Tuesday, January 31, 2017

This Prehistoric Human Ancestor Was All Mouth

An artist’s impression of Saccorhytus, the oldest known members of an ancient group called deuterostomes. CreditJian Han, Northwest University, China
About 540 million years ago, our ancestors were insignificant creatures no more than a millimeter in size. They wriggled around in the sediments of shallow seas, gulped prey into their minuscule, baglike bodies and expelled the water through cone-shaped spouts around their mouths.
Animals this small do not fossilize well, which is why this stage of the distant evolutionary past is so little known. A cache of 45 individuals has now been unearthed in Shaanxi Province, in central China. They are described in the Monday issue of the journal Nature by a team led by Jian Han of Northwest University in Xi’an, China.
The creatures are the oldest known members of an ancient group called deuterostomes, said Simon Conway Morris, a paleontologist at Cambridge University in England and a member of the team. Deuterostomes, which lie pretty close to the base of the family tree of all animals, are ancestral not just to humans but to a wide array of animals ranging from sea urchins and starfish to the vast family of vertebrates.
The deuterostomes, a name that means “mouth second” in Greek, were so called by anatomists to distinguish them from the protostomes, or “mouth firsters,” the other members of a vast group of animals with bilateral symmetry. In the early embryo — a sphere of cells formed shortly after the egg is fertilized — the protostomes form the mouth first, anus second. The deuterostomes do it the other way round.
But strangely, the new deuterostome fossils seem to have no anus, presumably using the mouth for evacuation. At least the researchers cannot see one. “Our material is generally crushed, and despite the superb preservation we might have overlooked the evidence,” Dr. Conway Morris said.
The fossils were found in rock strata, stated to be some 540 million years old in a news release issued by St. John’s College, Cambridge, of which Dr. Conway Morris is a fellow. The release describes the fossils as “the earliest known prehistoric ancestor of humans,” referring to their status as the earliest known deuterostomes. Although slightly older animal fossils are known, they lie on branches of the tree of life that do not lead to humans.

Trump and Trade: Extreme Tactics in Search of a Point

President Trump with Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon on Friday. Mr. Trump signed an executive order barring immigrants from certain countries from entering the United States. CreditStephen Crowley/The New York Times
John Mearsheimer, a noted political scientist at the University of Chicago, has long believed that China’s rise will not be peaceful. Tensions with the United States will simmer as the Asian giant expands its influence.
“Containment is an alternative to war against a rising China,” Professor Mearsheimer proposed in his book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.” “Nevertheless, war is always a possibility.”
On Nov. 8, the odds of war with China got shorter.
From his provocative phone call with Taiwan’s president that infuriated Beijing — which considers Taiwan a rogue, breakaway province — to his heated claims that China steals American jobs, President Trump “seems to be pursuing policies that raise the risk of an actual shooting war,” Mr. Mearsheimer said.
By promising to raise a 45 percent wall of tariffs against imports from China, Mr. Trump seems set to undercut the one solid counterargument used over the years against the professor’s grim outlook: that the United States and China would become too economically interdependent to risk a conflagration.
Continue reading the main story
War would be a uniquely bad idea. China, after all, has nuclear weapons. But perhaps what troubles the professor most is that Mr. Trump’s stand seems pointless. “One can justify provocative moves if they serve an important strategic goal,” Mr. Mearsheimer told me. “It is not clear what purpose these moves are designed to serve.”
And yet pointlessness is coming to define American foreign policy. Mr. Trump lacks an end game.
Security experts in the United States are baffled by Mr. Trump’s executive order abruptly barring entry by citizens from seven mostly Muslim countries, noting that it will ultimately put the security of the United States at risk by sending a uniform message of hostility to 1.6 billion followers of Islam.
In Mexico, government officials are scratching their heads about what Mr. Trump hopes to achieve by threatening to walk away from the trade agreement that has cemented bilateral relations for the last quarter-century. And who knows what Mr. Trump thinks the United States would stand to gain by leaving the World Trade Organization?
“What is a better Nafta?” asked Douglas Irwin, a trade historian at Dartmouth College. “He hasn’t said.”
The posturing is not entirely surprising. Mr. Trump’s proposals to wall off the United States from a variety of foreign influences fit the promises he made to his base of working-class white voters, resentful of how trade and immigration have changed the country they claim as their own.
But Mr. Trump seems not to have grasped how consequential his proposals are. He is offering to kick down the set of understandings that shaped the cooperative equilibrium among the Western market democracies for more than half a century — a network of military alliances and trade agreements that underpinned the global order after the end of World War II.
What’s more, he shows no evidence of knowing what kind of alternative order he would like to build in their place. He is proposing a series of self-inflicted wounds with no ulterior goal in mind.


How Deals Like Nafta Have Affected U.S. Trade

While trade has contributed to the growth of the American economy, the changing dynamics have also prompted concerns about lost jobs and the rising trade deficit. But when something is manufactured in the United States, the product is typically made up of parts and pieces from around the world.
Why did the United States enter into Nafta? In part because it believed it stood to gain from trade but also because it thought Mexico would gain, too, and understood the benefit of helping its southern neighbor into the club of prosperous market democracies. Why did it allow China into the World Trade Organization? Perhaps because it benefited from binding what would inevitably become the world’s largest economy with a set of American-designed trade rules.
Cordell Hull, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s long-serving secretary of state and a key architect of postwar foreign strategy, once wrote, “if we could increase commercial exchanges among nations over lowered trade and tariff barriers and remove unnatural obstructions to trade, we would go a long way toward eliminating war itself.”
Mr. Trump has little patience for this thinking. The president understands international relations as zero-sum competitions. To win at trade, one must export, he believes. Importers lose. Mutually beneficial, win-win solutions are a figment of some diplomat’s imagination. The idea that the Trans-Pacific Partnership might serve American interests by cementing critical alliances with China’s neighbors in Asia is nonsense.
Can he shape foreign policy around a worldview like that? “The trade deficit is the number that determines for him who wins and loses,” Professor Irwin said. “But trade deficits are not determined by trade agreements. Trade agreements just determine the rules for trade.”
There is, of course, the possibility that Mr. Trump is a strategic genius, out to gain an edge over the nation’s rivals by convincing them he is prepared to engage in irrational, self-defeating behavior. “In foreign affairs, it makes sense to be insane,” noted David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
President Richard Nixon also tried this, in the 1970s. The idea has intellectual pedigree, developed by the strategic thinker Thomas Schelling, who played a critical role in developing the strategy of nuclear deterrence based on mutually assured destruction.
And yet it is difficult to see the genius in Mr. Trump’s first days in office. For starters, the crazy-person strategy works only in pursuit of some rational objective. What’s his? Mr. Trump has yet to articulate one. Having a zero trade deficit is not it.
Then there is the fact that Mr. Trump’s macroeconomic strategy, which looks set to marry increased government spending with high interest rates, is in some tension with his objectives on trade: By strengthening the value of the dollar, it will make the trade deficit bigger.
Finally, the problems that the president has resolved to tackle have largely petered out on their own. More Mexican immigrants are leaving the United States than coming in. And Chinese exports to the United States are actually declining.
Supporters might think there is little harm to Mr. Trump’s foreign policy realignment, even if it doesn’t achieve lasting benefits. They might want to ponder a point that the Nobel laureate Robert M. Solow made: If somebody sat down next to you at a party and said he was Napoleon, would you engage in a discussion with him about cavalry tactics?
In other words, why get drawn into the minutiae of a technical discussion when the overall framework of the conversation is ludicrous? He was thinking of propositions by his fellow economists Robert E. Lucas Jr. and Thomas J. Sargent. Other countries, however, might apply it to the propositions of President Trump.
Last week, after Mr. Trump openly proclaimed that Mexico would pay for a border wall, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico canceled a visit to the United States. Other officials in Mexico have been working to build an argument that Mexico could hurt the United States, too, to deter American aggression.
What if every other country goes down this path? A new tit-for-tat world would most likely be uncomfortable for the United States as well. To end in a war with China would hardly be inconceivable.

Democrats Skip Votes, Delaying Confirmation of Trump Nominees


The Senate Finance Committee’s room was empty after Democrats boycotted confirmation votes on Tuesday for Representative Tom Price as secretary of health and human services and Steven Mnuchin as Treasury secretary. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee sought to stall the confirmations of Steven Mnuchin and Tom Price, President Trump’s picks for Treasury secretary and secretary of health and human services, by refusing to attend scheduled votes on Tuesday.

As Mr. Trump’s dramatic firing of his acting attorney general threw the capital into tumult, Democrats on Tuesday also seized on the contentiousness to try to block Senator Jeff Sessions’s nomination as attorney general because they said he was too close to Mr. Trump.

In describing their tactic of boycotting the votes on nominees to treasury and to health and human services, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said that recent news reports suggested Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Price had given false statements in their nomination hearings. He said more information was needed before making judgments about the nominees.

“We have made clear that we need additional information,” Mr. Wyden said.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, assailed the nominees for failing to be honest with the committee.


Hatch Denounces Boycott by Democrats

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, rebuked Democrats for boycotting the committee vote on Steven Mnuchin to be Treasury secretary and Tom Price to head the Health and Human Services Department.

By REUTERS. Photo by Al Drago/The New York Times. Watch in Times Video »

“The truth matters,” she said. “That’s not what has been happening here.”
Republicans expressed dismay at the delay. “I think this is a completely unprecedented level of obstruction,” said Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican from Pennsylvania.

But with a Supreme Court vacancy nearing its 12-month point after a long blockade by Republicans, Democrats were not exactly feeling the heat, at least not yet.

During a morning-long hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats painted Mr. Sessions as an extremist legal savant for Mr. Trump in support of right-wing ideologies, while Republicans portrayed him as a whip-smart lawyer and law-and-order prosecutor who would enforce the law as written.

“How could we possibly conclude that this nominee will be independent?” asked Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.


Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned whether Senator Jeff Sessions, the nominee for United States Attorney General, could maintain his independence from President Trump. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

She said that Sally Q. Yates, the former acting attorney general fired late Monday, showed “guts” and independence in refusing to defend Mr. Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven largely Muslim countries.
“I have no confidence that Senator Sessions will do that,” Ms. Feinstein said.
Democrats hope to turn the tumult into a referendum on Mr. Sessions, an Alabama Republican, and whether he would have the independence to serve as the nation’s chief law enforcement official after emerging as one of Mr. Trump’s closest advisers in the presidential campaign.

Democrats are already calling it “the Monday night massacre” after Mr. Trump fired Ms. Yates, the acting attorney general, for refusing to defend his immigration order in court.

Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in opening the hearing that there was still “no mystery” whether Mr. Sessions would be confirmed, since the Republicans hold a majority. He urged approval of Mr. Sessions as quickly as possible to restore leadership at the Justice Department.
At Mr. Sessions’s nomination hearing this month, Democrats challenged him repeatedly about whether he would have the independence to stand up to Mr. Trump if the president veered into legally questionable terrain. Mr. Sessions assured the lawmakers that he would be able to “say no” to the president and would not be a “mere rubber stamp for the president.”

Mr. Sessions said he was not involved in drafting the contentious executive order on immigration.
Republicans showed no sign of breaking rank as they defended Mr. Sessions, a friend of many senators who served alongside a number of them on the committee.

The hearing evolved into dueling portraits of what Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, called “two different people.”
Senator John Cornyn, the Texas Republican, scoffed at the “faux outrage” from Democrats who cast Ms. Yates’s stance as a “a Watergate-style act of political courage.”

Democrats, he said, were unfairly making Mr. Sessions the target of their anger because they “still seem to be upset about the results of the election.”

Competitiveness Games from Paul Krugman's Blog

I’ve noted in the past that I get the most vitriolic attacks, not when I denounce politicians as evil or corrupt, but when I use more or less standard economics to debunk favorite fallacies. Sure enough, lots of anger over the trade analysis in today’s column, assertions that it’s all left-wing bias, etc..
So maybe it’s worth noting that Greg Mankiw’s take on the economics of DBCFT is basically identical to mine: subsidy or tax cut on employment of domestic factors of production, paid for by sales tax. Greg and I disagree on whether replacing profits taxes with sales taxes is a good idea, but agree that all of this has nothing to do with trade and international competition – because it doesn’t.
I suspect, however, that Greg is being naïve here in assuming that we’re just seeing confusion because border tax adjustment sounds as if it must involve competitive games. There’s some of that, for sure, but one reason the competitiveness thing won’t go away is that it’s an essential part of the political pitch. “Let’s eliminate taxes on profits and tax consumers instead” is a hard sell, even if you want to claim that the incidence isn’t what it looks like. Claiming that it’s about eliminating a dire competitive disadvantage plays much better, even though it’s all wrong.
To be fair, these tax-and-trade issues are kind of two-ibuprofen stuff at best. But confusions persists even longer than usual when they serve a political purpose.


For Leaders of U.S. Allies, Getting Close to Trump Can Sting

By Steven Erlanger

LONDON — It had all been going so well.

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain had just left Washington on Friday evening after a tense but successful first visit with President Trump for a 10-hour flight to Ankara, Turkey, for her next awkward encounter, with the increasingly autocratic Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

By the time she had landed in Turkey, however, Mr. Trump had signed his executive order halting entrance to the United States of all Syrian refugees and of most citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Mrs. May was beginning to feel the backlash.

After she termed the executive order an American issue, criticism erupted even among her own members of Parliament. She was accused of appeasement by a former British diplomat. Protesters gathered outside Downing Street on Monday night, and more than 1.5 million signatures collected on an internet petition demanding that Mrs. May rescind her invitation for Mr. Trump to visit Queen Elizabeth II.

A close relationship with any American president is regarded as crucial by allies and foes alike, but especially by intimates like Britain, Canada, Japan and Mexico. Yet like moths to the flame, the leaders of those nations are finding that they draw close at their peril.

While Mrs. May is the latest prominent figure to suffer repercussions for her handling of Mr. Trump, the leaders of those other three close allies have also felt the sting of public anger soon after what seemed to be friendly telephone calls or encounters. They then find themselves facing a no-win situation, either openly criticizing the leader of their superpower ally or pulling their punches and risking severe criticism at home.

One Western leader to escape this fate so far is the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who has kept a cool distance from Mr. Trump. In a telephone call on Saturday, she reminded him of Washington’s obligations under the Geneva Conventions to accept refugees fleeing war, a view underlined by her official spokesman.

The danger of playing nice with Mr. Trump should come as little surprise to his country’s allies. Besides campaigning on an “America First” platform, he has regularly argued that allies have been taking the United States for a ride, in trade, security and financial terms.

While he has been cordial in public settings with the leaders of those allied nations, Mr. Trump has turned on them soon afterward.

“The problem for May is that Trump doesn’t value relationships. He values strength and winning,” said Jeremy Shapiro, the director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official. “If you rush to the White House to offer a weak hand of friendship, you guarantee exploitation.”

While Mr. Trump’s executive order was clearly not aimed at Britain, he signed it on Friday, just a few hours after Mrs. May left. “You can show up at his doorstep and hold his hand so he doesn’t fall down a ramp, but that doesn’t mean a few hours later when he’s signing an order he thinks at all about how it affects you, your politics or your citizens,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Particularly problematic for Mrs. May was her offering the invitation to Mr. Trump to undertake a state visit with Queen Elizabeth II this year, which was accepted. The internet petition to Parliament calling for the cancellation of the invitation says the visit “would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen.”

By Monday evening in Britain, there had been more than 1.5 million signatures, and some were enjoying themselves watching the numbers rise in real time. At a large protest outside Downing Street, people urged Mrs. May to cancel the state visit and said that while relations with Washington were important, they should be cooler toward Mr. Trump.

Amber Curtis, 21, a film student who is half-British and half-Iranian, said that she worried for her family and friends in America. “It sends a bad message if he comes here after this ban,” Ms. Curtis said of Mr. Trump. “I wouldn’t say that I want no relationship at all, but he cannot come here under the terms of this ban. The terms need to be renegotiated.”
Negma Yamin, 50, a teacher of Pakistani origin, was in tears. “I’m so upset as a fellow Muslim; I hate the persecution,” she said. Mrs. May “should absolutely have no relationship with him,” she added. “You can’t negotiate with a person like that. What is he going to do with the people? He’s dividing the U.S., he’s dividing the world.”

On Monday, Downing Street insisted that the invitation stood. But who knows how Mr. Trump will react?

The Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has had a similar experience to Mrs. May’s — twice. Last year, in the name of conciliation and dialogue, he invited Mr. Trump to Mexico, a somewhat questionable move given Mr. Trump’s contempt for Mexico and his promises to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, raise tariffs, deport millions of Mexicans, and build (or finish) a border wall and make the southern neighbor of the United States pay for it.

The visit was widely viewed in Mexico as a national humiliation. It left Mr. Trump looking stronger and Mr. Peña Nieto looking weaker, especially when Mr. Trump, in an immigration policy speech in Phoenix the same day, insisted again that Mexico would pay for the wall.

Mr. Peña Nieto persisted after Mr. Trump’s election, apparently aiming, like Mrs. May, to influence the new president and to moderate what many hoped was just hyperbolic campaign talk. But just before the two men were to meet in Washington, Mr. Trump issued executive orders calling for the wall and greatly restricting immigration.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada moved swiftly to make contact with officials in the Trump administration and promoted ministers with experience in the United States.
An editorial in the Mainichi Shimbun, a center-right paper in Japan, questioned why Mr. Abe was not taking a stronger stand against Mr. Trump: “It is hard to understand why the prime minister is defending a president who destroyed the trade accord — formed after nearly six years of arduous negotiations — on his fourth day in office.”

Given the stakes, Mr. Abe has refrained from open criticism of Mr. Trump and is scheduled to meet with him in Washington early in February.

The Trump effect has been felt even in Australia, where Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has come under criticism for saying it is not his job to comment on the domestic policies of other countries. This after securing a pledge from the president on Sunday to honor an Obama administration agreement to accept refugees detained on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus.

In Canada, too, the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has had his Trump moments. Mr. Trump is deeply unpopular in the country, but as Mr. Trudeau’s father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, once said, proximity to America “is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant; no matter how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

So instead of provoking a fight, Mr. Trudeau moved swiftly to make contact with officials in the new administration and reshaped his cabinet to promote ministers with experience in the United States.

Mr. Trump made problems right away for the Canadian leader by giving the go-ahead to the Keystone XL pipeline, putting Mr. Trudeau in an uncomfortable position between environmentalists and oil producers.

If Mr. Trump goes after Canada on trade issues, as seems likely, Mr. Trudeau is expected to become significantly more vocal and critical.

But to date he has avoided public criticism of the American president, a reticence that may have helped over the weekend, after Mr. Trump’s executive order on immigration. Canada was able to get quick clarification from the White House that the directive would not affect the movement of Canadian citizens and dual nationals into the United States.

After fumbling its initial response, Britain got essentially the same clarification 15 hours later, which London hailed as a result of its special relationship with Mr. Trump. While Britain may have been influential, however, the White House was already narrowing the initial interpretations of the executive order.

But not before Mrs. May was attacked for timidity in the face of outrage by her own legislators and by the opposition.

Still, the “special relationship” has never been an equal one, so some degree of humiliation often goes with the territory.

As one message on Twitter, posted by the user @Locke1689, a professed “progressive conservative,” read: “Actively snubbing the world’s only superpower would be gross diplomatic self-harm.”

A version of this article appears in print on January 31, 2017, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Allied Leaders Extend a Hand at Their Peril.

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