Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Washington Post on the opioid epidemic affecting life expectancy:
In almost every developed country, life expectancy at birth has trended predictably and steadily upward for decades, with slight hiccups from time to time, usually lasting just a year and often triggered by major epidemics. The United States, in the grip of an escalating opioid addiction and overdose crisis, has now recorded its second straight year of declining life expectancy, a nearly unheard-of event for a rich Western nation and its first such downturn in nearly 60 years.
That should be a wake-up call for the Trump administration, which has talked a fine game about the opioid epidemic but done too little to address it. A far greater sense of urgency is needed to address what has become one of the gravest public-health threats to the United States in living memory.
On Dec. 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy in 2016 fell to 78.6 years, a second consecutive and statistically significant annual decline of a tenth of a year. The back-to-back drops coincided with an average annual increase in opioid-related overdose deaths of about 20 percent, and a staggering one-year surge in 2016 in which 42,249 people — an official tally that may understate the real scope of the problem by thousands — died of that cause. More bad news: Early signs are that drug-related deaths continued to climb in 2017, which could contribute to a third straight year of falling life expectancy, something that hasn't happened since the Spanish flu swept the country a century ago.
It would be a mistake to see the fall in life expectancy as part of a broad decline in American public health. Infant mortality continues to drop, and death rates from heart disease, cancer, flu, diabetes, kidney disease and other causes are mainly flat or falling. Rather, the main culprits are known as "diseases of despair" — especially drug overdoses and suicide. And the main victims are men, especially working-class young and middle-aged men, for whom the overdose death rate is twice that of women.
Mindful of the soaring toll, President Trump appointed a presidential commission on combating drug addiction and the opioid crisis, which recommended last summer that the president declare a national emergency, as he has pledged to do. That would have freed up funding from the national Disaster Relief Fund. Instead, in October he declared a public-health emergency, a lesser designation and one that has not unlocked game-changing amounts of federal dollars.
At the highest levels, the administration's response to the crisis has been sluggish, characterized by boastful rhetoric but stagnant funding. Mr. Trump has spoken of the government producing "really tough, really big, really great advertising," as if a Nancy Reagan just-say-no approach were adequate to the task of tackling a complex public-health scourge. He said the administration would crack down on the synthetic opioid fentanyl, manufactured in China, and endeavor to develop non-addictive painkillers as an alternative to opioids. But where is the funding?
The New York Times on investing in infrastructure:
The Amtrak derailment near Tacoma, Wash., that killed three people last week may well have been partly the individual failure of an engineer who was going much too fast. It was also, however, yet another demonstration of this country's collective, continuing failure to invest in infrastructure.
Though their inquiries are not complete, investigators have determined that the train, which was going from Seattle to Portland, Ore., was traveling at 78 miles per hour as it approached a turn that has a 30-mph speed limit. The circumstances are eerily similar to a 2015 Amtrak crash near Philadelphia in which eight people were killed when a train derailed as it sped through a sharp curve.
In both cases, the trains were operating without the benefit of a system known as positive train control, which can automatically slow down or stop a train when human operators fail to do so. This technology is not some hot new thing. The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending it for nearly half a century. For various reasons — including bureaucratic inertia and penny-pinching — many railroads still don't have functioning systems in place.
In 2008, after a rail accident in California killed 25 people, Congress required all railroads to install positive train control by the end of 2015. But after many railroads complained that they were not close to completing the task, lawmakers in late 2015 gave them another three years to comply. They also allowed the Department of Transportation to grant extensions of an additional two years on a case-by-case basis if railroads achieved certain milestones.
While some railroads like Metrolink in Southern California now use the technology, many railroads, including New Jersey Transit, have made far too little progress, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The industry, which includes many private freight railroads, clearly deserves much of the blame for dragging its feet. But so do federal and state governments, which have not only failed to push the industry harder but have never appropriated enough money to allow public transit agencies to upgrade their systems or held railroad officials accountable for delays. Amtrak says most of its Northeast Corridor has a functioning positive train control system, but that is not true across its national network, which includes track and equipment that is owned and has to be updated by other companies and agencies.
The halting progress is emblematic of the country's larger transportation problems — its potholed roads, dysfunctional subways, dilapidated bridges and shabby airports. Some had hoped this would change under President Trump, who promised during the election to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure. Last week, he wrote on Twitter that the Amtrak derailment "shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly."
It is hard to take this declaration seriously, though, given his administration's lack of effort. The White House raised hopes when it held an "infrastructure week" in early June. It's understandable if you don't recall anything about that week; it was all smoke and mirrors. The one document from which we might actually learn something about the administration's intentions — the 2018 budget — proposes a long list of cuts. Grants to Amtrak would be slashed by $630 million, or 45 percent; the Capital Investment Grants program, which supports rail and transit projects around the country, would lose $928 million, or 43 percent; a popular $500 million transportation program known as Tiger, which invests in road, rail, transit and port projects, would be eliminated.
According to some recent press reports, the administration is now developing a plan that would shift much of the burden of new spending on infrastructure to state and local governments and the private sector. This will not work. The recently passed Republican tax bill will make it very difficult for state and local governments to raise new money because its citizens will no longer be able to deduct state and local taxes from their federal income taxes. And while private investors would be interested in revenue-generating projects like toll roads, they are unlikely to fund safety improvements like positive train control.
If Mr. Trump were serious, he would get Congress to increase direct federal spending on infrastructure and pay for it by repealing some of the giant tax cuts it just handed to corporations and wealthy families. That's a pipe dream, of course. Just like Mr. Trump's promises to rebuild America.
The Japan News on whether recent legislation in the United States can lead to an improvement in business:
Can the United States achieve the goal of propping up the economy through a virtuous circle in which corporate tax cuts encourage new investment and tax reductions for individuals boost consumption? Success or failure will affect the future course of the world economy.
Legislation for the biggest tax cuts in about 30 years has been approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate of the U.S. Congress. The bill will be signed into law by President Donald Trump.
The overall scale of the tax reduction, involving corporate and personal income taxes, will amount to about $1.5 trillion over the coming decade.
Trump boasted of the legislation, saying it will bring about "the largest tax cut in the history of our country."
The federal corporate tax rate will be lowered from 35 percent to 21 percent next year. The effective corporate tax rate, which includes local tax, will be decreased from around 41 percent to around 28 percent, which is lower than the levels in such countries as Japan and Germany.
The corporate tax cut will boost U.S. firms' competitiveness and at the same time will also bring about benefits to Japanese businesses operating in the United States. A positive effect on corporate achievements can also be expected due to such factors as high stock prices in anticipation of business expansion.
Chairman Akio Mimura of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the U.S. tax cut "will certainly stimulate business."
A worrying matter is that a corporate tax cut happening at once in the United States, whose rate is the highest among major nations, may accelerate the global competition in carrying out tax reductions. Individual countries must pay heed to striking a balance in taxation.
Beware fiscal deficit surge
The U.S. tax legislation calls for lowering the maximum individual income tax rate and expanding deductions for all taxpayers. This tax reduction plan is aimed at lessening tax burdens on all brackets of income earners and thus accelerating the expansion of consumption.
But the polarization of income is conspicuous in the United States. If consumption by middle-income earners lacks vigor, it is hardly possible to expect tax revenue recovery through economic improvement.
The Reaganomics economic policy put forth 30 years ago stimulated business via tax cuts, but at the same time expanded fiscal deficits, thus leading to "twin deficits," with the other being a trade deficit. Striking a balance between huge tax cuts and fiscal soundness is not an easy task.
The tax bill also incorporated the curtailment of the Obamacare medical insurance program in order to scale back fiscal spending. A huge increase in the number of uninsured people will be a matter of concern. The U.S. government needs to keep a close watch on future developments.
This is the first time that one of Trump's major campaign pledges has been legislated.
Despite the Republican Party controlling both chambers of Congress, the bill for abolishing the Obamacare program and the budget plan related to construction of U.S.-Mexico "border walls" fell through. This is because there were confrontations between the White House and the mainstream Republican elements.
It can be said that the Republicans united to bring about a successful result ahead of midterm elections set for next fall.
The Democratic Party has been stepping up its opposition to the tax legislation, arguing that it is a tax reduction for the benefit of wealthy people.
The popular support rating for Trump has been standing at record lows in the 30-percent level. If white workers, who form a major support base for Trump, cannot feel the benefit of the tax reduction, the Republicans might fail in the midterm elections.
The Chicago Tribune on President Donald Trump defying Vladimir Putin by supplying arms to Ukraine:
In the annals of President Donald Trump's odd dealings with Russia's Vladimir Putin, give Trump credit for making a straightforward decision to defy Putin by supplying arms to Ukraine.
The State Department says the U.S. will provide Ukraine with "enhanced defensive capabilities" to protect itself against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. What this means, according to news reports, is that the U.S. is finally prepared to help Ukraine's military punch back in a murky conflict cooked up by Putin. American weapons going to Ukraine will include Javelin anti-tank missiles and sniper rifles.
You may be surprised to learn there still is a conflict in eastern Ukraine. Indeed there is, with reports of intensified shelling in recent days, though an ostensible cease-fire has been in place for more than two years. Violence there has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014 and driven 1.5 million people from their homes.
Putin is the scheming villain responsible for splintering Ukraine as part of his ambition to reassert Russian power. In 2014, he waltzed into Crimea (there is no better verb to describe his actions). Putin seized and annexed that vital region of Ukraine in the wake of Ukrainian political upheaval. He followed up by orchestrating the uprising in eastern Ukraine, intentionally destabilizing a country that had dreams of joining the European Union and NATO.
President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia but did little else after Putin took the Crimean Peninsula in what was the first big European land grab since World War II. Obama decided that providing lethal weapons to Ukraine would accomplish little but antagonize Putin. Yet refusing to arm Ukraine had the opposite effect: It emboldened Putin. Obama's hesitance is one reason why Russia-backed rebels control eastern Ukraine today.
Trump, who generally sees himself as an active defender of U.S. interests, has his own problems figuring out Putin. The president at times sounds strangely enamored with the Russian strongman. Certainly Trump's not the first American leader to underestimate Putin, but he's the first to sound admiring of a foreign aggressor whose government meddled in an American election.
U.S. officials have been signaling new support for providing Ukraine with arms. The point is not to encourage an escalation of fighting or draw Russia into direct confrontation with the United States but to make Russian interference in Ukraine more costly. "Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you are an aggressor and clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor since it is their own territory where the fighting is happening," Defense Secretary James Mattis said in Kiev in August.
Javelin missiles are tank killers. The separatists possess Russian armored vehicles. Are Russian soldiers fighting alongside the separatists? The Russian government insists it is not directly involved, but it's interesting to hear the concerned tone of Moscow's reaction to America providing arms. "The American weapons can lead to more victims in the neighboring country, and we couldn't stay indifferent to that," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.
Will that Russian reaction translate into a more lethal conflict? Yes. But war in Ukraine is a reality, and a West that flinches from the prolonged Russian incursion will only please Putin.
The bottom line is that Putin's meddling in the affairs of other states won't stop unless he is challenged. Trump has done that. Ukraine's ability to fight back against the separatists has been hampered by a lack of firepower. Now it will get some. Now Ukraine can punch back.
The Los Angeles Times on a federal judge's recent ruling that an American citizen who is suspected of fighting for the Islamic State group be given access to a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union:
For more than three months, the U.S. military has held an American citizen in secret custody in Iraq — without permitting him to see a lawyer. A federal judge rightly ruled over the weekend that the man, who is suspected of fighting for Islamic State, must be given "immediate" access to a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Trump administration should stop resisting and let the ACLU in. And it should make it clear to the military that in future cases, a U.S. citizen who asks for a lawyer for a criminal interrogation must receive one.
The unnamed man at the center of the case was born in the U.S. to Saudi parents. In early September, he surrendered to U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces pursuing an offensive against the Islamic State "capital" of Raqqa. He was turned over to U.S. forces, who classified him as an enemy combatant and interrogated him, without a lawyer, in an attempt to obtain intelligence. But a second interrogation for law enforcement purposes never began because the man asked to see a lawyer first.
Despite this clear statement of his intention, the Defense Department has resisted an attempt by the ACLU to talk to the detainee, claiming that the group lacked standing to intervene on his behalf because it hasn't met with him and doesn't know if he wants the group to file a habeas corpus petition on his behalf.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan dismissed this ludicrous argument as "disingenuous at best, given that the department is the sole impediment to the (ACLU's) ability to meet and confer with the detainee." She also said that she found "remarkable and troubling" the Pentagon's argument that the man's request for a lawyer should be ignored until officials can decide what to do with him. A government lawyer acknowledged that one possibility is that the man would be transferred to another country, presumably Saudi Arabia.
Chutkan's order is only the latest example of the federal judiciary — or, as President Trump might call them, "so-called judges" — acting to ensure that constitutional rights aren't extinguished as part of the war against terrorism. In 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that a U.S. citizen detained as an enemy combatant was entitled to due process. In the plurality opinion in that case, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that such a detainee must "be given a meaningful opportunity to contest the factual basis for that detention before a neutral decisionmaker." Four years later, the court held that even foreign enemy combatants held at Guantanamo could challenge their confinement in federal court, despite attempts by Congress to limit such appeals.
We know that some Americans balk at legal protections of any kind for suspected terrorists, even if they are U.S. citizens. Sometimes Trump seems to be among their number. In November, after the arrest of an alleged Islamic State sympathizer in a terrorist attack in New York, the president said that "these animals . go through court for years" and suggested that the way U.S. courts handled terrorism cases was "a joke and it's a laughingstock."
That's an alternative fact. Actually, civilian courts have proved to be effective — and usually expeditious — in bringing accused terrorists to justice, even during Trump's administration. But they aren't and shouldn't be rubber stamps for the prosecution. In November, a federal jury convicted Ahmed Abu Khattala of several charges connected with the 2012 attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed; but it acquitted him of murder.
International terrorism obviously poses special challenges, including the importance of acquiring intelligence that could prevent future attacks. Even the Obama administration, which emphasized the importance of trying terrorism cases in civilian courts, recognized that Miranda warnings could prevent a suspect from revealing information that might save lives. For example, after Abu Khattala was captured, officials interrogated him without a lawyer for five days on a U.S. Navy warship in search of useful intelligence. Then, after a two-day break, a separate team of FBI interrogators arrived, read him his Miranda rights and started a new line of questioning.
But if officials are going to use "intelligence interrogations" to evade Miranda rules, the courts should step in.
Judicial oversight of the treatment of suspected terrorists, including alleged enemy combatants, is especially vital because of the open-ended nature of the war against terrorism. Unlike President Obama, who at least gave lip service to the idea of having lawmakers define the scope of anti-terrorist activities in the Middle East and Africa, Trump seems to have no interest in the passage of a new congressional "Authorization for Use of Military Force." The Republican-controlled Congress seems equally uninterested in legislating any time limits on this war.
Again and again, the judicial branch has protected the liberties of U.S. citizens when the other branches were willing to see them eroded. The administration should comply with Chutkan's ruling and learn from it.
Sun Sentinel on seeing President Donald Trump's tax returns:
We won't know the full impact of the massive Republican tax bill for a year or two. Supporters and detractors have spewed opinions almost without restraint, though in candor, the Democrats seem to have more credible analysts on their side of the argument.
Only time will settle the macro-economic debate. It will take only a month or two of hard reporting to figure out what's buried in the 500-page bill that was hammered out in the wee hours by Republican dealmakers.
Who knows? We could wake up one morning and discover the Everglades National Park is for sale. More likely, Republicans will make good their stated goal to "fix" Social Security and Medicare, a fix that should make Floridians especially wary, given the state's heavy population of elderly.
While backers and detractors of the tax plan have exaggerated to one degree or another, it is the deal-maker-in-chief, President Donald Trump, who has won the war of rhetorical excess.
Trump calls the tax rewrite the biggest, most ambitious, most sweeping, most expansive economic boost to the working people of America than anything ever conceived — now and for all times.
And to counter assertions from the other side that the tax bill is a giveaway to the rich and privileged, he offers:
"This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me. Believe me. This is not good for me. It's not so. I have some very wealthy friends. Not so happy with me, but that's OK. You know, I keep hearing Schumer. 'This is for the wealthy.' Well if it is, my friends don't know about it. I think my accountants are going crazy right now."
His stream-of-consciousness speech to a crowd of supporters in St. Charles, Missouri, was a model of Trump-style incoherence and exaggeration bordering on prevarication.
Anyone asking to be believed twice in a 14-word sentence probably shouldn't be.
We will have to see his income tax returns to see how much he will be hurt under the provisions of the new tax code. But Trump refuses to release his returns, the only modern president to do so. And Congress refuses to compel him.
But this much is certain, the top personal tax rate drops from 39.6 percent to 37 percent and the estate tax is twice as generous. And treatment of pass-through income, the kind that applies to most Trump business, is dramatically lower in the new code. And, of course, if any of Trump's businesses operate under a corporate structure, that much-talked-about rate drops from 35 percent to 21.
So, at least on the surface, Trump's interests suffer none of the blows and enjoy almost all of the advantages in the new code. It's the hidden clunkers that will tell the real tale.
The tax return will settle the question once and for all. In typical Trump fashion, he started out with a promise to release his tax returns as have virtually all of his predecessors.
He modified his position to promise a release after the completion of an IRS audit. Told by the IRS that the audit wasn't a bar to release, he told us his tax return was none of our business.
But it is our business, President Trump. You gave up your financial privacy when you decided to run for public office.