Tuesday toon

The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Thursday, Oct. 5:

President Donald Trump has a penchant for speaking to international audiences as if he’s addressing a campaign rally. He has boasted in phone calls to world leaders about the size of his adoring crowds and how big his Electoral College victory margin was.

No surprise, then, that his speech before the U.N. General Assembly last month included language about the Iran nuclear accord reminiscent of his 2016 rhetoric. A key sign that he’s in campaign mode is when he diverges from his text and inserts phrases like “believe me.”

“The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” he told gathered leaders. “Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.”

Even though his own secretary of defense, James Mattis, openly disagrees, Trump is threatening to scrap the Iran nuclear accord. All Americans should care because a nuclear-armed Iran, on top of a nuclear-armed North Korea, would constitute an international nightmare. And the only thing currently stopping Iran is the very accord that Trump wants to cancel.

In spite of his tough rhetoric, Trump has abided by the 2015 accord. In April, he certified that Iran is in compliance. He did it again in July. Another certification deadline looms next week, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly is urging Trump’s approval.

Trump has sharply criticized the relaxation of harsh international sanctions and freeing up of frozen Iranian bank assets negotiated in exchange for Iran’s 25-year freeze on production of bomb-capable enriched uranium.

If Trump cancels the deal, the sanctions regime could collapse. Iran would become even freer to engage in international commerce and finance. Trump speaks as if it were solely a U.S.-Iranian accord. In fact, the United States is one of five principal partners — Britain, France, Russia and China — plus Germany and the European Union.

A U.S. pullout would free the others to go their own way. Several would likely jump at the chance to resume full commercial ties with Tehran.

It required years of deft and constant diplomacy to persuade Russia and China to go along with the sanctions regime, which created such harsh conditions inside Iran that the government felt compelled to make nuclear concessions.

As Trump has learned to his embarrassment with North Korea, the deterrence options are limited and consequences are huge should the United States abort the accord and decide to seek military retaliation. Experts say U.S. airstrikes would not significantly cripple Iran’s nuclear capabilities. And Iran has multiple ways to destabilize the region and interrupt Persian Gulf oil shipments in return.

The current formula isn’t perfect, but it’s working. The Trump touch has no place where nuclear holocaust could result.

Elon Musk’s exciting quest for Mars

The following editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday, Oct. 3:

Elon Musk didn’t become a billionaire by thinking small. For nearly a decade, the Silicon Valley pioneer and futurist has put much of his considerable resources behind SpaceX, a reusable rocket program that has already played a key role in resupplying the International Space Station.

But Musk’s ambitions go far beyond picking up the slack NASA left behind when it ceded the commercial end of rocketry to the private sector.

During a recent speech before the International Astronautical Congress meeting in Australia, Musk reiterated his plan to get life support, construction and mining equipment to Mars within five years.

Astronauts sent to the Red Planet via SpaceX in 2024 will then begin laying the foundation for the first Martian outpost.

Musk also unveiled plans for an updated version of his SpaceX fleet called the Interplanetary Transport System, or BFR for Big Falcon Rocket, a major redesign of the original booster and cabin.

The enormous but sleek BFR will be able to accommodate as many as 100 people per rocket. It will be used to establish a base on the moon, where many of the skills and technologies needed to plant a successful Martian colony will be tested.

For those who believe the Martian and moonbase phases of Musk’s dream will never make it out of drydock, the entrepreneur announced that the same rockets will be used for making jaunts between New York and Shanghai in less than 45 minutes.

If SpaceX succeeds, then it will be possible to fly to and from the most remote cities on the planet in less than an hour. It is expected to become a very lucrative funding source.

All of this is very exciting, but there is reason to be skeptical that Musk’s timeline, especially as it pertains to Mars, is even possible.

Still, the world needs dreamers like Elon Musk. The most audacious explorers always come across as unrealistic until they succeed in doing what was previously thought impossible. If interplanetary travel is part of the next stage in human evolution, Musk will likely have some role in it.

Congress should ban bump stocks

The following editorial appeared in the Star Tribune on Friday, Oct. 6:

Yielding to intense and growing public pressure in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, some congressional Republicans and the White House are cautiously signaling support for a ban on bump stocks, the add-ons that can transform a semi-automatic weapon into a virtual machine gun.

Banning the devices would be a small — but important — development that could break years of gridlock and perhaps create a path forward for this nation to come together on ways to deal with growing gun violence.

A week ago, most Americans didn’t know bump stocks existed. That changed when law enforcement officials found that Stephen Paddock had outfitted a dozen semi-automatic weapons with the devices, allowing him to unleash a cascade of gunfire that took 58 lives and injured nearly 500 concertgoers in a matter of minutes. Typically, only automatic weapons — still tightly regulated in the U.S. — would be capable of such high-speed destruction.

But about a decade ago, a cheap workaround to those federal restrictions hit the market. Bump stocks are unregulated, aftermarket devices that harness a semi-automatic’s natural recoil to “bump” the trigger repeatedly, allowing a near-continuous stream of gunfire. What the weapon loses in accuracy, it gains in sheer volume, firing, according to some claims, 100 rounds of ammunition in as little as seven seconds.

Incredibly, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms under President Barack Obama signed off on the devices in 2010, declaring them to be firearms parts not subject to regulation. The cheapest bump stocks now sell for as little as $100. Sellers knew the right button to push, with lures like this: “Want a machine gun but can’t afford the $20k buy-in? A bumpfire stock is just the ticket to getting the fun out of your AR-15 without breaking the law!” In a horrifying development, the Las Vegas attack set off a wave of demand, leaving manufacturers temporarily out of stock.

Sensing vulnerability on this issue, the National Rifle Association’s CEO, Wayne La Pierre, on Thursday finally allowed that bump stocks “should be subject to additional regulations.” But he’s wrong. They should be banned, period. They serve no purpose for hunters and are banned as unsafe on many ranges — including the NRA’s own.

Americans who want the killing to stop should also keep the pressure on Congress. There’s finally evidence that, despite all the naysayers, some progress on gun laws may be in sight.

Trump crows as Puerto Rico struggles

The following editorial appeared in Newsday on Wednesday, Oct. 4:

Sadly, it’s not surprising that President Donald Trump made Tuesday’s trip to the devastated U.S. territory of Puerto Rico all about himself.

As reports emerged that some Puerto Rico residents were forced to eat dog food in a medical clinic, while others were rationing water, Trump sat in an airplane hangar, heaped praise on himself and his team, and sought affirmation from federal and local leaders.

As people in towns across the island of almost 3.5 million American citizens sat in the dark without electronic communication, fuel, cash, safe drinking water or medical treatment, Trump talked of how “very proud” Puerto Rico should be that its death toll was just 16, compared with “thousands” (actually, 1,833) from the “real catastrophe” of Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005. Sadly, later in the day, Puerto Rico’s governor had to update the number of dead so far to 34.

As those in the mountains remained without help, trapped by landslides and destroyed roads, Trump spoke not of the humanitarian crisis at hand, but of the “fantastic job” those around him have done.

And as tens of thousands of Puerto Rico families are left homeless, he added, “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack.”

The picture painted by Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico, where he toured some of the island’s least damaged neighborhoods and tossed paper towels into a crowd, is far different from the reality elsewhere on the island. In rural areas, stores haven’t reopened, residents don’t have cash to buy scarce goods and tens of thousands are out of work.

While the administration got a slow start, federal officials have since ramped up relief work, and Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan’s leadership should help. Ultimately, Trump won’t be judged on the hours he spent in Puerto Rico, but on the federal effort that is likely to last years. In the short term, the relief work must concentrate on getting supplies faster to rural areas. In the long term, it must focus on rebuilding to stabilize and strengthen Puerto Rico’s crippled, debt-ridden economy, modernize its infrastructure, and encourage young people to stay and tourists to return.

When that is accomplished, Trump will deserve the praise he seeks. But if in the coming weeks and months the people of Puerto Rico are eating dog food, begging for clean water and scrounging for medication, this very real catastrophe will become far worse.

The death toll will likely rise, and Trump will bear the blame.

No-bid Equifax contract an embarrassment

The following editorial appeared in The Dallas Morning News on Thursday, Oct. 5:

A new phrase associated with news stories that seem fake is, “Not The Onion.” The Onion is one of the longest-running satirical news websites. However, it was not satire when we learned the IRS awarded a multimillion-dollar no-bid fraud prevention contract to Equifax.

Yes, Equifax.

The same company still dealing with the fallout of a massive data breach that exposed the personal information of nearly 146 million Americans will soon make $7.25 million to verify taxpayer identities and help prevent fraud.

Why not just allow the foxes to guard the henhouse?

According to news reports, the contract award for Equifax’s data services posted to the Federal Business Opportunities database on Sept. 30. The notice describes the contract award as “sole source order,” which means Equifax was deemed the only company capable of providing the service.


We find that hard to believe when there are two other credit reporting agencies, Transunion and Experian, that perform services similar to Equifax. The long-running list of data breaches in the U.S. created a market for data verification firms, many of which have not had their systems breached, exposing the private information of millions of people.

The IRS isn’t an agency the public sees in a positive light, and some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed outrage at the decision. In a statement, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said, “In the wake of one of the most massive data breaches in a decade, it’s irresponsible for the IRS to turn over millions in taxpayer dollars to a company that has yet to offer a succinct answer on how at least 145 million Americans had personally identifiable information exposed.”

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Ron Wyden, was not impressed: “The Finance Committee will be looking into why Equifax was the only company to apply for and be rewarded with this. I will continue to take every measure possible to prevent taxpayer data from being compromised as this arrangement moves forward.”

The IRS defended the decision with a ridiculous excuse: “At this time, we have seen no indications of tax fraud related to the Equifax breach, but we will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

Does that make anybody feel better? It’s like awarding the job for a bank guard to an armed robber because his previous crimes involved holding up liquor stores.

“Trust the government” is often treated as the punch line to a joke. But while it may seem funny on the surface, we’re usually forced to trust the government at times because it has information of ours that nobody else possesses.

Therefore, the IRS has a responsibility to be diligent in whom it chooses to allow access to that information. Awarding a no-bid contract to Equifax in the wake of the company’s failure to protect sensitive data is a breach of that forced trust.

The IRS should do better because taxpayers deserve better.


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