Democracy Gone Astray

Democracy, being a human construct, needs to be thought of as directionality rather than an object. As such, to understand it requires not so much a description of existing structures and/or other related phenomena but a declaration of intentionality.
This blog aims at creating labeled lists of published infringements of such intentionality, of points in time where democracy strays from its intended directionality. In addition to outright infringements, this blog also collects important contemporary information and/or discussions that impact our socio-political landscape.

All the posts here were published in the electronic media – main-stream as well as fringe, and maintain links to the original texts.

[NOTE: Due to changes I haven't caught on time in the blogging software, all of the 'Original Article' links were nullified between September 11, 2012 and December 11, 2012. My apologies.]

Thursday, June 30, 2011

CIA Interrogation Deaths: Justice Department To Investigate Deaths Of Two Detainees

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department inquiry into CIA interrogations of terrorist detainees has led to a full criminal investigation into the deaths of two people while they were in custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Thursday.

The attorney general said that he accepted the recommendation of a federal prosecutor, John Durham, who since August 2009 has conducted an inquiry into CIA interrogation practices during the Bush administration. Holder said Durham looked at the treatment of 101 detainees in U.S. custody since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and concluded that only these two deaths warranted criminal investigation. Holder said Durham found some of the 101 had never been held by the CIA.

Holder did not identify the two death cases. But former and current U.S. officials who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation said Durham was looking at the deaths of Gul Rahman and Manadel al-Jamadi.

Rahman died in the early hours of Nov. 20, 2002, after being shackled to a cold cement wall in a secret CIA prison in northern Kabul, Afghanistan, known as the Salt Pit. He was suspected of links to the terrorist group al-Qaida. Rahman is the only detainee known to have died in a CIA-run prison.

Al-Jamadi died in 2003 at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The death has been known to the public for years and a military autopsy declared al-Jamadi's death a homicide.

This month, a former Abu Ghraib prison guard at the time of al-Jamadi's death, Lynndie England, was ordered to testify in a grand jury probe in Alexandria, Va. A subpoena signed by Durham for England's appearance says her testimony is needed in a probe of federal criminal laws involving war crimes, torture and other offenses. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the subpoena.

England, an Army reservist serving as a military policeman at Abu Ghraib, was among 11 soldiers found guilty of wrongdoing in the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and 2004. Photographs showed England holding a restraint around a man's neck, and giving a thumbs-up and pointing at the genitals of naked, hooded men, a cigarette dangling from her mouth.

England's attorney, Roy Hardy, told the AP that England testified along with former MPs Chip Frederick and Sabrina Harman before the grand jury earlier this month.

On his last day as CIA director, Leon Panetta emphasized the wide scope of Durham's preliminary review.

"After extensive examination of more than 100 instances in which CIA had contact or was alleged to have had contact with terrorist detainees," the prosecutor "has determined that no further law enforcement action is appropriate in all but two discrete cases," Panetta, who will be sworn in Friday as the new defense secretary, said in a statement.

Panetta added that "both cases were previously reviewed by career federal prosecutors who subsequently declined prosecution."

"I welcome the news that the broader inquiries are behind us," Panetta said. "We are now finally about to close this chapter of our agency's history."

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

Empire or Republic?

Among all the foreign policy decisions President Obama has made, the most surprising may be the one to go to war in Libya without either requesting a declaration of war from Congress, as required by the Constitution, or obtaining legislative authorization, as required by the War Powers Resolution of 1973. Some have suggested that authorization could have been easily obtained at the time the war was launched, when public sentiment against the murderous Qaddafi regime was running high. In that case, the decision not to ask for it seems an especially gratuitous insult to Congress. But if the opposite was true, and Congress at the time had turned down authorization, then the situation is worse. In that case, the war should never have happened at all, for it was started in defiance of the only body of government empowered by the Constitution to initiate war.

Congress’s recent actions have done nothing to clarify the situation. The House rejected Dennis Kucinich’s resolution to force a withdrawal, but it also defeated one to authorize the war. Then the House turned down a bill that would have cut off some, but not all, funding for the Libya operation.

The still-unresolved debate over the wisdom of engaging in this conflict, which The Nation opposes, raises once again the general question of how, in our time, the United States shall decide whether or not to go to war. Perhaps surprisingly, the tightest restrictions on executive war-making are those in the 233-year-old Constitution. Article 1, Section 8, states, “Congress shall have power to declare war,” leaving to the executive only the waging of the war thus initiated. This division of responsibilities was an application of the principle of the separation of powers, which many believe is the specific genius of the American Constitution. As Bennett Ramberg of Politico reminded us recently, James Madison articulated the principle in the clearest terms when he said, “Those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things be proper or safe judges, whether a war ought to be commenced, continued or concluded.” Madison’s use of the word “judges” is telling. Just as a judge only applies the law and does not make it, he seems to be saying, so a president only fights a war and must not initiate it. If those who fight the wars could send themselves to war, dangerous abuses of power would result.

Curiously, the War Powers Resolution, though an attempt to recoup Congressional power, also waters down the clear constitutional provision. It tries through legislation to recover some of the war-
declaring power enshrined in the Constitution. (In cases of attack on the United States or its territories or armed forces, the resolution permits the executive to conduct hostilities for sixty days, after which it must obtain Congressional

One might have thought that the Constitution—the fundamental law of the land—would be a stronger bulwark of powers than a mere Congressional resolution. But one would be wrong, in this case. The Constitution is not self-regulating. Ordinarily, constitutional law is decisive because the courts uphold it. But in the case of war powers, the courts have regularly abdicated, calling war a “political question” unsuited for adjudication. Thus, one breakdown in the separation of powers—the separation of executive from judicial that gives the courts the power to judge the constitutionality of executive actions—has led to another: Congress’s neglect of its own war power.

Congress has been thrown back on its own devices. What should it do? Some suggest that the nature of war has changed so much in the two centuries since the Constitution was established that the whole idea of declaring war is obsolete. Charles Krauthammer writes that declarations of war are “a relic of a more aristocratic era.”

We disagree. The constitutional provision—not the War Powers Resolution—if insisted on by a resolute Congress, would be the strongest and best medicine available for the specific evils afflicting US policy. These can be summed up as the transmogrification of the republic into an empire. If, like Krauthammer, you think that with the end of the cold war “something new was born, something utterly new—a unipolar world dominated by a single superpower unchecked by any rival and with decisive reach in every corner of the globe”; and if, like Krauthammer and the entire neoconservative tribe, you revel in that notion, then you are right to wish to jettison Congress’s war-declaring power. The rules of a republic are as poisonous to an empire as the rules of empire are to a republic.

On the other hand, what better check could there be to the imperial panoply of interminable nation-building campaigns, secret armies, covert operations, regime-change quagmires, offshore torture centers, out-of-control armed corporations, runaway military spending, wars by fleets of robots, wars by assassination—and all the other features of the imperial presidency—than a requirement to bring these machinations to light and render them accountable to democratic deliberation? It is not in spite of the changes in warfare but precisely because of them that we should recover the wisdom of Madison, who knew a thing or two about fighting empires. A choice is being made between the empire and the republic. Let us choose the republic—and the Constitution on which it rests.

Source: The Nation 

A Stunning Development in the Swipe Fee Debate

Earlier this month, we reported on the Senate battle over “swipe fees,” which banks charge merchants for processing credit or debit cards. It appeared the story was over, and an effort by banks to maintain high swipe fees was vanquished—but an 11th hour action by the Federal Reserve yesterday has given Wall Street yet another astonishing victory in Washington.

The average swipe fee in America is 44 cents, the highest rate in the world. In December, the Federal Reserve released an analysis saying that banks could still make profit by charging 12 cents per transaction, and under the Dodd-Frank financial reform, planned to enforce this cap starting today.

Banks—which collect $20 billion every year from swipe fees—naturally did not want this revenue reduced by almost 75 percent. Early this year, they launched a massive lobbying campaign to pass a bill by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) that would delay the Federal Reserve’s cap. Retailers, who claim high fees drive up prices and hurt the bottom line of small stores, had their own well-funded campaign to defeat the bill, and ultimately prevailed. On June 8, Tester’s bill failed to win a cloture vote.

It was a ridiculously expensive battle, utilizing hundreds of lobbyists and tens of millions of dollars in contributions and advertising. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) joked that it was a “full employment” bill, because “everybody who is a lobbyist in Washington is working on this amendment.” Sen. Lindsey Graham said that “everybody and their grandmother’s lobbying on this” and added it was in the “top ten” of brutal and well-funded lobbying battles that he’s seen.

The takeaway was that Wall Street could be defeated in Washington, but perhaps only by an equally well-funded special interest. As it turns out, even that assessment undersold the banks’ influence. Yesterday, less than 24 hours before their rules were to go into effect, the Federal Reserve announced it would cap the fees at as high as 24 cents, not 12.

In announcing that the Fed would double the proposed cap, chairman Ben Bernanke said “I think this is the best available solution that implements the will of Congress and makes good economic decisions.” Alongside the Senate fight, Wall Street has also been pressuring the Fed to help them out, and apparently their pleas have been heard.

Even though the 12-cent cap imposed a 75 percent reduction, the profit margin on 12 cents was still 70 percent. When Bernanke spoke of a “good economic decision” by doubling that cap, he could only have been speaking of bank balance sheets.

Moreover, the Fed’s action essentially exempts debit-card swipes from the regulation. As Zach Carter explains at the Huffington Post, the 44-cent swipe fee average is actually a composite of two different averages. When you swipe your card at a store and choose “credit” and provide a signature, the average fee charged by banks is 56 cents. When you choose debit and enter a PIN number, the average fee is 23 cents.

Full Article
Source: The Nation 

New York's AG Takes on the Banks

The most powerful Wall Street banks are used to getting their own way, especially with politicians, but New York’s attorney general is trying to turn the tables on them. Eric Schneiderman is digging into the accumulating evidence of massive fraud and false documentation revealed by the foreclosure mess and asks a potentially explosive question: How bad is it?

The answer could prove devastating for some of the largest financial institutions in the land, confronting them with huge new losses and maybe renewing the banking crisis the Obama administration thought it had resolved. Perhaps that’s why law-enforcement agencies, state and federal, have not undertaken a thorough investigation of the scandal—they’re afraid of what they might find. The newly elected New York AG has been obliquely warned that his inquiry could “blow up the economy,” but he ignores the scare talk. If the evidence is there, it should definitely put the banks on the defensive, for a change.

In recent months, Schneiderman’s office has dispatched requests for records and information from seven of the biggest banks (Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, UBS, Royal Bank of Scotland and Deutsche Bank). One way or another, they were the leading players in the housing bubble, either by originating subprime mortgages of dubious quality or by packaging the mortgage-backed securities that turned into toxic assets for unwitting investors.

Schneiderman has further requested information from four bond insurers that backed the investment paper, a Buffalo law firm known as a mortgage mill and two private equity firms that owned processing firms in the mortgage market. Most important, however, is his request to see files from the two leading banks—Deutsche Bank and Bank of New York Mellon—that acted as trustees for the mortgage securities, certifying that all complied with property-law requirements and provided the proper documentation.

The storm of foreclosure litigation during the past year strongly suggests the opposite. Around the country, lawyers for homeowners have won scores of cases blocking banks from foreclosing on their clients. Courts have held that mortgages or securities were fatally flawed and therefore void. Banks filed false affidavits and unsupported documents, in effect defrauding the courts. When judges asked for backup evidence of ownership, lawyers went to the trustees and found that the mortgages and liens were not in the files. Bankers couldn’t prove they owned the homes they were seizing. Often they couldn’t even establish who owned the loans or whether borrowers were actually in default. Many documents were signed by untrained functionaries who didn’t bother to examine what they were signing.

Full Article
Source: The Nation 

Charles Lewis: Ottawa seizes defeat from jaws of postal victory

Many Canadians were impressed with Stephen Harper’s handling of the recent disruptions at Canada Post. He got tough on unionized labour and showed them what’s what.

But this decision was a disaster. It saw a conservative government insert itself into the marketplace and at the same time stifle innovation and reform.

By forcing the issue with Canada Post, Mr. Harper has essentially declared that the unionized postal service performs an essential service. He’s almost given the union justification for more labour disruptions in the future.

In effect, Mr. Harper said to Canada Post and its employees: as a country, we can’t do without you.

He also seems to think that the idea of negotiation goes against some free market principle. The union was locked out; they were not on strike. Why didn’t the government use its power or influence to end the lockout? We could have put up with rotating strikes for a while and eventually Canada Post would have sorted itself out with the union. There is either a right to negotiate or there isn’t.

Perhaps a long strike might have set the stage for real alternatives to our unionized postal system and paved the way for real innovation.

Most people can pay bills online. Most everyone has heard of email. Small businesses, at least many of them, could have started online banking relations with their suppliers and customers. Even if they do not do that now, the market would have eventually rushed in to fill the void.

That is what’s supposed to happen when you believe in free enterprise. But sometimes it means suffering some short-term pain for long-term change. Which means sticking to principles.

Why would anyone try to fill that void now, knowing the government would make sure Canada Post has the monopoly because they are seen as an essential service?

The oddest thing about all this is that we’re supposed to living in the age of the Internet. Just look at what the Internet just accomplished in changing the face of the music business. Years ago many complained about the price of record albums and CDs. Then the Internet came along. And eventually companies found a way to sell music online. Essentially, a few entrepreneurs ended up closing a nearly 100-year era of music being bought at retail chains.

This month, HMV sold 121 locations for about $3-million — in essence, giving away the chain for free. So if that’s possible in the music business, imagine what innovation would have come in if a postal strike persisted.

Before the labour disruption began, nearly ever newspaper in the country wrote stories that the importance of Canada Post was withering and a strike would not have the impact it would have had even 10 years ago.

Mr. Harper proved everyone wrong because he doesn’t take his own conservative principles seriously.

Source: National Post 

Greek parliament passes 2nd austerity bill

Greek legislators have passed a bill to fast-track fresh austerity measures demanded by international creditors, following two days of rioting in Athens that left some 200 people injured.

The European Union and International Monetary Fund have insisted that Greece back a five-year austerity package in return for making more money available to prevent a default on its debts next month.

This second austerity bill spells out how the plan will be implemented.

On Wednesday, the Greek parliament approved the five-year, €28-billion ($40-billion) package of spending cuts and tax increases, leaving details of the cuts to be approved Thursday.

Now that the latest austerity measures are approved, the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund are in a position to release the €12 billion ($17 billion) that is due from last year's package of rescue loans for Greece.

Without the financial assistance, Greece was facing bankruptcy as soon as the middle of July. A Greek default on its debts could trigger a major banking crisis and potential turmoil in global markets, similar to what happened when the Lehman Brothers investment house collapsed in 2008 in the United States.

As a result, markets around the world breathed a sigh of relief after Wednesday's vote and continued to make gains on Thursday.

The €12 billion will tide Greece over until mid-September, according to government officials, but it looks like it will need a lot more money in the years to come. Creditors are considering giving Greece a second, major support package to cover upcoming financing gaps.

Last year's €110-billion ($159-billion) package was predicated on Greece being able to tap bond market investors for cash next year but with the country's interest rates at exorbitant levels, that looks highly unlikely.

Although stock markets in Europe and New York have seen gains in response to the austerity plan, with banks among the top performers, the measures have met with resistance on the streets of Greece.

On Wednesday, riots erupted for a second day outside the parliament in Athens, with police clashing and firing tear gas at protesters after a failed attempt to blockade the building.

The violence left more than 50 stores damaged. There was heavy security outside the parliament buildings in Athens on Thursday as legislators debated the austerity plan.

Full Article
Source: CBC  news  

NATO not involved in foreign weapon deliveries to Libya

TRIPOLI — NATO was not involved in a French airlift of weapons to Libyan rebels, the alliance’s chief said on Thursday, sharpening differences over how far Western powers should go to oust Moammar Gadhafi.

France on Wednesday became the first NATO country to openly acknowledge arming rebels seeking to topple Gadhafi, who has resisted an uprising against his rule that has turned into the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” revolts sweeping the region.

The French weapons airlift has ruffled diplomatic feathers, with some governments questioning whether it contravenes a United Nations arms embargo and goes beyond the terms of a UN resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, was asked by reporters on a visit to Vienna if NATO was involved in the French move. “No,” he answered.

“As regards compliance with the UN Security Council resolution, it is for the UN sanctions committee to determine that,” Rasmussen said.

China, a permanent member of the Security Council which has taken a cautious line on military intervention in Libya, weighed into the debate, though it stopped short of criticizing France.

“China urges the international community to strictly abide by the spirit of the relevant UN Security Council resolution and not take any actions that exceed the authority granted by that resolution,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said when asked about France’s action.

In the rebel-held city of Misrata, about 200 kilometres east of Tripoli, six rockets landed early on Thursday in the Habara district, near the city’s oil refinery and port. A Reuters journalist in Misrata said there were no casualties.

Britain’s military said its Apache helicopters had attacked a government checkpoint and two military vehicles near Khoms, on the Mediterranean coast between Misrata and Tripoli.

Insurgents in the area say Gadhafi’s forces are massing, and bringing up weapons, to quell an uprising in the nearby town of Zlitan, though this cannot be independently verified.


Russia's foreign minister says France violated a United Nations resolution by dropping weapons to the Libyan opposition fighting Mommar Gadhafi's forces.

Sergey Lavrov says his ministry has formally asked Paris for information about the move.

He said Thursday that if confirmed, airlifting weapons to the opposition would represent a “flagrant violation” of the UN Security Council resolution that sanctioned the military operation in Libya.

Russia abstained in the UN vote on Libya and has voiced concern about civilian casualties and excessive use of force by NATO.

French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said Wednesday that the weapons deliveries took place in early June in the western Nafusa Mountains, when Gadhafi's troops had encircled civilians and blocked humanitarian aid shipments.


France said on Wednesday it did not break a UN arms embargo by airlifting weapons to Libya’s rebels because the weapons were needed to defend civilians under threat.

Le Figaro newspaper said France had parachuted rocket launchers, assault rifles and anti-tank missiles into the Western Mountains region, southwest of Tripoli, in early June. A military spokesman later confirmed delivery of arms.

The French airlift highlights a dilemma facing NATO in Libya. If it sticks to the letter of the UN resolution, Gadhafi could hold on to power for months.

But if it takes a more proactive role in helping the rebels, the already fragile coalition backing military action could fall apart.

At an African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea, AU Commission chief Jean Ping said arms going into Libya could end up in the hands of Al Qaeda allies in the region.

“Africa’s concern is that weapons that are delivered to one side or another ... are already in the desert and will arm terrorists and fuel trafficking,” Ping told reporters.

Even France’s allies reacted cautiously. British Minister for International Security Gerald Howarth said he had no criticism of France’s actions, but added: “It’s not something we shall be doing.”

The rebels, though, encouraged more arms deliveries. “Giving (us) weapons we will be able to decide the battle more quickly, so that we can shed as little blood as possible,” senior rebel figure Mahmoud Jibril told a news conference in Vienna.

Full Article
Source: Toronto Star 

Black Bloc party

It was quick, it was ephemeral, it was — what was it exactly?

The "Black Block Party", thirty black-clad folk, gathered at King and Bay Friday at 5, to “mourn the loss of civil liberties" and remember the G20 debacle. The group aimed, as their press release said, "to commemorate the weekend that power came to town, and remind residents of Toronto of the tenuous nature of our democracy."

Organizers called it an “act of passive confrontation’’, but it was really just a kind of friendly hanging-out affair set against a rush-hour of pedestrians anxious to start their weekends.

No bandanas or police in sight — and activists freely offered up their motivations and intentions. Claudia Wittmann, a performance artist, told me “anarchists have been badly portrayed’’ and that she was happy to be here "symbolically putting my body in this place of power."

Onen musician there said she was wearing black not just to represent the black bloc tactic, but to signify, as well, the black- suited corporate uniform common in the business district. This corner, she pointed out, "holds special meaning because a police car was burned here a year ago." But I couldn’t exactly make out what her vantage point on this was.

One participant said he thought folks at Car-Free Kensington on Sunday might build a giant paper mache kettle — and another suggested it might be taken later that eve to Queen and Spadina. I got a little excited by this, but then again, no one was certain it would actually happen.

Then, poof, the little clutch of black vanished into thin air, leaving the corner to the rushing masses.

Source: Now 

Chief on the defensive

Strange that the Toronto Police After-Action Review of the G20 hit the news Friday, June 24, the same day a gaggle of black-clad protesters turned up at King and Bay to commemorate the G20 and black blocism and denounce corporate capitalism.

After all, the black bloc and “violence we have never seen before” are the stars of the After-Action Review, while thousands of peaceful demonstrators, many of them traumatized by the police response, only get cameos.

No question, the report, which describes the unfolding of events through the filter of the cop imagination, is a captivating read. It’s written like a movie script, with a 21-page timeline full of drama and foreboding. Its purpose is obviously to prove that police were faced with “sustained, serious and widespread criminality and public disorder” and hence ought to be forgiven their civil liberties transgressions.

I can’t tell, reading the blizzard of details, where the deliberate attempt to derail with the extraneous ends and the honest paranoia begins.

For example: Friday, 3 pm: “Major Incident Command Centre (MICC) advised officers that protesters at Allan Gardens were loading backpacks with stones, bricks and fluids.” Bad news, to be sure. But then we get this ambiguous piece of fluff: officers “seized a number of sticks” from buses carrying protesters from Montreal. For placards, ya think?

3:25 pm: “A group of clowns dip handkerchiefs in vinegar.” So? We all carried vinegar-soaked bandanas for tear gas eventualities. Did they think every act of defence was an incipient rampage?

Saturday, 3:04 pm: “A large amount of smoke” appeared at Queen and Spadina. “MICC directed officers to put on gas masks.”

Actually, it was a rather small cloud of smoke, but in the boomerang dynamics of the day, when police donned gas masks, panicked protesters reached for their bandanas. And so it went.

The section on Sunday’s kettling is titillating mostly for what it doesn’t say. We learn that Toronto police won’t use this tactic again, but we now discover there was an operational conflict on the spot. The MICC, a creature of the Integrated Security Unit, directed at 5:47 pm “that the crowd be boxed in on all four sides.”

But from 6:01 on, field commanders were offering “alternative courses of action,” including opening up an exit, but were overruled by the MICC. Look for the next wave of revelations to focus on the tense relationship between Chief Bill Blair and reps from the OPP and RCMP.

The odd thing about reading all this is the hallucinogenic way it’s possible to see two frames at once: from the street Friday afternoon, the temporary boxing in of protesters at Elm and University was inexplicable; from the vantage point of nervous officers fed a 5:10 report that black blocers were mixing “unknown liquids or chemicals in plastic bags and jars producing black smoke” things obviously looked different. At 5:42, the report says, those in black were “arming themselves with bricks and rocks,” which explains the mysterious disappearance of the friendly cop bike squad and its replacement  by the helmets-and-shields crew.

But where is the sense of proportion in all this? The smash-up brigade was an infinitesimal fraction of a mass protest that should get a medal for patience, good humour and peaceableness.

And that’s what sucks about this review: it’s a pumped-up excuse for the fact that officers lost both their heads and their perspective. Yes, Bill Blair in a fit of seeming transparency is baring some of the operational details. But there is no mea culpa, no meditation on guaranteeing citizen rights in the midst of a security op, no apology on mass detentions or illegal searches.

It’s a document of entrenchment, not one of rapprochement. We’re not on a healing journey, folks.

But there’s no point in a black bloc whitewash either; besides the cruiser-torching and window-smashing, the report has blocers heaving rocks at police (so much for “It’s only property damage”), mixing up molotovs and deftly disappearing and reappearing in small strategic groups all over the downtown, signs of activists on a manic mission.

I was thinking of this last Friday in the business district, talking to folks at the Black Block Party, an attempt – or maybe not – at irony.

They were friendly and articulate, wearing black to mourn the loss of rights, dis black business suits – and highlight black bloc tactics. One said it felt right to be at King and Bay because one of the police cars had been set ablaze here.

Such a misplaced commemoration. Even if you believe only a smattering of the police report, there’s still a political pathology at the grassroots. But then again, there’s one at 40 College, too. Which one is likely to be cured first?

Full Article
Source: Now 

We’re not done yet

Pride festivities are now over 30 years old, so theoretically they’ve reached adult status.

Too bad that isn’t true of the straight world, which still can’t wrap its head around the complexities of queer life.

The cold shoulder Mayor Rob Ford’s giving Pride this year makes the point, but city council isn’t the only place where queer-dissing is tolerated.

Noticed how everyone’s not loving that rainbow flag? We may think of Toronto as worldly and cosmopolitan, but the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board doesn’t want to see that multicoloured symbol in its so-called places of learning. And many Catholic schools are still having conniptions over a term like “gay-straight alliance.”

The stats aren’t friendly either. Queer-bashing happens regularly, and the suicide rate among gay teens is higher than in almost every other demographic.

And while kids have it tough, so do aging gay couples in retirement homes.

But beyond these obvious considerations I’ll make a more daring assumption. Admit it. About half of you LGBT readers (yes, I mean NOW readers) are either not out at work and/or still dread the predictable interrogations you face at family dinners.

All across the spectrum, from those who experience the devastation of bullying and other toxic manifestations of homophobia to those of us who are lucky enough to harbour relatively trivial concerns – like, where does a well-endowed butch dyke shop anyway? – the world is not always a welcoming place.

But there’s no question, to paraphrase the It Gets Better campaign, that things are better than they were.

And a lot of that has to do with Pride. The activists who helped found Pride from the roots of gay liberation worry that festival organizers have lost sight of the event’s history of resistance. But as it’s turned out, the festival continues to remind those who want to shut us out that our numbers are huge, our vision is strong and we can attract nearly a million people – straight, queer and beyond – for a mammoth party that generates not one single violent incident.

Better still, the festival gives those kids from small towns and everyone else who feels like an outsider a safe zone to be themselves.

Pride Day presents a magnificent spectacle demonstrating the power – financial and political – of Toronto’s queer community and celebrating sexual diversity and inclusiveness.

Come on down and hang out alongside a vibrant community that values freedom and is passionate about our city.

And you can wear whatever you want.

Full Article
Source: Now 

Texas Drought Declared Natural Disaster

Drought and wildfires have lead to the decision by the US Department of Agriculture to declare the entire state of Texas a natural disaster.

KCBD in Lubbock reports that in all, 213 counties in Texas have lost at least 30 percent of their crops or pasture.

The disaster declaration will allow farmers and ranchers to qualify for emergency loans at lower interest rates.

"This is a disaster," Texas farmer Scott Harmon said. "This is a train wreck."

Mike Swain, who farms south of Brownfield, told the Lubbock Avalanche Journal that loans aren't what he's looking for.

"I will be real honest, I don't need a loan - I need rain," Swain said.

Ranchers have also been hurt by the drought, Swain noted.

"A lot of people have lost their livestock, their homes, their fencing," he said.

Source: Huffington 

Michele Bachmann Defends Medicaid Funds To Husband Marcus Bachmann's Clinic

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann is deflecting questions about federally subsidized health dollars that have flowed to her husband's mental health clinic.

As the tea party hero tours the nation attacking the size of federal government, the Minnesota congresswoman has come under heightened scrutiny over public dollars flowing to family business interests. That includes $137,000 that Bachmann and Associates has received for treating patients in Medicaid-backed programs.

NBC's Michael Isikoff reports:

The previously unreported payments are on top of the $24,000 in federal and state funds that Bachmann & Associates, the clinic founded by Marcus Bachmann, a clinical therapist, received in recent years under a state grant to train its employees, state records show. The figures were provided to NBC News in response to a Freedom of Information request.

The Los Angeles Times reported last weekend:

Michele Bachmann lists the Lake Elmo, Minn.-based clinic — which aims to provide "quality Christian counseling in a sensitive, loving environment," according to its website — as one of her assets on her financial disclosure forms.

Bachmann press secretary Alice Stewart issued a statement Wednesday contending that it "would be discriminatory" for the clinic to turn away Medicaid patients. She says Marcus Bachmann's business has the responsibility to provide the care "regardless of a patient's financial situation."

Neither Michele nor Marcus Bachmann would respond to questions about the arrangement during a campaign stop in South Carolina.

Source: Huffington 

Michele Bachmann's Rise Has Conservatives Bullish About Taking On Obama

ROCK HILL, S.C. – Conservative voters here sound a lot like Goldilocks when talking about Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), the Tea Party firebrand who toured the Palmetto state Wednesday to round out a three-day trip officially launching her bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

The former governors – Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, and Jon Huntsman of Utah – are too cold. Conservatives aren't excited by them. The Tea Party favorites – former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) – are too hot. Conservatives like them but don't think they can beat Obama.

Bachmann is just right, said a number of voters who spoke with the Huffington Post at three out of Bachmann's four stops in the state Wednesday. They were thrilled with the candidate's charisma and energy – Bachmann sometimes seems to go for long stretches in her speeches without taking a breath – and said they consider her a force to be reckoned with in a match-up with President Obama.

"We're not just interested in the primary. We want to win the general election," said Bill Tulluck, a 68-year-old retired engineer from Orangeburg.

The large crowds who came to see the 55-year-old Bachmann pop out of her blue campaign bus in a yellow sleeveless dress and pearl necklace did not give her unreserved adulation. Not everyone who spoke with HuffPost was as optimistic about her ability to beat Obama. And some said they hope to see Texas Gov. Rick Perry join the race. But it was clear that out of the current choices on the GOP side, many like her the best and are moving toward supporting her.

"She's extremely well qualified," said Bill Bates, a 62-year-old retiree who rode his bike from his home on Daniels Island, just north of Charleston, to Bachmann's first event of the day.

"Do you have a tax law degree?" Bates asked this reporter, citing Bachmann's possession of such a certificate. "I know I don't. She's raised foster children. Have you done that? I know I haven't. Her child is a physician. I know you don't have a child who's a doctor. I don't either."

Bates, who had the bearing of an attorney or doctor, said he was not a member of the Tea Party but called it "a necessary movement."

"We are letting government get away from us. Remember it's government by the people and for the people. That's what's written down," he said, raising his voice and emphasizing the end of his sentence by holding his hands out as if he was trying to shake someone awake. "And that same government takes the diaper off a 96-year-old woman because she's some kind of threat?"

A sense of urgency is common at conservative and Tea Party gatherings these days, and the mood is growing more intense as the presidential campaign heats up. The prospect of a second term for Obama is reawakening a grassroots movement that has been dormant since last fall's elections. To these voters, Romney is a heretic because of his health care plan in Massachusetts and Pawlenty is not passionate enough to lead them.

"People are turned off by lukewarmness," Tulluck said. "Pawlenty is just like John McCain. He's so weak-mouthed he probably wouldn't have a chance of getting elected."

Several people interviewed by HuffPost pointed to Pawlenty's decision not to attack Romney in the New Hampshire debate earlier this month.

"[Pawlenty] could have garnered a lot of support if he had taken [Romney] on then, but now I think it's too late," said Allen Olson, a leader of the Columbia TEA Party.

By contrast, Bachmann has gone after Romney several times just in the last week. But she kept her stump speech focused on the object of the right's ire: Obama.

"With all due respect, I think the president has failed the American people on turning the economy around," Bachmann said during her last event of the day in this South Carolinia exurb of Charlotte, N.C.

Around 800 people attended the hour-long evening town hall meeting, spilling into one large overflow room and four smaller ones. And during the event, Bachmann was at her most expansive. It was clear why red meat conservatives are drawn to her: she speaks her mind and does not hold back in doing so, apparently unconcerned about making any verbal gaffes.

She told the crowd that the U.S. government will not default if it hits the debt ceiling on Aug. 2, and said that the Obama administration is "fear-mongering" on the issue.

"All president Obama has to do is direct the treasury secretary … to pay the interest on the debt. Then you keep the full faith and credit of the United States," Bachmann said. But she did not address what may happen if credit markets react negatively to such a scenario.

Bachmann also blasted the Federal Reserve's policy of quantitative easing and said it has intentionally devalued the dollar.

"In the last two years of the Obama administration ... you have lost 14 percent of the value of that dollar. That means the federal government has stolen that money from you. You made it and they stole it from you because they've been printing essentially valueless money and flooding it into the money supply," she said.

"I don't stand for that. A dollar in 2011 should be the same as a dollar in 1911. A dollar should be worth a dollar," she added.

Bachmann spokeswoman Alice Stewart explained the 1911 comment this way afterward to HuffPost: "All she's saying is that the dollar has lost a substantial part of it's value."

Bachmann also went into detail to tell her own story, sharing how losing a child to a miscarriage led to her and her husband Marcus deciding to become foster parents to 23 children in addition to their five children.

"When we lost that child, it changed us, and it changed us forever. So we made a commitment that no matter how many children were brought into our lives we would receive them, because we're committed to life," she said. "And we didn't know at that time we would be foster parents, and that we would be parents of 28 children."

Ian Saunders, a 68-year-old retired financial firm executive, said "there's a genuineness that comes across with her, more than someone like Romney, who I also like, but who I think is more canned."

Bachmann was handled at all times during the day by a polished political operation that moved her efficiently from bus to podium, through a crowd of well-wishers and back onto the bus after her events, shielding her at all times from reporters' questions. Bachmann's press and logistics aides did not restrict reporters' movements at events and were helpful in answering questions and providing information.

But when HuffPost attempted to ask Bachmann questions on two different occasions, it was ignored by the candidate. Bachmann's husband was at all times close by her side, often physically shielding her from questions, and at one point touched this reporter's arm as if to pull his recorder away from Bachmann.

Marcus Bachmann, who has drawn scrutiny for past statements about homosexuals, even took the stage with his wife in Rock Hill to answer a question about the secret to a successful marriage.

"If you understand how important it is to serve, you really become a success story," he said. "From a husband's perspective, it's really easy to love this woman."

Full Article
Source: Huffington  

Citizens United Knocks Obama For Campaign Finance Hypocrisy

WASHINGTON -- A conservative group is poking President Barack Obama and the Democrats over their recent switch in tactics to embrace the outside campaign spending allowed by the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court ruling.

Citizens United was behind that landmark decision, which freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums of money on elections.

The group's new video shows then-candidate Barack Obama delivering a message to former Sen. John Edwards, then one of Obama's primary opponents, on the use of outside groups. Obama accuses Edwards of working around campaign finance laws, despite claiming to oppose such manipulation.

"We found out today that there's an outside group spending $750,000 ... and the individual who is running the group used to be John Edwards' campaign manager," Obama says. "You can't just talk the talk. The easiest thing in the world is to talk about change during the election time."

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

'Slash And Burn': Chuck Schumer Accuses Republicans Of Sabotaging The Economy To Hurt Obama

WASHINGTON -- Republicans may be slowing the recovery on purpose to hurt President Obama's reelection chances in 2012, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said in a speech on Thursday.

The speech made explicit a message Democrats have been hinting at for weeks: Republicans are hurting the recovery with their focus on spending cuts, and it may be an attempt to slow "down the recovery on purpose for political gain in 2012."

"Now it is becoming clear that insisting on a slash-and-burn approach may be part of this plan -- and it has a double-benefit for Republicans," Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. "It is ideologically tidy and it undermines the economic recovery, which they think only helps them in 2012."

As proof, Schumer referenced remarks by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said last year his main aim was to make Obama a one-term president.

"Republicans aren't just opposing the president any more, they are opposing the economic recovery itself and all that means for America's working and middle class families," Schumer said.

Republicans are doing nothing of the sort, according to a senior GOP aide, who pointed out that Obama said in a speech yesterday that "deficit reduction is important to grow the economy and to create jobs."

"While Sen. Schumer and his caucus are calling for even more deficit spending, Republicans are focused on balancing the budget and reining in the record deficits created by Sen. Schumer’s caucus over the past few years," the aide said in an email. "According to the President, what Republicans are focused on will 'grow the economy.' "

Schumer laid out an alternative to the "cut, cut, cut" plan presented by Republicans, arguing Congress should take a "jobs first" approach that includes a highway bill, energy plan and national infrastructure bill. He also said Congress could create jobs by reforming the employment-based immigration system, which business leaders say is ill-equipped to attract workers.

Part of that plan would be an extension of the payroll tax cut, which the White House has floated as a possibility. Schumer said that proposal is "another example of just how far the Democrats remain willing to go to work across the aisle."

Schumer said that Democrats could take back the message if the public began to think the Republican plan was not working, which he said was already happening, using as proof the Democratic special election victory in New York congressional district 26.

"Republicans find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, between their ideology and the reality," he said. "If the public comes to believe that Republicans are deliberately sabotaging the economy, it will backfire politically."

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

Elizabeth Warren Appointment Dangles As Democrats Duck Recess Fight With Republicans

WASHINGTON -- Republicans in Congress have called out the Democrats for a fight over recess -- but there are few signs the Democrats are going to show up.

In a bid to stop President Obama from making Senate-circumventing appointments while Congress is out -- most notably Consumer Financial Protection Bureau architect Elizabeth Warren -- House Speaker John Boehner is banning his members -- and the Senate -- from going on holiday.

For one chamber to bar the other from recess is an extraordinary step that has seldom been perpetrated in the history of Congress, yet it is easily done because the Constitution requires each chamber to consent if the other will be out for more than three days.

It's not that Boehner wants to force his side and the Senate to work while they’re not on recess. He is filling the time with “pro forma sessions” where a couple of members take to the floor to punch the clock every fourth day so Congress can remain “in session.” But lawmakers don’t have to be bothered by any legislation.

Democrats have responded by saying little, and doing nothing. When Boehner launched the GOP siege on recess over the Memorial Day break, the Senate yawned and dutifully took up its own pro forma sessions. The same was expected this week and next with the House holding pro forma sessions. Spokesmen for all of the Democratic leaders told The Huffington Post Tuesday they had no plans to challenge the strategy.

However, after President Obama and Republicans declared Wednesday the Senate should keep doing work on the stalled debt talks, Senate Democrats said they were re-evaluating whether to allow Senators to go home for the Fourth.

Either way, under the normal rules of Capitol Hill, President Obama will not be able to use his own constitutional power to make recess appointments while there is a nearly unprecedented log jam of nominees waiting in the Senate. And an idle pro forma session seems the plan for the longer August break.

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

Obama: 'It's Only Fair' to Ask Rich to Give Up Tax Breaks

Rejecting Republican demands for massive cuts in federal programs while maintaining tax breaks for the wealthy as not “sustainable,” President Obama used a press conference Wednesday to argue that serious negotiations about balancing the budget and addressing deficits and debt must include plans to end tax breaks for “millionaires and billionaires, oil companies and corporate jet owners.”

Making the case that new tax revenue will be needed—in combination with cuts—to achieve even a measure of balance in budgeting, Obama said, “You can’t reduce the deficit without having some revenue in the mix. And the revenue we’re talking about…is coming out of folks who are doing extraordinarily well.”

The president presented an extended and substantial argument that fair taxation of the wealthy is reasonable and needed. Rejecting the notion that there is anything “radical” about demandig that the wealthiest Americans share the sacrifice that is being demanded of working Americans, the president explained: “If you are a wealthy CEO or hedge fund manager in America right now, your taxes are lower than they have ever been. They are lower than they have been since the 1950s. And they can afford it. You can still ride on your corporate jet. You’re just going to have to pay a little more.”

Obama’s position with regard to taxing millionaires and billionaires is the proper one—economically and politically. And he deserves credit for stating it as bluntly as he did Wednesday.

He also deserves some credit for detailing the dangers inherent in the Republican proposal to place all of the budget for balancing the budget on the backs of working families at a time when so many are unemployed or underemployed.

At the same time, however, Obama’s continued talk of compromising with Republicans should raise concerns.

It is neither good policy nor good politics, for instance, to presume that Republican acceptence of a few tax increases for the wealthy should go hand-in-hand with Democratic acceptence of cuts in entitlement programs.

The president’s remarks come in the context of an increasingly intense partisan debate about raising the so-called “debt ceiling.” Historically, Congress has approved adjustments in plans for borrowing money based on the expansion of the population and the role of the federal government in economically demanding times.

This year, Republicans in the House and Senate are holding the process hostage in hopes of forcing the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress to join them in embracing politically unpopular schemes (outlined by House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan) to steer Medicare and Medicaid money away from patient care and toward for-profit insurance companies that donate generously to GOP campaigns.

Any White House compromise on the Medicare and Medicaid fronts—even in return for GOP acceptence of tax hikes for corporations and the wealthy—would tear the social safety net and provide a massive new bailout for the insurance industry. Similarly, any compromise on Social Security privatization would be such a boon to Wall Street speculators—another sources of campaign money—that Republicans might accept it.

But such a compromise would be unacceptable for America.

So Obama’s strong stance on tax breaks is to be celebrated. It is the right one. But his talk of compromise and negotiation ought to be viewed cautiously. Some compromises will be necessary, But any compromises on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will hand the Republicans, the insurance industry and Wall Street the keys to the US Treasury that they have for so long coveted.

Source: The Nation 

Climate Chaos: Christian Parenti’s New Book Exposes How Global Warming Could Lead to Global Warfare

Extreme weather from Texas to Somalia may indicate that a new era of climate war is upon us. Just this month, massive floods have shut down two nuclear power facilities in Nebraska. In New Mexico, the nation’s top nuclear weapons lab in Los Alamos is being threatened by an uncontrolled wildfire. Meanwhile, the United Nations warns the Horn of Africa is facing its worst drought in 60 years, affecting more than 10 million in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda. We speak with award-winning journalist Christian Parenti who argues in his new book that global warming is leading to social and environmental catastrophe. "The weather associated with climate change, extreme weather such as the drought, punctuated by flooding in East Africa, punctuated by flooding in East Africa, is adding to this.Climate change very often doesn’t just look bad weather, it looks like ethnic violence or religious violence or banditry or civil war,” says Parenti.

Source: Democracy Now! 

Greece in Crisis: Protest, Violence and Necessity

The Greek parliament has just passed the package of savage austerity measures and privatizations required to get the last tranche of a 110 billion euro loan from the EU and IMF; without it, the country would have been broke by mid-July. Outside in Syntagma Square, protesters in cycling masks are running from clouds of teargas. Since yesterday, the square has been filled with surging crowds pushed back by riot police; Greek TV reports that 500 people aged between 15 and 65 have been treated in the metro station for respiratory problems and injuries.

Ambulances can’t get anywhere near the scene. The Twitter feeds give the flavor: “Fog of chemicals around #Syntagma they keep gas bombing us situation getting worse again”—“People are trapped at the sqr gas bombed from all sides”—“More doctors and supplies needed urgently at Syntagma Square in Greece. Please help”—“Police just hit directly to us. We were running, I saw a man spitting blood, 3 more fainted 3 steps away from me. Its really bad”—“Greek ministry of finance is on fire.”

By the skin of its teeth, Greece has escaped imminent bankruptcy; the Eurozone is safe for another week or two as the EU and IMF try to hammer out a second rescue package. Jose Manuel Barroso and Herbert von Rompuy, the presidents of the European Commission and Council, have hailed an “important step forward along the path of fiscal consolidation and growth-enhancing structural reform.” But the long-term prognosis is far from positive. First, the cuts and privatizations will not be easy to implement, leaving plenty of wiggle room for lenders later on. Second, this year’s austerity program has only plunged the country deeper into recession; even the EU and the IMF project that the debt and the interest on it are likely to keep rising, and the consensus is that Greece will have to default sooner or later anyway. Third, it isn’t clear how much more austerity the Greeks are willing or able to take. Almost a quarter already live below the poverty line; 50,000 businesses have closed in the last year; youth unemployment is at 42 percent; people are at breaking point.

It’s very hard to predict what is likely to happen next. The government still has to pass an enabling law on Thursday to speed up the pace of reform; after that, it has to put the austerity measures into practice. If it stumbles and is forced to call elections, Antonis Samaras, the leader of the opposition conservative party New Democracy, is most likely to win. He has no substantive alternative solution to the crisis, but has made populist hay by promising to “renegotiate” Greece’s loan agreement and to rescind a law granting citizenship to children born in Greece to legally settled immigrants.

The “aganaktismenoi” who have occupied Syntagma since the end of May are a new force in Greece—a popular movement that embraces leftists, centrists, nationalists, radical democrats and the apolitical, united by a collective allergy to traditional politics, with its cronyism and self-interest, its petty-mindedness and parochial machismo, its corruption and dishonesty. Some of them have been camped in the square for weeks, engaged in an experiment in direct democracy; whether that will survive today’s cataclysm of violence remains to be seen. Yesterday, peaceful protesters tried to stop the black clad agitators who were ripping up marble slabs and setting fire to vans and rubbish bins; today’s indiscriminate assault by the police has changed the atmosphere.

Full Article
Source: The Nation 

Exclusive Tour of Gaza-Bound U.S. Ship, Audacity of Hope; Saboteurs Damage Other Ships in Flotilla

Organizers of the humanitarian flotilla to the Gaza Strip say another one of their ships has been sabotaged. The engine of an Irish ship docked in Turkey was reportedly so badly damaged it would have sunk in the middle of the ocean, threatening the lives of the passengers on board. It’s at least the second flotilla vessel to be targeted this week following damage to a Greek-Swedish ship docked in a port near Athens. Activists have accused Israel of orchestrating the sabotage, but say they have no direct proof. The Israeli government is trying to stop the ships from leaving port and has vowed to intercept them should they set sail. An Israeli official quoted in the Jerusalem Post said, the more "[they] have to run in place in Athens, the better it is for Israel." One of the ships in the 10-vessel flotilla is the U.S.-based "The Audacity of Hope," named after President Obama’s best-selling book. At least three dozen U.S. citizens are on board, carrying letters from Americans to the people of Gaza. Democracy Now! producer Aaron Maté and videographer Hany Massoud are in Greece to cover The Audacity of Hope’s journey. On Wednesday, Yonatan Shapira — a former Israeli Air Force pilot turned peace activist who is now a crew member on the U.S. boat — gave Democracy Now! a rare look inside the ship and talked about the threat of sabotage. “I see it as an obligation of me as an Israeli and a Jew to help steer the wheel of this boat into Gaza in order to challenge these war criminals, and to send this message to the Palestinian people, to the Palestinian children in Gaza and the rest of the world, that they are not alone and we support them, and one day, they will be free,” Shapira said.

Source: Democracy Now! 

Why the Debt Ceiling Debate Matters Now

The White House and Republican congressional leaders insist the debt ceiling will be raised well before the United States has to default, which would cause massive economic disruption. But a resolution seems less than assured. In the last few days, Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty have joined a growing conservative chorus loudly denouncing a deal, and antagonism among the various parties appears to be growing, not diminishing.

Still, nobody in Washington or on Wall Street seems very alarmed. The Treasury says it can hold out until Aug. 2. But a look at the current politics and the recent history of debt-ceiling showdowns suggests that alarm might soon become warranted.

There are two reasons why. The first has to do with how difficult it will be to settle on something that can get through Congress in time to stave off any damage. This struggle has been largely misportrayed and crudely simplified as a tug-of-war between Republicans set on spending cuts and Democrats who want tax increases to accompany them. It's actually a three-way struggle, because Republicans themselves don't agree on their ransom demands to permit a larger debt.
House Republicans want to cut $2 trillion without raising any taxes or closing any loopholes. They're focused strictly on spending. But Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, wants any deal to include Medicare reform. He's focused on politics. McConnell worries that the House Republican budget passed in April, which takes the deeply unpopular step of privatizing Medicare, presents a mortal threat to Republican candidates in next fall's elections. A debt-limit deal on Medicare that drew the support of President Obama and Democrats would inoculate the GOP against this danger.

The trouble is, House Republicans don't share McConnell's concern, so an agreement among Republicans seems nearly as remote as one between Republicans and Democrats.

That gets to the second reason for alarm: the United States need not default on its debt in order to incur costly and potentially lasting damage. A February report by the Government Accountability Office examining the recent history of "debt-ceiling events'' -- none nearly so serious as the current one -- showed that government borrowing costs began to rise well in advance of default. Call it a taxpayer premium for congressional squabbling: the disruption of Treasury auctions and the threatened loss of liquidity among Treasury notes and bills caused billions in additional borrowing costs in the form of higher interest rates.

One reason why the debt showdown isn't causing more alarm is that interest rates have been falling. But that's due mostly to declining economic forecasts in the United States and fear of a Greek default -- currently more powerful influences, but also ones that would mask worries about a US default.

At some point, perhaps as soon as in a few weeks, the fight in Congress could eclipse those factors and drive interest rates higher. That's been the historical pattern, and it is already causing worry about what might trigger such a rise. "The nervousness on our end is that the markets will misperceive what's going on,'' an aide to a conservative House Republican told me. "If something fails on the House floor, people might react as if all life is about to end -- just like they did when the TARP vote failed.''

That could cost taxpayers dearly, even if a default is ultimately avoided. One reason why US borrowing costs are so low is the universal belief that the government will always make good on its debts in a timely manner. But if that faith is shaken -- and a good scare could do the trick -- investors might decide that government debt is a riskier investment than they had imagined and demand a better return.

That will hurt. The Office of Management and Budget determined that a mere 1 percent rise in interest rates would cost taxpayers $973 billion over the next decade [pdf, pg. 23]. So a fight purportedly about cutting the deficit could actually cause it to grow much larger. That's worth worrying about now -- especially as Republicans threaten a default and claim there's no cause for alarm.

Source: The Atlantic 

Jerry Brown 2.0: Friend or Foe of Farmworkers?

Back in 1975, a young, newly elected California governor named Jerry Brown signed into law a historic bill recognizing the right of his state's farm workers to unionize. Nicknamed "Governor Moonbeam" for his new-age tendencies, Brown might have been a bit spacey, but he didn't waver in standing up to his state's powerful agribusiness interests.

In the decades since, the protections offered by that law have eroded. Farmworkers say field bosses use intimidation to keep people from voting to form unions. The United Farm Workers have been pushing for years for new protections that would make it easier for workers to cast their votes without being under the noses of the bosses. Advocates have managed to push such a bill through the California legislature four times in recent years. And each time, Arnold Schwarzenegger—unapologetically carrying water for the state's powerful agribusiness lobby—vetoed it.

Now The Arnold is gone, and that '70s-era governor is back—again deciding the fate of legislation that would improve the lot of the thousands of people who work in California's fields. But this time, Jerry Brown came down on the side of the bosses. On Tuesday, he vetoed the the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act.

He had signed the original 1975 act at a press conference with much fanfare. Jerry Brown 2.0 rejected the 2011 bill hidden away in his office, accompanying the veto with a weasely memo (PDF). In that sad document, the onetime-firebrand wrings his hands over the possibility of "drastic changes" to the state's farm-labor law.
According to LA Times, what Brown is really up to is an Obamaesque lurch to the center. Reporters Patrick McGreevy and Anthony York write:
The governor's veto—on the heels of a budget deal struck with Democrats alone—helps keep him in the political center. Brown has often referred to such centrism as "the canoe theory" of governing: paddling a little on the left, a little on the right and staying in the middle.
So the governor paddled right for the agribusiness lobby over whether the state should expand the right to organize. Now he has the perfect opportunity to swing left for farmworkers by banning methyl iodide, a fumigant so reliably carcinogenic that scientists use it to introduce cancers cells in lab tissue. (For more on methyl iodide—the whole scandalous story of how it came into use in the first place—go here).

Pesticide Action Network reports that back in March, Brown agreed to reconsider his predecessor's decision to green-light methyl iodide (which marked the Governator's final gift to the agribusiness lobby, made just before he exited office). But so far, Brown has done nothing to stop application of the deadly pesticide—and already, two farms have used it, PAN says. The group is urging people to call Brown's office to demand that he ban it.

I should emphasize that this is a national issue, not just a California one. The farmworkers affected by the state's laws toil within its borders, but their produce feeds the entire nation. When California's industrial-scale farmers intimidate workers or expose them to deadly pesticides, they're doing it in your name, too.

Full Article
Source: Mother Jones  

Obama and the Debt Ceiling: An Outrage Deficit?

Can President Barack Obama triumph by being the grown-up-in-chief?

During a White House press conference on Wednesday, the president declined to get into a food fight with Republicans playing chicken with the debt ceiling negotiations. Repeatedly, he noted that he expected GOP leaders to act responsibly. He did not lambast House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the GOP representatives to the in-limbo talks led by Vice President Joe Biden, for storming out of the negotiations because the White House insists that any deficit reduction plan include revenue boosters, not just spending cuts. "Call me naive," he said, "but my expectation is that leaders are going to lead."

So is Obama naive or crafty?

At other points during the press conference, Obama denigrated Congress, commenting that his two daughters usually complete their homework assignments a day before they are due—while Congress often doesn't get its work done until moments before a deadline. He urged Congress to remain on the job—and forego next week's recess—until the debt ceiling matter is settled. "At a certain point, they need to do their job," he said, with a moderate measure of exasperation. Still, he remarked that he believed the Republicans "will do the responsible thing." He did challenge the GOP stance of opposing any revenue increases as part of a debt reduction package. Do Republicans really want to protect tax breaks for corporate jet owners, hedge fund managers, and oil companies, and force more cuts in spending for college loans, food safety, and critical medical research? he asked. Do they really want to see the United States default? "I don't think that's a sustainable position," he remarked.
But here's the problem: many Republicans oppose any move even resembling a tax hike, and they do want to slash government spending, no matter the cutbacks in services and investments. And a bloc of Republicans, members of the tea party wing, have no qualms about pushing the United States government into default.

Obama is dealing with radical hostage-takers who do not share his sense of responsibility. So when he asks these questions—Will the GOP truly prevent young adults from getting college loans so mega-profit-making oil companies can keep their special tax breaks? Will they really push the nation into a financial crisis to score an ideological point about supposedly out-of-control spending?—is Obama underestimating the opposition? Or is he posing rhetorical queries designed to position himself (especially in the eyes of independent voters) as the reasonable fellow in this dust-up?

Obama certainly knows what he's up against: Republican extremists who threaten irresponsible action to achieve severe policy aims. He is not naive. But in public, he stops short of fully calling out the Republicans, perhaps believing that doing so would prevent him from achieving an above-the-fray status that affords him greater political influence and, thus, a better chance of ultimately prevailing. Yet such a tactic does run a risk: the Republicans remain un-deligitimized. If Obama is not going to depict the GOPers as reckless ideologues driving the nation to the brink of financial crisis and possibly into another recession, who will? Nancy Pelosi? Harry Reid? Tim Geithner? Debbie Wasserman Schultz? No one else is well positioned to present this case.

Obama also has yet to mount much of a messaging campaign regarding the consequences of a debt default. And Capitol Hill Democrats have started grumbling about that. Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow says that Obama and perhaps Treasury Secretary Geithner ought to be educating the public on the dangers of default every day to "make it clear to ordinary people that raising the debt limit is not something to toy with." The Republicans, he adds, are engaging in blackmail, and the president has to persuade the public that such political brinksmanship is highly risky. Indeed, one reason to stage a fight in politics is to draw attention to an issue in order to educate voters. For better or worse, conflict usually engages more than calm discourse.

Though as Obama noted at the press conference, he eschews "scare tactics." He said he prefers to be restrained "so folks don't get spooked." Yet he's up against Republican foes who have no reluctance to spook the public. The president appears to be betting he can outmaneuver them by being responsible—and by turning this confrontation into a game of fox and chicken. But can you outfox a driver who is willing to steer straight off a cliff?

Source: Mother Jones  

Tim Pawlenty's Budget Busting Legacy

On Friday, barring a last-minute deal between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP lawmakers, the Minnesota state government will officially go into shutdown mode. Portions of interstate highways will close. So will state parks, rest areas, DMVs, and the Minnesota Zoo (the animals will still be fed, per a judge's order).

The immediate source of the impasse centers on how to close the state's $6.2 billion budget deficit—the fourth largest in the nation, as a percentage of the overall budget. In many ways, it's a microcosm of the larger debate that's playing out in Washington, DC, with a wrinkle: The man who helped put the state into this mess is now running for president.
Although Tim Pawlenty talks a lot about fiscal responsibility, critics in Minnesota—including Arne Carlson, another former two-term Republican governor there—are framing the looming shutdown as the ultimate legacy of his governorship, which drew to a close in January. They accuse his administration of fuzzy accounting that gave the illusion of austerity while setting the state up for disaster.

Pawlenty, who has promised to deliver China-like annual GDP growth of 5 percent if elected, has made his fiscal record in St. Paul the foundation of his campaign. "I've got experience in Minnesota as governor, in tackling spending, I've balanced budgets," he said on the Today Show last month. "When it comes to getting this federal government spending and deficit and debt under control, I've got a record of actually doing that." And he did it all, he likes to note, without once raising taxes.

But there is a catch: Although he did make plenty of "tough" (his adjective of choice) reductions in spending—cutting funding to public services like health care, for instance—he also adopted many of the same practices he accuses President Obama of using, like deferring the costs for spending projects onto future taxpayers.

Pawlenty turned in balanced budgets, Carlson explains, but only superficially. When he wasn't skirting his pledge not to raise taxes by using linguistic jujitsu—turning a sales tax increase on cigarettes into a "health impact fee," for instance—Pawlenty was simply redistributing the burden, from St. Paul to local authorities, or to the taxpayers themselves. According to Carlson, property taxes increased by $716 million in the eight years before Pawlenty took office; over his eight years as governor, they jumped by $2.5 billion. As Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a Democrat, noted in April: "If the tea party really knew how much Tim Pawlenty raised taxes in Minnesota, they would throw him in Boston Harbor."

Those stealth tax hikes were buttressed by accounting gimmicks. In some cases, payments would be pushed back a few days until after the start of a new fiscal year, creating the false impression that the deficit had in fact been erased. In other cases, he stole from Peter to pay St. Paul. Pawlenty raided the coffers of select state agencies in order to provide a short-term patch for others—a strategy the Minnesota Taxpayers Association has called "budgetary duct tape." Pawlenty took $1 billion from a settlement with tobacco companies that had been earmarked for health care services and used it for the general budget. He borrowed another $1.4 billion from the state's K-12 education fund. And he quietly accepted $2.3 billion in stimulus funds while publicly lambasting the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

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Source: Mother Jones 

Los Alamos Fire Gets 'Flying Lab' From EPA To Detect Radiological Materials In Smoke

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- Federal environment officials have dispatched a special twin-engine plane capable of detecting chemical and radiological materials as a wildfire continues to burn near a government nuclear laboratory in northern New Mexico.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "flying laboratory" is in the Los Alamos area, but an agency spokesman says it has yet to make its initial data-collection flight.

The plane has sensors that collect detailed chemical air samples from a safe distance.

It also was used during a fire that burned through part of Los Alamos and the lab in May 2000.

The nuclear lab and state environment officials are also monitoring the air. They say there have been no releases of toxins.

Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico had requested the EPA's help early on in the monitoring effort.

Source: Huffington 

Greece Bailout Funds Clear Final Hurdle As Second Bill Passed

ATHENS, Greece — Greece has bought itself some time to deal with its crippling debt crisis after lawmakers cleared the final hurdle for crucial bailout funds to be released, that will prevent the country from defaulting next month.

The European Union and International Monetary Fund had demanded Parliament pass two bills – an austerity law and a second bill detailing how it will be implemented – before they approve a euro12 billion ($17.3 billion) installment from the country's euro110 billion ($159 billion) package of rescue loans.

Parliament passed the second law by majority vote Thursday.

The austerity measures have been met with resistance, with two days of rioting in the lead-up to Wednesday's vote. More than 300 people were injured.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

ATHENS, Greece (AP) – Greek lawmakers are set to pass a bill Thursday to fast-track fresh austerity measures demanded by creditors, following two days of rioting in Athens that left more than 300 people injured and 50 stores damaged.

Greece's international creditors have insisted that Greece back an austerity package and the associated implementation bill in return for giving more money to the country. On Wednesday, parliament approved the five-year euro28 billion ($40 billion) package of spending cuts and tax increases, leaving details of the cuts to be approved Thursday.

Once, and if, Thursday's bill to implement the austerity measures is cleared, the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund will be in a position to release the euro12 billion ($17 billion) that is due from last year's package of rescue loans for Greece. Many of the measures outlined will kick in almost immediately.

Without the financial assistance, Greece was facing bankruptcy as soon as the middle of July. A Greek default on its debts could trigger a major banking crisis and potential turmoil in global markets, similar to what happened when the Lehman Brothers investment house collapsed in 2008 in the United States.

As a result, markets around the world breathed a sigh of relief after Wednesday's vote – while municipal authorities in the Greek capital grappled with the damage caused by two days of violent protests.

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Source: Huffington 

Cost Of Wars In Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan To Reach $3.7 Trillion: Report

WASHINGTON -- The United States will have spent a total of $3.7 trillion on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, costing 225,000 lives and creating 7.8 million refugees, by the time the conflicts end, according to a report released on Wednesday by Brown University.

The report, written by more than 20 economists, political scientists, lawyers, anthropologists and humanitarian personnel for Brown's Watson Institute for International Studies, gives staggering estimates for the cost of military action in those three countries. Nearly ten years since U.S. troops first entered Afghanistan, the report estimates the final cost of all three conflicts will be between $3.7 trillion and $4.4 trillion -- far higher than the $1 trillion price tag referenced by President Barack Obama earlier this year. The report estimates the U.S. government has already spent between $2.3 trillion to $2.7 trillion and will spend at least a trillion more over the next fifty years.

In a video op-ed exclusive to HuffPost, some of the report's authors explained the high costs -- both past and future -- of the wars.

Long-term obligations to war veterans will cause the price tag of the conflicts to climb for decades after troops have returned home. The report puts the cost of health care for veterans at between $600 to $950 billion, not peaking until the 2050s.

"Wars, in a sense, are never over when they're over," Catherine Lutz, a Brown University anthropologist, said in the video op-ed. "They go on for decades, and the peak costs for this war will be incurred forty years from now."

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Source: Huffington