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.]

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Obama says tax breaks for superwealthy must end

WASHINGTON — In a blunt challenge to Republicans in Congress, President Barack Obama insisted Wednesday that eliminating selected tax breaks for oil companies and the superwealthy must be part of any deficit reduction plan.

“That’s not radical,” he said at a White House news conference. He was quick to add that a bipartisan agreement is possible to cut deficits, raise the government’s debt limit and avert a threatened financial crisis.

Republicans in Congress have been insistent in recent days that any deficit reduction be limited to spending cuts, including reductions in benefit programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, and exclude additional revenues.

But Obama said both parties must be prepared to “take on their sacred cows” as part of the deficit-reduction negotiations.

In his opening remarks, the president called on lawmakers to renew a payroll tax cut that took effect on Jan. 1, identifying it as one of several measures lawmakers could approve to help create jobs.

He also urged passage of trade agreements with Panama, South Korea and Colombia, and an overhaul of the nation’s patent laws.

Obama’s last previous full-fledged news conference was in March.

In the intervening months, the economic recovery has slowed, the president has announced a plan to begin withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan and the administration has joined an international military coalition working to prevent the rout of rebels hoping to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Above all loom the negotiations with Congress on deficit cuts demanded by Republicans as the price for supporting an increase in the nation’s debt limit.

The president stepped to the podium not long after the International Monetary Fund publicly urged lawmakers to raise the debt limit, now $14.3 trillion, and warned that failure to do so could produce a spike in interest rates and “severe shock to the economy and world financial markets.”

It recommended a long-term strategy for reducing red ink, warning that cutting deficits too quickly could slow the weak recovery of the U.S. economy.

The budget deficit is projected to reach a record $1.4 trillion for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Full Article
Source: Toronto Star 

How the Meat Industry Turned Abuse into a Business Model

As a long-time student of the meat industry, I read Ted Genoways' extraordinary article on conditions at the "head table" of a factory-scale pig-processing plant with delight. As a human being, my reaction was revulsion.

In a single long piece, Genoways lays out the crude history of US meat over the past 80 years. We get the unionization of the kill floor in the wake of Sinclair's The Jungle, the post-war emergence of meat packing as a proper middle-class job, the fierce anti-union backlash of the '70s, followed by corporatization, scaling up, plunging wages, and then, well, all manner of hell breaking loose, graphically documented by Genoways. All I can add to the story is to emphasize how forces in the broader economy turned the meat industry into one that profits not by putting out an excellent product, but rather by relentlessly slashing costs.

In his story, Genoways reports that Quality Pork Processors sped up its kill line by 50 percent between 1989 and 2006, while the plant's workforce "barely increased." The strange malady acquired by those workers in Austin, Minn., makes for an eye-popping story; but the rough conditions they worked under aren't the exception—they're industry standard. By 2005, things had gotten so dire for meat-packing workers that Human Rights Watch—typically on the lookout for atrocities in war zones—saw fit to issue a scathing report on their plight. The report's title says it all: "Blood, Sweat, and Fear."

WHAT drives such routine worker abuse? What would make a company steadily increase pressure on its workers to the point of endangering them, even as wages flatline?

The surface answer is, of course, because they can. After the unions evaporated, the meatpacking workforce became extremely vulnerable. By the '90s, meatpacking had become such an awful job that native-born Americans abandoned the industry as quickly as they could. Undocumented workers from Mexico and points south, fleeing agrarian decline in those regions, filled the void. Unprotected by unions, one brush with authority away from deportation, undocumented workers are easy targets for the predatory practices of powerful employers, as Genoways demonstrates.

But there are deeper forces than naked power on display. Corporate profit strategy shifted in the wake of the 1970s-era stagflation crisis—in a way that transformed not just meatpacking but also the broader business landscape. Companies could no longer assume they had the power to raise prices to burnish the bottom line. Wage inflation, and the fear of it, convinced them that holding prices down was the better idea. Profit would be eked out by selling ever greater volumes of stuff—and by holding costs, including labor costs, to a bare minimum.

As Barry C. Lynn showed in a luminous 2006 Harper's essay—later expanded into the book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction—the new profit regime required a new antirust regime. US antitrust authorities still operated under Progressive-era policies that had them looking for instances of anti-competitive behavior. There are two ways companies wield improper market power. The first is monopoly: they use their market heft to impose artificially high prices on consumers, like, say, OPEC sometimes does with oil. The second is called monopsony. That's when dominant companies use their weight to squeeze their suppliers—everything from their own workforces to the companies that sell them inputs—into giving them better terms.

In the '80s under Reagan, the authorities essentially stopped prosecuting monopsony and focused only on monopoly, Lynn shows. It was a convenient change for Big Business, because gouging consumers on price was now passé; the path to profit growth lay in gouging suppliers on cost. The goal was to get as big as possible and sell products as cheaply as possible, keeping volume high and the the antitrust cops at bay; and impose relentless pressure on cost. The strategy sparked a massive wave of consolidation, as companies bought each other out, scaled up, and/or merged in a rush to grab market share.

The food industry is probably the example par excellence of the post-Reagan monopsony economy. Lynn shows that Wal-Mart's move into groceries, starting in the early '90s, accelerated the industry's already-rapid consolidation. In order to remain profitable despite Wal-Mart's constant demand for more product at ever-lower prices, food companies had to get bigger and bigger—and constantly hunt for opportunities to slash their expenses.

The meat-processing giants led the way. A 2007 report (PDF) from University of Missouri researchers Mary Hendrickson and William Heffernan tells the story. In 1989, the four largest hog processors slaughtered 34 percent of the hogs raised in the United States. By 2005, that ratio had risen to 64 percent. The same trend held sway in beef and chicken—and has only intensified since. Today, just four giant companies—Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield—process more than half of the beef, chicken, and pork consumed in the United States.

Yet more consolidation may be afoot. Smithfield, by far the globe's largest pork producer, is actively looking to get even bigger. According to Bloomberg, among its potential buyout targets are Sara Lee, which has become a major player in the processed meat sector; and even Tyson, the largest overall US meat producer. A combined Smithfield/Tyson would own dominant positions in pork, beef, and chicken.

As these companies lurch along, forever looking to get bigger and cut corners to maintain profitability, society pays a steep price for all the cheap meat they churn out. Genoways nailed how workers fare under our cheap-meat regime. Abuse of animals is routine. Entire ecosystems get trashed, as is the case of the Chesapeake Bay—once one of the globe's most productive fisheries, brought to near-ruin by runoff from a stunning concentration of factory chicken farms. Family farmers are literally turned into serfs as they scale up to meet the industry's demands. And we all face the menace of the antibiotic-resistant pathogens now brewing up on animal factory farms, which now consume 80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States (both to make livestock grow faster and keep them alive in cramped, filthy conditions).

Meanwhile, the industry can be expected to vigorously fight any attempt to curtail its abusive practices. Market power extends to the political sphere—the meat lobby is one of those powerful D.C. players that—like oil and banking—has the cash to maintain friendships on both sides of the political aisle. As Monica Potts recently reported on Grist, the meat lobby has financed a push to stop Obama's USDA from implementing new rules that would force the big processors to deal more fairly with farmers. The rules, mandated by the 2008 farm bill, stand in danger of being nixed. Advocates are encouraging consumers to call the White House to urge President Obama to stand strong against the pressure.

Source: Mother Jones 

Greek Parliament Approves $40B Bailout; Some Economists Predict Vote Will Worsen the Recession

The Greek parliament was set to approve a $40 billion package of spending cuts, tax increases and privatizations as a condition for a massive bailout to avert the Eurozone’s first default. Without a new plan in place, the European Union and International Monetary Fund said they would withhold 12 billion euros of loans which Greece needs to repay debts due in mid-July. Meanwhile, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde has been named the new chief of the International Monetary Fund. She received backing from the United States and Europe and key emerging market nations, including China, India and Brazil. The first woman to hold the position, she begins her five-year term on July 5. In her first public comments following her appointment, Lagarde urged Greek politicians to unite to avoid a debt default. We are joined by Mark Weisbrot, an economist and the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “There’s going to be a default right up the road, so they could default now and they could refuse to accept these conditions,” says Weisbrot. “They may be better off for that, especially, if the result of what is going to play out is years of recession and high unemployment.”

Source: Democracy Now! 

What's Happening With the Debt Ceiling Explained

The Basics: On August 2, the US government will reach the legal limit on how much money it can borrow—a.k.a., the "debt ceiling." It's currently set at $14.3 trillion. The government borrows money to pay for everything from tax refunds to wars and veterans' benefits, not to mention repaying our creditors, which include China, Japan, the United Kingdom, state and local governments, pension funds, and investors in America and around the world.

A debt ceiling has existed since 1917. Before that, Congress had to provide its stamp of approval each time the Treasury Department wanted to sell US debt to raise money. (Here's a wonky history of the debt ceiling [PDF], courtesy of the Congressional Research Service.) Putting a borrowing limit in place gave the federal government more flexibility to fill its coffers without going to Congress over and over. Lawmakers in Congress have raised the debt ceiling on many occasions, including eight times in the past decade, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has said that failing to raise it and allowing the US default "would shake the basic foundation of the entire global financial system."

What Happens If Congress Doesn't Raise the Debt Limit? In a word: Catastrophe.

At least that's what Geithner told Congress in January. In an ominous letter, he wrote that a US default would wreak havoc on the domestic economy and essentially result in a hefty tax on all Americans.
That's economics 101. If you default on, say, your mortgage or car payment, creditors consider you a bigger risk and as a result, it'll cost more for you to take out loans in the future. The same idea applies here, too, except that everyone—consumers, cities, states, corporations, and the government—will pay higher borrowing costs if the federal government defaults, Geithner says. Not to mention that the government would run out of cash to pay the salaries of federal employees and members of the military, veterans benefits, Social Security and Medicare, unemployment benefits to states, individual and corporate tax refunds, Medicaid payments, and on and on.

Full Article
Source: Mother Jones 

FEC Lawyers: GOP "Super-Duper" PAC Is Illegal

Not so fast, James Bopp. In a rebuke to the influential conservative lawyer and Republican National Committeeman, lawyers for the Federal Election Commission have deemed his plans for a game-changing new breed of super PAC illegal.

Bopp had envisioned a novel strategy for the group, created in May and dubbed Republican Super PAC, that would allow it to circumvent political spending limits by using elected officials to fundraise for the PAC. My colleague Stephanie Mencimer outlined Bopp's plan last month:
Say House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) approaches the CEO of Exxon for a contribution to his reelection campaign. Under federal law, the CEO can only give Boehner $2,500. In the past, that’s the end of the conversation. But Bopp's plan envisions Boehner and his campaign asking that same donor—and his company—to pony up more money, as much as he wants, for the Republican Super PAC. The donor can even specify that the money be spent supporting Boehner or attacking his opponent. Then Bopp's PAC can buy ads, send out mailings, canvass neighborhoods, and do all the other things a political campaign typically does on Boehner’s behalf.
Bopp, you might remember, was the driving force behind the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, a decision that opened the door to unlimited corporate campaign donations and reshaped the political playing field. The decision was a victory long in the works for Bopp, who for decades has chipped away at the nation's campaign finance regulations.
While campaign finance law forbids PACs from coordinating with candidates and elected officials about how they spent their money, Bopp claimed the law didn't prevent officials from raising money for PACs like his. "The different thing here with our PAC is that we are going to harness the political fundraising of candidates and parties," he told Mother Jones last month.

Campaign finance reformers immediately cried foul. In a statement to reporters, the presidents of two pro-reform groups said, "In our view, the proposed efforts of this RNC 'shadow group' would violate multiple provisions of the federal campaign finance laws." A few days after Mother Jones first reported the existence of Bopp's "super-duper" PAC, attorneys for two Democratic political action committees demanded that the FEC rule on the legality of Bopp's new scheme. If the FEC upheld Bopp's plan, Democratic operatives had every intention of using the strategy themselves.

Last week, the campaign finance watchdog's top attorneys quietly released a draft opinion declaring that Bopp's plan violates campaign finance law. Specifically, the attorneys pointed to the McCain-Feingold law, which bans elected officials and candidates from soliciting "soft money," or unlimited campaign contributions, in connection with a federal election. The attorneys added that it's OK for federal officials to appear and speak at fundraisers where unlimited cash is being raised, so long as they don't directly solicit it themselves.

Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer said the FEC's draft opinion upholds long-standing curbs on political fundraising, while quashing Bopp's attempt to circumvent federal law. "The thing that Bopp is trying is just blatantly illegal," Wertheimer says.

Tara Malloy, associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), notes that the ban is hardly a done deal. On Thursday, a majority of the six-member FEC must approve the opinion to truly put it in place. Given the paralysis that has gripped the commission in recent years, there's no guarantee of a consensus. What's more, the FEC's three conservative commissioners have more frequently spurned the advice of the commission's lawyers than in years past, according to former Democratic FEC chair Scott Thomas. "For almost the entire history of the FEC, the commissioners were open to receiving recommendations from the staff," he said earlier this year. "Now they are being stopped cold by those three commissioners."

For his part, Bopp says it would be a mistake for the FEC to approve the opinion. However, he believes there's at least one way to get around such a ban—namely, by using party officials and lawmakers who are not running for re-election to ask for unlimited donations in a "personal" rather than an "official" capacity. (Candidates, he added, wouldn't be able to do this.) As he explained it:
The difference is Reince Priebus calling up somebody and saying, 'Hi, this is Reince Priebus, I'm chairman of the [Republican National Committee], I'd like you to give this super PAC. But if he called up and said, 'I'm Reince Priebus, I'm a Republican activist, and I hope that you will contribute to the super PAC,' that would be in his personal capacity."
(Democracy 21's Wertheimer dismissed this distinction, calling it "ridiculous.")
Bopp, who has received lots of interest in his new PAC, believes the FEC's draft opinion would impose an outright ban on lawmakers and party officials fundraising—in an official capacity at least—for super PACs. In his opinion, this would put someone like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in a tight spot. Reid blasted out an email last week soliciting money for a Democratic super PAC created to keep the Democratic majority in the Senate. In it Reid asked for donations—but no more than $5,000 (the annual contribution limit for individuals) and he was soliciting the contributions from small donors, not corporations or labor unions. "If they approve this [opinion]…Reid will have violated the federal election law," Bopp claims.

Wertheimer says Bopp is wrong—again. Elected officials can ask for donations to super PACs within legal limits, he insists, even if the FEC's opinion is approved. "Jim Bopp is blowing as much smoke and clouds as he can," Wertheimer says, "to try and do something that we believe is blatantly illegal."

Full Article
Source: Mother Jones 

Climate sceptic Willie Soon received $1m from oil companies, papers show

One of the world's most prominent scientific figures to be sceptical about climate change has admitted to being paid more than $1m in the past decade by major US oil and coal companies.

Dr Willie Soon, an astrophysicist at the Solar, Stellar and Planetary Sciences Division of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, is known for his view that global warming and the melting of the arctic sea ice is caused by solar variation rather than human-caused CO2 emissions, and that polar bears are not primarily threatened by climate change.

But according to a Greenpeace US investigation, he has been heavily funded by coal and oil industry interests since 2001, receiving money from ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Insitute and Koch Industries along with Southern, one of the world's largest coal-burning utility companies. Since 2002, it is alleged, every new grant he has received has been from either oil or coal interests.

In addition, freedom of information documents suggest that Soon corresponded in 2003 with other prominent climate sceptics to try to weaken a major assessment of global warming being conducted by the UN's leading climate science body, the Nobel prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Soon, who had previously disclosed corporate funding he received in the 1990s, was today reportely unapologetic, telling Reuters that he agreed that he had received money from all of the groups and companies named in the report but denied that any group would have influenced his studies.

"I have never been motivated by financial reward in any of my scientific research," he said. "I would have accepted money from Greenpeace if they had offered it to do my research." He did not respond to a request from the Guardian to comment.

Documents provided to Greenpeace by the Smithsonian under the US Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) show that the Charles G Koch Foundation, a leading provider of funds for climate sceptic groups, gave Soon two grants totalling $175,000 (then roughly £102,000) in 2005/6 and again in 2010. In addition the American Petroleum insitute (API), which represents the US petroleum and natural gas industries, gave him multiple grants between 2001 and 2007 totalling $274,000, oil company Exxon Mobil provided $335,000 between 2005 and 2010, and Soon received other grants from coal and oil industry sources including the Mobil Foundation, the Texaco Foundation and the Electric Power Research Institute.

As one of very few scientists to publish in peer-reviewed literature denying climate change, Soon is widely regarded as one of the leading sceptical voices. His scientific position and the vehemence of his views has made him a central figure in a heated political debate that has informed the US right wing and helped to undermine public trust in the science of global warming and UN negotiations.

"A campaign of climate change denial has been waged for over 20 years by big oil and big coal," said Kert Davies, a research director at Greenpeace US. "Scientists like Dr Soon, who take fossil fuel money and pretend to be independent scientists, are pawns."

Soon has strongly argued that the 20th century was not a uniquely extreme climatic period. His most famous work challenged the "hockey stick" graph of temperature records published by Michael Mann, which showed a relatively sharp rise in temperatures during the second half of the 20th century. A paper published with Sallie Baliunas in 2003 in the journal Climate Research which attacked the hockey stick on flimsy evidence led to a group of leading climate scientists including Mann deciding to boycott the journal. In a letter to the Guardian in February 2004, Soon wrote that the authors had been open about their sources of funding. "All sources of funding for our research were fully disclosed in our manuscript. Most of our funding came from federal agencies, including the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and Nasa," he wrote.

He has also questioned the health risks of mercury emissions from coal and in 2007 co-wrote a paper that down-played the idea that polar bears are threatened by human-caused climate change.

The investigation is likely to embarrass Exxon, the world's largest oil company, which for many years funded climate sceptics but in 2008 declared it would cut funds to lobby groups that "divert attention" from the need to find new sources of clean energy. According to the documents, Exxon provided $55,000 for Soon to study Arctic climate change in 2007 and 2008, and another $76,106 for research into solar variability between 2008 and 2010.

Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said this week the company did not fund Soon last year, and that it funds hundreds of organisations to do research on climate and the environment.
Southern gave Soon $120,000 starting in 2008 to study the Sun's relation to climate change, according to the FIA documents. Spokeswoman Stephanie Kirijan said the company has spent about $500m on funding environmental research and development ,and that it did not fund Soon last year.

In one 2003 email released to Greenpeace, that Soon sent, it is believed, to four other leading sceptics, he writes: "Clearly [the fourth assessment report] chapters may be too much for any one of us to tackle them all ... But as a team, we may give it our best shot to try to anticipate and counter some of the chapters ..." He adds: "I hope we can ... see what we can do to weaken the fourth assessment report."
In 2003 Soon said at a US senate hearing that he had "not knowingly been hired by, nor employed by, nor received grants from any organisation that had taken advocacy positions with respect to the Kyoto protocol or the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change."

Full Article
Source: Guardian 

SEC Financial Regulatory Powers Might Be Handed Over To Wall Street-Funded Finra

Congress may outsource the job of regulating thousands of investment advisors to an organization funded by the professionals it regulates, Bloomberg News reports.

Two and a half years after the worst financial crisis since the Depression, Washington lawmakers are focused on cutting funding from the government's oversight of the financial industry, even before last summer's Dodd-Frank law is fully implemented. House Republicans support a measure to flat-fund the Securities and Exchange Commission, to deny it resources that Democrats and SEC officials say are crucial to the protection of investors and the policing of financial crimes.

And there's another regulator eager to step in. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an organization that oversees brokers and draws its budget from industry it regulates, is lobbying to replace the SEC in its oversight of nearly 12,000 investment advisors, who collectively manage about $40 trillion, Bloomberg reports.

Industry experts say Finra is a weaker cop than the SEC. It levied $43 million in fines last year, compared to the SEC's $1 billion.

Finra spent $300,000 on lobbying in the first quarter of this year, the Associated Press reported this week. That's 43 percent more than it spent during the same period last year.

"They’re supposed to oversee the activity of the industry, but they are industry," Denise Voigt Crawford, former commissioner of the Texas State Securities Board, told Bloomberg.

The SEC, which draws funding from Congressional appropriations, has for months anticipated a reduction in its budget. The agency began slowing the pace of some investigations late last year, fearing it would have to contend with budget cuts.

"It is not helpful for the wheels of investigations to grind to a halt," former SEC lawyer Jacob Frenkel told the Wall Street Journal in December.

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

Investors May Lose as Congress Saves Money on Adviser Oversight

Congress may hand oversight of almost 12,000 investment advisers to Wall Street’s self-funded regulator as a cost-saving measure. The price could be paid by investors.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, deputized by the government to oversee brokers, is lobbying to replace the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission as a regulator of registered investment advisers who manage about $40 trillion. Congress is considering the move as a cheaper alternative to increasing resources for the SEC, since Finra’s $877 million budget is paid by the brokers it regulates.

“It’s a very bad idea to expand the notion of self- regulation,” said Denise Voigt Crawford, former commissioner of the Texas State Securities Board. “They’re supposed to oversee the activity of the industry, but they are industry.”

Finra, established in 2007 by the merger of the National Association of Securities Dealers and most of the New York Stock Exchange’s regulatory unit, has done a poor job of protecting investors, said Crawford, who retired in February after 17 years as a securities commissioner. Fines imposed are usually a fraction of the damages suffered, and Finra fails to share information regularly with state regulators, she said.

The regulator fined members almost $43 million last year, while the SEC, working with a similar budget, issued more than $1 billion in penalties.

The Finra arbitration process is flawed, said Lynn E. Turner, who served as the SEC’s chief accountant from 1998 to 2001. Investors who won Finra arbitration awards last year got back less than half of what they sought, data from Securities Arbitration Commentator Inc. show.

Full Article
Source: Bloomberg 

State Of The Climate Report: World Continues To Warm, Making Extreme Weather Events 'More Likely'

WASHINGTON -- The world's climate is not only continuing to warm, it's adding heat-trapping greenhouse gases even faster than in the past, researchers said Tuesday.

Indeed, the global temperature has been warmer than the 20th century average every month for more than 25 years, they said at a teleconference.

"The indicators show unequivocally that the world continues to warm," Thomas R. Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, said in releasing the annual State of the Climate report for 2010.

"There is a clear and unmistakable signal from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans," added Peter Thorne of the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites, North Carolina State University.

Carbon dioxide increased by 2.60 parts per million in the atmosphere in 2010, which is more than the average annual increase seen from 1980-2010, Karl added. Carbon dioxide is the major greenhouse gas accumulating in the air that atmospheric scientists blame for warming the climate.

The warmer conditions are consistent with events such as heat waves and extreme rainfall, Karl said at a teleconference. However, it is more difficult to make a direct connection with things like tornado outbreaks, he said.

"Any single weather event is driven by a number of factors, from local conditions to global climate patterns and trends. Climate change is one of these," he said. "It is very likely that large-scale changes in climate, such as increased moisture in the atmosphere and warming temperatures, have influenced – and will continue to influence – many different types of extreme events, such as heavy rainfall, flooding, heat waves and droughts.

The report, being published by the American Meteorological Society, lists 2010 as tied with 2005 for the warmest year on record, according to studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. A separate analysis, done in Britain, lists 2010 as second warmest.

Deke Arndt, chief of the Climate Monitoring Branch at NCDC, noted that every month since early 1985 has been warmer than the 20th century average for the month.

Even more willing to attribute extreme weather events to climate change were speakers at a second briefing organized by the Pew Center on Climate Change.

"Scientists have concluded just recently that the link between climate change and extreme weather is not so much theoretical anymore as it is observational," Fred Guterl , executive editor of Scientific American magazine, said at that teleconference.

"Climate change is a risk factor for extreme weather just as eating salty foods is a risk factor for heart disease," said Jay Gulledge, director of the Science & Impacts Program at the Pew Center. "That doesn't mean we can predict the next flood in Iowa or drought in Georgia ... but it means they are more likely."

Meanwhile, a separate report from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder said the Earth is getting thicker around the middle due to ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. "If you imagine the Earth is like a soccer ball and you push down on the North Pole, it would bulge out at its `equator,'" said CIRES fellow Steve Nerem, co-author of the study.

At the NOAA briefing, Karl added that the Greenland ice sheet lost more mass last year than any year in the last decade. Melting of the land-based ice sheets in places like Greenland, Antarctica and other regions has raised concerns about rising sea levels worldwide.

"The arctic is changing faster that most of the rest of the world," added Walt Meier, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado. "This has long been expected." In addition, he said, the September Arctic sea ice extent was the third smallest in 30 years, older, thicker sea ice is disappearing, there is a shorter duration of snow cover, and the permafrost is melting.

Thorne added that the conclusion that the earth is warming does not rest on a single type of data.

The 2010 report adds information on lake surfaces and permafrost temperatures for the first time, bringing the total number of climate indicators considered to 41. The report involved 368 researchers from 45 countries.

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

Massey Kept Fake Safety Records To Throw Off Inspectors, Mine Disaster Victim's Fiancee Says Of Latest MSHA Findings

BEAVER, W.Va. -- Federal investigators have proof that Massey Energy kept fake safety records to throw off inspectors at a southern West Virginia mine where 29 men died in an explosion last year, the fiancee of one of those victims said late Tuesday night.

In a private briefing for the families, officials with the Mine Safety and Health Administration showed relatives of the Upper Big Branch miners side-by-side comparisons of books that purported to document the same shift.

In one authentic production report, underground miner Bobbie Pauley said, Massey reported that its mining machine was shut down because of problems with ventilation and a potentially explosive accumulation of methane gas. The on-shift inspection report, meanwhile, indicated no problems with gas.

"You put in an inspection report what you wanted the inspectors to see," said Pauley, whose fiance Howard "Boone" Payne was among the men killed in the April 5, 2010, blast near Montcoal. "The books, they told two different stories. But I already knew that because I worked there."

Pauley returned to Upper Big Branch only briefly after the explosion and now works at another former Massey operation bought out in a recent takeover by Alpha Natural Resources. She was among about 30 people – nearly half of them lawyers – who attended the briefing for several hours at a mine safety training academy in Beaver.

The nation's deadliest coal mine explosion in four decades remains the subject of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, and MSHA has said it won't release some information to avoid hindering that probe. It largely reiterated its past public statements, offering detail but no blockbuster revelations, family members said.

MSHA contends the explosion started with a small, naturally occurring release of methane gas that was then fueled by coal dust into a devastating inferno that tore through the mine in a series of explosions over a few minutes. The agency has blamed a poorly maintained cutting head on a piece of mining equipment for sparking the blast and a malfunctioning water sprayer for failing to douse it.

An independent investigation commissioned by former Gov. Joe Manchin reached the same conclusion last month.

A public presentation for MSHA's latest findings is set for Wednesday morning. But Pauley and two other relatives, Gary Quarles and Clay Mullins, say the federal team offered nothing new and pushed back the timeline for completion of its final report for at least four more months. They'll now have to wait until October, at the earliest, for a comprehensive report, they said.

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

'Disaster Capitalism' Comes to Haiti

Local solutions to Haiti's crisis are being overlooked in favour of foreign profits.

From the balcony of her second-story Port-au-Prince apartment, Mary Ander had a particularly good view of former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s recent tour of Haiti’s soon-to-be-launched “Building Back Better Communities” housing expo, a Haitian Ministry of Tourism competition that will result in the contracting of hundreds of new housing units for Haiti’s post-earthquake reconstruction.

During an interview in the comfortable living room of her two-bedroom apartment in the Zoranger region, Ander exclaimed, “I love my house … I’m very, very happy.” Her apartment is part of an affordable-housing complex known as Village de la Renaissance, and overlooks the expo site that Clinton, along with Haiti’s newly inaugurated President Michel Martelly, visited last Wednesday.

According to Daniel Fauresmy, an engineer working with the housing expo, Ander’s building is resistant to the earthquakes and hurricanes that have devastated Haiti in recent years. The concrete building is also constructed with supplies manufactured in Haiti, something that Fauresmy emphasizes is important, as the “best solution is to work with local materials.”

However, Village de la Renaissance – whose construction began under the government of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2003, and was aborted when he was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup d’état in 2004 – is not one of the models being considered in the expo competition. Building Back Better Communities, which was one of the first projects of the reconstruction panel that Clinton co-chaired, and which the Clinton Foundation is backing, instead features many imported models. According to Fauresmy, among the 59 units on display, only seven are made by Haitian companies. Fauresmy estimates that, at most, 10 per cent of the models in the expo rely exclusively on local materials.

After his tour of the housing expo, Clinton gave an address beneath a large white tent lined with vendors (many of them American) selling assorted eco-products, from solar-powered flashlights to composting toilets. Standing beside Martelly (who sported a baseball cap with the word “Prezidan” embroidered on it for the occasion), Clinton emphasized Martelly’s campaign pledge to move quickly on building housing for the thousands of people still living in tent camps nearly 18 months after the earthquake.

The former U.S. president then praised Building Back Better Communities as evidence that, “if we do this housing properly, it will lead to whole new industries being started in Haiti, creating thousands and thousands of new jobs and permanent housing.”

Despite Clinton’s words, much about the expo was illustrative of what’s been done wrong thus far in Haiti’s reconstruction.

I first met Fauresmy outside one of the first housing units that Clinton visited – a small manufactured home being sold for $22,500 by a European conglomerate that had established a Haitian outfit called PMA. I had been trying to find out from the PMA sales reps how well the unit’s particleboard walls would stand up in the event of a hurricane. Had they been tested for resistance to strong winds, for instance? “Well no, we don’t do that,” I was told by one of the reps, Karl Sante. “They don’t have to be tested,” he added.

When I asked whether exhibitors were required to adhere to international building codes as a condition of participation, a Haitian employee of PMA helpfully telephoned Fauresmy, who he said would be able to answer my questions.

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Source: The Mark 

Weston: Taxpayers' AECL losses won't end with sale

While the federal government is apparently set to sell off its money-losing nuclear reactor business to a Quebec company, Canadian taxpayers will be stuck with the fiscal fallout for years to come.

The government-owned Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) is expected to announce this week that it has finally reached a tentative deal to sell its commercial reactor division to engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.

While details of the deal are being kept under tight wraps, the fact the Montreal-based company was the only suitor in the world left at the negotiating table sums up the situation.

Atomic Energy may be world famous for its CANDU reactors, but it hasn’t sold one in 15 years, and now generates mainly massive amounts of red ink, the Crown corporation having cost Canadian taxpayers over $800 million last year alone.

AECL’s refurbishment of the Point Lepreau reactor in New Brunswick is so behind schedule and over budget that the provincial government is now demanding more than $2 billion in compensation.

Under the circumstances, the government believes a good deal to sell AECL doesn’t have to produce a windfall — just stopping the annual bleed would save taxpayers potentially billions of dollars in future.

In the words of Atomic Energy’s president, Hugh MacDiarmid, earlier this year: "It is, in some cases, a bit of a leap of faith that somebody needs to take that we are going to be a company in the future that will enjoy growth, profitability and operational effectiveness."

Taxpayer support

If SNC-Lavalin is taking a leap of faith in buying AECL, it likely won’t be a huge one.

Last year’s losses in AECL’s reactor division alone would have been enough to wipe out the Montreal engineering conglomerate’s global profits several times over.

All of which means that whatever the deal with SNC-Lavalin, Canadian taxpayers are going to remain unwilling partners in the nuclear biz.

For instance, it is all but certain the federal government will have to assume responsibility for settling the multibillion-dollar Point Lepreau refurbishment fiasco.

Then there are all the research and development costs.

AECL says the future of its global business is in the next-generation ACR-1000 reactor, which doesn’t yet exist.

According to AECL’s latest annual report, taxpayers have poured more than $225 million into development of the ACR-1000 just in the past two years.

Will SNC-Lavalin assume sole responsibility (and liability) for completing, testing and bringing the new reactor to market?

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Source: CBC news 

Canada Post union to challenge back-to-work legislation in court

MONTREAL—The union representing Canada Post employees will mount a legal challenge against legislation forcing them back to work.

The back-to-work bill was adopted last weekend following a 58-hour filibuster by the NDP.

Alain Duguay, head of CUPW’s Montreal local, told The Canadian Press the union will seek legal recourse in an effort to overturn the legislation.

He said the decision was made by the union's national executive after a long meeting on Tuesday in Ottawa.

Duguay said details about the effort — such as whether the law will be challenged entirely or in sections — have yet to be determined.

In the meantime, said Duguay, postal workers do not plan to defy the law, meaning mail delivery will continue while the law is being contested.

The union is also considering lodging a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, claiming discrimination against newer employees who will not have the same pension benefits as older ones.

The back-to-work legislation forces postal workers to accept wages that are less than Canada Post's last offer.

On nonwage issues, it imposes a form of winner-take-all arbitration in which CUPW and the corporation will each make a final offer, one of which will be accepted.

Salary issues are not included in the arbitration process.

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Source: Toronto Star 

Union-Busting Tactics More Pervasive Than Previously Thought: Study

In the last half-century of American organized labor, the deck has rarely been so stacked against workers, say labor historians.

When it comes to union-busting, employers' tactics are more pervasive than previously thought, according to a new working study produced by the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. The study found that nearly 50 percent of all serious allegations of union busting tactics -- both legal and illegal -- by employers happens after workers express initial interest in a union, but before an official petition has even been filed requesting a vote on union representation.

The length of time -- and the pressure from employers -- between initial interest in a union and the election to determine whether employees wish to organize, the study argued, can significantly influence whether or not workers will get union representation.

"The cumulative effect of the steady, pervasive, and intense employer opposition undermines workers' attempts to exercise their rights to choose union representation free of coercion and intimidation," the study argued, concluding that the period between the petition and the election should be reduced to the shortest number of days possible.

The report comes a week after the National Labor Relation Board proposed new rules that if adopted, could make the road to unionization easier by streamlining the election process and -- most critically -- shortening the length of time between organizers gathering a sufficient number of signatures from workers and a union vote.

Typically, elections take place within two months after a petition is filed. The new rules would shorten that time period, though it's unclear by how much. Labor advocates say that almost any compression of the time period would be a good thing: For employees seeking to join a union, each day that passes is another opportunity for the employer to engage in crushing -- and often successful -- anti-union strategies.

"Employers have gotten emboldened," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, co-author of the study and a labor historian at Cornell University who has written extensively about anti-union strategy. "Employers have always opposed organizing, but what they are doing now shows that they are more and more confident that they are going to get away with it."

Bronfenbrenner laid out the numbers: Twenty years ago, she said, only 29 percent of employers threatened that a workplace might close if a union election succeeded. Along with threatening to fire pro-union employees, threatening to close a workplace is an illegal and increasingly common tactic employers use to intimidate employees in the run-up to a vote. Ten years ago, 50 percent of employers threatened a store closing, and, Bronfenbrenner continued, the most recent data drawn from the NLRB's document database of unfair labor practices, shows 57 percent of employers making such threats.

"The question is whether workers can survive the gauntlet another day, another week," Bronfenbrenner said. "Because every day, every week, that goes by that they have to go through the intimidation and coercion and threats that make up an employer campaign is one more day that makes it more difficult for them to exercise their right to organize."

Examples of attempts to organize derailed by aggressive anti-union tactics are numerous. In 2003, the last year of the study's sample, 3,746 petitions filed, but only 2,438 made it to vote; of those, more than 40 percent were lost by the union. Critics of organized labor attribute this to the unions' waning value in a global economy. But labor historians say that union-busting tactics and the laws that enable them play a far bigger role in the decline of American organized labor.

Earlier this month, a union vote at a Target store outside New York City failed after a majority of employees had already signed cards supporting unionization. Pro-union employees and organizers at the United Food and Commercial Workers union swiftly alleged wrongdoing.

"Target won through fear," one employee told The Huffington Post on the morning after the vote. The UFCW has filed numerous charges with the National Labor Relation Board, accusing the company of "unlawful denial of access to the store, unlawful dress code policy, unlawful no solicitation policy, unlawful use of social media policy as well as threats, interrogation and surveillance" -- even threatening that the company would close the store. Target broadly disputes the union's accusations and denies allegations that it threatened store closure.

One explanation for the upsurge of union-busting tactics, labor experts say, is how weak the disincentives are for employers. Under U.S. labor law, no punitive damages are allowed.

"There's actually a perverse incentive for employers to violate the law," said Dorian Warren, a co-author of the study and a Columbia University professor who specializes in organized labor. "It's cheaper to fire a couple of workers then let a union vote succeed. The employer sends a signal to the entire workplace, and if they lose in a couple of years, all they have to do is pay backpay and post a sign. "

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Source: Huffington 

Edward Ing, John Cruz, Toronto Police Officers Guilty Of Disabled Man Assault, Get House Arrest

CBC -- Two Toronto police officers found guilty of assaulting a disabled man have been handed 12 months of house arrest and banned from carrying weapons.

In January, Const. Edward Ing and Const. John Cruz were found guilty of assault causing bodily harm in the April 2009 attack on Richard Moore, 60.

David Butt, the lawyer who represented the officers, says the officers received a conditional sentence today -- the equivalent of house arrest.

They have also been banned from carrying weapons for 10 years.

Butt says the sentence has been temporarily set aside as the duo launches an appeal, a process that can take about a year.

The officers testified they believed Moore was drunk at the time, only to find out he had severe medical disabilities.

Source: Huffington 

Canada Economy: Indicators Suggest Big Stall

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- OTTAWA - When April's gross domestic product report is released on Thursday, it will all but certainly confirm that Canada's economy has stalled.

But while the majority of economists will put down the downturn to temporary factors like Japan and bad weather, there is also a gnawing concern that it could represent a longer-term problem. Even the dreaded double-dip is no longer something that can be ruled out confidently.

Thursday's gross domestic product report from Statistics Canada is widely expected to show a rare result for the country since the end of the recession two years ago, an off-month when the economy actually contracted.

The consensus of economists has GDP retracing a slight 0.1 per cent in April, the first month of the current quarter which ends June 30.

Almost all the indicators so far published point to a negative result, although extraordinary and temporary factors were in play, including April showers that kept construction crews idle and shoppers at home, and Japan's natural disasters that disrupted supply lines to Ontario's Japanese car plants.

But while that is somewhat disconcerting following a first quarter acceleration of 3.9 per cent -- the third best of the recovery period -- the real measure is what happens next.

The Bank of Canada and many private sector analysts have the economy suffering through a slowdown for one quarter, then accelerating again before settling at a growth rate of about two per cent in 2013.

While nothing remarkable, most economists would gladly take such an undramatic outcome. The trouble is, drama is in the air.

"You will see a lot of excuses Thursday about April," says Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist with CIBC World Markets.

"People will say, 'Oh, don't worry about it, it's just the weather.' The other story is that we are in a really soft period reflecting a very weak American economy and some softness in here in Canada. (But) The fact is we are in a very modest recovery and that's an understatement."

In a new report Tuesday, forecasters Capital Economics see GDP going declining each quarter until the end of 2012, averaging 1.5 per cent next year. Meanwhile, it predicts Canada's unemployment rate will rise from the current 7.4 per cent to 8.2 by the end of next year.

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Source: Huffington 

With its oil treasure, Israel gets a shield from tyranny

The London-based World Energy Council says Israel’s Shfela Basin, a half-hour drive south of Jerusalem, holds 250 billion barrels of recoverable shale oil, possibly making the energy-vulnerable country (as expressed by The Wall Street Journal) “the world’s newest energy giant.” With reserves of 260 billion barrels, Saudi Arabia would remain the world’s No. 1 oil country – though not, perhaps, for long. Howard Jonas, CEO of U.S.-based IDT Corp., the company that owns the Shfela Basin concession, says there is much more oil under Israel than under Saudi Arabia: Perhaps, he says, twice as much.

Even with a mere 250 billion barrels, the Shfela Basin (or 238 square kilometres of it) would make Israel the third-largest holder of shale reserves in the world – right behind the U.S. with 1.5 trillion barrels and China with 355 billion barrels. Assuming for the moment that Mr. Jonas is correct in his calculations, the U.S. and Israel would together hold shale reserves in excess of two trillion barrels: Enough oil to fuel these two countries (at combined consumption of eight billion barrels a year) for more than 200 years.

And the discovery of further vast energy reserves in the United States and Israel progresses at an accelerated (and now often frenzied) pace. With shale, everything depends on technology – and the prospects are encouraging. In the Texas shale play known as Eagle Ford, for example, 12 companies will drill 3,000 wells in the next year, all of them within spitting distance (as The New York times put it) “of a forsaken South Texas village” notable only for its derelict gas stations and rusting warehouses. Elsewhere in the country, thousands more wells will be drilled with new technology that cuts drilling time, per well, to 25 days from 65.

According to the Times, 20 of these shale oil plays could increase U.S. oil production by 25 per cent in the next 10 years. “This is very big and it’s coming fast,” says U.S. energy expert Daniel Yergin, chairman of the energy research company IHS CERA. “This is like adding another Venezuela or another Kuwait – except that these fields are in the U.S.”

The U.S. now produces nine million barrels of oil a day. It consumes 18 million barrels. The American oil gap, thus, is nine million barrels. Assuming that shale oil production increased overall crude production by 25 per cent (2.2 million barrels), this gap would fall to 6.8 million barrels.

But North America is a single market for oil and gas – and Canadian petroleum producers expect to increase production in the next five years by 1.3 million barrels a day (to 4.7 million barrels). Add this increased supply to the North American market and the U.S. oil gap falls to 5.5 million barrels.

But further still: High oil prices and low natural gas prices imply substantial substitution of gas for oil – most easily in oil-fired production of electricity. U.S. energy analyst Irfan Chaudhry calculates that this kind of substitution could reduce U.S. oil consumption by two million barrels a day. (Mr. Chaudhry says $26 worth of coal now produces as much electricity as $100 worth of oil – as does $24 worth of natural gas.) Subtract this gas-for-oil substitution from the U.S. oil gap and it falls to 3.5 million barrels a day.

It will take years – probably decades – for Israel to reach maximum production from its vast reserves of shale oil. But odds are that the Shfela Basin will change the global balance of power long before then. Indeed, it will effectively change the balance of power the day it exports its first barrel of oil. This shouldn’t take long. With such investors as Lord Rothschild (the banker and philanthropist), Rupert Murdoch (the media magnate) and Dick Cheney (the politician), Israel should be pumping oil within three or four years. Also on board is Shell Oil’s remarkable top scientist, Harold Vinegar, who says the Shfela oil is not only abundant but premium quality as well: “The equivalent of Saudi extra-light.”

Israel knows the perils of relying on tyrants for oil: Russia suspended its delivery of oil to Israel during the country’s 2006 war with Hezbollah. Israel needs first to secure its own energy independence. But one day – count on it – Israel will match Canada in oil exports to the U.S. and thus free its long-time friend from needing to deal with tyrants.

Source: Globe & Mail 

Toronto’s ‘buy local’ food policy under attack

The City of Toronto probably can’t afford to buy local food for its long-term care homes, shelters and daycare facilities, say some members of the government management committee.

Work on a buy-local policy began under former Mayor David Miller, but supporters of Mayor Rob Ford made it clear they don’t like it if it costs more.

“I think we should go out there and get the biggest bang for our buck,” said Councillor Doug Ford. “Yes, everyone wants to support Ontario-based food growers, but sometimes it’s just not realistic.”

The committee split on whether it supports a having a buy-local policy. The 2-2 vote means the issue goes to city council with no recommendation.

The committee’s unwillingness to support local agriculture “sends the wrong signal to our farming neighbours and to food processors here in Toronto who use local food,” said Franz Hartmann, of the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

The committee was warned by a new member, Councillor John Filion, that dropping the buy-local policy is against the public’s wishes.

“Public opinion is very much in favour of local food production, supporting local farmers, supporting local food producers,” said Filion, a Miller ally. “This does that. It’s a very modest proposal.”

The city spends $11 million a year on food for care homes, shelters and daycares. It contracts with food-service distributors who will buy local if it’s cheaper, said Councillor Paul Ainslie, the committee’s chair.

That may be difficult, Ainslie conceded, noting that last weekend Ontario strawberries were $4 a pint versus $2.50 for California-sourced berries.

Buying local would introduce children to the advantages of locally grown produce, said Betty Jean Crews, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

“It would be good for the consumer as well as the farmer,” Crews said. “If you have a focus on that, then maybe children in daycare will get various grapes and apples as opposed to oranges and bananas.”

It’s not always best to go with the cheapest, added Crews, whose federation counts 38,000 Ontario farms in its membership.

“I think we need to look at why something is cheaper. What we produce in Ontario is not only healthy and safe, but we do it with labour standards that are better than any I know and environmental standards that are better than a lot of countries.”

The low price advocates need to consider that local purchasing supports jobs on farms and in food processing, said Councillor Mike Layton, who has a large pork processing facility in his ward.

“The fact is it’s jobs and it’s commercial tax base in our city, and we need that for our city to survive,” said Layton, who isn’t on the committee but attended to speak to the food issue.

Ainslie suggested there are other ways the city can support farmers, for example by running more farmer’s markets and opening more community bake ovens in parks.

Council will tackle the local food issue when it meets July 12 and 13.

Full Article
Source: Toronto Star