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia.  All had pushed for stand-alone legislation to compensate the ex-hostages.

In a statement, Mr. Reid said that the action by Congress was long overdue.  “These Americans, held hostage for 444 days in 1979, deserved to finally be compensated for the horrors that they and their families have survived,” he said.

Mr. Sickmann said that he would have preferred that Iran pay compensation directly, as Libya did for victims of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, but that he did not expect an apology from Iran.  “I don’t believe that they will ever, ever apologize,” he said.  “They don’t believe that they did anything wrong.”

Some former hostages and their family members had expressed frustration at the Justice and State Departments for blocking efforts over the years to get compensation.  In a sense, the spending bill represents Congress’s taking control of the BNP Paribas money back from the Justice Department.

Some hostages did not want to discuss the legislation.  “It’s enough,” said Barry Rosen, who was a press attaché at the embassy.  “We’ve gone through enough.”

Thursday, December 24, 2015

GUNS - Determining "Who's Who in the Zoo" is HARD

Over the past several years, Gabby and I have had the privilege of becoming close friends with Jimmy Hatch, a man who bravely served our country as a Navy SEAL.  Jimmy's heroic service gave him a unique understanding of just how difficult it is to be the "good guy with a gun" once a firefight begins.  He shared his perspective in a USA Today op-ed last week and his message was so important that we wanted to make sure you had the chance to read it.  I think you'll find it as powerful as Gabby and I did.

After the slaughter of 14 Americans in San Bernardino, Calif., when two people armed with high-powered rifles and handguns ambushed unsuspecting Americans in a conference room, United States senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz held a press conference to issue a familiar refrain we hear after every major gun tragedy:

If only there had been a "good guy" with a gun there.  Or, as Sen. Cruz put it:

"You stop bad guys by using our guns."

We heard the same call after the recent tragedy at a medical clinic in Colorado Springs, and after attacks in Paris, where 129 people were murdered in a theater by terrorists armed with guns and explosives.  That's when former presidential candidate and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich took to Twitter to issue his call to arms:

"Imagine a theater with 10 or 15 citizens with concealed carry permits."

I know that the political advocates for this "good guy with a gun" mantra like Sen. Cruz and many of the other politicians and lobbyists think that this is a politically expedient catch-phrase to support their own interests.

I doubt career politicians like Sen. Cruz and the rest of the Washington operators have had much experience with gunfights.

In my experience, being the good guy when the bullets start flying is very difficult.

I say that as someone who spent 25 years serving our military.  For many of those 25 years, I was a member of a Special Missions Unit.

I've been in dark rooms with "good-guys and bad guys" going at it with guns, and let me tell you something:

Gunfights are crazy.

Gunfights are hard.

On my final combat mission, I was shot in the leg with an AK-47 from about 30 feet away and it blew my femur in half.

I hope that was my last gunfight.

Here at home, there are almost 13 million Americans who have a license to carry a concealed weapon.  The vast majority of them are responsible, law-abiding and good-hearted people.  Many of them want to be prepared to be the good guy, to do the right thing and to save lives.

I hope they never have to face being the target of a dangerous person with a gun.  Because it's hard to make the right decisions.

There are groups of individuals, like me and my fellow Special Operators, both military and law enforcement, who train for years to be good at close quarters shooting; shooting with discernment, keeping your head clear and making snap decisions before you pull the trigger -- all while being shot at by the enemy.

And after dedicating their lives to being good operators in those extreme circumstances, even those professionals make mistakes.

Then consider that people like us trained for firefights for years, and that in many states there is virtually no training required for someone to legally carry a loaded, hidden gun.

So think about 10 or 15 people, who are weekend shooters with limited tactical training, deciding to shoot it out with a criminal in a crowded office holiday party, a medical clinic or a darkened theater, while people are screaming and running, and no one knows who or how many of the people shooting are the "good guys" and how many of them are the "bad guys."

In some cases, can a "good guy" with a gun neutralize the threat and help save lives?  Absolutely.  But it doesn't happen very often.  It is, for the most part, a myth perpetuated by people who've never been shot at.

I am a proud Navy combat veteran.  I risked and nearly gave my life in dozens of combat situations in defense of our Constitution.  I value the Second Amendment and the right of responsible Americans to own guns for self-defense.

But people need to know that it is a fallacy to believe that the everyday gun owner can be expected to make all the right choices in a dangerous, fast-moving situation like a mass shooting with high-powered weapons.

When the bullets are flying, determining "who's who in the zoo" is hard.

If the scenario that Sen. Cruz envisions were to ever unfold, we'd have a lot more dead innocents.  And it would probably include some of the "good guys."

Thank you for reading Jimmy's message.  It's important.

Mark Kelly
Americans for Responsible Solutions

Monday, December 21, 2015

OPINION - Shields and Brooks 12/18/2015

"Shields and Brooks on Obama’s year-end assessment, candidates’ tough talk on terror" PBS NewsHour 12/18/2015


SUMMARY:  Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including President Obama’s year-end news conference, how presidential candidates of both parties are fielding issues of national security and the breach of a DNC voter database by the Bernie Sanders campaign.

PRESIDENT OBAMA - Year-End News Conference

"Looking on to 2016, Obama makes fighting terror a priority for final year" PBS NewsHour 12/18/2015


SUMMARY:  In his year-end news conference, President Obama promised to target terror at home and abroad during his final year in office.  But he also made an upbeat assessment, claiming successes on job growth and health care coverage signups, and praising Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for his work crafting the 2016 budget compromise.  Judy Woodruff reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  Back now to President Obama’s final news conference of 2015.  Today’s session in the White House briefing room was a combination year-in-review and year-to-come.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  As I look back on this year, the one thing I see is that so much of our steady, persistent work over the years is paying off for the American people in big, tangible ways.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  It was an upbeat assessment from a President soon to enter his final year in office.  He claimed a list of successes — among them, job growth and a surge of sign-ups for health care coverage — and he promised more to come.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  For all the very real progress America’s made over the past seven years, we still have some unfinished business.  And I plan on doing everything I can with every minute of every day that I have left as President, to deliver on behalf of the American people.  Since taking this office, I have never been more optimistic about a year ahead than I am right now.  And in 2016, I’m going to leave it out all on the field.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  At the same time, Mr. Obama acknowledged the growing challenge of confronting terrorism at home and abroad, after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

Even so, he vowed to defeat the Islamic State group.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:  And we’re going to do so by systematically squeezing them, cutting off their supply lines, cutting off their financing, taking out their leadership, taking out their forces, taking out their infrastructure.

Now, in order for us to stamp them out thoroughly, we have to eliminate lawless areas in which they cannot still roam.  So, we can disable them, we can dismantle much of their infrastructure and greatly reduce the threat that they pose to the United States our allies and our neighbors.  Our long term goal has to be to stabilize areas so that they don’t have any safe haven.  And in order for us to do that in Syria, there has to be an end to the civil war.

Watch President Obama's year-end news conference, full 50:53

ARTS - Downton Abby

Note that I am a fan.

"One last visit to Downton Abbey before fans say goodbye" PBS NewsHour 12/18/2015


SUMMARY:  For the past five years, the Crawley family and their household of servants have entertained audiences with comedic one-liners from the Dowager Countess and dramatic calamity befalling nearly every character.  Now the top-rated PBS drama of all time is drawing to a close.  Judy Woodruff talks with creator Julian Fellowes, actress Elizabeth McGovern and others about the show.

JUDY WOODRUFF (NewsHour):  The blockbuster successful British TV series, “Downton Abbey” begins its sixth and final season here on PBS (Masterpiece) next month.  We got an inside look at the show, its creator and explore why so many Americans love it.

The music is instantly recognizable, as is the tail — that’s Isis, the dog — both part of the opening credits to the blockbuster British television drama, “Downton Abbey.”  For the past five years, the Crawley family and their servants have entertained us, and in January, the drama begins its sixth and final season on PBS.

The last chance for a few more one-liners from the dowager countess of Grantham, played exquisitely by Dame Maggie Smith.

And surely, one final calamity to beset lady’s maid Anna and her butler husband Bates.

The mastermind of this runaway success is Sir Julian Fellowes; also an actor, film director, and, in his spare time, a conservative member of Britain’s House of Lords.

So, “Downton Abbey” coming to an end, is this — are you saying goodbye to a dear friend?  Or is it just — have you already moved on?

JULIAN FELLOWES, Creator:  No, I wouldn’t say I have moved on.  I mean, “Downton” has been an extraordinary milestone.  You’ve spent a lot of time in this industry, working very hard on things that don’t do terribly well, the public doesn’t get them or whatever, and then you suddenly ring the bell.  It’s been fantastic.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Fantastic beyond belief, becoming the top-rated PBS drama of all time.

Globally, “Downton” airs in over 220 countries with a worldwide audience of 120 million people.

JULIAN FELLOWES:  I never think it’s a good idea to outstay your welcome.  And it seems right to leave, so, I don’t think we’re doing the wrong thing, but it’s been a happy time.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  A happy time with roots in a book by American historian Carol Wallace, author of “To Marry an English Lord,” Sir Julian’s inspiration for the series.

PIC OF THE DAY - Cat Stack

aka "Do I Really Have to Put Up With This?"

BRIEF BUT SPECTACULAR - Music Duo Pomplamoose

"Music duo Pomplamoose take Do-It-Yourself to the next level" PBS NewsHour 12/17/2015


SUMMARY:  Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn, who make up the musical duo Pomplamoose, explain in this Brief But Spectacular take how they harness their fans' internet curiosity with their covers of Beyonce hits and behind-the-scenes videos.

Walking On Sunshine

MOVIES - Our Star Wars Obsession

Help.  Is there a "Star Wars Anonymous" group out there?  I'm getting the shakes and shortness of breath.

"How a galaxy far, far away became an obsession on planet Earth" PBS NewsHour 12/17/2015


SUMMARY:  "Star Wars:  The Force Awakens" isn't just a movie.  It's part of a universe, both imaginary and real, that has obsessed fans since the 1970s.  Jeffrey Brown explores what’s made the enduring franchise a storytelling and moneymaking powerhouse.

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  We could say the force has reawakened.  But for its fervent fans, and they are legion, it’s barely taken a nap, not since the late 1970s.

They were out in force at the frenzied, glittery, weird and wild Los Angeles premier earlier this week.

CHARACTER:  Nothing will stand in our way.

JEFFREY BROWN:  To see the start of a new trilogy for a series, franchise, a universe that can seemingly go on forever.

In his article, “The force will be with us always”, Adam Rogers of “Wired Magazine” refers to “Star Wars” as an example of a paracosm.

ADAM ROGERS, Articles Editor, Wired Magazine:  A paracosm is in psychology terms, an imaginary world.  In the case of the “Star Wars” movie, you can have a year zero and go forward and back and just set stories in the paracosm and people are familiar, oh it is a “Star Wars” story.  These universes are designed to not end and not even begin.  They can stretch 10,000 in either direction, “Star Wars” especially.

MAN:  An adventure unlike anything on your planet.

JEFFREY BROWN:  It all back in 1977.

Filmmaker George Lucas brought out the first “Star Wars,” introducing the world of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Hans Solo; and a host of other characters, human and decidedly not so.

C3PO:  I am C-3PO, a human cyborg relations.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Its enormous success, as Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday says, came as a surprise.

ANN HORNADAY, Film Critic, The Washington Post:  They didn’t think it would do much.  Nobody thought it would do much.

Boy, am I glad 'they' were wrong.

REFUGEES - Given Voice

"Humans of New York gives U.S.-bound refugees a voice" PBS NewsHour 12/16/2015


SUMMARY:  Brandon Stanton stops random people on the street, takes their photo and learns what about their personal stories makes them unique.  He's the photographer behind Humans of New York, a blog and social media feeds seen by millions.  Lately Stanton has traveled to Turkey and Jordan to visit refugees and share their accounts with his international audience.  Hari Sreenivasan reports.

BRANDON STANTON, Humans of New York:  My name is Brandon Stanton.  I run the Web site Humans of New York.  And I stop random people on the streets of New York City, and I learn their stories.

HARI SREENIVASAN (NewsHour):  In five years, Brandon Stanton has learned and shared the stories of thousands of people.

So, how often do you shoot?  Every day?

BRANDON STANTON:  Every day, yes.  I got to keep the blog going.  If I ever — if I stop shooting, the blog stops.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  The blog doesn’t stop.

Sixteen million people see his portraits and the captions that go with them on Facebook.  Another 4.4 million follow along on Instagram.

BRANDON STANTON:  I’m never really looking for the thing that makes somebody the same as everybody else, because I have interviewed 10,000 people.


BRANDON STANTON:  So, in order to keep my blog interesting, I need to find something different about that person than about the other 10,000 people I have interviewed.

MUSIC - Where Bach Meets Hip-hop

"Black Violin wants to break your classical music stereotypes" PBS NewsHour 12/16/2015


SUMMARY:  The members of Black Violin want to change perceptions about who can play what kind of music.  Wil Baptiste on viola and Kev Marcus on violin met as high school orchestra nerds.  Today they play genre-bending music, blending classical music with hip-hop.  Jeffrey Brown talks to them about their new album, “Stereotypes.”

JEFFREY BROWN (NewsHour):  Wil Baptiste and Kev Marcus, members of Black Violin, two former high school orchestra nerds.  That’s how they met.  But, also, by their own description, two 6’2” black men who are eager to change perceptions about who plays what when it comes to music.

Their new album is titled “Stereotypes.”

WIL BAPTISTE, Black Violin:  I think that’s probably the main agenda, right?  You think of…

JEFFREY BROWN:  You use the word agenda?

WIL BAPTISTE:  Yes, I think so.

If you look at us, we don’t look like your typical violinists.  We talk to the kids all the time, and the kids love us just because we can relate to them, so to speak.  And that’s what it’s all about, breaking stereotypes.

KEV MARCUS, Black Violin:  I look like I should be a linebacker, but to be a violinist, when I realized that, I was just, like, I love it.  I’m drawn to it.  It’s the thing that — that’s why I wake up in the morning, is to take the violin and kind of change people’s perceptions about it.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Blending classical music with hip-hop, traditional instruments, Marcus on violin, Baptiste on viola, with contemporary backup, Black Violin is reaching audiences around the country.

We met them recently at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly, Maryland.  They have played the Apollo Theater in Harlem.  They met with American troops in Iraq, and have opened for top pop stars, including Alicia Keys.

It all began in an ordinary, even accidental, way at Dillard High School for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

IN YOUR WALLET - The FED Interest Hike

"What the Fed’s interest rate hike means for your wallet" PBS NewsHour 12/15/2015


SUMMARY:  The Federal Reserve is doing something it hasn't done since 2006, raising interest rates.  The long-awaited announcement by Fed chair Janet Yellen hikes a key short-term rate from near zero.  For a closer look at how the Fed made its decision, Gwen Ifill talks with David Wessel of the Brookings Institution and Tara Siegel Bernard of The New York Times.

GWEN IFILL (NewsHour):  Now, up it finally went.  The long-awaited and long-predicted interest rate hike was announced today by the Federal Reserve.

This afternoon in Washington, Fed Chair Janet Yellen explained economic conditions were ripe for the increase.

JANET YELLEN, Chair, Federal Reserve Chair:  The underlying health of the U.S. economy, I consider to be quite sound.  I think it’s a myth that expansions die of old age.  I do not think that they die of old age.  So, the fact that this has been quite a long expansion doesn’t lead me to believe that its one that has — its days are numbered.

GWEN IFILL:  For a closer look at today’s rate hike, both in terms of how the Fed makes its decisions and what this move might mean for your average household budget, we turn to David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at The Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research center, and contributing correspondent to The Wall Street Journal; and Tara Siegel Bernard, personal finance reporter at The New York Times.

David, welcome.

So, tell me.  We have been talking about this for a long time.  And as you just heard her talk about the long expansion, what took so long for them to finally make such an incremental move?

DAVID WESSEL, Brookkings Institution:  You sound impatient, Gwen.


GWEN IFILL:  Well, I think that the Fed has figured that interest rates needed to be low for a very long time because the economy was very slow to recover from a devastating recession, and because part of their strategy is to get inflation to a 2 percent target.  And they’re still not there.

So there was no reason to rush.  And now they have decided the economy is healthy enough for them to just to begin to lift their foot gradually off the accelerator.