Editorial Roundup: Excerpts from recent editorials

Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:


May 21

The Los Angeles Times on U.S.-Iran relations:

Apprehensions about an imminent military confrontation between Iran and the United States have subsided for the time being, after a tense period in which the Trump administration, citing heightened threats, sent an aircraft carrier and bombers to the region and the Pentagon reviewed contingency plans for war.

It now appears possible that Iranian actions that the administration interpreted as a preliminary to an attack on U.S. forces might in fact have been intended to thwart a feared U.S. attack. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has now said that "no one is seeking war," while President Trump has suggested that Iranian leaders "call me" so that negotiations could begin on a diplomatic deal involving nuclear and other issues.

Such a grand deal seems awfully unlikely at the moment. But at least the chances that ignorant armies — or in this case navies — will clash by night have been reduced for the time being.

Yet any sense of relief must be tempered by several troubling realities.

One is that the Trump administration continues to speak and act as if its goal wasn't just to deter or punish destabilizing activities by Iran but to encourage "regime change," diplomatic parlance for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. That's no recipe for diplomatic rapprochement.

The president seems to believe that his diplomacy with North Korea is a template for a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran.

A second concern is that, as in other areas of foreign policy, Trump and his most senior advisors might not be on the same page, creating confusion not only for Iran but also for U.S. allies. As Times columnist Doyle McManus recently noted, Trump and national security advisor John Bolton have sent conflicting signals not only on policy toward Iran but also on the future of U.S. troops in Syria and negotiations with North Korea over ending that country's nuclear-weapons program.

The president seems to believe that his diplomacy with North Korea is a template for a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran. The notion is that, just as he established a cordial relationship with Kim Jong Un after threatening North Korea with "fire and fury," he might also make a grand deal with Iran (even after tweeting over the weekend that an attack by Iran on the U.S. would mean "the official end of Iran").

The problem, of course, is that Trump's courtship of Kim, while it may have reduced tensions, hasn't led to the "rapid denuclearization" that is supposed to be the objective. Moreover, the U.S. has suggested that it doesn't seek to depose Kim in North Korea — while sending signals to the government in Tehran that its ouster might indeed be the goal.

Not only has Trump repudiated the international agreement under which Iran agreed to significant limitations on its nuclear program — an agreement with which Iran largely has complied — but the U.S. has also imposed sanctions that will make it harder for other signatories of the agreement, including America's European allies, to live up to their obligations.

Finally, the U.S. has demanded as a condition of any new agreement that Iran comply with 12 demands. Some deal with its nuclear program, directly or indirectly, but others target Iran's foreign policy, including its relationship with Shiite militias in Iraq and its support for militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

In a speech last year, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo described these as "basic requirements" for any agreement between the U.S. and Iran. Some of the demands are responses to destabilizing activities by Iran that the U.S. and its allies are absolutely right to condemn and challenge. But it's not surprising that Iran might see in the U.S. demands a series of ultimatums, not talking points for future negotiations. And it can hardly be lost on Iran that the Trump administration is more forgiving of destabilizing activities by its ally Saudi Arabia, such as that kingdom's bloody activities in Yemen's civil war.

A perception by Iran that the U.S. regards it as illegitimate inevitably will color perceptions of U.S. words and actions. If Trump is serious about his request that Iranian leaders call him and reopen negotiations, he and his advisors need to clarify that they seek to influence the behavior of Iran's government, not overthrow it.




May 20

The New York Times on the Morehouse College commencement speaker's vow to repay the student loans taken by the 396 men in this year's graduating class:

Around the turn of the last century, the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie paid to build 1,689 libraries across the United States. Many are still in use, celebrated as monumental works of philanthropy.

They should be seen as monuments to the failure of public policy. The United States could have built a lot more libraries by taxing the incomes of Carnegie and his fellow Gilded Age plutocrats, but, at the turn of the last century, there was no federal income tax.

Now history is repeating itself. A new generation of plutocrats has amassed great fortunes, in part because the federal government has minimized the burden of taxation. Americans once again are reduced to applauding acts of philanthropy necessitated by failures of policy.

Robert Smith, a wealthy financier, announced on Sunday during graduation ceremonies at Morehouse College that he would repay the student loans taken by the 396 men in this year's graduating class. The promise, which may cost Mr. Smith up to $40 million, was an act of generosity gratefully received by the new graduates of the historically black, all-male Atlanta college.

But their gratitude underscores the reality that hundreds of thousands of other members of the class of 2019 will be carrying unrelieved burdens of debt as they begin their adult lives.

On average, recipients of bachelor's degrees in 2016 left school owing about $30,301, according to the most recent federal data. Parents on average incurred another $33,291 in debt.

The substitution of philanthropy for public policy is most glaring in the realm of health care, where it has become appallingly common for Americans to beg friends and strangers for the money necessary to pay for treatment. The fund-raising website GoFundMe estimates that it hosts about 250,000 fund-raisers for medical expenses each year. Over the past nine years, the site has processed about $5 billion in donations — about a third of which went toward medical expenses. The site's chief executive has said that GoFundMe wasn't developed as a substitute for health insurance, and he regrets the necessity. "We shouldn't be the solution to a complex set of systemic problems," he said. "They should be solved by the government working properly."

The same dynamic is at work in higher education. Since 2001, a handful of elite institutions led by Princeton University have committed to tap their endowments to provide funding for students to graduate without loans. Last year, Michael Bloomberg pledged $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins to reduce the reliance of Hopkins students on borrowed money. But most American colleges, including Morehouse, lack the resources to make such a commitment. This is not merely a problem for students and their families. Economic growth requires an educated work force. Americans who entered their working primes in the 1990s were far more likely to have college degrees than their peers in other developed nations. Now the United States has fallen behind much of the developed world — and one reason is that the average cost of obtaining a college degree is among the highest for any developed nation.

The sea change at American public colleges and universities is particularly striking. Over the last quarter century, average tuition rose by 85 percent, adjusting for inflation, while average state spending measured on a per-student basis declined by roughly 5 percent.

A number of the Democratic candidates for president have proposed large increases in federal funding for higher education to offset the rise of tuition costs and the decline of state funding.

The problem facing policymakers is not merely a lack of will, but also a lack of money. The federal government collected 16.5 percent of the nation's economic output last year — well below the 17.4 percent average federal share over the last half century. The primary reason for the shortfall, of course, is the steady reduction of income taxation. No one has benefited more from that trend than financiers like Morehouse College's 2019 graduation speaker.

Mr. Smith co-founded the private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, which invests in software companies, and he has amassed his fortune thanks in part to a provision of federal tax law known as the "carried interest loophole" — a provision he has publicly supported.

Private equity firms skim a percentage of the returns from the investments they manage. That money is their compensation, but instead of being taxed as earned income, at a rate of up to 37 percent, it is taxed as investment income, at a rate of no more than 20 percent.

The loophole is projected to cost the government about $15.6 billion in lost revenue between 2016 and 2025. President Trump promised to close it during the 2016 campaign, and he promised to close it as part of his 2017 tax bill. But he did not keep that promise. Instead, the White House and congressional Republicans honored the wishes of the finance industry.

Closing that loophole would be a much better graduation present for the class of 2019.

An affordable college education should not require an act of largess. It should not require our applause. It merely requires adequate public investment, funded by equitable taxation.




May 20:

The Washington Post on Ukraine's new president:

Ever since Ukrainian television comedian Volodymyr Zelensky routed the country's established politicians in a presidential election last month, Western observers have puzzled over what to make of him. Is he truly the anti-corruption crusader he played on his television program, or is he a captive of the allegedly corrupt oligarch whose television network broadcast the show? Would he continue Ukraine's pro-Western foreign policy and stand up to Russia's Vladimir Putin, or would he allow himself to be manipulated by Moscow? Not all the answers are in, but Mr. Zelensky's inaugural speech on Monday offered some encouraging signs.

Mr. Zelensky called on the parliament to quickly remove its members' immunity from prosecution and pass a law allowing the prosecution of officials for illegal enrichment. He announced he was dissolving parliament early to allow for new elections, something that could allow him to leverage his popularity — he won 73 percent of the vote in a presidential runoff — into a pro-reform legislative majority. And he said that while his top priority would be ending Ukraine's war with Russian-backed forces in two eastern provinces, he would not give up Ukraine's territory — including Crimea, which Mr. Putin has declared part of Russia.

Mr. Zelensky could quickly become mired in legal disputes with his parliamentary opponents, who are contesting his authority to force an early election. Mr. Putin, for his part, is playing tough — he greeted Mr. Zelensky's victory by offering Russian passports to residents of eastern Ukraine, and his spokesman said Monday he would neither congratulate nor soon meet with the new president.

It nevertheless appears that Ukraine's new leader is trying to deliver desperately needed change in a country that, despite abundant resources, has been dragged down by endemic corruption as well as the conflict with Russia. Mr. Zelensky's predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, was himself an oligarch who staunchly resisted Mr. Putin's attempts to dismember the country but blocked critical reforms to the judiciary and other institutions.

A crucial test for the new president will be his handling of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who partnered with Mr. Zelensky on his television show and left the country after he was accused by Mr. Poroshenko's government of looting a bank. Western observers were alarmed when Mr. Kolomoisky suddenly returned to the country last week; if Mr. Zelensky installs the magnate's allies in his administration or reverses actions taken against him, the new administration could be instantly discredited.

In the meantime, Mr. Zelensky took a sensible step by calling on the parliament to approve the dismissal of the chief state prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, who has appeared open to an attempt by President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to enlist his interference in the 2020 U.S. election. Mr. Giuliani reportedly pressed Mr. Lutsenko to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, though there is no evidence of wrongdoing by either of them.

Mr. Zelensky may not have much political experience, but he appears to have enough common sense to resist allowing his new administration to be dragged into U.S. domestic politics. Mr. Giuliani and his boss ought to stop trying to make ill use of Ukraine's government and instead help its new president succeed.




May 20

The Wall Street Journal on the effects of Airbnb in cities:

When legacy businesses are threatened by new competitors, too often they respond by lobbying for regulation to quash them. It's notable, then, that Marriott recently announced it is starting a new home-rental business, putting the world's biggest hotel operator in direct competition with Airbnb, the world's largest home-rental business.

Many in the hotel industry have dismissed Airbnb or attributed its success to stealing business by running unregulated and untaxed illegal hotels. There has been little hard research on exactly how Airbnb affects the hotel market. But now three professors in hotel management and marketing — Tarik Dogru from Florida State, Makarand Mody from Boston University, and Courtney Suess from Texas A&M — have analyzed Airbnb's "disruptive impact" in 10 key markets. Their findings make a case for old-fashioned competition.

The sample cities are Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. These are the top-performing cities in supply of hotel and Airbnb rooms. The time frame covers the decade after Airbnb was founded in 2008.

Over this period the available accommodations in these cities dramatically increased, in good part thanks to the entry of Airbnb. The researchers weren't surprised to find a resulting loss in hotel revenue. For each 1% increase in Airbnb supply in a city, hotel revenue declined by 0.02%.

Given how much Airbnb supply is coming online each year, that can be a big hit to hotels. In New York City in 2016, it could have meant a loss of as much as $365 million depending on the price of the rooms that went unrented because of Airbnb.

The news is brighter for consumers. The arrival of Airbnb has meant more choices — including rooms less expensive than in a hotel — and the resulting competition seems to have brought down room prices in hotels.

The authors say that expanding the supply of rooms also helps cities accommodate more people during peak visiting seasons, or during big events such as a Super Bowl. Beneficiaries of Airbnb also include restaurants and shops where more visitors mean more customers. Mr. Dogru, one of the co-authors, notes that some people like staying in a hotel whose name and brand they trust, but Airbnb appeals to people seeking unique experiences that reflect the place they're visiting.

As with any disruptive new competitor, companies such as Airbnb bring out the regulators. And here the authors have a warning. "The application of excessive legislation driven by the interests of incumbent industries," they note, "has the potential to stifle innovation that ultimately benefits the consumer" and harms economic growth. Let the competition continue.




May 20

The Houston Chronicle on Julián Castro's immigration proposal:

There are almost two dozen Democrats running for president. There may be more by the time you finish reading this sentence. It is a diverse group, even among the 13 white male candidates, but other than their differences in gender, race or life story, what sets them apart from each other? What do they bring to the table other than the prospect of defeating President Donald Trump a year from November?

One thing they all should bring is ideas — and specifics on how to pay for them and to make them politically viable, too. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are often cited as the leaders in this area, and are earning reputations as the field's "idea candidates" through plans on how to tackle a host of issues. But this ignores Texas' own Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development secretary, who has also put out robust policy proposals that merit attention.

Immigration and education are big, divisive national issues on which Castro comes by his expertise naturally. Texas is a border state where its 4 million foreign-born residents have boosted its fortunes immeasurably, and which has the second-highest number of people in the country illegally, after California. And, as San Antonio mayor, Castro led on early childhood education, establishing a program to fund pre-K for disadvantaged children that has become a model for many proposed pre-K programs in and out of Texas.

Castro's ideas are worth examining, and his example like Sanders' and Warren's is one that other candidates should emulate. A campaign without ideas is an empty promise.

Castro breaks his immigration plan into three broad sections: He addresses immigrants already are here illegally and those who are coming, as well as offering support for Central American countries from which so many asylum-seekers are fleeing.

He would include a pathway to "full and equal citizenship," protection for Dreamers, changes to make it easier for families to reunite, stop the deportation of veterans, and strengthen labor protections for workers. These proposals would allow the estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally to emerge from the shadows, as well as end the uncertainty and anguish millions of mixed status families live in, when they can never know when their luck will run out and a family member will be detained.

Castro would also take the immigration courts away from the Department of Justice and place them within the judiciary. He would also adequately fund to those courts so they can hire enough judges and other workers to process immigration cases and asylum requests more quickly and more fairly.

It is a smart, pragmatic approach that is worthy of debate among the Democrats. It also reveals the president's recently unveiled immigration efforts as unfocused and lackluster, and directly counters Trump's claims that Democrats want "open borders, lower wages" and "lawless chaos."

Castro's education plan is also forward thinking and comprehensive.

He would launch high-quality, full-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds nationwide in an expanded version of San Antonio's Pre-K 4 SA. Studies have shown that the most cost-effective investment in education is high-quality pre-K, which better prepares children for school and gives them the emotional tools they need to have a better chance at success later in life. Disadvantaged children who benefit from early childhood education are more likely to finish college, are less involved in crime and have better health outcomes.

Castro proposes big changes in higher education, too. He would eliminate tuition at public universities, community colleges, and technical and vocational programs. He also proposes student-loan reform, including some debt forgiveness. The plan also boosts teacher pay, encourages parent involvement and extends the community schools model, which brings much-needed services to poor communities.

The other Texan in the race for the Democratic Party nomination, Beto O'Rourke, should take note of Castro's specifics. So far, the former El Paso congressman has focused on broader ideas and big-picture platitudes. Even his recent announcement, carried over the weekend on HoustonChronicle.com, that he favors smart gun control lacked the kind of specifics that make such proposals most credible.

There are dangers with telling people who you are. Castro's education effort comes with a $1.5 trillion price tag over 10 years, which he's suggested would be paid by rolling back and replacing the 2017 Republican tax cuts. The right won't like his push to end immigration agreements between federal and local law enforcement agencies and the far left will not like that he reforms, but does not abolish, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But it takes courage to stake out a claim and hope your opponents don't take that stake to your heart. It's just that kind of guts and big ideas that the country needs.

Thanks to their willingness to spell out their proposals in detail, voters know where Warren, Sanders and now Castro stand on these issues. Where are the other Democrats?




May 20

The San Francisco Chronicle on Trump administration's response to California wildfires:

California stands on the verge of yet another devastating wildfire season. So why is the Trump administration planning to slash the state's wildfire assistance payments?

Since 1961, California has had some form of agreement with the federal government to provide financial assistance for firefighting.

One of the most obvious reasons for this agreement the fact that 60% of California's forested land — which tends to be fire-prone — is owned by the federal government. Wildfires scoff at jurisdictional lines, and California firefighters battle blazes on federal land as well as they do on the state's.

So, it's puzzling that the U.S. Forest Service is accusing the state's local fire departments of overbilling the federal government.

The agency, which audited the most recent fire-service agreement in January, claims that California submitted inaccurate invoices. It's now threatening to cut millions of dollars' worth of funding.

"The requests for reimbursement were based on an estimate of expenses instead of the actual expenses incurred and the documentation provided did not fully support those actual costs," U.S. Forest Service National Press Officer Babete Anderson said in a statement.

It remains to be seen whether or not the Forest Service was influenced by President Trump's inaccurate Twitter rants. (In November 2018, he claimed without evidence that there was "no reason" for the deadly California wildfires other than that "forest management is so poor.")

State officials are rightly concerned.

"Given increased wildfire risks in recent years, I do not believe any action should be taken to jeopardize that (state-federal) partnership," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote in a May 14 letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen and Sonny Purdue, secretary for the Agriculture Department.

The agency told us it was "working cooperatively" with California to settle the dispute. Given the impeding disaster season, Gov. Gavin Newsom needs to make that cooperation a top priority. But it would help if the Trump administration wouldn't change direction mid-course.