Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Mercator.net The Future of the News
on: November 25, 2009, 07:21:56 AM
Although I disagree with this piece's conclusions, I find it intelligent and thoughtful:
Natalie Fenton | Tuesday, 24 November 2009
tags : media, newsThe future of the news
The collapse of a viable business model for the mainstream media raises the question of what we want news for and how it can be delivered.
The production and circulation of independent, quality news is a hallmark of democratic societies with a complex history of commercial practices, regulatory controls and technological innovation. The demise of the existing business model of the local and regional press and of broadcast news in the regions together with the struggle for survival of many national newspapers demands a critical consideration of what we want news for and how it can be delivered.
A recent study by Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media ResearchCentre provides empirical evidence that challenges utopian visions of the internet as a brave new world with everyone connected to everyone else, a non-hierarchical network of voices with equal, open and global access. This latest ‘new’ world of ‘new’ media has not greatly expanded the news that we read or hear or changed mainstream news values and traditional news formats; neither has it connected a legion of bloggers to a mass audience. Rather, as the economic model for traditional news production stumbles and falls in the digital age, professional journalism has become the first casualty, the second, if we’re not careful, and pretty close behind will be the health of our democracy.
The research draws on over 170 interviews with a range of professionals from a cross section of mainstream news media, as well as news sources and new producers online including bloggers and people operating in the realm of alternative news; we added to this, 3 newsroom ethnographies and a content analysis of online news across mainstream news media, online alternative media, social networking sites and YouTube.
We looked at the role of structural factors such as commerce, finance and regulation along with the cultural complexities of journalism, journalistic subjectivities and working practices.
And we found an industry and a practice in trouble.
Newspaper circulation and readership levels are at an all time low; there has been a tremendous growth in the number of news outlets available including the advent of, and rapid increase in, free papers, the emergence of 24 hour news and the popularization of online and mobile platforms; a decline in advertising revenue alongside cuts in personnel. With regard to local and international news production, the lack of economies of scale means that it is increasingly commercially unviable.
The Newspaper Society notes that 101 local papers closed down between January and August 2009. In those that are surviving fewer people are doing more and more work. Now I know we may all say that about our jobs, but in journalism what we see is the perfect storm – a history of marketisation, deregulation and globalisation, throw new technologies in to the mix (bringing about yet more speed and space and more need to invest in technical infrastructure). These factors combined have had a negative impact on journalism for the public good and in the public interest.
The working context of news media has increased pressures in the newsroom to fill more space (through the expansion of online platforms), work at greater speed (to fill the requirements of 24 hour news and the immediacy of online communication) with fewer journalists in permanent positions and more job insecurity.
"In the old days you had to get up in the morning and read all the newspapers, listen to the Today Programme [.…] Now, in addition to all of that we also have to keep an eye on websites, blogs of others, just in case stories crop up [.…] As on the Internet what we have to contend with is hugely increased sources of information." (Political Newspaper Editor, National Mid-Market)
"... when you’re under those time constraints, the Internet is fabulous but it’s dangerous as well. And I think that, a lot of the time people get things wrong, particularly on 24-hour news channels, it’s because they’re relying on the Internet." (Political Editor, Commercial Broadcasting)
In this environment there is evidence of journalists being thrust into news production more akin to creative cannibalization than the craft of journalism – as they need to fill more space and to work at greater speed while also having improved access to stories and sources online – they talk less to their sources, are captured in desk-bound, cut and paste, administrative journalism. Ready-made fodder from tried and tested sources takes precedence over the sheer difficulty of dealing with the enormity of user generated content or the overload of online information leading to an homogenization of content as ever increasing commercial pressures add to the temptation to rely not just on news agencies but on all cheaper forms of news gathering.
Given the speed of work, and the sheer amount of traffic and noise that journalists are exposed to every day, it is less easy for ordinary citizens and non-elite sources to make direct contact with reporters in mainstream media. In order for journalists to pick out the important information from the ‘blizzard’ online they are forced to create systems of ‘filtration’ based on known hierarchies and established news values. With so little time at their disposal journalists tend to prioritise known, ‘safe’ sources. So mainstream news on-line has not expanded to include a broader diversity of voices or shifted focus according to information filtered through social media.
And even though there is now a plethora of media outlets, and citizens and civil society can publish media content more easily than ever, there still is a dominance of a limited number of players that control news, information content and public debate. In other words mainstream news matters, maybe more than it ever has done – and most people, most of the time get most of their news from it. Furthermore the organisation of web search tends to send more users to the most popular sites in a winners take all pattern. It seems ever likely that the voices on the web will be dominated by the larger, more established news providers in a manner that, yet again, limits possibilities for increased pluralism.
In some newspapers, the combination of staff reductions and speeded up production schedules mean that only the most established senior, journalists, with the highest level of personal autonomy, have the luxury of leaving the office to talk to people, phoning a number of different people to verify information, or probing for alternative views or contradictions. But its not just the young journalists whose working practices have been transformed:
"They [journalists] don’t even try to talk to you, they just watch breaking news upstairs. I pass them every day when I come in, I pass one of the rooms and I see them watching telly and they’re banging away on the typewriters, all of them [.…] When I first came here [.…] it would be rare for that Lobby not to include some journalists, and sometimes it could be as many as ten or a dozen or twenty. Now, the only people you see in the Lobby are the fellas in the fancy breeches looking after the place [.…] I think it’s the advent of 24 hours news." (Labour MP)
What we’re left with is a contradiction between the transforming potential of new technologies and the stifling constraints of the free market.
The material conditions of contemporary journalism (particularly unprotected commercial practice) do not offer optimum space and resources to practice independent journalism in the public interest. On the contrary, job insecurity and commercial priorities place increasing limitations on journalists’ ability to do the journalism most of them want to do – to question, analyse and scrutinize.
What is the relationship between news media and democracy? A news media that can be relied upon to monitor, hold to account, interrogate power and facilitate and maintain deliberation is critical to a functioning democracy. In a world of one click communication and information overload protecting and enhancing a news media that can aim for this ethical horizon has actually become more important rather than less important. Without it we are left scrambling through the blogosphere, drowning in opinion, with no known serious fact-checking, no requirement to put stories in context, no real way of holding the writer gatherers to account. Where the well resourced and the already powerful are able to shout the loudest, twitter their way to the top of the pile while everyone else whispers in the wind.
How do we preserve it and should government have a role in media structures and behaviour? Any government that truly believes in the basic principles of democracy should be prepared to provide the means by which it can function. This means regulating news media to provide the freedom to operate in the public interest rather than purely for commercial gain. To ignore this is to accept that the market can be relied upon to deliver the conditions for deliberative democracy to flourish. Markets do not have democratic intent at their core. When markets fail or come under threat, ethical practice is swept aside in pursuit of financial stability.
How do we do it? My view is that we need to move towards a system of post-corporate, low profit or not-for-profit news supported by government funding that comes not from the Licence fee but from practices that are popular elsewhere in Europe such as industry levies and the charging of news aggregators that exploit news content.
Natalie Fenton is Reader and Co-Director of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre and Goldsmiths Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy at the University of London. This article has been republished from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Forstyth: Are Dollar Bears too Bullish?
on: November 25, 2009, 07:15:16 AM
Are Dollar Bears Too Bullish?
By RANDALL W. FORSYTH |
It would be so simple to follow the playbook of the inflationary 1970s. Today's deflationary threat is more dangerous, however.
GOLD SET ANOTHER RECORD MONDAY while the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 1% to a 13-month high, supposedly based on the cheery thought that the U.S. dollar would inevitably collapse to zero.
Investors faced a barrage of bearish articles about America's fiscal plight, from the front page of the New York Times warning about "Wave of Debt Payments Facing U.S. Government" to the Economist's cover story, "Dealing with America's Fiscal Hole" to the Financial Times posing the question, "Is Sovereign Debt the New Subprime?"
No wonder they wanted to flee the dollar. As Dennis Gartman observed in his Monday morning missive: "It is almost as if one can hear capital saying aloud, 'Let me outta here; get me some gold; or get me some euros, at least get me some blue-chip stocks. Get me anything, but get me out.'"
With the U.S. Dollar Index falling another 0.7%, to 75.10, gold continued its seemingly unstoppable advance to another peak. The active December futures contract on the Comex settled up $17.90, at $1,164.70 an ounce after trading at almost $1,175.
And as if to underscore the public's interest in the latest gold rush, the five most-read stories on Marketwatch.com were all about gold. (Marketwatch is owned by News Corp., which also is the publisher of Barrons.com.)
There's no disputing that America's budget mess poses a long-term threat to the dollar, more so than the Federal Reserve's low-interest-rate policies. That was pointed out here just last week ("A Foolish View of America's Debt, Nov. 18.)
So far, however, there seems no shortage of buyers for the U.S. government's debt, including Monday's record auction of $44 billion of two-year notes, which will be followed $42 billion of five-year notes Wednesday and $32 billion of seven-year notes.
That would contradict the notion of an imminent rerun of That 'Seventies Show, featuring soaring interest rates and inflation. That is, after all, what sent gold to its then-record of $850 in January 1980, the final year of that benighted decade. (And by the way, notwithstanding all the recently published assessments of this decade, it doesn't end until Dec. 31, 2010.)
Would that we could have that rerun? We'd all have the playbook on how to deal with those travails. Don't buy any Pintos, avoid polyester and burn disco records. Just buy gold, dump bonds, borrow and borrow and buy the biggest house you can afford. Maybe the last one didn't turn out so well.
Indeed, Albert Edwards, Societe Generale's global strategist, sees the risks running quite the opposite of the consensus, which has a global recovery on track with a steadily falling dollar. Instead, he looks for a double-dip back into recession leading to a surging greenback, with a collapse of "the China economic bubble" resulting in a double whammy for commodity prices.
Writing in his latest Global Strategy Letter, Edwards points to signs of doubts about the U.S. economic recovery, from the labor market remaining "very sick" with the uptick in unemployment rate over 10% plus the Conference Board's consumer finding showing jobs getting still harder to get. Meanwhile, the ECRI Leading Indicator, which trumpeted recovery earlier in the year, has fallen for five straight weeks.
But what's way out of the consensus is the call for China's massive trade surplus to turn to deficit by Societe Generale's Asian economist, Glenn Maguire, who Edwards writes has been "very right on China this year."
"This is a mega-call and will have major implications for the global financial markets," Edwards declares. China no longer will be accumulating currency reserves at nearly the same pace, leaving less to recycle into U.S. Treasuries. The reduced capital inflow would also slow China's domestic monetary growth and real output, which track each other. Meanwhile, capital outflows from Japan, another source of global liquidity, could be hampered were there a sharp rise in its government bond yields.
A synchronized end to the Chinese and U.S. economic recoveries could play out in increased protectionist pressures, including competitive devaluations, Edwards continues. That could lead to a spike in the dollar as speculative carry trades are unwound, as happened to the yen in 2008. A rise in the dollar would pull up the renminbi, which "may be all too much for a beleaguered Chinese economy."
Then, Edwards says, the U.S. goal of delinking of the RMB from the dollar would be accomplished -- with China devaluing rather than revaluing its currency higher.
Edwards adds, "I am reassured that my views are not totally bananas when two of the deepest thinkers are also concerned about a Chinese economic crash."
Those include Edward Chancellor, who has written extensively about bubbles, including "The Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation," and recently observed the Chinese economy shows symptoms of weakness similar to those after the Greenspan Fed reflated following the bursting of the tech bubble. Meanwhile, Jim Chanos, the famed short seller of Kynikos Associates, thinks he spies manipulated data about China's economy. Chanos, it should be remembered, sniffed out the phony accounting at Enron.
Indeed, there were hints the bubble in China was about to burst, or at least deflated, in the 3.5% plunge in the Shanghai Composite Tuesday. That came after on rumors that China's banks were ordered to raise more capital. Charles Dumas of Lombard Street Research writes in a note to clients this wasn't just a matter of an increased supply of shares, but a move almost certainly on orders of the government for banks to bolster their balance sheets following their lending spree earlier this year. Tightening of monetary policy is likely to follow as the boom produced by massive fiscal stimulus -- equal to 25% of gross domestic product--is generating inflation pressures.
The sort of deflationary crisis, resulting in competitive devaluations, protectionism and contracting world trade, recalls what happened in the 1930s, Edwards concludes. Despite politicians' solemn vows not repeat those blunders, "all I see are more and more protectionist measures being implemented, belying the soothing rhetoric."
The 1930s were indeed very different from the 1970s. In the latter decade, you could just buy gold (though that was more difficult before today's exchange-traded funds) and let your cash earn double-digit yields. The falling dollar battered stocks and especially bonds back then.
Now, cash yields absolute zero but stocks benefit from every drop in the dollar while global investors continue to buy Treasuries, seemingly undeterred by the greenback's steady slide.
But recall a year ago; the dollar soared like the yen with the unwinding of carry trades (which involve the borrowing in those low-yielding currencies) as stocks and other risk assets fell sharply.
Such a rerun seems to be the one potential risk that seems ignored as gold gets bid giddily higher -- a significantly more painful deflationary squeeze than the inflationary surge they see.
At the minimum, China's likely moves to cool its boom could portend outcomes quite different from the what the consensus expects. As Lombard Street's Dumas concludes, "With China's recovery as the leading force in the world recovery, this would mark the end of the stock market, and general risk asset, rebound from last winter's lows."
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Re: Pathological Science
on: November 25, 2009, 07:13:19 AM
That was VERY funny.
Investors Business Daily
The Day Global Warming Stood Still
Posted 11/20/2009 07:46 PM ET
Climate Change: As scientists confirm the earth has not warmed at all in the past decade, others wonder how this could be and what it means for Copenhagen. Maybe Al Gore can Photoshop something before December.
It will be a very cold winter of discontent for the warm-mongers. The climate show-and-tell in Copenhagen next month will be nothing more than a meaningless carbon-emitting jaunt, unable to decide just whom to blame or how to divvy up the profitable spoils of climate change hysteria.
The collapse of the talks coupled with the decision by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to put off the Kerry-Boxer cap-and-trade bill, the Senate's version of Waxman-Markey, until the spring thaw has led Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, the leading Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, to declare victory over Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the triumph of observable fact over junk science.
"I proudly declare 2009 as the 'Year of the Skeptic,' the year in which scientists who question the so-called global warming consensus are being heard," Inhofe said to Boxer in a Senate speech. "Until this year, any scientist, reporter or politician who dared raise even the slightest suspicion about the science behind global warming was dismissed and repeatedly mocked."
Inhofe added: "Today I have been vindicated."
The Ada (Oklahoma) Evening News quotes Inhofe: "So when Barbara Boxer, John Kerry and all the left get up there and say, 'Yes. We're going to pass a global warming bill,' I will be able to stand up and say, 'No, it's over. Get a life. You lost. I won,'" Inhofe said.
Now we have the German publication Der Spiegel, which is rapidly becoming the house organ for climate hysteria, weighing in again with the sad news that the earth does not have a fever so we really don't have to throw out the baby with the rising bath water.
In an article titled, "Climatologists Baffled By Global Warming Time-Out," author Gerald Traufetter leads off with the observation: "Climatologists are baffled as to why average global temperatures have stopped rising over the last 10 years." They better figure it out, Der Spiegel warns, because "billions of euros are at stake in the negotiations."
We are told in sad tones that "not much is happening with global warming at the moment" and that "it even looks as though global warming could come to a standstill this year." But how can it be that the earth isn't following all those computer models? Is the earth goddess Gaia herself a climate change "denier"?
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / The Chase
on: November 25, 2009, 06:54:50 AM
Print this Page
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
And it was reported to Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled. And he took his kinsmen with him, and he chased after him a seven days' journey; and they overtook him at Mount Gilad....
And Jacob was angry and strove with Laban... And he said: "What is my crime and what is my sin, that you have so hotly pursued me? ...Twenty years I have been in your employ... In the day drought consumed me, and the frost at night; and my sleep departed from my eyes..."
And Laban said: "...Come, let us make a covenant, I and you." ... And they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there upon the heap... And Laban said to Jacob: "...This heap be witness, and this monument be witness, that I will not cross this heap to you, and you will not cross this heap and monument to me, for harm..." And they spent the night on the hill.
And Laban rose in the morning... and he returned to his place. And Jacob went on his way. (Genesis 31:4-32:2)
Each and every creation has at its heart a "spark of holiness"Why does a man who has spent his entire life in the "tents of study" in pursuit of wisdom and closeness to G‑d, leave the spiritual oasis of Be'er Sheva, home of Abraham and Isaac, and go to Charan in Paddan-Aram, the world's capital of idolatry and deceit, to spend twenty years as a shepherd in the employ of Laban the Deceiver?
He is hunting sparks.
Each and every creation, no matter how material and mundane, has at its heart a "spark of holiness." A spark that embodies G‑d's desire that it exist and its function within G‑d's overall purpose for creation. A spark that is the original instrument of its creation and which remains nestled within it to continually supply it with being and vitality. A spark of holiness that constitutes its "soul"—its spiritual content and design.
Entrenched in the physical reality, these holy sparks are virtual prisoners within their material encasements. The physical world, with its illusions of self-sufficiency and arbitrariness, suppresses all but the faintest glimmer of G‑dliness and purposefulness.
The soul of man descends into the trappings and trials of physical life in order to reclaim these sparks. By assuming a physical body that will eat, wear clothes, inhabit a home, and otherwise make use of the objects and forces of the physical existence, the soul can redeem the sparks of holiness they incorporate. For when a person utilizes something, directly or indirectly, to serve the Creator, he penetrates its shell of mundanity, revealing and realizing its divine essence and purpose.
"The deeds of the fathers are signposts for the children."1 The story of Jacob's journey to Charan, where he spent twenty years in the home and employ of the evil Laban, is the story of our own lives. The soul, too, leaves behind a spiritual and G‑dly existence to preoccupy itself with material needs, to become a shepherd and entrepreneur in the Charans of the world.2 The soul, too, must condescend to deal with the crassness, hostility and deceptions of an alien employer. It must struggle to extract the sparks of holiness from their mundane husks, to deliver the flocks of Laban into the domain of Jacob.
Among the "signposts" in Jacob's journey is the rather strange closing chapter in his dealings with Laban.
Jacob's mission in Charan seemed complete. As he tells Rachel and Leah, Laban's wealth has been "delivered"3 to him—the material resources of this alien land have been sublimated, their sparks of holiness redeemed through Jacob's exploitation of them for good and G‑dly ends. Indeed, the Almighty has communicated to him it is time he came home. Rachel and Leah, too, sense that all opportunities in Charan have been utilized, that there no longer remains "a portion or inheritance for us in our father's house." So Jacob "rose up and set his sons and his wives on the camels. And he led away all his cattle, and all his goods which he had acquired, the possessions of his purchase, which he had acquired in Paddan-Aram, to go to... the land of Canaan."4
But Laban pursues Jacob, and they have a final confrontation on Mount Gilad. Reconciled, they break bread together and camp for the night. Then, each goes his own way, having sealed a mutual non-aggression pact, to be attested to by a pile of stones which marks their respective domains.5
Obviously, there was still some unfinished business between them, some lingering sparks still languishing in Laban's camp. In the words of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch: "Jacob had left behind Torah letters (a kabbalistic term for the "sparks of holiness" imbedded in creation6) which he had not yet extracted from Laban. This is why Laban pursued him—to give him the letters which remained with him. An entire chapter was added to the Torah by these letters."7
To Pursue and to be Pursued
In other words, there are two types of "sparks" that we redeem in the course of our lives. The first type are those which we consciously pursue, having recognized the potential for sanctity and goodness in an object or event within our life's trajectory. Indeed, we human beings pride ourselves on the measure of control we have learned to exercise over our lives: we plan our education, decide whom to marry, choose a community, chart a career and save for retirement. We're constantly manipulating our environment, cultivating opportunities and maneuvering ourselves into the right place and time to properly take advantage of them.
...opportunities representing potentials so lofty that they cannot be identified by our humanly finite facultiesBut every so often, we are confronted with something that is neither of our making nor in our control. Something that seemed so readily in our grasp remains incomprehensibly elusive; something we've done everything in our power to avoid invades our lives. These are "sparks" of the second sort: opportunities which we would never have realized on our own, since they represent potentials so lofty that they cannot be identified and consciously developed by our humanly finite perception and faculties. So our redemption of these sparks can only come about unwittingly, when, by divine providence, our involvement with them is forced upon our by circumstances beyond his control.
Thus our lives are divided into "Charan" periods and "Mount Gilad" events. The bulk of our efforts are conscious and focused: goals are defined, opportunities recognized, endeavors planned and achieved. But then there are the situations we never desired, the encounters which pursue us even as we flee from them. These may aggravate and exasperate us; like Jacob on Mount Gilead we cry, "What more do you want of me? Are my decades scorching days and freezing nights not enough?" But we must never dismiss theses encounters and fail to extract the kernel of good that certainly lies buried within them. Indeed, they contain the most elusive, and most rewarding, achievements of our lives.8
1. Nachmanides' commentary on Genesis 12:6.
2. See Or HaChaim commentary on Genesis 28:14.
3. Thus the verb hatzalah, which means "save," "redeem" and "deliver," is used by the Torah to describe Jacob's success in exacting a profit from Laban's flocks (Genesis 31:9 and 16). The same word is used in connection with the "great riches" with which the Jews left Egypt, "leaving it as a silo emptied of its grain, as a pond emptied of its fish"—a reference to the "sparks of holiness" whose redemption was the purpose of their descent into Egyptian exile (Exodus 12:36; see Genesis 15:14 and Talmud, Berachot 9a-b).
4. Genesis 31, verses 9, 3, 14 and 17-18 respectively.
5. We find a similar phenomenon in the prohibition of a Jew to live in Egypt (Deuteronomy 17:16): having been utterly "emptied" of its sparks, there is no longer anything to be accomplished through one's involvement with the material resources in that corner of the world.
6. The sparks of holiness are referred to in the teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidism as "letters", since it is the "letters" of the divine speech (e.g. "And G‑d said: 'Let there be light!' And there was light") which create and sustain each created entity and constitute its soul and essence (see Tanya, part II, ch. 1).
7. Quoted by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch in Ohr HaTorah, vol. V, p. 869a.
8. Based on a talk by the Rebbe, Tishrei 27, 5712 (October 27, 1951); Likkutei Sichot, vol. XV, pp. 260-264.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Re: Mexico-US matters
on: November 25, 2009, 06:50:06 AM
Mexico Security Memo: Nov. 23, 2009
Stratfor Today » November 23, 2009 | 2323 GMT
Related Special Topic Page
Tracking Mexico’s Drug Cartels
La Familia Michoacana Cell Indicted in Chicago
U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald announced Nov. 18 that 15 defendants allegedly working for La Familia Michoacana (LFM) had been indicted in Chicago, Ill. The indictment stems from the joint U.S.-Mexican federal law enforcement operation that ended Oct. 22 known as Project Coronado, a 44-month-long operation that netted 1,186 individuals in 19 states along with 1,999 kilograms of cocaine and $33 million.
The indictment charged the individuals based in Chicago for conspiring with an unnamed commander based in Michoacan state, Mexico to distribute large quantities of cocaine and funnel proceeds from drug distribution back to Mexico. The operator in Michoacan formed a command-and-control group to oversee the distribution of drugs in Chicago and northern Illinois, made up of the six charged in the indictment as well as smaller-scale distributors personally approved by the commander. The Chicago cell maintained residential property where it clandestinely stored and transferred cocaine and cash proceeds to and from retail operations in Chicago and other towns in northern Illinois. The cell fronted cocaine to their distributors and were paid once the consumer sales were made — indicating a high level of trust and cooperation between the traffickers and the distributors. Members of the cell also maintained ledgers documenting transactions with their distributors and tracked inventory at the various stash houses. The commander, according to the indictment, required his associates in Chicago to report to him on the cell’s distribution activities and collection of cash proceeds.
The details revealed in the Nov. 18 indictment indicate that LFM has had a deeper involvement in the U.S. narcotics network than previously thought. It was known that LFM was trafficking cocaine through Mexico and even across the border into the United States, but the activities of the Chicago cell show that LFM was also heavily involved in the smaller-scale distribution of drugs far from the U.S.-Mexican border, in addition to their known large-scale, cross-border trafficking activities. This shows that LFM had a reach all the way to the neighborhood streets of Chicago and other U.S. cities, not just the highway networks and metropolitan hubs that facilitate the large-scale flow of drugs throughout the United States.
Unusual Arrests in Cancun
Police arrested 12 members of Los Pelones gang in Cancun Nov. 17 on charges that they were responsible for at least seven murders in the city in recent months. Los Pelones is the enforcement arm of the Sinaloa cartel, and was formed to counter the physical force of rival Los Zetas, whom Sinaloa has fought frequently over territory. Los Pelones has an established presence in western Mexico, where the Sinaloa has its main operations, but this is the first case that STRATFOR is aware of in which Los Pelones members were active in Quintana Roo state, in eastern Mexico.
The Yucatan Peninsula is known to be Los Zetas territory and so the presence of Los Pelones members indicates a challenge to Los Zetas for control over the region. Cancun has typically avoided the large-scale violence seen elsewhere in Mexico due to its importance to the tourism industry and, as a result, a strategic hub for money laundering. The presence of a competing enforcement cell in Cancun could raise the potential for more violence in the resort town but, in addition to facing resistance from Los Zetas, the gang will also contend with the local police, which, due to rampant corruption, may very well be cooperating with Los Zetas
(click here to enlarge image)
Federal police arrested Pedro Cabadas Duran, a U.S. citizen, on the Mexico City-Nogales highway near the border of Nayarit and Sinaloa states (near Tecuala, Nayarit) on suspicion of transporting several firearms illegally. After a routine traffic stop, police discovered an AK-47, two AR-15s and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition in Cabadas’s vehicle.
Soldiers dismantled a drug lab in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco state, seizing approximately 10 kilograms of a substance believed to be methamphetamine.
The body of an unidentified man was found hanging from a footbridge over a highway in San Pedrito, Jalisco state. Police discovered his hands were bound with rope but did not find any identification documents on his body.
Unknown gunmen injured Sinaloa Public Security Director of Protection Services Rafael Gaxiola Penuelas in the Toledo Corro neighborhood of Culiacan, Sinaloa state.
Approximately 500 protesting farmers clashed with security forces near the governor’s offices in Pachuca, Hidalgo state. The protesters demanded the release of two persons and financial support for regional agriculture. Two federal agents were injured in the incident.
Soldiers discovered a drug lab in Chilpancingo, Guerrero state, and confiscated 260 grams of pure heroin, 4.5 kilograms of base heroin and 24 gallons of processing chemicals.
Police arrested former public security chiefs Amador Medina Flores, Alejandro Esparza Contreras and Jose Santos Almaraz Ornelas in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state. The three men are suspected of links to drug trafficking organizations.
Police arrested suspected La Familia Guanajuatense section leader Cristobal Altamirano Pinon in Leon, Guanajuato state. Pinon was arrested alongside suspected assassin Humberto Alvarez.
Soldiers detonated two grenades remaining from an attack on the state attorney general’s offices in Celaya, Guanajuato state. The attack was attributed to La Familia Guanajuatense.
Police in Mexico City arrested an officer assigned to the Mexico City International Airport for suspected links to the Beltran Leyva Organization. The officer is suspected of links to several persons transporting drugs between Panama and Mexico.
Five bodies were discovered in an abandoned truck in Culiacan, Sinaloa state. The bodies were not immediately identified and their state of decomposition made it difficult to determine a cause of death.
Police rescued four persons who were tortured and thrown into a sewer by unknown assailants in Acapulco, Guerrero state.
Three suspected drug traffickers injured Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state residents Sada Garza and Rodrigo Martinez Flores after opening fire at the intersection of Yucatan and Lago de Tamiahua Streets in the Independencia neighborhood.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Franklin; Madison; Pulaski
on: November 25, 2009, 06:32:02 AM
"Wish not so much to live long as to live well." --Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanack, 1746
"It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe." --James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance, 1785
Revolutionary War hero becomes honorary US citizen
In this June 23, 2005, file photo a carving of Brig. Gen. Casimir Pulaski is shown on the 54-foot … .By WILLIAM C. MANN, Associated Press Writer William C. Mann, Associated Press Writer – Fri Nov 6, 9:48 pm ET
WASHINGTON – Finally, Gen. Casimir Pulaski became an American citizen on Friday, 230 years after the Polish nobleman died fighting for the as yet-unborn United States.
President Barack Obama signed a joint resolution of the Senate and the House that made Pulaski an honorary citizen.
Pulaski's contribution to the American colonies' effort to leave the British Empire began with a flourish. He wrote a letter to Gen. George Washington, the Revolution's leader, with the declaration: "I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it."
Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a Polish-American, had been pushing for the honorary citizenship since 2005. He lives in Cleveland, which has many other citizens of Polish extraction.
"Pulaski made the ultimate sacrifice for this country, and he deserves nothing but the highest honor and recognition for his service," Kucinich said then.
Washington had heard of the young Pole from Benjamin Franklin, an urbane traveler who had been Washington's first ambassador to France. Franklin told Washington of Pulaski's exploits that had made him "renowned throughout Europe for the courage and bravery he displayed in defense of his country's freedom."
The revolutionaries' top general let the young nobleman hire onto the brash fight against the European superpower, and Pulaski made a name for himself as a skilled horseman, eventually to be known as the "father of the American cavalry."
He died before the British were driven away. In October 1779, he led a cavalry assault to save the important Southern port of Savannah, Ga., was wounded and taken aboard the American ship USS Wasp. He died at sea two days later.
Americans have honored Pulaski throughout the last two centuries. Counties and streets are named for him.
In 1929 Congress declared Oct. 11 to be Pulaski Day in the United States, a largely forgotten holiday in much of the country. The Continental Congress suggested that a monument be erected in honor of Pulaski, and in 1825 it finally was erected in Savannah.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Re: Interrogation methods
on: November 24, 2009, 02:29:10 PM
Navy SEALs have secretly captured one of the most wanted terrorists in Iraq — the alleged mastermind of the murder and mutilation of four Blackwater USA security guards in Fallujah in 2004. And for their trouble, three of the SEALs, members of the Navy's elite commando unit, are now facing criminal charges, sources told FoxNews.com.
The three have refused non-judicial punishment — called an admiral's mast — and requested a trial by court-martial.
Ahmed Hashim Abed, whom the military code-named "Objective Amber," told investigators he was punched by his captors — and he had the bloody lip to prove it.
Now, instead of being lauded for bringing to justice a high-value target, three of the SEAL commandos, all enlisted, face assault charges and have retained lawyers.
Matthew McCabe, a Special Operations Petty Officer Second Class (SO-2), is facing three charges: dereliction of performance of duty for willfully failing to safeguard a detainee, making a false official statement, and assault.
Petty Officer Jonathan Keefe, SO-2, is facing charges of dereliction of performance of duty and making a false official statement.
Petty Officer Julio Huertas, SO-1, faces those same charges and an additional charge of impediment of an investigation.The three SEALs will be arraigned separately on Dec. 7.
Another three SEALs — two officers and an enlisted sailor — have been identified by investigators as witnesses but have not been charged.
FoxNews.com obtained the official handwritten statement from one of the three witnesses given on Sept. 3, hours after Abed was captured and still being held at the SEAL base at Camp Baharia. He was later taken to a cell in the U.S.-operated Green Zone in Baghdad.
The SEAL told investigators he had showered after the mission, gone to the kitchen and then decided to look in on the detainee.
"I gave the detainee a glance over and then left," the SEAL wrote. "I did not notice anything wrong with the detainee and he appeared in good health."
Lt. Col. Holly Silkman, spokeswoman for the special operations component of U.S. Central Command, confirmed Tuesday to FoxNews.com that three SEALs have been charged in connection with the capture of a detainee. She said their court martial is scheduled for January.
United States Central Command declined to discuss the detainee, but a legal source told FoxNews.com that the detainee was turned over to Iraqi authorities, to whom he made the abuse complaints. He was then returned to American custody. The SEAL leader reported the charge up the chain of command, and an investigation ensued.
The source said intelligence briefings provided to the SEALs stated that "Objective Amber" planned the 2004 Fallujah ambush, and "they had been tracking this guy for some time."
The Fallujah atrocity came to symbolize the brutality of the enemy in Iraq and the degree to which a homegrown insurgency was extending its grip over Iraq.
The four Blackwater agents were transporting supplies for a catering company when they were ambushed and killed by gunfire and grenades. Insurgents burned the bodies and dragged them through the city. They hanged two of the bodies on a bridge over the Euphrates River for the world press to photograph.
Intelligence sources identified Abed as the ringleader, but he had evaded capture until September.
The military is sensitive to charges of detainee abuse highlighted in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The Navy charged four SEALs with abuse in 2004 in connection with detainee treatment.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Re: Nuclear War, WMD issues
on: November 23, 2009, 10:34:52 AM
To get us to concede East Europe to its sphere again, and to control the gas supplies of Central Asia (the Georgia issue can be seen in this context).
The P-5+1 group meeting in Brussels expectedly ended in stalemate while Iran hosted the Turkish foreign minister in Tabriz Nov. 20. While Iran continues to delay talks and Turkey and Russia exploit the nuclear negotiations for their own gain, Israel is laying the groundwork for more aggressive action against Iran.
Deputy foreign ministers and their equivalents from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China — otherwise known as the P-5+1 group — met Nov. 20 in Brussels to discuss Iran. So far, the only statement following the meeting was a joint expression of “disappointment” in Iran’s lack of response to a proposal to ship roughly 75 percent of Iran’s low-enriched uranium (LEU) abroad for further enrichment. The P-5+1 members once again called on Iran to reconsider the proposal and engage in serious negotiations. They planned to reconvene in December around Christmas.
The rather lackluster response after the meeting is not surprising. First, deputy foreign ministers typically do not have the authority to seriously weigh in on an issue of this magnitude. More importantly, the members of the P-5+1 group are in no real hurry to act. The Europeans are in no rush to participate in the U.S. Congress’s sanctions regime on Iran’s gasoline trade, the Chinese have no incentive to revise their trade relations while the others are delaying, the Russians are still working on several crucial sticking points in negotiations with the United States and the United States is trying to buy enough time to deal with Russia in order to stave off an Iran crisis. Sanctions apparently were not discussed in any meaningful detail at the meeting and, perhaps in recognition of the fact that Iran does not respond well to deadlines, no new deadlines or punitive measures were announced. As a result, the meeting in Brussels was another opportunity for bureaucrats to negotiate about further negotiations, with no real policy shifts to report.
While the P-5+1 members discussed their disappointment in Iran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hosted Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Tabriz, Iran. Notably, the Iranians requested this meeting when Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi met with Davutoglu at Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s inauguration in Kabul on Nov. 19. The meeting was designed to discuss the Iranian nuclear negotiations and timed to coincide with the P-5+1 meeting. Turkey, a regional power on the rise with plans to consolidate influence in the Middle East and demonstrate its utility to the West, has offered to store Iran’s enriched fuel on Turkish territory, thereby assuaging Western concerns that Iran’s LEU will be diverted toward a weapons program.
Iran is as unenthused about giving the Turks control of its LEU as it was about French and Russian offers to ship the LEU abroad. Though such proposals help Iran to stretch out the negotiations and appear cooperative when it wants to, the Iranian government is unlikely to concede on its demand to enrich and store uranium on its own soil. Iran’s latest delay tactic is to insist on the United States unfreezing Iranian assets to allow the negotiations to move forward — a point that Washington does not believe is even up for discussion unless Iran begins cooperating in the negotiations.
Turkey, meanwhile, has made several public moves to alienate Israel and prolong nuclear negotiations with the West and thus build Iran’s trust in Ankara, but Iran still has deep misgivings about Turkey’s intentions. Turkey and Iran are regional competitors, and Turkey is well in the lead. Though Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party is saying all the right things to hold Tehran’s interest, Iran cannot be confident that Turkey will be able or willing to block Israeli and/or U.S. military action against Iran.
Israel is the main player to watch. The Israeli government never believed these negotiations would elicit real Iranian cooperation and does not trust the Turks to mediate the dispute. Israel already has ruled out any further Turkish mediation in its negotiations with Syria, preferring instead to have France and Saudi Arabia facilitate the talks. The more Iran toys with the Turkish proposal to store its enriched uranium, the more the Israelis can protest to the United States behind the scenes that the negotiations will not lead to constructive results, and more aggressive action is needed. The Israelis have thus been busy running their own diplomatic course apart from the P-5+1 group. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Paris on Nov. 11 to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and will be meeting with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Israel on Nov. 23-25. It remains to be seen just how effective Israel will be in encouraging these key European members to scale back their trade relations with Iran and support sanctions.
Iran’s management of the nuclear negotiations in the weeks ahead will rely heavily on what, if anything, transpires between Russia and the United States. As evidenced by Iran’s daily diatribes against Russia for stalling on the construction of the Bushehr nuclear facility and on the sale of the S-300 strategic air defense system, a major debate is under way in Tehran over the risks Ahmadinejad’s administration has incurred in relying so heavily on Russia for external support. Should Russia and the United States come to a strategic understanding, Iran would have the most to lose. Iran’s paranoia over Russia reached an unprecedented level Nov. 20 when Iranian Parliamentary Energy Commission Chairman Hamid Reza Katouzian threatened to sue the Russian agencies responsible for delaying Bushehr in an international court, depending on the results of a parliamentary investigation into the reasons behind the delay. Though the chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi continues citing technical reasons for the delay, there is no doubt in Iran’s, Russia’s or anyone else’s mind that the reasons are political.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Patriot Post
on: November 23, 2009, 10:30:43 AM
Brief · Monday, November 23, 2009
"All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree." --James Madison
Passing major legislation on Saturday night is a symptom of Potomac Fever
"Here's a new maxim: Nothing good ever happens when the Congress is in session on a Saturday night. As you know, Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-Nev) cajoled, coerced, and co-opted Senators Mary Landrieu (D-La) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark) into adding the 59th and 60th necessary votes to prevent a GOP filibuster of Reid's health reform bill. Reid and Obama Administration officials relied on the time honored method (used by Republicans and Democrats) of getting recalcitrant Members to vote a certain way: Bribery which, in the real world, is a felony but in Washington it is called 'hardball.' In Sen. Landrieu's case the bribe was $300 million in Medicaid benefits to Louisiana. It's not even a close call. According to the website 'Total Criminal Defense,' 'Bribery is an attempt to influence another person's actions, usually a government or public official employee, by offering a benefit in exchange for the desired decision.' Three hundred million in return for a vote to proceed. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck... Landrieu is a better bribee than she is an accountant. She said in her floor speech that there was $100 million in the bill specifically to pay for Medicaid in Louisiana and only Louisiana. Talking to reporters afterward, she said, 'I will correct something. It's not $100 million, it's $300 million, and I'm proud of it and will keep fighting for it.' No reports, yet, on how angry White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was when he found out she had been satisfied with the $100 million and he overpaid by a factor of three." --political analyst Rich Galen
"The 'reformers' in the White House and the House of Representatives have made all too plain their vision of the federal government's power to coerce individual Americans to make the 'right' health-care choices. The highly partisan bill the House just passed includes severe penalties for individuals who do not purchase insurance approved by the federal government. By neatly tucking these penalties into the IRS code, the so-called reformers have brought them under the tax-enforcement power of the federal government. The Congressional Budget Office stated on October 29 that the House bill would generate $167 billion in revenue from 'penalty payments.' Individual Americans are expected to pay $33 billion of these penalties, with employers paying the rest. Former member of Congress and Heritage Foundation fellow Ernest Istook has concluded that for this revenue goal to be met, 8 to 14 million individual Americans will have to be fined over the next ten years, quite an incentive for federal bureaucrats. ... By transforming a refusal or failure to comply with a government mandate into a federal tax violation, the 'progressives' are using the brute force of criminal law to engage in social engineering. This represents an oppressive, absolutist view of government power. ... The idea of imprisoning or fining Americans who don't knuckle under to an unprecedented government mandate to purchase a particular insurance product should outrage anyone who believes in the exceptional promises and opportunities afforded by our basic American freedoms. ... Unless this paternalistic juggernaut is stopped, Americans will lose some of their most fundamental freedoms, and the power of the federal government to impose novel requirements in every facet of our personal lives will have become virtually unlimited." --Brian W. Walsh & Hans A. von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation
"Tragically, this administration seems hell-bent to avoid seeing acts of terrorism against the United States as acts of war. The very phrase 'war on terrorism' is avoided, as if that will stop the terrorists' war on us. The mindset of the left behind such thinking was spelled out in an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, which said that 'Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the professed mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, will be tried the right way -- the American way, in a federal courtroom where the world will see both his guilt and the nation's adherence to the rule of law.' This is not the rule of law but the application of laws to situations for which they were not designed. How many Americans may pay with their lives for the intelligence secrets and methods that can forced to be disclosed to Al Qaeda was not mentioned. Nor was there mention of how many foreign nations and individuals whose cooperation with us in the war on terror have been involved in countering Al Qaeda -- nor how many foreign nations and individuals will have to think twice now, before cooperating with us again, when their role can be revealed in court to our enemies, who can exact revenge on them." --economist Thomas Sowell
Opinion in Brief
"By the time Obama came to office, KSM was ready to go before a military commission, plead guilty and be executed. It's Obama who blocked a process that would have yielded the swiftest and most certain justice. Indeed, the perfect justice. Whenever a jihadist volunteers for martyrdom, we should grant his wish. Instead, this one, the most murderous and unrepentant of all, gets to dance and declaim at the scene of his crime. [Attorney General Eric] Holder himself told The Washington Post that the coming New York trial will be 'the trial of the century.' The last such was the trial of O.J. Simpson." --columnist Charles Krauthammer
Re: The Left
"In modern America, the guilty are sanctified, while the innocent never stop paying -- including with their lives, as they did at Fort Hood [recently]. Points are awarded to aspiring victims for angry self-righteousness, acts of violence and general unpleasantness. But liberals celebrate diversity only in the case of superficial characteristics like race, gender, sexual preference and country of origin. They reject diversity when we need it, such as in 'diversity' of legal forums. After conferring with everyone at Zabar's, Obama decided that if a standard civilian trial is good enough for Martha Stewart, then it's good enough for the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. So Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is coming to New York! Mohammed's military tribunal was already under way when Obama came into office, stopped the proceedings and, eight months later, announced that Mohammed would be tried in a federal court in New York. In a liberal's reckoning, diversity is good when we have both Muslim jihadists and patriotic Americans serving in the U.S. military. But diversity is bad when Martha Stewart and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed are subjected to different legal tribunals to adjudicate their transgressions." --columnist Ann Coulter
For the Record
"[There are] uncanny parallels between George W. Bush and Herbert Hoover: Both were president during a time of economic crisis; both presided over vast expansions of government that helped cause the crisis or at least make it worse than it might have been otherwise; finally both were (inaccurately) portrayed by their political opponents as dogmatic free market advocates, when in fact both were highly statist. After leaving the presidency, Bush is unconsciously imitating Hoover in yet another way -- by rhetorically supporting free markets and criticizing the even more interventionist policies of his Democratic successor (which in both cases built on the expansions of government initiated by the Republicans who preceded them).... Bush's belated support for free markets follows in Hoover's footsteps. After leaving office in 1933, Hoover wrote books and articles defending free markets and criticizing the Democrats' New Deal. Some of his criticisms of FDR were well-taken. Many New Deal policies actually worsened and prolonged the Great Depression by organizing cartels and increasing unemployment. But by coming out as a free market advocate, the post-presidential Hoover actually bolstered the cause of interventionism because he helped cement the incorrect impression that he had pursued free market policies while in office, thereby causing the Depression. Bush's post-presidential conversion creates a similar risk: it could solidify the already widespread impression that he, like the Hoover of myth, pursued laissez-faire policies which then caused an economic crisis. ... The greatest contribution Bush can now make to free market policies is to dispel the impression that he pursued them while in office." --Ilya Somin, Associate Professor at George Mason University School of Law
New! Army Star knit cap
Show your support with this black knit watch cap featuring the Army Star and U.S. Army in yellow and white embroidery! One size fits most.
Faith & Family
"[W]hy is religious freedom such a concern to us as Christians? Freedom of religion is called the first freedom for a reason. Our Founding Fathers recognized that without freedom of conscience, no other freedom can be guaranteed. Christians, in fact, are the greatest defenders of religious freedom and human liberty -- not just for Christians, but for all people. Compare religious freedom in those countries with a Christian heritage to the state of religious freedom in Islamic nations, Communist countries, and Buddhist and Hindu nations, and you will see my point. The reason that Christians place such a high value on human freedom is that freedom itself is part of the creation account in the Bible. God made humans in His image. He gave us a free will to choose to love, follow, and obey Him, or to follow our own way. That free will, given us before the Fall, is part of human nature itself. Perhaps more than anything else, it was this understanding of individual freedom that turned me into the kind of patriot who would willingly give his life for his country. It was the words of the Declaration of Independence that inspired me to join the Marines: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' So this question of human freedom goes to the very heart of who we are as Christians and as Americans." --author Chuck Colson
We Depend on You
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / WSJ: Words And Swords
on: November 23, 2009, 06:57:35 AM
By ERIC ORMSBY
In A.D. 395, Roman Emperor Theodosius I split his realm between his two sons, giving the Western empire—with Rome at its heart—to Honorius, and the eastern half—Byzantium—to his brother, Arkadios. Honorius seemed to get the better deal. Byzantium was a disjointed empire made up of regions scattered across eastern Europe, Asia and northern Africa, and it was vulnerable to attack. Invaders came from all directions—Huns from the steppes, Avars from the Caucasus, the mighty armies of the Sasanian Persians, followed by the Arabs and the Turks and, most disastrous of all, Crusaders from the West.
And yet the Roman Empire, and Rome itself, fell in the fifth century A.D., while Byzantium endured for almost a millennium longer. How was this possible? That question drives Edward N. Luttwak's "The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire." Mr. Luttwak, an inveterate provocateur and the author of several earlier studies of strategy, including the audacious "Coup d'Etat: A Practical Handbook" (1979), has been pondering this Byzantine puzzle for two decades.
Mr. Luttwak tells his story well. He is especially good on fine detail. Whether describing the lethal "composite reflex bow" used by Hun archers or the complex but surprisingly efficient Byzantine tax system, he is both vivid and exact. Of the Hun bows, for example, he notes that, while they were as powerful as Western longbows, they had a further decisive advantage: They could be shot from horseback "while riding fast, even at a full gallop and laterally or even backward." Though no Hun bows survive, Mr. Luttwak's meticulous descriptions convey their deadly efficiency. It is through such details that a modern reader captures some sense of the sheer terror that those ancient raiders inspired.
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.The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire
By Edward Luttwak
(Belknap/Harvard, 498 pages, $35)
.Even on obscure theological matters, such as the wrangles over "monotheletism"—the proposition that Christ had two natures, human and divine, united by a single will—he is refreshingly lucid. For the Byzantines, even theology involved strategy of a sort. Thus the great Byzantine emperor Herakleios (610-641), who defeated both the Sasanian Persians and the Avars, waded into the controversy over Christ's true nature, a doctrinal matter answered differently by different sects within the empire; it was he who formulated the "monothelite" or "one will" solution. This was a political as much as a theological solution,, by which he attempted to "unify his subjects in extremis by offering a neat Christological compromise," as Mr. Luttwak notes. Such issues seem impossibly removed from us, but Mr. Luttwak is right to include them; they show the Byzantine strategic mentality at its subtlest.
Though Mr. Luttwak draws on sources in several languages—including manuals of strategy (a genre that the Byzantines invented), histories by Arab, Greek and Latin authors, and a wide array of scholarly literature—"The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire" isn't really a conventional academic treatise. Notwithstanding its erudition, this is an impassioned book, and all the better for that. As Mr. Luttwak writes: "The epic struggle to defend the empire for century after century . . . seems to resonate, especially in our own times." Historically remote as they are, the Byzantines may have something to teach Americans about long-term survival.
Sometimes Mr. Luttwak indulges in playful anachronism, not always successfully. It's odd to characterize an early medieval round of negotiation as being driven by "discredited neo-Marxist dogma." Referring to the early Arab conquerors routinely as "jihadi" isn't wholly incorrect, but it's misleading; they were fired as much by desire for plunder as by religious zeal. And to compare Attila with Hitler because they had similarly primitive dining habits, while mildly amusing, is hardly enlightening. Nor is Mr. Luttwak unduly burdened by modesty; he boasts of his own involvement in espionage and other covert activities, though he's coy about the specifics.
Despite these false notes, Mr. Luttwak makes a compelling case. The Byzantine Empire survived so successfully and for so long—falling finally to the Ottoman Turks, though not until 1453—because its rulers understood the value of sound strategy. They endured setbacks, such as the repeated capture of the defensive outpost of Amorium, but they learned from their occasional defeats.
In the fifth century, confronted by the onslaught of the Huns, the Byzantines noted how these swift horsemen maneuvered and skirmished, firing arrows at unprecedented ranges and as abruptly wheeling back in retreat. The Byzantines learned to master such tactics to terrible effect. They also understood that military success doesn't lie solely in improved weapons or novel techniques of combat. Diplomacy is as crucial as force. It was this combination—words and swords—that ensured their survival against often overwhelming odds. They were skillful negotiators but even more skillful manipulators, adept at pitting opponents against one another.
In Mr. Luttwak's definition, strategy is "the application of method and ingenuity in the use of both persuasion and force." Beyond this, the Byzantines knew that strategy demands the long view; they understood that it depends on the ability, even in troubled times, to imagine a possible and desirable future. We would do well to avail ourselves of such a prism in assessing the grandness of the strategies now being contemplated in Washington .
Mr. Ormsby is the author most recently of "Ghazali: The Revival of Islam."
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / WSJ
on: November 23, 2009, 06:53:13 AM
"Too big to fail" means the end of the free market-- that is why this idea is being pushed so sedulously by the Pravdas:
'We won't have a real market-based financial system until it is safe to let a financial firm fail," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said last week. He's certainly right, though you wouldn't know it from Mr. Bernanke's own actions the last two years. Meanwhile, the politicians are preparing to give the Fed and Treasury more power to bail out all and sundry companies on an unprecedented scale, and so far without any objection from the Fed chairman.
Reading the pending bills to "resolve" failing financial houses from Representative Barney Frank and Senator Chris Dodd, the challenge is to conceive of someone who is not eligible for unlimited taxpayer funds. The list of potential bailout recipients under both bills runs from bank holding companies to hedge funds to auto makers, consumer retail chains and just about anyone else engaging in finance of one kind or another.
While most scholarly investigations of the too-big-to-fail phenomenon start from the premise that it's a problem, Messrs. Dodd and Frank appear to view it as the cornerstone of our financial system. This may not be surprising given their history. Mr. Frank is famous for saying he wanted to "roll the dice" with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Less well known is how Mr. Dodd has labored to make Wall Street increasingly eligible for the taxpayer safety net. By raising expectations that bailouts will be available, he has, as much as anyone in Congress, encouraged the risk-taking that took the financial system to the brink of ruin.
During consideration of the 1991 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act, the Connecticut Senator insisted on reducing the quality of collateral Wall Street would need to present when borrowing from the Federal Reserve in times of emergency. Said Mr. Dodd: "My provision allows the Fed more power to provide liquidity, by enabling it to make fully secured loans to securities firms in instances similar to the 1987 stock market crash." He also fought every serious reform of Fannie and Freddie.
In his current bill, Mr. Dodd allows private market participants to receive emergency cash from both the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, without the bailout recipient having to enter either bankruptcy or the vaunted "resolution" process we'll describe in a moment.
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Sen. Christopher J. Dodd
Under "miscellaneous provisions," Mr. Dodd's bill rewrites a portion of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act and allows cash going to depository institutions—i.e., commercial banks backed by FDIC's insurance fund—to also go to nondepositories in an emergency. We see no limit in the bill on what these nonbanks can be.
Similarly, Mr. Dodd rewrites the Federal Reserve Act's section on "unusual and exigent circumstances." Bailouts could now go to "any program or facility with broad-based participation." Mr. Dodd's "resolutions" do not require that firms be liquidated or wound down. Regulators can pump unlimited funds into failing firms and choose to rescue creditors.
Alabama Republican Richard Shelby warns that these multiple paths for large firms to avoid bankruptcy "will undermine incentives for investors and executives to effectively monitor risks. They will likely take even more risks because they know that they will reap the benefits, while taxpayers will have to cover the costs." He adds that the moral hazard created by the bill "could set the stage for an even more severe and more expensive financial crisis in the future." That sounds exactly right.
Over in the House, Mr. Frank gives the FDIC new power to pump cash into both banks and nonbanks that are neither bankrupt nor under government "resolution." As for that "resolution" process, which Mr. Frank has described as "death panels" for nonbanks, shareholders and unsecured creditors could still recover money. In fact, they might recover a great deal, because the FDIC can make loans or buy equity in a failing company or guarantee its debts, among other assistance.
The FDIC may "take such action as necessary to put the covered financial company in a sound and solvent condition." So the government can do more than just prevent a "disorderly failure." It can pump in so much cash that the business becomes an orderly success. This sounds like a mandate to treat even more companies like Citigroup, which has been rescued despite multiple failures and with little discipline for shareholders or executives, much less for creditors.
To fund these bailouts, large financial companies will pay fees until the government has collected $150 billion. Republican Scott Garrett has been warning House colleagues that Mr. Frank's "death panels" really add up to a "permanent bailout authority" that would expand the power of government and taxpayer rescues to historic highs.
Mr. Dodd decided against writing a bipartisan bill with Mr. Shelby, and it shows. For years, Mr. Shelby warned about Fannie and Freddie and the rise of moral hazard, not to mention government-selected credit-ratings agencies and bank capital standards. One might think these warnings would have inspired Mr. Dodd to seek the Alabamian's counsel after the disasters of 2008. But down in the polls and facing re-election, Mr. Dodd wants to pose as a populist reformer even as his bill would entrench moral hazard (and cheaper funding costs for the likes of Goldman Sachs) even deeper into the financial system.
Still, it's not too late to consider a bipartisan approach. This would start with an appreciation that any resolution authority has to include some rules of the road for regulators, rather than let Mr. Bernanke and the Treasury secretary decide who to bail out and when out of their hip pocket.
It must also include the guarantee of punishment for firms that come looking for help. The first step in discouraging excessive risks is that the risk-takers understand they will suffer the consequences of their bad bets. Former SEC Chairman Richard Breeden proposes a special bankruptcy court, like the FISA court for intelligence, where experienced judges with ample resources could handle large financial cases.
This deserves consideration and debate. We think it has potential as a venue if a behemoth like General Electric, with its large finance business, or even a bank holding company like Goldman Sachs, were ever to fail. The FDIC could seize the bank to protect depositors and the rest of the firm could restructure under bankruptcy protection.
Barring such a resolution process, the other way to reduce moral hazard is to limit certain kinds of risk-taking by institutions that hold taxpayer-insured deposits, as suggested by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and Bank of England Chairman Mervyn King. This has its own problems. But unlike the emerging plans in Washington, it is credible and would give capitalism a fighting chance to survive regulatory reform.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / NYT: GPS and the 4th
on: November 23, 2009, 06:48:03 AM
Tis a rare event that I post a NYT editorial in agreement!
GPS and Privacy Rights Recommend
Send To Phone
LinkedinDiggFacebookMixxMySpaceYahoo! BuzzPermalinkPublished: November 22, 2009
A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., heard arguments last week about whether police should have to get a warrant before putting a GPS device on a suspect’s car. It is a cutting-edge civil liberties question that has divided the courts that have considered it. GPS devices give the government extraordinary power to monitor people’s movements. The Washington court should rule that a warrant is required.
Antoine Jones was charged with being part of an interstate drug conspiracy. The government obtained evidence against Mr. Jones by putting a GPS device on his Jeep. It obtained a court order to install the GPS device, but the defense said the order was faulty, and tried to get the evidence collected by the device thrown out. The government responded that the evidence was admissible because it did not need to get a court order at all.
The Supreme Court has not considered the question of whether the police need a court order to install a GPS device. The government has tried to draw an analogy to a 1983 case in which the court ruled that the police do not need a warrant to use a radio beeper to track a vehicle on public roads, but the circumstances were different. In that case, the police were conducting visual surveillance of a particular suspect’s movements, and a beeper augmented the officers’ senses. A modern GPS device is a far more potent means of tracking people than a beeper.
Lower courts have reached different conclusions. A panel of the Chicago-based United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in 2007 that a warrant is not required for remote surveillance by a GPS device, although it said that if the police began to use the technique on a large scale it might violate the Fourth Amendment.
The highest courts of three states — New York, Oregon and Washington — ruled the opposite way, that their state constitutions prohibit the police from installing GPS devices without a warrant. The New York Court of Appeals, the highest New York court, got it exactly right earlier this year, insisting that permitting police to install GPS devices without judicial oversight would be “an enormous unsupervised intrusion by the police agencies of government upon personal privacy.”
As technology advances, government will continue to acquire new and more efficient ways of monitoring people. It is critical that the privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment keep up with those advances.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / NYT: Detecting nukes
on: November 23, 2009, 06:43:33 AM
By MATTHEW L. WALD
Published: November 22, 2009
WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security has spent $230 million to develop better technology for detecting smuggled nuclear bombs but has had to stop deploying the new machines because the United States has run out of a crucial raw material, experts say.
The ingredient is helium 3, an unusual form of the element that is formed when tritium, an ingredient of hydrogen bombs, decays. But the government mostly stopped making tritium in 1989.
“I have not heard any explanation of why this was not entirely foreseeable,” said Representative Brad Miller, Democrat of North Carolina, who is the chairman of a House subcommittee that is investigating the problem.
An official from the Homeland Security Department testified last week before Mr. Miller’s panel, the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, that demand for helium 3 appeared to be 10 times the supply.
Some government agencies, Mr. Miller said, did anticipate a crisis, but the Homeland Security Department appears not to have gotten the message.
The department had planned a worldwide network using the new detectors, which were supposed to detect plutonium or uranium in shipping containers. The government wanted 1,300 to 1,400 machines, which cost $800,000 each, for use in ports around the world to thwart terrorists who might try to deliver a nuclear bomb to a big city by stashing it in one of the millions of containers that enter the United States every year.
At the White House, Steve Fetter, an assistant director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, said the helium 3 problem was short-term because other technologies would be developed. But, he said, while the government had a large surplus of helium 3 at the end of the cold war, “people should have been aware that this was a one-time windfall and was not sustainable.”
Helium 3 is not hazardous or even chemically reactive, and it is not the only material that can be used for neutron detection. The Homeland Security Department has older equipment that can look for radioactivity, but it does not differentiate well between bomb fuel and innocuous materials that naturally emit radiation — like cat litter, ceramic tiles and bananas — and sounds false alarms more often.
Earlier this year, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, part of the Energy Department, said in a report, “No other currently available detection technology offers the stability, sensitivity and gamma/neutron discrimination” of detectors using helium 3.
Helium 3 is used to detect neutrons, the subatomic particles that sustain the chain reaction in a bomb or a reactor. Plutonium, the favorite bomb-making material of most governments with nuclear weapons, intermittently gives off neutrons, which are harder for a smuggler to hide than other forms of radiation. (Detecting the alternative bomb fuel, enriched uranium, is a separate, difficult problem, experts say.)
Helium 3 is rare in nature, but the Energy Department accumulated a substantial stockpile as a byproduct of maintaining nuclear weapons. Those weapons use tritium, which is the form of hydrogen used in the H-bomb, but the hydrogen decays into helium 3 at the rate of 5.5 percent a year. For that reason the tritium in each bomb has to be removed, purified and replenished every few years. It is purified by removing the helium 3.
The declining supply is also needed for physics research and medical diagnostics.
The Energy Department used to make tritium in reactors at its Savannah River Site, near Aiken, S.C., but those were shut after many operational problems. It enlisted the Tennessee Valley Authority to make some tritium in a power reactor, using the same method it had used at Savannah River, breaking up another material, a form of lithium, with neutrons. One of the fragments is tritium. But that project has run into technical problems as well.
Mr. Miller estimated that demand for helium 3 was about 65,000 liters per year through 2013 and that total production by the only two countries that produce it in usable form, the United States and Russia, was only about 20,000 liters. In a letter to President Obama, he called the shortage “a national crisis” and said the price had jumped to $2,000 a liter from $100 in the last few years, which threatens scientific research.
DBMA Martial Arts Forum / Martial Arts Topics / NYT: New NFL policy
on: November 23, 2009, 06:39:01 AM
N.F.L. to Shift in Its Handling of Concussions
By ALAN SCHWARZ
Published: November 22, 2009
In a shift in the National Football League’s approach to handling concussions, the league will soon require teams to receive advice from independent neurologists while treating players with brain injuries, several people with knowledge of the plan confirmed Sunday.
For generations, decisions on when players who sustain concussions should return to play have been made by doctors and trainers employed by the team, raising questions of possible conflicts of interest when coaches and owners want players to return more quickly than proper care would suggest.
As scientific studies and anecdotal evidence have found a heightened risk for brain damage, dementia and cognitive decline in retired players, the league has faced barbed criticism from outside experts and, more recently, from Congress over its policies on handling players with concussions.
The league and Commissioner Roger Goodell have insisted that the N.F.L.’s policies are safe and that no third-party involvement is necessary, pointing to research by its committee on concussions as proof. But after an embarrassing hearing on the issue before the House Judiciary Committee last month in which the league was compared to the tobacco industry, the N.F.L. seems to have begun to embrace the value of outside opinion.
“I don’t want to call it forced, but it’s been strongly urged because of the awareness of the issue these days,” Chester Pitts, a lineman and union representative for the Houston Texans, said in a telephone interview. “When you have Congress talking about the antitrust exemption and them calling them the tobacco industry, that’s pretty big. But it’s a good thing it’s transpiring.”
The league spokesman Greg Aiello offered no details of the new guideline, first reported Sunday on Fox’s N.F.L. pregame broadcast, like when it will go into effect, how the independent doctors will be identified and compensated, or even whether their input must be followed.
But Mr. Goodell, interviewed Sunday on the NBC program “Football Night in America,” referring to the use of independent doctors for concussion cases, said: “As we learn more and more, we want to give players the best medical advice. This is a chance for us to expand that and bring more people into the circle to make sure we’re making the best decisions for our players in the long term.”
George Atallah, the players union’s assistant executive director for external affairs, said in an e-mail message that his organization had been speaking with N.F.L. officials for two weeks about implementing some sort of independent scrutiny for players who receive concussions — perhaps including an outside doctor present at every game. He said that the union’s medical director, Dr. Thom Mayer, “has personally approved and reviewed doctors for roughly one-third of the teams,” suggesting that the union would cooperate on the program.
Mr. Atallah said he did not know when the policy might take effect.
Mr. Atallah added that the union had pushed for the program “with the hope that this example spreads to every level of football.” More than 1.2 million teenagers play high school football every fall, with many getting seriously injured by playing through concussions or not having proper medical care for them.
At the House Judiciary Committee hearing on football brain injuries last month, several members of Congress portrayed Mr. Goodell and the league as impeding proper player care and obfuscating the long-term effects of concussions. The league and a co-chairman of its committee on brain injuries, Dr. Ira Casson, have consistently played down studies and anecdotal evidence linking retired N.F.L. players to brain damage commonly associated with boxers and dementia rates several times that of the national population.
Regarding the care of current players who sustain concussions, in 2007, the league enacted measures that required all players to undergo baseline neuropsychological testing and then be retested before being cleared to play; forbade players who were knocked unconscious to return to play the same day; and set up a hot line through which players could report being pressured to play against a doctor’s advice.
The hot line was in response to the story of Ted Johnson, a former New England Patriots linebacker who said he was coerced by Patriots Coach Belichick into playing too soon after a concussion, and sustained a more serious injury that led to a debilitating case of postconcussion syndrome. (Belichick denied the accusation.) Requiring an independent doctor at games or for follow-up consultation would protect against similar incidents that players say are less overt but nonetheless prevalent in a league without guaranteed contracts.
An independent doctor cannot address what many experts consider the primary area needing reform: the tendency of players who sustain concussions to hide them from medical personnel and endanger themselves. Even Sean Morey, a special-teams player for the Arizona Cardinals who is a co-chairman of the union’s committee on brain injuries, admitted this season that he played a game despite a concussion.
Consulting doctors beyond the team does not necessarily solve all of the league’s conflict-of-interest issues. And it is unclear how guidelines would define who is an independent expert.
The most prominent current — and instructive — N.F.L. concussion is probably that of the Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. He sustained one major injury Oct. 26, was held out of the next two games by team doctors, and then sustained another concussion Nov. 15.
Given that repetitive concussions are known to cause far more damage than single injuries, the Eagles sent Westbrook to well-regarded concussion specialists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center last week for a third-party examination. Complicating matters could be that the Pittsburgh group includes the Steelers’ team neurosurgeon as well as the league’s director of neurological testing.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / NYT
on: November 23, 2009, 06:35:14 AM
It was drizzling lightly in late October when the midnight shift started at the Owls Head Water Pollution Control Plant, where much of Brooklyn’s sewage is treated.
A few miles away, people were walking home without umbrellas from late dinners. But at Owls Head, a swimming pool’s worth of sewage and wastewater was soon rushing in every second. Warning horns began to blare. A little after 1 a.m., with a harder rain falling, Owls Head reached its capacity and workers started shutting the intake gates.
That caused a rising tide throughout Brooklyn’s sewers, and untreated feces and industrial waste started spilling from emergency relief valves into the Upper New York Bay and Gowanus Canal.
“It happens anytime you get a hard rainfall,” said Bob Connaughton, one the plant’s engineers. “Sometimes all it takes is 20 minutes of rain, and you’ve got overflows across Brooklyn.”
One goal of the Clean Water Act of 1972 was to upgrade the nation’s sewer systems, many of them built more than a century ago, to handle growing populations and increasing runoff of rainwater and waste. During the 1970s and 1980s, Congress distributed more than $60 billion to cities to make sure that what goes into toilets, industrial drains and street grates would not endanger human health.
But despite those upgrades, many sewer systems are still frequently overwhelmed, according to a New York Times analysis of environmental data. As a result, sewage is spilling into waterways.
In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere, according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency.
But fewer than one in five sewage systems that broke the law were ever fined or otherwise sanctioned by state or federal regulators, the Times analysis shows.
It is not clear whether the sewage systems that have not reported such dumping are doing any better, because data on overflows and spillage are often incomplete.
As cities have grown rapidly across the nation, many have neglected infrastructure projects and paved over green spaces that once absorbed rainwater. That has contributed to sewage backups into more than 400,000 basements and spills into thousands of streets, according to data collected by state and federal officials. Sometimes, waste has overflowed just upstream from drinking water intake points or near public beaches.
There is no national record-keeping of how many illnesses are caused by sewage spills. But academic research suggests that as many as 20 million people each year become ill from drinking water containing bacteria and other pathogens that are often spread by untreated waste.
A 2007 study published in the journal Pediatrics, focusing on one Milwaukee hospital, indicated that the number of children suffering from serious diarrhea rose whenever local sewers overflowed. Another study, published in 2008 in the Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, estimated that as many as four million people become sick each year in California from swimming in waters containing the kind of pollution often linked to untreated sewage.
Around New York City, samples collected at dozens of beaches or piers have detected the types of bacteria and other pollutants tied to sewage overflows. Though the city’s drinking water comes from upstate reservoirs, environmentalists say untreated excrement and other waste in the city’s waterways pose serious health risks.
A Deluge of Sewage
“After the storm, the sewage flowed down the street faster than we could move out of the way and filled my house with over a foot of muck,” said Laura Serrano, whose Bay Shore, N.Y., home was damaged in 2005 by a sewer overflow.
Ms. Serrano, who says she contracted viral meningitis because of exposure to the sewage, has filed suit against Suffolk County, which operates the sewer system. The county’s lawyer disputes responsibility for the damage and injuries.
“I had to move out, and no one will buy my house because the sewage was absorbed into the walls,” Ms. Serrano said. “I can still smell it sometimes.”
When a sewage system overflows or a treatment plant dumps untreated waste, it is often breaking the law. Today, sewage systems are the nation’s most frequent violators of the Clean Water Act. More than a third of all sewer systems — including those in San Diego, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, Philadelphia, San Jose and San Francisco — have violated environmental laws since 2006, according to a Times analysis of E.P.A. data.
Thousands of other sewage systems operated by smaller cities, colleges, mobile home parks and companies have also broken the law. But few of the violators are ever punished.
The E.P.A., in a statement, said that officials agreed that overflows posed a “significant environmental and human health problem, and significantly reducing or eliminating such overflows has been a priority for E.P.A. enforcement since the mid-1990s.”
In the last year, E.P.A. settlements with sewer systems in Hampton Roads, Va., and the east San Francisco Bay have led to more than $200 million spent on new systems to reduce pollution, the agency said. In October, the E.P.A. administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, said she was overhauling how the Clean Water Act is enforced.
But widespread problems still remain.
“The E.P.A. would rather look the other way than crack down on cities, since punishing municipalities can cause political problems,” said Craig Michaels of Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group. “But without enforcement and fines, this problem will never end.”
Plant operators and regulators, for their part, say that fines would simply divert money from stretched budgets and that they are doing the best they can with aging systems and overwhelmed pipes.
New York, for example, was one of the first major cities to build a large sewer system, starting construction in 1849. Many of those pipes — constructed of hand-laid brick and ceramic tiles — are still used. Today, the city’s 7,400 miles of sewer pipes operate almost entirely by gravity, unlike in other cities that use large pumps.
New York City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants, which handle 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater a day, have been flooded with thousands of pickles (after a factory dumped its stock), vast flows of discarded chicken heads and large pieces of lumber.
When a toilet flushes in the West Village in Manhattan, the waste runs north six miles through gradually descending pipes to a plant at 137th Street, where it is mixed with so-called biological digesters that consume dangerous pathogens. The wastewater is then mixed with chlorine and sent into the Hudson River.
But New York’s system — like those in hundreds of others cities — combines rainwater runoff with sewage. Over the last three decades, as thousands of acres of trees, bushes and other vegetation in New York have been paved over, the land’s ability to absorb rain has declined significantly. When treatment plants are swamped, the excess spills from 490 overflow pipes throughout the city’s five boroughs.
When the sky is clear, Owls Head can handle the sewage from more than 750,000 people. But the balance is so delicate that Mr. Connaughton and his colleagues must be constantly ready for rain.
They choose cable television packages for their homes based on which company offers the best local weather forecasts. They know meteorologists by the sound of their voices. When the leaves begin to fall each autumn, clogging sewer grates and pipes, Mr. Connaughton sometimes has trouble sleeping.
“I went to Hawaii with my wife, and the whole time I was flipping to the Weather Channel, seeing if it was raining in New York,” he said.
New York’s sewage system overflows essentially every other time it rains.
Reducing such overflows is a priority, city officials say. But eradicating the problem would cost billions.
Officials have spent approximately $35 billion over three decades improving the quality of the waters surrounding the city and have improved systems to capture and store rainwater and sewage, bringing down the frequency and volume of overflows, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection wrote in a statement.
“Water quality in New York City has improved dramatically in the last century, and particularly in the last two decades,” officials wrote.
Several years ago, city officials estimated that it would cost at least $58 billion to prevent all overflows. “Even an expenditure of that magnitude would not result in every part of a river or bay surrounding the city achieving water quality that is suitable for swimming,” the department wrote. “It would, however, increase the average N.Y.C. water and sewer bill by 80 percent.”
The E.P.A., concerned about the risks of overflowing sewers, issued a national framework in 1994 to control overflows, including making sure that pipes are designed so they do not easily become plugged by debris and warning the public when overflows occur. In 2000, Congress amended the Clean Water Act to crack down on overflows.
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But in hundreds of places, sewer systems remain out of compliance with that framework or the Clean Water Act, which regulates most pollution discharges to waterways. And the burdens on sewer systems are growing as cities become larger and, in some areas, rainstorms become more frequent and fierce.
New York’s system, for instance, was designed to accommodate a so-called five-year storm — a rainfall so extreme that it is expected to occur, on average, only twice a decade. But in 2007 alone, the city experienced three 25-year storms, according to city officials — storms so strong they would be expected only four times each century.
“When you get five inches of rain in 30 minutes, it’s like Thanksgiving Day traffic on a two-lane bridge in the sewer pipes,” said James Roberts, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.
To combat these shifts, some cities are encouraging sewer-friendly development. New York, for instance, has instituted zoning laws requiring new parking lots to include landscaped areas to absorb rainwater, established a tax credit for roofs with absorbent vegetation and begun to use millions of dollars for environmentally friendly infrastructure projects.
Philadelphia has announced it will spend $1.6 billion over 20 years to build rain gardens and sidewalks of porous pavement and to plant thousands of trees.
But unless cities require private developers to build in ways that minimize runoff, the volume of rain flowing into sewers is likely to grow, environmentalists say.
The only real solution, say many lawmakers and water advocates, is extensive new spending on sewer systems largely ignored for decades. As much as $400 billion in extra spending is needed over the next decade to fix the nation’s sewer infrastructure, according to estimates by the E.P.A. and the Government Accountability Office.
Legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill contains millions in water infrastructure grants, and the stimulus bill passed this year set aside $6 billion to improve sewers and other water systems.
But that money is only a small fraction of what is needed, officials say. And over the last two decades, federal money for such programs has fallen by 70 percent, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which estimates that a quarter of the state’s sewage and wastewater treatment plants are “using outmoded, inadequate technology.”
“The public has no clue how important these sewage plants are,” said Mr. Connaughton of the Brooklyn site. “Waterborne disease was the scourge of mankind for centuries. These plants stopped that. We’re doing everything we can to clean as much sewage as possible, but sometimes, that isn’t enough.”
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Ruell Marc Gerecht
on: November 22, 2009, 11:49:08 PM
By REUEL MARC GERECHT
For those of us who have tracked Islamic militancy in Europe, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's actions are not extraordinary. Since Muslim militants first tried to blow a French high-speed train off its rails in 1995, European intelligence and internal-security services have increasingly monitored European Muslim radicals. Whether it's anti-Muslim bigotry, the large numbers of immigrant and native-born Muslims in Europe, an appreciation of how hard it is to become European, or just an understanding of how dangerous Islamic radicalism is, most Europeans are far less circumspect and politically correct when discussing their Muslim compatriots than are Americans.
A concern for not giving offense to Muslims would never prevent the French internal-security service, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), which deploys a large number of Muslim officers, from aggressively trying to pre-empt terrorism. As Maj. Hasan's case shows, this is not true in the United States. The American military and especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation were in great part inattentive because they were too sensitive.
Moreover, President Barack Obama's determined effort not to mention Islam in terrorist discussions—which means that we must not suggest that Maj. Hasan's murderous actions flowed from his faith—will weaken American counterterrorism. Worse, the president's position is an enormous wasted opportunity to advance an all-critical Muslim debate about the nature and legitimacy of jihad.
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.European counterterrorist officers know well that jihadists can appear, self-generated or tutored by extremist groups, inside Muslim families where parents and siblings lead peaceful lives. Security officials live in fear of the quiet believer who quickly radicalizes, or the secular down-and-out European who enthusiastically converts to a militant creed. Both cases allow little time and often few leads to neutralize a possible lethal explosion of the faith.
It shouldn't require the U.S. to have a French-style, internal-security service to neutralize the likes of Maj. Hasan. He combines all of the factors—especially his public ruminations about American villainy in the Middle East and his overriding sense of Muslim fraternity—that should have had him under surveillance by counterintelligence units. Add the outrageous fact that he was in email correspondence with Anwar al-Awlaqi, a pro-al Qaeda imam well-known to American intelligence, and it is hard not to conclude that the FBI is still incapable of counterterrorism against an Islamic target.
For the FBI, religion remains a much too sensitive subject, much more so than the threatening ideologies of yesteryear. Imagine if Maj. Hasan had been an officer during the Cold War, regularly expressing his sympathy for the Soviet Union and American criminality against the working man. Imagine him writing to a KGB front organization espousing socialist solidarity. The major would have been surrounded by counterintelligence officers.
A law-enforcement agency par excellence, the FBI reflects American legal ethics. Because the FBI is always thinking about criminal prosecutions and admissible evidence, its intelligence-collecting inevitably gets defined by its judicial procedures. Good counterintelligence curiosity—that must come into play before any crime is committed—is at odds with a G-man's raison d'être. And much more so than local police departments—which are grounded to the unpleasantness of daily life—it is highly susceptible to politically correct behavior.
Powerfully intertwined in all of this is liberal America's reluctance to discuss Islam, Islamic militancy, jihadism, or anything that might be construed as invidious to Muslims. The Obama administration obviously doesn't want to get tagged with an Islamist terrorist strike in the U.S.—the first since 9/11. The Muslim-sensitive 9/11 Commission Report, which unambiguously named the enemy as "Islamist terrorism," now seems distinctly passé.
Thoughtful men should certainly not want to see a U.S. president propel a "clash of civilizations" with devout Muslims. However, clash-avoidance shouldn't lead us into a philosophical cul-de-sac. The stakes are so enormous—jihadists would if they could let loose a weapon of mass destruction in a Western city—that we should not prevaricate out of politeness, or deceive ourselves into believing that a debate between Muslims and non-Muslims can only be counterproductive.
The great Muslim reformers of the last 200 years have all been intellectually deeply intertwined with the West. The West has stimulated every single great modern Muslim conversation. The abolition of slavery, the study of science, public schools and widespread literacy, the widely felt and growing need for constitutional and representative government—and less meritorious subjects like socialism, communism and fascism—came about because of Westernization. The Westernization, moreover, was usually driven by Muslims themselves.
This "globalization" has not always been appreciated on the Muslim side. Britain's imperialistic doggedness against the slave trade was deeply resented by Muslims who, like American Southerners, saw slavery, as sacred. Devout Muslims often go ballistic when Westerners and secular Muslims push hard for an expansion of women's rights. Militant Islam is a response to the unstoppable Westernization of Muslim society.
But unavoidably invidious dialogue is the essence of modernity—it is the lifeblood of autocratic societies that have successfully made the painful jump into a democratic era.
The brilliant Iranian revolutionary-turned dissident, Abd al-Karim Soroush, whose ideas contributed to the pro-democracy tumult we've witnessed in Iran since the June 12 election, has forcefully argued for Muslims to critique themselves unsparingly, to happily import and use the West's rational relentlessness to strengthen the faith. An elemental part of Mr. Soroush's critique is that Muslims are capable of thinking on their own. They can take the heat.
In his Cairo speech in June, Mr. Obama pledged "to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear." Muslims don't need his help protecting Islam from mean-spirited Westerners—or from Western novelists, film directors or scholars who might see something in Islamic history that devout Muslims find insulting.
But Westerners could certainly benefit from Mr. Obama underscoring something else he touched on in his Cairo speech: Muslims should stop blaming non-Muslims for their crippling problems. He could ask, as some Muslims have, why is it that Islam has produced so many jihadists? Why is it that Maj. Hasan's rampage has produced so little questioning among Muslim clerics about why a man, one in a long line of Muslim militants, so easily takes God's name to slaughter his fellow citizens?
Had Mr. Obama asked this, we might now be witnessing convulsive debate among Muslims. He missed the opportunity to start this conversation before what is clearly the first Islamist terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. He will probably get another opportunity.
As it stands now, however, Iranian youth who once so eagerly welcomed Mr. Obama's election by shouting his name in Persian—U ba ma! ("He is with us!")—are now writing the president's likely legacy among Muslims who yearn for a better modernity. Disappointed to see how determined Mr. Obama has remained to engage the regime they despise, they now forlornly chant U ba unhast ("He is with them.").
For Muslims who are on the front lines of Islam's bloody reformation, as well as for American counterterrorist officers who must find holy warriors in our midst, Mr. Obama has come down on the wrong side of history.
Mr. Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / POTH: WS profits again, now by reducing mortgages
on: November 22, 2009, 10:57:11 AM
Wall St. Finds Profits Again, Now by Reducing Mortgages
By LOUISE STORY
Published: November 21, 2009
As millions of Americans struggle to hold on to their homes, Wall Street has found a way to make money from the mortgage mess.
Investment funds are buying billions of dollars’ worth of home loans, discounted from the loans’ original value. Then, in what might seem an act of charity, the funds are helping homeowners by reducing the size of the loans.
But as part of these deals, the mortgages are being refinanced through lenders that work with government agencies like the Federal Housing Administration. This enables the funds to pocket sizable profits by reselling new, government-insured loans to other federal agencies, which then bundle the mortgages into securities for sale to investors.
While homeowners save money, the arrangement shifts nearly all the risk for the loans to the federal government — and, ultimately, taxpayers — at a time when Americans are falling behind on their mortgage payments in record numbers.
For instance, a fund might offer to pay $40 million for a $100 million block of mortgages from a bank in distress. Then the fund could arrange to have some of those loans refinanced into mortgages backed by an agency like the F.H.A. and then sold to an agency like Ginnie Mae. The trick is to persuade the homeowners to refinance those mortgages, by offering to reduce the amounts the homeowners owe.
The profit comes when the refinancings reach more than the $40 million that the fund paid for the block of loans.
The strategy has created an unusual alliance between Wall Street funds that specialize in troubled investments — the industry calls them “vulture” funds — and American homeowners.
But the transactions also add to the potential burden on government agencies, particularly the F.H.A., which has lately taken on an outsize role in the housing market and, some fear, may eventually need to be bailed out at taxpayer expense.
These new mortgage investors thrive in the shadows. Typically, the funds employ intermediaries to contact homeowners and arrange for mortgages to be refinanced.
Homeowners often have no idea who their Wall Street benefactors are. Federal housing officials, too, are in the dark.
Policymakers have encouraged investors and banks to put more consumers into government-backed loans. The total value of these transactions from hedge funds is small compared with the overall housing market.
Housing experts warn that the financial players involved — the investment funds, their intermediaries and certain F.H.A. approved lenders — have a financial incentive to put as many loans as possible into the government’s hands.
“From the borrower’s point of view, landing in a hedge fund or private equity fund that’s willing to write down principal is a gift,” said Howard Glaser, a financial industry consultant and former official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
He went on: “From the systemic point of view, there is something disturbing about investors that had substantial short-term profit in backing toxic loans now swooping down to make another profit on cleaning up that mess.”
Steven and Marisela Alva say they do not know who helped them with their mortgage. All they know is that they feel blessed.
Last December, the couple got a letter saying that a firm had purchased the mortgage on their home in Pico Rivera, Calif., from Chase Home Finance for less than its original value. “We want to share this discount with you,” the letter said.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Mr. Alva, a 62-year-old janitor and father of three. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Something is wrong, something is wrong. This sounds too good.’ ”
But it was true. The balance on the Alvas’ mortgage was ultimately reduced to $314,000 from $440,000.
The firm behind the reduction remains a mystery. The Alvas’ new loan, backed by the F.H.A., was made by Primary Residential Mortgage, a lender based in Utah. But the letter came from a company called MCM Capital Partners.
In the letter, MCM said the couple’s loan was owned by something called MCMCap Homeowners’ Advantage Trust III. But MCM’s co-founders said in an interview that MCM does not own any mortgages. They would not reveal the investor that owned the Alvas’ loan because they had agreed to keep that client’s identity confidential.
Michael Niccolini, an MCM founder, said, “We are changing people’s lives.”
(Page 2 of 2)
In Washington, mortgage funds are lobbying for policies that favor their investments, particularly mortgages held in securitized bundles. They want more mortgage balances to be lowered, which might help mortgage bonds perform better. Big banks generally oppose such reductions, which lock in banks’ losses on the loans.
In April, about a dozen investment firms formed a group called the Mortgage Investors Coalition to press their case. One investor who is speaking out is Wilbur L. Ross, who runs a fund that buys mortgages and owns a large mortgage servicing company.
Mr. Ross said modifications that simply lower interest rates or lengthen the duration of a loan, as is typical in the government modification program, do not work well.
“They make a payment or two, but then one night the husband and wife will sit down at the table and say, ‘Do we really want to make 140 monthly payments into a rat hole?’ ” Mr. Ross said.
The Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund in New York, is one of the firms at the forefront of picking through mortgages. Fortress created a $3 billion credit fund in 2008 partly to buy loans from banks like Citigroup, which were under pressure to purge loans to raise cash.
“They’re going ahead and they are refinancing them and getting their money out right away,” said Roger Smith, an analyst at Fox-Pitt Kelton. “What Fortress is doing is actually good for the borrower.” Congress, however, may not be happy that hedge funds are making money this way, Mr. Smith said.
Fortress, which declined to comment, typically buys batches of loans and works with other companies to evaluate which ones might qualify for F.H.A., Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac refinancing.
Sometimes Fortress works with Nationstar, a mortgage servicer and originator that it owns. Other times, Fortress uses an outside partner like Meridias Capital, a lender in Henderson, Nev., that once originated Alt-A loans, which are just above subprime.
After the mortgage market imploded, Meridias began dissecting portfolios of troubled loans for investment funds.
Because firms like Fortress purchase blocks of mortgages at distressed prices, they are able to reduce the principal amount of the loans. Nick Florez, president of Meridias, calls such transactions an “incentive refinance.” He said he would not agree to take a loan unless he could help the homeowner. He said he was able to reduce the loan amount by 11 percent on average.
“I’m giving money away,” said Mr. Florez, who is a 35-year-old Las Vegas native. “It’s really a feel-good business.”
It is too early to know how the new loans will work.
David H. Stevens, the new commissioner of the F.H.A., said he was monitoring F.H.A. lenders but did not have thorough information about which ones work with distressed investors. So far he has not seen a problem from loans coming from hedge funds.
“They’re helping to protect people in their homes and they’re refinancing people from a distressed situation,” he said.
But he acknowledged that funds have an incentive to aggressively push homeowners into federally guaranteed loans, since the investors get their money back as soon as they complete the refinancing.
Seth Wheeler, a senior adviser in the Treasury Department who specializes in housing policy, declined to say whether the investment firms that are lowering principal for homeowners are altruistic or not.
“Investors are doing it where it both benefits the investor and the borrower,” he said.
Part of the risk may be determined by how the funds compensate the F.H.A. lenders and whether the lenders are beholden to the funds for business.
David Zitting, the chief executive of Primary Residential Mortgage, the company that refinanced the Alva family’s loan, said his company did not receive fees from the hedge funds.
“They have all sorts of motivations that, frankly, we don’t understand,” he said. “We don’t do anything special for them because that’s not fair lending.”
The Alvas had to dip into their savings to qualify for their new federally insured loan, since the biggest F.H.A. mortgage they could get was for $285,000, they said. They paid off $21,000 in credit-card and car loans, and put up an additional $29,000 for their new mortgage, depleting their already meager savings.
Brian Chappelle, a mortgage consultant, said loans to people like the Alvas, with modest incomes and scant savings, could turn out to be risky.
“It does raise risk concerns for F.H.A.,” he said.
The Alvas are grateful for the help. Their home is, Marisela said, a dream come true. “I’m very happy,” she said. “We never thought this was possible.”
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / NYT: Afghani militias?
on: November 22, 2009, 10:18:30 AM
As Afghans Resist Taliban, U.S. Spurs Rise of Militias
By DEXTER FILKINS
Published: November 21, 2009
ACHIN, Afghanistan — American and Afghan officials have begun helping a number of anti-Taliban militias that have independently taken up arms against insurgents in several parts of Afghanistan, prompting hopes of a large-scale tribal rebellion against the Taliban.
Members of the Afghan National Police, above, passed an abandoned Russian Army vehicle on a patrol near a village in Kunduz Province.
The emergence of the militias, which took some leaders in Kabul by surprise, has so encouraged the American and Afghan officials that they are planning to spur the growth of similar armed groups across the Taliban heartland in the southern and eastern parts of the country.
The American and Afghan officials say they are hoping the plan, called the Community Defense Initiative, will bring together thousands of gunmen to protect their neighborhoods from Taliban insurgents. Already there are hundreds of Afghans who are acting on their own against the Taliban, officials say.
The endeavor represents one of the most ambitious — and one of the riskiest — plans for regaining the initiative against the Taliban, who are fighting more vigorously than at any time since 2001.
By harnessing the militias, American and Afghan officials hope to rapidly increase the number of Afghans fighting the Taliban. That could supplement the American and Afghan forces already here, and whatever number of American troops President Obama might decide to send. The militias could also help fill the gap while the Afghan Army and police forces train and grow — a project that could take years to bear fruit.
The Americans hope the militias will encourage an increasingly demoralized Afghan population to take a stake in the war against the Taliban.
“The idea is to get people to take responsibility for their own security,” said a senior American military official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “In many places they are already doing that.”
The growth of the anti-Taliban militias runs the risk that they could turn on one another, or against the Afghan and American governments. The Americans say they will keep the groups small and will limit the scope of their activities to protecting villages and manning checkpoints.
For now, they are not arming the groups because they already have guns.
The Americans also say they will tie them directly to the Afghan government.
These checks aim to avoid repeating mistakes of the past — either creating more Afghan warlords, who have defied the government’s authority for years, or arming Islamic militants, some of whom came back to haunt the United States.
The American plan echoes a similar movement that unfolded in Iraq, beginning in late 2006, in which Sunni tribes turned against Islamist extremists.
That movement, called the Sunni Awakening, brought tens of thousands of former insurgents into government-supervised militias and helped substantially reduce the violence in Iraq. A rebellion on a similar scale seems unlikely in Afghanistan, in large part because the tribes here are so much weaker than those in Iraq.
The first phase of the Afghan plan, now being carried out by American Special Forces soldiers, is to set up or expand the militias in areas with a population of about a million people. Special Forces soldiers have been fanning out across the countryside, descending from helicopters into valleys where the residents have taken up arms against the Taliban and offering their help.
“We are trying to reach out to these groups that have organized themselves,” Col. Christopher Kolenda said in Kabul.
Afghan and American officials say they plan to use the militias as tripwires for Taliban incursions, enabling them to call the army or the police if things get out of hand.
The official assistance to the militias so far has been modest, consisting mainly of ammunition and food, officials said. But American and Afghan officials say they are also planning to train the fighters and provide communication equipment.
“What we are talking about is a local, spontaneous and indigenous response to the Taliban,” said Hanif Atmar, the Afghan interior minister. “The Afghans are saying, ‘We are willing and determined and capable to defend our country; just give us the resources.’ ”
In the Pashtun-dominated areas of the south and east, the anti-Taliban militias are being led by elders from local tribes. The Pashtun militias represent a reassertion of the country’s age-old tribal system, which binds villages and regions under the leadership of groups of elders.
The tribal networks have been alternately decimated and co-opted by Taliban insurgents. Local tribal leaders, while still powerful, cannot count on the allegiance of all of their tribes’ members.
Militias have begun taking up arms against the Taliban in several places where insurgents have gained a foothold, including the provinces of Nangarhar and Paktia.
Published: November 21, 2009
(Page 2 of 2)
So far, there appears to be some divergence in the American and Afghan efforts. While American Special Forces units have focused on helping smaller militias, Afghan officials have been channeling assistance to larger armed groups, including those around the northern city of Kunduz. In that city, several armed groups, led by ethnic Uzbek commanders as well as Pashtuns, are confronting the Taliban.
“In Kunduz, after they defeated the Taliban in their villages, they became the power and they took money and taxes from the people,” Mr. Atmar, the interior minister, said. “This is not legal, and this is warlordism.”
Colonel Kolenda said, “In the long run, that is destabilizing.”
One of the most striking examples of a local militia rising up on its own is here in Achin, a predominantly Pashtun district in Nangarhar Province that straddles the border with Pakistan.
In July, a long-running dispute between local Taliban fighters and elders from the Shinwari tribe flared up. When a local Taliban warlord named Khona brought a more senior commander from Pakistan to help in the confrontation, the elders in the Shinwari tribe rallied villagers from up and down the valley where they live, killed the commander and chased Khona away.
The elders had insisted that the Taliban stay away from a group of Afghans building a dike in the valley. When Khona’s men kidnapped two Afghan engineers, the Shinwari elders decided they had had enough.
“The whole tribe was with me,” one of the elders said in an interview. “The Taliban came to kill me, and instead we killed them.”
The two tribal elders in Achin who led the rebellion spoke at length with The New York Times about their activities. At the request of American commanders in Kabul, who feared that the elders would be killed by the Taliban, the identities of the men are being withheld.
Since the fight, the Taliban have been kept away from a string of villages in Achin District that stretch for about six miles. The elders said they were able to do so by forming a group of more than 100 fighters and posting them at each end of the valley.
The elders said they had been marked for death by Taliban commanders on both sides of the border.
“Every day people call me and tell me the Taliban is trying to kill me,” one of the Shinwari elders said. “They call me and tell me: ‘Don’t take this road. Take a different one.’ I am worried about suicide bombers.”
The feud between the Taliban and the Shinwari elders caught the attention of American officers, who sent a team of Special Forces soldiers to the valley. This reporter was unable to reach the interior of the valley where the men live, so it was difficult to verify all of the elders’ claims.
Both the Shinwari elders said that “Americans with beards” had flown into the valley twice in recent weeks and had given them flour and boxes of ammunition. (Unlike other American troops, Special Forces soldiers are allowed to wear beards.)
American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they intended to help organize and train the Shinwari militia. They said they would give them communication gear that would enable them to call the Afghan police if they needed help.
But that, as well as other aspects of the plan, seems problematic, at least for now. There are only about 50 Afghan police officers in Achin, the district center, and none in the valley. There are no Afghan Army soldiers in the area, and the nearest American base is many miles away.
The hope, of course, is that the revolt led by the Shinwari elders spreads. Each of the elders interviewed leads a branch of the 12 Shinwari tribes. If they survive, both elders said, they believe that others will join them.
“The Taliban are not popular here, not educated,” another Shinwari elder said. “They are stray dogs.”
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Iranian War Games
on: November 22, 2009, 09:25:03 AM
Iran war games to defend nuclear sites.
Iran has begun five days of war games to simulate attacks on its nuclear sites, state media report.
The head of Iran's air defence said the aim was to thwart aerial reconnaissance of the sites as well as air attacks.
Brigadier General Ahmad Mighani said the training would also improve cooperation among different units.
Iran has come under mounting pressure over its nuclear programme, which critics say is intended to produce nuclear weapons.
The US and Israel have not ruled out the prospect of a military attack to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
Tehran insists its programme is peaceful, and an aide to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly warned Iran would retaliate to any attack with a missile strike on Tel Aviv.
"If the enemy attacks Iran, our missiles will strike Tel Aviv," Mojhtaba Zolnoor was quoted as saying by the official Irna news agency.
Brig Mighani told state media the aim of the exercises, which will cover an area of 600,000 sq km (230,000 sq miles), was "to display Iran's combat readiness and military potentials.
Iran insists that all its nuclear facilities are for energy, not military purposes
Bushehr: Nuclear power plant
Isfahan: Uranium conversion plant
Natanz: Uranium enrichment plant, 4,592 working centrifuges, with 3,716 more installed
Second enrichment plant: Existence revealed to IAEA in Sept 2009. Separate reports say it is near Qom, and not yet operational
Arak: Heavy water plant
Key nuclear sites in detail
A high-stakes game
Q&A: Iran and the nuclear issue
"Due to the threats against our nuclear facilities it is our duty to defend out nation's vital facilities," he said.
The exercises come as the UN Security Council's permanent members - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - plus Germany, urge Tehran to reconsider its rejection of a deal that would see some of its nuclear material being enriched outside Iran and returned as fuel rods.
The deal - brokered by the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency - envisages Iran sending about 70% of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France, where it would be processed into fuel rods for a research reactor in Tehran.
Such a process would prevent Iran enriching uranium to the degree necessary to make a bomb, the UN says.
Iran has rejected a key part of the deal, seeking further guarantees.
The UN Security Council has called on Iran to stop uranium enrichment and has approved three rounds of sanctions - covering trade in nuclear material, as well as financial and travel restrictions.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / WSJ: It gets worse
on: November 21, 2009, 07:45:53 AM
About the best that can be said about the Senate health-care bill that Harry Reid revealed this week is that it's marginally less destructive than the House monster. By a hair. Its $1.2 trillion cost (more like $2.5 trillion if you discount the accounting gimmicks), multiple and damaging new taxes, and new regulations will make health insurance more expensive for most Americans while reducing the quality of medical care.
We'll dissect the damage in the days to come. But for today let's focus on the damage the bill would do to consumer-driven health plans—the kind that give individuals more control over their health dollars and insurance choices. The 2,074-page bill crushes them with malice-aforethought.
Start with its attack on flexible spending accounts that are an important part of many employer plans. Flex accounts let employees set aside some portion of their pre-tax pay for out-of-pocket costs or medical services that their insurance plan doesn't cover, such as a child's orthodontics or testing supplies for diabetics. The Reid bill caps these now-unlimited accounts at $2,500 per year and imposes new restrictions on qualifying medical expenses, raising some $5 billion by exposing income above the non-indexed cap to taxes.
Democrats say flex accounts encourage wasteful spending, because an arbitrary "use it or lose it" rule doesn't allow balances to roll over year to year. But they really hate them because they give consumers a more active role in managing spending, instead of having the government decide.
The Reid bill also assaults health savings accounts, or HSAs, which allow individuals to accumulate tax-free funds for future medical expenses when coupled with low-premium, high-deductible insurance. The Reid bill changes tax provisions to make HSAs less attractive, but the real threat comes via increased regulation.
These insurance products will likely be barred from the insurance "exchanges" that will demolish and supplant today's individual market. Employers will also find them more difficult if not illegal to offer once the government has new powers to "define the essential health benefits" that all plans must eventually offer. Plans that focus mainly on catastrophic health expenses, instead of routine procedures, aren't generous enough for Democrats.
Liberals claim people who choose these options aren't helping as much to finance a common pool and may encourage adverse selection if too many young or healthy people opt out. While all insurance involves some degree of risk-sharing, Democrats want to impose true social insurance a la Europe by obliterating the flexibility of insurers to design products that are tailored to suit different individual needs.
In fact, about 40% of tax filers with HSAs earn under $60,000, according to the IRS. The Employee Benefit Research Institute reports that 4% of adults with private insurance have an HSA this year—up from 1% in 2006—and about 9% are enrolled in some form of consumer-directed health plan. It also found that beneficiaries are evenly split between those with health problems and those without.
The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, whose members dominate the HSA market, says that enrollees are more likely than those with traditional insurance to be better consumers. They're more likely to track expenses (63% to 43%), save for the future (47% to 18%), and search for information on physician quality (20% to 14%). They're also more likely to participate and see results from wellness programs like weight loss, fitness and smoking cessation. This makes intuitive sense: They've got skin directly in the game.
David Goldhill, a media executive, recently wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that if a 22-year-old starts at his company today earning $30,000 and health costs grow at 3%, by the time he retires he'll have paid out $1.77 million in premiums, lower wages, out-of-pocket costs and both sides of the Medicare payroll tax.
If all that money were instead available via an HSA, including by borrowing against future contributions, "wouldn't you be able to afford your own care?" Mr. Goldhill asks. "And wouldn't you consume health care differently if you and your family didn't have to spend that money only on care?"
This is precisely the future liberals fear because it would make health care less susceptible to political control. The Reid bill makes it impossible for people to choose better reform alternatives, the ones that can only be discovered through innovation and competition in a dynamic marketplace.
Not that any of this seems to matter at this stage of the health-card debate. The polls show the public opposes the Democratic bills, President Obama is below 50% job approval in the Gallup poll, and business and medical providers are increasingly horrified at what reform will do to consumers and patients. But so what? This is about putting government in charge of health care, whether Americans like it or not.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Pravda on the Hudson
on: November 21, 2009, 07:17:44 AM
Well, here's a fine example of POTH at work:
New Consensus Sees Stimulus Package as Worthy Step Recommend
by JACKIE CALMES and MICHAEL COOPER
Published: November 20, 2009
WASHINGTON — Now that unemployment has topped 10 percent, some liberal-leaning economists see confirmation of their warnings that the $787 billion stimulus package President Obama signed into law last February was way too small. The economy needs a second big infusion, they say.
No, some conservative-leaning economists counter, we were right: The package has been wasteful, ineffectual and even harmful to the extent that it adds to the nation’s debt and crowds out private-sector borrowing.
These long-running arguments have flared now that the White House and Congressional leaders are talking about a new “jobs bill.” But with roughly a quarter of the stimulus money out the door after nine months, the accumulation of hard data and real-life experience has allowed more dispassionate analysts to reach a consensus that the stimulus package, messy as it is, is working.
The legislation, a variety of economists say, is helping an economy in free fall a year ago to grow again and shed fewer jobs than it otherwise would. Mr. Obama’s promise to “save or create” about 3.5 million jobs by the end of 2010 is roughly on track, though far more jobs are being saved than created, especially among states and cities using their money to avoid cutting teachers, police officers and other workers.
“It was worth doing — it’s made a difference,” said Nigel Gault, chief economist at IHS Global Insight, a financial forecasting and analysis group based in Lexington, Mass.
Mr. Gault added: “I don’t think it’s right to look at it by saying, ‘Well, the economy is still doing extremely badly, therefore the stimulus didn’t work.’ I’m afraid the answer is, yes, we did badly but we would have done even worse without the stimulus.”
In interviews, a broad range of economists said the White House and Congress were right to structure the package as a mix of tax cuts and spending, rather than just tax cuts as Republicans prefer or just spending as many Democrats do. And it is fortuitous, many say, that the money gets doled out over two years — longer for major construction — considering the probable length of the “jobless recovery” under way as wary employers hold off on new hiring.
But there are criticisms, mainly that the Obama team relied last winter on overly optimistic economic assumptions and oversold the job-creating benefits of the stimulus package.
Optimistic assumptions in turn contributed to producing a package that if anything is too small, analysts say. “The economy was weaker than we thought at the time, so maybe in retrospect we could have used a little bit more and little bit more front-loaded,” said Joel Prakken, chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers, another financial analysis group, in St. Louis.
While some conservatives remain as skeptical as ever that big increases in government spending give the economy a jolt that is worth the cost, Martin Feldstein, a conservative Harvard economist who served in the Reagan administration, said the problem with the package was that some of its tax cuts and spending programs were of a variety that did little to spur the economy.
“There should have been more direct federal spending that would have added to aggregate demand,” he said. “Temporary tax cuts and one-time transfers to seniors were largely saved and didn’t stimulate spending.”
Even the $787 billion price tag overstates the plan’s stimulus value given changes made in Congress, economists say. Nearly a tenth of the package, $70 billion, comes from a provision adjusting the alternative minimum tax so it does not hit middle-income taxpayers this year. That routine fix, which would do nothing to stimulate the economy, was added in part to seek Republican votes. But to keep the package’s overall cost down, provisions that would stimulate the economy — like aid to revenue-starved states and infrastructure projects — got less as a result.
Among Democrats in the White House and Congress, “there was a considerable amount of hand-wringing that it was too small, and I sympathized with that argument,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com and an occasional adviser to lawmakers.
Even so, “the stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do — it is contributing to ending the recession,” he added, citing the economy’s third-quarter expansion by a 3.5 percent seasonally adjusted annual rate. “In my view, without the stimulus, G.D.P. would still be negative and unemployment would be firmly over 11 percent. And there are a little over 1.1 million more jobs out there as of October than would have been out there without the stimulus.”
Politically, however, the president is saddled with his original claim that, with the stimulus, the jobless rate would peak at 8.1 percent — a miscalculation that Republicans constantly recall. While the administration has said its economic assumptions were in line with private forecasts, most of which also underestimated the recession’s punch, it was more optimistic than most.
“That was a mistake,” said Jeffrey A. Frankel, a Harvard University economist and former Clinton administration official who is a member of the National Bureau of Economic Research panel that judges when recessions start and end. “I thought so at the time.”
Christina D. Romer, chairwoman of Mr. Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said attention to that too-rosy projection “prevents people from focusing on the positive impact of the fiscal stimulus. So of course I find that frustrating.”
Much federal infrastructure money has gone not to new job-creating projects but to finance existing plans, which otherwise would be unaffordable to states.
So the stimulus has not “supercharged” transportation construction as was hoped, said Charles Gallagher, an asphalt company owner, speaking for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, but it has nonetheless been “a welcome Band-Aid” to offset state cuts.
“Many contractors across the nation have been able to sustain, if not add to, their work force,” he said.
That sort of impact is what makes federal aid to state governments rank high in economists’ reckoning of the stimulus value of various proposals. Every dollar of additional infrastructure spending means $1.57 in economic activity, according to Moody’s, and general aid to states carries a $1.41 “bang” for each federal buck.
Even more effective are increases for food stamps ($1.74) and unemployment checks ($1.61), because recipients quickly spend their benefits on goods and services.
By contrast, most temporary tax cuts cost more than the stimulus they provide, according to research by Moody’s. That is true of two tax breaks in the stimulus law that Congress, pressed by industry lobbyists, recently extended and sweetened — a tax credit for homebuyers (90 cents of stimulus for each dollar of tax subsidy) and extra deductions for businesses’ net operating losses (21 cents).
Economists said Republicans’ recent proposals to rescind unspent money would be a mistake.
James Glassman, a senior economist at JPMorgan Chase & Company, said: “If we could be absolutely convinced that the growth we’re getting is for reasons beyond the help the government is giving, then that would make sense. But the fact is we can’t be certain of that.”
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Bone density
on: November 20, 2009, 06:27:43 PM
Phys Ed: The Best Exercises for Healthy Bones
By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS
Digital Images/Getty Images
Several weeks ago, The Journal of the American Medical Association published
a study that should give pause to anyone who plans to live a long and
independent life. The study looked at the incidence of hip fractures among
older Americans and the mortality rates associated with them. Although the
number of hip fractures has declined in recent decades, the study found that
the 12-month mortality rate associated with the injury still hovers at more
than 20 percent, meaning that, in the year after fracturing a hip, about one
in five people over age 65 will die.
Meanwhile, another group of articles, published this month as a special
section of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the journal of the
American College of Sports Medicine, underscore why that statistic should be
relevant even to active people who are years, or decades, away from
eligibility for Medicare. The articles detailed a continuing controversy
within the field of sports science about exactly how exercise works on bone
and why sometimes, apparently, it doesn't.
"There was a time, not so long ago," when most researchers assumed "that any
and all activity would be beneficial for bone health," says Dr. Daniel W.
Barry, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, at
Denver, and a researcher who has studied the bones of the elderly and of
athletes. Then came a raft of unexpected findings, some showing that
competitive swimmers had lower-than-anticipated bone density, others that,
as an earlier Phys Ed column pointed out, competitive cyclists sometimes had
fragile bones and, finally, some studies suggesting, to the surprise of many
researchers, that weight lifting did not necessarily strengthen bones much.
In one representative study from a few years ago, researchers found no
significant differences in the spine or neck-bone densities of young women
who did resistance-style exercise training (not heavy weight lifting) and a
similar group who did not.
Researchers readily admit that they don't fully understand why some exercise
is good for bones and some just isn't. As the articles in this month's
Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise make clear, scientists actually seem
to be becoming less certain about how exercise affects bone. Until fairly
recently, many thought that the pounding or impact that you get from
running, for instance, deformed the bone slightly. It bowed in response to
the forces moving up the leg from the ground, stretching the various bone
cells and forcing them to adapt, usually by adding cells, which made the
bone denser. This, by the way, is how muscle adapts to exercise. But many
scientists now think that that process doesn't apply to bones. "If you
stretch bone cells" in a Petri dish, says Alexander G. Robling, an assistant
professor in the department of anatomy and cell biology at Indiana
University School of Medicine and the author of an article in Medicine &
Science in Sports & Exercise, "you have to stretch them so far to get a
response that the bone would break."
So he and many other researchers now maintain that bone receives the message
to strengthen itself in response to exercise by a different means. He says
that during certain types of exercise, the bone bends, but this doesn't
stretch cells; it squeezes fluids from one part of the bone matrix to
another. The extra fluid inspires the cells bathed with it to respond by
adding denser bone.
a.. More Phys Ed columns
b.. Faster, Higher, Stronger
c.. Fitness and Nutrition News
Why should it matter what kind of message bones are receiving? Because,
Professor Robling and others say, only certain types of exercise adequately
bend bones and move the fluid to the necessary bone cells. An emerging
scientific consensus seems to be, he says, that "large forces released in a
relatively big burst" are probably crucial. The bone, he says, "needs a loud
signal, coming fast." For most of us, weight lifting isn't explosive enough
to stimulate such bone bending. Neither is swimming. Running can be,
although for unknown reasons, it doesn't seem to stimulate bone building in
some people. Surprisingly, brisk walking has been found to be effective at
increasing bone density in older women, Dr. Barry says. But it must be truly
brisk. "The faster the pace," he says - and presumably the greater the
bending within the bones - the lower the risk that a person will fracture a
There seems to be a plateau, however, that has also surprised and confounded
some researchers. Too much endurance exercise, it appears, may reduce bone
density. In one small study completed by Dr. Barry and his colleagues,
competitive cyclists lost bone density over the course of a long training
season. Dr. Barry says that it's possible, but not yet proved, that exercise
that is too prolonged or intense may lead to excessive calcium loss through
sweat. The body's endocrine system may interpret this loss of calcium as
serious enough to warrant leaching the mineral from bone. Dr. Barry is in
the middle of a long-term study to determine whether supplementing with
calcium-fortified chews before and after exercise reduces the bone-thinning
response in competitive cyclists. He expects results in a year or so.
In the meantime, the current state-of-the-science message about exercise and
bone building may be that, silly as it sounds, the best exercise is to
simply jump up and down, for as long as the downstairs neighbor will
tolerate. "Jumping is great, if your bones are strong enough to begin with,"
Dr. Barry says. "You probably don't need to do a lot either." (If you have
any history of fractures or a family history of osteoporosis, check with a
physician before jumping.) In studies in Japan, having mice jump up and land
40 times during a week increased their bone density significantly after 24
weeks, a gain they maintained by hopping up and down only about 20 or 30
times each week after that.
If hopping seems an undignified exercise regimen, bear in mind that it has
one additional benefit: It tends to aid in balance, which may be as
important as bone strength in keeping fractures at bay. Most of the time,
Dr. Barry says, "fragile bones don't matter, from a clinical standpoint, if
you don't fall down."
DBMA Martial Arts Forum / Martial Arts Topics / Re: Brain damage/concussion in boxing, kickboxing, football, etc:
on: November 20, 2009, 06:24:54 PM
Hat tip to Linda "Bitch" Matsumi:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704402404574527881984299454.html
Is It Time to Retire the Football Helmet?
New Research Says Small Hits Do Major Damage—and There's Not Much Headgear Can Do About It
By REED ALBERGOTTI and SHIRLEY S. WANG
This football season, the debate about head injuries has reached a critical mass. Startling research has been unveiled. Maudlin headlines have been written. Congress called a hearing on the subject last month.
As obvious as the problem may seem (wait, you mean football is dangerous?), continuing revelations about the troubling mental declines of some retired players—and the ongoing parade of concussions during games—have created a sense of inevitability. Pretty soon, something will have to be done.
But before the debate goes any further, there's a fundamental question that needs to be investigated. Why do football players wear helmets in the first place? And more important, could the helmets be part of the problem?
"Some people have advocated for years to take the helmet off, take the face mask off. That'll change the game dramatically," says Fred Mueller, a University of North Carolina professor who studies head injuries. "Maybe that's better than brain damage."
The first hard-shell helmets, which became popular in the 1940s, weren't designed to prevent concussions but to prevent players in that rough-and-tumble era from suffering catastrophic injuries like fractured skulls.
But while these helmets reduced the chances of death on the field, they also created a sense of invulnerability that encouraged players to collide more forcefully and more often. "Almost every single play, you're going to get hit in the head," says Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long.
What nobody knew at the time is that these small collisions may be just as damaging. The growing body of research on former football players suggests that brain damage isn't necessarily the result of any one trauma, but the accumulation of thousands of seemingly innocuous blows to the head.
The problem is that there's nothing any helmet could do to stop the brain from taking lots of small hits. To become certified for sale, a football helmet has to earn a "severity index" score of 1200, according to testing done by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, or Nocsae. Dr. Robert Cantu, a Nocsae board member and chief of neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., says that to prevent concussions, helmets would have to have a severity index of 300—about four times better than the standard. "The only way to make that happen, Dr. Cantu says, "is to make the helmet much bigger and the padding much bigger."
The problem with that approach, he says—other than making players look like Marvin the Martian—is that heavier helmets would be more likely to cause neck injuries.
One of the strongest arguments for banning helmets comes from the Australian Football League. While it's a similarly rough game, the AFL never added any of the body armor Americans wear. When comparing AFL research studies and official NFL injury reports, AFL players appear to get hurt more often on the whole with things like shoulder injuries and tweaked knees. But when it comes to head injuries, the helmeted NFL players are about 25% more likely to sustain one.
Andrew McIntosh, a researcher at Australia's University of New South Wales who analyzed videotape, says there may be a greater prevalence of head injuries in the American game because the players hit each other with forces up to 100% greater. "If they didn't have helmets on, they wouldn't do that," he says. "They know they'd injure themselves."
Dhani Jones, a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals who has played rugby, too, says head injuries in that sport do happen, but they're mostly freak accidents. "In football, you're taught to hit with your face," he says. "You're always contacting with your 'hat,' which is your head."
Taking away helmets might have other benefits for the sport. It would bring down the cost of equipment, which can be crippling for some schools. A slower game might also be more palatable to some parents. And with their heads uncovered, football players might be more attractive to endorsers.
By all accounts, banning helmets isn't on anyone's agenda. Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the NFL, says the league isn't contemplating the idea. Its focus is on improving helmet technology and on rules "that help take the head out of the game." Not wearing helmets, he says, "is not going to eliminate the risk of concussion in a sport that involves contact." Dr. Thom Mayer, a medical adviser to the NFL players' union, says there isn't enough research showing that playing without helmets would reduce brain injury. "It's an interesting theoretical question, but I don't think anybody would consider playing NFL football without a helmet," he says.
Larry Maddux, the head of research and development for helmet-maker Schutt, says even without helmets, players would inadvertently get hit in the head—and regular knocks and bumps could turn into concussions. Thad Ide, the vice president of research and development at Riddell, the NFL's official helmet sponsor, says getting rid of helmets would be a bad move. "There would always be incidental contact," he says.
So what should be done?
Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon who has conducted brain research for the players' union, says the NFL should change the rules so linemen aren't allowed to go into three-point stances before plays—a rule that would prevent them from springing head-first into other players. He says he would also stop all head contact in football practices. Dr. Cantu says brain injuries could be reduced by enforcing rules already on the books in the NFL—especially helmet-to-helmet hits, which are not always called by officials. "There have to eventually be some hard sanctions for referees," he says.
To many, the solution is to come up with a better helmet. The NFL is currently conducting independent testing of helmets with a focus on "more accurate and comparative information about concussive forces," says neurologist Ira Casson, a co-chair of the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee.
In the past, attempts to create a better helmet haven't met with much success. Robert Cade, who is better known as an inventor of Gatorade, created a shock-absorbing helmet that was used by a number of NFL players in the 1970s. In the late 1980s, Bert Straus, an industrial designer, came up with the ProCap, a soft outer shell that fits over helmets to help absorb blows. It was also used by some NFL players but also never caught on.
Nonetheless, the strongest argument for the helmet may turn out to be an economic one. The NFL is shaped around the notion that players can run into each other at high speeds without consequence. It's the same sort of idea that has made Nascar the nation's most popular form of motorsport. And beyond all this, there's the very real question of whether the prospect of serious mental impairment later in life will ever discourage people from playing the game—let alone watching.
"Without the helmet, they wouldn't hit their head in stupid plays," says P. David Halstead, technical director for the Nocsae, the group that sets helmet-safety standards. But without helmets, the game "wouldn't be football," he says.
Write to Reed Albergotti at Reed. Albergotti@wsj.com
and Shirley S. Wang at Shirley.Wang@wsj.com
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Third Lebanon War
on: November 20, 2009, 05:39:57 PM
In a development I predicted when the Israeli failed to follow through the last time , , ,
A Third Lebanon War Could Be Much Worse than the Second
Michael J. Totten
Hezbollah's Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah recently announced that he could hit any and every place in Israel with long-range missiles. That would mean that, unlike in 2006, Hezbollah could strike not only the northern cities of Kiryat Shmona and Haifa but also Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion International Airport, and the Dimona nuclear-power plant.
I dismissed his claim as a wild boast last week, but Israeli army commander Major General Gabi Ashkenazi confirmed it this week. So while we've all been worried about Iran's nuclear-weapons program, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been quietly arming his chief terrorist proxy with more advanced conventional weapons.
To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.
A Third Lebanon War could make the Second Lebanon War in 2006 look like a minor kerfuffle. And the Second Lebanon War was anything but. When Noah Pollak and I covered it from the Israeli side, we found the whole northern swath of the country emptied of people and cars like it was the end of the world. The city of Tiberias looked like a zombie movie set. Kiryat Shmona is so close to the border that the air raid sirens often didn't start wailing until after Hezbollah's incoming Katyusha rockets had already exploded.
Meanwhile, pitched battles between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah seriously chewed up South Lebanon. The centers of entire towns were pulverized by Israeli air and artillery strikes. More than a thousand people were killed, many of them civilians used by Hezbollah as human shields.
Hezbollah is much more dangerous than any terrorist group that has ever been fielded from the West Bank or Gaza. It managed to create hundreds of thousands of refugees inside Israel, and it did so with fewer and shorter range rockets than it has now. And while the "Party of God" may think it's terrific that it can do what Hamas in Gaza only fantasizes about, its arsenal indirectly threatens Lebanon just as much if not more than it threatens Israel. Nasrallah can unleash a great deal of destruction, but it's still no match for what the IDF can dish out while fighting back.
If Israel's nuclear power plant comes under fire, if Tel Aviv skyscrapers explode from missile attacks, if Hezbollah manages to turn all of Israel into a kill zone where there is no place to run, Israelis will panic like they haven't since the 1973 Yom Kippur War when it briefly appeared the Egyptian army might overrun the whole country. I wouldn't want to be anywhere in Lebanon while Israelis are actively fending off that kind of assault. No country can afford to be restrained while fighting for its survival.
The last Lebanon caught almost everyone by surprise, although it should not have. The next one might start much the same way because few seem to be taking its likelihood or its potential magnitude seriously.
It's possible that a "balance of terror" on each side of the border will prevent anyone from doing anything stupid, but I wouldn't count on it. Hezbollah's rhetoric is more belligerent this year than ever. Not only does Nasrallah threaten to avenge the assassination of his military commander Imad Mugniyeh, he and the rest of the leadership fantasize in public about nuclear war.
Christopher Hitchens went to a commemoration for Mugniyeh in the suburbs south of Beirut earlier this year and saw a huge poster of a nuclear mushroom cloud next to the stage. "OH ZIONISTS," read the inscription below, "IF YOU WANT THIS TYPE OF WAR THEN SO BE IT!”
This, I'm certain, really is bombast – at least for now. Nasrallah doesn't have nuclear weapons. Apocalyptic imagery and rhetoric, though, tells us something important about Hezbollah's psyche.
Just ask yourself how you would have felt during the Cold War if Ronald Reagan or Mikhail Gorbachev said "SO BE IT" to nuclear war. I would have wanted to hide in my basement or go off-planet entirely. And I have a hard time imagining an American or Russian crowd roaring with applause and pumping its fists in the air in response to that sort of thing. That's just not how Americans or Russians thought about a nuclear holocaust. Israelis don't think about nuclear war that way either, nor do Hezbollah's opponents in Lebanon. The same is almost certainly true of the millions of Iranian citizens who brave beatings, arrest, and worse to yell "death to the dictator" in the streets of Tehran.
Hezbollah's mindset is different. If you expect moderation, reasonableness, and restraint from that crowd, you are far more optimistic than I am
"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies" -- Groucho Marx
"The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. --John Adams
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Patriot Post
on: November 20, 2009, 10:44:44 AM
Digest · Friday, November 20, 2009
"The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." --Thomas Jefferson
Government & Politics
Health Care Cost Nightmare
Harry Reid claims his 2,000-page bill will reduce the deficit. He's quite the comedian.It's an accepted fact that no government program comes in on budget, and this maxim likely won't change with the health care legislation that recently passed the House. Republican analysis of the bill in the Senate Budget Committee reveals that a more realistic price tag for the House version, after the benefit provisions are figured in, comes to $3 trillion over 10 years, not $1 trillion as Democrats claim. The disparity comes from the fact that the taxes and fees meant to pay for the bill occur immediately, while major aspects of "reform" won't be implemented until at least 2013. Thus, the true cost of the plan won't reveal itself until well after the current president has stood for re-election.
Despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) assurances that the bill will lower health care costs, another report released this week by the nonpartisan Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services found that the House plan would actually raise costs by $289 billion over 10 years. Furthermore, Medicare would be cut by half a trillion dollars, leading to reduced benefits and services.
On that note, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Senate's 2,074-page, $849 billion version of the health care takeover plan. Reid has laid out an ambitious plan to pass HarryCare by Christmas.
The Senate bill clocks in a tad cheaper than the House version in part because many major provisions, such as the public option, would be delayed until 2014 -- one year later than the House bill. Reid also claims the bill will reduce the federal deficit by $650 billion in its second 10 years. A 2,000-page bill will reduce the deficit? That Reid is quite the comedian. Besides, while the Congressional Budget Office says the bill will reduce the deficit by $130 billion over 10 years, CBO cautions that its effect on the deficit over the following decade would be "subject to substantial uncertainty." That's comforting, isn't it?
Notably, the Senate bill includes a 40 percent tax on high-deductible "Cadillac" insurance plans (though, naturally, Congress' Cadillac plan is exempt) as opposed to the House's tax on the "rich." It also includes a 5 percent tax on elective cosmetic surgeries (how will Nancy feel about that?), which apparently helps pay for providing -- surprise -- federal subsidies for abortion.
Reid wants to hold a vote to begin debate as early as this weekend. He has "promised" not to use the procedural tactic of reconciliation, which would allow him to pass the bill with only 51 votes instead of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster -- but experience shows how little we should trust Democrats' promises.
As for that prized debate, Harkin referred to a Republican call to read the full bill on the Senate floor as a political tactic, and he threatens that Democrats will hold a live quorum to keep everyone in the chamber while the reading is taking place -- which sounds awfully like a political tactic to us.
It's interesting that both parties seem to view the public reading of the bill as some sort of parliamentary game. Perhaps if public readings of proposed legislation took place all of the time, we would actually know what Congress is up to. What a novel idea.
Democrat senators who pride themselves as being deficit hawks will have a tough choice to make in the coming days and weeks. Will they support HarryCare, which makes them look like hypocrites when they face the voters next year and in 2012? Or will they do the right thing and stop this runaway entitlement before it shoots out of the gate?
The BIG Lie
Where is the constitutional authority for a federal mandate that individuals must buy health insurance?
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) says that one's easy: "The very first enumerated power gives the power to provide for the common defense and the general welfare. So it's right on, right on the front end."
For those who don't follow Sen. Merkley's brilliant explication, he refers to the Constitution's Preamble, which, among several other things, says that the Constitution was written to "promote the general Welfare," though the Preamble doesn't list enumerated powers.
Furthermore, James Madison, primary author of the Constitution, vehemently disagreed, writing, "If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions."
Thomas Jefferson likewise stated that if Congress could "do anything they please to provide for the general welfare ... t would reduce the whole instrument [the Constitution] to a single phrase, that of instituting a Congress with power to do whatever would be for the good of the United States; and as they would be the sole judges of the good or evil, it would be also a power to do whatever evil they please." For the simpletons in Congress, Jefferson concluded, "Certainly no such universal power was meant to be given them." Regardless of what Senator Jeff Merkley says.
This Week's 'Braying Jackass' Award
"We even have blacks voting against the health care bill. You can't vote against health care and call yourself a black man." --race hustler Jesse Jackson, calling out Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL), the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus who dared to stray from the Democrat Plantation by voting against PelosiCare
Faith and Family: Shut Up, She Explained
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), like every other Democrat, could use a constitutional education. Oddly enough, though, the part of the Constitution DeGette needs brushing up on is the Left's favorite part: The First Amendment. Leftists have abused it for decades to hammer their agenda into our laws and culture. But they have also intentionally ignored its guarantee of the free exercise of religion. To them, the Constitution is just a scrap of paper written by dead white men. It's old and irrelevant today except for the few phrases that can be used to promote their socialism.
Regarding the health care legislative monstrosity working its way through Congress and the input of religious groups, DeGette said that "religiously-affiliated groups ... should be shut out of the process" because of their opposition to federal funding of abortions. "Last I heard, we had separation of church and state in this country," she sulked. "I've got to say that I think the Catholic bishops and all of the other groups shouldn't have input."
As Family Research Council President Tony Perkins observed, "According to her, if a group of people who are in association with one another because of their Christian faith, they should not have a voice in the crafting of public policy. What she is asserting is that if your ideas and actions are a product of your faith, you're a second class citizen and your voice should not be heard."
New & Notable Legislation
The House passed Medicare "doc fix" by a vote of 243-183 Thursday. The bill would permanently fix the way doctors who provide care for Medicare patients are reimbursed. The projected cost of the fix is $210 billion over 10 years and it doesn't include a way to pay for it, meaning that while Barack Obama has changed his tune and is now decrying the deficit, the House is busy adding to it.
Legacy of the American Revolution
"Liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood. ... A Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever. Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives." --John Adams
As you know, The Patriot is not sustained by any political, special interest or parent organization. Nor do we accept any online or e-mail advertising. Our operations and mission are funded by -- and depend entirely upon -- the voluntary financial support of American Patriots like YOU!
At latest accounting, we still must raise $270,831 for the 2009 Annual Fund budget before year's end.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Who needs the grid?
on: November 20, 2009, 10:22:24 AM
Who Needs the Grid?
A new fuel-cell technology promises to revolutionize access to cheap, clean energy.
by Lane Wallace
IN THE BOARDROOM at Bloom Energy, a single picture hangs on the wall: a satellite image of the world at night. Clusters of bright lights mark the industrial centers, and thin white lines trace connecting passageways such as the U.S. Interstate System and the Trans-Siberian Railroad. In between, huge swaths lie in shadow.
Standing almost reverently before the image, K. R. Sridhar, the CEO of Bloom, points to the dark areas—places where electricity isn’t accessible or reliable. “This is my motivation for everything,” he says. To improve the lot of the more than 2 billion people living in those dark areas, he says, you have to get them reliable, affordable energy. And if you don’t want to doom the environment in the process, you have to make that energy very clean.
Impossible? No more so than creating enough water and oxygen to keep astronauts alive on Mars. And Sridhar’s already figured out how to do that. In fact, his research on oxygen generators for NASA laid the technical groundwork for his current venture: highly efficient solid-oxide fuel cells that run on everything from plant waste to natural gas and provide electricity while emitting relatively little carbon dioxide.
Such technology might sound far-fetched, but the basic patent behind Sridhar’s cells, which he calls “Bloom boxes,” dates to 1899. Fuel cells—which facilitate a chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen or hydrocarbon fuel without burning anything—have been used aboardNASA vehicles and Navy submarines for years. The biggest challenge in adapting them for commercial use was making the technology reliable and affordable. That’s where Sridhar’sNASA background gave him a breakthrough advantage.
“To send anything to Mars is so expensive, you have to extract the most use possible out of it. Which means you have to change your underlying assumptions about everything,” he explains. “So with [the Bloom boxes], I did the same thing. I looked at each component and, for example, set a price point that it absolutely had to make.”
Nearly eight years and a reported $250 million in venture-capital investment later, Sridhar has a working product that’s been in field trials for the past two years and is about to go on the global market, at a price he says will be competitive with existing energy options. As for results: in an ongoing trial at the University of Tennessee, a five-kilowatt Bloom box (the size of a large coffee table and capable of powering a 5,000-square-foot house) has proved twice as efficient as a traditional gas-burning system and produced 60 percent fewer emissions.
Since the boxes are “fuel agnostic,” customers can run them on existing propane, natural gas, or ethanol sources. But they’ll also run on plant waste, or almost anything else containing hydrogen and carbon. And the eventual “killer app”? Processing wind- or solar-generated electricity with water to create storable oxygen and hydrogen, then reversing the process to generate electricity at night or in low-wind or cloudy conditions.
That alone gives the technology impressive potential.
“If you have clean, affordable energy, you can get clean air and clean water whenever you want,” Sridhar says. “You can make recycling affordable. You can turn latent local resources into marketable ones.”
But the truly disruptive aspect of Bloom’s fuel cells isn’t their clean, quiet, affordable efficiency. It’s their ability to operate independent of a power grid. That’s critical for developing countries, which lack infrastructure. It could also allow Bloom to revolutionize energy-generation in industrialized nations.
“I want to open up access to energy the way that PCs and the Web opened up access to information,” Sridhar says. “So people can live where they want, and still be connected, without someone telling them when they can do their laundry.” A distributed energy system would also be far less susceptible to attack or natural disaster.
Should the utility companies be worried? Possibly. As Sridhar points out, “The companies who saw their business as selling mainframe computers are gone.” Of course, the utilities could also do as IBM did, and adapt. “The human ability to innovate out of a jam is profound,” Sridhar says with a smile. “That’s why Darwin will always be right, and Malthus will always be wrong.”
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / ACORN
on: November 20, 2009, 09:52:02 AM
Breitbart to AG Holder: Investigate ACORN or We’ll Release More Tapes Just Before 2010 Election
Earlier tonight Andrew Breitbart, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles discussed the final chapter of the ACORN L.A. saga on “Hannity,” but more interestingly, Breitbart disclosed where the story goes from here. Transcript (below) starts from 3:50 into the clip:
(Go to website to view video)
Breitbart: There’s a lot of hypocrisy and the dust has settled for ACORN and at the end of the day they’ve recognized that Eric Holder, the Attorney General, has not initiated an investigation into ACORN after we now have seven tapes. There were five initially that came out, ACORN was defunded by the Senate, was defunded by the House, lost it’s link to the Census; while all that damage occurred, Congress didn’t come in to investigate them, obviously not the Attorney General’s office, and they’ve now realized let’s get back into business because they realized that the dust settled and they were not being investigated, it was Hannah, James, and me who were being investigated, that’s why we’ve been forced to offer this latest tape.
Hannity: Are you saying, Andrew, that there are more tapes?
Breitbart: Oh my goodness there are! Not only are there more tapes, it’s not just ACORN. And this message is to Attorney General Holder: I want you to know that we have more tapes, it’s not just ACORN, and we’re going to hold out until the next election cycle, or else if you want to do a clean investigation, we will give you the rest of what we have, we will comply with you, we will give you the documentation we have from countless ACORN whistleblowers who want to come forward but are fearful of this organization and the retribution that they fear that this is a dangerous organization. So if you get into an investigation, we will give you the tapes; if you don’t give us the tapes, we will revisit these tapes come election time.
Hannity: This is a blockbuster, what you’re saying here. You guys have more tapes, you’ll release them before the election, that could have a big impact on the election, obviously…
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / POTH: Delinquencies at record highs
on: November 20, 2009, 08:52:56 AM
The economy and the stock market may be recovering from their swoon, but more homeowners than ever are having trouble making their monthly mortgage payments, according to figures released Thursday.
A couple waits to speak to a financial counselor at an event last month in Daly City, California, aimed at helping people get their mortgages restructured to avoid foreclosure.
Nearly one in 10 homeowners with mortgages was at least one payment behind in the third quarter, the Mortgage Bankers Association said in its survey. That translates into about five million households.
The delinquency figure, and a corresponding rise in the number of those losing their homes to foreclosure, was expected to be bad. Nevertheless, the figures underlined the level of stress on a large segment of the country, a situation that could snuff out the modest recovery in home prices over the last few months and impede any economic rebound.
Unless foreclosure modification efforts begin succeeding on a permanent basis — which many analysts say they think is unlikely — millions more foreclosed homes will come to market.
“I’ve been pretty bearish on this big ugly pig stuck in the python and this cements my view that home prices are going back down,” said the housing consultant Ivy Zelman.
The overall third-quarter delinquency rate is the highest since the association began keeping records in 1972. It is up from about one in 14 mortgage holders in the third quarter of 2008.
The combined percentage of those in foreclosure as well as delinquent homeowners is 14.41 percent, or about one in seven mortgage holders. Mortgages with problems are concentrated in four states: California, Florida, Arizona and Nevada. One in four people with mortgages in Florida is behind in payments.
Some of the delinquent homeowners are scrambling and will eventually catch up on their payments. But many others will slide into foreclosure. The percentage of loans in foreclosure on Sept. 30 was 4.47 percent, up from 2.97 percent last year.
In the first stage of the housing collapse, defaults and foreclosures were driven by subprime loans. These loans had low introductory rates that quickly moved to a level that was beyond the borrower’s ability to pay, even if the homeowner was still employed.
As the subprime tide recedes, high-quality prime loans with fixed rates make up the largest share of new foreclosures. A third of the new foreclosures begun in the third quarter were this type of loan, traditionally considered the safest. But without jobs, borrowers usually cannot pay their mortgages.
“Clearly the results are being driven by changes in employment,” Jay Brinkmann, the association’s chief economist, said in a conference call with reporters.
In previous recessions, homeowners who lost their jobs could sell the house and move somewhere with better prospects, or at least a cheaper cost of living. This time around, many of the unemployed are finding that the value of their property is less than they owe. They are stuck.
“There will be a lot more distressed supply entering the market, and it will move up the food chain to middle- and higher-price homes,” said Joshua Shapiro, chief United States economist for MFR Inc.
Many analysts say they believe that foreclosures, instead of peaking with the unemployment rate as they traditionally do, will most likely be a lagging indicator in this recession. The mortgage bankers expect foreclosures to peak in 2011, well after unemployment is expected to have begun falling.
There was one sliver of good news in the survey: the percentage of loans in the very first stage of default — no more than 30 days past due — was down slightly from the second quarter. If that number continues to decline, at least the ranks of the defaulted will have peaked.
“It’s arguably a positive, but it doesn’t undermine the fact that there are still five or six million foreclosures in process,” Ms. Zelman said.
The number of loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration that are at least one month past due rose to 14.4 percent in the third quarter, from 12.9 percent last year. An additional 3.3 percent of F.H.A. loans are in foreclosure.
The mortgage group’s survey noted, however, that the F.H.A. was issuing so many loans — about a million in the last year — that it had the effect of masking the percentage of problem loans at the agency. Most loans enter default when they are older than a year.
When the association removed the new loans from its calculations, the percentage of F.H.A. mortgages entering foreclosure was 30 percent higher.
The association’s survey is based on a sample of more than 44 million mortgage loans serviced by mortgage companies, commercial and savings banks, credit unions and others. About 52 million homes have mortgages. There are 124 million year-round housing units in the country, according to the Census Bureau
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / POTH: FHA
on: November 20, 2009, 08:47:22 AM
With F.H.A. Help, Easy Loans in Expensive Areas
Published: November 19, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO — In January, Mike Rowland was so broke that he had to raid his retirement savings to move here from Boston.
Policy changes in insurance, while introduced on a temporary basis, are becoming so popular that they could prove difficult to undo.
Back to Business
From left to right, Jordan Kurland, Mike Rowland and Michael Bedar, in front of the building they bought in San Francisco for nearly a million dollars, with help from the Federal Housing Administration.
A week ago, he and a couple of buddies bought a two-unit apartment building for nearly a million dollars. They had only a little cash to bring to the table but, with the federal government insuring the transaction, a large down payment was not necessary.
“It was kind of crazy we could get this big a loan,” said Mr. Rowland, 27. “If a government official came out here, I would slap him a high-five.”
In its efforts to prop up a shattered housing market, the government is greatly extending its traditional support of real estate, including guaranteeing the mortgages of middle-class and even upper-class buyers against default.
In 2007, the government did not insure a single mortgage in this city, one of the most expensive in the country. Buyers here, as well as in Manhattan, Santa Monica and every other wealthy area, were presumed to be able to handle the steep prices and correspondingly hefty down payments on their own.
Now the government is guaranteeing an average of six mortgages a week here. Real estate agents say the insurance is such a good deal that there will soon be many more.
Policy changes like the shift in insurance, while often introduced on a temporary basis, are becoming so popular that they could prove difficult to undo. With government finances already under great strain, the policy expansions are creating new risks for American taxpayers.
The Internal Revenue Service is giving tax rebates to first-time buyers, and soon to move-up buyers, in a program beset by accusations of fraud. And the government agency that issues mortgage insurance, the Federal Housing Administration, is underwriting loans at quadruple the rate of three years ago even as its reserves to cover defaults are dwindling. On Thursday, the Mortgage Bankers Association said more than one in six F.H.A. borrowers was behind on payments.
F.H.A. insurance was created for minority and low-income families who could not come up with the traditional down payment of 20 percent required by private lenders. Buyers receive loans from government-approved lenders and are required to document their income and assets. They must pay a substantial insurance premium of 1.75 percent of the loan. But in return, their down payment can be as low as 3.5 percent.
For decades, most F.H.A. loans were in low-cost states like Texas and Michigan. Under the agency’s loan limits, houses along the coasts were usually too expensive to qualify. In 2007, fewer than 4,400 F.H.A. loans were made in California, according to the research firm MDA DataQuick, and none were in San Francisco.
The Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 helped change that by temporarily doubling the maximum loan the F.H.A. insured, to $729,750. A two-unit property like the one bought by Mr. Rowland and his friends can be insured for up to $934,200.
“F.H.A. financing was a lost language in San Francisco, the real estate equivalent of Aramaic,” said Michael Ackerman, the agent who represented Mr. Rowland and his friends. “Once the limits were raised, smart buyers started calling.”
The F.H.A. has insured more than 107,000 loans so far this year in the state, according to DataQuick, about 270 of them in San Francisco.
Condominium buildings approved for F.H.A. financing — a relative handful — trumpet the news on their Web sites. The Soma Grand, a new 246-unit building downtown where one-bedrooms cost in excess of $500,000, received F.H.A. certification early in the summer. A half-dozen buyers since then used F.H.A. insurance.
At Guarantee Mortgage Corporation, which has 150 mortgage brokers in the Bay Area, Seattle and Portland, Ore., F.H.A. loans have grown to about 15 percent of its business, from less than 3 percent a few years ago.
“It sure has helped us put a lot of deals together,” said Guarantee’s chief sales officer, Bob Siefert. He predicts that a quarter of Guarantee’s deals will soon be guaranteed by the F.H.A.
Some F.H.A. borrowers here say they have the cash for a full down payment but would rather invest it in the stock market or use it for remodeling. Others, like Mr. Rowland and his friends, simply do not have the money required by private lenders — which would have been nearly $200,000, in their case.
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“We were resigned to waiting another year,” said a second partner, Michael Bedar, 31. “Then we read about the F.H.A. I had never heard of it before, and couldn’t quite believe it. But it was the answer to our problems.” They put down about $33,000, split among the three of them.
While the F.H.A. is certainly strengthening the high-end market in the Bay Area by prompting more sales, there are growing concerns that it might become a destabilizing force.
Kenneth Donohue, inspector general for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the parent agency of the F.H.A., said the higher loan limits were increasing the potential risk to the F.H.A. Last week, the agency said its cash reserves had fallen below their Congressionally mandated minimum because of the large volume of foreclosures.
“If one of these higher-limit loans fail, that’s equivalent to two or three cheaper loans,” Mr. Donohue said. “You have to ask yourself, was the F.H.A. ever intended to address these markets?”
He sees another risk: larger loans will be a greater draw for those who want to commit fraud. That would exacerbate a problem already besetting the agency.
Even some San Francisco agents who are doing F.H.A. deals worry about the long-term consequences. Real estate commissions are 6 percent. If the value of a property were to hold steady, a seller who put down the F.H.A. minimum would suffer a loss after fees. And while the Bay Area has traditionally been an excellent investment, the last few years have proved a big exception.
“Is this going to be the next wave of the housing downturn?” asked Eileen Bermingham, an agent with Pacific Union. “With such a minimal down payment, how do we make sure people don’t get in over their heads?”
The F.H.A. commissioner, David H. Stevens, said recently that its loans were relatively safe because the buyer was required to live in the property. They “are for shelter. They aren’t speculative-type investments,” Mr. Stevens said.
But the idea of a house as an investment dies hard. Mr. Bedar, Mr. Rowland and the third partner in their property, Jordan Kurland, are all in the technology field, but their dreams of wealth do not feature stock options.
“We’re banking on real estate,” said Mr. Kurland, 24. “Everyone expects prices to keep going up.”
Mr. Kurland and Mr. Bedar, who are employed full time, are the buyers of record. Mr. Rowland, a freelancer, will have his interests protected by a legal agreement.
Their building, for which they paid $963,000, is on a quiet street in the up-and-coming Hayes Valley neighborhood, close to fashionable restaurants they have already been trying out. The friends plan to live in the bottom unit and rent out the top. Thanks to rock-bottom interest rates, none of them will pay much more than a thousand dollars a month. “Everyone should have the chance to do this,” Mr. Kurland said.
Everyone may get a chance.
A few weeks ago, Congress extended the higher lending limits for another year. Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said in an interview that he planned to introduce legislation next year raising the maximum F.H.A. loan by $100,000, to $839,750.
His bill would make the new limits permanent.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Why no strong recovery
on: November 20, 2009, 07:41:28 AM
Why No One Expects a Strong Recovery
When you repeal sound economic policies you repeal their results
By JEB HENSARLING AND PAUL RYAN
One of the strongest factors promoting recovery from our 10 post-World War II recessions was an unshakable conviction that, regardless of the immediate trouble, the American economy is fundamentally strong. Based on this underlying confidence, recessions and recoveries roughly conformed to the principle of the bigger the bust, the bigger the boom, and vice versa.
Thus real growth in the four quarters following postwar recessions averaged 6.6% and 4.3% over the following five years. As the chief economist for Barclays, Dean Maki, said in this newspaper on Aug. 19, "You can't find a single deep recession that has been followed by a moderate recovery."
That may no longer hold. Since the current recession has lasted a record seven quarters—and has been marked by a near-record average GDP decline of 1.8% per quarter—we should be witnessing the start of a powerful and sustained recovery. Yet forecasts of a 2% recovery in growth are only one-fourth as strong as postwar experience suggests. Meanwhile, unemployment sits at a generational high of 10.2%.
Why all the pessimism? The source appears to be a growing fear that the federal government is retreating from the free-market economic principles of the last half-century, and in particular the strong growth policies that began under Ronald Reagan. A review of the economic policies instituted by President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress lends credibility to this concern.
Exhibit A is the economic stimulus package signed into law by President Barack Obama in February. Even among previous stimulus efforts, the 2009 stimulus stands out for its ineffective targeting and sheer size. With interest, it is $1.1 trillion, double the size of Roosevelt's New Deal spending as a percentage of GDP.
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.Virtually none of the stimulus spending was directed towards encouraging broad-based private investment, and thus failed to encourage true economic growth. An analysis by economists John F. Cogan, John B. Taylor and Volker Wieland, published on this page on Sept. 17, suggests that while the stimulus succeeded in temporarily and marginally increasing disposable personal income, it left personal consumption spending virtually unchanged.
Meanwhile, $112 billion of its $300 billion tax relief was in the form of payments to people who paid no income taxes. These payments, akin to a one-time welfare check, do not change the incentives to save and invest, and do not effectively promote broad-based economic growth.
Exhibit B is tax policy going forward. It is a near certainty that Democratic-controlled Congress will allow most of the tax cuts of 2001-2003 to expire on Dec. 31, 2010. Marginal income tax rates, capital gains rates, dividend rates and death-tax rates will increase—significantly. Hardest hit by these increases will be small businesses that file under the individual income tax code as sub-chapter S corporations, partnerships and proprietorships. Yet these are the very people whose investment and hiring decisions either drive or starve recoveries.
Exhibit C is the administration's intervention in the GM and Chrysler reorganizations. Upsetting decades of accepted bankruptcy law, the administration leveraged TARP funds to place unsecured and lower priority creditors like the United Auto Workers union in front of secured and higher priority creditors. This intervention has arguably had the effect of stifling investment as wary investors watched political considerations trump the rule of law.
As Warren Buffett said at the time, "We don't want to say to somebody who lends and gets a secured position that the secured position doesn't mean anything." Gary Parr, deputy chair of the mergers and acquisitions firm Lazard Freres & Co., stated the problem more directly. "I can't imagine the markets will function properly if you are always wondering if the government is going to step in and change the game," he was quoted in The Atlantic Online in September.
Health care, the administration's signature issue, is Exhibit D. Disregarding its impact on quality and access, its plan will surely cost well over $1 trillion over the next decade. The House-passed version includes an 8% "pay or play" payroll tax and a half-trillion dollar surtax on incomes over $500,000, much of which will strike small business. Both taxes will tend to depress investment and the creation of new jobs.
And looming down the road is the proposed cap-and-tax legislation, which will cost taxpayers $800 billion.
Beyond instilling tremendous political uncertainty into economic decision-making, these policies ensure that deficits will shatter all previous records. In the Office of Management and Budget's 2009 Mid-Session Review, the administration projects a decade of deficits averaging 3.3 times the postwar norm of 1.8%. Yet its projections assume that interest rates will be less than half the postwar norm for interest rates, and that economic growth will be almost 10% higher than the high-growth 1980s. Never in the postwar era have such high deficits, low interest rates and high growth rates occurred simultaneously.
If one substitutes the Blue Chip Economic Forecast's interest-rate forecast for that of the administration, deficits will increase by an additional $1.2 trillion over the administration's projected deficits. If the next decade's interest rates climb to match those of the 1980s, then the deficit would increase another $5.3 trillion. If higher interest rates then slow economic growth, the impact on the deficit would be much worse.
Anyone who believes the Democratic Party's recently expressed concern over the deficit should look at the relentless growth of spending on its watch. Total nondefense spending set an all-time record this year—20.2% of GDP—double federal spending as a percentage of GDP during the height of the New Deal in 1934. Even without this year's stimulus bill and last year's bailout of the financial system, nondefense discretionary spending authority still grew by 10.1% in fiscal year 2009 and is projected to rise by another 12% in fiscal year 2010. Forty-three cents of every dollar of this spending is borrowed money.
Given the magnitude of federal borrowing, there is good reason to expect higher interest rates and strong inflationary pressures in the future.
It is hardly surprising that many investors are reaching the conclusion that this administration and Congress favor policies that virtually guarantee the economy will not return to the climate of low interest rates, benign inflation and strong growth that we knew from 1982-2007. These investors understand a simple truth that current Washington policy makers fail to grasp: When you repeal the Reagan economic program, you repeal its results.
Messrs. Hensarling and Ryan are Republican representatives from Texas and Wisconsin, respectively.
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Call Today!
on: November 20, 2009, 07:36:56 AM
TODAY call your Congressman and your Senators against the Health Care bills!!!
URGENT ACTION ALERT: OBAMACARE BILL UP FOR CLOTURE VOTE IN SENATE! HELP STOP THIS BILL.
On Friday, the Senate will convene at 10:00 am and debate the merits of Sen. Reid’s 2,074 page bill until 11:00 pm on Friday evening. On Saturday, the Senate will convene at 10:00 am continuing the debate leading up to the vote at 8:00 pm on cloture on the motion to proceed. Harry Reid will try to challenge a Republican filibuster in the Senate and ramrod this bill through!
We are going to stop this Bill in the Senate and this is how: we need to keep the pressure on the Senators listed below especially Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson. These three are very vulnerable, Nelson has stated that he will not vote for the Bill if it has the public option and he wants to see the abortion issue language.
The abortion issue will be a sticking point for the Senate as we have many moderate DEMS who are Pro-Life; they will not vote the bill without some sort of language to the issue.
We need the Senate to Vote NO on Cloture. I vote YES for this will be a vote for the Bill.
We need 41 NO votes on cloture!
When you are call the Senators tell them to VOTE NO to cloture and to stop this health care bill: its a bad prescription for your family and America paid for with more debt we can't afford!
We need to lean hard on the below Senators, they are our best chance of this getting this stopped in the Senate:
Bill Nelson- FL- Phone: 202-224-5274, Fax: 202-228-2183
Blanche L. Lincoln –AR-Office: 202-224-4843; Fax: 202-228-1371, email(http://lincoln.senate.gov/contact/email.cfm
Mary Landrieu- LA Voice: (202)224-5824,Fax:(202) 224-9735
Joseph Lieberman- CT-(202) 224-4041 Voice,(202) 224-9750 Fax
Mark Begich-AK- phone. (202) 224-3004, , toll free. (877) 501 – 6275* fax. (202) 224-2354,
Mark Pryor-AR Phone: (202) 224-2353, Fax: (202) 228-0908Email(http://pryor.senate.gov/contact/
Thomas Carper-DE Phone: (202) 224-2441, Fax: (202) 228-2190Email (http://carper.senate.gov/contact/
Even Bayh-IN (202) 224-5623, (202) 228-1377 faxEmail (http://bayh.senate.gov/contact/email/
Susan Collins –( R ) ME-Phone: (202) 224-2523, Fax: (202) 224-2693
Olympia Snowe-( R ) ME – Phone: (202) 224-5344,Toll Free: (800) 432-1599
Fax: (202) 224-1946
John Tester-MT Phone: (202) 224-2644, Fax: (202) 224-8594
Kent Conrad-ND-Phone: (202) 224-2043, Fax: (202) 224-7776Email(http://conrad.senate.gov/contact/webform.cfm
Ben Nelson-NE- Tel: 1-202-224-6551, Fax: 1-202-228-0012Email (http://bennelson.senate.gov/contact-me.cfm
Ron Wyden-OR Phone: (202) 224-5244, Fax: (202) 228-2717Email (http://wyden.senate.gov/contact/
Robert Byrd-WV- Telephone: (202) 224-3954,Fax: (202) 228-0002
Mark Warner- VA- Phone: 202-224-2023, Fax: 202-224-6295Email (http://warner.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=Contact
Bob Bennett- UT-Phone: (202) 224-5444 (no fax)
Byron Dorgan- ND Phone (202) 224-2551 , Fax (202) 224-1193
Max Baucus-MT (202) 224-2651 (Office),(202) 224-9412 (Fax)Email: http://baucus.senate.gov/contact/emailForm.cfm?subj=issue
Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / WTF?!?
on: November 20, 2009, 07:35:29 AM
TARP Inspector General Neil Barofsky keeps committing flagrant acts of political transparency, which if nothing else ought to inform the debate going forward over financial reform. In his latest bombshell, the IG discloses that the New York Federal Reserve did not believe that AIG's credit-default swap (CDS) counterparties posed a systemic financial risk.
For the last year, the entire Beltway theory of the financial panic has been based on the claim that the "opaque," unregulated CDS market had forced the Fed to take over AIG and pay off its counterparties, lest the system collapse. Yet we now learn from Mr. Barofsky that saving the counterparties was not the reason for the bailout.
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.In the fall of 2008 the New York Fed drove a baby-soft bargain with AIG's credit-default-swap counterparties. The Fed's taxpayer-funded vehicle, Maiden Lane III, bought out the counterparties' mortgage-backed securities at 100 cents on the dollar, effectively canceling out the CDS contracts. This was miles above what those assets could have fetched in the market at that time, if they could have been sold at all.
The New York Fed president at the time was none other than Timothy Geithner, the current Treasury Secretary, and Mr. Geithner now tells Mr. Barofsky that in deciding to make the counterparties whole, "the financial condition of the counterparties was not a relevant factor."
This is startling. In April we noted in these columns that Goldman Sachs, a major AIG counterparty, would certainly have suffered from an AIG failure. And in his latest report, Mr. Barofsky comes to the same conclusion. But if Mr. Geithner now says the AIG bailout wasn't driven by a need to rescue CDS counterparties, then what was the point? Why pay Goldman and even foreign banks like Societe Generale billions of tax dollars to make them whole?
Both Treasury and the Fed say they think it would have been inappropriate for the government to muscle counterparties to accept haircuts, though the New York Fed tried to persuade them to accept less than par. Regulators say that having taxpayers buy out the counterparties improved AIG's liquidity position, but why was it important to keep AIG liquid if not to protect some class of creditors?
Yesterday, Mr. Geithner introduced a new explanation, which is that AIG might not have been able to pay claims to its insurance policy holders: "AIG was providing a range of insurance products to households across the country. And if AIG had defaulted, you would have seen a downgrade leading to the liquidation and failure of a set of insurance contracts that touched Americans across this country and, of course, savers around the world."
Yet, if there is one thing that all observers seemed to agree on last year, it was that AIG's money to pay policyholders was segregated and safe inside the regulated insurance subsidiaries. If the real systemic danger was the condition of these highly regulated subsidiaries—where there was no CDS trading—then the Beltway narrative implodes.
Interestingly, in Treasury's official response to the Barofsky report, Assistant Secretary Herbert Allison explains why the department acted to prevent an AIG bankruptcy. He mentions the "global scope of AIG, its importance to the American retirement system, and its presence in the commercial paper and other financial markets." He does not mention CDS.
All of this would seem to be relevant to the financial reform that Treasury wants to plow through Congress. For example, if AIG's CDS contracts were not the systemic risk, then what is the argument for restructuring the derivatives market? After Lehman's failure, CDS contracts were quickly settled according to the industry protocol. Despite fears of systemic risk, none of the large banks, either acting as a counterparty to Lehman or as a buyer of CDS on Lehman itself, turned out to have major exposure.
More broadly, lawmakers now have an opportunity to dig deeper into the nature of moral hazard and the restoration of a healthy financial system. Barney Frank and Chris Dodd are pushing to give regulators "resolution authority" for struggling firms. Under both of their bills, this would mean unlimited ability to spend unlimited taxpayer sums to prevent an unlimited universe of firms from failing.
Americans know that's not the answer, but what is the best solution to the too-big-to-fail problem? And how exactly does one measure systemic risk? To answer these questions, it's essential that we first learn the lessons of 2008. This is where reports like Mr. Barofsky's are valuable, telling us things that the government doesn't want us to know.
In remarks Tuesday that were interpreted as a veiled response to Mr. Barofsky's report, Mr. Geithner said, "It's a great strength of our country, that you're going to have the chance for a range of people to look back at every decision made in every stage in this crisis, and look at the quality of judgments made and evaluate them with the benefit of hindsight." He added, "Now, you're going to see a lot of conviction in this, a lot of strong views—a lot of it untainted by experience."
Mr. Geithner has a point about Monday-morning quarterbacking. He and others had to make difficult choices in the autumn of 2008 with incomplete information and often with little time to think, much less to reflect. But that was last year. The task now is to learn the lessons of that crisis and minimize the moral hazard so we can reduce the chances that the panic and bailout happen again.
This means a more complete explanation from Mr. Geithner of what really drove his decisions last year, how he now defines systemic risk, and why he wants unlimited power to bail out creditors—before Congress grants the executive branch unlimited resolution authority that could lead to bailouts ad infinitum.