Tuesday, April 28, 2009

DIPLOMACY - Cuba, a Sane Policy

"U.S. Plans Informal Meetings With Cuba" by GINGER THOMPSON, New York Times


Seizing the momentum from recent meetings with Latin American leaders, the Obama administration is quietly pushing forward with efforts to reopen channels of communication with Cuba, according to White House and State Department officials.

The officials said informal meetings were being planned between the State Department and Cuban diplomats in the United States to determine whether the two governments could open formal talks on a variety of issues, including migration, drug trafficking and other regional security matters.

And the administration is also looking for ways to open channels for more cultural and academic exchanges between Cuba and the United States, the officials said.

The next steps, said a senior administration official, would be meant to “test the waters,” to see whether the United States and Cuba could develop a “serious, civil, open relationship.”

After saying the United States was “ready to talk about a series of issues,” the official added, “This thing with Cuba is going to take a lot of time, and it may not work.”

Officials who discussed the plans did so on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the efforts.

I for one, have always thought that the old policy on Cuba was the wrong approach, and I was in high school during the Cuban Missile Crises. After all, we did NOT refuse to talk to the USSR during the Cold War.

Refusing to talk to America's enemies does not protect us. If nothing else, talking to enemies can give us an idea on their stance and an OPPORTUNITY to change things. Silence gets us nothing. Also, talking to an enemy does NOT = capitulation.

AMERICA - Most Dangerous Cities 2008

"America's Most Dangerous Cities" by Zack O'Malley Greenburg, Forbes


In March 2008, Kwame Kilpatrick was charged with eight felonies, including perjury and obstruction of justice. In August, he violated his bail agreement and was thrown in jail. His actions were deplorable for anybody, but Kilpatrick was no Average Joe--he was the mayor of Detroit.

Unfortunately for the Motor City, Kilpatrick, 38, is just one ripple in the area's sea of crime. Detroit is the worst offender on our list of America's most dangerous cities, thanks to a staggering rate of 1,220 violent crimes committed per 100,000 people.

"Detroit has, historically, been one of the more violent cities in the U.S.," says Megan Wolfram, an analyst at iJet Intelligent Risk Systems, a Maryland-based risk-assessment firm. "They have a number of local crime syndicates there--a number of small gangs who tend to compete over territory."

Detroit was followed closely on the list by the greater Memphis, Tenn., and Miami, Fla., metropolitan areas. Those three were the only large cities in America with more than 950 violent crimes committed per 100,000 people.

Behind the Numbers

To determine our list, we used violent crime statistics from the FBI's latest uniform crime report, issued in 2008. The violent crime category is composed of four offenses: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault. We evaluated U.S. metropolitan statistical areas--geographic entities defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget for use by federal agencies in collecting, tabulating and publishing federal statistics--with more than 500,000 residents.

Though nationwide crime was down 3.5% year over year in the first six months of 2008, the cities atop our list illustrate a disturbing trend: All 10 of the most dangerous cities were among those identified by the Department of Justice as transit points for Mexican drug cartels.

Run by crime lords like Joaquin Guzman Lorea, these gangs--and their violent turf wars--are spreading into the American Southwest and beyond. Places like Stockton, Calif., nearly 500 miles from Tijuana, have seen an uptick in related violent crime.

"Stockton is a major transit point along the I-5 corridor on the way to Seattle and Vancouver," says Wolfram. "A lot of it is similar to crime happening in the Southwest. For the most part, it's drug gang on drug gang."

Top 5 Most Dangerous Cities: 1 = Detroit, Mich, 2 = Memphis, Tenn, 3 = Miami, Fla, 4 = Las Vegas, Nev, 5 = Stockton, Calif (#5 surprised me)

In Depth: America's Most Dangerous Cities Slide Show

Monday, April 27, 2009

POLITICS - More About the Clueless GOP

"The GOP: divorced from reality" by Bill Maher, LA Times

If conservatives don't want to be seen as bitter people who cling to their guns and religion and anti-immigrant sentiments, they should stop being bitter and clinging to their guns, religion and anti-immigrant sentiments.

It's been a week now, and I still don't know what those "tea bag" protests were about. I saw signs protesting abortion, illegal immigrants, the bank bailout and that gay guy who's going to win "American Idol." But it wasn't tax day that made them crazy; it was election day. Because that's when Republicans became what they fear most: a minority.

The conservative base is absolutely apoplectic because, because ... well, nobody knows. They're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore. Even though they're not quite sure what "it" is. But they know they're fed up with "it," and that "it" has got to stop.

Here are the big issues for normal people: the war, the economy, the environment, mending fences with our enemies and allies, and the rule of law.

And here's the list of Republican obsessions since President Obama took office: that his birth certificate is supposedly fake, he uses a teleprompter too much, he bowed to a Saudi guy, Europeans like him, he gives inappropriate gifts, his wife shamelessly flaunts her upper arms, and he shook hands with Hugo Chavez and slipped him the nuclear launch codes.

Do these sound like the concerns of a healthy, vibrant political party?

It's sad what's happened to the Republicans. They used to be the party of the big tent; now they're the party of the sideshow attraction, a socially awkward group of mostly white people who speak a language only they understand. Like Trekkies, but paranoid.

The GOP base is convinced that Obama is going to raise their taxes, which he just lowered. But, you say, "Bill, that's just the fringe of the Republican Party." No, it's not. The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, is not afraid to say publicly that thinking out loud about Texas seceding from the Union is appropriate considering that ... Obama wants to raise taxes 3% on 5% of the people? I'm not sure exactly what Perry's independent nation would look like, but I'm pretty sure it would be free of taxes and Planned Parenthood. And I would have to totally rethink my position on a border fence.

I know. It's not about what Obama's done. It's what he's planning. But you can't be sick and tired of something someone might do.

Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota recently said she fears that Obama will build "reeducation" camps to indoctrinate young people. But Obama hasn't made any moves toward taking anyone's guns, and with money as tight as it is, the last thing the president wants to do is run a camp where he has to shelter and feed a bunch of fat, angry white people.

Look, I get it, "real America." After an eight-year run of controlling the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court, this latest election has you feeling like a rejected husband. You've come home to find your things out on the front lawn -- or at least more things than you usually keep out on the front lawn. You're not ready to let go, but the country you love is moving on. And now you want to call it a whore and key its car.

That's what you are, the bitter divorced guy whose country has left him -- obsessing over it, haranguing it, blubbering one minute about how much you love it and vowing the next that if you cannot have it, nobody will.

But it's been almost 100 days, and your country is not coming back to you. She's found somebody new. And it's a black guy.

The healthy thing to do is to just get past it and learn to cherish the memories. You'll always have New Orleans and Abu Ghraib.

And if today's conservatives are insulted by this, because they feel they're better than the people who have the microphone in their party, then I say to them what I would say to moderate Muslims: Denounce your radicals. To paraphrase George W. Bush, either you're with them or you're embarrassed by them.

The thing that you people out of power have to remember is that the people in power are not secretly plotting against you. They don't need to. They already beat you in public.

"GOP Know-Nothings Fought Pandemic Preparedness" by John Nichols, The Nation

When House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who has long championed investment in pandemic preparation, included roughly $900 million for that purpose in this year's emergency stimulus bill, he was ridiculed by conservative operatives and congressional Republicans.

Obey and other advocates for the spending argued, correctly, that a pandemic hitting in the midst of an economic downturn could turn a recession into something far worse -- with workers ordered to remain in their homes, workplaces shuttered to avoid the spread of disease, transportation systems grinding to a halt and demand for emergency services and public health interventions skyrocketing. Indeed, they suggested, pandemic preparation was essential to any responsible plan for renewing the U.S. economy.

But former White House political czar Karl Rove and key congressional Republicans -- led by Maine Senator Susan Collins -- aggressively attacked the notion that there was a connection between pandemic preparation and economic recovery.

Now, as the World Health Organization says a deadly swine flu outbreak that apparently began in Mexico but has spread to the United States has the potential to develop into a pandemic, Obey's attempt to secure the money seems eerily prescient.

And partisan attacks on his efforts seem not just creepy, but dangerous.

The current swine flu outbreak is not a pandemic, and there is reason to hope that it can be contained.

But it has already believed to have killed more than 100 people in a neighboring country and sickened dozens of Americans -- causing the closing of schools and other public facilities in U.S. cities.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Interim Deputy Director for Science and Public Health Program, explained to reporters on Saturday that, because the cases that have been discovered so far are so widely spread (in California, Kansas, New York, Ohio and Texas), the outbreak is already "beyond containment."

On Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that a national "public health emergency" had been declared. Notably, the second question at the White House press conference on the emergency had to do with the potential impact on the economic recovery.

On Monday, the question began to be answered, as Associated Press reported -- under the headline: "World Markets Struck By Swine Flu Fears" -- that: "World stock markets fell Monday as investors worried that a deadly outbreak of swine flu in Mexico could go global and derail any global economic recovery."

Before U.S. markets opened, the Wall Street Journal reported: "U.S. stock futures fell sharply Monday as the outbreak of deadly swine flu stoked fears that a possible recovery in the global economy could be derailed."

That's unsettling.

To a great many Americans, the latest developments are genuinely scary.

Not faked-up, politically self-serving scary, like the arguments Rove advanced in February to frame opposition to the stimulus package Obey crafted in the House.

George Bush's political manipulator dismissed Obey's proposals as "disturbing" and "laden with new spending programs." He said the congressman was peddling a plan based on "deeply flawed assumptions."

Like what?

Rove specifically complained that Obey's proposal included "$462 million for the Centers for Disease Control, and $900 million for pandemic flu preparations."

This was wrong, the political operative charged, because the health care sector added jobs in 2008.

As bizarre as that criticism may sound -- especially now -- Rove's argument was picked up by House and Senate Republicans, who made it an essential message in their attacks on the legislation. Even as Rove and his compatriots argued that a stimulus bill should include initiatives designed to shore-up and maintain any recovery, they consistently, and loudly, objected to spending money to address the potentially devastating economic impact of a major public health emergency.

The attack on pandemic preparation became so central to the GOP strategies that AP reported in February: "Republicans, meanwhile, plan to push for broader and deeper tax cuts, to trim major spending provisions that support Democrats' longer-term policy goals, and to try to knock out what they consider questionable spending items, such as $870 million to combat the flu and $400 million to slow the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases."

Famously, Maine Senator Collins, the supposedly moderate Republican who demanded cuts in health care spending in exchange for her support of a watered-down version of the stimulus, fumed about the pandemic funding: "Does it belong in this bill? Should we have $870 million in this bill No, we should not."

Even now, Collins continues to use her official website to highlight the fact that she led the fight to strip the pandemic preparedness money out of the Senate's version of the stimulus measure.

The Republicans essentially succeeded. The Senate version of the stimulus plan included no money whatsoever for pandemic preparedness. In the conference committee that reconciled the House and Senate plans, Obey and his allies succeeded in securing $50 million for improving information systems at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

But state and local governments, and the emergency services that would necessarily be on the frontlines in any effort to contain a pandemic, got nothing.

Did Rove, Collins and their compatriots want a pandemic?

Of course not.

They were just playing politics, in the exceptionally narrow and irresponsible manner that characterized the Republican response to the stimulus debate – and that, because of Democratic compromises in the Senate, dumbed down the plan President Obama ultimately signed.

No serious player in Washington has been unaware of the fears with regard to a flu pandemic. They have been well-publicized and well-discussed. Even Collins admitted as she objected to the House allocation for preparedness: "I think that everybody in the room is concerned about a pandemic flu."

And it is important to point out that no serious player in Washington could have been unaware of the threat that a pandemic -- or even the fear of one -- would pose to economic renewal. Every discussion about a pandemic begins with the public health component but moves quickly to an acknowledgment that an outbreak, and the ensuing quarantines, would bring economic activity to a virtual standstill.

So Rove, Collins and those who echoed their know-nothing appeals understood that they were wrong.

But they bet that they would be able to score their political points without any consequences.

Now that fears of a pandemic have been raised, however, it is appropriate to ask whether individuals who are so manifestly irresponsible and partisan should be taken seriously.

This is an especially important concern with regard to Collins, who portrays herself as a moderate who tries to make things work in Washington.

Senate Democratic leaders bowed to Collins in the process of crafting their chamber's version of the stimulus. In doing so, they eliminated more than 80 percent of the modest amount of money that had been allocated for pandemic preparedness -- and all of the money that would have helped emergency services.

Collins played politics with public health, and the economic recovery. That makes her about as bad a player as you will find in a town full of bad players.

But Senate Democrats bent to her demands. That makes them, at the very least, complicit in the weakening of what needed to be a muscular plan.

The bottom line is that there were no heroes in either party on the Senate side of the ugly process that ridiculed and then eliminated pandemic preparedness funding.

There is, however, a hero on the House side. Throughout the process, David Obey battled to get Congress to recognize that a pandemic would threaten not just public health but a fragile economic recovery.

ENVIRONMENT - More Evidence on the Whitewash

"Industry Ignored Its Scientists on Climate" by ANDREW C. REVKIN, New York Times

Excerpt from 2 page article

For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.

“The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,” the coalition said in a scientific “backgrounder” provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that “scientists differ” on the issue.

But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.

“The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,” the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.

The coalition was financed by fees from large corporations and trade groups representing the oil, coal and auto industries, among others. In 1997, the year an international climate agreement that came to be known as the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, its budget totaled $1.68 million, according to tax records obtained by environmental groups.

Throughout the 1990s, when the coalition conducted a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign challenging the merits of an international agreement, policy makers and pundits were fiercely debating whether humans could dangerously warm the planet. Today, with general agreement on the basics of warming, the debate has largely moved on to the question of how extensively to respond to rising temperatures.

Environmentalists have long maintained that industry knew early on that the scientific evidence supported a human influence on rising temperatures, but that the evidence was ignored for the sake of companies’ fight against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. Some environmentalists have compared the tactic to that once used by tobacco companies, which for decades insisted that the science linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer was uncertain. By questioning the science on global warming, these environmentalists say, groups like the Global Climate Coalition were able to sow enough doubt to blunt public concern about a consequential issue and delay government action.

The coalition disbanded in 2002, but some members, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute, continue to lobby against any law or treaty that would sharply curb emissions. Others, like Exxon Mobil, now recognize a human contribution to global warming and have largely dropped financial support to groups challenging the science.

Just remember readers, short term company profits are more important than the Earth. At least in "their" books. At least SOME companies have recognized the evidence.

HEALTH CARE - The Conundrum

"Shortage of Doctors an Obstacle to Obama Goals" by ROBERT PEAR, New York Times


Obama administration officials, alarmed at doctor shortages, are looking for ways to increase the supply of physicians to meet the needs of an aging population and millions of uninsured people who would gain coverage under legislation championed by the president.

The officials said they were particularly concerned about shortages of primary care providers who are the main source of health care for most Americans.

One proposal — to increase Medicare payments to general practitioners, at the expense of high-paid specialists — has touched off a lobbying fight.

Family doctors and internists are pressing Congress for an increase in their Medicare payments. But medical specialists are lobbying against any change that would cut their reimbursements. Congress, the specialists say, should find additional money to pay for primary care and should not redistribute dollars among doctors — a difficult argument at a time of huge budget deficits.

Some of the proposed solutions, while advancing one of President Obama’s goals, could frustrate others. Increasing the supply of doctors, for example, would increase access to care but could make it more difficult to rein in costs.

The need for more doctors comes up at almost every Congressional hearing and White House forum on health care. “We’re not producing enough primary care physicians,” Mr. Obama said at one forum. “The costs of medical education are so high that people feel that they’ve got to specialize.” New doctors typically owe more than $140,000 in loans when they graduate.

The question for voters, including me, is GOOD Health Care worth it? My personal answer is YES, whatever the cost.

Friday, April 24, 2009

ON THE LITE SIDE - Maybe, Humor Times

Joke of the Week

Earl and Bob, both obsessed with baseball, never missed their favorite team’s game. They promised each other that whoever died first and went to heaven would come back to earth and tell the other if there was baseball in heaven.

One day, Earl died. Bob waited for him to come back. Finally Earl did.

He said to Bob, “I have good news and bad news. I'll tell you the good news first. There is baseball in heaven.”

Bob said, “That’s the best news!”

Then Earl said, “Time for the bad news... you're pitching tomorrow night.”

Faux News

"God Now Twittering" by Holy Joe, Humor Times spiritual correspondent

HEAVEN - The Christian God began "Twittering" yesterday, a way of blogging very short posts, using an internet connection or a mobile phone. And in His very first Tweet, the Lord sayeth, "If the Dalai Lama can do it, I can do it," adding, "Being the Almighty, I can go over 140 characters anytime I damn well please, I hope you know, pe..." before his post was cut off.

Religious scholars debated the ramifications of the Supreme Being's new line of communication to mankind, some postulating that it could have negative consequences for the economy and for religion, as it would put prophets out of work, and possibly even diminish people's need for churches.

"We will see preachers taking up the practice of twittering, just to stay relevant," said Norman Holimeister, professor emeritus at Harvard Divinity School. "After all, if they claim a special connection with God, they can't very well let laymen get the edge on them."

According to Holimeister, part of God's motivation to twitter may even be competitive. To support this view, he noted that five minutes after the Dalai Lama twittered, "Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions," God tweeted, "I made humans inherently happy, if you can't keep it, that's just plain karma, OK, people? ROCL!" (Twitter experts said this was probably a variation on the popular acronym ROFL, translating as "Rolling on clouds laughing!")

In another post, the all-seeing deity, apparently still watching the NCAA basketball tournament, said, "Gawd, I sure gave these kids some hops, didn't I? It's downright nasty!" As a result of His basketball posts, a barrage of tweets have recently been posted that read like prayers (now being called "Twayers"), such as this one from hoopsman342: "Oh, God, please bless me with another 3" of lift, and I'll be dunking hard with some freaky hang time!"

According to twitterholic.com, God shot up to #1 worldwide within six hours of his first post. "He may be a Twewbie [a newbie on Twitter], but this is not altogether surprising," said Jeremiah Yang, Senior Analyst on Social Computing for Forrester Research in Silicon Valley, California. "After all, He has always been a very popular figure. People just want to know what's on His mind."

POLITICS - You Got It Meghan!

"Meghan McCain to Cheney: ‘You had your 8 years. Go away.’" by David Edwards, Raw Story

Meghan McCain expressed dissatisfaction with some former Bush officials who have criticized Obama during his first 100 days. “It’s hard for me — it’s very unprecedented for someone like Karl Rove or Dick Cheney to be criticizing the president. I just — my criticism is just, you know, you had your eight years, go away,” McCain told hosts of ABC’s The View.

Speaking to Washington Post’s Mary Ann Akers, MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer said viewers were questioning McCain Republican credentials. “A lot of people who are contacting me on this issue of Meghan McCain do not buy the fact that she’s a conservative,” remark Brewer.

“That’s the main criticism. But, of course, that’s all coming from the people she’s mainly attacking. I mean, she is saying that the Republican Party needs to clean house — that people like Karl Rove and Ann Coulter are old has-beens,” explained Akers.

She's totally correct. They HAD their 8 years to totally screwup our nation.

POLITICS - The 100 Day Report Card

"AP Poll: After Obama's 100 Days, US on Right Track" (AP), New York Times

Millions of people jobless. Billions of dollars in bailouts. Trillions of dollars in U.S. debt. And yet, for the first time in years, more Americans than not say the country is on the right track.

In a sign that Barack Obama has inspired hopes for a brighter future in the first 100 days of his presidency, an Associated Press-GfK poll shows that 48 percent of Americans believe the United States is headed in the right direction -- compared with 44 percent who disagree.

The ''right direction'' number is up 8 points since February and a remarkable 31 points since October, the month before Obama's election.

Intensely worried about their personal finances and medical expenses, Americans nonetheless appear realistic about the time Obama might need to turn things around, according to the AP-GfK poll. It shows, as Obama approaches his 100th day in office next Wednesday, most people consider their new president to be a strong, ethical and empathetic leader who is working to change Washington.

''He presents a very positive outlook,'' said Cheryl Wetherington, 35, an independent voter who runs a chocolate shop in Gardner, Kan. ''He's very well-spoken and very vocal about what direction should be taken.''

Nobody knows how long the honeymoon will last, but Obama has clearly transformed the yes-we-can spirit of his candidacy into a tool of governance. His ability to inspire confidence -- Obama's second book is titled ''The Audacity of Hope'' -- has thus far buffered the president against the harsh realities of two wars, a global economic meltdown and countless domestic challenges.

Even if they don't always like what he's doing, Americans seem content for now that the president is taking action to correct the nation's course. He's doing something, anything, and that's better than nothing.

''Some steps have been taken, and I can't say that they're the right ones, but steps have been taken,'' said Dwight Hageman, 66, a retired welder from Newberg, Ore., who voted against Obama.

Other AP-GfK findings could signal trouble for Obama:

--While there is evidence that people feel more optimistic about the economy, 65 percent said it's difficult for them and their families to get ahead. More than one-third know of a family member who recently lost a job.

--More than 90 percent of Americans consider the economy an important issue, the highest ever in AP polling.

--Nearly 80 percent believe that the rising federal debt will hurt future generations, and Obama is getting mixed reviews at best for his handling of the issue.

And yet, this is the first time since January 2004 than an AP survey found more ''right direction'' than ''wrong direction'' respondents. That fleeting 2004 burst of optimism came shortly after the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

In recent years, the U.S. public has tended to be more pessimistic than optimistic about the nation's future. The exceptions lasted just a few months: the start of the Iraq war, the Sept. 11 attacks and late in the Clinton administration.

Obama is not the first president who has sought to shape the nation's psychology, tapping the deep well of American optimism to effect policy and politics.

Even as he briefly closed the nation's banks, Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke in the first days of his presidency of the ''confidence and courage'' needed to fix the U.S. economy. ''Together we cannot fail,'' he declared. Ronald Reagan reminded people that America has always seen itself as a ''shining city upon a hill.''

Obama started his presidency on a somber note, describing the U.S. economy in nearly apocalyptic terms as he pushed his $787 billion stimulus plan through Congress.

He turned the page in late February, telling a joint session of Congress and a television audience of millions: ''We will rebuild. We will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.''

For some people, including a minority of Republicans, the message has struck a chord. Others say their newfound optimism has nothing to do with Obama, but rather with an era of personal responsibility they believe has come with the economic meltdown.

''I think people are beginning to turn in that direction and realize that there's not always going to be somebody to catch them when things fall down,'' Hageman said.

The AP-GfK poll suggests that 64 percent of the public approves of Obama's job performance, down slightly from 67 percent in February. President George W. Bush's approval ratings hovered in the high 50s after his first 100 days in office.

Most Americans say Obama is changing things at about the right speed. But nearly a third say he's trying to change too many things too quickly.

Seven in 10 Americans say it is reasonable to expect it to take longer than a year to see the results of Obama's economic policies.

Just as many people say Obama understands the concerns of ordinary Americans. That's a sharp contrast to Bush, who won re-election in 2004 despite the fact that 54 percent of voters on that Election Day said he cared more about large corporations.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted April 16-20 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media. It involved telephone interviews on landline and cell phones with 1,000 adults nationwide. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

POLITICS - What Me Lie?

"U.S. officials slam Dick Cheney's claim that waterboarding 9/11 mastermind 183 times was a 'success'" by James Gordon Meek, New York Daily News

U.S. counterterrorism officials are reacting angrily to ex-Vice President Dick Cheney's claim that waterboarding 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times was a "success" that produced actionable intelligence.

"Cheney is full of crap," one intelligence source with decades of experience said Tuesday.

Another retired counterterrorism official who read reports when they arrived in Washington detailing the confessions of Mohammed, known as "KSM," said most of the information he coughed up during the waterboarding sessions involved things he thought his CIA-contract interrogators already knew, or were just his ideas for mayhem.

"Most of the (cables) were reports of actions that KSM was only remotely thinking of undertaking - they didn't even reach the planning stage," the retired counterterrorism official said. "So it's a bit of a stretch for Bush administration officials to say these were attacks they had disrupted."

On Monday, Cheney complained that President Obama had declassified Justice Department torture memos - but not all of them.

"They didn't put out the memos that showed the success of the effort. And there are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity. They have not been declassified," Cheney told Fox News' Sean Hannity.

A third senior former counterterrorism official who worked at the CIA and read the reports of KSM's grilling said there was "a lot of speculation" at Langley about possible plots, based on what the Al Qaeda "military commander" said during the waterboarding sessions.

"Just after he was caught, I remember the warning that came out about flights to and from the Pacific rim," the former operative recalled.

One remarkable fact is that at a hearing on Feb. 7, 2008, ex-CIA Director Michael Hayden said waterboarding was stopped by CIA officials in the early spring of 2003. A senator asked when the technique was shelved and Hayden replied, "Just a few weeks short of five years (ago)."

How can this be possible? KSM was captured Mar. 1, 2003. Does it mean KSM was waterboarded 183 times that March before it was stopped? A CIA spokesman declined comment or explanation.

"It was an intense period," recalled one of the former officials.

In March 2007, KSM confessed at an open hearing in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to hatching 30 plots including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Former CIA official John Brennan, who now serves as Obama's White House counterterrorism adviser, told the Daily News then that Mohammed was "quite creative, and threw out a lot of seeds to see if they would actually germinate."

"They didn't have the people or capability to do all of those," Brennan said of the 30 plots KSM claimed to have conceived of.

GOSH! GEE! You mean a prisoner under torture would ACTUALLY tell interrogators what they would like to hear, just to stop the pain? Does that mean the any information gleaned from torture just MAY NOT be reliable?

POLITICS - GOP, Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

"GOP heads on sticks" by Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle

Republican politicians are afraid of their base. Very afraid. Press folks have categorized the April 15 TEA parties - TEA for "Taxed Enough Already" - as anti-President Obama, anti-government and even "anti-CNN." But it is GOP leaders who are scared senseless (for want of a better word) by the protests.

Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin posted reports of Republicans who got booed at TEA parties - including a video of GOP Rep. Gresham Barrett of South Carolina addressing protesters. Barrett told them, "I respect you," and that he had introduced friendly legislation. Folks didn't care. Many in the crowd booed or told Barrett, "Go home."

Anti-taxers are going after Republicans, not Democrats. Los Angeles radio talk-show hosts John and Ken have gone after the handful of Republicans who voted for a state budget that included tax increases. For their troubles, some of those Repubs got their head-on-a-stick posted on the "John and Ken Show" Web site.

GOP officials are so afraid of becoming talk-show pariahs that the California Republican Party executive committee voted to oppose all six ballot measures, Propositions 1A to 1F, on the May 19 special-election ballot. That's an amazing decision, considering that the cash-poor California GOP had given $650,000 to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political action committee, which is supporting all six measures. Not only that: Republicans came up with Props. 1D, 1E and 1F.

Mike Spence, head of the state GOP initiatives committee, told the Sacramento Bee that the party decided to oppose all six measures to avoid diluting the "no" message. Hmmm. That sure seems to suggest that party solons think their voters are too stupid to vote no on some but yes on others.

Or could it be that the GOP opposes all six measures because John and Ken oppose all six measures?

California Republican Party spokesman Hector Barajas noted that some talk-show hosts and bloggers have "used legislators as hostages."

Hostages? That says GOP pols are afraid of the base. "Wouldn't you be afraid?" another operative - who did not want to be named - told me. She added that despite the vocal protesters, many GOP voters have a different goal; they want government to work better.

But a top staffer to a conservative GOP U.S. senator told me he believes that "Republicans need to be afraid." When the GOP was in charge, he added, "We didn't do what we said we'd do" - and now politicians must pay the price.

GOP state Sen. Abel Maldonado - a John and Ken "head on a stick" victim - put it another way. He noted that GOP lawmakers were good at saying, "no taxes, no taxes, no taxes," when they should have been saying, "no taxes, no borrowing, no spending."

A minority of no-tax Republicans and majority of big-spending Democrats appeased their bases by jointly overspending without raising taxes. Anti-tax types didn't really get vocal until Sacramento could not borrow any more.

I've received many e-mail from TEA party supporters who tell me they are angry about the spend-fest in Washington. Who isn't? But you have to go after the big spending first.

In a way, this is like Iraq. Once American boots hit the ground, there was no easy exit.

And once the Bush and Obama administrations, with the help of Congress, threw well more than $1 trillion at the economy, someone would have to pick up the tab.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

REAL WORLD - Worthwhile Reality via "The Wire"

"Making Institutions Work" Bill Moyers Journal Transcript

Selected excerpts

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.

"When television history is written," one critic says, "Little else will rival 'The Wire.'"And when historians come to tell the story of America in our time, I'll wager they will not be able to ignore this remarkable and compelling portrayal of life in our cities.

BILL MOYERS: For five seasons on HBO, this critically acclaimed series held up a mirror to the other America — the America we couldn't see anywhere else on television. It reveals a lot about what's happened to us in recent years, and it comes from a surprising source — a newspaper beat reporter turned television writer and producer.

David Simon and his creative team, including Ed Burns, a cop turned teacher, used the City of Baltimore and the drug wars there as a metaphor for America's urban underbelly.

Through storytelling brutally honest and dramatic, Simon and crew created a tale of corruption, despair and betrayal as devastating as any Greek tragedy.

David Simon comes by his knowledge of gritty urban reality from twelve years as a crime reporter with THE BALTIMORE SUN.

From his reporting on the streets came the book and NBC television series HOMICIDE, and on HBO, THE CORNER. At the moment he's producing the pilot for a series about musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans, called TREME.

Remember, you heard it here — what Edward Gibbon was to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, or Charles Dickens to the smoky mean streets of Victorian London, David Simon is to America today.

He's with me now. Welcome to the Journal.

DAVID SIMON: Thank you very much for having me.

BILL MOYERS: There is a fellow in city government, here in New York, who's a policy wonk and a die-hard WIRE fan. And he's hoping I will ask you the one question on his mind, and the mind of many other fans. Here it is. "David Simon has painted the most vivid and compelling portrait of the modern American city. Has he walked away from that story? And if he has, will he come back to it?"

DAVID SIMON: I've walked away from the WIRE universe. It's had its five years. Stories that have a beginning, middle, and end-- sort of stand-as stories-- if you keep stuff open ended, and if you keep trying to stretch character and plot, they eventually break or they bend.

BILL MOYERS: What is it about the crime scene that gives you a keyhole, the best keyhole perhaps, into how American society really works?

DAVID SIMON: Right. You see the equivocations. You see the stuff that doesn't make it into the civics books. And also you see how interconnected things are. How connected the performance of the school system is to the culture of a corner. Or where parenting comes in. And where the lack of meaningful work in all these things, you know, the decline of industry suddenly interacts with the paucity and sort of fraud of public education in the inner city. Because THE WIRE is not a story about the America, it's about the America that got left behind.

BILL MOYERS: I was struck by something, I forget where I read it, that you said. You were wrestling with this one big existential question. And you talked about drug addicts who would come out of detox and then try to steel jaw themselves through their neighborhood. And then they'd come face to face with the question, which is?

DAVID SIMON: "What am I doing here? What am I doing here?" You know, all the same problems that a guy coming out of addiction at 30, 35, because it often takes to that age, he often got into addiction with a string of problems, some of which were interpersonal and personal, and some of which were systemic. The fact that these really are the excess people in America, we-- our economy doesn't need them. We don't need ten or 15 percent of our population. And certainly the ones that are undereducated, that have been ill served by the inner city school system, that have been unprepared for the technocracy of the modern economy. We pretend to need them. We pretend to educate the kids. We pretend that we're actually including them in the American ideal, but we're not. And they're not foolish. They get it.

BILL MOYERS: In this clip from your fourth season, that's what one of the main characters tries to explain to the school superintendent, that what they call the "corner kids" are outside the education system altogether. Take a look.

[from video clip]

HOWARD "BUNNY" COLVIN: You put a textbook in front of these kids, put a problem on a blackboard, or teach them every problem on a statewide test and it won't matter, none of it. 'Cause they're not learning for our world, they're learning for theirs. And they know exactly what it is they're training for, and what it is everyone expects them to be.

SUPERINTENDENT: I expect them to be students.

HOWARD "BUNNY" COLVIN: But it's not about you or us, or the tests or the system, it's what they expect of themselves. I mean, every single one of them know they headed back to the corners. Their brothers and sisters, [deleted], the parents, they came through these same classrooms, didn't they? We pretended to teach them, they pretended to learn, where'd they end up? Same damn corners. They're not fools, these kids. They don't know our world, but they know their own. I mean, Jesus, they see right through us.

DAVID SIMON: They understand that the only viable economic base in their neighborhoods is this multi-billion drug trade.

BILL MOYERS: I've done several documentaries over the last 40 years. The first one I did was about the South Bronx, called "The Fire Next Door." And what I learned very early is that the drug trade is an inverted form of capitalism.

DAVID SIMON: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: To pacify these people who don't have any economic-

DAVID SIMON: Absolutely. In some ways it's the most destructive form of welfare that we've established, which is the illegal drug trade in these neighborhoods. It's basically like opening up a Beth Steel in the middle of the South Bronx or in West Baltimore and saying, "And you guys are all steel workers." To just say no? That's our answer to that? You know, the economic model does not work. And by the way, if it was chewing up white folk, it wouldn't have gone on for as long as it did.

BILL MOYERS: Yes, one of my favorite scenes, in Season Four, we get to see the struggling public school system in Baltimore, through the eyes of a former cop who's become a schoolteacher. In this telling scene, he realizes that state testing in the schools is little more than a trick he learned on the police force. It's called "juking the stats." Take a look.

[from video clip]

ASSISTANT PRINCIPAL: So for the time being, all teachers will devote class time to teaching language arts sample questions. Now if you turn to page eleven, please, I have some things I want to go over with you.

ROLAND "PREZ" PRYZBYLEWSKI: I don't get it, all this so we score higher on the state tests? If we're teaching the kids the test questions, what is it assessing in them?

TEACHER: Nothing, it assesses us. The test scores go up, they can say the schools are improving. The scores stay down, they can't.

PREZ: Juking the stats.

TEACHER: Excuse me?

PREZ: Making robberies into larcenies, making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and major become colonels. I've been here before.

TEACHER: Wherever you go, there you are.

DAVID SIMON: You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America, school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, arrest stats, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on. And as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is. And this comes down to Wall Street. I mean, our entire economic structure fell behind the idea that these mortgage-based securities were actually valuable. And they had absolutely no value. They were toxic. And yet, they were being traded and being hurled about, because somebody could make some short-term profit. In the same way that a police commissioner or a deputy commissioner can get promoted, and a major can become a colonel, and an assistant school superintendent can become a school superintendent, if they make it look like the kids are learning, and that they're solving crime. And that was a front row seat for me as a reporter. Getting to figure out how the crime stats actually didn't represent anything, once they got done with them.

This is just a taste. There is much, much more in the full 2 Part transcript. But there is the ring-of-truth in what the article says.

Monday, April 20, 2009

POLITICS - Taxes, New Poll 4/6/2009

"Views of Income Taxes Among Most Positive Since 1956" by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup


A new Gallup Poll finds 48% of Americans saying the amount of federal income taxes they pay is "about right," with 46% saying "too high" -- one of the most positive assessments Gallup has measured since 1956. Typically, a majority of Americans say their taxes are too high, and relatively few say their taxes are too low.

These results are based on the Gallup Economy and Personal Finance poll, conducted each April, including April 6-9 of this year.

Since 1956, there has been only one other time when a higher percentage of Americans said their taxes were about right -- in 2003, when 50% did so after two rounds of tax cuts under the Bush administration.

The slightly more positive view this year may reflect a public response to President Barack Obama's economic stimulus and budget plans. He has promised not to raise taxes on Americans making less than $250,000, while cutting taxes for lower- and middle-income Americans. The latter has already begun, as the government has reduced the withholding amount for federal income taxes from middle- and lower-income American workers' paychecks.

In this year's poll, slim majorities of both lower- and middle-income Americans say they pay about the right amount of taxes, while upper-income Americans tend to think they pay too much. The views of upper-income Americans have not changed in the past year, while both middle- and lower-income Americans are more likely to say they pay the right amount of tax.

As is usually the case, there are partisan differences in views of taxes -- most Democrats think the taxes they pay are about right, while most Republicans say their taxes are too high. Independents are about evenly divided. Compared with last year, each group is slightly more likely to say its taxes are about right.

Six in 10 Continue to Say Taxes are Fair:

The poll also finds 61% of Americans saying they regard the income taxes they have to pay this year as fair. There has been very little change on this measure in the last six years.

Generally speaking, Americans seem to take a more positive view of their taxes when the country is at war. From 1997 through 2001, the percentage saying their taxes were fair ranged from 45% to 51%. In early 2002, after the United States had begun military operations in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 58% said their taxes were fair. After the Iraq war began in 2003, the percentage increased to 64%, and it has been above 60% ever since.

Going back even further, Gallup asked the same question in the 1940s. While the country was still fighting World War II, 85% or more of Americans said the taxes they paid were fair. The first postwar measurement, in 1946, saw this percentage tumble to 62%.


As the remaining U.S. tax filers prepare to send their income-tax returns before the April 15 deadline, Gallup finds Americans' views of their federal income taxes about as positive as at any point in the last 60 years. This may reflect the income-tax cut that was part of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan, as well as a continuing sense of patriotism with the country fighting two wars.

Obama has promised not to raise taxes on all but the wealthiest Americans. There are concerns that his proposed budget relies too much on borrowed money, and the president may be forced to raise taxes on a greater percentage of Americans, or to scale back his plans to reform the healthcare system and invest in education and alternative energy.

There are more graphs and tables in the full article.

POLITICS - More GOP Non-Agenda

"Tea Parties Forever" by PAUL KRUGMAN, New York Times

Today’s G.O.P. is, after all, very much a minority party. It retains some limited ability to obstruct the Democrats, but has no ability to make or even significantly shape policy.

Beyond that, Republicans have become embarrassing to watch. And it doesn’t feel right to make fun of crazy people. Better, perhaps, to focus on the real policy debates, which are all among Democrats.

But here’s the thing: the G.O.P. looked as crazy 10 or 15 years ago as it does now. That didn’t stop Republicans from taking control of both Congress and the White House. And they could return to power if the Democrats stumble. So it behooves us to look closely at the state of what is, after all, one of our nation’s two great political parties.

One way to get a good sense of the current state of the G.O.P., and also to see how little has really changed, is to look at the “tea parties” that have been held in a number of places already, and will be held across the country on Wednesday. These parties — antitaxation demonstrations that are supposed to evoke the memory of the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution — have been the subject of considerable mockery, and rightly so.

But everything that critics mock about these parties has long been standard practice within the Republican Party.

Thus, President Obama is being called a “socialist” who seeks to destroy capitalism. Why? Because he wants to raise the tax rate on the highest-income Americans back to, um, about 10 percentage points less than it was for most of the Reagan administration. Bizarre.

But the charge of socialism is being thrown around only because “liberal” doesn’t seem to carry the punch it used to. And if you go back just a few years, you find top Republican figures making equally bizarre claims about what liberals were up to. Remember when Karl Rove declared that liberals wanted to offer “therapy and understanding” to the 9/11 terrorists?

Then there are the claims made at some recent tea-party events that Mr. Obama wasn’t born in America, which follow on earlier claims that he is a secret Muslim. Crazy stuff — but nowhere near as crazy as the claims, during the last Democratic administration, that the Clintons were murderers, claims that were supported by a campaign of innuendo on the part of big-league conservative media outlets and figures, especially Rush Limbaugh.

Speaking of Mr. Limbaugh: the most impressive thing about his role right now is the fealty he is able to demand from the rest of the right. The abject apologies he has extracted from Republican politicians who briefly dared to criticize him have been right out of Stalinist show trials. But while it’s new to have a talk-radio host in that role, ferocious party discipline has been the norm since the 1990s, when Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, became known as “The Hammer” in part because of the way he took political retribution on opponents.

Going back to those tea parties, Mr. DeLay, a fierce opponent of the theory of evolution — he famously suggested that the teaching of evolution led to the Columbine school massacre — also foreshadowed the denunciations of evolution that have emerged at some of the parties.

Last but not least: it turns out that the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey, the former House majority leader, and supported by the usual group of right-wing billionaires. And the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by Fox News.

But that’s nothing new, and AstroTurf has worked well for Republicans in the past. The most notable example was the “spontaneous” riot back in 2000 — actually orchestrated by G.O.P. strategists — that shut down the presidential vote recount in Florida’s Miami-Dade County.

So what’s the implication of the fact that Republicans are refusing to grow up, the fact that they are still behaving the same way they did when history seemed to be on their side? I’d say that it’s good for Democrats, at least in the short run — but it’s bad for the country.

For now, the Obama administration gains a substantial advantage from the fact that it has no credible opposition, especially on economic policy, where the Republicans seem particularly clueless.

But as I said, the G.O.P. remains one of America’s great parties, and events could still put that party back in power. We can only hope that Republicans have moved on by the time that happens.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

POLITICS - How to REALLY Protect America

"An Extremist’s Nightmare" by Joe Conason, Politicker NY

In America’s struggle against the extremists and terrorists epitomized by Al Qaeda, the strategic imperatives are to divide the enemy and neutralize their base. Fortunately for the United States and its allies, the new American president understands how to do that—and is uniquely suited to accomplish the mission.

If in the aftermath of 9/11 Western intelligence agencies had tried to conceive of a leader whose background would enable him to engage the world’s Muslims, they might have imagined someone like Barack Hussein Obama. Most analysts would naturally assume that such a person could never become president of the United States, but if they allowed themselves to imagine an ideal spokesman for American values, he might well have looked very much like the man elected last November.

Touring the ancient Ottoman capital of Istanbul, Mr. Obama stood as a living refutation of extremist propaganda before he spoke a single word. Son and grandson of African Muslims, he symbolizes what is often called “American exceptionalism”—the durable belief that the United States is the world’s hope to escape the old and bloody divisions that have been so ruinous for humanity over the centuries.

He rose through an open and democratic process, despite the legacy of racism and the vicious smears that denigrated his Christian faith while depicting him as a secret adherent of radical Islam. His middle name, uttered with a sneer by bigots during the campaign, is now an important asset (especially among the Shia in Iran, Iraq and elsewhere). He personally embodies the message that America bears no ill intentions toward Muslims or their nations.

The previous administration’s inability to broadcast that message effectively was among its most salient and least noted failures. While American policy in the Mideast has often angered Muslims—not without reason in places from Israel to Iran—the United States has other and more inspiring stories to tell as well. American soldiers were dispatched to protect the people of Kosovo from their Serbian oppressors, who portrayed the conflict there as a centuries-old clash between Christianity and Islam.

Meanwhile, millions of Muslim-Americans live peacefully here, under the protection of a Constitution that guarantees their religious freedom. And when those rights have been violated, fellow Americans of every persuasion have come to their defense.

No doubt Mr. Obama meant to emphasize those aspects of American life in his Istanbul speech, addressing Turkish students and young people across the developing world, who long to believe again that the United States stands for equality, fairness and decency. That belief was impossible to sustain during a decade of war, destruction and torture. Now the burden is on the president to revive latent admiration for our country and our values.

Mr. Obama’s diplomatic efforts resonate with special strength in Europe as well as across the Mideast, Africa and Asia precisely because he does not claim that his own beloved nation is without fault or flaw. He doesn’t pretend that American exceptionalism means American perfection. When he rebukes anti-American prejudice abroad, as he did at a town hall meeting in the French city of Strasbourg, his credibility is enhanced by honest acknowledgment of our mistakes.

While he returns home to remarkably strong and consistent support from most Americans, right-wing commentators relentlessly attempt to portray him as unworthy of trust and deficient in patriotism. They dishonestly truncate his speeches abroad, slicing out his defense of the United States and his rejection of anti-American propaganda, while headlining his candor about our flaws. They accuse him of apologizing for the war on terrorism, of “submission” to America’s adversaries and of “blaming America first” in seeking personal popularity abroad. They stand for policies that have brought us to the lowest stature in our history and they have nothing to offer, no policy or plan, except lies and deceptions.

The remarkable popularity of Mr. Obama across the world is not an artifact of anti-American sentiment, but its opposite—namely, the hope that America will again stand for liberal traditions of generosity and cooperation. Now he has made a beginning.

My view?

All Americans need to understand the the real enemy are religious extremest. We have to understand that you can never defeat them in the age-old military manner. Think about it, do you think you can beat-down anyone driven by religious fervor? Think the Christian and Jewish experience.

The best we CAN do is to ally with all non-extremest, and in this case Islamic nations. We have to show Muslims who do listen that we are not at war with Islam. That we do RESPECT the basic tenants of Islam, even though we are not "true believers." It is in this way that we can marginalize the Muslim Extremists, take away any meaningful support from the followers of the true tenants of Islam, and provide America the best real-world protection possible.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

ECONOMY - America's Big Banks Far Larger Fraudulent Ponzi Scheme

"Moyers Journal: Madoff Was A Piker -- America's Big Banks Are a Far Larger Fraudulent Ponzi Scheme" by Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers Journal 4/6/2009

Transcript multi-excerpts pg2

Black: IndyMac specialized in making liars' loans. In 2006 alone, it sold $80 billion dollars of liars' loans to other companies. $80 billion.

Moyers: And was this happening exclusively in this sub-prime mortgage business?

Black: No, and that's a big part of the story as well. Even prime loans began to have non-verification. Even Ronald Reagan, you know, said, "Trust, but verify." They just gutted the verification process. We know that will produce enormous fraud, under economic theory, criminology theory, and two thousand years of life experience.

Moyers: Is it possible that these complex instruments were deliberately created so swindlers could exploit them?

Black: Oh, absolutely. This stuff, the exotic stuff that you're talking about was created out of things like liars' loans, that were known to be extraordinarily bad. And now it was getting triple-A ratings. Now a triple-A rating is supposed to mean there is zero credit risk. So you take something that not only has significant, it has crushing risk. That's why it's toxic. And you create this fiction that it has zero risk. That itself, of course, is a fraudulent exercise. And again, there was nobody looking, during the Bush years. So finally, only a year ago, we started to have a Congressional investigation of some of these rating agencies, and it's scandalous what came out. What we know now is that the rating agencies never looked at a single loan file. When they finally did look, after the markets had completely collapsed, they found, and I'm quoting Fitch, the smallest of the rating agencies, "the results were disconcerting, in that there was the appearance of fraud in nearly every file we examined."

Moyers: But you're saying our system became a Ponzi scheme.

Black: Became a Ponzi scheme. Everybody was buying a pig in the poke. But they were buying a pig in the poke with a pretty pink ribbon, and the pink ribbon said, "Triple-A."

Black: The FBI publicly warned, in September 2004 that there was an epidemic of mortgage fraud, that if it was allowed to continue it would produce a crisis at least as large as the Savings and Loan debacle. And that they were going to make sure that they didn't let that happen. So what goes wrong? After 9/11, the attacks, the Justice Department transfers 500 white-collar specialists in the FBI to national terrorism. Well, we can all understand that. But then, the Bush administration refused to replace the missing 500 agents. So even today, again, as you say, this crisis is 1000 times worse, perhaps, certainly 100 times worse, than the Savings and Loan crisis. There are one-fifth as many FBI agents as worked the Savings and Loan crisis.

Hay! Trust us! 'We are not crooks.'

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

ECONOMY - Madoff Was A Piker

"Moyers Journal: Madoff Was A Piker -- America's Big Banks Are a Far Larger Fraudulent Ponzi Scheme" by Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers Journal 4/6/2009

Transcript lead-in

Bill Moyers: For months now, revelations of the wholesale greed and blatant transgressions of Wall Street have reminded us that "The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One." In fact, the man you're about to meet wrote a book with just that title. It was based upon his experience as a tough regulator during one of the darkest chapters in our financial history: the savings and loan scandal in the late 1980s.

Bill Black was in New York for a conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice where scholars and journalists gathered to ask the question, "How do they get away with it?" Well, no one has asked that question more often than Bill Black. The former Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention now teaches Economics and Law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. During the savings and loan crisis, it was Black who accused then-house speaker Jim Wright and five US Senators, including John Glenn and John McCain, of doing favors for the S&L's in exchange for contributions and other perks. The senators got off with a slap on the wrist, but so enraged was one of those bankers, Charles Keating -- after whom the senate's so-called "Keating Five" were named -- he sent a memo that read, in part, "get Black -- kill him dead." Metaphorically, of course. Of course. Now Black is focused on an even greater scandal, and he spares no one -- not even the President he worked hard to elect, Barack Obama. But his main targets are the Wall Street barons, heirs of an earlier generation whose scandalous rip-offs of wealth back in the 1930s earned them comparison to Al Capone and the mob, and the nickname "banksters." Bill Black, welcome to the Journal.

Suggest reading the entire interview.

POLITICS - The Struggling GOP

"CBS/NY Times Poll: GOP approval rating at its lowest in 25 years, Obama has 66% approval" by Karen Harper, San Francisco Examiner


The Republican party is struggling and that is reflected in the New York Times/CBS poll. The poll mirrors a growing dismay over how the GOP is handling its affairs. The party seems leaderless and without direction. Republican ideology has lost its appeal for moderate Republicans and independents who are concerned about the unfettered fiscal spending that occurred during the Bush years. Moderates and independents are equally dismayed by what appears to be the hijacking of the party by Evangelical right wing conservatives.

The November, 2008 elections were devastating for the Republican party. The party's reaction has been to become obstructionist to the new Obama administration and they are now known as the "party of no."

In response to accusations that they didn't have an alternative plan to the President's budget proposals, the party hurriedly wrote out a Republican budget that relied heavily on cutting taxes for the wealthiest corporations and individuals even further than they were cut under the Bush administration.

The at best, haphazard, at worst, obstructionist, strategy by the GOP has only dragged the party down even further than it was in November. The Republican party had one chance, and only one chance in the first couple of months of the new Obama administration, to at least partially recover from the blow dealt by the November elections. During the campaign, President Obama reiterated time after time that he wanted to work in a bipartisan fashion should he be elected. He planned to reach out to the other side, the Republicans, not merely out of friendship, but for the benefit of the nation. It seemed that Americans wanted nothing more than for Republicans and Democrats to set aside their differences, both personal and ideological to work together to solve the economic crisis. As President, Obama fulfilled his promise and went to extraordinary lengths to show he was sincere once he entered into office. He appointed Republicans to cabinet positions, asked for their input, and listened. Items in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were changed as a result.

But the Republicans still hadn't learned what the November elections meant. They missed their single chance to redeem any shred of dignity or sincerity they had left. They had one opportunity to show that they were sincere about doing what is best for America but they chose obstruction over construction. At every turn since the new President was sworn in, the GOP has shown that they have no intention of working with Democrats and the President to address the needs of the nation. They have instead played bully politics like 12 year old boys on an extended recess. The nation was hoping for the Republicans and the Democrats to work together to fix the economy. Instead, the onus of the burden has been on President Obama and the Democratic Congress because the GOP has been busy kicking sand in the faces of those who would try to put people back to work. The Republicans in Congress didn't understand what the American people so resoundingly tried to tell them in November. America is in the midst of its worst crisis in 75 years and what Americans want is for the President and the Congress to work together to fix the problem. And it is clear that the President and the Democratic Congress is doing their part. But the Republicans have become the party of no, the party of obstructionism and nothing is more frustrating for Americans in trouble. And that is why they have the lowest approval rating they've had in the 25 years since the New York Times/CBS poll has been asking the question.

ECONOMY - The Good, the Bad, and America

Here are 2 articles demonstrating the "Bad" vs "Good" of business practices effecting America today.

"Firms Move to Fight Overseas-Profit Tax" by JOHN D. McKINNON, Wall Street Journal

In one of the biggest battles between the business community and the White House, corporate lobbyists are intensifying efforts to block an Obama administration proposal to raise taxes on overseas profits. Executives say the measure, which could cost U.S.-based multinationals $100 billion over the next decade, would hamper economic recovery efforts.

In recent days, groups including the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Foreign Trade Council have helped form a lobbying coalition called Protect America's Competitive Edge that is devoted specifically to the issue. A letter sent to Congress last month opposing the plan was signed by 200 trade associations and companies, including General Electric Co., Intel Corp., International Business Machines Corp., McDonald's Corp., Merck & Co. and Microsoft Corp.

But even if businesses succeed in holding off the plan, they are likely gaining only a temporary respite. While prospects for quick action on the idea this year are dimming, it is likely to become a central element in a broader tax overhaul the White House is planning, according to business lobbyists and legislative aides, as the administration searches for revenue to cover the costs of some of its big initiatives.

At issue is a longstanding feature of American tax policy that allows multinationals to avoid U.S. taxes on much of their overseas earnings, as long as the money remains invested offshore. Many companies use the rule to park overseas earnings in tax-haven countries for years.

Corporate defenders of the policy say it is a sensible way for the U.S. to level the global playing field for American firms, because many foreign governments don't tax their companies' overseas earnings.

But critics of the U.S. provision, known as deferral, say the policy encourages American multinationals to add facilities and jobs overseas rather than expanding back home. They also say it contributes to the inefficiency of the U.S. tax system, making it more difficult to raise the money the government needs. By some estimates, as much as $800 billion in U.S. companies' earnings is currently held offshore.

The current U.S. deferral policy is expected to cost the government about $61 billion in forgone tax revenue over the next five years, according to Congress's Joint Committee on Taxation.

President Barack Obama raised concerns about deferral frequently during the 2008 presidential campaign. In his late-February address to a joint session of Congress, he vowed to "restore a sense of fairness and balance to our tax code by finally ending the tax breaks for corporations that ship our jobs overseas."

His budget a few days later promised to "reform deferral" and also increase enforcement against international tax evasion. The combined measures were projected to raise $210 billion over the next decade. But the budget provided almost no details.

Terming deferral "very, very important" to multinationals' competitiveness, IBM Chief Executive Sam Palmisano questioned Mr. Obama about the issue during a televised meeting in mid-March.

Mr. Obama assured the executives that he wants their companies to remain competitive, and that he is interested "over time" in lowering corporate rates in exchange for closing corporate loopholes. The White House subsequently has announced that it is forming a task force to look at options for simplifying the tax code and tightening loopholes.

At the same time, Mr. Obama told the CEOs, average Americans have trouble understanding why the U.S. would give multinationals a tax break on their overseas earnings.

"I think people generally feel like, let's encourage and motivate corporations to invest here at home, particularly at a time when there's been significant job loss," he said.

Business lobbyists say they would prefer to change deferral -- if at all -- only in the context of a broader overhaul of tax laws that also gives them something they want. Among the possibilities is combining limits on deferral with some lowering of corporate tax rates, a concept being pushed by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.). Mr. Rangel's proposed deferral limit -- part of a 2007 bill -- was estimated to raise corporate taxes by $106 billion over 10 years.

Business lobbyists believe that, in recent weeks, they have made progress convincing lawmakers of the current policy's merits.

"I do think some members of Congress are stepping back a little from deferral," said Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "At least we've caused people to stop and pause."

Another potential complication for the White House: Mr. Rangel prefers to deal with deferral as part of a broader tax overhaul, a spokesman said.

Nevertheless, the White House plans to keep pushing its deferral overhaul in a coming budget plan. Even if the White House effort is unsuccessful this year, it likely raises pressure on businesses to get behind broader corporate tax reform -- an idea for which they have shown little enthusiasm.

"The administration is committed to reforming deferral to improve the overall efficiency and equity of the tax code by reducing incentives to divert investment from the United States in order to avoid taxation," a Treasury spokeswoman said. "The administration has been consulting broadly as it designs the details of this proposal for release in the full budget later this spring."

"Sallie Mae to shift 2,000 jobs to U.S. from overseas" by Elinor Comlay, Reuters

Student loan company Sallie Mae plans to move its overseas operations back to the United States, creating 2,000 domestic jobs, in what analysts called an attempt to curry favor with the Obama administration.

SLM Corp, as the company is legally known, said on Monday it plans to add staff over the next 18 months in call centers, information technology and operations support across the United States. A spokeswoman said the company will pull jobs from India, Mexico and the Philippines.

The move will cost about $35 million per year, Chief Executive Albert Lord said at a press conference attended by Rep. Paul Kanjorski and Sen. Robert Casey, both Democrats from Pennsylvania, where the new jobs will be located.

"We have reversed our decision to move people offshore," Lord said at a press conference at the company's facility in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, which will gain 600 new jobs.

Analysts called the move a bid to build political capital in Washington as the Obama administration plots major changes to the student loan market.

The administration has proposed a 2010 budget that could hurt Sallie Mae's business by shifting all federal student loans into a program administered by the Department of Education.

Michael Taiano, analyst at Sandler O'Neill & Partners in New York, said of Sallie Mae's maneuver, "Will it help them overturn Obama's budget proposal? I don't think so."

The company is likely hoping that moving jobs back to the United States will earn it goodwill from the administration, Taiano said, putting Sallie Mae in a better position when the details of the student loan program are worked out.

"It probably doesn't hurt to build up political capital, and bringing jobs back to the U.S. certainly does that," he said.

Sallie Mae, the largest U.S. student loan company, employs more than 8,000 people in the United States. It has struggled during the credit crunch to finance the loans it makes to students.

"We were at a point where we could not make a student loan at a profit," Lord said of late 2007 and early 2008, adding that Obama's education plan sparked the company's jobs reversal.

"The president's budget is often portrayed as bad for our business, but I don't see it that way," he said.

He said the White House wants student loans administered, serviced and collected by the private sector, which bodes well for Sallie Mae.

The current loan system may need "a few tweaks" but it essentially works and will yield the budget savings the president wants, Lord said. "If I didn't feel that was going to happen, we surely wouldn't be bringing 2,000 jobs back to this country."

The company reported a net loss of $216 million in the fourth quarter, in which it made $4.8 billion in student loans.

Last month, rating agency Standard & Poor's said Sallie Mae, with $33.9 billion of rated debt, was at risk for a cut to junk status from investment grade. Its shares have fallen 39 percent this year.

The shares were up 17 cents or 3.2 percent at $5.52 on the New York Stock Exchange on Monday afternoon, off an earlier high at $5.85.

When it comes to Sallie Mae who cares WHY they made the move, it's good for America, period.

POLITICS - Cry for America, A Personal View

The following is the most heart-wrenching post (at least for me) about what America has become. I thought that this sort of thing ended with the Viet Nam era, but obviously it hasn't.

This is the legacy of the Ultra-Conservative (Fascist IMHO) movement that has high-jacked the GOP, with the help of their Glorious Leader G.W. Bush and his head of SS Dick Cheney.

On Mon, 06 Apr 2009 17:56:34 -0300, in alt.politics.obama Charles Aulds wrote:

Many of you who read this newsgroup are aware that I moved my family, my household, and all my possessions (including 6 horses, 5 dogs, 3 cats, 7 exotic birds and a fish) to the Canadian province of New Brunswick in October 2005. Why? Because, almost overnight it seemed to me, I became a stranger in my own community. I became an outsider by refusing to allow myself to be manipulated by my fears, hates and prejudices.

Let me be absolutely clear about one thing: I didn't leave the US because what President Bush and Dick Cheney did ... I left because of what my friends and neighbors did. They gave themselves over to hatred and to fear, and made me out to be an enemy for simply stating the truth. They were wrong. They know they were wrong, but how many do you think have demonstrated the moral courage it takes to admit it? That's why I can't go back ... yet ... because nothing has really changed. And it needs to. Let me be clear about this, too, these people don't own **me** anything. They owe it to themselves.

I have always been willing to entertain respectful challenges, reasoned debate, and informed arguments; but there has never been justification for the type of personal attacks and outright threats I've had to endure. Never. And it is with particular sadness that I realized a large number of them come from former members of America's Armed Services. Not one has ever come from an active-duty serviceman or servicewoman.

Most of these (usually profane) personal attacks were designed to "shut me up" through intimidation ... through fear, essentially. What's that called? It's called "bullying." And what did we all learn about bullies? We all learned about it by the time we were in first grade. Our mothers all told us, "If you'll stand up to him, he'll go away and leave you alone." What were we taught is at the core of bullying? You know as well as I do. It's "cowardice."

When people like these start their hate-filled diatribe in complete confidence that they won't be interrupted or contradicted, you don't have to respond with a lengthy or elaborate or eloquent argument; you don't have to be louder or more "in their face". You only have to stop them with a "I'm not so certain about that ...". They aren't expecting that. They are accustomed to intimidating people who disagree with them into silence. Because, to our country's detriment, bullying has been allowed to work in the past 7 years or so. Bigotry, hatred and fear-mongering have flourished.

When you speak up, no matter how quietly, when you offer an opposing position, no matter how tentatively . you have done your part; you have sowed that seed, because you have shown others that there is another side, equally as strongly felt, and usually far better grounded in reason.

Your silence, however, is almost always interpreted as tacit assent.

Nothing that has happened in the past seven years has frightened me as much as the passive complacency and silent assent exhibited by my countrymen and women when I believe they knew perfectly well that they were giving consent to actions that were morally and ethically reprehensible.

Never give your silent assent to evil. It only takes a few spoken (or
written) words ... but most of all, it takes the courage to be seen and heard.

Monday, April 06, 2009

POLITICS - Deserved RAGE at Wallstreet

Special Comment
by Keith Olbermann

Visit MSNBC.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

POLITICS - Even More GOP Obfuscation

"GOP Bashed Obama Budget Using Bush Era Numbers" by Sam Stein, Huffington Post

As part of the alternative budget rollout on Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan published in a Wall Street Journal op-ed a chart plotting out the spending projections between the "Democratic Budgets" and "Republican Alternative."

The ominous graph gives the perception of government spending run amok, with the blue Democratic line rising precipitously over the course of the next 60 years; the red Republican line stays stable and even falls.

There is only one problem: the numbers were projected some six months before Obama took office; eight months before he introduced a budget.

Put together by the Republican staff of the House Budget Committee, the chart bases its lines on "out-year" numbers from the Congressional Budget Offices "Long-Term Alternative Fiscal Scenario." But an official with the CBO confirms to the Huffington Post that no such projections have been run for the Obama budget.

"We do a ten-year budget window," said the official. "We did a projection at the end of January on the estimated cost of debt service out to 2019... [But] I'm not aware that we have done the long-term budget impacts of the President's budget. That would be a surprise to me."

Indeed, the one analysis that the CBO conducted of the Obama budget projected costs and revenues through 2019. The publication that Ryan was referencing, his office confirmed, was one conducted on his behalf in May 2008, when the budget was George W. Bush's.

Entitled, "The Long-Term Economic Effects of Some Alternative Budget Policies," that document looked at the potential economic effects of three scenarios: "allowing federal debt to climb" as projected by a wholly different December 2007 CBO report, "slowing the growth of deficits and then eliminating them over the next several decades," and "using higher income tax rates alone to finance increases in spending" from that December 07 report.

It was under the first of these three scenarios that the CBO projected "that the federal budget deficit and federal debt held by the public would rise sharply," from "37 percent of GDP in fiscal year 2007 to more than 290 percent in 2050."

Reached by phone, a spokesman for Ryan acknowledged that CBO did not score Obama's budget on a 75-year window. Nor could the document put together in May 2008 be a direct analysis of the president's budget proposal. "Clearly, Obama wasn't in office then," said Angela Kuck.

The graph, she added, was based on the premise (made by the CBO and assumed from Obama's proposal) that entitlements, health care reform, and other major programs would go unaddressed in this administration. Under this scenario, there is a convergence between government spending projections that the CBO charted in May 2008 (and thereafter) and that Republicans believe will mark Obama's presidency.

"What you are seeing here is the baby boomer's retiring," said Kuck. "And if you are not going to address those programs then it is fair to say" that Obama's budget will follow the CBO's projection. "Though that would not be the only factor... Health care, the down payment to that, and other items will also add to the mandatory spending."

"You have to remember that nearly 50 percent of budget is mandatory spending," she added, "and he doesn't change that."

Others MAY call this down-right "GOP lying. "

POLITICS - More GOOD Changes in the Wind

"New tax credit adds about $10 to weekly paychecks for most workers, starting Wednesday" by STEPHEN OHLEMACHER (AP), Newsday 4/1/2009

Most workers will start seeing about a $10 bump in their weekly paychecks this week, thanks to a new federal tax credit.

The "Making Work Pay" tax credit, which took effect Wednesday, was enacted as part of the economic recovery package that Congress passed in February. It's the Main Street version of the Wall Street bailout, doled out in bite-sized portions to workers in their paychecks.

Unlike last year, when the government tried to stimulate the economy by mailing 120 million rebate checks to taxpayers, this year's version will be spread out over the rest of the year in workers' paychecks. The goal is to get workers to spend the extra money to help jump-start the ailing economy.

"The president has asked every agency to implement this as quickly as possible and that's what we're doing," IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman said in an interview.

The credit amounts to 6.2 percent of a worker's earned income, up to $400 for the year. Married couples filing jointly are eligible for up to $800.

Couples making less than $150,000 are eligible for the full credit. Couples making between $150,000 and $190,000 get reduced credits, while those making more than $190,000 are ineligible. Individuals making less than $75,000 are eligible for the full credit, while those making up to $95,000 get a reduced amount.

President Barack Obama says the tax credit will reach 95 percent of working families.

The Internal Revenue Service established new tax withholding tables in February and asked employers to start using them as soon as possible, with a deadline of April 1. Shulman said many companies started early, though their workers will still be limited to a maximum of $400 this year.

With 39 weeks left in the year, the credit will increase workers' take home pay by about $10.25 a week. In 2010, when the credit is spread over the entire year, it will amount to about $7.70 a week.

The credit expires after 2010, but Obama has proposed making it permanent. Budget resolutions pending in Congress would allow the tax credit to expire after 2010, but lawmakers say they will work to find ways to extend it. The two-year tax credit will save taxpayers about $116 billion.

"Reversing Bush policy, US seeks seat on UN Human Rights council" by Howard LaFranchi, Christian Science Monitor

President Obama is taking another step down the road of engaging America's adversaries with the decision to seek a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, a group President Bush had shunned.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced in a statement Tuesday the reversal of Bush's policy of remaining outside the council as a way of protesting its makeup and work. "With others, we will engage in the work of improving the UN human rights system," Secretary Clinton said, with the goal of "advancing the vision of the UN declaration on Human Rights."

The administration's decision set off the latest installment of a debate in foreign-policy circles over whether the world's most egregious rights abusers are best confronted from within or outside the international human rights tent embodied by the council.

The 47-country council is tasked with defending international rights, but even some of its members concede the Geneva-based body spends too much time criticizing Israel and focusing on issues such as Islamophobia in Western countries. The council's predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission, was branded as a club for dictators and scuttled in 2006. The current council is dominated by countries from Africa and Asia that have shielded human rights violators such as Sudan and Zimbabwe from scrutiny.

The Bush administration concluded that US membership would only grant legitimacy to the council, and stayed outside when it was created in 2006. The US initially accepted observer status but then decided even that was too much.

But on the same day that the Obama administration extended overtures to Iran, US officials at the UN explained the new "reform from within" stance on the council.

Joining the council is part of Obama's "new era of diplomatic engagement," said the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, adding that the aim was to make the council "a more effective body and to protect and promote human rights."

Preempting potential protests from conservatives who preferred the Bush administration's express condemnation of the council, Ambassador Rice added, "As a fully engaged member of the council, we'll be working from within rather than sitting on the sidelines – and thus can do more."
"Getting in now would put the US in the 'best position to influence the 2011 council review," Rice added in a conference call with reporters.

The US will go up for election to the council in a mid-May vote, but will join Belgium and Norway in a three-candidate ticket for three seats and thus is virtually guaranteed a seat.

But some UN and human rights experts say remaining outside now with the 2011 review as a bargaining chip would have been the better way to pursue reform of the council.

"US membership and the prestige that comes with it should have been withheld until 2011," says Steven Groves, a specialist in international human rights institutions at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. The Obama administration could have used the fact that the world wants the US in the council as a means of pressing for meaningful changes, he adds, "but the US surrendered that ground without a fight."

Now, he says, the US will just be one of seven Western democracies up against 40 countries – mostly from Africa and Asia – that are suspicious of any institutional focus on countries from their regions.

"We're probably going to be replacing Canada with the US," Mr. Groves says, "so it's hard too see how this will be an improvement under the current structure."

Still, most international human rights groups received the US decision favorably. "Active involvement by the US will bring new energy and focus to the Human Rights Council's deliberations and actions, helping it become a more credible force for human rights promotion," says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Roth acknowledged the council's failure to address "the wide range of serious human rights problems around the world" while keeping a "one-sided focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." But, he says, as a member the US could lead the council to "fulfill its potential."