Monday, February 28, 2011

ECONOMY - Federal Government Shutdown and State Union Busting

"Govs. Daniels, Schweitzer on Looming Federal Government Shutdown"
PBS Newshour 2/25/2011

Excerpts from transcript

JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour): Gove. Schweitzer, how do you see these public workers who work in your state and other states?

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER (D-Mont.): Well, two-and-a-half years ago, before the great recession took hold, we were concerned in Montana that we might have a downturn.

So, I went to the public unions and I said to them, look, we're in this together. We can't accomplish the things that we want to do in Montana if we are not able to pay for it. So, I got them to agree. We negotiated no increase in salaries for the next two years, no increase in benefits, no increase in their insurance benefits. They agreed.

And here was the deal. I praised them for doing the work that matters in Montana. I praised them for going first. I cut my own salary by $11,000. And then we started cutting the rest of government.

I guess I'm concerned that a chief executive, like a governor or CEO of a corporation, if you demagogue the people that work for you, if you say you're overpaid and underworked, what does that mean for the morale? I mean, I don't think there is a CEO in America that would start their first day on the job by saying, our people are overpaid. They would challenge them to do more with less.

But you have to work together in order to make a partnership work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what you're saying Gov. Daniels has done, is demagogue these people?

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: No, I'm not suggesting that.

I'm saying that, when we negotiate with public unions, we negotiate very tough. Then, when we walk out of that room, we say thank you for continuing to do this work. In Montana, over half of our public employees make less than $40,000 a year. So...

JUDY WOODRUFF: That doesn't sound like the same picture that we just heard Gov. Daniels paint, where he said they are paid very well, they do quite well.

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: Well, in Montana, over half of our employees, state employees, make less than $40,000.

They teach our children. They take care of our disabled people, and they keep our streets and highways safe. That's what they do.
----
JUDY WOODRUFF: But to get to your -- you know, the core of one of your arguments is that public workers don't need the kind of union protection that private sector workers may need. Why is that? What's different about them?

GOV. MITCH DANIELS (R-Ind.): Because -- because, in this case, in a private sector negotiation, somebody is playing with their own money. In a government negotiation, nobody is.

In fact, the government's representative is playing with your money and our children's money. And that's why they give away too much of it. So, you know, don't take it from me. Some of the heroes that we rightfully celebrate of labor rights in American, Samuel Gompers, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, were unequivocal that government -- that unions had no business in government.

Now, they have gotten there, and in a very successful way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Gov. Schweitzer, how do you see that?

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: Well, I think, if you eliminate the ability to collectively bargain for our public employees, then they are effectively negotiating one person at a time. And that's why we created collective bargaining in this country.

It is true that some states don't have collective bargaining for their public employees, and some do. It's working very well in Montana. And part of the reason it works in Montana is I say that it is a shared responsibility. And when we get into tough times, I ask them to share the responsibility.

And, in Montana's case, it's worked. We're running balanced budgets. We have a budget surplus. In fact, we have $328,474,612 in the bank today, partly because our state employees are doing more with less.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But just quickly to Gov. Daniels' point that they don't need this kind of union protection.

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: Well, nobody needs union protection. Every individual worker can go to their boss and negotiate any kind of deal that they want. That's what collective bargaining is all about, so that a group of people collectively have some clout. Otherwise, one by one, you could send people down the road. If they say to you, well, I'm looking for a little bit more benefit, they say, well, then you can hit the -- hit the road, Jack.

Now Gov. Brian Schweitzer really knows how to do his job, unions or no unions. He is proof that Republicans are really adhering to their dogma on unions and union busting.

Government unions have nothing to do with budget deficits as Montana proves.

Also, as I've said before, this is sour-grapes. I would say that there is NO worker (private or public) that would NOT like to get union negotiated pay and benefits.

It is not fair to deny others just because you didn't do what is necessary to negotiate your pay and benefits.

MIDDLE EAST - Chaos, Libya and Tunisia's Border

"On Tunisia's Border, Preparations Begin for Gadhafi's Fall, Chaos in Libya"
PBS Newshour 2/25/2010

Excerpts from transcript

JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour): There were also new departures from Libya's diplomatic corps, as the country's U.N. delegation in Geneva defected.

ADEL SHALTUT, Libyan delegate to the United Nations (through translator): I confirm to you that we at the Libyan Mission have strongly decided to be representatives of the Libyan people and its free will. We shall not represent anyone else. We shall be the voice of this great and heroic people at this council and all international assemblies.

JIM LEHRER, Editor Newshour: Libya's delegation to the Arab League also renounced Gadhafi today.


"Shields, Brooks on Collective Bargaining's Future, Shutdown Chances, Libya" PBS Newshour Transcript 2/25/2011 (includes video)

Excerpt on Libya

JIM LEHRER, Editor Newshour: New subject: Libya. The president has caught some heat because he's been accused of reacting slowly to what's been going on in Libya and Gadhafi, et cetera.

DAVID BROOKS, New York Times columnist: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Does he deserve criticism?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they have been slow on this one, too, and especially with the atrocities. I don't think there's any profit in being nuanced about this.

And people are beginning to talk about sanctions now.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: We're embracing that, but even -- some people are also talking about no-fly zones. I don't think anybody particularly wants to send troops there, but no-fly zones, maybe recognizing the opposition, something more aggressive.

When you have got an atrocity of this nature, it's going to ratchet up demands for just a pure, simple position: We're against the tyranny.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think the president has done -- played this poorly?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: I think the president has been hobbled, quite honestly.

And I think if history does prove and events do prove that he did act, and we did not stop atrocities we could have stooped, then I think it will be on his hands. But I think he was held hostage by the fact that the Americans couldn't get out of there and they did not get out of there until today.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. There was the American Embassy. A lot of American employees of the United States government were still there.

MARK SHIELDS: A lot of Americans, yes.

And I think that was it. There was a question whether they be would held hostage and worse things would happen to them. But that is the judgment. I mean, it's -- Rwanda is very much on people's minds.

ECONOMY - Social Security and the Deficit

Source: CBO "Combined OASDI Trust Funds; January 2011 Baseline" (PDF) 26 Jan 2011.
Note: See "Primary Surplus" line (which is negative, indicating a deficit)

"Democrats Deny Social Security’s Red Ink" by Brooks Jackson, FactCheck.org 2/25/2011

Excerpt

Some claim it doesn't contribute to the federal deficit, but it does.

Summary

Some senior Democrats are claiming that Social Security does not contribute "one penny" to the federal deficit. That’s not true. The fact is, the federal government had to borrow $37 billion last year to finance Social Security, and will need to borrow more this year. The red ink is projected to total well over half a trillion dollars in the coming decade.

President Barack Obama was closer to the mark than some of his Democratic allies when he said that Social Security is "not the huge contributor to the deficit that [Medicare and Medicaid] are." That’s correct: Medicare and Medicaid consume more borrowed funds than Social Security, and their costs are growing more rapidly. But Obama’s own budget director, Jacob Lew, was misleading when he wrote recently that "Social Security benefits are entirely self-financing." That’s not true, except in a very narrow, legalistic sense, and doesn’t change the fact that Social Security is now a small but growing drain on the government’s finances.

Payroll taxes exceeded benefit payments regularly until 2010. But the fact is that Social Security has now passed a tipping point, beyond which the Congressional Budget Office projects that it will permanently pay out more in benefits than it gathers from Social Security taxes. The imbalance is made even larger this year by a one-year "payroll tax holiday" that was enacted as part of last year’s compromise on extending the Bush tax cuts. The lost Social Security tax revenues are being made up with billions from general revenues that must all be borrowed. The combined effect is to add $130 billion to the deficit in the current fiscal year.

It’s important to note that benefit payments are not in immediate danger. Under current law, scheduled benefits can be paid until about 2037, according to the most recent projections. But keeping those benefits flowing is already requiring the use of funds borrowed from the public. So we judge the claim that Social Security is not currently contributing to the deficit to be false.

Analysis

As always, we take no position on whether Social Security should be changed, either to reduce the deficit or to shore up its troubled finances for future generations. Our job here is simply to establish facts and hold politicians accountable for any misinformation.

We’ll start with the basic numbers. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued its most recent projections for Social Security’s income and outgo Jan. 26, along with its twice-yearly "Budget and Economic Outlook." What those numbers show is that Social Security ran a $37 billion deficit last year, is projected to run a $45 billion deficit this year, and more red ink every year thereafter.

Matters are even worse than this chart shows. In December, Congress passed a Social Security tax reduction. Workers are temporarily paying 2 percentage points less, from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent, in Social Security payroll taxes this calendar year. Since the government is making up the shortfall out of general revenues, CBO’s deficit projections for the trust funds do not include that. But CBO’s figures predict that the "payroll tax holiday" will cost the government’s general fund $85 billion in this fiscal year and $29 billion in fiscal year 2012 (which starts Oct.1, 2011.) Since every dollar of that will have to be borrowed, the combined effect of the " tax holiday" and the annual deficits will amount to a $130 billion addition to the federal deficit in the current fiscal year, and $59 billion in fiscal 2012.

Social Security has passed a tipping point. For years it generated more revenue than it consumed, holding down the overall federal deficit and allowing Congress to spend more freely for other things. But those days are gone. Rather than lessening the federal deficit, Social Security has at last — as long predicted — become a drag on the government’s overall finances.

As recently as October, CBO was projecting that it would be 2016 before outlays regularly exceed revenues. But Social Security’s fiscal troubles are more severe than was thought, and the latest projections show the permanent deficits started several years ahead of earlier predictions.

Don’t be confused by the fact that the trust funds are projected to continue growing for several more years. That’s because Treasury must still credit interest payments to the funds on the borrowings from earlier years. But unless taxes are increased or other spending is cut severely, the government will have to borrow from the public to pay the interest that it owes to the trust funds.

And don’t be misled by those who say the system can pay full benefits until about 2037 without making any changes to the law. That’s true, but does not change the fact that Social Security taxes no longer cover those benefits. The government is now borrowing money to pay them, and will do so every year for the foreseeable future. And keep in mind, if nothing is done, when those trust funds are exhausted, benefits would have to be cut by 22 percent in 2037, and more each year after that, according to the most recent report of the system’s trustees. By 2084, the system will generate only enough revenue to pay for 75 percent of promised benefit levels.

In fairness I am 67, and retired, receiving Social Security and Medicare, therefore I am not impartial in this area.

Friday, February 25, 2011

POLITICS - (correction) The Great Liberal Hope

"Scott Walker, great Republican hope"
By Laura Conaway, The Maddow Blog 2/25/2011

Visit MSNBC.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

AFGHANISTAN - Another Withdrawal

"U.S. Pulling Back in Afghan Valley It Called Vital to War" by C.J. CHIVERS, ALISSA J. RUBIN, and WESLEY MORGAN; New York Times 2/24/2011

Excerpt

After years of fighting for control of a prominent valley in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the United States military has begun to pull back most of its forces from ground it once insisted was central to the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The withdrawal from the Pech Valley, a remote region in Kunar Province, formally began on Feb. 15. The military projects that it will last about two months, part of a shift of Western forces to the province’s more populated areas. Afghan units will remain in the valley, a test of their military readiness.

While American officials say the withdrawal matches the latest counterinsurgency doctrine’s emphasis on protecting Afghan civilians, Afghan officials worry that the shift of troops amounts to an abandonment of territory where multiple insurgent groups are well established, an area that Afghans fear they may not be ready to defend on their own.

This is NOT good.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

CYBERWARS - It's Not Just Your PC Anymore

"Security to Ward Off Crime on Phones" by RIVA RICHMOND, New York Times 2/23/2011

Excerpt

More consumers are buying smartphones. So more criminals are taking aim at those devices.

Criminals still prefer PCs for stealing personal data, bank and credit card account numbers as well as for running frauds. However, most PC attacks focus on Microsoft’s decade-old Windows XP operating system, which is slowly being replaced by the more secure Windows 7. Over the next few years, hackers will have to find new targets.

With smartphones outselling PCs for the first time — 421 million of the hand-held computers are expected to be sold worldwide this year, according to market analysts at IDC — the long-predicted crime wave on hand-held devices appears to have arrived. According to the mobile-security firm Lookout, malware and spyware appeared on 9 out of 100 phones it scanned in May, more than twice the 4-in-100 rate in December 2009.

In fact, the most practical rule for protecting yourself is to start thinking of the smartphone as a PC.

Most malicious incidents on mobile devices involve bogus phone or text-message charges or rogue mobile applications, of which there are now more than 500 varieties, according to F-Secure, a Finnish security firm. All these ruses require users to take some kind of action, like clicking to accept or install a program, so caution while using mobile devices can prevent most problems. (However, experts warn that automated attacks are possible and could emerge in the future.)

Most attacks happen in Eastern Europe and China. An overwhelming number — 88 percent, according to F-Secure — have singled out devices running Nokia’s Symbian operating system. Symbian is the world’s most commonly used smartphone platform, but Nokia said this month that it would be replacing it over the next few years with Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system.

Early attacks, like the Cabir and Commwarrior worms in 2004 and 2005, caused little damage. But since 2009, attacks have grown more menacing. In September, hackers trying to steal money from accounts at a Spanish bank installed malicious applications on Symbian devices when they synced to home PCs infected with a version of the ZeuS malware. The application enabled criminals to reply to security codes sent by the bank to validate cash transfers.

Such assaults could be a preview of what is to come for devices popular in the United States. Criminals have attacked phones running on Google’s Android, Research In Motion’s BlackBerry, Apple’s iPhone and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system software, suggesting that more is ahead.

ENVIRONMENT - Our Warming Oceans


"Scientists Forecast an Altered Ocean" by Jenny Marder, PBS Newshour 2/23/2011

At the National Press Club Wednesday morning, scientists showed a video of an ocean teeming with wildlife: colorful coral, crabs, sea anemone and bright orange starfish.

The video underscored some not-so-new, but still sobering, news. If trends continue unchecked, our ocean may soon be robbed of its rich coral reefs and many of the 4,000 fish species that depend on them.

Some 75 percent of the world's reefs are facing the threat of extinction, and absent major changes, that number will rise to 90 percent by 2030, and reach 100 percent by 2050, according to a new analysis released Wednesday.

And reversing these trends will take a Herculean effort, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenko warned.

The threats to the reefs aren't new. Warming sea temperatures and rising carbon dioxide lead to mass coral bleaching and death. Overfishing, farm runoff, sewage discharge and industrial pollution are also among the top offenders. In fact, this report, a global collaboration by more 25 organizations and led by the World Resources Institute, builds on a similar report released in 1998, which cited many of the same sources.

But the latest report is far more detailed than its predecessor, and includes higher resolution maps, made possible by satellite technology.

"This report shows the power of technology and how it helps transform our understanding of the natural world," said Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute. "This is key."

An estimated one-third of all coral species are at risk of extinction, said Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution, a longtime coral researcher. "That makes coral the most endangered animal on the planet, even more endangered than frogs," she said. "We're talking about a loss of habitat that is mega diverse in the most mega possible way."

Carbon dioxide alters the ocean chemistry. Pollution poisons and kills. Runoff carries nutrients, which can smother and clog the corals and block photosynthesis.

Scientists highlighted the benefits coral reefs provide to their nearby coastal communities. They provide a source of protein, food security, a tourism draw, and countless jobs. Some species provide ingredients for drugs to treat cancer, HIV and malaria, Knowlton said.

Against this sobering background, scientists doled out some hopeful news. The data cited are worst-scenario numbers and assume no change to pollution, overfishing and other threats. And when threats are reduced, coral reefs have been known to bounce back.

But that will require less destructive fishing, huge reductions in land pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and changing policy priorities. In Thailand, for example, diving has been limited in six protected areas.

"If we are going to avoid that tipping point, we need people to care about reefs," Knowlton said.

Full article includes interactive map

MEXICO - Drug Wars, Monterrey

"Once Safe, Mexico's Monterrey Becoming 'City of Massacres'"
PBS Newshour 2/23/2011

HUMAN RIGHTS - Unconstitutional DOMA Update

Marriage, Civil Unions, whatever, IS a matter of Human Rights. I cannot think of anything more applicable to the core of Human Rights and Civil Rights as the relationship between consenting adults.

I believe that government, at ANY level (local, state, federal) should NOT interfere in this area.

It is also my belief that DOMA is government support of a religious doctrine which IS clearly unconstitutional. Marriage is NOT the exclusive domain of ANY religion.

"In Policy Shift, President Orders Halt to Legal Defense of Marriage Law" PBS Newshour Transcript 2/23/2011 (includes video)

Excerpts

GWEN IFILL (Newshour): The Obama administration reversed course today when it announced it will no longer defend in court a federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Attorney General Eric Holder's letter to House Speaker John Boehner read: "The president and I have concluded that classifications based on sexual orientation warrant heightened scrutiny, and banning recognition for legally married same-sex couples is unconstitutional."

At the White House today, Press Secretary Jay Carney stopped short of endorsing gay marriage outright.

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: The president's personal view on same-sex marriage, I think you all have heard him discuss as recently as the press conference at the end of last year.

That is distinct from this legal decision. The decision is that we will -- the administration will not defend the Defense of Marriage Act in the Second Circuit.

Furthermore, the president directed the attorney general not to defend -- because of the decision that it's not constitutional -- defend the Defense of Marriage Act in any other circuit, in any other case.

GWEN IFILL: ....Explain something to me. We heard Jay Carney today make the distinction between a legal decision that the president and the attorney general made and a moral decision. What is that distinction?

CHARLIE SAVAGE, The New York Times: Well, most of the debate over gay marriage in this country has been a very -- on the moral issue, the very basic issue, should gay people have a right to get married?

But this debate, it moves past that one level to a legal issue about what happens after they have already gotten married. There are now eight states, plus the District of Columbia, that either issue marriage licenses to gay couples or recognize such marriages if performed elsewhere.

And so that has raised a new issue, which is this. If there are two sets of gay -- of married couples in a state whose are -- whose marriages are lawfully recognized by that state, is it constitutional for the federal government to treat those people unequally, to hand out certain benefits to one set of marriages -- married couples and not to another based on their sexual orientations?

GWEN IFILL: So, remind people who don't watch this, follow this all the time what exactly the Defense of Marriage Act is, what it did, what it was intended to do.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: The Defense of Marriage Act was passed by the Republican Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996, a presidential election year.

And it was designed to stop the growth of gay marriage, which then had not even gotten going, but you could see it on the horizon. And so the key issue, the provision that's at issue in these lawsuits that triggered this decision today, says that the federal government will not recognize a marriage unless it involves a man or a woman.

So even if the state of New York, say, says this lesbian couple is lawfully married, this gay couple is lawfully married, the federal government will ignore that -- that distinction. And so when it comes to certain benefits, like, for example, the surviving spouse in a marriage who inherits property from their dead husband or wife does not have to pay estate taxes on that.

But the federal government is charging estate taxes to surviving couples who are in gay marriages, even if those marriages are recognized under their state's laws.

GWEN IFILL: So, what the White House is saying today and the Justice Department is saying today is that they are going to ignore a federal law. They're not going to do what they can to pursue or defend a federal law. How unusual is that?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, I wouldn't say they're going to ignore it. In fact, they're making clear that they're going to keep enforcing this law, unless and until there's a definitive ruling from the courts that says this is unconstitutional, and you, the federal government, must not enforce it.

What they're saying is, when people challenge these laws, when they file a lawsuit saying this violates our constitutional rights, we have a right to equal protection under the law, you can't do this, federal government, the Justice Department is no longer going to come into court and say, no, no, Judge, you should get rid of this lawsuit; there's a perfectly valid reason why this law is constitutional.

They're going to leave the law undefended. And that means that maybe Congress, more likely just the House of Representatives, will appoint its own lawyer to come in as a friend of the court to defend the law, or maybe a judge in a lawsuit will appoint a lawyer to at least make the arguments that the law is constitutional, but the full weight of the Justice Department will no longer be backing these laws in court.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

MILITARY - Caring for Our Troops

"Scientific Review Kicks Off to Weigh Treatment for Brain-Injured Soldiers" by T. Christian Miller (ProPublica) and Daniel Zwerdling (NPR), ProPublica 2/7/2011

The Institutes of Medicine kicked off its yearlong study of cognitive rehabilitation therapy on Monday, a process that will help the Pentagon decide whether its health plan will cover the treatment for troops who have suffered brain injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We've previously reported [1] that Tricare, which covers troops and many veterans, relied on a controversial study to deny coverage for the treatment, which helps rewire soldiers' brains to perform basic tasks such as memorizing lists and following orders. Tricare said the study showed there wasn't enough evidence to support paying for the treatment, which can cost more than $50,000 per soldier. The Pentagon says nearly 200,000 troops have suffered traumatic brain injuries since the wars began, though our own reporting [2] shows the numbers are probably a lot higher.

The IOM panel of experts will review scientific literature and ultimately render a decision on whether it supports the efficacy of cognitive rehabilitation therapy. If the experts reach this conclusion, they will hardly be the first to do so. In April 2009, a consensus panel assembled by the Pentagon said the therapy works, especially for soldiers suffering more severe forms of brain injury. Other groups, such as the Brain Injury Association of America, have weighed in to support it. Even some major private insurance companies pay for it.

The head of the IOM panel, Georgetown University neurologist Ira Shoulson, pointedly quizzed Tricare on this issue at Monday's session, asking what the current review would produce that previous reviews had not.

Capt. Robert DeMartino, Tricare's director of behavioral health, said he hoped the panel would be able to pinpoint what types of cognitive rehabilitation works best, and what kind of civilian doctors and clinicians were best qualified to provide it. He noted that stories published last year by ProPublica and NPR have cast a "shadow" over the issue, prompting congressional committees and lawmakers to pressure Tricare to provide cognitive rehabilitation therapy.

"For us, we know that we're in a field like a gray zone," said DeMartino, who addressed the panel by speakerphone. "We want to make sure the [treatments] that work are the ones we are going to use."

The IOM review will continue through the end of the year, and the panel expects to convene other public sessions to help them arrive at a determination.

POLITICS - Wisconsin Union Busting

"What's Happening in Wisconsin Explained" by Andy Kroll, Mother Jones 2/22/2011

Excerpt

The basics:

For days, demonstrators have been pouring into the streets of Madison, Wisconsin—and the halls of the state's Capitol building—to protest rookie Republican Governor Scott Walker's anti-union proposals. Big national unions, both major political parties, the Tea Party, and Andrew Breitbart are already involved. Democratic state senators have fled the state to prevent the legislature from voting on Walker's proposals. And the protests could soon spread to other states, including Ohio.

Is this like Egypt?

No.

What's actually being proposed?

Walker says his legislation, which would strip most state employees of any meaningful collective bargaining rights, is necessary to close the state's $137 million budget gap. There are a number of problems with that argument, though. The unions are not to blame for the deficit, and stripping unionized workers of their collective bargaining rights won't in and of itself save any money. Walker says he needs to strip the unions of their rights to close the gap. But public safety officers' unions, which have members who are more likely to support Republicans and who also tend to have the highest salaries and benefits, are exempted from the new rules. Meanwhile, a series of tax breaks and other goodies that Walker and the Republican legislature passed just after his inauguration dramatically increased the deficit that Walker now says he's trying to close. And Wisconsin has closed a much larger budget gap in the past without scrapping worker organizing rights.

What's really going on, as Kevin Drum has explained, is pure partisan warfare: Walker is trying to de-fund the unions that form the backbone of the Democratic party. The unions and the Democrats are, of course, fighting back. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein drops some knowledge [emphasis added]:

The best way to understand Walker's proposal is as a multi-part attack on the state's labor unions. In part one, their ability to bargain benefits for their members is reduced. In part two, their ability to collect dues, and thus spend money organizing members or lobbying the legislature, is undercut. And in part three, workers have to vote the union back into existence every single year. Put it all together and it looks like this: Wisconsin's unions can't deliver value to their members, they're deprived of the resources to change the rules so they can start delivering value to their members again, and because of that, their members eventually give in to employer pressure and shut the union down in one of the annual certification elections.

You may think Walker's proposal is a good idea or a bad idea. But that's what it does. And it's telling that he's exempting the unions that supported him and is trying to obscure his plan's specifics behind misleading language about what unions can still bargain for and misleading rhetoric about the state's budget.

Walker's proposals do have important fiscal elements: they roughly double health care premiums for many state employees. But the heart of the proposals, and the controversy, are the provisions that will effectively destroy public-sector unions in the Badger State. As Matt Yglesias notes, this won't destroy the Democratic party. But it will force the party to seek funding from sources other than unions, and that usually means the same rich businessmen who are the main financial backers for the Republican party.

MIDDLE EAST - Libya, Qaddafi's Bloody Crackdown

"Qaddafi’s Grip on the Capital Tightens as Revolt Grows" by KAREEM FAHIM and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, New York Times 2/22/2011

Excerpt

Vowing to track down and kill protesters “house by house,” Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya tightened his grip on the capital, Tripoli, on Tuesday, but the eastern half of the country was slipping beyond his control.

A bloody crackdown drove protesters from the streets of Tripoli, where residents described a state of terror. After a televised speech by Colonel Qaddafi, thousands of his supporters converged in the city’s central Green Square, wearing green bandannas and brandishing large machetes.

Many loaded into trucks headed for the outlying areas of the city, where they occupied traffic intersections and appeared to be massing for neighborhood-to-neighborhood searches.

“It looks like they have been given a green light to kill these people,” one witness said.

Human Rights Watch said it had confirmed 62 deaths in two hospitals after a rampage on Monday night, when witnesses said groups of heavily armed militiamen and mercenaries from other African countries cruised the streets in pickup trucks, spraying crowds with machine-gun fire.

The death toll was probably higher; one witness said militia forces appeared to be using vans to cart away bodies.

But as they clamped down on the capital, Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces did not appear to make any attempt to take back the growing number of towns in the east that had in effect declared their independence and set up informal opposition governments. For now, there is little indication of what will replace the vacuum left by Colonel Qaddafi’s authority in broad parts of the country other than simmering anarchy.

Only around the town of Ajdabiya, south of the revolt’s center in Benghazi, were Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces and militia still clashing with protesters along the road to the colonel’s hometown, Surt.

The widening gap between the capital and the eastern countryside underscored the radically different trajectory of the Libyan revolt from the others that recently toppled Arab autocrats on Libya’s western and eastern borders, in Tunisia and Egypt.

Though the Libyan revolt began with a relatively organized core of longtime government critics in Benghazi, its spread to the capital was swift and spontaneous, outracing any efforts to coordinate the protests.

Colonel Qaddafi has lashed out with a level of violence unseen in either of the other uprisings, partly by importing foreigners without ties to the Libyan people. His four decades of idiosyncratic one-man rule have left the country without any national institutions — not even a unified or disciplined military — that could tame his retribution or provide the framework for a transitional government.

SUPREME COURT - Freedom of Religion Wins Again

"High court rejects new case on 10 Commandments" by AP, San Francisco Chronicle 2/22/2011

The Supreme Court has passed up a chance to take another look at a six-year-old ruling that struck down the display of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses.

McCreary and Pulaski counties had appealed recent lower court rulings barring them from posting the commandments, despite changes to the displays to include multiple religious and government documents.

The counties were hoping that those differences, as well as critical changes in the composition of the high court, would lead the justices to take up their appeal.

But the court declined to do so Tuesday, without comment.

When are these people going to learn that freedom of religion = government (at ANY level) cannot promote ANY religion. Freedom of religion is a right of individual people to practice and promote.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

HEALTHCARE - "Conscience" Regulation Gone

"Obama administration replaces controversial 'conscience' regulation for health-care workers" by Rob Stein, Washington Post 2/18/2011

After two years of struggling to balance the rights of patients against the beliefs of health-care workers, the Obama administration on Friday finally rescinded most of a federal regulation designed to protect those who refuse to provide care they find objectionable on moral or religious grounds.

The decision guts one of President George W. Bush's most controversial legacies: a rule that was widely interpreted as shielding workers who refuse to participate in a range of medical services, such as providing birth control pills, caring for gay men with AIDS and performing in-vitro fertilization for lesbians or single women.

Friday's move was seen as an important step in countering that trend, which in recent years had led pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for the emergency contraceptive Plan B, doctors in California to reject a lesbian's request for infertility treatment, and an ambulance driver in Chicago to turn away a woman who needed transportation for an abortion.

"Without the rescission of this regulation, we would see tremendous discrimination against patients based on their behavior and based just on who they are," said Susan Berke Fogel of the National Health Law Program, an advocacy group based in the District. "We would see real people suffer, and more women could die."

The new rule leaves intact only long-standing "conscience" protections for doctors and nurses who do not want to perform abortions or sterilizations. It also retains the process for allowing health workers whose rights are violated to file complaints.

Calling the Bush-era rule "unclear and potentially overbroad in scope," the new, much narrower version eliminates language that had triggered alarm among reproductive health advocates, women's groups, stem cell scientists and proponents of honoring end-life-life wishes of terminally ill patients.

"We've had conscience protections on the books in some cases for more than 30 years," said Rima Cohen, the counselor for health policy to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "When the Bush administration put these rules out, they really contained overly broad language that was confusing to people. We didn't think that was necessary."

Friday's decision was condemned by proponents of stronger protections, who say doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other workers regularly face discrimination, firing and other punitive measures because of their deeply held convictions.

"Any weakening of conscience protections opens the door that much further to discrimination against life-affirming health-care professionals and institutions," said Jonathan Imbody, vice president for government relations at the Christian Medical Association. "With many areas already facing critical shortages of professionals and institutions, this is no time to be risking the further loss of health-care access for poor patients."

The new rule, which goes into effect in 30 days, is likely to fuel the intensifying debate over abortion and related issues. House Republicans have introduced several pieces of legislation containing provisions that would replicate many of the effects of the Bush rule.

"Today, the Obama administration demonstrated exactly why we need to have strong conscience protection for health workers written into our laws," said Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), who is sponsoring the Protect Life Act, which would write more protections into the health overhaul legislation. "Without legal protection, we can certainly expect even more bureaucratic assaults on the conscience of medical workers."

The Bush regulation, which was implemented during his final days in office, would have cut off federal funding for thousands of entities, including state and local governments, hospitals, health plans and clinics, if they did not accommodate doctors, nurses, pharmacists or other employees who refused to participate in care they felt violated their personal, moral or religious beliefs. It also would have required all those entities to formally detail how they were complying.

Conservative groups said the rule was necessary because of the long failure to enforce a variety of federal laws providing protections for the "right of conscience." These laws have been on the books for decades, most notably the so-called Church and Weldon amendments.

But some argued that the regulation extended protections far beyond doctors and nurses and could essentially allow any worker in a health-care entity to refuse to participate in any services they object to, including enabling receptionists to refuse to make appointments for abortions, sterilizations, infertility treatments and other care that they find objectionable, and janitors refusing to clean up operating rooms where abortions were performed.

Soon after Obama assumed office, administration officials said they agreed the regulation was too broad and announced plans to rescind it. But officials indicated that instead of simply invalidating the rule, they would seek to replace it with a compromise. The announcement triggered more than 300,000 comments, which officials have spent months reviewing. The Federal Register notice announcing the decision cites concerns raised by both sides in the comments but concludes that most of the provisions were unnecessary and potentially problematic.

The rule will retain a provision that empowers the HHS Office of Civil Rights to investigate any complaints by workers who believe their rights under existing federal law were being violated. The office is currently investigating a complaint from a nurse who claims she was forced to perform an abortion in New York.

That office also will launch "a new awareness initiative for our grantees . . . to ensure they understand the statutory conscience protections," according to an HHS statement.

"The final conscience protection rule being issued today by HHS reaffirms the department's commitment to long-standing federal conscience statutes by maintaining and building upon provisions of the Bush administration rule that established an enforcement process for federal conscience laws, while rescinding the definitions and terms of the previous rule that caused confusion and could be taken as overly broad," according to the statement.

The decision comes as the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is investigating a complaint that religiously affiliated hospitals are violating federal law by refusing to provide certain types of care on religious grounds.

Note, this issue only effects healthcare workers of conscience who work where Federal funds are received. If you have a problem with Federal Law in this area; find, or make your own organization, that does NOT receive any Federal funding.... if you can.

MIDDLE EAST - Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya = Domino Effect?

"In Bahrain, Will Violent Crackdown Break or Bolster Opposition?"
PBS Newshour 2/18/2011


-o-

"Protests, Violence Spread in Libya as Gadhafi Clings to Power"
PBS Newshour 2/21/2011

POLITICS - Attack on Labor Unions by Wisconsin Republicans

If you look at the below excerpt you'll note that Mr. Williams fails to make the link between the budget issue and collective bargaining. He frames the whole argument around Wisconsin's budget problem and ignores the union issue.

Nowhere in the transcript is a direct linkage made between labor's bargaining rights and the state budget made. I do believe this is an attack on Labor Unions which Republicans have always hated. Wisconsin Republicans are using the state's budget problems as an excuse for killing unions. The ability of workers to bargain pay and benefits IS the core of Labor Unions.

"Wisconsin Public Workers Union Rights Go Head-to-Head with State Budget Woes" PBS Newshour Transcript 2/18/2011 (includes video)

Excerpt

JUDY WOODRUFF (Newshour): Jonathan Williams, we do hear the unions and their allies saying what Gov. Walker and these other governors, whether it's Ohio or other states, may want to do is take away their bargaining rights as unions, in other words, completely weaken or even decimate them as a union.

JONATHAN WILLIAMS, American Legislative Exchange Council: Well, you know, we really want to protect teachers. You know, they do a great service to our children. I'm a product of two public schoolteachers from Michigan. And I -- I believe they have a great value to our society.

However, the benefits have gotten out of line with those in the private sector. There's no reason why we can't go for, for instance, new teachers and say, the defined benefit model is going to fail the states. This isn't just a right-wing talking point. This is -- a former liberal speaker of the House, Willie Brown, on the left in California has said this.

It is not a partisan issue. It is an issue of fiscal sustainability for the states. You know, why do we think we are talking about bankruptcy in the states today? It's pensions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about this notion of taking way their right to have collective bargaining, in other words, the core of what a union does for its members?

JONATHAN WILLIAMS: Well, sure.

I mean, we have been seeing this. Gov. Mitch Daniels did something like this in 2005 by executive order. And, you know, we feel that, you know, through the legislative process has more transparency and accountability, so voters can weigh in. And that is what we see right now in Madison. But we do have an open and honest hearing about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what the AFT and other unions are most concerned about, Randi Weingarten?

RANDI WEINGARTEN, American Federation of Teachers: Yes, Judy.

The -- the bottom line here is taking away bargaining rights doesn't create one more cent in the Wisconsin coffers. What we're talking about is really having a voice at work.

If the governor was serious about respecting teachers, about wanting public services to be the best they could be, about wanting to make sure that he heard the taxpayers, and wanting to make sure that there was fiscal solvency in that state, he would actually talk to the workers, as opposed to ignoring every single entreaty they have made.

The reason they're on the streets is because he refuses to talk to them. The only redress they have is on the streets.

Friday, February 18, 2011

POLITICS - Boehner Looses Again

"NLRB Amendment Beaten By GOP, Dem Coalition" by Ryan Grim, Huffington Post 2/17/2011

Sixty House Republicans joined with every Democrat to beat back an anti-union amendment on Thursday that would have defunded the National Labor Relations Board, a New Deal-era independent agency that arbitrates labor disputes. The sixty defections come as the Midwest GOP governors in Wisconsin and Ohio are launching direct assaults on public employee unions.

Nine high-ranking Republican members of the Education and the Workforce Committee broke with their party to support the agency, including the chairman, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.). GOP hostility toward organized labor is not a new phenomenon, but the hostility has intensified since Republicans took control of the House; the party went so far as to rename what had been called the Education and Labor Committee, replacing "labor" with "the workforce."

The amendment had been introduced by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and was beaten back by a 250 to 176 tally.

House Republicans are piling up losses in a chamber where the majority party typically rules with an iron fist. A bipartisan coalition thwarted an effort to pass an extension of the Patriot Act and eliminated money for a weapons project that House Speaker John Boehner strongly backed.

The losses would have been avoidable had Boehner chosen to lock the House floor down and ram through the spending package without allowing amendments. But Boehner, say people close to him, is committed to keeping the floor open and allowing for a free-flowing debate, even if it costs him here and there.

In the end, he might get an open floor and win the legislative victories he wants: the House eventually passed an extension of the Patriot Act and the Senate (or Congressional dysfunction) could save the duplicate fighter-jet engine he backs. And the NLRB certainly hasn't heard the last of the GOP.

ECONOMY - Bipartisan Fix via Senate?

"Senate Pair Risks Backlash Seeking Bipartisan Fix for Deficit, Debt Crisis"
PBS Newshour 2/17/2011

These Senators are fulfilling the goal of No Labels (opens in new page), bipartisanship for the good of America.

They are also brave. Not only for even trying, but IF their effort fails, it is likely the end of their political carrier.

Now the American People will see if Republican OR Democratic hard-liners scuttle this effort.

MIDDLE EAST - Arab Public Opinion

"A Month Into 'Arab Awakening,' Governments Now 'Afraid of the Public'"
PBS Newshour 2/17/2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011

ECONOMY - Job Market is Changing

"Is Your Job an Endangered Species?" by ANDY KESSLER, Wall Street Journal 2/17/2011

So where the heck are all the jobs? Eight-hundred billion in stimulus and $2 trillion in dollar-printing and all we got were a lousy 36,000 jobs last month. That's not even enough to absorb population growth.

You can't blame the fact that 26 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed on lost housing jobs or globalization—those excuses are played out. To understand what's going on, you have to look behind the headlines. That 36,000 is a net number. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in December some 4,184,000 workers (seasonally adjusted) were hired, and 4,162,000 were "separated" (i.e., laid off or quit). This turnover tells the story of our economy—especially if you focus on jobs lost as a clue to future job growth.

With a heavy regulatory burden, payroll taxes and health-care costs, employing people is very expensive. In January, the Golden Gate Bridge announced that it will have zero toll takers next year: They've been replaced by wireless FastTrak payments and license-plate snapshots.

Technology is eating jobs—and not just toll takers.

Tellers, phone operators, stock brokers, stock traders: These jobs are nearly extinct. Since 2007, the New York Stock Exchange has eliminated 1,000 jobs. And when was the last time you spoke to a travel agent? Nearly all of them have been displaced by technology and the Web. Librarians can't find 36,000 results in 0.14 seconds, as Google can. And a snappily dressed postal worker can't instantly deliver a 140-character tweet from a plane at 36,000 feet.

So which jobs will be destroyed next? Figure that out and you'll solve the puzzle of where new jobs will appear.

Forget blue-collar and white- collar. There are two types of workers in our economy: creators and servers. Creators are the ones driving productivity—writing code, designing chips, creating drugs, running search engines. Servers, on the other hand, service these creators (and other servers) by building homes, providing food, offering legal advice, and working at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Many servers will be replaced by machines, by computers and by changes in how business operates. It's no coincidence that Google announced it plans to hire 6,000 workers in 2011.

But even the label "servers" is too vague. So I've broken down the service economy further, as a guide to figure out the next set of unproductive jobs that will disappear. (Don't blame me if your job is listed here; technology spares no one, not even writers.)

  • Sloppers are those that move things—from one side of a store or factory to another. Amazon is displacing thousands of retail workers. DMV employees and so many other government workers move information from one side of a counter to another without adding any value. Such sloppers are easy to purge with clever code.

  • Sponges are those who earned their jobs by passing a test meant to limit supply. According to this newspaper, 23% of U.S. workers now need a state license. The Series 7 exam is required for stock brokers. Cosmetologists, real estate brokers, doctors and lawyers all need government certification. All this does is legally bar others from doing the same job, so existing workers can charge more and sponge off the rest of us.

    But eDiscovery is the hottest thing right now in corporate legal departments. The software scans documents and looks for important keywords and phrases, displacing lawyers and paralegals who charge hundreds of dollars per hour to read the often millions of litigation documents. Lawyers, understandably, hate eDiscovery.

    Doctors are under fire as well, from computer imaging that looks inside of us and from Computer Aided Diagnosis, which looks for patterns in X-rays to identify breast cancer and other diseases more cheaply and effectively than radiologists do. Other than barbers, no sponges are safe.

  • Supersloppers mark up prices based on some marketing or branding gimmick, not true economic value. That Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner Two-Tone Date for $9,200 doesn't tell time as well as the free clock on my iPhone, but supersloppers will convince you to buy it. Markups don't generate wealth, except for those marking up. These products and services provide a huge price umbrella for something better to sell under.

  • Slimers are those that work in finance and on Wall Street. They provide the grease that lubricates the gears of the economy. Financial firms provide access to capital, shielding companies from the volatility of the stock and bond and derivative markets. For that, they charge hefty fees. But electronic trading has cut into their profits, and corporations are negotiating lower fees for mergers and financings. Wall Street will always exist, but with many fewer workers.

  • Thieves have a government mandate to make good money and a franchise that could disappear with the stroke of a pen. You know many of them: phone companies, cable operators and cellular companies are the obvious ones. But there are more annoying ones—asbestos testing and removal, plus all the regulatory inspectors who don't add value beyond making sure everyone pays them. Technologies like Skype have picked off phone companies by lowering international rates. And consumers are cutting expensive cable TV services in favor of Web-streamed video.

Like it or not, we are at the beginning of a decades-long trend. Beyond the demise of toll takers and stock traders, watch enrollment dwindle in law schools and medical schools. Watch the divergence in stock performance between companies that actually create and those that are in transition—just look at Apple, Netflix and Google over the last five years as compared to retailers and media.

But be warned that this economy is incredibly dynamic, and there is no quick fix for job creation when so much technology-driven job destruction is taking place. Fortunately, history shows that labor-saving machines haven't decreased overall employment even when they have made certain jobs obsolete. Ultimately the economic growth created by new jobs always overwhelms the drag from jobs destroyed—if policy makers let it happen.

EGYPT - As Seen From..... China

"China and unrest in the Arab world" by Tom Lasseter, China Rises Blog, McClatchy News 2/15/2011

I recently did a podcast interview about "What Beijing hears in Egypt's revolution" (using Russia as a sort of triangulated point of comparison). The conversation can be found by clicking here (opens in new page).

For many people watching the events unfold on Tahrir Square in Egypt during the past several weeks, there's been a quick flashback to Tiananmen Square in 1989 -- the spectacle of an ocean of protestors confronting an authoritarian regime and its tanks.

Other parallels floated around news analysis pieces and blogs -- Egypt's 1952 revolution was billed domestically as a victory against Western imperialist forces. The secular nationalist government of Hosni Mubarak, the third* in line after that revolt, slid into very deep corruption and became a regime held in place by at times brutal suppression of its own people. Political challenges were, to say the least, not encouraged. Above all else, Mubarak said that stability had to be maintained and he was the man to do it.

China's 1949 revolution was also seen as triumph over imperialist subjugation. Today's China has serious problems with corruption. And need one spell out the ways in which the Chinese government emphasizes stability and discourages political variety?

It's worth mentioning that beyond the question of corruption, the list of issues lurking beneath China's economic boom is a long one:

There are profound shortcomings with rule of law. There is growing discontent about the country's massive gap between rich and poor. It is a society with little recourse for those who have been wronged by big companies or government officials. Attempts at political dissent are not tolerated. Life in the countryside can be particularly bleak. The details of the history of the Chinese Communist Party itself are tightly controlled. Public pressure release valves, even in the coded guise of cartoons, are slammed shut by censors.

So ... Mubarak has been toppled. Could the People's Republic of China go the same way as the Arab Republic of Egypt?

AMERICA - Democracy, Stability, and Egyptian Revolution

"Since when has democracy been the antithesis of stability?" by Sahar Aziz, Huffington Post 2/10/2011

Much of the discourse on the Egyptian revolution posits democracy as antithetical to stability. As Americans, we know better.

Our country is composed of people from all over the world with diverse political views ranging from the far right to the far left. We have communities of every faith, some of whom believe the others are doomed to eternal damnation. And yet we remain immune from the political instability experienced by other more homogeneous nations.

Throughout our two hundred years, we have experienced economic, social, and political upheavals while remaining one of the most stable countries in the world. Our stability is not due to providence or mere good fortune. Rather it is our democratic institutions, individual rights, and the rule of law that shields us from the instability prevalent in nations ruled by dictators and monarchs.

Our democracy sustains our stability.

Hence if we seek stability in Egypt we should unequivocally support democracy for the Egyptian people. Not a diluted or superficial democracy based on a mere reshuffling of the usual suspects, but a fair and transparent system where the best and the brightest are elected by a people who will hold them accountable. And if they do not deliver, they will be expelled them from power through elections.

While authoritarian regimes may appear stable, it is a mirage. Their populations are seething with discontent, eagerly waiting for the first opportunity to overthrow their despised despots. In the absence of popular support, dictators retain power through torture and repression -- often facilitated by military support and political cover from our government.

Thus it is a fallacy that dictatorships are inherently more stable. As we are now witnessing in Egypt and just witnessed in Tunisia, countries ruled by dictators are kegs waiting to explode. And the outcome is the farthest thing from stable.

Yet this fact is overlooked in the US government's alarmist and infantilizing concerns about the challenges of establishing democracy in Egypt. The naysayers echo Omar Suleiman's warnings that stability is more important than democracy, as if the two are mutually exclusive. They warn that immediate transition to democracy, as opposed to the textbook delay tactics of the Mubarak regime, will result in anarchy.

Our experiences in America directly contradict such claims. When voters became disaffected with failed Republican policies, the progressive left and youth mobilized in unprecedented numbers to elect the first African American president and bolstered the number of Democrats in Congress. Two years later when the Democrats failed to deliver on their economic growth policies, they were swiftly replaced with Tea Partyers seeking to reform what they perceived as a corrupted Washington. Despite the vitriol and entrenched opposition, we held our leaders accountable through the electoral process.

Moreover, a democratic Egypt creates the opportunities for a mutually beneficial economic and political relationship between the United States and Egypt. In addition to secure access to oil and gas, we benefit from transparent and vibrant emerging markets in which to sell our goods. In turn, Egypt needs foreign investment, technology transfer, and industrialization to develop the fullest potential of its extraordinary youth.

Democratically elected rulers will be held accountable by their people to grow Egypt's economy. They will be expected to provide quality education and jobs for the youth. If these rulers embezzle state resources or abrogate civil rights, two hallmarks of the Mubarak regime, the Egyptians will expel them through the democratic process.

But when dictators, whether secular or religious, coercively rule a nation, mass revolt becomes the only means to pursue needed reform. As our own history demonstrates, there is a way to seek reform without paralyzing the economy or starting a civil war. It is called democracy.

Sahar Aziz is a Legal Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University Law Center where she teaches national security and civil rights law. She served as a Senior Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

NOTE: I became aware of the article when it was quoted at the site AltMuslim, Global perspectives on Muslim life, politics, and culture.

POLITICS - U.S. House, Breaking Ranks

"Republican centrists join Democrats on cuts" by DAVID ROGERS, Politico 2/16/11

Excerpt

House Democrats and more centrist Republicans joined forces in a series of spending votes Wednesday, scoring quick wins and sending the clearest sign yet of second thoughts in the GOP over the depth of reductions demanded by the party’s new tea party supporters.

In the second day of late-night debate, Republican freshmen again captured the headlines — tipping the scales against a costly Pentagon engine program that was the subject of fierce Washington lobbying in the prior Congress. But the re-emergence of the centrists is telling, putting the brakes on further domestic cuts and helping to restore programs backed by the White House.

Sixty-eight Republicans, backed Democrats in defense of preserving at least reduced funding for legal aid to the poor, for example. Minutes later, 70 Republicans joined 158 Democrats on a 228-203 vote that restored $280 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services or COPS program, a favorite initiative of Vice President Joe Biden. And given the power of the firefighter lobby, the dike seemed to break when as many as 132 Republicans backed an amendment by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) to restore $510 million for Homeland Security grants for first responders.

Under the rules of debate, any increase must be matched by cuts elsewhere, but Democrats saw the victories as important nonetheless as a statement of their priorities.

Aaaaaaa.... Boehner's solders not marching lockstep?
"Credit-Card Law Aids Transparency" by MAYA JACKSON RANDALL, Wall Street Journal 2/17/2011

A landmark credit-card law has made billions of dollars in charges more transparent for consumers, which should help lower costs over the long-term, according to a new report released Wednesday.

The report, by nonprofit research group Center for Responsible Lending, examines the impact of new federal credit-card rules on consumers one year after many of the new rules mandated by the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 have been put in place.

The spotlight on the credit-card rules also comes as the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is planning to evaluate the impacts ...

"More government and bigger government! More regulation! We believe in a 'buyer beware' business model where it's ONLY the consumer that is responsible for digging out the facts." says Mr. Pro-Business Republican.

MILITARY - Home Connections

"Staying in Touch With Home, for Better or Worse" by JAMES DAO, New York Times 2/16/2011

Excerpt

Forget the drones, laser-guided bombs and eye-popping satellite imagery. For the average soldier, the most significant change to modern warfare might just boil down to instant chatting.

Consider these scenes from northern Afghanistan:

A gunner inside an armored vehicle types furiously on a BlackBerry, so engrossed in text-messaging his girlfriend in the United States that he has forgotten to watch for enemy movement.

A medic watches her computer screen with something approaching rapture as her 2-year-old son in Florida scrambles in and out of view before planting wet kisses on the camera lens, 7,500 miles away.

A squad leader who has just finished directing gunfire against insurgents finds a quiet place inside his combat outpost, whips out his iPhone and dashes off an instant message to his wife back home. “All is well,” he tells her, adding, “It’s been busy.”

The communication gap that once kept troops from staying looped into the joyful, depressing, prosaic or sordid details of home life has all but disappeared. With advances in cellular technology, wider Internet access and the infectious use of social networking sites like Facebook, troops in combat zones can now communicate with home nearly around the clock.

They can partake in births and birthdays in real time. They can check sports scores, take online college courses and even manage businesses and stock portfolios.

But there is a drawback: they can no longer tune out problems like faulty dishwashers and unpaid electric bills, wayward children and failing relationships, as they once could.

The Pentagon, which for years resisted allowing unfettered Internet access on military computers because of cyber-security concerns, has now embraced the revolution, saying instant communication is a huge morale boost for troops and their families. But military officials quietly acknowledge a downside to the connectivity.

I am very happy for our troops today and fully understand what having this contact with home means. I wish I had such options during my 22yrs in the Navy.

AMERICA - On the Border, Juarez

"Juarez: 'The Most Lethal Place on Earth'"
PBS Newshour 2/16/2011

ECONOMY - The Budget, From the Independent Side

"Sen. Bernie Sanders: 'I've Got a Lot of Problems With the President's Budget'"
PBS Newshour 2/16/2011

Significant excerpts from transcript

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-Vt.): Well, that's a good question, Judy. And I think the answer is you have got to look at what's happening economically in America.

And what that's about is that our middle class is collapsing. Our median family income has gone down. Poverty is going way, way up. And the gap between the very, very rich and everybody else is going wider.

So, I think, before you look at budgets or how you deal with the deficit, you have got to take that into consideration. For example, the top 1 percent today earn more income than do the bottom 50 percent. They earn about 22 percent of every dollar earned in America. And that gap is growing wider.

Meanwhile, what this budget includes are massive tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. So, you have a situation. The rich are getting richer. Their tax rates have gone down for many, many years. Their effective tax rate right now -- people like Warren Buffett talk about this -- at 16 percent, is lower than at any time in recent history, and yet we're giving them huge tax breaks, while poverty in America is increasing.
----
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: So, I believe that we have to move toward significant deficit reduction, but you don't do it on the backs of the middle class and working families who are already suffering as a result of this Wall Street-caused recession.

You want to know the way to raise money? Put a transaction fee on Wall Street, so maybe we can curb some of the speculation and raise some money.

MIDDLE EAST - And Now Comes Bahrain

"In Bahrain, Protesters Look to Tap Into 'Regional Momentum'" PBS Newshour Transcript 2/16/2011 (includes video)

Excerpt

MARGARET WARNER (Newshour): Why has this tiny Gulf nation of one million become the latest scene of protests on the Tunisia-Egypt model?

To explore that, we turn to Toby Jones, professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University -- he's lived in Bahrain -- and Simon Henderson, a former Financial Times reporter who directs the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Gulf and Energy Program.

Welcome to you both.

Toby, more -- beginning with you, are you surprised that, of all the Gulf kingdoms, all the Gulf countries, the Bahrain has suddenly emerged as a place where you have protests that seem to be trying to model themselves after Egypt and Tunisia?

TOBY JONES, Rutgers University: Hi, Margaret. Thanks for having me.

No, I'm not surprised at all. Bahrain has a long history of political activism and civic sophistication. Over the last decade or so, Bahrainis have been agitating for political reforms of various kinds, reform to a constitution that they consider to be unfair, free and fair elections, and a more equitable distribution of power and material resources, social justice, if you will, amongst the country's majority Shiite population.

But, clearly, what we see here, too, is -- is an effort on the part of a group of Bahraini activists to tap into a sense of regional momentum. They have identified a very important moment historically across the region and are seeking to capitalize on what they believe to be a kind of energizing moment and to sort of secure some sort of legitimacy for themselves and to rally their fellow countrymen.

MARGARET WARNER: Simon Henderson, what would you add to that? And paint us a word picture of Bahrain. I mean, is this a typical Gulf oil sheikhdom? What's it like?

SIMON HENDERSON, Washington Institute For Near East Policy: Well, it isn't typical, although there are similarities.

Bahrain is the country where oil was first discovered in the southern Gulf. Ironically, now, it has very little Gulf oil left at all, and relies, frankly, on Saudi Arabia for the extra revenues it needs to live.

It's an island state. It's halfway down the southern coast, opposite Iran, and alongside the peninsula country of Qatar. Its closest ally is Saudi Arabia, with which it is connected by a causeway of 15 or so miles of bridges. And it's a place where it has a majority Shia population ruled by a Sunni ruling family, and a large banking and financial sector where -- so expatriates live there, Westerners live there and find it comfortable to live there.

But over the years, it's been overtaken in this sense of being a commercial financial center by the other Gulf sheikhdoms, like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Toby Jones, back to you on the protesters.

Now, do you have -- are these young people energized and organized on the Internet, or is this the traditional opposition, or a mix? And what are their main grievances?

TOBY JONES: Well, they're -- they represent a number of different things. And this is evolving very quickly over the last few days.

Several weeks ago, at the height of Egypt's revolution, when it became very clear that Egyptians were going to be able to rally through various media, social media and other kinds of media as well, other networks, Bahrainis began organizing. A group of young activists began organizing on Facebook and in other places preparing for what they call the day of rage this past Monday.

And they managed to energize enough folks to draw enough people into the street to constitute a significant presence. But they also alarmed Bahraini security forces, and police -- the police responded, as Bahraini police have done over the last few years, with incredibly brutal tactics, killing at least one person on Monday and then killing a second person on Tuesday.

And the consequence of that is what might have been a relatively small outpouring of people, continuing the tradition over recent years of small public protests and civil disobedience, has now turned into arguably a movement with national and much more significant consequence.

So, the demands of the younger generation are very clear. And they're focused on a key set of political things: reform of basic institutions of governance, the parliament, the constitution, as I mentioned earlier, but also a readjustment of the material relationship and the kind of -- you know, the socioeconomic status of the island's majority Shiite population, which faces a number of different kinds of discriminatory practices on the part of the government.

The government has taken a dim view of its Shia community over the last several decades and has implemented various oppressive and repressive apparatuses to make sure that they don't enjoy any kind of considerable political influence.

Ah! The classic mistake of authoritarian governments. Not understanding that violence against protesters makes things worst, magnifies the situation.

ALSO

"Unrest Spreads, Some Violently, in Middle East" by NEIL MacFARQUHAR, New York Times 2/16/2011

Excerpt

From northern Africa to the Persian Gulf, governments appeared to flounder over just how to outrun mostly peaceful movements, spreading erratically like lava erupting from a volcano, with no predictable end.

The protests convulsed half a dozen countries across the Middle East on Wednesday, with tens of thousands of people turning out in Bahrain to challenge the monarchy, a sixth day of running street battles in Yemen, continued strikes over long-suppressed grievances in Egypt and a demonstrator’s funeral in Iran turning into a brief tug of war between the government and its opponents.

Even in heavily policed Libya, pockets of dissent emerged in the main square of Benghazi, with people calling for an end to the 41-year rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Iraq, accustomed to sectarian conflict, got a dose of something new: a fiery protest in the eastern city of Kut over unemployment, sporadic electricity and government corruption. And the protesters in Bahrain were confronted Thursday morning by riot police officers who rushed into the main square in Manama firing tear gas and concussion grenades.

The unrest has been inspired partly by grievances unique to each country, but many shared a new confidence, bred in Egypt and Tunisia, that a new generation could challenge unresponsive authoritarian rule in ways their parents thought impossible.

"The Pharaoh has left (and now comes the hard part)" by Rose Aslan, AltMuslim 2/12/2011

Excerpt

Now that Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has resigned after 18 days of peaceful and persistent protests, the real revolution must start from inside by Egyptians themselves.

ECONOMY - Budget in Spin Cycle

"Budget Spin" by Eugene Kiely, Lori Robertson, D’Angelo Gore, Brooks Jackson, Michael Morse and Lara Seligman; FactCheck.org 2/16/2011

Excerpt

Obama and Republicans give different -- and less-than-factual -- takes on the president's 2012 budget

Summary

Democrats and Republicans disagree strongly about elements of President Obama’s 2012 budget, but they are alike in one respect: Both sides are misrepresenting important facts.
  • Obama claimed that by the middle of this decade his budget “will not be adding more to the national debt.” But that’s not true. The debt will continue to grow by more than $600 billion even in 2015, the year with the least red ink projected.

  • The president also claims that the “discretionary” budget is only 12 percent of the total. It’s actually 36 percent. Obama, like President Bush before him, is referring to “non-security” spending that excludes not only the Pentagon but the Department of Homeland Security and veterans’ benefits.

  • Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the Budget Committee, repeated a false claim that Obama has increased domestic discretionary spending by 84 percent over the last two years. He hasn’t. That spending went up 27 percent, even counting stimulus spending, according to the official tally from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

  • Ryan’s committee also claims that Obama’s budget contains $1.6 trillion in “new taxes.” Actually, 44 percent of that total is made up of increases scheduled under current law, not proposed in the budget. And one big proposed increase is offset by Obama holding down a scheduled rise in the Alternative Minimum Tax.

We found several other false claims, too. Speaker Boehner claimed Obama has added 200,000 federal workers, when official figures put the total at 58,000, and Sarah Palin claimed in a bogus Twitter message that Obama’s cuts are only 0.1 percent of the deficit, when the true figure is 20 times higher. For the full story on those and more, please read on to the Analysis section.

More follows in Analysis section of full article.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

SCIENCE - Here Comes Watson

"A: This Computer Could Defeat You at 'Jeopardy!' Q: What is Watson?"
PBS Newshour 2/14/2011

Excerpt from transcript for techies:

MILES O'BRIEN, Newshour science correspondent: That's David Ferrucci, Watson's proud papa.

DAVID FERRUCCI, Watson Project, IBM: So, you're looking at 10 racks of power 750. So, there's 10 racks. There's 90 what they call power 750 servers.

MILES O'BRIEN: He introduced me to his silicon progeny.

DAVID FERRUCCI: So, overall, there's about 2,880 cores in that system, about 15 terabytes of RAM.

MILES O'BRIEN: For those of us who don't have a doctorate in computer science, Watson is equivalent to about 6,000 high-end home computers. But the secret sauce is the software that gives Watson the ability to understand language like no computer ever has.

NOVA - Smartest Machine on Earth (full show)

MEDIA - Egypt , Satellite TV, and Tweeter/Facebook

"Social Media and Satellite TV: A One-Two Punch Against Mubarak"
PBS Newshour 2/14/2011

MIDDLE EAST - More on Ripple Effect

(click for better view)

"Q&A: Following Upheaval in Egypt, Are Other Countries Next?" by Larisa Epatko, PBS Newshour 2/14/2011

After government-toppling protests in Tunisia and Egypt, other "people power" protests are popping up around the region.

Yemen was quick to follow with demonstrations of its own. In Jordan, King Abdullah moved fast to quell protests in his country by dismantling the cabinet.

In Algeria, anti-government activists defied a government ban over the weekend and tried to march in the capital Algiers, but scores of riot police were deployed to disband the demonstrations.

The Iranian opposition movement, quashed last year, reappeared Monday in Tehran's Enghelab (Revolution) Square, where police used tear gas on the crowds.

And in Bahrain, protesters demanding more political freedoms and jobs also were confronted by police.

We asked Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to describe the sources of discontent in other countries in the region and the similarities and differences between their protests and those seen in Egypt and Tunisia:

Algeria

Algeria is a huge oil producer, so rather than getting money in aid, the government takes in much more money through the oil business, but a lot of people feel that money doesn't trickle down.

There's a huge problem with hidden unemployment in Algeria, as people stay in school because they can't get jobs. But it's not that they're really working in school, they're just avoiding being on the job market. So there's very high unemployment, especially among university graduates, and really profound unhappiness -- they believe it should be a wealthy country but it's not.

One of the significant things about Algeria is you really have very large population centers along the coast that aren't Algiers. There are other major cities which have even more of the problems and get less attention initially. So like Tunisia, you might have the case where things start outside the capital and move in, rather than starting inside the capital and moving out.

Iran

One of the big differences with Iran is you don't have a huge Farsi media environment, and I think that one of the important things in Egypt was the combination of social networking and satellite television. In Iran, you don't have the same impact with an Al Jazeera or an Al Arabiya reporting on the protests. That being said, as we've seen before, the economic conditions in Iran are ripe for unrest. It's just a question of how you catalyze them.

Yemen

Yemen doesn't have the sort of educated, disaffected population that we've seen in other places. It has an uneducated, disaffected population. And Yemeni politics have generally been interest group politics. That is, people have oftentimes through their tribes appealed for more resources.

There are three insurgencies going on in Yemen: one in the north with the Huthi (Shiite rebels) rebels; one with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which probably involves a few hundred fighters and many more people who are sympathetic, and then a secessionist movement in the South. It feels to me like in Yemen it's not so much the unified claim against the system as it's individual groups appealing for a larger share of the pie.

One of the interesting things about Egypt was you really had a movement that was able to unify and cross all kinds of boundaries, so it was broadly national, it was all classes, it seemed to cross all interest groups. And in Yemen, it's hard to imagine how that breadth comes together.

Jordan

Because you have a king, you have a little bit of a different situation. It gives a little more flexibility because a king can act like a referee instead of a player. He can move everybody around and can act in the national interests without losing in a way a president of a republic can't. But it's still a delicate game for kings to play.

Libya and Syria

Libya and Syria are not far from where Tunisia was -- authoritarian governments, tight police states, very strict control of information, and have young people who are relatively educated or aspire to be who don't see very many opportunities. They are two places where the government actively tried to keep things under wraps like Tunisia did, and so far has been successful. People have talked about protests and they fizzled. But the question becomes, looking forward, how successful will they be.

Many leaders in the region are on edge, though some places might not be as prone as others to an Egyptian-style revolution, said Alterman. "The Saudi government is clearly concerned, but they control so much of the wealth in society, and there is such a tight tie between the religious establishment and the monarchy, and such a social emphasis on loyalty and conformity that Saudi Arabia strikes me as less likely than many places to go through an upheaval," he said.

Moroccans might be worried, he continued, because you have a large population with an economy which hasn't performed as well as people would like, and people are critical of the control of life by people close to the palace.

"I think the reality is everybody's worried, because Egypt was a cornerstone in the stability of the region. Egypt was not a risk-taking society under Hosni Mubarak, and that a place that was trying to play it all very conservatively should shudder is a cautionary tale for everybody," Alterman said.


ALSO

"Iran Uses Force Against Protests as Region Erupts" by NEIL MacFARQUHAR and ALAN COWELL, New York Times 2/14/2011