Category Archives: International Politic

China sparks human rights outcry by ramping up DNA testing in Muslim-dominated region

Thanks;Matthew Brown 

Published ; Wednesday 17 May 2017 07:34 
Police in Xinjiang purchase $8.7m of equipment to analyse genetic material from citizens, prompting fears of state security crackdown

Ethnic Uighurs sit near a statue of China’s late Chairman Mao Zedong in Kashgar, Xinjiang Thomas Peter/Reuters 

China appears to be laying the groundwork for the mass collection of DNA samples from residents of a restive, largely Muslim region that’s been under a security crackdown, rights observers and independent experts said Tuesday.

Police in western China’s Xinjiang region confirmed to The Associated Press that they are in the process of purchasing at least $8.7 million in equipment to analyse DNA samples.
Observers from Human Rights Watch said they’ve seen evidence of almost $3 million in additional purchases related to DNA testing. They warned such a collection programme could be used as a way for authorities to beef up their political control.
The move comes after Chinese authorities last year reportedly required Xinjiang residents to submit DNA samples, fingerprints and voice records to obtain passports or travel abroad.

Xinjiang borders several unstable Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan. It’s experienced numerous bombings and vehicle and knife attacks blamed on ethnic separatists from the native Uighur Islamic minority.

In one of the most recent attacks, eight people, including three assailants, were killed in a February knife attack in southern Xinjiang’s Pishan County, which borders Pakistan.

Chinese authorities seeking to counter religious extremism among the Uighurs have taken increasingly aggressive steps to quell the unrest. Those have included mandatory satellite tracking systems for vehicles in some areas, rewards for terror-related tips and prohibitions against women wearing veils and men growing beards.

The purchases of DNA testing equipment in Xinjiang were confirmed by an official at the regional Public Security Bureau. The official, who gave only her surname, Huang, said a supplier already had been found. In Xinjiang’s Sheche County, suppliers were being sought for voiceprint collection systems and 3-D portrait systems, according to a security official surnamed Yin, who declined to give further details.
If used at full capacity, the new equipment could be used to profile up to 10,000 DNA samples a day and several million a year, said Yves Moreau, a computational biologist specialising in genome analysis and DNA privacy at the University of Leuven in Belgium.
The scale of the purchases raises “a legitimate concern that Chinese authorities could be planning to DNA profile a large fraction, or even all” of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, Moreau said.

Brexit is killing the pound but it’s having a really productive side-effect on Britain’s economy

Thanks;Lianna 


Brexit is having a seriously positive impact on employment.

LONDON – The pound has cratered against the US dollar ever since Britain voted to leave the European Union on June 23 last year.

But while that has a negative effect on Brits’ purchasing power, it is actually having a seriously positive impact on another sector in Britain’s economy – employment.

That is according to Sam Bowman, the executive director of one of the world’s prominent think tanks, the Adam Smith Institute, who spoke at a local Conservative party conference in East Croydon, which Business Insider attended on Saturday.
He was talking about how Brexit is expected to affect the UK economy over the short and long term and looked at both positive and negative impacts from Britain planning to leave the European Union.
“Probably many people in this room are like me – frustrated by the tone of the Brexit debate, even eight or nine months after the referendum,” said Bowman.

“It feels like the referendum debate has never ended. On one side we have around 10% some extremely die-hard leavers, who refuse to accept there could be any difficulty on leaving the European Union. And then there is 10% extremely die-hard remainers who refuse to admit there would be any benefits from leaving the European Union.
“In the middle, I think, is the rest of us – 80% who accept the result and want to make Brexit work but also want to acknowledge that it is not necessarily going to be an easy ride.”
He also talked about how Brexit has already had an impact on the UK economy. But it is not all bad. Bowman said he is a “short term pessimist but a long term optimist about Brexit.”
Here is an excerpt from his speech:

“I think employment is likely to be quite strong. It is unlikely that [Brexit] will cause any large scale unemployment. even in a very, very pessimistic outcome – the reason for that being the pound has absorbed most of the costs, meaning that we effectively have real term wage cuts and our purchasing power falls but people become more employable as a result. So there are good and bad [aspects] to the fall in the pound.”
The pound against the US dollar tanked in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum vote. While it has recently gained a little bit of ground to reach $1.28, it is still a far cry from the $1.50 last seen in June last year:

Markets Insider

UK flag glasses

Brexit is having a seriously positive impact on employment.Reuters

LONDON – The pound has cratered against the US dollar ever since Britain voted to leave the European Union on June 23 last year.

But while that has a negative effect on Brits’ purchasing power, it is actually having a seriously positive impact on another sector in Britain’s economy – employment.
That is according to Sam Bowman, the executive director of one of the world’s prominent think tanks, the Adam Smith Institute, who spoke at a local Conservative party conference in East Croydon, which Business Insider attended on Saturday.
He was talking about how Brexit is expected to affect the UK economy over the short and long term and looked at both positive and negative impacts from Britain planning to leave the European Union.
“Probably many people in this room are like me – frustrated by the tone of the Brexit debate, even eight or nine months after the referendum,” said Bowman.
“It feels like the referendum debate has never ended. On one side we have around 10% some extremely die-hard leavers, who refuse to accept there could be any difficulty on leaving the European Union. And then there is 10% extremely die-hard remainers who refuse to admit there would be any benefits from leaving the European Union.
“In the middle, I think, is the rest of us – 80% who accept the result and want to make Brexit work but also want to acknowledge that it is not necessarily going to be an easy ride.”

He also talked about how Brexit has already had an impact on the UK economy. But it is not all bad. Bowman said he is a “short term pessimist but a long term optimist about Brexit.”

Here is an excerpt from his speech:

“I think employment is likely to be quite strong. It is unlikely that [Brexit] will cause any large scale unemployment. even in a very, very pessimistic outcome – the reason for that being the pound has absorbed most of the costs, meaning that we effectively have real term wage cuts and our purchasing power falls but people become more employable as a result. So there are good and bad [aspects] to the fall in the pound.”

The pound against the US dollar tanked in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum vote. While it has recently gained a little bit of ground to reach $1.28, it is still a far cry from the $1.50 last seen in June last year:

sterlingUSD1

Markets Insider

Since the Brexit vote, various economists and financial institutions predicted that the UK’s unemployment rate will shoot up as a result of the vote to leave. Credit Suisse, for example, predicts an increase to 6.5% for the base rate, equivalent to roughly 500,000 jobs being lost. However, the last few months have seen the rate remain near its record low and Wednesday’s figures show the trend appears to be holding up.

Unemployment in the UK fell once again in March, according to the latest data released by the Office for National Statistics on Wednesday.

Headline unemployment fell was 4.7% in the month while employment remained unchanged at 74.6% in the month, equalling a record high set in both January and February, but not seen before that since records began in 1971.

However, wage growth is still poor.

Dozens dead after Coptic Christian churches in Egypt are hit by Palm Sunday blasts

Thanks;Dahlia Kholaif

Published: Apr 9, 2017 9:33 a.m. ET

At least 36 killed in attacks on churches in Tanta and Alexandria

A relative of one of the victims weeps outside church in Tanta, Egypt.

CAIRO—Twin blasts struck Coptic churches in Egypt as worshipers gathered for Palm Sunday services, killing at least 36 people, as violence escalates against the country’s Christian population.

Security officials said an unknown assailant planted a bomb under a seat in the main hall of the Mar Girgis Church in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, some 60 miles north of Cairo, in the morning.

The ensuing explosion killed 25 people and wounded another 69, an adviser to Egypt’s health minister told state media. Footage aired on official television showed blood stains sprayed over the floor of the church hall, shattered furniture and rubble sprayed on wooden benches.
Separately, a suicide bomber attempted to enter Saint Mark’s Church in the center of the coastal city of Alexandria, blowing himself up at the entrance after being stopped by security, state media reported.

GROWING CONFLICT IN ASIA SPARKS MILITARY EXPANSION IN JAPAN

Thanks;CRISTINA SILVA 

Publised; 3/22/17 AT 5:07 PM

Growing Conflict
US Defence Secretary sees no need for US military action in South China Sea

Roughly $5 trillion in global trade passes through the South China Sea each year.

Japan unveiled its second helicopter carrier, the Kaga, Wednesday, sending a message of military strength to China amid growing conflict over the South China Sea and other strategic waterways in Asia. The new vessel is the latest sign of Japan’s ongoing military expansion as it seeks greater international influence. 
Roughly 500 people attended the unveiling ceremony at the Japan Marine United shipyard in Yokohama near Tokyo. The vessel was parked next to Japan’s other helicopter carrier, the Izumo, Japan wasn’t shy about its motivation. Vice Minister of Defense Takayuki Kobayashi said at the ceremony Tokyo was deeply concerned about China’s construction of islands and military bases in the South China Sea waterway, which is claimed by multiple Asian nations. 
“China is attempting to make changes in the South China Sea with bases, and through acts that exert pressure is altering the status quo, raising security concerns among the international community,” he said.
Roughly $5 trillion in global trade passes through the South China Sea each year. Both Japan and the U.S. have urged Beijing to honor open travel in the waterway. Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei also claim the South China Sea, which is known for its fishing and oil and gas deposits. Japan, meanwhile, is engaged in its own territorial dispute with China over the neighboring East China Sea.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has increasingly called for Japan to seek a bigger international role in global military conflicts in recent years and urged lawmakers to reconsider Japan’s pacifist constitution that forbids using force in international disputes. His remarks have alarmed China and many Japanese voters who enjoy the country’s post-World War II pacifism. 
“If Japan persists in taking wrong actions, and even considers military interventions that threaten China’s sovereignty and security… then China will inevitably take firm responsive measures,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular press briefing last week.
Japan plans to send its Izumo helicopter carrier through Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka starting in May before joint naval exercises with India and the U.S. in the Indian Ocean in July.
China’s and Japan’s economies are the world’s second- and third-largest.

HOW ISIS GROOMED IRAQI ORPHANS INTO BECOMING CHILD SOLDIERS

Thanks;REUTERS 

Published; 2/17/17 AT 10:41 AM


Boys from a Mosul orphanage were indoctrinated by the jihadists to become a network of informants and fighters.

http://europe.newsweek.com/isis-groomed-orphans-child-soldiers-557803

Turkey detains 400 Islamic State suspects in nationwide raids

When the boys first arrived at the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) training facility in eastern Mosul they would cry and ask about their parents, who went missing when the militants rampaged through northern Iraq in 2014.
But as the weeks passed they appeared to absorb the group’s ultra-hardline ideology, according to a worker at the former orphanage where they were housed.

The children, aged from three to 16 and mostly Shi’ite Muslims or minority Yazidis, began referring to their own families as apostates after they were schooled in Sunni Islam by the militant fighters, he said.
The boys were separated from the girls and infants, undergoing indoctrination and training to become “cubs of the caliphate—a network of child informers and fighters used by the jihadists to support their military operations.
The complex in Mosul’s Zuhur district, which had been home to local orphans until they were kicked out by ISIS, was one of several sites the jihadists used across the city.
It is now shuttered, its doors sealed with padlocks by Iraqi security forces.
ISIS withdrew before Iraqi forces launched a U.S.-backed offensive in October to retake the city, but during a Reuters visit last month there were still reminders of the group’s attempt to brainwash dozens of children.
A saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed is painted in black on one wall, urging children to learn to swim, shoot and ride horses. Inside the building is a swimming pool, now dry and full of rubbish.
In another room sits a stack of textbooks ISIS had amended to fit its brutal ethos.
Arithmetic problems in a fourth grade maths book use imagery of warfare, while the cover bears a rifle made up of equations. History books focus exclusively on the early years of Islam and emphasize martial events.
Another textbook entitled “English for the Islamic State” includes ordinary words like apple and ant beside army, bomb and sniper. Martyr, spy and mortar also appear alongside zebra crossing, yawn, and X-box.
The word “woman” is depicted by a formless black figure wearing the full niqab covering. All faces in the books—even those of animals—are blurred, in keeping with an Islamic proscription against such images.
The orphanage worker, who was cowed into staying on after the militants took over in 2014, said girls who were brought to the center were often married off to the group’s commanders.
The man asked not to be named for fear of reprisals by ISIS, which still controls the entire western half of Mosul. He was shot in the leg during recent clashes.
He said the militants, mostly Iraqis, taught the Shi’ite children how to pray in the tradition of Sunni Islam and forced the Yazidis to convert.
They memorized the Koran, were taught to treat outsiders as infidels and conducted physical exercise in the yard, which has since grown over.
A pair of colorful plastic slides and swing sets now sit untouched amid shattered glass, casings from a grenade launcher and a suicide bomber’s charred remains—signs of the militants’ fierce resistance as they retreated late last year.
Reuters could not independently verify the orphanage worker’s comments. But local residents gave similar accounts, and ISIS has published numerous videos showing how it trains young fighters and even makes them execute prisoners.
New batches of children arrived at the Zuhur orphanage every few weeks from outside Mosul, including a few from neighboring Syria, while older boys were sent to the town of Tel Afar west of Mosul for intensive military training for duties including with ISIS’s courts or vice squad, residents said.
“After six months at the camps, some of the boys came back to spend a weekend with their younger brothers. They were wearing uniforms and carrying weapons,” the orphanage worker said, fingering black and yellow prayer beads.
One of the boys, Mohammed, was killed last summer during the battle in the city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, he said, recounting how the other children wept upon learning the news.
A few weeks before the Mosul offensive began, ISIS canceled lessons and sent the boys to guard an airfield near Tel Afar which pro-government forces later seized, he said.
“I told them, ‘If you see the army, drop your weapons and tell them you are orphans. Maybe they will spare your lives'”.

President Trump looms large over stocks despite deluge of earnings

THANKS;Sue Chang

Published: Feb 4, 2017 8:09 a.m. ET

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President Donald Trump is keeping investors on their toes.

It may be peak earnings season but the stock market’s main obsession seems to be President Donald Trump. And as investors continue to second guess his next move and decipher what his policies may mean for the economy, equities are likely to continue taking their cue from politics.

In a sign of how large the president looms over the market, an analysis of FactSet data by MarketWatch shows that one out of four companies referenced Trump during their most recent earnings conference calls. Much of the discussion appears to be driven by questions over the impact his policies will have on each company within the context of growth and trade, underscoring the apprehensive mood in the market.

That sense of uncertainty, in part, hobbled the market for much of the week as major indexes languished. The S&P 500 moved less than 0.1% in either direction for three straight days this week, the first such streak since November 2014, according to Dow Jones data.

Analysts blamed the market’s lackluster action on the absence of specific details from Trump’s administration even as the president moved quickly to fire off a string of executive orders on everything from a temporary immigration ban to withdrawing from landmark trade pacts.

The lack of clarity is likely to be an ongoing feature, forcing the market to fly blind, at least until April when the budget is released, said Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist for Mizuho Securities USA.

In the meantime, Ricchiuto urged investors to think outside of the box when it comes to Trump, adding that he’s smart enough to pull off many of his campaign pledges.

“Making the assumption that he is stupid is wrong,” said Ricchiuto, who believes Trump’s actions, no matter how irrational they appear to some, are governed by his background as a real estate developer.

“He will always start from a position of power and then moderate to a different position,” he said.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.94%  advanced 186.55 points Friday, or 0.9%, to close at 20,071.46 but slipped 0.1% for the week while the S&P 500 SPX, +0.73%  rose 16.57 points, or 0.7%, to 2,297.42 for a weekly gain of 0.1%, shrugging off its torpor after Trump took steps to overhaul Dodd-Frank law governing the financial industry.

Market sentiment remains bullish even as “Trump fatigue” sets in with Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Bull & Bear Indicator rising to its highest in 2.5 years, according to the investment bank.

MW-FF149_BAML02_20170203172302_NS.png

Next week, 84 S&P 500 companies are scheduled to report quarterly results. The FactSet scorecard on fourth-quarter earnings shows 65% of S&P 500 companies beat mean earnings-per-share estimates and 52% have turned in better-than-expected sales.

Apart from earnings, financial stocks are likely to take center stage as expectations of a watered-down Dodd-Frank will be a boon for the industry, which had been chafing under the restrictions placed in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Under former President Barack Obama, regulators have applied financial rules under the most severe interpretations. Under Trump, they are likely to look for the most lenient, said Ricchiuto.

Trump Discusses Refugees, Iran, Security Ties With Saudi King

Thanks;WILLIAM MAULDIN

Published;Jan. 29, 2017 5:14 p.m. ET

White House says leaders agree on importance of ’rigorously enforcing’ Iran nuclear deal

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U.S. President Donald Trump, joined by senior adviser Jared Kushner, Communications Director Sean Spicer and national security adviser Michael Flynn, speaks by phone with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on Sunday. PHOTO: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

President Donald Trump spoke Sunday with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman about refugees in the Middle East, the deal to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and improved security relations between the two countries, the White House said.

Saudi Arabia isn’t among the majority-Muslim countries facing a controversial travel ban from the Trump administration, although the list includes several poorer countries in the region that are mired in conflict and prompting an exodus of refugees.

“The president requested and the King agreed to support safe zones in Syria and Yemen, as well as supporting other ideas to help the many refugees who are displaced by the ongoing conflicts,” the White House said in a statement Sunday.

The new U.S. president and King Salman also agreed on the “importance of rigorously enforcing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and of addressing Iran’s destabilizing regional activities,” the White House said. Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized the deal the Obama administration and other world powers struck with Iran over its nuclear activities.

Former President Barack Obama at times had a difficult relationship with Saudi Arabia as he sought to bring Tehran to the table and forge the nuclear deal.

Mr. Trump and King Salman reaffirmed the countries’ friendship and pledged “joint efforts to fight the spread of radical Islamic terrorism” and improve regional security, the White House said.

It’s time to shine a light on Putin’s American propaganda ARM

Thanks;ELENA POSTNIKOVA Publised; 1/16/17 AT 6:10 AM


Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of Russian broadcaster RT, with the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in the background in Moscow on October 17. Elena Postnikova writes that RT should be registered as an agent of the Russian government because, as FARA states, it acts under the “direction or control” of its foreign principal, and it engages in “political activities” in the interests of its foreign principal./MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS

Why isn’t Russia’s American TV channel RT registered as a foreign agent?

Kurt Eichenwald On MSNBC’s ‘AM Joy’ To Discuss Russia, Trump, And Vladimir Putin

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

Russia used RT, its TV channel, to influence the recent U.S. elections.

This was the finding of the recently declassified U.S. intelligence report. It concluded that Russia implemented a multifaceted campaign involving disclosures of data obtained through hacking, intrusions into state and local electoral boards and propaganda.
While the American elite is debating an appropriate response, they are ignoring an existing tool—the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA). As an immediate step to counter the Kremlin’s influence campaign, the U.S. government should enforce FARA against RT to alert the American people to Russia’s efforts and limit the country’s ability to disguise its “information warfare” as legitimate media activity.
This is not the first time a foreign country has directed “information warfare” against the United States. Similar tactics were also used by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

To address Nazi propaganda activities in the 1930s, Congress adopted FARA, which required persons advancing foreign interests to register as “agents of foreign principals,” who were required to disclose their activities and the nature of their employment. The act aimed to ensure the American people would not be misled into thinking they were receiving information from disinterested sources. During the Cold War, representatives of Soviet news outlets (TASS, Pravda, Izvestia and others) were registered agents. There is a lesson here.
Related: How Russia Wages Information Warfare in the U.S. 

 As a disclosure statute, FARA does not prohibit, edit or restrain an agent’s ability to distribute information. Rather, it compels disclosure of the origin and purpose of the information to help its audience develop an accurate understanding of the source. In doing so, it does not suppress freedom of speech; instead, it serves the First Amendment with supplemental information available to the public.

RT should be registered as an agent of the Russian government because, as FARA states, it acts under the “direction or control” of its foreign principal, and engages in “political activities” in the interest of its foreign principal.
RT engages in “political activities” since its reporting intends to influence the U.S. government and public in order to affect U.S. domestic and foreign policy. RT’s coverage of the recent elections and its impact on public discussion is just one such example.
RT denies that it is subject to the Kremlin’s “direction or control” because of its formation as an “ autonomous nonprofit organization,” TV-Novosti. But this assertion is misleading. Even if a media nonprofit could be considered independent in Russia, in the United States such legal formality has little weight if it doesn’t reflect the reality.
In truth, we know of “not very many” occurrences in Russia that take place without President Vladimir Putin’s knowledge—“certainly none that are politically sensitive in other countries,” according to U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, when testifying before the Senate on foreign cyber threats.
Ofcom, the U.K. communications regulator, investigated complaints against RT and found nine episodes in the last two years when its reporting was in breach of broadcasting standards on impartiality. Each incident of bias coincided with the Kremlin’s policy goals in Ukraine, Turkey and Syria. No other media outlet was close to having as many violations in such a short period of time.
RT claims it does not qualify as a foreign agent under FARA because it operates in the U.S. through a commercial entity to whom RT “simply transfers funds.” What we know of as RT in the United States are two Washington, D.C.–registered entities—RTTV America, Inc., and RTTV Studios, LLC, both of which are owned and controlled by Russian-born businessman Alex Yazlovsky.
These entities are RT’s contractors, which produce video content, tape shows and provide crew services and studio facilities for RT, as well as transmit content to its audience. RT operates similarly in the U.K., where it contracts its services from a local “ supplier,” Russia Today TV Ltd. It’s hard to believe that RT’s U.S. contractors are fully independent from the client who pays for its custom-made products and services.
According to the law, FARA does not apply to foreign news organizations that engage in “bona fide news or journalistic activities.” Such media are usually not owned, directed, supervised, controlled, subsidized, or financed or have their policies determined by any foreign principal.
For example, the U.K.’s BBC and Germany’s Deutsche Welle are considered exempt from FARA because their governance structure protects their editorial policies and maintains their independence from government influence; there is no indication that they are “directed or controlled” by their governments. For this same reason, RT would have hard time proving that it qualifies for this exemption.
When former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul suggested last month that perhaps RT’s employees should be accredited as foreign agents rather than journalists, RT responded with personal attacks, threats of retaliation against American journalists, accusations of infringement on press freedom and complaints that the Russian media are treated unfairly. Their fierce response, however, is not a good reason to avoid FARA enforcement.
Registration would require RT to label its information as “distributed by an agent on behalf of the foreign principal.” Such disclosure would alert the public to the purpose of RT’s reporting. But it would have no effect on RT’s ability to continue working in the United States, conduct broadcasting from its Washington, D.C. studio, or otherwise operate as it had prior to registration.
In any case, RT journalists would continue to enjoy more press freedom in the United States than U.S. journalists in Russia.
Elena Postnikova is a JD candidate at Georgetown University Law Center.

BETSY DEVOS IS COMING FOR YOUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Thanks;ALEXANDER NAZARYAN Published; 1/10/17 AT 12:00 PM

Betsy DeVos has worked to undermine Michigan’s public schools, according to her critics. Is she ready to lead the nation’s education department?

Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican from Michigan, has been nominated to head the federal Education Department. MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS

 

There was a brief moment in mid-November when education reformers were thrilled about President-elect Donald Trump’s swamp-draining imperative and what it might mean for the nation’s eternally beleaguered public schools. On November 16, Trump met at his Manhattan tower with Eva Moskowitz, whose Success Academy charter network has achieved impressive results with children of color across New York City. The following weekend, he entertained Michelle Rhee, the former head of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, at his golf club in New Jersey. Despite her uneven results, Rhee remains popular with those who think incompetent teachers and the unions that protect them are holding back America’s kids.

Instead, Trump chose Betsy DeVos to head the Education Department, a federal agency with oversight over all of the nation’s educational institutions, from prekindergarten programs to graduate schools of business. The choice mystified all those who’d figured Trump was looking for a capable, forward-looking technocrat focused on student testing and teacher accountability. The choice horrified teachers unions, as DeVos is a billionaire Republican who has worked assiduously to weaken the public schools in Michigan.
Comedian Rob Delaney tweeted, “Trump’s pick of DeVos as Sec. of Education is more hateful than pouring a vat of shit out of a helicopter onto a group of 1st graders.” Crude as that sentiment may be, it reflects the prevalent perception—unfair, perhaps—that DeVos is unsuited to her post, having never worked in a school or a school district. Her nomination is in keeping with Trump’s apparent conviction that nothing fuels government work better than antipathy to the government.

DeVos would not be the first ideologue to head the Education Department: William Bennett, appointed by Ronald Reagan, was a conservative culture warrior of the first order. George H.W. Bush’s appointments, Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings, were also no liberals. But ever since the first education secretary—Shirley Hufstedler, appointed by Jimmy Carter to the new post in 1979—nearly every person to hold that office has had direct experience in teaching or educational administration (two were governors who’d enacted large reform measures).

DeVos, by contrast, is a professional lobbyist. She may be qualified, but when it comes to the battlefields of public education, she is plainly inexperienced.

‘Christ’s Agent of Renewal’

Grand Rapids, Michigan, has largely defined the life of the woman born in 1958 as Elisabeth Prince. She grew up in nearby Holland, on the shores of Lake Michigan, where her father, Edgar Prince, ran an auto parts empire that he would eventually sell for $1.35 billion. The family belonged to the Reformed Church in America, which has its roots in a kind of Protestantism known as Calvinism, the predominant faith of the Dutch who settled western Michigan.

Some flee home for college; Betsy Prince traveled just 30 miles to Grand Rapids, where in 1975 she enrolled in Calvin College, from which her mother, Elsa, had graduated. Any attempt to forecast what DeVos might do as the nation’s education secretary must begin here, at this college of 4,000 that bids its students to act as “Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.” The college is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church and takes its religious mission seriously: Faculty members, for example, are required to send their own children to a Christian secondary school.

The college is named after John Calvin, the 16th-century French thinker from whom Calvinism gets its name. A branch of Protestantism that took root in Northern Europe, Calvinism hews to its founder’s doctrine of predestination, which holds that God has predestined all sinners to Hell, and while he chooses to save some as an act of grace, that salvation cannot be earned. No amount of effort is sufficient to rescue the damned from damnation. It is also among the more intellectual of the various Protestant movements. “Calvinists are usually smart,” says Julie Ingersoll, a scholar at the University of North Florida who has studied conservative Christianity. “The core of worship will be a sermon that is sophisticated and philosophically inclined.”

Kenneth Pomykala attended Calvin College at the same time as Prince and remembers her “vaguely.” Today the head of Calvin’s religion department, Pomykala estimates that back then, perhaps 90 percent of the students belonged to the Christian Reformed tradition. “One of the things Calvinism is known for is that one’s religious values should affect the way you live all of life,” Pomykala says. “It doesn’t make the separation between private religion and public life.”

At Calvin College, Prince studied business economics and served on the student senate; she volunteered on Gerald Ford’s losing presidential bid in 1976 and worked for other Republican campaigns. In 1980, she married Dick DeVos, a native of Grand Rapids and a student at nearby Northwood University who stood to become the heir to the Amway fortune, the massive marketing company co-founded by his father that some have called a pyramid scheme. His family, like hers, was conservative, pious and very rich.

The DeVoses have four children, whom they raised in Ada, a wealthy suburb of Grand Rapids, where the annual median household income today is almost $122,000, more than double Michigan’s average of about $49,000. The town, the seventh wealthiest in Michigan, has unsurprisingly good public schools, but the DeVos children apparently did not attend them. Two daughters were at least partly home-schooled, a fact that has been happily noted by home-schooling advocates, many of whom are religious conservatives elated to finally have a booster in Washington, D.C. Both sons attended the Grand Rapids Christian High School, which has a DeVos Center for Arts and Worship.

Though she has been reticent with the press since her nomination to the Trump Cabinet, DeVos was not shy about expressing her convictions previously. In 2013, she told Philanthropy magazine that her desire to improve education began with a visit to the Potter’s House Christian School in Grand Rapids, a private religious academy. “At the time, we had children who were school-age themselves. Well, that touched home. Dick and I became increasingly committed to helping other parents—parents from low-income families in particular. If we could choose the right school for our kids, it only seemed fair that they could do the same for theirs.”

The DeVoses began their prolonged assault on Michigan’s public education system in earnest in 1990, when Dick DeVos won election to the state’s school board. Three years later, the couple led a successful push for legislation that would welcome charter schools to Michigan (the first charter school in the nation had opened in 1992 in St. Paul, Minnesota). But while charter schools bloomed there, they didn’t thrive. As early as 1997, the state auditor found the state has shown “limited effectiveness and efficiency in monitoring” charters. Two years later, the Michigan Department of Education worried there was “no defined system of quality control in regard to charter schools,” despite there being 138 institutions that enrolled 30,000 students across the state.

The DeVoses persisted in advocating for more choice, disregarding calls for oversight. In 2000, they pushed for Michigan to adapt a voucher system, which proposed to give students about $3,300 to attend a private school of their choice, including a religious one. The Wall Street Journal wrote, “By focusing on the worst-of-the-worst schools, the campaign also has helped recast the image of vouchers from a middle-class pipe dream to a lifeline for inner-city kids. And in the long, heated, name-calling, lawsuit-filing history of school vouchers, that combination eventually may prove tough to beat.”

The voucher measure failed to pass, but DeVos, who’d headed the Michigan Republican Party for the latter half of the 1990s, redoubled her efforts. She began to establish groups like the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), founded in 2001. The group’s goal is “supporting quality choices in public education for all Michigan students,” in part by shaming public education. For example, one ad campaign, called Got Literacy?, featured misspelled school signs: Welcome Back, Hope You Hade a Good Break; 15 best things about our pubic schools. The campaign didn’t mention that the first sign was from Arizona, and a student joke besides, while the second was made for an Indiana school by an ad agency.

Supporters of DeVos argue that Michigan’s schools were dismal and that her only mission has been to provide a life raft to those stuck on a sinking ship. Matt Frendewey, communications director at the American Federation for Children (AFC), another group DeVos founded, calls her a “relentless advocate for students,” particularly poor children of color. School choice, he argues, is the first and necessary step to better educational outcomes.

In 2011, GLEP and its conservative allies won a major victory when the Michigan Legislature erased the charter school cap, creating what is effectively an unrestrained market for charter school operators. DeVos scored another victory last summer, when she and her husband spent $1.45 million to stymie a legislative effort to provide more oversight to Michigan’s charter schools.

“If I wanted to start a school next year, all I’d need to do is get the money, draw up a plan and meet a few perfunctory requirements,” wrote a dismayed Stephen Henderson, the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press. “I’d then be allowed to operate that school, at a profit if I liked, without, practically speaking, any accountability for results. As long as I met the minimal state code and inspection requirements, I could run an awful school, no better than the public alternatives, almost indefinitely.”

It’s unclear how closely DeVos looked at the achievements of the charter schools that sprouted in Michigan because of her efforts. Did she know that many of them were failing? And if she knew, why did she do nothing?

Detroit Flunks

The best argument against Betsy DeVos can be made with a single word: Detroit. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Michigan’s biggest city has the worst math and reading scores of any large city in America. Its fourth-graders score a 36 on math, while their counterparts in Charlotte, North Carolina, score an 87. Its eighth-graders got a 44 on reading, lagging behind Miami by 33 points.

DeVos claimed that her emphasis on school choice was going to help poor, minority children escape from underperforming public schools. So how did that escape route become a quagmire?

Kids may suffer from a lack of choice, but they can also suffer from an excess of competition. Reporting on the state of charter schools in Detroit last summer, education reporter Kate Zernike of The New York Times described a system that was as at least as chaotic and unproductive as what it supplanted. “While the idea was to foster academic competition, the unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students,” Zernike wrote, “enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.”

Douglas Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University, considers himself a proponent of sensible reform, yet the kind of reform enacted by DeVos in Michigan, he has concluded, is a disaster. In a widely circulated op-ed for The New York Times, Harris wrote that DeVos “devised Detroit’s system to run like the Wild West. It’s hardly a surprise that the system, which has almost no oversight, has failed. Schools there can do poorly and still continue to enroll students.”

Harris contrasted Detroit with New Orleans, where the school system is saturated with charters. Those charters are successful because they’re expected to meet the same high standards that educators demand from students. Lax oversight of a school district is unlikely to produce much better results than lax oversight of a classroom.

“The DeVos nomination,” Harris wrote, “is a triumph of ideology over evidence.”

Much of the fault for the panoply of bad choices in Detroit can be placed on for-profit charters, according to Samuel Abrams, a scholar of privatization in education at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York and the author of Education and the Commercial Mindset. Whereas about 10 percent of charters nationwide are for-profit, about 80 percent of charters in Michigan mix profit-making with teaching. “The fundamental problem with for-profit school management is that we don’t have sufficient transparency for proper contract enforcement because the immediate consumer is a child,” Abrams tells me. “He or she is not sufficiently informed to know if a class is being properly taught.

“There is room for cutting corners in the name of profits,” Abrams says. “You don’t have that in public school.”

‘Advancing God’s Kingdom’

A lot of the worries about DeVos come from association—and insinuation. Some are concerned about her stance on gay rights. She and her husband “have spent heavily in opposition to same-sex-marriage laws in several states,” according to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker. Elsa Prince, Betsy’s mother, has frequently given to right-wing groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that, as the head of the Michigan GOP, she forcefully defended a gay Republican politician who’d been harassed for his stance on a gay marriage amendment. In 2014, she lambasted Dave Agema, a Republican, for making denigrating comments about gays and Muslims. “I couldn’t stand by and hold my tongue,” she said. And despite her appointment by Trump, she was among those Republicans who bore no love for the candidate, calling him an “interloper” from whom she predicted Republicans would defect. (The DeVoses supported former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and, after he dropped out, Florida Senator Marco Rubio.)

“If you look at Betsy’s full record, you won’t be able to fit her in a box that some of those who oppose her nomination are trying to put her into,” says the AFC’s Frendewey. The Windquest Group, an investment group run by the DeVoses, supports clean energy, technological innovation and a well-regarded aviation high school, as well as an arts prize. They were also funders of an arts management institute at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. (The institute has since moved to the University of Maryland.)

Despite all that, detractors have plenty of evidence for their fears. They point, for example, to a recording, obtained by Politico, in which DeVos talks about “advancing God’s kingdom” through public education. That only stokes fears that DeVos is a Christian soldier disguised as a public servant.

Ingersoll, the University of North Florida scholar, says that “it’s a long-standing goal of the religious right to dismantle public education” and that religious conservatives like DeVos “don’t see public schools as religiously neutral.” If an education is not Christian, then it is anti-Christian. This is a view, she suggests, DeVos shares with Mike Pence, the religiously conservative vice president-elect, who is expected by some to have Dick Cheney-level influence in the Trump administration.

When I conveyed these concerns to Frendewey, he laughed. “In no way is this some sort of religion-based agenda,” he says. Betsy DeVos, he assured me, wants successful students, not “disciples.”Poor Choice for the Poor

  • Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence with DeVos before their meeting at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, November 19, 2016.

MIKE SEGAR/REUTER

Nobody accused Trump’s presidential campaign of a wonkish occupation with policy details. Nevertheless, he has been clear about his primary mission in education, which is to inject $20 billion into school choice programs. “As your president, I will be the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice,” he said during the campaign.

As with many other aspects of the Trump platform, there are few details to debate. Abrams, the Teachers College scholar, called the education plan “mystifying,” echoing the confusion I encountered whenever I asked, while reporting this story, how Trump and DeVos planned to make school choice a bigger priority.

Tulane University’s Harris says that a Capitol Hill controlled by Republicans could pass a tax credit program that incentivizes private education, including religious and virtual schools. But this would probably benefit middle- and upper-middle class families already disposed (and able) to pay for a private education.

The same goes for vouchers. While $20 billion for school choice programs sounds like a large number, there are 15 million children living in poverty in the United States, and the average private school tuition is $9,500. Giving them all a meaningful voucher would require about $142.5 billion, or seven times the amount proposed by Trump for his school choice plan.

Consider, also, that some states that have vouchers, like Ohio and North Carolina, allocate less than $5,000 per student, meaning that families would still have to pay several thousand dollars to send a child to private school if this were in fact part of the Trump reform package. That shortfall notwithstanding, even a $5,000 voucher for every child living in poverty nationwide would cost $75 billion. Much like the border wall with Mexico, the golden-ticket voucher might be an empty campaign promise.

Yet almost certainly, Trump will use federal dollars to reward states for enacting his preferred reforms. That was what President Barack Obama did with Race to the Top, which incentivized data collection, student assessment and better teaching.

Harris says school choice is first on DeVos’s agenda. “It’s really her only issue.”

An Existential Threat

Teachers unions and their liberal allies are alarmed by the DeVos pick. Most charters and parochials aren’t unionized, meaning that school choice enervates public sector unions, another favorite Republican goal. “She is an existential threat to public education,” says Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers.

When I relayed that quote to Frendewey, he dismissed the worry by noting the many times Weingarten had used tough language about centrist Obama appointees. “They weren’t happy with Duncan, they weren’t happy with King,” Frendewey says, alluding to Arne Duncan and John King, both Democratic education secretaries who met with resistance from teachers unions on matters of student and teacher evaluation. Frendewey and other DeVos associates acknowledge that Detroit schools are a disaster, but it’s a fair question whether the failure of that experiment should disqualify her from a federal position.

Yet for conservatives, DeVos’s antipathy to traditional public schools is in keeping with a broader desire to lessen what they deem bureaucratic bloat. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whose father George was the governor of Michigan, branded DeVos an iconoclast of the sort demanded by our moribund schools. “The decades of applying the same old bromides must come to an end,” he wrote. “The education establishment and its defenders will understandably squeal, but the interests of our children must finally prevail.” Romney’s voice on this issue matters because he was a frequent critic of Trump throughout the presidential campaign. Moreover, as he notes, the state he once governed, Massachusetts, has the nation’s best schools.

The vast gap between the vaunted Massachusetts “education miracle” and the state of Detroit’s schools suggests, at least to skeptics, that Romney’s confidence in DeVos may be grievously misplaced. And while it is true that Weingarten—my onetime union leader in New York City—has frequently been tough on Democrats deemed insufficiently loyal to teachers unions, her mood when we spoke in early December seemed to me closer to visceral fear than intellectual disagreement. Calling DeVos an “ideological zealot for private education,” Weingarten says local unions will fight her by asserting their power, though how they will do that is unclear. A senior aide to a top congressional Democrat told me that DeVos should be ready for a tough confirmation hearing, but he didn’t say anything to suggest there’d be a concerted attempt to oppose her.

Weingarten told me about a letter she got from a teacher in New York’s Suffolk County, on Long Island. That teacher had apparently voted for Trump and was now suffering from buyer’s remorse. “I made a terrible mistake,” the letter said, according to Weingarten. “Please, please fight against this.”

The battle is doubtlessly coming to the American classroom, where the nation’s culture wars are frequently fought. Of course, DeVos will be ready for the counterattack. She has spent decades fighting for children, for Michigan and for God.

 

Traveling abroad in the age of Trump

Thanks;Christopher Elliott

Published;6:03 p.m. EST January 1, 2017

(Photo: Evan Vucci, AP)

Some Americans may be nervous to travel abroad after President-elect Donald Trump takes office…but don’t be, says travel expert Christopher Elliott. Use these tips to feel safe while traveling abroad after January 20, 2017. 

How should Americans travel abroad in the age of Donald Trump? No matter how you voted in the last election, the answer is the same: carefully.

As the president-elect prepares to take office Jan. 20, travelers have expressed worries about how they’ll be perceived internationally after a lengthy campaign that tested the limits of civility.

“A potentially controversial president means you have to prepare,” says Colby Martin, an intelligence director for Pinkerton. “Americans traveling abroad need to have a comprehensive plan for staying safe.”
Reality check: Most international trips abroad will probably — hopefully — be uneventful, regardless who’s in the White House. That’s because our most popular destinations are Mexico and Canada, in that order. And they’re used to the ups and downs of our political system and accustomed to American visitors. Roughly the same number of Americans visit Canada as they do all of Europe. But wander outside the well-trodden areas, and things could get interesting, say experts.
“The likelihood of any impact on American travelers abroad” will depend on what policies the new administration enacts, says Scott Hume, the director of security operations for Global Rescue. He says you shouldn’t be surprised by people who ask you direct questions about American foreign policy and politics.
If your goal is to avoid those conversations, “Take care not to stand out as an American,” he says.
So how do you do that, exactly?
Taryn White, a writer and frequent traveler based in Washington, tries to maintain a cover. “You have to look the part,” she says. “This means no white sneakers, ‘I ? NY’ T-shirts, or sweat pants. It also means being considerate of local customs and dress.”
One simple trick: Pack black. Darker colors are versatile and ensure you don’t stand out. Beyond the wardrobe selection, it means downplaying American mannerisms like laughing out loud, smiling a lot or using hand gestures.
But others say now may also be the best time to identify yourself as an American. Kori Crow, a political consultant from Austin, Texas, and a world traveler, says that counterintuitively, the more fractious a country’s politics are, the better your experience could be.
“They’re more forgiving because they don’t usually equate elected leaders as a reflection of its citizens,” she says.
Crow says people understand that American visitors are not its ambassadors. “You’d be surprised at how many foreigners will over-compliment you just to try and make you feel more welcome,” she adds, mentioning a particularly warm welcome at Vietnam’s American War Crimes Museum.
All of the above is true. There are times when you’ll want to fade into the crowd, but ultimately you have to be true to yourself. And as the experts say, don’t leave anything to chance.
How do I know? Because I grew up in Europe during a time of controversial American leadership. Most people I met were smart enough to know that American citizens do not represent the American government, and they knew from personal experience that democracy is imperfect.
In fact, I think we should all travel more internationally during the next four years. Just to show the world that Americans are a far more varied lot than the politicians they see on TV or read about in the paper.
Three things you should do during the Trump years
Apply for a passport. Less than half of Americans have a passport. You’ll need one if you want to travel abroad. Go to https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports.html to start the process.Cost: $110 for adults, $80 for kids under 16. Does not include a $25 “execution” fee.
Learn another language. No matter where you go, knowing a few words in the native language will take you far. The next four years are a perfect time to pick up Spanish, French, German or Mandarin. Check out Duolingo (http://www.duolingo.com) for a crash course on your chosen language.
Build a bridge. Whether you strike up a friendship with someone who lives outside the U.S. or take a volunteer vacation outside the country, you can use your travel to show the world what Americans are really like. Check out organizations like GlobeAware (http://globeaware.org/) or tour operators such as REI (https://www.rei.com/), which offer extensive volunteer vacation programs.