Thursday, January 03, 2019

Russia-mania takes over the world

In the 60s practically everything the Left disliked was blamed on "the CIA". In 2018, there were few things Western elites didn't blame on Russia

Over the summer, Sweden’s defence commission warned that ‘a larger European conflict could start with an attack on Sweden’. Politicians and military planners clearly agreed – in June, 22,000 Swedish volunteer soldiers were called up for the largest surprise exercise since 1975.

The protagonist of this European conflict wasn’t named as such, but it didn’t need to be. Because every politician and civil servant, every pundit and broadcaster, just knows that the protagonist is Russia. Because that is the function ‘Russia’ – alongside associated dread words such as ‘Vladimir Putin’ or ‘Russian oligarchs’ – now plays in the political imagination of Western elites. It is the catch-all, go-to explanation for their travails. The assumed military demiurge of global instability. The real, albeit dark and hidden, source of populist discontent.

Yet while Russia-mania is widespread among today’s political and cultural elites, it is not uniform.

For an older, right-wing section of the Western political and media class, otherwise known as the Cold War Re-Enactment Society, Russia looms large principally as a military, quasi-imperial threat. Jim Mattis, the former US marine and general, and now US defence secretary, said Russia was responsible for ‘the biggest attack [on the world order] since World War Two’. Whether this is true or not is beside the point. What matters is that Russia appears as a military aggressor. What matters is that Russia’s actions in Ukraine – which were arguably a defensive reaction to NATO and the EU’s expansion into Russia’s traditional ally – are grasped as an act of territorial aggrandisement. What matters is that Russia’s military operations in Syria – which, again, were arguably a pragmatic intervention to stabilise the West-stoked chaos – are rendered as an expression of imperial aggression. What matters is that Russian state involvement in the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury – which, given its failure, proved Russian incompetence – is presented as ‘part of a pattern of Russian aggression against Europe and its near neighbours, from the western Balkans to the Middle East’, to quote Theresa May.

And it matters because, if Russia is dressed up as the West’s old Cold War adversary, just with a new McMafia logo, then the crumbling, illegitimate and increasingly pointless postwar institutions through which Western elites have long ordered the world, suddenly look just that little bit more solid, legitimate and purposeful. And none more so than NATO.

This is why NATO has this year been accompanying its statements warning Russia to ‘stop its reckless pattern of behaviour’ with some of the largest military exercises since the fall of the Berlin Wall nearly three decades ago. Including one in November in Norway, involving 50,000 troops, 10,000 vehicles, 250 aircraft and 60 warships.

Then there is the newer form of Russia-mania. This has emerged from within the political and cultural elite that came to power after the Cold War, ploughing an uninspiring third way between the seeming extremes of the 20th century’s great ideologies. Broadly social democratic in sentiment, and elitist and aloof in practice, this band of merry technocrats and their middle-class supporters have found in ‘Russia’ a way to avoid having to face up to what the populist revolt reveals – that the majority of Western citizens share neither their worldview nor their wealth. Instead, they use ‘Russia’ to displace the people as the source of discontent and political revolt.

We have seen this play out in the US in the continuing obsession, fronted by Troll-Finder General Robert Mueller, over alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. And the same obsession has emerged in the UK, too, with politicians and pundits claiming that a shadowy network of Russian influence tipped the EU referendum in favour of Leave.

It is never quite clear how the ‘Russians’ or ‘Putin’ did all this, beyond Facebook ads and decidedly dubious talk of so-called dark money. But then clarity is not the point for this stripe of Russia-maniac. He or she simply wants to believe that Trump or Brexit were not what they were. Not expressions of popular will. Not manifestations of popular discontent. Not democratic exercises.

No, they were the result, as one Tory MP put it, of ‘the covert and overt forms of malign influence used by Moscow’. Or, in the words of an Observer columnist, ‘a campaign that purported to be for the “left behind” was organised and funded by men with links across the global network of far-right American demagogues and kleptomaniac dictators such as Putin’.

Such has been the determination to blame ‘Russia’ or ‘Putin’ for the political class’s struggles, that in August Tom Watson, Labour’s conspiracy-theory-peddling deputy leader, called for a public inquiry into an alleged Russian Brexit plot. ‘[Voters] need to know whether that referendum was stolen or not’, he said.

Such a call ought to be mocked. After all, it is absurd to think ‘Russia’, ‘Putin’ and the trolls are the power behind every populist throne. But the claims aren’t mocked – they’re taken as calls to action. Think of anything viewed as a threat to our quaking political and cultural elites in the West, and you can bet your bottom ruble that some state agency or columnist is busy identifying Putin or one of his legion of bots and trolls as the source. The gilet jaunes protests in France? Check. Climate change? Check. Italy’s Five Star Movement? Check.

And all this from a nation with a GDP equivalent to Spain, an ageing, declining population, and a failing infrastructure. The reality of Russia is not that of a global threat, but of a struggling state. Russia is weak. Yet in the minds of those clinging desperately to the status quo, ‘Russia’ has never been more powerful.



Waves of Bogus Asylum Seekers Overwhelm Immigration System 

A tense exchange at the White House on Tuesday between President Donald Trump and the two leading congressional Democrats — recycled incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — provided additional evidence that a chasm remains when it comes to achieving immigration reform.

While President Trump’s desire to secure the border and prioritize America’s needs when determining who to allow to enter our borders has the strong support of the American people, Democrats have abandoned long-held, sensible immigration positions in favor of a radical open-borders policy that allows violent criminals, and drug and sex traffickers to pour into our nation.

In recent months, Americans witnessed waves of thousands of migrants pushing their way up from Central America to the U.S., demanding to be let in while claiming a right to enter. When attempts were made to stop them, they rioted, tearing down border fences and attacking U.S. border agents. Or Trump was foiled by the courts in his efforts to limit the invasion. He’s filed an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court after the Ninth Circuit Court blocked his effort to prevent illegals from entering the U.S. and then seeking asylum.

The real immigration crisis is with asylum seekers. As President Trump has kept his promise to strengthen border security, the number of illegal aliens able to sneak into the U.S. has slowed.

However, those seeking entry have not changed their goals, just their tactics. In 2018 alone, the number of migrants demanding asylum at the U.S. border rose a staggering 67% according to Homeland Security, to nearly 93,000 people. Roughly a third arrived at ports of entry without permission, and another 14% were caught jumping the border illegally before filing for asylum.

Migrants know the immigration system is overwhelmed with existing applications for asylum, and they know there is a good chance they will be processed and released into the U.S. while waiting for immigration hearings sometimes years later that most will never come back for, choosing instead to disappear inside the U.S.

Laughably, one group of migrants is now demanding that the Trump administration either let them into the U.S. or pay them $50,000 each to return home. Points for creativity, we suppose, but good luck with that.

It’s difficult to qualify for asylum; only about 20% of applications are approved. To qualify, the migrant must face a “credible fear” of violence or serious discrimination due to race, religion, or political affiliation. Asylum is broken down into two broad categories: “affirmative” (not yet subjected to deportation proceedings) and “defensive” (fighting deportation).

Affirmative asylum seekers are far fewer in number but much likelier to be granted asylum; roughly 70% get approved. Defensive asylum seekers, on the other hand, are rolling the dice, hoping a friendly judge gives them a last-second reprieve; about 75-95% are rejected.

To increase their chances of gaining asylum, the recent migrant wave from Central America took the longest possible route through Mexico to the U.S. Part of this was to avoid the drug cartels that control the region between southern Mexico and the Texas border, but even more relevant, the migrants are fully aware that California is a “sanctuary” state, and immigration judges in San Diego are far more likely to grant asylum than judges in Texas.

While the migrant/open borders proponents argue these waves of migrants truly fear persecution in their home countries, that fallacy is exposed by the fact that, while defensive asylum applications have skyrocketed (the vast majority coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico), affirmative asylum applications have stayed roughly constant. It’s also noteworthy that these so-called asylum seekers have received significant financial and logistical support from leftist organizations as they try to force their way into the U.S.

In order to get the situation under control and discourage waves of questionable asylum seekers, the Trump administration has begun “metering” — claiming that detention and processing facilities are overcrowded (they are), so they can’t accept new claims until the backlog of existing claims are processed. Would-be asylum seekers are directed to wait in Mexico until they can be seen.

This has put pressure on Mexico to secure its own southern border so it’s not forced to accommodate and pay for feeding, housing, and securing tens of thousands of migrants.

Last year, the Trump administration received wide condemnation for its wise refusal to sign onto the United Nations’ Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, which would have given international treaties and laws primacy over U.S. immigration laws. In explaining that refusal UN Ambassador Nikki Haley declared, “No country has done more than the United States, and our generosity will continue. But our decisions on immigration policies must always be made by Americans and Americans alone. We will decide how best to control our borders and who will be allowed to enter our country. The global approach in the New York Declaration is simply not compatible with U.S. sovereignty.”

Despite the faux outrage of world leaders, nearly a dozen countries — including Australia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Israel, and Poland — have followed America’s lead in rejecting the treaty, and pressure is building in formerly pro-migrant countries like Belgium, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands to spurn it as they face significant difficulties dealing with crime and cultural conflicts after absorbing massive waves of migrants.

As for the showdown with the Democrats, President Trump declared this week that he will get the U.S. border secured one way or another, even if he has to use the U.S. military to build the border wall.

And despite the propensity of Democrats to use immigrant children as political cannon fodder, the American people support Trump’s agenda of securing our borders.



This Insane Battle To Block a New Apartment Building Explains Why San Francisco and Other Cities Are So Expensive

Bob Tillman has spent nearly five years and $1.4 million on a legal battle to turn his coin-operated laundromat into an apartment building. His saga perfectly encapsulates the political dysfunction that's turning San Francisco—once a beacon for immigrants and home of the counterculture—into an exclusive playground for the ultra-wealthy.

The median cost of a single-family home in San Francisco is already five times the U.S. average, and the city now has the highest rent per square foot of any municipality in the nation. The explanation for the crisis is simple: As the city's population has surged, developers have found it nearly impossible to construct more housing. About 80 percent of San Francisco's existing buildings were already standing in 1980.

Tillman has owned his small laundromat in the Mission District for 20 years. In 2013, with the housing market hitting record highs, he decided to tear it down and build an eight-story, 75-unit apartment building. (Christian Britschgi first covered Tillman's project for Reason back in February.)

At first, it didn't seem like a controversial project: Nobody lives above the laundry, the building wouldn't displace anyone, it qualified for a density bonus and streamlined approval process under state law, and the site was already zoned for housing. While San Francisco passed a comprehensive zoning code in 1978 that restricted the construction of new housing to certain areas, mandated design elements, and limited the height of new structures in some parts of the city to just 40 feet, none of those regulations stood in the way of Tillman's plans.

"If you can't build here, you can't build anywhere," he told Reason.

But San Francisco developers are still required to get permission from city officials for any new construction, so, in early 2014, Tillman began submitting paperwork to the City Planning Department. He went through an environmental review, an application for a conditional use permit, and multiple public hearings.

In late 2017, the Planning Commission was ready to vote on Tillman's project, three and a half years after he first applied to build. That's when the real fight started.

The first hurdle came when the Planning Commission ordered a detailed historical review, based on a claim that various community groups had offices on the property in the 1970s and 80s, so the site might qualify for preservation. The resulting 137-page study cost Tillman $23,000 and delayed him an additional four months. It found that the laundry didn't merit landmark status.

But Tillman's project was still far from being approved. City law says that any individual or group, no matter where they live, can pay a $617 fee to appeal a decision by the Planning Commission. In this case, the challenge came from an organization called Calle 24, which declined Reason's interview request.

Calle 24 is one of several neighborhood groups determined to stop gentrification in the Mission, a neighborhood that's home to a working-class, Latino community. In the late 1990s, wealthier white residents starting moved in, driving up housing prices faster than in the rest of San Francisco. The group opposes market-rate housing on the grounds that it displaces low-income residents, and it set out to extract major concessions from Tillman.

Todd David, the executive director of the non-profit San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, attributes displacement in the Mission to the failure to build new housing. "When you have people with resources competing with people with fewer resources for a limited commodity, who's going to end up with that commodity?" David told Reason.

San Francisco's stringent rent control laws can slow that process. In buildings that were constructed prior to June of 1979, which describes about three-quarters of the city's existing rental properties, landlords can't increase rent by more than the rate of inflation. One year, owners of controlled units were allowed to boost rents by just 0.1 percent. In the Mission, this has allowed some long-term tenants to stay put, but rent control discourages new housing construction and merely delays the inevitable. When a tenant dies or moves out, landlords can raise the rent to market levels.

The city has tried to slow gentrification by requiring that all new buildings set aside a portion of their apartments for subsidized housing. In the case of Tillman's project, 11 percent of the units would be available only to families that earn less than 55 percent of the area's median income.

Organizers with Calle 24 said this wasn't nearly enough. At Tillman's first hearing before the Planning Commission, advocates asked for another delay to work out a deal for him to sell the laundry to a nonprofit that would use donations and government subsidies to build 100 percent affordable housing.

In November of 2017, the Planning Commission approved Tillman's project over the fierce objections of anti-development activists. After the Commissioners rejected another delay tactic, Calle 24 appealed the ruling to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the city's primary legislative body. That process would take another seven months.

Tillman feared his project was dead. The laudromat is in an area of the city represented by Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who's closely allied with the community groups fighting to stop the project. (Ronen didn't respond to Reason's interview request.) When the 11 members of the legislative body consider a local project, they generally defer to the supervisor who has home jurisdiction.

The Supervisors held a public hearing on the project on June 19, 2018. Four and a half years into the process, Ronen and the other Supervisors raised a new issue: Citing the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), an environmental law, they expressed concern that the building would cast a partial shadow on a playground next door. The Supervisors voted to delay the project.

Tillman says such shadows are not a legitimate grounds for appeal under CEQA, and that the Supervisors manufactured the issue to delay his plans further. So he sued San Francisco for $17 million in damages, or what he says his building would have generated thus far if not for the city's illegal delays. Litigation is rare tactic by San Francisco developers, who fear political retaliation on future developments. With only one project, Tillman had less to lose.

But in October of 2018, just two months after Tillman filed his lawsuit, the Planning Commission delivered a surprise. It had independently studied the shadow issue and found that it wouldn't have a significant negative impact on the playground next door. The Commission quickly reapproved the project, and Calle 24 declined to appeal.

Tillman finally has the green light to move forward, but he hasn't yet withdrawn his lawsuit out of concern that the Board of Supervisors is devising new ways to try to derail his project.

"We're in a hole," says Tillman. "And the first rule of holes is when you're in a hole, stop digging."



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