Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in the United States and abroad:
Miami Herald on balancing security and privacy:
A tough and thorough report by an independent panel of experts last week should be all the justification that President Obama needs to make critical changes in the National Security Agency's spy programs to protect Americans' privacy without undermining national security.
Until now, President Obama has tried to deflect criticism of the NSA secret surveillance projects that a federal judge last week labeled "nearly Orwellian." The president has offered soothing assurances that he understands why the public is worried, but he has never committed to undertake the changes necessary to ensure a minimum level of privacy. It's time to stop talking and start acting.
The report by a five-member panel of intelligence and legal experts appointed by the president himself stopped short of recommending the dismantling of NSA programs designed to prevent acts of terrorism. Nor should they have. The threat of terrorism on American soil remains very real.
But does that mean that the public has to surrender a reasonable expectation of privacy in communications, either by phone or in cyberspace? The NSA's excesses, responding to orders from two administrations and from Congress, went far beyond what is necessary to maintain a proper balance between security and the right to be free of a smothering level of surveillance.
Among the most important is the recommendation that the data gleaned from systematically collecting the logs of every American's phone calls — so-called metadata — should be held in private hands (phone companies or some sort of private consortium) and not by the government itself. The NSA would have to get a judge's order to perform "link analysis" on any stored record.
The president is expected to announce next month what he intends do about the secrecy programs. He should embrace those changes that provide greater accountability and enhance the civil liberties of Americans. If there are recommendations he cannot accept, he must make a persuasive case to the public as to why.
Boston Herald on "Haters" want Congress to work:
Journalist Michael Kinsley once defined a political gaffe as when someone "accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head." In other words, a gaffe is when a political player accidentally tells the truth. This appears to be what happened in a recent Washington Post story.
Tens of millions of Americans disapprove of the way both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are doing their jobs. According to the hometown paper for America's political class, this makes them "Haters."
You read that right.
According to the Post's view of the world, there are now three teams in American politics: those who approve of Democrats, those who approve of Republicans and the Haters. This is how the paper officially labeled people like me, even as it notes that we're a "significant and growing share of the electorate."
This wasn't just a casual reference by a lazy journalist. Not only did the paper of the political elite produce tables and graphics with the "Haters" label; they wrote an entire article about how "Haters Gonna Hate."
It's hard to find anybody who would disagree with the group's perspective of Congress. We're talking about a Congress that can't produce a budget, but did produce an unworkable health care law. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress think it's OK for the National Security Agency to read our emails and listen to our phone calls. Both parties are comfortable with crony capitalism and happy to steer sweetheart deals to their friends and allies.
Even worse, election practices that protect incumbents mean that 90 percent of us have absolutely no say who "represents" us in Congress. We are simply assigned to a congressman or woman who cares little about what we think.
Given those realities, people who disapprove of both parties in Congress might best be described as realistic or pragmatic.
Those of us who disapprove of both parties in Congress are simply waiting for Congress to do something worthy of our approval.
The Anniston (Ala.) Star on Obama's optimism:
President Barack Obama predicts 2014 will be a "breakthrough year for America." That may be a tough goal to reach.
In Washington alone, consider the difficulties: Political gridlock is rampant. Midterm elections are bound to ramp up the partisanship. Republican opposition to virtually anything Obama touches is intense and shows no signs of stopping. And some of the nation's top legislative priorities — the Affordable Care Act, stronger guidelines on background checks for gun purchases, federal-level immigration reform, for instance — are either wrapped in controversy or going nowhere.
Friday morning, the president held his annual year-end news conference where he offered frank views about his signature legislation, Obamacare, and the controversy over the scope of the National Security Agency's activities.
On the rollout of Obamacare: "We screwed it up."
On the NSA: "I have confidence that the NSA is not engaged in domestic surveillance or snooping around, (but) we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence."
On his polls, which are sagging after the health-care website debacle: "If you're measuring this by polls, my polls have gone up and down a lot over the course of my career."
It's understandable that Obama, finishing his fifth year in the White House, would try to convey a message of optimism as the new year approaches. Hope is always good.
But despite the faults of the Obama administration — the Obamacare rollout; his failure to adequately sell the American public on the need for health-care reform; its profound lack of transparency and openness — much of 2014's promise rests in the hands of D.C. lawmakers.
U.S. government is not a one-man show; the Founders saw to that. So Obama enters his sixth year as president needing a combative Congress, particularly the GOP-controlled House, to meet him halfway on issues both thorny and easy to solve.
Recent years give us little of the president's optimism, even though the economy is slowly improving and the financial markets are riding an extended upswing. Despite the Tea Party's diminished influence, congressional Republicans seem hell-bent on governing against the president, not for the people. Until that brick wall is breached, Washington will be what it is.
Star Tribune, Minneapolis, on the least forgiving president of modern times:
In the same news cycle Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would free more than 20,000 inmates from his country's prisons, President Barack Obama announced a rather less grand gesture of clemency. He commuted the sentences of eight people convicted of crack-cocaine offenses — all of whom have served at least 15 years — and used his pardon power to erase the criminal records of 13 miscellaneous ex-offenders.
Even this mingy and belated use of presidential clemency power was enough to make news. The American Civil Liberties Union noted that until then, "Obama had only pardoned 39 people and commuted only one sentence, which is the fewest by any president in recent history."
According to the Washington Post, one of the administration's motives was, oddly, its wish to help "eliminate overcrowding in federal prisons."
If that's the case, Obama is trying to bail out Lake Michigan with a paint can. The federal prison population has increased by more than 700 percent since 1980 and the number of inmates now exceeds the Bureau of Prisons bed capacity by 35 percent to 40 percent, requiring the use of contract prisons, halfway houses and other makeshifts.
Even if the president could free another batch of eight prisoners every week for a year, his mercy will still have touched only about one-fifth of 1 percent of the inmates in federal prisons. The 2 million serving time at the state level will need to look to their governors for relief.
The War on Drugs is the single biggest driver of our bloated prison population, especially at the federal level, where thousands are serving sentences under mandatory-minimum laws that put low-level nonviolent offenders behind bars for decades, or even life. Although Congress finally acted in 2010 to reduce the notorious crack/cocaine disparity responsible for many insanely long sentences — in part because of years of complaint from judges loath to be parties to injustice — it declined to apply the changes retroactively to sentences already handed down.
Another shake-up of pardon procedures is overdue. The initiative needs to come from the White House, and commuting eight sentences barely counts as a start.
Walter Olson is senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of several books on the American legal system.
Kansas City Star on the economic wheel spins as textile jobs return to U.S.:
In his pre-vacation press conference, President Barack Obama put out the notion that 2014 could be a breakthrough year. Outgoing Federal Reserve Chairman Benjamin Bernanke last week announced the central bank's optimism. And daily headlines report encouraging developments with increasing frequency.
One of the more telling indicators of economic recovery in recent days appeared in the Wall Street Journal, which reported on a hopeful trend: Chinese and other Asian textile manufacturers were relocating operations to the American South.
At least four plants in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina have opened or are in the works, because of a curious shift in economic details. It's now cheaper to produce the yarn in the United States — largely because of lower energy costs — and ship it to Latin American fabricators, who, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), return finished goods to the states duty free.
We're a long way from a convincing reversal of fortune. As of November, the Journal reported, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 114,900 textile jobs in the U.S., compared with 477,300 about 20 years ago.
Still, it seems to be a viable trend. And, perhaps it's just one of those inevitable points in the cycle of industrial evolution and disruption. For decades, of course, the American textile business was centered in the northeastern states. In the latter half of the 20th century, businesses headed south to take advantage of cheaper labor costs. (In the late 1950s, my grandfather won recognition in Maine after having helped land a new tenant for a long abandoned textile mill.) And then, of course, even cheaper labor could be found overseas.
Now the circle comes back around.
And perhaps you've also noticed the recent heart-tugging TV ads from Kia Motors, which tout the Korean company's vehicles now made in a plant in Georgia.
Much has been made in the political arena in recent years about offshoring of American jobs. These developments might be indicating that economic recovery and thus better times for American workers are gaining traction.
The Japan Times on The Emperor's call for peace:
Emperor Akihito on Monday celebrated his 80th birthday, becoming the second emperor to have passed this milestone while on the throne, following his father, Emperor Showa. The Emperor, who ascended to the throne on Jan. 7, 1989, has been trying to be true to the spirit of the war-renouncing Constitution and to be with people in both joy and hardship. We extend our heartfelt congratulations to him and pray that he will be blessed with good health and longevity.
At a news conference on Dec. 18, the Emperor expressed his deep thought about war and peace. Asked to tell any events that have left special impression on him, he said at the very beginning, "I would say that what stands out most in my mind is the Second World War." Now that the memories of war are rapidly disappearing, it is all the more important for Japanese to deeply think about the message the Emperor tried to convey — especially so for Diet members, the prime minister and his Cabinet members, most of whom have not experienced war but who have the power to influence the fundamental direction of Japan.
Rightfully the Emperor mentioned not only the war that started with Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 8, 1941, but also Japan's war in China, which began in the 1930s. It should be remembered that Japan's undeclared war of aggression in China with no clear purposes declared led to its reckless and devastating war with the United States, Britain and the Netherlands.
The Emperor summarized the wretchedness of war by saying, "About 3.1 million Japanese people are said to have lost their lives in that war. It still pains me deeply to think that so many people, who must have had various dreams and hopes for the future, lost their lives at a young age."
Japanese should ponder on what the Emperor said about the Constitution and postwar reforms: "After the war, Japan was occupied by the allied forces, and based on peace and democracy as values to be upheld, established the Constitution of Japan, undertook various reforms and built the foundation of Japan that we know today."
After the 3/11 disasters, the Emperor and Empress Michiko visited the disaster areas many times. In October, he said in front of Minamata disease victims that he would like to work toward "creating a society where people can live upholding the truth." The Emperor continues to turn his thoughts to the socially weak. We hope that his official duties will be lightened so that he can concentrate on activities he believes are the most important.
The Khaleej Times on the fourth transition:
With Tassaduq Hussain Jillani's elevation to chief justice of Pakistan, the country has completed a third transition in the outgoing year. A historic political transition saw power transferred from one elected government to another, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif assuming office for a record third time. The next transition was also smooth, with the change of command in the army.
But it is the fourth transition that will be the most consequential for the country's future. This is the economic transition — from a crisis economy, perpetually on the brink, to an economy of growth and investment, powered by the mobilization of national resources rather than a reliance on unsustainable domestic and foreign borrowing or assistance.
Having made economic revival his top priority, Sharif has much to draw on from his party's election manifesto to give strategic direction to this critical transition. The manifesto promised to accord central importance to raising tax revenue and reduce dependence on foreign loans. It pledged to address the budget and balance of payments deficits, resolve the energy crisis and boost the investment climate.
Having identified these priorities the government acted quickly in its first few months to strike a balance between economic stabilization and stimulating growth. They included fiscal consolidation measures, raising electricity tariffs as part of a larger energy strategy and signaling the resolve to rapidly pursue privatization.
The government acknowledged by its early steps that creating fiscal space and encouraging investment was necessary to foster economic growth. Having set this policy direction it now has to sustain the momentum and translate intentions into action. It also means that, as promised, the government has to move decisively to implement comprehensive tax reforms. This is not politically easy and will require difficult decisions in a complex environment.
This involves dismantling the regime of concessions and privileges, which were granted over the years to special interests and individuals by statutory regulatory orders (SRO). The SRO culture has cost the economy billions in lost revenue, created an uneven playing field for business and undercut any notion of tax equity.
The prime minister has often urged the opposition to keep politics out of efforts to fix the economy. He should consider beginning the new year calling for a national consensus around a set of measures that can help to secure the goal of an economically resilient Pakistan.