We help others only if it helps us

Via here, let’s see how well the US helps farmers in Afghanistan:

The Soybeans for Agricultural Renewal in Afghanistan Initiative (SARAI) was a project pitched and run by the the American Soybean Association with USDA funding. What Sopko found during a March visit to Afghanistan was enough to give him serious pause. “I understand that Afghanistan’s operating environment poses daunting challenges for reconstruction and development programs, and that any project in the country is bound to meet its fair share of difficulties,” Sopko wrote in a June letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “However, what is troubling about this particular project is that it appears that many of these problems could reasonably have been foreseen and, therefore, possibly avoided.”

Those problems appear to be legion, according to the letter to Vilsack. Among the most troubling is the fact that long before the SARAI project began in 2010, evidence existed that the crop would fail in the area where planting was set occur. “Scientific research conducted for the UK Department for International Development between 2005 and 2008 concluded that soybeans were inappropriate for conditions and farming practices in northern Afghanistan, where the program was implemented,” Sopko wrote.

but it got some money to US farmers so it’s all good. This, of course, is not a one-time thing:

Harris listed the income farmers made on a hectare of land from different crops, after the costs of seed, fertilizer, labor, and taxes were subtracted. Poppy, of course, was the most lucrative. But the closest competitor was a surprise to everyone in the room. It was cotton.

A USAID representative at the meeting reported Harris’s comments to agency officials. An hour later, AID sent an e-mail to Newman asserting that cotton was not a viable substitute for poppy because a government-run cotton gin in the nearby city of Lashkar Gah had lost $3 million in 2008.

Harris soon spotted the problem: In converting expenses per kilogram to pounds, Donohoe had multiplied by 2.2 instead of dividing. And then Harris found another error: Donohoe had based his calculations on the world price for ginned lint cotton, not unginned seed cotton, which was how the gin compensated farmers — a mistake that had inflated costs by a factor of three.

Finally AID raised the Bumpers Amendment, a law that forbids the use of U.S. funds to help foreign cotton producers. (It was designed to protect King Cotton.) Once again Harris had a rejoinder. The amendment, he insisted, prohibits only activities that impact American exporters.

“You cannot tell me that Afghan cotton is going to have any significant impact on U.S. exports,” he argued.

The one organization that had money for such projects was USAID. A million dollars was a rounding error in the overall USAID budget. But by then Harris knew there was no way the agency would help the gin.

“Everything was there to make it work except for a basic understanding of agriculture by AID’s supposed experts,” he grumbled upon his return to Georgia. “They cost us a huge opportunity.”

This sounds crazy–Afghanis knew about growing cotton, it worked well in Afghanistan, it was a product in demand, and wouldn’t have needed large subsidies–until you notice that no one in the US was going to make any money out of it. Then it makes sense. I’ve talked about this before, the only reason many people in the US support international aid is because they can make money off it. This is just another example.

NGC 1433

Lazy. Picture (Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgements: D. Calzetti (UMass) and the LEGUS Team):

A galaxy with a glowing heart

And …

There’s a bit of a puff piece on Detroit in the Boston Globe today:

Detroit neighborhoods are being relit, its vacant homes are being sold off or torn down, its public transportation is cleaner and more often on schedule, and the city has renegotiated some burdensome union contracts.

In the little more than a year since state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr made Detroit the largest US city to seek bankruptcy protection, it has experienced a wide range of improvements that will factor into Judge Steven Rhodes’s decisions during next month’s bankruptcy trial.

Since then, the city has installed at least 10,000 new streetlights. It is also going after absentee landlords, threatening to take and sell or demolish vacant houses that violate city codes. Eight houses awarded to the city’s Land Bank are being put up for auction. Belle Isle, the city’s most popular public park, has been put under state control and received a much-needed cleaning.

There are a few things here: first cutting people salaries and benefits is presented as a good thing; second, something is being left out. Now what was it, oh yes:

On Friday in Detroit, hundreds of local residents and activists — and, somewhat inexplicably, Mark Ruffalo — gathered to protest what has become an only-in-Detroit kind of crisis: The city’s water utility has been shutting off service to thousands of homes, many with the elderly, the poor and children inside.

This actually sounds like it’s more complicated than it appears, but if you’re going to do a story on how Detroit is doing it seems that you should probably include that thousands of people are now going without water.


This would make me very happy:

Governor Deval Patrick on Wednesday said he wanted to find a way for Massachusetts to help alleviate the crisis of children seeking to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, avoiding the type of feud with the White House into which other governors have been drawn, and invoking powerful imagery as his motivation.

This makes me sad:

Some of the opposition has also bordered on the extreme. A few of the protesters who marched against a proposed shelter in Vassar, Mich., on Monday were armed with semiautomatic rifles and handguns. In Virginia, an effort to house the children at the shuttered campus of Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville caused such an uproar that federal officials pulled out, even though a five-month lease had been signed. Someone spray-painted anti-immigrant graffiti on a brick wall at a former Army Reserve facility in Westminster, Md., that was being considered as a shelter site.

By the way, this guy needs a dictionary:

“I do have empathy for these kids, but I also don’t want to send the signal, ‘Send your kids to America illegally’ — that’s not the right message,” Mr. Branstad told reporters Monday, adding: “Just because we’re an empathetic and supportive country doesn’t mean that we can take everybody.”

He would rather the kids die than send the ‘wrong’ message, somehow I don’t think what he’s feeling is empathy.

Some people really don’t care about the kids (from here), any kids:

Republican congressional candidate and state legislator Adam Kwasman had just raced up to Phoenix Tuesday morning from the Oracle protest over the expected arrival of dozens of migrant children at a shelter.

He had tweeted from the scene, “Bus coming in. This is not compassion. This is the abrogation of the rule of law.” He included a photo of the back of a yellow school bus.

But there was a problem with Kwasman’s story: There was no fear on their faces. Those weren’t the migrant children in the school bus. Those were children from the Marana school district. They were heading to the YMCA’s Triangle Y Camp, not far from the Rite of Passage shelter for the migrants, at the base of Mt. Lemmon.

Luckily the bus didn’t stop or I’m sure Mr. Kwasman and many other protestors would have been yelling at them to go home.

For some perspective, this is what the children are trying to get away from:

Carlos Baquedano Sánchez, a slender 14-year-old with hair sticking straight up, explained how hard it was to stay away from the cartels.He lives in a shack made of corrugated tin in a neighborhood in Nueva Suyapa called El Infiernito — Little Hell — and usually doesn’t have anything to eat one out of every three days. He started working in a dump when he was 7, picking out iron or copper to recycle, for $1 or $2 a day. But bigger boys often beat him to steal his haul, and he quit a year ago when an older man nearly killed him for a coveted car-engine piston. Now he sells scrap wood.

But all of this was nothing, he says, compared to the relentless pressure to join narco gangs and the constant danger they have brought to his life. When he was 9, he barely escaped from two narcos who were trying to rape him, while terrified neighbors looked on. When he was 10, he was pressured to try marijuana and crack. “You’ll feel better. Like you are in the clouds,” a teenager working with a gang told him. But he resisted.

He has known eight people who were murdered and seen three killed right in front of him. He saw a man shot three years ago and still remembers the plums the man was holding rolling down the street, coated in blood. Recently he witnessed two teenage hit men shooting a pair of brothers for refusing to hand over the keys and title to their motorcycle. Carlos hit the dirt and prayed. The killers calmly walked down the street. Carlos shrugs. “Now seeing someone dead is nothing.”

more perspective (the drugs, by the way, are mostly for the US):

The drugs that pass through Honduras each year are worth more than the country’s entire gross domestic product. Narcos have bought off police officers, politicians and judges. In recent years, four out of five homicides were never investigated. No one is immune to the carnage. Several Honduran mayors have been killed. The sons of both the former head of the police department and the head of the national university were murdered, the latter, an investigation showed, by the police.

Even more perspective:

Countries neighboring Syria have absorbed nearly 3 million people. Jordan has accepted in two days what the United States has received in an entire month during the height of this immigration flow — more than 9,000 children in May.


They aren’t just going to the United States: Less conflicted countries in Central America had a 712 percent increase in asylum claims between 2008 and 2013.

This is a good rundown of what’s going on.

The IRS and the deficit

This is part of the Republican math:

The House late Monday night adopted proposals by voice vote to cut funding for the Internal Revenue Service.

Rep. Paul Gosar’s (R-Ariz.) amendment to the fiscal 2015 Financial Services appropriations bill would cut funding for the IRS by $353 million. Specifically, Gosar’s amendment would cut that funding from the IRS enforcement account and use it toward deficit reduction.

Gosar argued that funding for the IRS would be better used toward reducing the deficit than toward the agency caught in GOP crosshairs.

That wasn’t enough for Republicans:

“The use of a government agency to harass, target, intimidate and threaten lawful, honest citizens was the worst form of authoritarianism,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., author of an amendment to cut the IRS tax enforcement budget by $353 million. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., followed up with an amendment to cut $788 million more. The underlying bill already contained a $72 million cut from last year’s $5 billion enforcement budget, bringing the total cut to $1.2 billion.

The problem for Gosar’s argument is that reducing the IRS budget will increase the deficit.

Kevin Drum notes this is a replay of the IRS scandal in the 1990s and really Republicans just want to cut the enforcement budget so the rich will get audited less.

Let them die

We have become a country without empathy. When President Obama asks for a bunch of money to deport children quicker, Republicans complain that he isn’t doing enough:

The president said he needed the money to set up new detention facilities, conduct more aerial surveillance, and hire immigration judges and Border Patrol agents to respond to the flood of 52,000 children. Their sudden mass migration has overwhelmed local resources and touched off protests from residents angry about the impact on the local economy. In a letter to congressional leaders, Obama urged them to “act expeditiously” on his request.

Republican lawmakers who have long demanded tougher enforcement of immigration laws along the border expressed cautious support Tuesday for beefing up the federal presence in the Rio Grande Valley, where most of the children have been crossing into the United States.

But many Republicans, especially in the House, remain deeply suspicious of the president’s commitment, a mistrust that led to a stalemate on a broader immigration overhaul and now threatens to at least delay speedy passage of Obama’s $3.7 billion spending request.

Here’s the background of these children:

Central America’s Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras has become one of the most violent regions on earth in recent years, with swaths of all three countries under the control of drug traffickers and street gangs who rob, rape, and extort ordinary citizens with impunity.

Honduras, a primary transit point for US-bound cocaine, has the world’s highest homicide rate for a nation that is not at war. Hondurans who are used to hiding indoors at night have been terrorized anew in recent months by a wave of attacks against churches, schools, and buses.

In El Salvador, at least 135,000 people, or 2.1 percent of the population, have been forced to leave their homes, the vast majority due to gang extortion and violence, according to UN figures.

But it’s not like it’s our fault, right?

Violence by criminal organizations spread after members of California street gangs were deported to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where they overwhelmed weak and corrupt police forces.

Ah hell, who cares. We’ve been ignoring Central America for years (except for all the coups and civil wars we’ve backed).

We are indeed the nation that turned back a ship of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany (but it’s not so bad, only a quarter of them died in concentration camps).

Our forefathers

This is an interesting piece about originalism and the Constitution:

Precisely what the founders believed about God, Jesus, sin, the Bible, churches and hell is probably impossible to discover. They changed their minds and gave different accounts to different people: Franklin said one thing to his sister, Jane, and another thing to David Hume; Washington prayed with his troops, but, while he lay slowly dying, he declined to call for a preacher. This can make them look like hypocrites, but that’s unfair, as are a great many attacks on these men. They approached religion more or less the same way they approached everything else that interested them: Franklin invented his own, Washington proved diplomatic, Adams grumbled about it (he hated Christianity, he once said, but he couldn’t think of anything better, and he also regarded it as necessary), Jefferson could not stop tinkering with it, and Madison defended, as a natural right, the free exercise of it. That they wanted to preserve religious liberty by separating church and state does not mean they were irreligious. They wanted to protect religion from the state, as much as the other way around.

Nevertheless, if the founders had followed their forefathers, they would have written a Constitution establishing Christianity as the national religion. Nearly every British North American colony was settled with an established religion; Connecticut’s 1639 charter explained that the whole purpose of government was “to mayntayne and presearve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” In the century and a half between the Connecticut charter and the 1787 meeting of the Constitutional Convention lies an entire revolution, not just a political revolution but also a religious revolution. Following the faith of their fathers is exactly what the framers did not do. At a time when all but two states required religious tests for office, the Constitution prohibited them. At a time when all but three states still had an official religion, the Bill of Rights forbade the federal government from establishing one. Originalism in the courts is controversial, to say the least. Jurisprudence stands on precedent, on the stability of the laws, but originalism is hardly the only way to abide by the Constitution. Setting aside the question of whether it makes good law, it is, generally, lousy history. And it has long since reached well beyond the courts. Set loose in the culture, and tangled together with fanaticism, originalism looks like history, but it’s not; it’s historical fundamentalism, which is to history what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry, what creationism is to evolution.

It has some very nice quotes:

In 1987, contemplating the bicentennial of the Constitution, Marshall took a skeptical view.

The focus of this celebration invites a complacent belief that the vision of those who debated and compromised in Philadelphia yielded the “more perfect Union” it is said we now enjoy. I cannot accept this invitation, for I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever “fixed” at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and major social transformations to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for the freedoms and individual rights, we hold as fundamental today.


Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human.” And in Federalist 14, James Madison wondered if it was “not the glory of the people of America, that… they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons or their own experience?”

George Washington said something very similar:

The warmest friends to and the best supporters of the Constitution, do not contend that it is free from imperfections; but these were not to be avoided, and they are convinced if evils are likely to flow from them, that the remedy must come thereafter; because, in the present moment it is not to be obtained. And as there is a Constitutional door open for it, I think the people (for it is with them to judge) can, as they will have the aid of experience on their side, decide with as much propriety on the alterations and amendments wch shall be found necessary, as ourselves; for I do not conceive that we are more inspired—have more wisdem—or possess more virtue than those who will come after us. The power under the Constitution will always be with the people.

The fetishizing of the Constitution and the founding fathers is beyond weird given what they said:  the Constitution was a compromise that satisfied no one completely so it was made to be changed; the founding fathers thought that part of the point of the new nation was that it was ruled by the people–it was one of the great breaks from history, where the rulers were often thought as divine.

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