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.]

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mayor Ford votes against every community grants program

Returning briefly to his old role as council's lonely contrarian, Mayor Rob Ford reprised an annual tradition and voted on Tuesday against every one of Toronto’s six widely popular community grants programs.

The community development and recreation committee, chaired by Ford ally Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, recommended that the city give dozens of community groups a total of about $7.2 million. The allocations were about to sail through council without a discussion or vote when Ford rose to say he wanted to be recorded as opposing all of them — as he did every year as a councillor.

Council then voted on the programs individually. Despite Ford’s newfound power, the results were nearly identical to votes on the programs under mayor David Miller: Ford lost 43-1 in votes on four of the programs, 42-2 on the fifth, and 41-3 on the sixth.

Ford was the lone councillor to oppose the Access, Equity and Human Rights program, which will provide $767,000 to 38 groups working on issues related to “race relations, gender equity, literacy, disability, sexual orientation, and Aboriginal affairs”; the Community Safety program, which will provide $666,000 to 22 groups working to prevent violence in priority neighbourhoods; the Community Recreation program, which will provide $594,000 to 80 groups for “activities that address gaps in available services provided by city recreation services”; and the Community Festivals and Special Events program, which will provide $98,000 to 30 groups.

Councillor Doug Ford joined his brother in opposing $4.7 million in Community Service Partnership grants to 78 groups that will “advance council's strategic goals and priorities by working to improve social outcomes for vulnerable, marginalized and high-risk communities.”

Councillor Frank Di Giorgio joined both Fords in opposing $408,000 in grants from the Services Development Investment Program, which helps 11 community organizations improve their capacity to respond to local needs.

Rob Ford did not respond to a question on his votes as he left the podium at the end of a brief press conference.

As a councillor under the left-leaning administration of Miller, Ford regularly voted alone against spending he believed was unnecessary or wasteful, including the grants programs. As mayor, he was the sole vote against accepting provincial money for an effort to combat HIV and syphilis.

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday, a staunch fiscal conservative who voted in favour of the grants, said he thinks Ford believes the city spends too much on grants.

“I think it’s the overall amount that he’s opposed to. I guess we have to look for cutbacks,” Holyday said. “The trouble with the list is there's some very, very good recipients, and then there might be some that are questionable. Without picking the list apart, it's difficult to say no to them all. That's why I did what I did.”

Councillor Janet Davis, chair of the community development committee under Miller, called Ford's votes “embarrassing.”

“At first I just shook my head. He still thinks he's the Ward 2 councillor. He's the mayor, and he's supposed to provide leadership,” Davis said. “To turn around and be the sole vote opposing grants that support communities across Toronto? It's just shameful, and it's pretty astounding: he has not adjusted to his new role. It's like it was 2001.”

Source: Toronto Star 

Stephen Harper's Actions Against Immigration Are Different Than His Words

Stephen Harper now has a stronger mandate with a majority government, so what is Harper's agenda with his new mandate? The answer is that there are two agendas at play. The first is to chart Canada on a fundamentally right-wing course; the second is to establish the Conservatives as the new "natural governing party," taking this mantle from the Liberals who previously claimed this title.

These agendas seem contradictory -- one involves a radical right-wing agenda while the other is a more centrist project -- trying to occupy ground previously claimed by the Liberals, ground that is harder for the left-wing NDP to capture. For Harper, however, accomplishing these agendas will not necessarily be mutually contradictory.

The Harper government is likely to use the language of political moderation, to not take an "in-your-face" ideological approach like, for example, Mike Harris did. However the actual policies, while taking on an incremental nature, are likely to belie this language of moderation.

The Harper government has already prioritized spending on fighter jets and prisons and championed corporate tax reductions, a course that will most likely necessitate social program reductions.

A clear example of where Conservatives use moderate language, but pursue an immoderate course, is immigration. Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney heavily courted immigrants and visible minorities, so-called "ethnic" voters, in the run-up to the last election.

According to the Canadian Election Study, Conservative gains among immigrant voters were overstated -- vote splitting between Liberals and New Democrats in suburban Toronto facilitated Conservative gains in large part. Nonetheless, the Harper government was able to claim the language of moderation on immigration and multiculturalism.

However, during the election, a group of immigration lawyers warned that while Conservatives were stating they would improve the immigration system, their policies contradicted these statements.

Annual visa quotas for sponsored parents and grandparents dropped dramatically between 2005 and 2011 from 20,005 to 11,200, with actual sponsorship applications taking nine to 30 months longer depending on location of visa application. While the rationale may be that sponsored elderly immigrants use social services and do not contribute to tax revenue, this raises a fundamental question of why members of immigrant communities cannot have their elderly parents and grandparents nearby to look after, a privilege which non-immigrants enjoy.

In Middle Eastern, Asian, and South Asian cultures, it is customary for families to look after elderly parents, to have them in the same house. Furthermore, many immigrants benefit from having their extended families come with them in helping to settle down in a new society.

Something else to note, when the Maengs, a family of landed South Korean immigrants in Moncton, New Brunswick, faced deportation because of the costs of caring for their autistic son, it was the provincial government of New Brunswick -- in stepping up to cover related healthcare costs -- and not the federal government which acted to ensure this family could stay in Canada.

For refugees, the Conservatives cancelled the only program that allowed refugees to apply in their own country and have re-introduced a bill from the last Parliament which targets refugees. Under this bill, for refugees there is mandatory detention for one year without judicial review, denial of permanent residency for five years, and increased barriers being reunited with families through denial of sponsorship for five years. Many legal experts have stated that this bill contravenes the Charter.

This bill was spurred on, in part, through an earlier incident where a ship off the shores of British Columbia, carrying Tamil refugees from war-torn Sri Lanka, became a source of controversy.

While Conservative gains among immigrant voters are overstated, looking at Greater Toronto it is interesting to note that Conservatives made limited seat gains in Scarborough, where there is a relatively large Tamil population, while sweeping ridings in Mississauga and Brampton, where there are relatively large Indian and Pakistani populations (although at this point the exact demographic breakdown among different groups in these ridings is uncertain).

Could Conservatives be targeting certain groups, Indian and Pakistani -- misleading them on facilitating a swifter immigration process -- while writing off others such as Tamils who came as refugees?

On immigration the Conservatives are using the language of moderation and inclusiveness, but their actual policies tell a different story.

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

When Negotiators Take Themselves Hostage

The GOP is threatening to shut down government over problems it could easily solve.

What if there were a group of terrorists holding your family hostage, and pointing a gun, not at your family, but at themselves, demanding the account number to your pension fund? Would you negotiate with the terrorists by allowing them access to your savings, or would you let them shoot themselves, thus keeping your retirement money intact?

Congressional Republicans are threatening to default on the debt unless U.S. President Barack Obama caves to their demands to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security spending. Regardless of the market-crashing consequences of a debt default, actually doing so would be unconstitutional. Section 4 of the 14th Amendment clearly states that "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions ... shall not be questioned." Republicans are violating the constitution by threatening a debt default. End of discussion.

Credible economists and lawmakers on both sides generally agree that raising the debt ceiling is an essential part of governing, and that a large deficit can pose a danger to economic security. But if Speaker John Boehner genuinely cares about deficit reduction, he need only look to ending his own party's policies and shifting the tax burden. Swearing allegiance to Grover Norquist's no-new-taxes pledge, the GOP will only allow room for $4 trillion in cuts, arguing that this is a spending problem, not a revenue problem. However, the GOP’s budget would collect exactly $4 trillion less over the next decade through even more tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

Contrary to Republican claims, the United States is one of the lowest-tax countries in the world – U.S. corporations and wealthy citizens pay far less in taxes than other developed nations. Capital-gains taxes have dropped 10 per cent since 1950, tax rates for million-dollar households have decreased 10 per cent since the mid-90s, and the estate tax has virtually disappeared for those with the largest fortunes since the onset of the Bush presidency. Four simple solutions would close that $4 trillion budget gap in the next decade, without even touching Social Security or Medicare.

Full Article
Source: The Mark 

Phone Hacking: Rupert Murdoch Summoned By UK Parliament As BSkyB Bid Implodes

Rupert Murdoch was summoned by the British Parliament committee investigating his hacking scandal to give evidence next Tuesday, and he has agreed to come, along with his son James and top deputy Rebekah Brooks. The summons came on a day when Murdoch's bid to take over satellite company BSkyB looked to be in more serious peril than ever, with members on all sides of the House of Commons calling for it to be scrapped.

Louise Mensch, a Conservative member of Parliament, announced on Twitter that Murdoch, his son James and News International chief Rebekah Brooks have all been summoned to appear before the Select Committee of the Department of Media, Culture and Sport (the government cabinet department responsible for the press.)

On Tuesday afternoon, the head of the committee, John Whittingdale, announced that Rupert and James Murdoch and Brooks will indeed appear before Parliament next Tuesday.

James Murdoch has already apologized for issuing misleading statements to Parliament in previous testimony. The Select Committee has also been a frequent critic of News International's conduct during the five-year hacking scandal.

The summons is just the latest in a string of bad news for Rupert Murdoch. On Tuesday, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an extraordinary attack on News International for hacking, "blagging" and conning its way into obtaining his legal and financial records, as well as for allegedly uncovering the news of his son's cystic fibrosis through illegal means.

Full Article
Source: Huffington  

A Glimpse into the Shady World of Romas/COIN

Even Disney/Pixar may be involved in an alleged global electronic surveillance ring.

In February, the hacktivist group Anonymous released 70,000 emails from security firm HBGary Federal, revealing that the firm had been part of an effort to sell its information-warfare services to companies seeking to attack WikiLeaks. Barrett Brown combed through the emails and found evidence of what he says is a massive surveillance effort involving numerous security firms. According to Brown, this effort is primarily targeting the Arab world, and is evidently run for the U.S. government. Even Disney/Pixar appears to have been caught up in the effort, at least peripherally. The HBGary Federal emails suggest the alleged program, known as Romas/COIN, is about to be upgraded to a new program known as Odyssey.

THE MARK: Can you tell us what you discovered about Romas/COIN in the 70,000 HBGary Federal emails that were released in February?

BARRETT BROWN: Northrop Grumman has held the contract for Romas/COIN for at least three years now – possibly longer. The picture we have of what Romas/COIN is is not based on anything from the client, whichever military intelligence agency the client is, but is rather based on what these companies were trying to provide to that client as a means of winning that contract away from Northrop Grumman.

To be more specific, [former Northrop Grumman CEO] Aaron Barr, having left Northrop Grumman, was put in charge of HBGary Federal, and he began talking to the CEO of Mantech, another contractor, and some of the principals at TASC, which is a much larger contractor. Barr said, "We should compete for this contract when it comes up for renewal. Let's get a bunch of companies together and be in a position to offer a better product."

By the end of 2010, they had obtained not just TASC, HBGary Federal, Mantech, and a few others, but also companies like SocialEyez, which is a United Arab Emirates-based firm that provides natural language processing. By its own admission on its main website, SocialEyez can monitor millions of multilingual conversations a day and assess them.

At some point, Aaron Barr asked a contact at the Office of the Secretary of Defense to put him in touch with a contact at Pixar. The OSD contact arranged to get him in touch with [an individual] who is a former National Security Agency (NSA) technology director, and who, for some reason, now works at Pixar/Disney. So that raises the questions of what Pixar/Disney is doing, why it has former NSA people working for it, and why the OSD is able to recommend someone at Pixar/Disney.

You see, all the capabilities they're looking for in terms of translation, natural language processing, expert systems, the use of websites, and Aaron Barr's own program called MAGPII (which is short for Magnifying Personal Information), are the basis for Romas/COIN, which appears to be a very complex apparatus that provides an unprecedented picture of what's being said and communicated within a large spectrum. It involves surveillance, and it seems to involve putting out some degree of misinformation.

On the whole, the problem with this is that, even though we have all these capabilities written down – their communication with Apple and Google, and the fact that they were seeking out AT&T and looking at online game companies – it never gets to the point where we really know what the specific goal is, beyond the fact that there is surveillance incorporated into it. That's why I'm hoping that others with better familiarity with these procedures might add to the existing dataset.

THE MARK: So, just to clarify, we know that there's a very big, complex, multifaceted apparatus, but we don't know what it does.

BROWN: Right. And I think the fact that all these companies are more than ready to provide things via this system is very problematic. Between this large industry that's growing very quickly, and the increasing pressure on intelligence agencies in terms of intent and mentality, I think the recipe here is for more and more sophisticated surveillance and information-manipulation capabilities.

One of the things that was stressed in our research was the sort of weird, close network you see among all these companies. I mean, just looking at HBGary, you see emails between it and TASC, SAIC, Booz Allen Hamilton, Mantech, Archimedes Global, and tons of other companies. There's a whole lot of collaboration within the industry. Having looked at the interactions for so long, my view is that what you have here is a budding technocratic class. I really think it bears more scrutiny than it's getting.

A company called Endgame Systems is mentioned several times in the context of being actively opposed to its name getting out. The company actually says to Aaron Barr that it doesn't want to appear in a press release. It’s a smaller company, run by a former NSA fellow, and it’s providing a couple of services involving botnets, but also something else. The fact is, Endgame Systems is actively opposed to being scrutinized, and its federal clients don't want it to be scrutinized.

To the extent that policy can be put into action by way of informational capabilities, policy is being decided not by congressional oversight, or by any elected officials, but rather by the intelligence community itself within the military. It gets voted a great deal of money, which it can use any way it wants; it can write up what it wants and give it to these companies, which are inclined to provide whatever these agencies want – without much thought for how it might affect democratic institutions or how it might corrode the information stream.

THE MARK: In the wiki, you discuss the possibility that this apparatus might be used to disseminate information as well as survey social networks. That sounds very foreboding.

BROWN: That's based on a couple of discussions in the emails where they talk about the translators having to produce content. There are also a few other reasons to believe that, based on a couple of websites they're putting up, mobile phone apps, and that kind of thing.

I'm not saying this is a giant propaganda organ. Misinformation is being put out to some degree, but that may just be in terms of providing what appears to be a commercial product (which it really is not). So when I say putting out information, I don't necessarily mean that this is something that's putting out misinformation on a grand scale. You have to remember that what we're working with here is little bits and pieces of discussions over a year-long period.

THE MARK: What kind of effect do you think exposing information on the intelligence-contracting community will have?

BROWN: It seems to me that if they don't want scrutiny, more scrutiny should be directed at them. If the media's role is to serve as a watchdog, then you would think the fact that this large group is hiding its actions would set off an alarm for them.

At this point, the New York Times is more interested in asking me about LulzSec. For the most part, the media industry in this country is so broken that I could reveal anything, and without enough luck – or without some component that happens to strike the fancy of some editor somewhere – it's just not going to make it into public consciousness. It's never going to prompt an investigation by the media or by Congress without a hook. Now, if there were some kind of sex involved, or if Charlie Sheen were somehow a client, then that would be wonderful.

Things being the way they are, I would recommend that anyone who wants to get away with something should just go ahead and do it. Go ahead and join the intelligence-contracting industry; go spy on civilians; go do the bidding of the Bank of America; and be responsible for illegal attacks against WikiLeaks. You'll get away with it.

Source: The Mark 

Pride funding likely safe — for now, says Mammoliti

Toronto Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti is conceding that hundreds of thousands of dollars of Pride funding already promised to organizers for 2011 will likely be delivered.

Mammoliti sent a release to media outlets Monday detailing his stance on publicly funded parades and marches. He had been expected to put forward a motion Tuesday to withhold the nearly $130,000 in grant money already committed to Pride organizers.

A video shot by Mammoliti on July 2, showing Dyke March participants carrying anti-Israeli apartheid signage, caused some concern about whether the City would make good on its promise to fund this year’s Pride events.

Earlier this year, Mammoliti demanded a written guarantee from festival organizers that the controversial group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid be banned from participating in Pride events.

QuAIA voluntarily agreed to stay away and in May, council approved funding on the condition that organizers ensure all participants adhere to the city’s anti-discrimination policy.

Mammoliti believes the presence of anti-Israeli apartheid signage constitutes a breach of the commitment organizers made, whether or not the signs belonged to members of QuAIA specifically. He also noted that some participants chanted, “We’re queer, we’re hot, Israeli apartheid is not.”

This year’s Pride funding “shouldn’t be safe,” he said, “but . . . it’ll probably be paid out because it’s deemed to be within policy by our bureaucrats. And while I still believe they’ve broken their commitment to the City of Toronto there’ll probably be nothing I can do to take this funding away this year.”

But Mammoliti’s watchful eyes are not resting solely on Pride.

“I have to congratulate the Pride Parade and the organizers because what they’ve done is they’ve opened up the eyes of City Hall to the larger picture. City taxpayers’ dollars should not be going towards any venue, including marches and parades, that have a political message slant to them.”

Mammoliti confirmed that if it were up to him, this would include funding for any artistic endeavour with a political message.

He denied that withdrawing public funding from anything considered “political messaging” might be fraught with problems.

“There’s no slippery slope here. It’s either we want tax dollars to go toward political messaging or we don’t. This councillor believes that we shouldn’t.”

Full Article
Source: Toronto Star 

Rob Ford’s gravy train running on fumes

Not with a bang, but a whimper.

That’s how Mayor Rob Ford seems to have started his much heralded attempt to tame the city’s behemoth of a budget.

As citizens tuned in to hear how the mayor intends to reduce the size and scope of government — his winning mantra in last fall’s municipal election — Ford was absent from the parade, sending his minions to a city hall news conference.

As on many other files, the civic leader was missing in action. So, too, was the anticipated list of huge savings to be found in bloated departments. And the hit list of waste and gravy.

It turns out that if Ford is going to find “savings” from the city’s water, garbage and transportation departments he will have to convince city council to keep the blue box out of apartments and condos, reduce snow clearing, cut the grass and sweep the streets less often, and end fluoridation of Toronto’s drinking water — all politically explosive issues.

For that — and a list of nickel-and-dime, nip-and-tuck manoeuvres — Toronto could potentially, possibly, save up to $10 million to $15 million in departments that spend $1 billion, one-third of which comes from taxes.

City councillors didn’t need to pay a consultant $350,000 to tell them where to find those “savings.” Council considers them every year — and often recoils from implementing them.

The mayor has fed the general expectation that the consultants from KPMG would use their fresh eyes to uncover bushels of low-hanging fruit that nobody had identified before — the “gravy.”

They haven’t.

And if this trend continues through reports on the other cluster of services — eight in all, continuing with economic development Tuesday — then the mayor has disappointed his followers who are bullish on a brutish wielding of the axe.

The consultants begin their report on the public works and infrastructure department with this: “The vast majority, 96 per cent . . . are core municipal services.”

Economic development reports are out Tuesday, and again, about 96 per cent is considered core, essential, mandatory. Do away with core services and you close down the city, in effect. Other departments will reflect a similar theme. The mayor and politicians won’t be able to run roughshod through departments, cutting indiscriminately. Citizens will notice the damage because there isn’t so much waste that Ford can save a couple billion dollars without cutting service.

That was the campaign and post-campaign rhetoric. The claim is exposed as a canard, a massive con job.

Still, Ford’s opponents may want to hold the celebration.

While the consultants found little, if anything, new — pending future reports — even the short list of tiny adjustments is often in areas that citizens value. They may not be core services; they may not be available in other jurisdictions; they may be costlier than the standard service, but citizens treasure them. And what is considered a frill by one citizen is often essential to another.

Waste diversion costs three times what it does to simply dump the trash in a landfill site. So the bean counters look at this and suggest council may want to stop being green. Single-family homes divert 60 per cent of their waste, while highrise dwellers divert only 18 per cent. Cut the plans to extend the blue box program to more condos and apartments and savings accrue, they argue.

Do you see city council agreeing to that?

KPMG maintains it is not recommending any of the “inventory of opportunities” identified in the report. That’s for council to decide in September.

Getting there will be ugly, not the cakewalk the mayor promised.

Source: Toronto Star 

Benefits at risk, Geithner warns

WASHINGTON - As the nation inched closer yesterday to what the White House says would be a catastrophic default on its massive debt, President Obama’s administration ratcheted up the pressure on Republicans by suggesting Social Security checks for some 55 million Americans could be in jeopardy if no deal is reached in the next three weeks.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said his agency must borrow 40 cents of every dollar it spends and suggested that without the ability to borrow, it may not be able to deliver crucial benefits to Americans who rely on them to pay for food and other necessities.

“On August 2d, we’re left running on fumes,’’ Geithner said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.’’ “We have no capacity to borrow… . We have to act; Congress has to act ahead of that point. If they don’t act, then we face catastrophic damage to the American economy.’’

President Obama met with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House last night in an effort to reach a compromise to avert default on the debt. Obama and the lawmakers made no statements immediately after the meeting, but they are scheduled to meet again today.

The nation is set to surpass the legal cap on its borrowing on Aug. 2, accumulating debt of more than $14.2 trillion, and Congress must pass legislation to raise that cap to prevent default.

Despite House Speaker John Boehner’s announcement Saturday night that he favors a $2 trillion plan for debt reduction rather than the $4 trillion sought by Democrats, Geithner and other administration officials said yesterday that they still are hoping for a larger deal.

The two sides have been mired in negotiations for months, stymied in a political and ideological standoff over taxes and the size of the federal government.

Republicans who control the House do not want to raise the debt ceiling un less Democrats agree to significant spending cuts to offset the increased borrowing potential. Democrats have said they will not agree to significant cuts without tax increases on wealthier Americans and big business to help offset the cuts, something the GOP has scoffed at.

Full Article
Source: Boston Globe 

Murdoch Goes From Darling to Pariah

At the News International party last month, Rupert Murdoch got the reception he’s used to in London, with political figures of every stripe and from the prime minister down paying court at the Kensington Palace event.

When he returned to the city two days ago, the 80-year-old was jostled by camera crews and faced shouted questions. Asked if David Cameron was likely to speak to Murdoch during this week’s visit, an official in the prime minister’s office struggled to answer over laughter at the idea.

Allegations last week that News Corp. staff hacked into the phones of murdered schoolgirls and terror victims and paid police for stories prompted Murdoch to close the 168-year-old News of the World tabloid on which his U.K. media empire was founded. Politicians from all parties have called for his planned purchase of British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc (BSY) to be scrapped and some question whether his company is fit to own a broadcasting license at all.

“The days of Rupert Murdoch as a man that people will fly halfway around the world to see, whose phone calls get taken, are over,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Sussex University and the author of “The Conservative Party From Thatcher to Cameron.” “All the party leaders have been distancing themselves.”

Thatcher Backer

U.K. prime ministers have felt the need to curry favor with Murdoch since he was allowed by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1981 to add the Times and Sunday Times to his stable of newspapers, which already included the Sun and the News of the World. He was the only newspaper owner invited to a lunch to celebrate Thatcher’s decade in power in 1989 and was more than once invited to spend Christmas with her family, according to John Campbell’s biography of Thatcher.

Cameron’s predecessor, Gordon Brown, also courted Murdoch and is now the victim of the latest twist of the phone-hacking scandal. Brown today accused News Corp. newspapers of using criminals to get stories about him whilst he was in office and said he was reduced to tears when the Sun tabloid phoned him to say it was going to report his son Fraser’s diagnosis of cystic fibrosis.

Brown Allegations

“The level of criminality involved, which is going to be exposed, meant that there were links between that newspaper, and that group of newspapers, and well-known criminals in this country,” Brown said in an interview with BBC television broadcast today. “This is an issue and will become an issue about the abuse of political power as well as the abuse of civil liberties.”

News International said in a statement today it is satisfied that the Sun obtained the story from a legitimate source and pledged to look into the allegations made by Brown.

Despite his upset over the reporting, Brown still invited Murdoch to a dinner for historians during U.S. President George Bush’s last visit to the U.K. Brown’s wife, Sarah, had Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng, for a “sleepover party” at their Chequers official country residence, the Telegraph reported in 2008.

Also entertained by the Browns at Chequers was Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the Sun and News of the World, now chief executive officer of News International, the publisher of Murdoch’s British papers. Cameron, whose house in his Oxfordshire electoral district is close to Brooks’s, has followed suit, attending a drinks party she held at Christmas.

Courted by Cameron

It was Tony Blair who did fly halfway around the world, visiting Australia when he became Labour Party leader in 1995, two years before he became Prime Minister. After the vilification Murdoch papers, especially the tabloid Sun, had poured on his predecessor as Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, the decision was controversial within his party.

“People would be horrified,” Blair wrote in his memoir “A Journey,” explaining the decision. “Not to go was to say carry on and do your worst, and we knew their worst was very bad indeed,” he wrote. “No, you sat down to sup; or not. So we did.”

Cameron has been assiduous in courting Murdoch, hiring former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press adviser. Coulson took the fall for the original phone-hacking scandal, resigning in 2007 after one of his reporters was jailed for intercepting voicemails of members of the royal household.

Coulson Connection

At the time, he insisted it had been the work of a single rogue reporter and that he had known nothing. Even when News Corp. executives in 2009 said James Murdoch, Rupert’s son, had approved payments to other phone-hacking victims, both the company and Cameron stuck to the line that the activity hadn’t been widespread.

That line broke at the start of the year, when, under a weight of lawsuits, News International said illegal behavior had been more widespread. Shortly before that announcement, Coulson quit his post in Cameron’s office.

Since then, the government and News Corp. have followed diverging paths, culminating last week in Cameron insisting nothing had been proved against Coulson. James Murdoch had put out a statement the day before saying that, during Coulson’s time at the News of the World, “wrongdoers had turned a good newsroom bad,” and closing the paper. Coulson was arrested and questioned on July 8.

‘We Are Afraid’

While standing by Coulson, whom he said remains a friend and has yet to be charged or convicted, Cameron said he had been wrong to focus on “courting support” from the press, turning a “blind eye” to claims of wrongdoing.

Tom Watson, the Labour party lawmaker who has pursued the phone-hacking scandal for two years, on Sept. 9 offered his fellow lawmakers an assessment of why it was being ignored.

“In this House we are all, in our own way, scared of the Rebekah Brookses of this world,” he said. “The barons of the media, with their red-topped assassins, are the biggest beasts in the modern jungle. Prime Ministers quail before them, and that is how they like it. We are afraid.”

The balance from fear to outrage shifted July 4, when the Guardian newspaper reported that a News of the World employee intercepted messages left on the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

Distress Signal

Cameron was in Afghanistan at the time. As they prepared for a press conference with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, one of Cameron’s staff spotted that the union flag behind the prime minister was flying the wrong way up -- historically a distress signal.

It was appropriate. Aides traveling with the prime minister said the story had stopped being something of interest only to media-watchers and opposition politicians, and would arouse public fury. What one aide described as their hands-off attitude to the BSkyB deal would not help them to deal with what was to come.

Full Article
Source: Bloomberg 

Why We’re in the Budgetary Soup

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, no one has elected Grover Norquist to anything. Still, he looms as a major obstacle to Congress reaching a deficit-reduction agreement needed to raise the federal debt ceiling. Norquist heads Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group that has persuaded 41 senators and 236 representatives (all but three of them Republicans) to sign its “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” opposing any tax increase. If Congress eliminates special-interest tax breaks, the pledge requires that they be “matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

To Norquist, a tax increase is not good even if it greases a deal to avoid a federal default. Norquist plugs relentlessly for smaller government. “We can reduce the size and scope of government at all levels to make all Americans freer, richer and more independent,” he wrote in his 2008 book “Leave Us Alone.” But what’s revealing about Norquist’s passionate advocacy is that it virtually ignores the main causes of bigger government: Social Security and Medicare.

Championing smaller government without coming to grips with these gigantic programs is like playing basketball without a ball. It’s make-believe. Norquist’s testimony last year before the Bowles-Simpson commission — the bipartisan budget-deficit panel — said almost nothing about these programs. The 360 pages of “Leave Us Alone” only briefly mention them. His recent op-ed in USA Today didn’t do even that.

How misleading is this? Well, all programs for the elderly (including much of Medicaid — health insurance for the poor — and other retirement programs) constitute almost half of non-interest federal spending: roughly $1.6 trillion in 2010 out of $3.3 trillion. Moreover, aging baby boomers and surging health costs account for most future spending growth. Without them, we’d have the smaller government that Norquist craves.

But let’s be fair. Deception is bipartisan. Liberal groups often misleadingly play down how much burgeoning spending on the elderly threatens higher taxes or deep cuts in other programs. You can’t understand how we got in the budgetary soup without seeing the parallel evasions of left and right.

A good example is the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. It has 25 federal budget experts and is a widely respected source of analysis, although it’s also openly liberal in advocating social spending for the poor and the elderly. But the center has never — despite its name — presented a fully balanced budget to show how it would choose among competing interests.

Asked about this, Bob Greenstein, the center’s longtime head, said in an e-mail that he’s been “reluctant to develop comprehensive budget plans,” arguing that “we do not have expertise in all parts of the budget” — defense, for instance. This is weak; no one has expertise in all parts of the budget. The real reason is political expediency. Social Security and Medicare are too popular to assail. By shunning budget balancing, Greenstein spares himself having to make major Social Security and Medicare cuts or supporting the stiff tax increases needed to pay for them.

Norquist and Greenstein both practice avoidance. Dealing with Social Security and Medicare’s vast costs would force Norquist to admit that smaller government would require savage (and implausible) benefit cuts. Greenstein would have to concede that spending for the elderly competes directly with social spending for the poor and that supporting both would require sizable tax increases well beyond the upper crust. For example: repealing the Bush tax cuts for higher-income Americans (couples exceeding $250,000; singles, $200,000) would raise about $700 billion from 2011 to 2020; projected deficits for those years total almost $10 trillion.

Full Article
Source: Newsweek 

A Debate on Human Rights Watch’s Call For Bush Administration Officials Be Tried For Torture

Human Rights Watch has released a new report calling on the U.S. government to launch a broad criminal investigation into alleged crimes of torture committed by former President George W. Bush and other top officials under his administration. It comes on the heels of a Department of Justice investigation into alleged torture, abuse and murder during the interrogation of detainees in CIA custody. Earlier this month, the DOJ announced it would launch a full criminal investigation into the deaths of just two prisoners out of 101 cases under review, including one who died at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. We speak to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, and to John Baker, professor emeritus at Louisiana State University Law School.

Source: Democracy Now! 

The Billion-Dollar Bank Heist

How the financial industry is buying off Washington—and killing reform.

There are the bills a president signs sitting in the Oval Office and the bills that merit a Rose Garden ceremony. And then there are bills so momentous—or at least so critical to a president’s reelection prospects—that those around the commander in chief orchestrate a more elaborate ceremony. Such was the case with Dodd-Frank, the financial-reform package that President Obama signed into law last July against a backdrop of velvet curtains in a resplendent venue a few blocks from the White House.

“Passing this bill was no easy task,” Obama told the 400 dignitaries who witnessed the most ambitious overhaul of the financial system since the Great Depression. “We had to overcome the furious lobbying of an array of powerful interest groups and a partisan minority determined to block change.”

The pomp and ceremony may have been premature. Ever since the law’s passage, those same “powerful interest groups” who opposed Dodd-Frank have been trying to prevent it from taking effect. As written, the law delayed implementation of most of its new rules for at least 12 months so regulators would have time to hammer out the finer points of the 2,319-page bill. But that delay has also provided an opening to banks and other financial institutions seeking to defang the law. “Just because we lost that round,” says Cam Fine, president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, which spent $1 million in the first three months of this year to lobby against implementation, “doesn’t mean we just give up. Congress changes its mind all the time.”

Take what’s been happening with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is the law’s most significant and controversial provision. The agency is set to go live next week, except that Republicans in the Senate have made it clear they won’t confirm anyone to serve as its head unless the agency is radically scaled back. All told, Dodd-Frank has some 300 provisions, and the bulk of them are under attack by a number of foes, from bankers to check-cashing companies to free-market Republicans.

And so it is, says a discouraged Rep. Barney Frank, that his eponymous bill is “facing a death through a thousand cuts.”

The story of this evisceration is largely one of money—the tens of billions of dollars in profits that banks and other financial institutions stand to lose if Dodd-Frank is implemented, and the astonishing sums they’re spending to squash it. The industry paid lobbyists $1.3 billion in 2009 and through the first three months of 2010, according to the Center for Public Integrity, which added up the spending by the 850 businesses and trade groups fighting financial reform. Many of these same businesses are now spending as much money, if not more, to lobby for curbs on the new law.

The Financial Services Roundtable, for instance, is on pace to spend $10 million on lobbying in 2011, based on its spending the first few months of this year. That’s well above the $7.5 million that the trade association, which represents most of the country’s largest financial firms, spent in 2010. The American Bankers Association is expected to beat its $7.5 million spent last year, based on first-quarter-2011 numbers. JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup are on track to match last year’s lobbying spending: $7 million and $5 million, respectively. Wells Fargo, which spent $5 million last year, spent $1.9 million in just the first quarter of this year.

None of that includes the millions in campaign contributions the banks and trade associations are pouring into the coffers of those members of Congress who sit on the relevant committees responsible for financial reform—especially those willing to take on Dodd-Frank.

It’s simple to see why banks oppose Dodd-Frank. A new consumer-protection agency means another regulator poking into their business, telling them how they can market a mortgage or credit card. Under the new law, for example, lenders and investors can’t just package mortgages and sell them to clients, as they did in the years leading up to the financial meltdown; they would need to hold on to at least a 5 percent share of most mortgage-backed securities. The final bill also caps the fee a financial institution can charge retailers on debit-card transactions, eating into a huge profit center for the banks. And the law limits the portion of their holdings big banks can wager on riskier ventures such as derivatives and commodities futures. In recent years, such bets have been a windfall for banks.

Yet among a majority of Americans the law is exceedingly popular: according to a Gallup poll last fall, 61 percent of respondents said the bill’s passage was a good thing, and 42 percent of those identifying themselves as Republican felt the same. This support complicates the task facing the banks and their allies in Congress. Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann introduced legislation earlier this year that would rescind Dodd-Frank, but the Republican leadership in the House hasn’t granted her bill so much as a hearing.

Instead, Republicans have gotten behind a series of measures that wouldn’t repeal Dodd-Frank as much as whittle it down to the point of ineffectiveness. “They are trying to undo the bill, but in ways that are more subtle than what Ms. Bachmann has in mind,” says Frank (who adds of his ideological adversary, “Of the 240 Republican members of the House, I don’t think she ranks among the top 230 most respected”). Rather than follow Bachmann’s lead, Frank says, the Republicans have “decided to cripple the bill in disguise.”

One example: Dodd-Frank calls for a sweeping overhaul of the $600 trillion derivatives market—a culprit in the economic meltdown. After the Republicans took the majority in the House, they tried slashing the funding of the agencies charged under the bill with derivatives oversight. When that didn’t work, the focus shifted to delaying the implementation of derivative-related reforms for as long as possible—until at least October 2012. Put off implementation a little longer, and there’s a chance the new Congress, or a new administration, might be less inclined to rein in the financial sector.

Or consider the assault on Elizabeth Warren. The Harvard Law School professor first proposed the idea of a consumer-protection agency in 2007 and has since become a lightning rod for conservative anger over financial reform. On Meet the Press, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, cast Warren as an ideologue hellbent on creating an agency that “could be a serious threat to our financial system.”

“Why would anyone want to gut the consumer agency before it has had a chance to help a single family?” Warren asked in an email exchange with NEWSWEEK. Warren, of course, knows that the answer to that question lies not just with the big banks that don’t see anything in it for them, but also with the fringe lenders who stand to lose the most in the face of a strong consumer-protection agency. These include check cashers, pawnbrokers, and payday lenders (who make high-interest loans against a person’s next paycheck).

Warren knows, too, that she has become a piñata in the political arena precisely because the consumer bureau she dreamed up is so popular. If the Republicans can dirty Warren and cast doubts on her creation—and, by proxy, the rest of financial reform—they can potentially strike an even bigger victory: undermining one of the sturdiest planks in the president’s reelection platform.

Maybe the miracle is that Dodd-Frank passed in the first place. The financial-services sector was hit hard by the economic meltdown, so banks spent less on lobbyists and in campaign contributions, according to the watchdog organizations that monitor outside spending on politics. But by all accounts that slowdown was brief. As soon as reform became a threat in 2009, banks ratcheted up spending again. Luckily, they had plenty of cash on hand—courtesy of the federal bailout.

JPMorgan Chase, for instance, which received $25 million in TARP money, spent $14 million on lobbying during the 2009–10 election cycle, according to Goldman Sachs, which received a $10 billion bailout, spent $7 million.

Roughly 3,000 lobbyists were engaged in the fight over Dodd-Frank, according to the Center for Public Integrity—more than five lobbyists for every member of Congress. But as popular anger at the banks raged, Dodd-Frank only grew stronger. The consumer-protection agency, for instance, was initially conceived as a five-person commission with limited rule-making authority. In the end, Congress created a strong, independent agency to be run by a director with broad powers.

Today, demand for lobbying firepower continues to grow, making Washington’s so-called Gucci Gulch one of the country’s few high-job-growth areas. Scott Talbott, the head of government affairs at the Financial Services Roundtable, says the reason is simple: the signing of Dodd-Frank last July represented “halftime” in the debate. Now opponents must fight a two-front war that has them trying to persuade elected officials to rethink decisions while influencing the regulators whose job it is to implement Dodd-Frank.

“Everyone is hiring,” says Talbott. One such firm is Clark Lytle & Geduldig, whose client list has included Talbott’s group and also Goldman Sachs, MasterCard, and the American Banking Association. Clark Lytle is relatively Lilliputian, but it brought in $1.9 million in lobbying fees last year. This year it’s set to book more than $3.3 million.

Not every lobbyist engaged in the fight over Dodd-Frank represents the business side of things, of course. There’s Travis Plunkett, the sole registered lobbyist for the Consumer Federation of America. There’s Ed Mierzwinski, a lobbyist for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a left-leaning organization fighting to protect Dodd-Frank. “I’d say the other side outspent us at least 100 to 1” in 2010, says Mierzwinski. A coalition of groups, including U.S. PIRG, spent about $2 million during the debate over Dodd-Frank, but it’s not likely it can continue spending that kind of money. “Arguably, we’re now getting outspent by closer to 200 to 1,” says Mierzwinski.

One day, Dodd-Frank may prove good for consumers. But so far it has been a boon mostly for D.C.’s lobbyists and the campaign coffers of many Republicans—especially those on the House Financial Services Committee.

Banks and other financial institutions have always given to lawmakers who oversee their industry. But at a time when banks are spending big to fight Dodd-Frank, a seat on the Financial Services Committee can be downright lucrative. A series of studies by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit research group, found that about 70 percent of the campaign contributions to Spencer Bachus, the Alabama Republican who recently took over as chairman, came from financial services in the first quarter of 2011. Barney Frank, the previous chairman, raised less than a third of his money from that sector.

Freshmen are also benefiting. Through the first three months of the year, seven of the 10 Republican freshmen on the committee had received at least 40 percent of their PAC campaign contributions from financial services, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

One of these is Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, who raised more than $200,000 in his first three months in office. Duffy knew little about finance when he arrived in Washington. The hardest part, he told the Wausau Daily Herald in April, was “getting up to speed on some issues I wasn’t very familiar with—banking issues, housing issues, insurance issues ... issues that I didn’t deal with in my entire life.” That month, Duffy sponsored one of a series of bills to water down or delay Dodd-Frank. The former prosecutor, who was once a cast member on MTV’s The Real World-Boston, has described the consumer bureau as a “rogue agency” with an “authoritarian structure.” A Duffy spokesman says the congressman’s concern in sponsoring the bill is the “burdensome regulations” hindering community banks and credit unions in his district.

“It’s done,” the president proclaimed after signing Dodd-Frank last year. But the battle was just beginning.

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

Source: Newsweek 

Debt Lock: Will Obama Make Cuts to Social Security and Medicare?

As President Obama tries to broker a compromise budget deal that would allow Congress to raise the national debt ceiling before an August 2 deadline, he may appease Republicans by cutting funding for Medicare and Social Security. Congressional Democrats say they have ruled out any gutting of Social Security, but there are concerns the cuts could still be achieved through a backhanded approach. Retiree benefits are set by the Consumer Price Index, which is used to calculate cost-of-living benefits. Obama and top Democrats have left open the possibility of readjusting the CPI, which could effectively amount to a cut for Social Security recipients. For more on this debate, we speak with Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has sent President Obama a letter calling for the protection of Social Security and Medicare under any deficit deal. “It has nothing to do with a fiscal policy,” Grijalva says. “It has to do with ideological positions on social programs and domestic programs and how you dismantle and get rid of them. That’s the agenda. I think the American people see through this smoke and mirror."

Source: Democracy Now! 

Israel passes law banning calls for boycott

Opposition blasts law, which penalizes persons or organizations who call for a boycott of Israel or the settlements, calling it unconstitutional and irresponsible.

The Knesset passed Monday a law penalizing persons or organizations that boycott Israel or the settlements, by a vote of 47 to 38.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not present during the vote. MK Zeev Elkin (Likud), who proposed the law, said the law is not meant to silence people, but "to protect the citizens of Israel."

According to the law, a person or an organization calling for the boycott of Israel, including the settlements, can be sued by the boycott's targets without having to prove that they sustained damage. The court will then decide how much compensation is to be paid. The second part of the law says a person or a company that declare a boycott of Israel or the settlements will not be able to bid in government tenders.

MK Nitzan Horowitz from Meretz blasted the law, calling it outrageous and shameful. "We are dealing with a legislation that is an embarrassment to Israeli democracy and makes people around the world wonder if there is actually a democracy here," he said. Ilan Gilon, another Meretz MK, said the law would further delegitimize Israel.

Kadima opposition party spokesman said the Netanyahu government is damaging Israel. "Netanyahu has crossed a red line of political foolishness today and national irresponsibility, knowing the meaning of the law and it's severity, while giving in to the extreme right that is taking over the Likkud."

Full Article
Source: Ha'aretz 

Chinese fugitive faces deportation from Canada

The immigration odyssey of one of China's most wanted men continues, after the Federal Court of Canada in Vancouver Monday granted a temporary stay to Lai Changxing blocking his deportation.

For 11 years, Lai has fought his return to China to face allegations he masterminded a vast smuggling ring that cheated the government out of billions of dollars in duties on imported goods and bribed officials to look the other way.

He is also alleged to owe the Chinese government at least $300 million in back taxes.

Lai was arrested in Vancouver late last week as the possibility of his removal drew near.

Extradition possible July 22

A detention hearing is underway to determine if he poses a flight risk, but the federal court has granted the temporary stay until a hearing July 21.

If Lai loses that appeal, he could be deported back to China as soon as July 22.

Lai lost his initial refugee claim, but the Federal Court of Canada had been blocking his removal because it does not accept Chinese guarantees Lai would not be tortured or killed.

A lawyer for the Canada Border Services Agency asked the Immigration and Refugee Board Monday to detain the Chinese fugitive until after the federal court decision, saying he poses a flight risk and has ties to organized crime.

Lawyer Kevin Boothroyd told the board Lai should be held until then because he poses a flight risk. He said Lai could be expelled from the country as early as July 25.

Full Article
Source: CBC news 

Fringe Festival play follows group of activists at G20 summit

A year after the G20 summit disrupted life in downtown Toronto, leaving a laundry list of arrests and damage in its wake, local playwright and director Kat Edwards is looking to remind theatre-goers of what transpired.

Edwards has written and is directing We Few They Many, which follows a group of activists at last summer's summit. The show comes on the heels of her acclaimed play, 52 Pieces, which received rave reviews at the 2010 Toronto Fringe Festival.

Edwards, who lives in Little Italy, said she has a history of activism, but noted the play is not based on her own first-hand experiences. She was preparing to stage another Fringe show last year and decided not to risk being arrested by joining protests, but said she nonetheless had plenty of inside knowledge of the goings-on in downtown Toronto last summer.

"I did some behind the scenes stuff for activists, but once I had an idea what was going on, I was paranoid that I'd get arrested too close to putting up my first Fringe show," she said. "I have some friends who are activists who I'll leave unnamed and some of them were (detained by police) so I based the play on talks I had with them and some reports in the media."

Edwards said she did not set out to make a show that was overly preachy and acknowledged it would be easy to polarize audiences with her subject matter. She admits her leftist point of view will naturally find its way into her work, but feels We Few They Many will not alienate those with differing opinions.

"I was always trying to keep it unbiased," she said. "I tried to find a balance between offering some political insight and not making it so political that people would feel overwhelmed."

Full Article
Source: Inside Toronto 

Obama Calls Out Bachmann... and Other Irresponsible 'Professional Politicians'

Michele Bachmann is a professional—and prolific—politician.

SInce 1999, when the voters of Stillwater, Minnesota, rejected her candidacy for a local school board seat, she has in her pursuit of legislative, Congressional and, now, presidential political advancement, placed her name in competition more than a dozen times at party conventions and on primary and general election ballots.

Even for perennial candidates who get joked about—folks like former Minnesota Governor and frequent Republican presidential contender Harold Stassen—that would could as a startling level of political ambition.

And it would raise a question: Is Bachmann more interested in running than governing?

President Obama effectively raised it during his Monday press conference, when he noted: “I will say that some of the professional politicians know better. And for them to say that we shouldn’t be raising the debt ceiling is irresponsible. They know better.”

The Hill, a Capitol Hill–insider publication, referred to that line as “a shot across the bow at some of the Republicans vying to challenge him in 2012.”

That’s true enough. A number of the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have played fast and loose with the debt ceiling issue. But not all of them are professional politicians. Herman Cain, for instance, is a former pizza CEO; Mitt Romney has mixed a business and political career; Gary Johnson has been out of electoral politics for the better part of a decade.

Bachmann’s the professional pol. And she is the one who is going overboard when it comes to demagoguing the issue.

Her first television ad in the Iowa Caucus race that a new polls suggests she is leading, ends with the line: “I. Will. Not. Vote. To increase the debt ceiling.”

That’s not the statement of someone who is trying to govern, let alone to find the right solutions for the country.

That’s the statement of an irresponsible professional politician demagoguing an essential issue.

The president has not gotten everything right in the course of the debt ceiling debate.

But he was right to call Michele Bachmann out as the irresponsible professional pol that she is.

Source: The Nation 

‘God Has Created You for Heterosexuality’: Clinics Owned by Michele Bachmann’s Husband Practice Ex-Gay Therapy

In the summer of 2004, Andrew Ramirez, who was just about to enter his senior year of high school, worked up the nerve to tell his family he was gay. His mother took the news in stride, but his stepfather, a conservative Christian, was outraged. “He said it was wrong, an abomination, that it was something he would not tolerate in his house,” Ramirez recalls. A few weeks later, his parents marched him into the office of Bachmann & Associates, a Christian counseling center in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, which is owned by Michele Bachmann ’s husband, Marcus. From the outset, Ramirez says, his therapist—one of roughly twenty employed at the Lake Elmo clinic—made it clear that renouncing his sexual orientation was the only moral choice. “He basically said being gay was not an acceptable lifestyle in God’s eyes,” Ramirez recalls. According to Ramirez, his therapist then set about trying to “cure” him. Among other things, he urged Ramirez to pray and read the Bible, particularly verses that cast homosexuality as an abomination, and referred him to a local church for people who had given up the “gay lifestyle.” He even offered to set Ramirez up with an ex-lesbian mentor.

Ramirez was not impressed. After his second appointment, he resolved not to go back, despite the turmoil it might cause in his family. “I didn’t feel it was something that I wanted to change, and I didn’t think it could be changed,” he says. “I was OK with who I was.”

As Republican presidential contender Michele Bachmann has surged in the polls, the spotlight has turned on her husband and main political adviser, Marcus Bachmann, who has a PhD in clinical psychology and owns two Christian counseling centers in Minnesota. There has been a great deal of speculation that his clinics, which have received $161,000 in state and federal funding, try to cure homosexuality—and the chatter has only grown louder since his comments likening gays to “barbarians” who “need to be educated” and “disciplined” surfaced in the blogosphere last week. Marcus Bachmann has denied these allegations. “That’s a false statement,” he replied when the Minneapolis City Pages asked if his clinic tried to cure gays. And until now there was no firm evidence to back these allegations up. But information obtained by The Nation suggests that Bachmann & Associates therapists do, in fact, try to change sexual orientation. It also sheds new light on the Bachmanns’ embrace of the controversial ex-gay movement and related psychological approaches, which portray homosexuality as a disease to be rooted out.

Some of the most potent material was provided by Truth Wins Out, a gay rights group that opposes the ex-gay movement. In late June, a Truth Wins Out activist named John Becker donned two hidden cameras—one embedded in a wristwatch—and attended five treatment sessions at Bachmann’s Lake Elmo clinic. Becker, who is openly gay, presented himself as a committed Christian who was struggling with homosexuality. The video he collected seems to confirm Ramirez’s allegations that staff members at Bachmann & Associates try to change sexual orientation. Becker’s therapist (another of Marcus Bachmann’s employees) repeatedly assured him that homosexuality could be overcome. “At the core value…in terms of how God created us, we’re all heterosexual,” he explained, according to the footage. “God has created you for heterosexuality.” The therapist also mined Becker’s personal history for traumatic experiences that might have turned him gay. To curb Becker’s gay impulses, the therapist urged him to pray and read Scripture and suggested Becker “develop” his masculinity. He also encouraged him to find a “heterosexual guy” to act as an AA-type sponsor. Later, he referred Becker to Outpost Ministries, a church that helps “the sexually and relationally broken”—in other words, homosexuals—“find healing and restoration through relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Full Article
Source: The Nation 

No, We Can’t? Or Won’t?

If you were shocked by Friday’s job report, if you thought we were doing well and were taken aback by the bad news, you haven’t been paying attention. The fact is, the United States economy has been stuck in a rut for a year and a half.       

Yet a destructive passivity has overtaken our discourse. Turn on your TV and you’ll see some self-satisfied pundit declaring that nothing much can be done about the economy’s short-run problems (reminder: this “short run” is now in its fourth year), that we should focus on the long run instead.

This gets things exactly wrong. The truth is that creating jobs in a depressed economy is something government could and should be doing. Yes, there are huge political obstacles to action — notably, the fact that the House is controlled by a party that benefits from the economy’s weakness. But political gridlock should not be conflated with economic reality.

Our failure to create jobs is a choice, not a necessity — a choice rationalized by an ever-shifting set of excuses.

Excuse No. 1: Just around the corner, there’s a rainbow in the sky.

Remember “green shoots”? Remember the “summer of recovery”? Policy makers keep declaring that the economy is on the mend — and Lucy keeps snatching the football away. Yet these delusions of recovery have been an excuse for doing nothing as the jobs crisis festers.

Excuse No. 2: Fear the bond market.

Two years ago The Wall Street Journal declared that interest rates on United States debt would soon soar unless Washington stopped trying to fight the economic slump. Ever since, warnings about the imminent attack of the “bond vigilantes” have been used to attack any spending on job creation.

But basic economics said that rates would stay low as long as the economy was depressed — and basic economics was right. The interest rate on 10-year bonds was 3.7 percent when The Wall Street Journal issued that warning; at the end of last week it was 3.03 percent.

How have the usual suspects responded? By inventing their own reality. Last week, Representative Paul Ryan, the man behind the G.O.P. plan to dismantle Medicare, declared that we must slash government spending to “take pressure off the interest rates” — the same pressure, I suppose, that has pushed those rates to near-record lows.

Excuse No. 3: It’s the workers’ fault.

Unemployment soared during the financial crisis and its aftermath. So it seems bizarre to argue that the real problem lies with the workers — that the millions of Americans who were working four years ago but aren’t working now somehow lack the skills the economy needs.

Yet that’s what you hear from many pundits these days: high unemployment is “structural,” they say, and requires long-term solutions (which means, in practice, doing nothing).

Well, if there really was a mismatch between the workers we have and the workers we need, workers who do have the right skills, and are therefore able to find jobs, should be getting big wage increases. They aren’t. In fact, average wages actually fell last month.

Excuse No. 4: We tried to stimulate the economy, and it didn’t work.

Everybody knows that President Obama tried to stimulate the economy with a huge increase in government spending, and that it didn’t work. But what everyone knows is wrong.
Think about it: Where are the big public works projects? Where are the armies of government workers? There are actually half a million fewer government employees now than there were when Mr. Obama took office.

So what happened to the stimulus? Much of it consisted of tax cuts, not spending. Most of the rest consisted either of aid to distressed families or aid to hard-pressed state and local governments. This aid may have mitigated the slump, but it wasn’t the kind of job-creation program we could and should have had. This isn’t 20-20 hindsight: some of us warned from the beginning that tax cuts would be ineffective and that the proposed spending was woefully inadequate. And so it proved.

It’s also worth noting that in another area where government could make a big difference — help for troubled homeowners — almost nothing has been done. The Obama administration’s program of mortgage relief has gone nowhere: of $46 billion allotted to help families stay in their homes, less than $2 billion has actually been spent.

So let’s summarize: The economy isn’t fixing itself. Nor are there real obstacles to government action: both the bond vigilantes and structural unemployment exist only in the imaginations of pundits. And if stimulus seems to have failed, it’s because it was never actually tried.

Listening to what supposedly serious people say about the economy, you’d think the problem was “no, we can’t.” But the reality is “no, we won’t.” And every pundit who reinforces that destructive passivity is part of the problem.

Source: New York Times 

Potential Keystone Pipeline Leaks Underestimated, Study Finds

A study released Monday suggests that the worst-case spill scenarios contemplated by TransCanada, the company behind a proposed 2,000-mile pipeline linking oil deposits in Canada to the American Gulf Coast, are grossly underestimated -- and that hundreds of rivers, streams and aquifers are vulnerable to toxic oil contamination.

The analysis, conducted by a professor of civil engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at the request of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, examined methods used by TransCanada to calculate spill scenarios for an existing leg of the pipeline system, known as Keystone, and determined that the company made "flawed and inappropriate assumptions about the frequency and severity of expected spills from its pipelines."

Among other things, the analysis concludes that while TransCanada has estimated that the proposed Keystone XL expansion pipeline would experience 11 significant spills of more than 50 barrels, or 2,100 gallons, of crude oil over a 50-year lifespan, "a more realistic assessment is 91 significant spills."

The analysis also suggests that TransCanada tweaked its spill factor calculations to produce an estimate of one major spill on the 1,673 miles of pipeline about every five years. But an examination of government data on spill rates for similar pipelines, according to the study, suggests that Keystone would experience "a more likely average of almost two major spills per year."

In just one year of operation, the existing leg of the pipeline has had one significant spill and 11 smaller spills.

The study also concluded that the amount of time it would take to shut down the proposed pipeline should a leak occur at or near a river crossing -- among the most environmentally sensitive points along any pipeline -- could be as much as 10 times greater than that assumed by TransCanada.

A recent pipeline rupture on an ExxonMobil pipeline dumped more than 40,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana, heightening concerns about the potential impacts of the much larger Keystone XL project.

Keystone XL would cross nearly 2,000 rivers in six states.

"I'm not anti-pipeline, and I'm not pro-pipeline," said John S. Stansbury, the author of the analysis. "I drive cars and I use oil. What I wanted was to provide what would be unbiased calculations on what the impacts be, so decision makers can have all the information they need."

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

Some 'green' detergents contain petrochemicals

Some laundry detergents boasting to be green products still contain concentrations of petrochemicals, according to a CBC News investigation.

Of the three most popular brands — Clorox GreenWorks, Purex Natural Elements and Sunlight Green Clean — both Purex and Sunlight's products were found to contain petrochemicals, despite their 'green' claims.

CBC News commissioned an independent lab to analyze the three detergents.

Sunlight Green Clean says it "includes" plant-based ingredients in its detergent and that they have "found a more eco-conscious alternative to just petro-chemical surfactants."

But a test on their product found that along with plant-based ingredients, 38 per cent of their detergent content comes from petroleum.

"The first fishy thing on this label is the word "includes," said Adria Vasil, author of the book Ecoholic Home. "Basically, that's your tipoff that the whole thing isn't plant based."

A test on Purex Natural Elements, which also claims to be "naturally sourced" and "95 per cent natural", revealed that 30 per cent of its ingredients come from petroleum.

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Source: CBC news 

Canada boycotts UN body over North Korea

Canada is boycotting a UN body dedicated to disarmament to protest against North Korea being named its chair, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced Monday.

The Conference on Disarmament, where UN members negotiate disarmament and other arms control agreements, is heavily focused on the prevention of a nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament.

"North Korea is simply not a credible chair at this United Nations body. The regime is a major proliferator of nuclear weapons and its non-compliance with its disarmament obligations goes against the fundamental principle of this committee," Baird said during a call with media to make the announcement.

"North Korea's chairmanship undermines the integrity of both the disarmament framework and of the United Nations, and Canada simply will not support that."

North Korea assumed the presidency June 28 and holds it until Aug. 19. Canada will boycott the committee's activities until then, Baird said.

He acknowledged it is only a short period of time that Canada is refusing to participate at the Geneva-based body, but said it's important that Canada take a strong stand because it is "absurd" that North Korea is leading the group.

"It puts one of the world's worst offenders in the chair. It hurts the crediblity of the United Nations and it's a blow to any meaningful effort at disarmament," said Baird. "I think there's a lot of symbolism here but I think it is important that Canada put forward its voice strongly on this issue."

Countries rotate presidency of the conference, and when North Korea was named chair last month, Baird issued a statement saying he was disappointed and he warned that Canada would review its participation in the committee.

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Source: CBC news