Archive for December 1st, 2010
Today, Iceland celebrates 92 years as a sovereign country. This morning I woke up as a newly elected representative to the country’s new constitutional assembly. The Beatles’ song “Revolution” has been in my mind all day. The assembly is a direct result of the Pots and Pans Revolution which took place in Iceland after the banking crisis tanked the country’s economy just over two years ago.
The current Prime Minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, has advocated the review of the country’s constitution by a constitutional assembly for many years, but it took a systemic collapse to get the process going. The financial collapse has brought out distrust in society. Trust in parliament has never been lower. Trust in the government, in politics, in the fundamental institutions of society is at a historic low. So the constitutional assembly is an experiment, an attempt at social engineering. We are trying to restore our social contract and create trust.
The assembly has, nonetheless, been hotly contested. Many felt it was fiscally unsound to spend money on it during a recession. Some even feared that there wouldn’t be enough candidates to fill the 25 seats. Reality turned out quite differently. 525 people submitted their candidacy and voters could choose between 522 on Saturday, November 27th. This was the first time the single transferable vote (STV) system was used in Iceland, where voters are used to electing parties in a proportional representation (PR) system. With this number of candidates, a single district, and no parties to guide voters through the process, it is perhaps no wonder that the turnout was only around 36%. But 80,000+ voters, of the 230,000 who could vote, nonetheless turned out and cast their vote, giving 25 people the mandate to write a new constitution — or amend the old one — in the spring of next year.
The assembly will meet in February and is given a minimum of two and up to four months to complete its task. In line with the national demand for transparency I plan on blogging about the process, not only in Icelandic, but also in English, and I hope to get suggestions from readers on how to create a constitution.
Conservatives, we’re told, want to reassert America’s “exceptionalism.” But virtually everyone agrees that America is a special country. They could do a service if they looked at both the bad and the good. For America, to our shame, houses exceptional poverty. Among the industrial nations, only Turkey and Mexico have higher rates of poverty.
And poverty is getting worse in the wake of the brutal recession. Some 44 million people — one in seven — were impoverished in 2009 — the highest number since the Census Bureau started keeping track 51 years ago. Fifty million lacked access to adequate food at some time in 2009. Nearly 18 million lived in households where one or more persons had to skip meals because of lack of food. Forty million received food stamp benefits each month. Fifty-one million lacked health coverage in 2009.
Poverty is much worse among African Americans and Latinos, both of whom suffer poverty rates of more than 25 percent — about twice as high as the general population. One in three African-American children now live in families that have trouble providing for them. Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and Milwaukee had the worst poverty rates among large cities. The vibrant centers of the industrial Midwest have been devastated by plant closings and the offshoring of jobs.
Poverty is much worse among African Americans and Latinos, both of whom suffer poverty rates of more than 25 percent — about twice as high as the general population. One in three African-American children now live in families that have trouble providing for them. Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and Milwaukee had the worst poverty rates among large cities. The vibrant centers of the industrial Midwest have been devastated by plant closings and the offshoring of jobs.
America’s inequality has reached extremes not seen since before the Great Depression. Wall Street is handing out million dollar bonuses again. Corporations are raking in record profits, even as workers face layoffs and cutbacks in wages and benefits.
Yet poverty and disparity are unmentionable in our nation’s capital. The debate there now focuses on deficit reduction, with Republicans promising to cut 20 percent from domestic programs next year. In the midst of this disparity, the conservative co-chairs of the president’s so-called “bipartisan” fiscal commission released a report that lowers top tax rates, while closing exemptions and omits any mention of a tax on financial speculation.
Some have been gorging on a feast during the last decade, but most have been losing ground. Yet we’re told everyone has to tighten their belt and sacrifice. Taxpayers bailed out the banks that blew up the economy. Shouldn’t the banks and their executives be asked to lead in rebuilding the country and lifting the poor?
The Rev. Martin Luther King has become one of America’s most honored heroes. But we might do well to admire him less and imitate him more. When King was struck down, he was working tirelessly to pull together a Poor People’s Campaign, a march that would bring the impoverished and the unemployed — across lines of race, region and religion — to Washington to demand a revival of the war on poverty.
The silence must end in Washington. This nation cannot exist, to paraphrase Lincoln, as two nations, separate and unequal, divided between the 1 percent who capture half of all the gains of growth, and the many whose lives grow ever more insecure, with more and more descending into poverty.
Today, the Citizens Commission on Jobs, Deficits and the American Economy, sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future, publishes an antidote to the current Washington focus on austerity. The Citizen’s Commission argues that we need to put America back to work first, and then redress our deficits not by cutting Social Security or Medicare, but by progressive taxation, cuts in wasteful defense spending and corporate subsidies.
But this common sense won’t get a hearing unless citizens of conscience join in piercing the wall of silence about poverty in America. President Obama would be well advised to convene a bipartisan conference on poverty and hunger in America. But King was right. We should not wait on Washington, we should march on Washington.
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The deal President Bush struck with Pakistan’s General Musharraf seemed straightforward enough: Pakistan would fight terrorists, and the US would pay for it. Islamabad promised to train, equip, and deploy its army and intelligence service in counter-terrorism operations. Washington promised to reimburse it with billions of dollars in weapons, supplies, and cash. And so, over the last eight years, up to $22 billion of US taxpayers’ money flowed to Pakistan.
Last year I published a paper arguing that the results were nothing short of a scandal (download). There have been hardly any real counter-terrorism successes. The money has enriched individuals at the expense of the proper functioning of the country’s institutions. And it has incentivized a co-dependency between the two countries to which, the WikiLeaks cables now reveal, US diplomats admit.
Pakistan’s army is conditioned to regard its raison d’etre as defending Pakistan against India. Never mind that its foreign ministers meet each year, the last skirmish between the two was over a decade ago, and the last war much earlier. The idea that it should now spend money on fighting terrorists – many of whom of course are Pakistani – did not sit easily with them.
So they ignored it. Much of the US taxpayers’ money was spent on conventional weapons which are useless against terrorists. As I revealed in the paper, it spent $200 million on an air defense radar system even though the terrorists in the frontier region have no air capability. It spent $1.5 million to repair damage to Navy vehicles even though they have no navy, either. $15 million was spent on bunkers that were never dug, $30 million paid for roads that were never built; $55 million to maintain helicopters that were not, in fact, maintained, and $80 million per month for soldiers to fight during periods when there was a cease-fire.
For most of this period, the US Department of Defense was given certain — albeit insultingly limited — information about this expenditure, and signed it off.
At the same time — the Pakistani army seemed to remain badly equipped. One reporter found the Pakistani Frontier Corps “standing … in the snow in sandals,” another found soldiers wearing World War I-era pith helmets and carrying barely functional Kalashnikov rifles carrying “just 10 rounds of ammunition each.”
The deal, it was clear, had not worked. The US was paying, but Pakistan was not fighting in any serious way.
My report was sent to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as the National Security Council and State Department. I assumed such revelations would be controversial. After all, up to $22 billion of taxpayers’ money had been at best misspent, at worst stolen. It is not a headline that any government or population is normally particularly happy about hearing.
So imagine my surprise when last month, the Obama administration announced another generous package of aid to Pakistan with no strings attached — pouring more money into the black hole.
Well, this week it became clear why my previous report did not evoke a stronger reaction. And the truth is, in a way, even more alarming than the details of Pakistan’s misuse of US taxpayers’ money. The reason lawmakers did not seem surprised by the revelation was that they already knew exactly how badly your money was being spent. They just didn’t want to tell you.
The WikiLeaks files reveal that Pakistan’s General Ashfaq Kayani allegedly admitted to US diplomatic personnel that most of the funds the US had given to Pakistan for military purposes — amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars — had been ‘diverted’ to the federal government. This ‘diversion’ sounds like a polite way to refer to something which most people would call theft. Back in 2007, US diplomats already knew about multiple instances where this had happened, or where the claims that Pakistan made for reimbursement had been seriously inflated: $26 million was claimed for barbed wire. After spending $335 million on medical care and a fleet of 26 helicopters, the troops at the frontier still had no medical rescue service.
The leaks also show us who knew what, and when. It seemed that in January 2009, when the flows of funds from the US to Pakistan slowed down, General Kayani gave an explanation to General Petreaus as to why Pakistan kept needing more. The reason he gave? The federal government had taken it.
In an ideal world, the result of these revelations would be that taxpayers’ money would stop being misused like this. But I think that in the current political climate, that is actually far too ambitious. Any politician who suggested such a thing would be accused of being soft on terrorists. And so I think that in the short term, the best we can hope for is that the American public begins to understand what the government is doing with their money in Pakistan, and that we have a debate about whether it is the right way to spend it. I would be intrigued to hear anyone argue that it is value for money.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.
Follow me on Twitter (@AzeemIbrahim)
Sweet Potato Latkes and Hanukkah
At this time of year, when the sun is most hidden,
the holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the rays of hope and light. Rafael Goldstein
Hanukkah begins very early this year – the first of December. Growing up in a big Irish-Italian family in Scranton, Pennsylvania, I wasn’t fortunate enough to enjoy the delights of Hanukkah as a child. But when my husband and I moved to Westport, CT with our twin girls, we learned all about the Festival of Lights. We were invited to the homes of the girls’ friends for the lighting of the menorah, and our daughters were often given the honor of lighting the candles with the shamus or servant candle. Afterwards, we would thrill to the stories of the courageous revolt of the Maccabees after the defiling of the Temple, and the miracle of the tiny cruse of oil that burned for eight days. The children played dreidel games, and ate chocolate gelt in memory of the coins that used to be the traditional gift, now replaced by much more elaborate gifts. And then, best of all, we ate the delicious potato latkes, fried in oil, of course, as is fitting for the holiday. With an Irish mother, I had grown up with potato pancakes that were very good, but latkes had some special extra something. This is not to be repeated to my mother, please!
But the very best latkes that I have ever had, hands down, are the Sweet sweet potato latkes that Sheila and Marilynn Brass, the fabulous Brass Sisters from Cambridge, Massachusetts make. This is their grammas’ recipe and they pronounce them LOT-keys, as did their Russian and Polish grandmothers. It was Sheila and Marilynn’s idea to use sweet potatoes to give the latkes their golden color, as if they were coins, tying them to the traditional Hanukkah practice of giving gelt as a gift.
Sheila and Marilynn are heirloom bakers, home cooks, and acclaimed cookbook authors. Their first book, Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters, was finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award, almost unheard of in a first book from a pair of unknowns. The sisters, who worked at WGBH, are experts in culinary antiques, with a wonderful collection of molds, utensils, and whimsical items. The unmarried Sheila and Marilynn, “unclaimed treasures” in their words, have 120 years of cooking experience between them. They’re charming, delightful, and witty, with the broadest Boston accents you’ve heard since Tom and Ray on Car Talk. In fact, they are Car Talk for Food!
(Marilynn Brass) Would you say that I have a Boston accent?
(Sheila Brass) Is she kidding?
The Brass Sisters recently appeared on Food Network on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where they took Bobby down with their indescribable Pineapple Upside Down Cake. The Brass Sisters premiere in their own show on nationwide TV on Sunday, December 5 at 8 PM in The Brass Sisters Celebrate the Holidays on the Cooking Channel. You’ll get to see them make these easy and delicious latkes that are shown below, as well as a mouthwatering feast for a hungry brigade of firefighters, that will give you great ideas for your holiday entertaining. Tune in for homemade Red Velvet Cake, Hanukkah Gelt, spice cookies, cheese cake, and lots of laughs because the Brass Sisters are the sassy, knowledgeable aunts we all wish we could have. And now we can!
Sweet Sweet Potato Latkes
(Recipe courtesy Marilynn and Sheila Brass)
These are similar to the latkes that both our grandmothers, Katziff and Brass, made for us. These are lighter than the traditional lacey potato latkes made from grated potatoes. To celebrate Hanukkah our sweet potato latkes are fried in oil. They are good with sour cream or applesauce, or even lightly dusted with confectioners’ sugar. The recipe can be doubled.
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1/2 pound sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks, and steamed (See note)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup orange juice
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or margarine, melted
2 tablespoons vegetable oil for frying
Sour cream, to serve
Applesauce, to serve
Confectioners sugar, to serve
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade add the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and pepper and pulse until mixed. Add sweet potatoes, eggs, orange juice, orange zest, and melted butter and process until smooth. Line a baking sheet with two layers of paper towels.
Put a 10-inch flat metal pan or skillet over medium-high heat, add the oil, and swirl. The pan is ready when the oil bubbles. (Or you can drop a tiny bit of batter into the pan: when batter begins to brown, the pan is ready.) Add a heaping tablespoon of batter to the griddle and spread it out with the bottom of the spoon until it is 3-inches in diameter. Add more latke batter but do not overcrowd the pan. Cook until the latkes begin to bubble around the edges, about 1 1/2 minutes. Turn the latkes over and continue cooking until the bottom turns golden brown, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Do not overcook the latkes.
Place the fried latkes on the prepared baking sheet and cover with 2 additional sheets of paper towel. Press gently to remove excess oil. Serve the latkes immediately or put them onto a baking sheet and keep them warm in a 200 degree F oven. Latkes are best served the day they are made. Serve with sour cream, applesauce, or confectioners sugar.
Leftover latkes can be wrapped in plastic wrap, stored in the refrigerator, and reheated in a 300 degree F oven the next day.
Cooks’ Note: The sweet potatoes should be steamed about 15 minutes until fork tender and should not be soft or mushy. Sweet potatoes can also be microwaved in a glass pie pan with 2 tablespoons of water, covered with plastic wrap, for about 7 minutes.
Yield: 30 3-inch latkes
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Inactive prep time: 0
Ease of preparation: Easy
This recipe and many other family favorites are available on DishandDine.com. Stop by and become part of this grass roots global food community!
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You, the common peasants, aren’t supposed to know this, but the wheels are coming off the world monetary system.
The reason you aren’t supposed to know this is because governments around the world need to sell you a ton of their bonds. They are addicted to debt and you are their source. If you understood what “wheels coming off the world monetary system” means, then you would probably not want to buy their bonds — as has already happened to Greece, Ireland, and now Portugal, Spain and Italy.
The real situation is described by the gold market. Gold itself has served, for thousands of years, as a stable measure of value. You can think of it as a world currency, just like the dollar or euro. The difference is that gold is stable in value, while the dollar and euro are floating currencies.
When it takes more and more dollars to buy a euro, for example if the “price of euros” goes from $1.00 to $1.50, then most people understand that the dollar is probably falling in value. The same is true of gold. When the “price of gold” goes from $1000 to $1500, that means the value of the dollar is falling. The value of the euro has been falling, too. And the yen. And the Chinese yuan, the Russian ruble, the Brazilian real, and most every other currency on earth.
We are now in the latter days of the “Keynesian Experiment.” Sometimes, governments undertake experiments. For example, the Soviet Union was an experiment in running an economy on central planning principles — rather than capitalist principles. It probably seemed like a good idea in 1917. However, the experiment was ultimately a failure. Russia and communist China later returned to capitalism. They tried the experiment, came to a conclusion, and then they moved on. It happens.
The Keynesian Experiment began in 1971. Before 1971, all of the world’s developed countries used some variant of a gold standard. This had been the case for literally hundreds of years, back to medieval times. Beginning in 1971, the world then moved to a floating-currency system. This was actually an accident — the unplanned result of Richard Nixon’s “easy money” policy. But then, the Russian Revolution was a bit of an accident too, resulting from the turmoil of World War I. (Communist China grew out of the turmoil of World War II.)
The immediate result of the Keynesian Experiment was an explosion of worldwide inflation during the 1970s. Then, there was a period of rough stability and recovery during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, we are in another period of currency turmoil, which will probably lead shortly to a crisis.
Eventually the Keynesian Experiment will be regarded as a failure, much like the Communist Experiment. At that point, people will want to go back to the principles that have formed the foundation of the Western World’s success over the last half-millennia. Unfortunately, most people have forgotten those principles today.
If I had twenty minutes with Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, or Hu Jintao — we will assume they know little about monetary economics — here is what I would say:
Tenet #1: Stable Money is superior to Unstable Money. “Stable Money” is money that is stable in value. Capitalist economies work best with conditions of stable money. “Discretionary” monetary policy doesn’t really solve any problems, and actually causes new ones.
Tenet #2: Gold is stable in value. Unlike other commodities, gold does not go up and down in value. For this reason, it is the premier monetary commodity and has been for literally thousands of years. Although it is a bit of a stretch to assume that gold is perfectly unchanging in value, nevertheless, after centuries of experience, we have established that it is sufficiently stable in value to serve its purpose as a monetary benchmark. Also, gold is a better measure of stable value than any other available reference or statistical concoction.
Tenet #3: Therefore, if your currency’s value is pegged to gold, that currency will be as stable as gold. A gold-value peg is the best means to accomplish our goal of stable currency value. For the last 500 years, every government that has wished to implement a stable-currency policy has used some variant of a gold standard. It is proven, it works, and there is no need to invent another, inferior solution.
Tenet #4: A token currency, whether coins or notes, can be pegged to gold via the adjustment of supply. “Supply” is technically known as “base money,” which consists of notes, coins, and bank reserves. If the currency’s value sags below its gold peg, then supply is reduced. If the currency’s value is higher than its gold peg, supply is increased. No gold bullion is needed to maintain this peg — only a mechanism to increase and decrease the supply of base money. Central banks accomplish this today by buying and selling government bonds in “unsterilized” transactions. This is effectively the same as currency board systems in use today.
Tenet #5: A “lender of last resort” can be provided within the context of a gold standard. The original “lender of last resort,” or what we today call a central bank, was the Bank of England during the 19th century. The Bank of England was also the world’s premier champion of the gold standard. The Federal Reserve was originally constituted in 1913 to serve as a “lender of last resort” within the context of a gold standard system, and did so for 58 years until 1971. Central banks’ original purpose was perverted during the 20th century due to the rise of Keynesian soft-money ideology, causing them to come into conflict with the proper operation of a gold standard system.
Of course, there will be many who will say that I am wrong. You would expect this after forty years of the Keynesian Experiment. In the Soviet Union, they used to put people in jail for “economic crimes” if they esposed capitalist principles.
However, history is on my side. The entire course of the Western World, from the late medieval period to the 1960s, when men walked on the moon and the U.S. middle class reached its high point of prosperity, took place with a gold standard system. Although there were ups and downs, the long-term trend was up.
We’ve had our ups and downs during the Keynesian Experiment too, just as the Soviet Union had its good and bad times. It is not quite clear yet, but will be as the Keynesian Experiment comes to a close, that the long-term trend during the Keynesian Experiment was down. At that point — not before! — the political consensus will conclude that it is time for something new.
In 1979, Deng Xiaoping, the premier of China, declared that centrally-planned communism was bunk. China took a new way, which was really the old way, and it was a huge success. It is not too long — less than a decade I would guess — before the Keynesian Experiment also comes to an end, and the world can finally get back on a more productive and healthy track.
I was just watching a CNN story about Boeing contract to build a virtual fence at the Texas Border. Over $1 Billion of Federal Money has been paid on this contract with nothing to show for it. This is just another example of how many federal contractors have little accountability, particularly in the areas of Defense and Homeland Security. This is where government money is wasted, not on Federal Employees. If President Obama wants to freeze Federal Salaries he should also come down just as hard on Federal Contractors. Federal employees who are largely middle class should not pay the price while millionaire contractors go unscathed.
There has to be procedures and the proper staffing in place to monitor these contracts. Federal employees largely save taxpayer money by ensuring that money is properly spent. In my job, I have to monitor the spending of millions of dollars in funds to nonprofits that help the homeless and I do. For-profit military and homeland security contractors should have the same scrutiny. The money saved by freezing Federal employee salaries is a mere pittance compared to what is wasted by many government contractors.
Let me state that, in many cases, contracting out government work is necessary. However, there are many other cases when Federal employees can do the same work for less money and we are accountable to the public. Contractors frequently abuse their privileges though no one seems to point this out as frequently as Federal employees are scapegoated. I hope to be at least one voice doing so here.
This week, different groups around the world are observing World AIDS Day and the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, on December 1 and 3 respectively. Rarely have the two been observed together. At least until this year. Events hosted at UN headquarters in New York and the US State Department are drawing attention to the strong link between disability and HIV.
Here are the facts: Persons with disabilities have the same types of sexual relationships and frequency of sexual activity as persons without disabilities. Individuals with disabilities sometimes use drugs or visit or work as sex workers. According to the World Bank, persons with disabilities may be more vulnerable to HIV because they are more likely to be abused, marginalized, discriminated against, illiterate, and poor. Women with disabilities are up to three times as likely to be victims of sexual violence.
But many of the stories of people with disabilities and their experiences with HIV – particularly those who are deaf – are shrouded in silence.
Take the story of John Meletse in South Africa. He went to the local clinic to get an HIV test. They had no sign language interpreter and referred him to another doctor. This doctor did not know sign language either, but communicated with hand-written notes. The doctor administered the test without any counseling. Fifteen minutes later, the doctor wrote in big bold letters: “YOU ARE HIV POSITIVE.” John asked if this was really true. The doctor replied, “Yes, and you can go now.”
Imagine the experience of Erica, an HIV-positive deaf woman in Uganda. She was not aware that she was having twins when she went into labor. The nurse did not know sign language and did not tell her to keep pushing after she gave birth to her first child. Erica subsequently lost the second twin. It is not clear if she ever received information about mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Erica’s children are beaten by her neighbors. When they played with the neighbors’ children, they were told to go away. They said, “You’ll spread deafness to my family.”
Or Jane, who fled her village in northern Uganda as a result of raids by the Lord’s Resistance Army. She is hard of hearing and was never able to go to school. In her words, “I fear HIV so I don’t move around.” This fear is also why she stays with her husband, who physically and sexually abuses her. Jane has not benefitted from any community HIV programs because she hasn’t been able to find out about them.
Consider the barriers preventing persons who are deaf or hard of hearing from receiving HIV information and care. Radio programs, a common part of public awareness campaigns, completely exclude persons who are deaf or hard of hearing. Printed material alone is clearly not sufficient. Sign language interpretation and presentations are key, but they are rare, especially in the developing world.
An estimated 90 percent of deaf people in developing countries cannot read or use formal sign language. Instead, deaf people in developing countries often communicate with local signs or family-specific gestures. This makes medical settings especially problematic because they must bring a close family member along to communicate for them. When dealing with sensitive or stigmatized topics, such as sexual assault or HIV testing, the lack of confidentiality often dissuades people from revealing their concerns. Stigma in the community and myths that people with disabilities are asexual or virgins further isolate them from HIV information, testing, counseling, and other services.
Because of communication barriers, lack of education, ignorance and fear, deaf people around the world are overlooked by HIV services. UNAIDS and the US State Department are taking a first step at addressing this gap by getting policymakers to think about how to make HIV strategic plans, programs and services inclusive to people with all types of disabilities.
Much more needs to be done, though, particularly on the national level. Basic sign language and disability awareness training for health workers is absolutely fundamental to stopping the spread of HIV among people who are deaf. In addition, governments need to ensure that children who are deaf or hard of hearing are able to attend schools to learn sign language and about health topics such as HIV.
Without a concerted effort to reach out to the deaf population, they will continue to live in silence and fear, and the HIV epidemic will quietly continue to spread.
Give me that old time religion when it comes to protection of the environment. Religious organizations are increasingly joining the fray in support of regulations to combat global warming, clean up pollution, and preserve natural resources.
What about separation of church and state, you ask? That Constitutional directive requires that the formal practice of religion be kept distinct from the physical act of governing. It does not bar the application of religious-derived moral principles in decision-making. These principles are the prism through which politicians should, and often do, ultimately weigh the facts and public policy considerations to reach a decision. The moral principles are not the decisions themselves. That is another way of saying that taking one’s cue from religious values is in no way substituting religious tenets for the law of the land.
Such inappropriate substitution has been pursued by a faction of Evangelical Christians who believe the Earth’s destruction is a precondition to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and thus is a handy justification for plundering natural resources without regret. Fortunately, the separation of church and state has held firm against that renegade interpretation materializing into actual policy.
Even better news is the dominant view throughout the religious world that we are stewards of God’s creation — i.e. the rich biodiversity of Earth. That mentality is producing cadres of activist theologians to counter global warming deniers and environmental regulation foes seeking to use religion to block progressive environmental reforms. These environmental heretics view religion’s message as an affirmation of an ideology that downgrades the importance of environmental protection by separating God from nature, and subordinating publican health to private profit.
So while anti-environmental critics in Congress dispute that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, and challenge the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the green house gas, the influential National Council of Churches has risen to the defense. The Council’s 56 religious denominations and faith-based organizations have sent a letter to the U.S. Senate warning that “any attempt to undermine the Clean Air Act [by banning the EPA from regulating green house gas emissions] damages efforts to shift to a sustainable energy future, and inevitably will impact the right of all God’s children to live in a healthy world. Congress should instead focus its efforts on passing comprehensive climate legislation and national energy policy as a means to ensure a just and sustainable future for God’s Creation.”
The Council is right on the mark. We are all ethically bound to be stewards of the Earth. If the exercise of that religious-driven principle permeates the operation of government, so be it.
Edward Flattaus fourth book Green Morality is now available.
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Evolution of a Columnist
by Edward Flattau
by Edward Flattau
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Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.
Welcome to the club, eight million new people without a credit card! CNNMoney reported yesterday that credit card use is in decline, with the number of cardless people jumping up to 78 million this year from 70 million last year. In a recession where every penny counts, many consumers shredded their cards in a move to reduce their debt (and probably avoid fee hikes). The article reports, “TransUnion said the average U.S. credit card debt fell more than 11% over the past year to $4,964 in the third quarter.” Gerri Detweiler of Credit.com called the phenomenon “unprecedented.” Consumers never abandon their plastic, she says; the numbers have “always gone up.” Perhaps a silver lining of our economic misery could be consumers moving from debt and risk to saving and building real wealth.
But the drop in users isn’t all due to penny pinching and/or outrage. Part of this trend is from “charge-offs in the higher risk segments,” says TransUnion. Because the new credit card act puts a kink in card companies’ ability to jack up interest rates and impose fees, they dumped consumers who they “saw as dead weight,” the article reports. With a recession causing more defaults on debt, the companies are getting out of riskier accounts. So both consumers and companies are parting ways with risk.
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And with easy access to credit cards dried up, some see the opportunity to cash in by creating new products. Enter the Kardashians — because we should always take financial advice from celebrities famous only for being famous. The reality TV celebs planned to market a pre-paid debit card to young teenage girls with their faces painted across the front. While they decided to shut down the venture (after Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal questioned the legality of the card’s “pernicious and predatory fees”), they aren’t alone in trying to get in on a growing trend. Annie Lowrey reports that “the total market will double in size in the next three years, with customers loading a whopping $672 billion onto prepaid cards by 2013.” The cards are sometimes used to get money to underserved communities such as immigrants and the poor. But they are also seen as a way for banks to cash in on a new distaste for credit cards among young people and to avoid rules that could limit profits on credit and debit cards. Lowrey points out that the Kardashian Kard (yes, with a ‘K’) would have had “more fees than the Kardashians have reality shows.” On top of that, these cards don’t have “the protections or the financial-education benefits of plain-vanilla banking products,” she adds.
So good news: more people converting to the non-credit card cause. Bad news: not all of those people chose to leave credit card ownership of their own accord, and financial wizardry is already on the case, filling our need for predatory products. Innovation at its best!
The decision reverses a plan to open up new areas announced by Mr Obama in the spring, just before the BP oil spill.
Wednesday's move sparked protests from oil firms and their allies in Congress.
Announcing the ban, which will last until 2017, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar cited the need for “caution and focus” and stricter regulation.
“Our lays out a careful, responsible path for meeting our nation's energy needs while protecting our oceans and coastal communities,” he said in a statement.
The interior department said that the western and central parts of the Gulf of Mexico, as well as Arctic regions, would still be considered for oil and gas development.
Representative Doc Hastings, the Republican likely to be chairman of the House natural resources committee in the next Congress, criticised the decision to maintain the ban on other areas.
“This plan to lock up vast portions of America's offshore energy resources is short-sighted and will lead to long-term job impacts, economic harm and increased reliance on foreign energy from dangerous and hostile countries,” he said, quoted by the Associated Press.
In March, Mr Obama and Mr Salazar called for new oil and gas exploration in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and areas of the Atlantic.
Under those proposals, drilling would have been allowed off Virginia and considered off much of the rest of the Atlantic coast, overturning moratoriums on exploration put in place in the 1980s.
Quiz: What’s responsible for the lousy economy most Americans continue to wallow in?
A. Big government, bureaucrats, and the cultural and intellectual elites who back them.
B. Big business, Wall Street, and the powerful and privileged who represent them.
These are the two competing stories Americans are telling one another.
Yes, I know: It’s more complicated than this. In reality, the lousy economy is due to insufficient demand — the result of the nation’s almost unprecedented concentration of income at the top. The very rich don’t spend as much of their income as the middle. And since the housing bubble burst, the middle class hasn’t had the buying power to keep the economy going. That concentration of income, in turn, is due to globalization and technological change — along with unprecedented campaign contributions and lobbying designed to make the rich even richer and do nothing to help average Americans, insider trading, and political bribery.
So B is closer to the truth.
But A is the story Republicans and right-wingers tell. It’s a dangerous story because it deflects attention from the real problem and makes it harder for America to focus on the real solution — which is more widely shared prosperity. (I get into how we might do this in my new book, Aftershock.)
A is also the story President Obama is telling, indirectly, through his deficit commission, his freeze on federal pay, his freeze on discretionary spending, and his wavering on extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich.
Most other Washington Democrats are falling into the same trap.
If Obama and the Democrats were serious about story A they’d at least mention it. They’d tell the nation that income and wealth haven’t been this concentrated at the top since 1928, the year before the Great Crash. They’d be indignant about the secret money funneled into midterm campaigns. They’d demand Congress pass the Disclose Act so the public would know where the money comes from.
They’d introduce legislation to curb Wall Street bonuses — exactly what European leaders are doing with their financial firms. They’d demand that the big banks, now profitable after taxpayer bailouts, reorganize the mortgage debt of distressed homeowners. They’d call for a new WPA to put the unemployed back to work, and pay for it with a tax surcharge on incomes over $1 million.
They’d insist on extended unemployment benefits for log-term jobless who are now exhausting their benefits. And they’d hang tough on the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy — daring Republicans to vote against extending the cuts for everyone else.
But Obama is doing none of this. Instead, he’s telling story A.
Making a big deal out of the deficit — appointing a deficit commission and letting them grandstand with a plan to cut $4 trillion out of the projected deficit over the next ten years — $3 of government spending for every $1 of tax increase — is telling story A.
What the public hears is that our economic problems stem from too much government and that if we reduce government spending we’ll be fine.
Announcing a two-year freeze on federal salaries – explaining that “I did not reach this decision easily… these are people’s lives” — is also telling story A.
What the public hears is government bureaucrats are being paid too much, and that if we get the federal payroll under control we’ll all be better off.
Proposing a freeze on discretionary (non-defense) spending is telling story A. So is signaling a willingness to extend the Bush tax cuts to the top. So is appointing his top economic advisor from Wall Street (as apparently he’s about to do).
In fact, the unwillingness of the President and Washington Democrats to tell story B itself promotes story A, because in the absence of an alternative narrative the Republican story is the only one the public hears.
Obama’s advisors explain that the president’s moves are designed to “preempt” the resurgent Republicans — just like Bill Clinton preempted the Gingrich crowd by announcing “the era of big government is over” and then tacking right.
They’re wrong. By telling story A and burying story B, the president legitimizes everything the right has been saying. He doesn’t preempt them; he fuels them. He gives them more grounds for voting against raising the debt ceiling in a few weeks. He strengthens their argument against additional spending for extended unemployment benefits. He legitimizes their argument against additional stimulus spending.
Bill Clinton had a rapidly expanding economy to fall back on, so his appeasement of Republicans didn’t legitimize the Republican world view. Obama doesn’t have that luxury. The American public is still hurting and they want to know why.
Unless the President and Democrats explain why the economy still stinks for most Americans and offer a plan to fix it, the Republican explanation and solution — it’s big government’s fault, and all we need do is shrink it — will prevail.
That will mean more hardship for tens of millions of Americans. It will make it harder to remedy the bad economy. And it will set Republicans up for bigger wins in the future.
Robert Reich is the author of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, now in bookstores. This post originally appeared at RobertReich.org.
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News last week that leading conservative Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-SC) joined former Vice President Al Gore in calling for ethanol policy reform sent ripples through the renewable energy world, which is closely eyeing the lame-duck session to see if Congress will extend the costly ethanol subsidies and trade protection, or let them expire as scheduled on December 31st.
Today’s release of a bipartisan Dear Colleague letter from Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) brought even greater evidence that ending the ethanol tariff and subsidies is “something we can all agree on.” The letter, signed by 17 Democrats and Republicans from across the country, calls for an end to policies that are “fiscally irresponsible and environmentally unwise,” and says “The tariff on ethanol makes our country more dependent on foreign oil… Eliminating or reducing the ethanol tariff would diversify our fuel supply, replace oil imports from OPEC countries with ethanol from our allies, and expand our trade relationships with democratic states.”
Here’s the list of signatories:
1. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
2. Jon Kyl (R-AZ)
3. Robert Bennett (R-UT)
4. Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
5. Richard Burr (R-NC)
6. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD)
7. Tom Coburn (R-OK)
8. Chris Coons (D-DE)
9. Susan Collins (R-ME)
10. Bob Corker (R-TN)
11. Michael Enzi (R-WY)
12. John McCain (R-AZ)
13. Jack Reed (D-RI)
14. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)
15. Mark Warner (D-VA)
16. Jim Webb (D-VA)
17. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI)
Members of Congress aren’t the only ones pushing for an end to the ethanol tariff and subsidies. Yesterday, an extremely broad and diverse coalition of nearly 60 groups sent a letter to Congressional leadership urging that they no longer “continue subsidizing gasoline refiners for something that they are already required to do by the Renewable Fuels Standard…”Among the signatories were business associations, hunger and development organizations, taxpayer advocates, agricultural groups, religious organizations, environmental groups, budget hawks and public interest organizations. The letter was home to many strange bedfellows that even included the liberal lightning rod MoveOn.org and tea party originators FreedomWorks — surely this must be a first!
Despite this overwhelming support from almost every nook and cranny, the corn ethanol industry is still pinning its hopes on a tax package that could move before the lame duck concludes. It’s hard to imagine what more it could take to end this boondoggle once and for all. Congress has every reason and then some to make the right decision — from editorials in over 60 newspapers to over 80,000 letters from clean energy advocates across the country. When the clock runs out, Americans will hopefully enjoy the economic, environmental and energy security benefits of sugarcane ethanol at last.
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The co-chairs of the Presidential Deficit Commission released the final draft of their report today, and it’s now scheduled for a Friday vote by members of the Commission. We’re being told that it’s a fairer and more reasonable document than its predecessor. It’s nothing of the kind.
In many ways this document is worse than the draft that preceded it, and those much-lauded “compromises” evaporate in the cold light of reality. This new draft is lipstick on a piggy-bank robber, a package of cosmetic changes meant to disguise its true purpose: To raid the future financial security of most Americans in order to benefit a few.
This proposal would still cripple government’s vital role in society by imposing arbitrary limits on spending. It would still place great financial burdens on lower- and middle-class Americans while easing those of the wealthy. All in all, it’s the most profoundly right-wing policy prescription the nation has seen in decades. Democrats who lack the political courage to oppose it will be remembered for it for a long time to come.
There are more balanced and effective ways to balance the budget. Instead, this plan is so ideologically driven that it actually increases the deficit at times, while the reductions it does achieve are needlessly unfair and destructive. Here are ten reasons why this proposal remains unacceptable and must be opposed – not just by progressive or Democrats, but by anyone of good conscience who wants to reduce the deficit in a responsible way:
1. It’s still a massive tax giveaway for the rich.
Imagine the outcry if a deficit-cutting commission recommended spending more money on government programs. Then imagine it recommended spending that money on programs that weren’t needed, and which only benefited the wealthy. When it comes to tax revenues, that’s exactly what this proposal does.
Remember, spending’s only one-half of the deficit problem, and tax revenue’s the other. A responsible plan would increase revenue wherever it’s fair and possible to do so. Yet, in the name of “deficit reduction,” this plan actually proposes cutting taxes – for the wealthiest Americans. Its defenders point out that the proposal also ends all sorts of itemized deductions – but those deductions primarily help the middle class.
Defenders will also say that it no longer eliminates vital middle-class tax breaks (like mortgage interest deductions) completely, which is true. But it would force “Congress and the President” to decide which of these deductions is retained and at what levels. And if would force Congress and the President to offset them with increased tax rates elsewhere, which the authors know is politically almost possible.
It’s true that the plan proposes to tax capital gains and dividends as ordinary income. But Wall Street law firms are no doubt already developing workarounds – and, in any case, the net effect is still a tax break for the wealthiest Americans.
The wealthy even get a break on the payroll tax used to fund Social Security. The plan’s defenders boast that it would raise the payroll tax cap to cover 90% of all income. But that was the percentage the tax covered back in the 1980s, before the explosion in very high-end wealth distorted the entire economy. This plan doesn’t return to that 90% level until 2050! That’s a forty-year wait before we fund Social Security with as much high-end income as we did twenty years ago.
In a little-noticed observation, the actuaries who reviewed this proposal observed that “lower marginal tax rates are expected to have a large effect on (this tax) … reducing revenue … by roughly 20 percent.” The net effect will be to “increase the long-range … actuarial deficit …” Got that? This Commission co-chairs insisted on attacking Social Security because they claimed to be so concerned about its long-term actuarial deficit (which is easily fixed by asking the wealthy to pay their fair share). Yet, having seized control of Social Security’s under that pretense, they then propose tax breaks for the wealthy that make Social Security’s long-term deficit worse.
Since this is supposed to be a deficit-reducing Commission, not a party-time-for-the-rich Commission, how are they going to pay for such big giveaways?
2. It still increases the tax burden for everyone else.
That’s where you come in. (Unless you’re a billionaire, of course.) Unless Congress and the President come up with something else, this proposal would set arbitrary caps on home mortgage deductions and other tax deductions that are primarily used by the middle class. As we’ve seen, even that rise in payroll taxes is expected to hit the middle class more than the wealthy.
And, while this needs further study, it looks as if their new tax brackets place more of a burden on you, too. The 10% and 15% tax brackets seem to be compressed into a 12% bracket, which doesn’t seem like a dramatic change. The 28% bracket goes to 25%, which is a little more than 10% and is more than offset in most cases by the loss of itemized deductions. But the highest bracket takes a deep plunge, from the current planned level of 39.6% down to 28%. That’s more than 28%. Sweet – if you’re rich. But somebody’s gotta pay for it.
That would be you.
3. It will result in millions of lost jobs.
As the Economic Policy Institute has demonstrated, this proposal will cost the nation 4 million lost jobs and damage our economic growth. This new draft demands even deeper discretionary spending cuts, enacted even sooner, so the loss of jobs is likely to be even greater.
That’s why Mary Kay Henry, President of the SEIU, said “”This proposal is a jobs killer at a time when our number one priority must be putting America back to work.” It’s why AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said that “this whole discussion reeks of hypocrisy. The faux deficit hawks on the commission – and Senators who claim unemployment insurance must be paid for — have no problem clamoring for more unpaid Bush tax cuts for millionaires. We need to focus now on the jobs deficit.”
The report’s defenders will dismiss Henry and Trumka as “special interests” (while criticizing any mention of co-chair Erskine Bowles’ position on Morgan Stanley’s Board of Directors or the financial interests of other Commissioners as an “ad hominem” attack). But these two leaders are aware of proposals like the EPI’s and the Citizens’ Commission on Jobs, Deficits, and America’s Economic Future. Thse reports demonstrate that these radical changes aren’t needed to balance the budget – and that, in fact, that they interfere with that goal.
4. The elderly will face harsh benefit cuts.
The average Social Security retirement benefit today is $1100, and even less for women ($920). Under this proposal a median earner, someone earning $43,000 in today’s dollars, would face a 20% (19.1%) benefit cut.
It looks, therefore, as if the average benefit would eventually drop to$889 overall, with women receiving an average of $744. These cuts are offset somewhat for lower-income workers but, as we’ll see, those offsets aren’t what they seem to be.
5. Most of us will still work longer for less.
You won’t just receive less in benefits. You’ll work longer to get it, since they’re raising the retirement age.
We’re told that there will be exceptions for people who would face hardship if forced to work longer. That’s a nice thought, given all the benefit-slashing going on. But that decision is kicked down the road and assigned to Social Security Administration staff. The cuts are fixed, but the exemptions are left vague and deferred to people who aren’t trained in that kind of analysis.
Their definition of “hardship” is narrow, too, and it excludes hardships like discrimination. The net effect of this proposal is to ensure a longer work life for most people while making jobs harder to get. The only small mitigating factor they promise is delayed to a future date and left vague.
6. It punishes the long-term jobless
This proposal doesn’t just ignore the nation’s “jobs deficit.” It makes it worse, at a time when the number of long-term unemployed Americans is at historical levels. This program doesn’t just leave them in the lurch, or ignore their urgent need for unemployment assistance. After having made their situation worse, it then punishes them in their old age too.
Much has been made about the proposal’s “generous” suggestion that benefit cuts be made offset for lower-income workers who are at the brink of poverty in old age. But many (if not most) of the workers struggling today would be excluded from this change. As the actuarial analysis of the proposal notes, “workers … (at) the level of the low and very low scaled earners, but with less than 25 years of (qualifying) work … would be subject to the full reduction in benefit for longevity …”
There’s more, but you get the gist. These much-vaunted “safety nets” are filled with holes.
7. Women will pay an unfair price.
Women get the short end of the stick here, too. Women already receive less in retirement benefits than men, on average – right now they receive an average of about $920 per month. They live longer, too. Women have traditionally moved in and out of the workforce more than men, because of traditional gender roles. They’ll be punished even more for this difference under this proposal, thanks to rules and loopholes like the one described above. For a “family values” culture, that’s not a very family-oriented policy.
Here’s the future Simpson and Bowles plan for the mothers of America: First, cut their income by reducing the adjustments to their benefits. That means they’ll get less than $920 in tomorrow’s dollars. Then offer them a poverty exemption – but dangle it out of reach for millions of women who chose to stay home with their children for a few years (and all of them who couldn’t find work when they looked).
Thanks for raising us, Mom, now eat your Friskies and pipe down.
8. That “living longer” benefit bump is a pittance.
We’re also hearing about the “benefit bump” America’s beleaguered seniors have been promised once they reach extreme old age. But here’s what the proposal actually says: “Provide benefit enhancement equal to 5% of the average benefits (spread out over 5 years) for individuals who have been eligible for benefits for 20 years.”
Since they’re proposing to raise the retirement age to 68 and then 69, that means offering this bounty when a retiree becomes 88 or 89. With the estimates we’ve made above, that amounts to a “bonus” of $45 per month ($37 for women).
9. The plan still discriminates – by income, and by race.
Even that minimal adjustment is likely to benefit wealthier – and whiter – Americans. As Paul Krugman and others have pointed out, average life expectancy has risen by 6 years for the top 50% of earners, but only by 1.3 years for the bottom half.
White Americans still live five years longer on average than African-Americans, too. So who is this really helping?
10. It doesn’t solve the healthcare problem. It just shifts the cost.
This proposal is filled with irreversible triggers, like the Doomsday Machine in Dr. Strangelove, that are set to go off if targets aren’t met. But they’re all designed to trigger spending cuts or regressive tax changes. When it comes to the single greatest driver of future deficits – health care costs – there’s no trigger for the public option that would significantly lower costs.
Here’s a proposal that is in the plan: Repeal the CLASS Act. That’s the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act, which provides funds that allow people to receive medical care in the home rather than the hospital. Why does this proposal single out the CLASS Act? It’s only projected to cost $11 billion in 2015. But then, that’s typical of this proposal. It ignores the big issues and then goes out of its way to step on programs that serve the public good.
Their health proposals tinker at the margin of cost and ignore the big picture. Reducing administrative cost support for Medicaid merely shifts costs from the Federal government to the states, while freezing provider payments will reduce access to care with minimal reduction in costs. They also plan to cut health benefits severely for Federal employees.
They want to force Medicare recipients to pay more out-of-pocket for their care. That’s a double-whammy for seniors who have already had their Social Security benefits cut.
The authors claim that because “(Medicare) cost-sharing for most medical services is low, the benefit structure encourages over-utilization of health care.” That’s unproven theory, especially when discussing seniors. Studies have shown that increasing out-of-pocket costs discourages utilization – it keeps people from getting medical care – but studies among younger populations that seemed to back this idea have recently come under question, while other studies among seniors suggest they’re likely to skip needed care and suffer as a result.
These Medicare changes will impose unnecessary hardship without addressing the real causes of healthcare cost. Why? Because private health insurance is one of this Commission’s “sacred cows,” and any program that would provide public competition for these insurers is deferred (while “all-payer” coverage is buried elsewhere as one of many possible alternatives once other avenues have failed.)
What do they propose for the under-65 crowd instead? One of the main features of their proposals is an increase in the health “excise tax,” which would undermine employee benefit health plans and shift more health care costs on the under-65 set, too. (For greater discussion of this very bad idea, see here.)
“No class act.” Somehow that seems to say it all. Commission member Dick Durbin is a good Senator who has provided valuable service. But it’s painful and to hear him say, as he did today, that he’s inclined to vote for this plan because the times call for “shared sacrifice.” That’s a highly regrettable statement. In this plan, the sacrifice is only shared among those who can least afford it, while the wealthiest enjoy a free ride.
This proposal must not be passed.
 There’s a footnote with an escape clause, offering the possibility of exempting a portion of these earnings from that rule by raising the top tax rate instead.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project and the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Website: Eskow and Associates
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Much will be written about “Black Swan,” a movie that viewers will either love or hate for its melding of a ballerina story with classic horror motifs. What saves Darren Aronofsky’s study in female masochism from descending into schlock gothic? The performances are superb, with ample ballet sequences. But a shard of broken mirror in this story is to a piece of glass in Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” a lethal weapon. I was stunned when I first saw the film at the Hamptons International Film Festival, in a theater where you could hear the proverbial pin drop, and equally stunned upon second viewing last night at the Ziegfeld premiere, where a few titters registered that some were not as awed as I was by the movie’s extravagant emotion.
You may imagine that the finale, the dying of the dancing swan, metaphoric for a girl’s loss of virginity, a figment of a girl’s warped mind, or just plain old death, would be a mother’s worst nightmare, but so is the mother-daughter relationship at the movie’s heart. This horror, over-wrought yet persuasive in characters portrayed by Barbara Hershey and Natalie Portman is an unsettling wacky mirror itself, as is the ballet master charming and cruel as played by Vincent Cassell, also fine as a scoundrel in the French import “Mesrine.”
A lavish party ensued at the St. Regis, with a smorgasbord of pastas, the perfect dancer fuel, and a life-sized mannequin in tutu and swan feather headgear, legs akimbo, rotating eerily around an axis. The actor Jean Reno reunited with Portman now in a ruby Dior gown, so many years after they worked together–she a child– in “The Professional.” Mila Kunis who had removed her Louboutins for hotel slippers said she had no training as a dancer before she was tapped to play this breakthrough role as Portman’s friend/ lover/ rival. One question on many men’s lips was for Vincent Cassell who attended the premiere with his mother: where’s Monica?
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The star of the Blade films was ordered to report to a prison in the town of Lewis Run on 9 December.
Snipes asked a judge last week to let him remain free on bail while he appeals to the US Supreme Court to overturn his conviction.
The actor, 48, was convicted in 2008 for failing to file tax returns.
Snipes appealed to a court in Atlanta in the US state of Georgia after being found guilty by a jury in Florida. But the court upheld the conviction and sentence.
The actor's lawyers then argued last month that Snipes had a legal right to remain on bail while they prepared a fresh appeal.
Snipes's lawyers also said at hearing in the town of Ocala in Florida last month that jurors should be interviewed about whether they had perjured themselves by stating during jury selection that they did not have preconceived opinions about the actor.
His lawyer, Daniel Meachum, said he had received e-mails from multiple jurors, who claimed others in the jury believed the actor was guilty before the trial began.
At the time of his conviction in April 2008, prosecutors said Snipes had earned more than 37m (24m) in gross income between 1999 and 2004, but had not filed tax returns or paid any federal taxes.
The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as:
Other conventions, groups and organizations have built upon or expanded the UN definition and its scope.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are approximately 62 million refugees today languishing in countries not their own. This number does not include the millions of unfortunate people who fall under the definition of “displaced persons,” or “internally displaced persons.” The latter are people who have been forced to leave their homes as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, violence, human rights violation, natural disasters, etc., but who have remained in their own country.
But, regardless of the definitions, regardless of the semantics, regardless of the numbers, we are talking about some of the most desperate and destitute people in the world.
I know, because as a young U.S. Air Force officer, 35 years ago, I saw the misery, the desperation and the total dependence of these people first-hand and up-close, of which I wrote then:
They were the first of several thousand South Vietnamese refugees who would find temporary shelter in a makeshift refugee camp at a sprawling military base in Florida in 1975, after “the fall of Saigon.” Over the next eight months, more than 125,000 Vietnamese would flee Vietnam and would be warmly greeted and accepted at other U.S. refugee camps. (Hundreds of thousands additional Vietnamese would be given refuge in our country during the next 10 years.)
America and Americans opened up their hearts and arms to this “first wave” of Vietnamese refugees and to the ones who were to follow. Within a few months the refugees were resettled in communities throughout the U.S. Thousands were graciously welcomed by Americans into their own homes; thousands more were “sponsored” by social and welfare organizations and provided with jobs. The vast majority would become hard-working, productive, loyal and grateful residents of our country.
This was one of the more noble episodes in recent U.S. history dealing with refugees.
Sadly, such has not been the case during the Iraq war, a war that created more than four million Iraqi refugees.
Back in November 2007, at the height of the Iraqi refugee crisis, I wrote in the Stars and Stripes:
More than 2 million Iraqis have fled the carnage in Iraq while… another 2.3 million Iraqis — most women and children — have been displaced internally by the sectarian fighting. They live in squalid conditions and in virtual imprisonment in their own country. The plight of the Iraqis who have fled abroad, mostly to Syria and Jordan, is not much better. Thousands flee their country every month, making this the largest diaspora in the Middle East since 1948.
And I criticized the Bush administration for virtually ignoring the refugee crisis.
When our last combat troops pulled out of Iraq several months ago, more than a year after Obama assumed the presidency, we left behind one and a half million Iraqis displaced in their own country, uprooted from their homes, many living in total destitution as squatters in slums and shanty towns in Iraq. An additional 500,000 Iraqi refugees found themselves still languishing and forgotten abroad.
I have criticized the Obama administration for not doing much better.
Now we hear that “A second exodus has begun [in Iraq], of Iraqis who returned after fleeing the carnage of the height of the war, but now find that violence and the nation’s severe lack of jobs are pulling them away from home once again.”
To make matters worse, the war in Afghanistan is also creating new refugees, especially “internally displaced persons.” The UNHCR reports that the number of Afghanistan people displaced in their own country rose from 235,000 in 2008 to 295,000 as of January 2010. Other estimates and forecasts are even grimmer.
Of course, there are other countries and regions where the refugee problem is just as bad or even worse: Sudan, the Palestinian Territories, Myanmar and Azerbaijan are just a few examples.
However, Iraq and Afghanistan are countries where our “involvement” directly or indirectly has led to the creation of millions of new refugees.
During the arrival of the first South Vietnamese refugees at Eglin Air Force Base 35 years ago, I observed the military and civilian professionals and volunteers who were welcoming these unfortunate people and wrote afterward, “The character of a nation is reflected in the faces of these volunteers. Some have flowers in their hands, some have tears in their eyes, all have compassion in their hearts.”
I hope that, 35 years hence, America and Americans will once again reflect the “character of a nation” by not forgetting the millions of Iraqi and Afghanistan refugees who are, once again, the wretched legacy of wars they had no hand in.
Dancing with the Stars and WikiLeaks may be dominating the headlines these days, but the mortgage crisis persists as one of the biggest challenges plaguing America.
The implosion of the residential mortgage market has caused millions of second mortgage liens to enter default status, placing homeowners in a financially precarious position. Secondary mortgage debt is already estimated at $1 trillion. Experts are projecting 20 percent of second mortgages will go into default, creating an eye-popping additional $200 billion in defaulted second mortgage debt. Worse yet, property values have plummeted to as low as 40 percent of original sales price in the last several years, essentially leaving the value of the second mortgage at zero.
So far, there have been few solutions for upside down/underwater homeowners and the mortgage lenders and servicers who own these loans.
Too often, homeowners view their only options as “strategic default” or filing for bankruptcy and discharging their debt through the courts, when what they need are more options for being able to keep their homes, continue making their mortgage payments and maintain their good credit standing.
We already know the government isn’t going to offer a sweeping bailout; nor can government even singlehandedly solve a problem of this magnitude.
With a crisis as vast and wide as the mortgage meltdown, it’s time for innovation and collaboration. It’s time for completely fresh ideas. It’s time for the public and private sectors, nonprofits and homeowners alike to work jointly on solutions.
Here’s one new approach that fits that bill: offering homeowners the opportunity to have their defaulted second mortgage debt forgiven in exchange for performing community service.
That’s what we’re doing at Raise the Roof, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is enabling homeowners with defaulted second mortgages to satisfy their debt through volunteer service. Here’s how it works.
Raise the Roof acquires defaulted second lien mortgages from banks and mortgage lenders and offers interested homeowners the opportunity to perform community service projects in association with the HandsOn Network, the nation’s largest volunteer network, in exchange for forgiving their second mortgage debt.
We then connect participating homeowners with their local HandsOn Network affiliate for intake and orientation sessions, and to coordinate their community service hours. Once homeowners complete their volunteer service commitments, Raise the Roof notifies all three credit bureaus that they are free and clear of their second mortgage debt.
This approach offers a win-win-win for homeowners, banks and communities alike.
American homeowners benefit from becoming free of their defaulted mortgages and regaining the chance to rebuild their financial lives. Better yet, many participating homeowners will have the potential to negotiate a new loan modification on their first mortgage lien once their second mortgage lien is removed, as the presence of secondary financing is one of the leading impediments to first mortgage loan modifications. Removing a defaulted second mortgage may well pave the way to financial recovery much faster. Offering homeowners another form of currency — volunteer service — with which to pay off their second mortgage debt also creates a new opportunity to promote financial literacy and fiscal responsibility.
Banks and lenders also benefit from becoming free of the defaulted liens that weigh heavy on their balance sheets, as well as from the goodwill they can generate from finding innovative and proactive ways to help their customers.
Lastly, and just as importantly, communities benefit from increased volunteerism and new community service projects. For example if 10,000 participating homeowners each perform 100 hours of community service, that’s a total of one million community service hours. Imagine the good that can be done in any community with that kind of volunteer firepower. The old adage “a rising tide lifts all boats” has never been more accurate.
Raise the Roof is poised to launch our beta test in Broward County, Florida — a community that’s clearly been hard hit by the mortgage crisis — in partnership with local HandsOn affiliate Volunteer Broward and we will be posting updates as it progresses. As we pioneer a new approach to a growing problem, we welcome feedback, ideas and participation from anyone and everyone who’s interested in combating the mortgage crisis with innovation, creativity and partnership. While there isn’t only one way out of the mortgage mess, new thinking and collaborations are vital to ensuring success.
Let’s start with what the Wikileaks trove of diplomatic cables is not. It’s not a collection of documents whose release will undermine all potential for solving global problems through diplomacy rather than war. It’s not a set of shocking revelations of positions or opinions that completely reverse our understanding of global issues. And it’s not a bunch of documents providing nothing but new justifications for going to war against Iran.
What it is is two things. First, it is an ineffably sad body of evidence that President Obama’s promise to engage with the world in a whole new way still remains unfulfilled, and that continuity, rather than change, still shapes the Obama administration’s foreign policy. And second, it is an orchard of exposs over-ripe for cherry-picking.
And cherry-picking they are. If you watched only Fox News or some of the outraged-but-gleeful mainstream pundits, you would believe that all the documents prove the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program and world-wide support for a military attack on Iran. If you read only the Israeli press, you would think the documents provide irrefutable proof that “the entire world is panicked over the Iranian nuclear program.”
Certainly this first batch of Cable-gate includes some seemingly startling remarks on Iran – the king of Saudi Arabia calling on the U.S. to “cut off the head” of the Iranian “snake,” the leaders of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates supporting more aggressive U.S. action against Iran. But those positions are not in fact new. Arab leaders have longstanding hostile relations with Iran; virtually every Arab government supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. The significance of the new documents lies far more in their secrecy – demonstrating once again the huge chasm between the U.S.-armed and U.S.-backed Arab leaders, and the views of the people over whom they rule. Not surprisingly, it is Noam Chomsky on Democracy Now! rather than the mainstream press, who linked the new documents to that long-standing gap between the stated views of the Saudi, UAE, Bahraini and other Arab royals and leaders of other pro-U.S. Arab states, and those of their subjects. In the August 2010 Brookings survey of public opinion in seven Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE, 88% of Arabs believe Israel represents the greatest threat to them and 77% chose the U.S., while only 10% identified Iran as the threat. Fifty-seven percent of Arabs believe Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, but 77% still think Iran has the right to its nuclear program – and indeed, 57% believe that if Iran did obtain a nuclear weapon, the impact on the Middle East would be more positive.
Some of the cables directly contradict the over-heated claims that the trove provides new justification for attacking Iran. In June 2009, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a group of U.S. congressmembers that the window of opportunity to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would end in December 2010. While his goal was clearly to ratchet up pressure for greater U.S. threats, perhaps even a military strike against Iran, Barak went on to admit that after that time, “any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage.” The cable documents Tel Aviv’s -and Congress’s – knowledge that any Israeli or U.S. military strike against Iran from now on will cause “unacceptable” civilian casualties – unacceptable even according to the low standards of Israel’s notorious rejection of the Geneva Convention’s protections of civilians in times of war.
In another cable, then-chief of Israel’s Mossad Meir Dagan “urged more attention on regime change, asserting that more could be done to develop the identities of ethnic minorities in Iran. He said he was sure that Israel and the U.S. could ‘change the ruling regime in Iran’.” That earlier promise may have had something to do with top officials in Tehran blaming Israel for the assassination of an influential Iranian nuclear scientist and wounding of another just the day after the new Wikileaks documents were released.
There are several references to U.S. unease about Iran’s role in the Middle East, concerns that Tehran wants recognition as a key regional influence. Again that’s nothing new, Iran and Iraq were long understood to be the only two contenders with the all three requisites for indigenous regional power: size of land and population, oil for wealth, and sufficient water. No other country had all three. With Iraq defeated, war-devastated and occupied, it is out of the equation. But in recent years a new contender has entered the scene – Turkey, whose non-oil economy has soared to 17th largest in the world. It was no surprise, then, that Cable-gate indicates that the U.S. embassy in Turkey sent more documents back to the State Department than any other source.
On the broader Middle East, again lots of interesting points. With the goal of further sidelining any serious efforts towards a just solution on Palestine, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed in one cable that Arab leaders know that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a “bankrupt” narrative and that mobilization against Iran is their most important priority. But in fact Arab leaders provided their U.S. interlocutors with information that could, if the U.S. chose a different path, help craft a new approach. The emir of Qatar, for instance, told Senator John Kerry, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee that Hamas would, contrary to U.S. and Israeli claims, “for sure” accept the 1967 border with Israel, though it would not say so publicly. If Obama envoy former Senator George Mitchell, who famously said the most important lesson of peace talks is that everyone has to be at the table, had used that information, perhaps serious Palestinian-Israeli talks could now be underway. Instead, it will be left to civil society to use the new information as part of pressure campaigns for new forms of real diplomacy.
Other Cable-gate documents give the lie to the common Washington claim that U.S. and Israeli interests never diverge. Several conversations repeat Israel’s official position that, despite its claimed desire for an Israeli-Arab coalition against Iran, any U.S. arms going to Arab regimes, including those with close ties to Israel, such as the recent $60 billion sales of warplanes and attack helicopters to Saudi Arabia, could turn into a future threat. That’s old news. But what’s new is an acknowledgement from a top Israeli military official, Maj. General Amos Gilad, who heads the Political Military Bureau of the defense ministry, of the “difficult position the U.S. finds itself in given its global interests.” He “conceded that Israel’s security focus is so narrow that its QME [Qualitative Military Edge] concerns often clash with broader American security interests in the region,” (For more on the Wikileaks’ disclosures of the U.S.-Israel military relationship, see “U.S. Security Concerns Often Clash With U.S. Interests” by Josh Ruebner.)
Finally, in this initial batch of documents, perhaps the most shocking, though hardly surprising, were the exposs of State Department efforts, at the highest level, to turn U.S. diplomats into spies. While intelligence gathering in the form of assessments of leaders’ ideas, influence, habits has been part of diplomatic work for centuries, 21st century realities are now intruding in whole new ways. It is perhaps no shocker that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demands that her foreign service officers provide credit card information on leaders of Hamas, Fatah and the Palestinian “young guard” both inside and outside the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Personal e-mail and pager information, travel plans, even frequent-flier accounts. Violation of at least the spirit of the Vienna Convention’s definition of diplomacy, sure, as well as the usual problem of turning diplomats into spies, but hardly unexpected.
But demanding biometric information? Defined as iris scans, fingerprints, and DNA information? And demanding that same information on high-ranking United Nations officials including UN ambassadors of permanent Security Council countries and top advisers to the UN secretary general? Yes it harks back to 2003 when U.S. and British officials were bugging the missions and ambassadors of the “Uncommitted Six” members of the Security Council who were standing firm against U.S. pressure to endorse war in Iraq. But still. Biometric? Are U.S. diplomats tiptoeing around UN headquarters trying to grab Ban ki-Moon’s toothbrush? This is not diplomacy; this is counter-intelligence spying by the striped-pants (or pants-suited) set.
Certainly there are risks in releasing these documents. There are indications that a few (really only about two so far) actual diplomatic efforts could be ended prematurely. And certainly it remains important that the Wikileaks staff and the media outlets disseminating these documents continue to insure that names of vulnerable civilians are redacted; the recent open letters from human rights organizations, urging that all human rights defenders be especially protected from the dangerous consequences of exposure, must continue to be heeded.
But most crucially, the Wikileaks documents demonstrate once again that U.S. diplomacy is not being used to find alternatives to war, but rather pursued in the interests of illegal wars. When diplomatic cables detail discussion between State Department representatives and the president of Yemen over which government will take public responsibility for the U.S. drone attacks causing rising numbers of civilian Yemeni deaths and the inevitable outrage those deaths justifiably evoke, that is not diplomacy. That is war. These documents on their own will mean little except for embarrassing a few diplomats. But as instruments in the hands of rising U.S. and global movements against war, and FOR diplomacy – movements demanding that President Obama make good, finally, on his promise to engage the world in a whole new way – just maybe these documents will help to end wars and change the world.
Phyllis Bennis’ books include Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power and Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer.
“Any lives they endangered, they’re personally responsible for and the blood is on their hands.”
- Mike Huckabee.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But George Bush doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Dick Cheney doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Paul Wolfowitz doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Condi Rice doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Karl Rove doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Douglas Feith doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But George Tenet doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Tony Blair doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Colin Powell doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But John McCain doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Hillary Clinton doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Paul Bremer doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Gen. Tommy Franks doesn’t.
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Mike Huckabee doesn’t
The Wikileaks leaker has blood on his hands. But Barrack Obama doesn’t.
As far as I’m concerned, MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews should ban the Family Research Council’s (FRC) President, Tony Perkins, from appearing as a guest. Indeed, all respectable media outlets should take this congenital liar off of their rolodexes and give precious airtime to more respectable spokespeople.
I reached my verdict after watching Perkins square off against the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Mark Potok. Perkins was livid because the SPLC had just categorized FRC as an official, certified hate group. One of the primary factors that placed FRC on the list was the group’s tendency to distort the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
It was fascinating to watch Perkins defend his organization by trotting out more lies — thus proving that FRC earned its dubious classification. The spouting of anti-gay falsehoods seems so deeply ingrained, that even for this short television segment, Perkins was unable to curb his compulsion to fudge the facts.
During the show, Perkins deftly shifted the conversation about FRC’s transgressions into one about pedophilia. Without flinching, Perkins smeared gay men by falsely saying they were more likely to molest children. To back his bogus claim, he cited the discredited American College of Pediatricians.
In case you missed it, The American College of Pediatricians made national news this year after one of its chief activists, Dr. George Rekers, was caught vacationing with an escort he met on Rent Boy.com. Only weeks before the scandal, this hypocritical group sent a letter to every public school superintendant in the nation. The pseudo-scientific letter condemned homosexuality and referred school officials to an anti-gay website, “Facts About Youth”, that was packed with junk science.
The website cherry picked quotes from legitimate researchers, including University of Minnesota scientist Dr. Gary Remafedi, who charged that the American College of Pediatricians was “knowingly misrepresenting research findings”.
Of course, this is no surprise. The American College of Pediatricians is a small, anti-gay sham group that purposely tries to confuse itself with the credible American Academy of Pediatrics. The American College of Pediatricians is run by politically-motivated charlatans that do not produce peer review research on LGBT people. Meanwhile, The American Academy of Pediatrics is a group of legitimate researchers that actually do produce respected peer review science on homosexuality.
Citing the American College of Pediatricians on homosexuality is like citing the cigarette lobby on the health benefits of smoking. Of course, Tony Perkins knows this, yet he was still sleazy and dishonest enough to cite the group, proving SPLC’s original point that FRC’s misrepresents the facts in an ugly effort to demonize LGBT people.
Similar to Perkins, United States Rep. Michele Bachann (R-MN) is severely truth challenged. On Nov. 3 she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Obama’s upcoming trip to India would “cost the taxpayers $200 million a day.” Bachmann went on to say that, “He’s taking 2,000 people with him. He will be renting out over 870 rooms in India. And these are five-star hotel rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.”
The problem with her assessment, of course, was that it wasn’t true. Yet, it is a fair bet that Bachmann will be invited back on the air to spew her fabricated garbage. But given her lack of credibility, why do cable networks provide a soapbox? Is this really about greedy corporations that control newsrooms pressuring booking departments into choosing reprobates and hate mongers who will rant for ratings?
The truth is, giving a platform to unrepentant liars and propagandists has harmed this country. For example, this week’s Pentagon report on repealing Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell concludes that much of the concern in the armed forces about openly gay service members was driven by misperceptions and stereotypes, and that fears were “exaggerated and not consistent with the reported experiences of many service members.”
In essence, the biggest problem with lifting Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell is not having actual gays serving openly, but having to unravel the insidious lies peddled about gays in the military.
If the cable networks insist on setting the stage for those who tell whoppers, the least they can do is carve out time the following evening to correct the mistruths. Without such consistent follow-up, these programs become little more than unwitting conduits for misinformation.
I get the need for ratings, but how about balancing it with respectability?
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The world is a complex place. And the solutions to our problems–very real problems–will require complex answers. But many conservatives, including those with elite pedigrees, are not contributing useful solutions or analysis.
Let me explain what I am looking for, and what I am railing against. On my class exams, I reject simple answers. In over twenty years of university teaching, I have never given a multiple choice exam. Instead, I emphasize essays.
Even these can be minimized, by asking straight forward questions, like, “Name five important New Deal measures”. I prefer open-ended queries that force students to use plenty of facts, but in service of their own ideas.
An example of this would be (actual exam question): “The period between 1900 and 1940 clearly shows a nation trying to come to grips with modern business. Put another way, many of the debates during this time were about what role business should play in American life.
“You too, can enter this fascinating and provocative argument! Your question, therefore is: What role did business play in American life during the period 1900-1940, how did it change and how do we assess its (i.e. businesses) impact on the country in this era? As always you have to have a thesis, and then exhaustive amounts of specific evidence covering the entire span of time, that would convince even a blind history professor of the wisdom and truth of your answer.”
To get an “A” on exams like this your answer has to be smart, original, and backed by lots of evidence. If all a student does is say “yes” or “no”, rather than providing their own thesis, then parrot back material from my lectures, they get graded down. I have given top marks both to papers I have profoundly disagreed with, and those I shared values with. The common factor was not my politics, but the ability of the student to think in fresh and innovative ways, and to support their thesis with data.
But some conservatives, no matter their status in life, wouldn’t do well on my exams. These individuals have developed a simplistic mantra: Government is bad. Other than defense. Taxes are bad. Even if they pay for programs that help people. Business is good. Period.
Now some of this is true. Some of the time. Some taxes are detrimental, a lot of things business does are good. But taxes also pay for important, beneficial programs, and business at times breaks the law. My problem with the statements in the previous paragraph is that they are too simplistic, too absolute.
Case in point of someone guilty of this kind of flawed analysis may be John H. Cochrane, the AQR Capital Management Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago. This is someone with a much more prestigious position than I have, at a much more prestigious institution than I’m employed at.
Yet, in a New York Times article this Sunday, he is quoted as follows: “Growth doesn’t come from big federal programs. The government didn’t tell us” to set up the businesses on the Internet, but “it did tell us to buy houses and look where it got us.”
Huh?!? I hope Professor Cochrane was kidding about that last part, but I doubt it. It was business, not government who wrote all those smarmy contracts, packaged all those bogus loans that led to economic disaster and so many families in foreclosure. I don’t recall companies using government lawyers to create all those new and disastrous packages, or selling them to hapless Americans who are now screwed.
Yes, at times government was the handmaiden in this process, facilitating matters. But that was because pro business Congresspeople and Senators passed bills weakening our financial laws and the oversight function, leading to the debacle. I doubt that many big government liberals voted for those measures. Throw in the efforts of the security industry’s lobbyists, and you have a pretty clear causational chain.
But not to Cochrane. Business good. Government bad. End of analysis.
I once got into an interesting discussion with three finance professors from our business school. I was making the argument that at certain times, the greatest enemy of the free market was the business community. My point was that as big business reaches monopoly status, these firms often seek to limit the market, to close out potential competitors.
There were several different reactions. One individual simply looked at me like I had grown a second and third head, each as dysfunctional as the first one. How could business ever oppose the free market? Ever!?!
The other two were much more thoughtful. They understood how both monopolies and oligopolies worked, and their detrimental effects on the market. But they then argued that the reason these firms could do these nasty things were that they were all sanctioned by a set of rules set up and enforced by–drumroll here–the government. Forget who was writing those laws and paying representatives to vote for them. Take away government, and nirvana and the free market would break out.
My point is not that business, or government, or anything else, is always bad, or good. Rather, it is in favor of richer analysis, taking into account a wider range of evidence and then trying to make sense of it. Some conservatives do this magnificently–read David Frum, or David Brooks in the New York Times. But many don’t. And that kind of simplistic analysis doesn’t move us forward,
Business good. Government bad.
This Blogger’s Books from
Master of the Air: William Tunner and the Success of Military Airlift
by Professor Robert A. Slayton
Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith
by Robert A. Slayton
There were some, including some in the media, who listened to President Obama’s account of yesterday’s meeting with Republicans and concluded that there was hope for a surprisingly bipartisan conclusion to the lame duck Congress.
My questions are: what planet do he and they think they are on? And have they paid any attention to Sen. Mitch McConnell?
The president emerged from the meeting yesterday to say, hopefully, that the he had suggested that they work together not just on taxes and spending, but on the other issues pending, including an extension of unemployment insurance.
But at that very moment McConnell and the rest of he GOP Senate leadership were beginning work on a plan to force the Senate to do just the opposite: a unified GOP threat to filibuster debate on anything but taxes and spending.
This morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was sounding upbeat — even after news of the McConnell strategy had surfaced.
Republicans are energized and out for blood. And, like all tough politicians, when they sense weakness and confusion on the other side, they are emboldened to press harder.
On the Hill yesterday, GOP aides privately could barely contain their contempt — and their amusement — at the president’s declaration of a dawn of bipartisan optimism.
They know that Obama already in effect has conceded on a two or three-year extension of all tax cuts, and they are going to insist on that before considering anything else — which, in the end, they won’t.
Barack Obama and his crew have many good qualities. But that list does not include skill and guts at legislative combat with Republicans. They don’t seem to really know the enemy or the game they are in, and the president’s meager and glancing experience in the trenches of politics has caught up with him.
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A review of Inside Job, produced, written, and directed by Charles Ferguson, produced by Audry Marrs, 108 minutes, narrated by Matt Damon.
By Michael Shermer
In this disturbing and often infuriating look at the financial meltdown, the Academy Award-nominated (No End in Sight) documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson promises viewers an inside look into the “inside job” (use intended to convey criminality) that he believes explains the financial meltdown and subsequent recession. Inside Job is a well produced, artfully edited, and dramatic reconstruction of the rise and fall (and rise) of the Wall Street financial industry. Most of us are painfully aware of what happened to the economy, so this film packs into less than two hours what took two years to unfold, and so the emotional impact is commensurate with the eye-blurring number of events tightly repackaged in cinematic gravitas.
With Inside Job I expected a Michael Moore-like liberal attack on all things free market, but that is not the case here. Instead, there is what is said and what is not said. In other words, there were no lies of commission, but there were some lies of omission. What is said in Inside Job (that I found to be accurate although Ferguson does not phrase it this way) is that, in fact, we do not practice free market capitalism because the government (both Bush and Obama administrations are indicted in the film) are in bed with Wall Street tycoons, reducing risk taking through the moral hazard of promised bailouts. The whole point of capitalism is to make a profit by taking risks. Low risk taking typically results in slow and steady growth, whereas high risk taking historically produces both high profits and steep losses. By entering the business of risk protection, the government is sending a clear signal to the market: don’t worry about taking big risks with your own and investors’ money; we’ll bail you out. In profits we’re capitalists, in losses we’re socialists. This is what Ralph Nader would call corporate welfare, and in the case of the financial meltdown and subsequent bailout he would be right.
What infuriates in particular in the film is just how much of an old-boys club Wall Street is (and what little chance any of us little guys have in competing fairly), and how much of the club roster includes prominent politicians and members of the Federal Reserve. It reminded me of my research on doping in sports, in which it has become abundantly clear that nearly everyone seems to turn a blind eye to the problem and former athletes are now running the sanctioning bodies and doping agencies are in the pay of said sanctioning bodies. When Ferguson reminds us that Obama left in place all the major players in the game–Bernanke, Geithner, Paulson, Sumners, et al.–it made me think of what would happen if Major League Baseball put Barry Bonds in charge of ending steroid use, or Marion Jones was the executive director of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
The greed of Wall Street bankers and financiers is the leitmotif throughout Inside Job, and there is certainly no shortage of it on Wall Street. As one trader noted, there is no point of going anywhere near that part of Manhattan if your primary goal is not to make a pile of money. But Wall Street greed is only half the story; the other half is Main Street greed. Those greedy bankers were giving questionable loans to greedy buyers, and everyone was hoping to cash in through escalating risk taking in financial and real estate markets.
Now, behavioral economists have demonstrated that humans are normally very risk averse. Specifically, the research shows that losses hurt twice as much as gains feel good. That is, in order to get someone to invest their hard-earned money you have to convince them that the potential gains are twice as much as the possible losses. So why weren’t all these Wall Street bankers and Main Street buyers risk averse? Two reasons: short term thinking and reduced risk signals. First, potential home buyers and investors mistakenly assumed that the increasing trend line in housing prices would continue unabated indefinitely. Two, loan officers and their financial institutions intentionally and deceptively reduced the normal risk signals sent to potential customers in hopes that the artificial bubble would not burst. It did, and here we are.
Since corporations and financial institutions are run by people, they should show the same risk aversion that individuals do when investing money and granting loans. Normally they do, but over the past decade something happened to remove or delay the risk. That something was a combination of government intervention into the financial marketplace and private repackaging and selling of loans to organizations too distant from the risk to feel averse to the potential loss. For example, in the spring of 1999 a pilot program was launched by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Recall that Fannie and Freddie are government-run organizations that do not make loans directly to customers–they buy loans from banks, which make those loans directly. So, here already the risk was removed a step from the brains of the risk assessors, but risk aversion was further attenuated by government interference with the pricing mechanism that normally adjusts for risk.
In that pilot program the nation’s largest underwriter of home mortgages came under pressure from the Clinton administration in its desire to achieve an “ownership society,” along with insistence from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that Fannie and Freddie increase their portfolio of loans made to lower and moderate-income borrowers from 44 percent to 50 percent by 2001. That meant granting loans to higher risk customers.
There’s nothing wrong with corporations and institutions taking higher risks, as long as they adjust for it by charging more. The higher price acts as a risk signal to both buyers and sellers, thereby dialing up their emotion of risk aversion. This is what Fannie Mae was already doing by only purchasing loans that banks made charging three to four percentage points higher than conventional loans. But under the new program implemented in 1999, higher-risk people with lower incomes, negligible savings, and poorer credit ratings could now qualify for a mortgage that was only one point above a conventional 30-year fixed rate mortgage (and that added point was dropped after two years of steady payments).
In other words, the normal risk signal sent to high risk customers–you can have the loan but it’s going to cost you a lot more–was removed. Lower the risk signal and you lower risk aversion.
None of this is part of Inside Job, and that’s a shame because it misses an opportunity for a deeper look into the well of human nature that can lead any of us down a greedy path of blind profit seeking through rent seeking–the term used by economists to describe actions of individuals or firms to seek profits through political manipulation instead of economic competition. The problem is not greed per se, since that is part of our nature that when channeled properly through clearly defined and strictly enforced rules can result in much human progress. The problem is the attenuation or elimination of risk signals that keep greed in check.
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Concealed handgun license holders in the Wolverine State commit suicide at a rate higher than the general Michigan population according to information analyzed by my organization, the Violence Policy Center, as part of our Concealed Carry Killers project, an on-line resource that tallies reports of killings by concealed handgun permit holders that have not been determined to be legitimate self defense.
According to information from the Michigan State Police, for the period July 1, 2007 through June 30, 2008, 29 of Michigan’s 164,793 concealed handgun license holders took their own lives for a concealed handgun license holder suicide rate of 17.6 per 100,000 license holders. For the period July 1, 2008 through June 30, 2009, 28 of Michigan’s 182,749 concealed handgun license holders took their own lives for a concealed handgun license holder suicide rate of 15.3 per 100,000 license holders.
In comparison, in 2007 Michigan’s suicide rate for the general population was 11.3 per 100,000. In 2008, the suicide rate for the general population was 11.7 per 100,000. Only data for each calendar year is available and data for 2009 has not yet been released.
But the fact that Michigan concealed handgun license holders have a higher rate of suicide than the state’s general population is even more striking given that Michigan law prohibits the issuance of concealed handgun licenses to persons where the local issuing authority has “probable cause to believe that the applicant would be a threat to himself or herself or to other individuals.” Michigan’s mental health standards for concealed handgun licenses go beyond the federal standards for gun possession. Under federal law, only those persons who have been “adjudicated as a mental defective” or committed to a mental institution are prohibited from possessing firearms.
Without doubt, these 57 deaths will be easily dismissed by pro-gun advocates–who are quick to throw their comrades in arms under the bus whenever the reality of guns in America fails to comport with their own blindered vision.
To date Concealed Carry Killers has documented 188 incidents since May 2007 in 28 states resulting in 276 deaths. In more than two-thirds (129 incidents), the concealed handgun permit holder has already been convicted, committed suicide, or was killed in the incident. Of the 59 cases still pending, the vast majority (49) of concealed handgun permit holders have been charged with criminal homicide, two were deemed incompetent to stand trial, two incidents were unintentional shootings, and six incidents are still under investigation.
If every state that allows concealed carry maintained the level of information and public disclosure that Michigan does, who knows how many additional hidden suicides and non-self defense killings we’d be aware of (Michigan is one of the few states, if not the only, that collects and releases such comprehensive data on those permitted to carry concealed weapons). What we do know, however, is that the debate over concealed carry in America would be far more well informed and the end result far, far different.
But therein lies the raw truth of the pro-concealed carry movement: They’re afraid of the release of actual information–lest reality push aside rhetoric.
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