Uber is one of those miraculous little conveniences that make 21st-century life so much easier, at least for the technologically connected: It is a mobile-phone app that allows users to summon a taxi and pay for it at the end of the trip. Naturally, politicians have attempted to crush it. California fined Uber for operating an unlicensed transportation business. New York City banished the service as a favor to the cartel of firms with which it has payment-processing contracts. Washington, D.C., very nearly banned the service and was dissuaded from doing so only by a steady campaign by the capital’s young and connected. As the firm’s CEO points out, Uber does not own or operate any cars, nor does it employ any drivers — it is no more a taxi company than online-food-ordering business Seamless is a restaurant. It simply acts as a medium through which customers connect with existing taxi and limousine companies, which are of course regulated like nuclear-power facilities in most large U.S. cities. Many of the worst parts of American life are those associated with cartels and monopolies, from taxi operators to utilities, practically all of which are political creations. Services such as Uber put more power in the hands of consumers, which is the last thing politicians want.
In the background of the fighting in Syria are chemical weapons and Scud missiles, and Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, is almost certainly prepared to resort to using them. He sees himself as defending at all costs his Alawite sect and its power. In the light of the Arab Spring he was another tyrant to be overthrown. But he always insisted that the insurgents were primarily Sunnis, the Muslim majority seeking vengeance on the Shiite Alawites. Assad’s cruelty has made this come true. His forces have killed about 50,000 people; close to 1 million are refugees. The regime’s aircraft and helicopter gunships systematically destroy whole districts in cities such as Damascus and Aleppo, as well as small towns and villages. Mosques and hospitals are bombed. In the absence of supplies, hunger is spreading. Sunnis from all over the Arab world have been pouring into Syria, turning what may have started as civil war into religious war. Sunni states, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, are financing and arming jihad, with the United States looking over their shoulders. Assad is able to rely only on Shiite Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, with Russia looking over their shoulders. Hard as it may be to believe, Syria still has more cruelty stored up.
After many unsuccessful attempts, North Korea has finally launched a long-distance missile that has the potential to reach the United States, not to mention Japan or the Philippines. North Korea is believed to possess about half a dozen nuclear bombs, although it has still to develop the technology of miniaturizing warheads to fit them onto missiles. This time, Kim Jong Un, hereditary dictator of North Korea, appeared on television looking so pleased with himself that some suggested he has had a facelift. The rest of the world as good as admitted that here again they had no idea what to do. Asked to pressure Kim, his Chinese backers as usual sat on the fence. In the face of yet another failure to stop North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the United States and its allies are pushing to impose additional sanctions, also warning China that the American military presence in the Pacific is likely to increase. Right-wing candidates in elections in Japan and South Korea are playing on public fear. Kim couldn’t care less. His policy of raising the stakes in order to extract concessions seems foolproof.
The U.N. General Assembly has voted that Palestine, hitherto defined as an “entity,” is now to become a “non-member state.” In such palaces of dreams, they love these hair-splitting distinctions. The only other non-member state is the Vatican, and the term itself is diplomatic euphemism for “second class.” On behalf of Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas has been lobbying for the change of status. He’s described as Palestinian president but really he’s a private citizen holding on to absolute power long after his mandate ran out and due elections were postponed. His writ runs on the West Bank alone, and he cannot even visit his own house in Gaza, the other half of Palestine, which is under the control of his deadly rivals in Hamas. The Israeli army keeps the peace between Abbas and Hamas. Palestinians will have peace and a proper state the day they accept that Israel is here to stay. This U.N. vote is tantamount to saying that there’s no need for sincere negotiation, Palestinians must fight in whatever arena is available, and the two-state notion is kaput. The United States, Canada, Israel, the Czech Republic, and five small islands voted against the change of status. Just nine, so tenuous is the grip on reality in the U.N.