Thursday, May 31, 2012

Russian oil giant Lukoil wins oil exploration rights to a large block in Iraq

Lukoil partnered with Inpex of Japan for the winning bid on a 5,500 square kilometer block on the very last day of the Iraqi auction. The block is in the south of Iraq.

Iraq had expected more bidders for the auction but the terms were not all that attractive to most oil companies. During the two day auction only 3 out of a total of 12 blocks were awarded.

Many oil companies thought that the risk in unexplored areas was high. As well Iraq is politically unstable.

Lukoil in tandem with Norway's Statoil and the Iraqi national oil company won a contract in 2009 to increase production in West Qurna 2 which has estimated reserves of 12.9 billion barrels. Lukoil now holds a 75 per cent interest as the Norwegian company sold its share to its Russian partner.

The deals that Iraq is offering foreign companies are technical service agreements. The oil companies are paid a fee of so much a barrel. In the West Qurna 2 after all expenses are paid Lukoil will receive only $1.50 per barrel. Any oil produced in the new bloc will fetch $5.99 a barrel. Given the price of oil even this is not all that much. For more see this article. Pakistan Petroleum also won a block and the first block to be award went to Kuwait Energy.

Nationwide protests in India over 11 per cent fuel price hike

The strike supported by opposition parties and labor unions resulted in many closed shops and the shutdown of public transportation. Large anti-government marches took place in Mumbai and New Delhi.

In Mumbai there reports of buses being stone and some offices being attacked. Protesters in Kolkata blocked roads while shouting anti-government slogans.

There is growing disappointment about the growth of the Indian economy. The expansion last quarter was the lowest in nine years. However in most developed economies the lower growth rate of 5.3 per cent would be regarded as a stellar performance!

Fuel prices rose by about eleven per cent. However, fuel prices in India were highly subsidized although in 2010 the prices were deregulated. The state owned producers who must import most of their oil raised their prices as the cost of subsidies is increasing debt considerably.

The slowing economy while inflation increase and also corruption within the government is increasing social discontent. The Congress party and its coalition government are facing a decline in support. For more see this article.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

UN chief sees Yemen as model to achieve peace in other areas of Middle East

Yemen's new government is praised by the UN chief Ban Ki-Moon and seen as a model to achieve peace in other areas of the middle east. The new president was the only candidate in the recent presidential election. Now the UN says that the nation's transition to democracy is largely on track.

The new president Major General Mansour Hadi was originally vice-president under former president Saleh. After protracted protests during which many protesters were killed some opposition politicians and Saleh loyalists came to a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council which gave Saleh and his relatives immunity for any prosecution for crimes committed during the protests. Pro Democracy activists opposed the deal strenuously but they do not count.

Power was transferred to then vice-president Hadi. Later he would become president in an uncontested race and supported by the U.S. and neighboring states. There has been a transition to the old guard. Meanwhile democratic reforms take a back seat to the war on terror and battle against militants.

The special UN envoy to Yemen Jamaal Omar also praised the government but worried about "serious security concerns". He urged all factions to support Hadi in the name of stability. As well as pro-democracy groups who want Saleh and his cronies to face justice, there are two separatist movements one in the north and one in the south, and a growing Islamic insurgency that had seized large swaths of territory. A fine model for peace and democracy in the Middle East. For more see this article.

Eric Margolis on NATO defeat in Afghanistan

Margolis has an article here on the NATO mission in Afghanistan. He begins by citing the dictum of the U.S. philosopher Santayana who said that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. He thinks that the NATO mission in Afghanistan illustrates this well.

Margolis also includes a famous painting by Lady Elizabeth Butler called the retreat from Kabul. The painting shows the sole survivor out of 16,500 of the British Occupation Force alone on his horse outside of Kabul. This was in 1842.

Of course the NATO forces will not encounter a situation such as that but Margolis point still stands that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. The Soviet Union too met disaster in Afghanistan but aided by Western support for the same jihadists who are not targets in the war against terror.

Margolis holds that NATO has met neither its military nor political objectives in Afghanistan and is now in full retreat. The much vaunted transition Margolis says cannot hide the fact that again what he calls mountain warriors from the 12th century have defeated the U.S. and its western allies.

While Margolis has a point this is only part of the story. After all the U.S. has an agreement to keep troops in Afghanistan for another decade and the west is going to spend billions each year on supporting the Afghan military. What is happening is a tactical retreat from very costly and politically unpopular intervention to a much reduced mode of military operations that will still include special forces, air cover, and drone strikes. This is much more palatable to the U.S. public and that is what counts especially in an election year. The retreat will be hailed as keeping promises and ending an unpopular war. For much more see the full article.

NATO air strike in Afghanistan kills 8 including 6 children

In the eastern province of Paktia local officials claim a NATO air strike killed eight members of one family including 6 children plus husband and wife. The strike happened last Saturday in a small village in the province.

As usual NATO says it is investigating the reports. A spokesperson for the province said::"It was an air strike conducted by Nato."This man [the father] had no connection to the Taliban or any other terrorist group."

NATO did confirm that it was conducting an operation in the area that night. Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings said that the operation was "against a large number of insurgents" on Saturday night. He also acknowledged reports of civilian deaths and that they were being investigated. The area is the ancestral home base of the Haqqani group which has links to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Karzai had warned earlier in May that civilian casualties in air attacks could derail the recently signed partnership agreement. This is probably just rhetoric for domestic consumption. For more see this article.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

IMF head Christine Lagarde pays no taxes while critical of tax evaders

Christine Largarde angered Greeks by suggesting they should pay their taxes. While Greeks are reputed to be skilled tax evaders Lagarde herself pays no taxes on her salary and benefits from the International Monetary Fund.

Lagarde's salary is 467,940 dollars per year as head of the IMF but she also receives 83,760 dollars additional in allowances. Lagarde receives more than Barack Obama's salary but he pays taxes on his.

Aricle 34 of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations says:: "A diplomatic agent shall be exempt from all dues and taxes, personal or real, national, regional or municipal." Lagarde is also entitled to a pay raise every July 1st.

Employees of these international agencies also receive dependent allowances, rent subsidies, education grants for children, travel expenses and subsidized medical insurance. Some of the IMF benefits can be traced back to U.S. influence. The IMF was created in 1944 at Bretton Woods. U.S. officials won the argument for higher salaries over British delegates. The famous economist John Maynard Keynes opposed the higher salaries. However, Keynes was well enough off he would not need one! The justification of the higher salaries was to attract talent. For more see this article.

Wisconsin: Polls favor Walker to win recall vote but race is close.

The recall vote pits Gov. Scott Walker against Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett. The election will be June 5th but advance polls have already been held.

A Reason-Rupe poll puts Walker ahead of Barrett by 50 points to 42 among likely voters. A St. Norbert College/Wisconsin public radio survey put Walker at 50 per cent and Barrett at 45. Some campaigners for Barrett have complained that the Democratic National Committee has not committed sufficient help to counter the huge sums that are behind Walker.

The fight is key for labor. One would think that Obama would be throwing everything he could into the campaign. Walker successfully limited collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. If he returns the right wing drive to weaken unions will gain even more momentum. For more see this article. Or here. Or here.

Pakistan protests U.S. aid cuts by cancelling meeting with CIA chief

The Senate Appropriations Committee cut 33 million in aid for Pakistan one million for each year of the sentence imposed upon a Pakistani doctor who worked for the CIA to identify Bin Laden's presence in Abbotabad. At the same time drone attacks are becoming more frequent even as talks to reopen supply routes are ongoing. The Senate Committee also withheld 250 million in military aid until supply routes are opened.

The U.S. clearly has not the slightest concern for the difficulties that it is causing to the Pakistani government. Its sole concern is domestic politics where Pakistan is a convenient whipping boy. Even though the Pakistani government has passed three motions demanding that drone attacks stop they continue. Everyone should realize who is boss.

The talks that have been cancelled were scheduled for this week in Washington and would have been the first U.S. visit of chief of Pakistani Intelligence Lt. Gen. Zaheer ul-Islam. The general was to discuss national security concerns of both countries with David Petraeus now CIA head.. General ul-Islam cancelled due to pressing commitments at home he claimed. He did not rub the disagreement in the face of the U.S. government as the Senate did to Pakistan.

Obama's top military adviser Gen. Martin Dempsey said that the Senate made the right choice in trimming aid to Pakistan. He said:“I think . . . choices should result in consequences. And I think the Senate acted appropriately,” Of course Pakistan could also say the same thing that there must be consequences for continuing drone strikes in the face of several motions demanding they stop and that there must be consequences for not sending military aid.

Given that it is impossible for the U.S. to directly occupy Pakistan as has been done in Afghanistan the only way that the U.S. can obtain cooperation to meet their goals is through massive injections of cash in military and other aid. Withdrawing the aid may be regarded as a stick to whip Pakistan back into shape but it may result eventually in a far less cooperative government in Pakistan next elections. For more see this article... In spite of the spat the U.S. and Pakistan are working to reschedule the meeting of Petraeus with General ul-Islam.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Mali transitional government rejects independence of Azawad in the north

An alliance of rebels in the north of Mali have declared independence as the state of Azawad. The transitional government of Mali has rejected the move and the state has not been recognized so far internationally either.

The minister of information said:"The government of Mali categorically rejects the idea of the creation of an Azawad state, even more so of an Islamic state," Earlier Islamic groups and Tuareg rebels had been at odds in the northern territory but after extended talks they have agreed to merge or at least cooperate in forming an independent state in the north. The groups have taken control of most if not all of the territory.

The two groups are National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the Islamic Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith). Alghabass Intalla a leader of Ansar Dine said:"I have just signed an accord that will see an independent and Islamic state where we have Islamic law

This move will ensure help from the U.S. who already have a few special forces in Mali. The Mali military has been trained by the U.S. including the leader of the recent coup against the elected president., Captain Sanogo Some claim the Ansar Dine group is linked with Al Qaeda particularly Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

While the coup's rationale was that the Mali government was not pursuing rebels in the north with sufficient vigor, after the coup the country is still trying to maintain some stability in the south. The coup leader transferred power to a transitional government. In the meanwhile rebels took control of the entire northern part of Mali. In time with the help of the U.S. one can expect war and violence in the north again aided by the U.S. in the name of the war on terrorism. For more see this article.

U.S. Defense Secretary promises U.S. enduring presence in Afghanistan after 2014.

Many U.S. officials and the Obama presidential campaign stress the pullout from Afghanistan and turning over security to the Afghans in 2014. However, Panetta in a recent interview on ABC pointed out the rest of the story.

Karzai and Obama signed an agreement that will see the U.S. stay in Afghanistan until 2024. Panetta said:“Well, the most important point is that we’re not going anyplace. We’re gonna, we have an enduring presence that will be in Afghanistan,”

There are two narratives. The Obama campaign narrative stresses the pullout and is addressed to those who oppose the Afghan war and want Americans home.On the other hand there is the hawk narrative peddled by Panetta that stresses the enduring presence with troops staying until 2024.

The hawk narrative can be flown when Romney attacks Obama for setting a withdrawal date. The actual number of troops to remain and issues such as immunity for U.S. troops from Afghan law apparently are not settled. Off course the partnership agreement that was signed was never passed by the Afghan parliament nor debated by the U.S. congress. For more see this article.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Leon Panetta: U.S. can deal with spreading militancy in Yemen without boots on the ground.

Everything the U.S. is involved in within Yemen is always described as related to Al Qaeda. While some conflict involves other militant groups they are described as Al Qaeda linked or Al Qaeda affiliated as soon as they come into conflict with the Hadi government. As soon as they are attacked by U.S. drones they do become very much of the same disposition as Al Qaeda even though before their concern was local. The result is that Al Qaeda is said to be spreading throughout Yemen. In effect the U.S. by its own actions contributes to this spread of Islamic militancy in Yemen.

Leon Panetta says that Al Qaeda's spreading presence in Yemen can be handled by targeted operations rather than boots on the ground. Of course Panetta does not add that there are already special forces on the ground in Yemen. In many cases they are active in directing Yemeni forces and providing information for drone attacks. In one event a group were attacked and at least one wounded.

Panetta defended the use of drones as the most precise weapons the U.S. has in the campaign against Al Qaeda. Yet we know that some attacks have been not precise at all. The earliest attack killed almost all women and children in a remote mountain village.At that period the U.S. had the Yemeni government claim responsibility even though it was later proved to be by the Americans. Another attack killed a tribal elder who was traveling to negotiate with a militant. Of course Panetta says nothing of this but says:“Our whole effort there is aimed at going after those terrorists who threaten to attack our country,” He added:“We’ve been successful. We’ve gone after a number of key targets there. We’ll continue to do that.” The U.S. has also been successful in helping spread Islamic militancy and continued drone strikes will further that collateral effect as well.

While the Yemeni armed forces guided by the U.S. have recaptured some ground there are heavy casualties on both sides and a suicide bomber in revenge killed about a hundred Yemeni troops in Sanaa. The new U.S. supported president (vice-president under Saleh) has sworn to defeat Al Qaeda at his swearing in ceremony. This ensures that he will have the help of the US. against any rebellion. Any opposition will be termed Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda linked. Soon the U.S. will not be involved in counter terrorism but counter insurgency. More drones and other weapons will be required and more boots on the ground who will not be described as such since they will be special forces. For more see this article.

Romney's Bain Capital donated more to Democrats than Republicans

Mitt Romney's Bain Capital is a firm that Democrats love to hate. There is a bit of irony in this because the figures for contributions show that actually Bain capital prefers Democrats to Republicans!

Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer in an article points out that 72 per cent of contributions have gone to Democrats. So although Bain Capital does give considerable amounts to Republicans they give Democrats even more. In fact Bain capital gives a larger percentage of its donations to Democrats than the AFL-CIO.

The top recipients are well known Democrats such as Al Franken, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi etc. They also contribute to the Democratic National Fund. No doubt this generosity of Bain to the Democrats could have something to do with their thinking that the Democrats were likely to win. It is a type of hedging!

One prominent Democrat Cory Booker defended private equity firms such as Bain against Obama's campaign attacks. It just so happens that Bain capital gave funding to his own campaign. See here.

While Private Equity firms and Hedge Funds may not be as happy with the Obama administration as before the campaign attacks are no doubt mostly rhetoric meant to capture votes. In case people have forgotten Wall St. was a big supporter of Obama a few years back. Hedge Fund giant Paul Tudor gave a 500 guest fundraiser for Obama. For more see the full article.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Yemen: U.S..involvement in Yemen creates anger and blowback

The devastating suicide attack in Sanaa the capital of Yemen that killed about a hundred people and wounded many more is partly in revenge for U.S. backed attacks on AQAP, (Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula). No doubt there will be more such attacks as well as attacks on U.S. special forces. Cori Crider legal director of the activist charity Reprieve argues that elevated involvement by the U.S. in Yemen will make the U.S less safe.

The U.S. involvement may also further destabilize the Hadi government the U.S. approved successor to former president Saleh. Saleh gave up power in exchange for immunity from prosecution for any crimes he committed against protesters. The pro-democracy groups in Yemen have never accepted this. However these groups are relevant only when they conform to U.S. and Saudi objectives in the region.

Cori tells the story of a family caught in the web of U.S. CIA involvement in Yemen. Sharif Mobley is actually a visiting U.S. citizen but he is imprisoned in Sanaa. Cori went with his wife and kids to visit Mobley. This was the first time in two years he has been allowed a visit from his family.

Sharif has been in the capital since 2008 studying Arabic and Islam. When he went to the U.S. embassy to get a passport for his newborn son U.S. agents followed him home. Shortly afterwards he was kidnapped by men in balaclavas who drove two white vans. He was shot in the leg during the kidnapping. The gang took him to a hospital where he was chained to a bed and blindfolded most of the time.

Under the Freedom of Information act Reprieve received information that while he was a secret prisoner in the hospital FBI agents among others.( I wonder if these were FBI agents or CIA agents?) Sharif asked the agents for a lawyer and also begged them to tell his wife that he was safe. They refused saying: "There are no Constitutional rights in Yemen." Matt and Khan as they called themselves said he would be detained until he told everything he knew about extremists. While Sharif had met extremists including Anwar Al-Awlaki he had no continuing relationship with him and had no idea where he was.

When the agents did not get the responses they wanted they threatened Sharif with prison where he would be raped and said that his wife too would be brought to prison for similar treatment. After nearly two months in the hospital Sharif tried to escape killing one guard in the process and wounding another.

He is now on trial for his life. Reprieve is defending him. In theory it is permissible to use lethal force in self defense when kidnapped. However, when the kidnapping is itself at the request of the U.S. government such a defense is not likely to work. For much more see this article.

As Cori notes the U.S. has gone far beyond just kidnapping suspected militants and now targets them through drone attacks. With the targets now expanded to signature strikes that target just based upon suspicious behaviour more and more innocent people may be collateral damage in the strikes. Even before the expanded strikes they were often based upon faulty intelligence. An infamous attack in al-Majala killed 41 civilians many children.

The U.S. defends tbe Yemen attacks as simply justified counter terrorism defending the U.S. However as Cori points out the opposition to the Hadi regime is quite multifaceted with many groups involved rather than just AQAP. In effect Hadi can picture any opponents of his regime as Islamic militants and thus enlist the US in what is more a counter insurgency campaign as much as counter terrorism. The U.S. however is hardly a dupe. The U.S and Saudis. want a compliant government in Yemen and they have that in Hadi and the old guard in Yemen.

Afghanistan: No more happy photos off base

Troops will no longer be able to take any what are called "happy photos" outside of their base. Photos of activities have included troops mistreating prisoners and desecrating corpses.

To prevent records of such events personal photos will now be disallowed with only official photos being permitted. No doubt there will be no official photos of troops urinating on corpses.

The area command contains some 36,000 troops including over 15,000 U.S. marines. General Charles Gurganus in charge of the area noted that photos of atrocities harmed the war effort. A side benefit is that now reports of such atrocities can safely be written off as Taliban propaganda. For more see this article.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Spanish bank to seek 19 billion U.S. rescue loan

Bankia SA, Spain's fourth largest bank, saw its share trading suspended on Friday (May 25th). The bank is expected to request more than 19 billion U.S. from the government.

Bankia is faced with many bad real estate debts but it also holds 10 per cent of Spain's bank deposits. The bank was unable to raise enough capital to deal with its burgeoning losses from bad real estate debt. A real estate boom in Spain crashed in 2007 and 2008 and banks are still suffering from the bad loans made at the time.

The government has already spent 4.5 billion euros to keep the bank afloat and partially nationalized it. The entire rescue package may cost 20 billion euros. This will force Spain to go to the markets when borrowing costs are already high.

The expenditure of money to rescue banks is causing some anger among the populace when Spain is being forced to cut spending on hospitals and education to meet EU austerity demands. Many think that the plan by the Conservative government of Mariano Rajoy to try to bring the deficit down to 5.3 per cent of GDP is doomed to failure. Shares in Bankia have fallen 34 per cent on the Madrid stock market since May 7. Perhaps Spain will see more withdrawals of funds from its banks. For much more see this BNN article.

Greenwald: Makers of pro-Obama film able to access classified information on Bin Laden killing

Glenn Greenwald has a long article in Salon that exposes the Obama administration's double standard on releasing classified information. The administration has released information about the Bin Laden raid for purposes of a propaganda film that will promote Obama's image as a successful terrorist hunter and killer. Coincidentally the film is scheduled to be released in October just in time to influence voteers before the November elections.

Greenwald points out that the Obama administration while spouting rhetoric about accountability has waged an outright war on whistle blowers. Many more have been prosecuted under Obama than under Bush. Whisteblowers who have exposed such events as illegal NASA spying, and previously unknown U.S-caused deaths have been jailed or tried for their efforts.

While chastising whistle blowers who release classified information to reveal U.S. wrongdoing classified information is leaked with tacit White House approval when the information can be used in pro-administration propaganda. A good example is information about the Bin Laden raid.

The Group Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit seeking information about the raid that killed Bin Laden. The administration insisted in court that the operation is secret. Of course at the very same time information was being leaked to the press about the raid..

Judicial Watch also filed suit seeking information about the collaboration between a Hollywood filmmakers and the Obama administration. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal plan a film that recounts the bin Laden raid. Not only was the film originally scheduled to be released shortly before the fall elections but Sony Films chief executive has connections to Obama. NOTE: After the release date caused a furore the release date is now postponed until December after the elections.

In January of this year the New York Times reported:“Michael Lynton, the Sony Pictures chief executive, has been a major backer of President Obama and last April attended and paid the donation fee for a high-priced political fund-raising dinner for the president on the Sony studio lot in Culver City, Calif., which was rented by the Democratic National Committee.” These movie makers have access to a great deal of classified information

As part of the Judicial Watch lawsuit the Obama administration released emails from the CIA and Dept. of Defense. NBC News notes that the documents show that:, “the Obama administration leaked classified information to filmmakers on the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.” This was just a few weeks after the CIA warned the public about leaks concerning the raid. Nevertheless top officials granted the filmmakers access to people involved in the planning and to some of the techniques used. For much more see the full article.

Greenwald's example is hardly unique. On the drone program the administration routinely releases positive material about the raids describing how precise the targeting is etc. Yet organizations trying to get information on the program through the courts are told that even acknowledging the existence of the program is a threat to national security.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

U.S ignores Pakistani demands and continues drone strikes

U.S. drone strikes are reported to have killed 10 in a village in North Waziristan. Such strikes are a clear signal to Pakistan that even though ceasing drone strikes has been made a condition of re-opening supply lines the U.S. will not stop the strikes, not even while talks are ongoing.

In spite of the ongoing attacks Pakistan did let some supplies in last week perhaps as a condition of being invited to the recent Chicago Summit.. According to this article the military have been authorized to negotiate a permanent opening.

The drone strikes are unpopular in Pakistan. Three parliamentary motions have demanded they cease but to no avail. The issue is being used by opposition parties to attack the ruling party and will be important in the next election.

Obama has defended the strikes as a vital and successful part of strategy in the region. He has ruled out ending them. However this puts the Pakistani government in a difficult position. Going along with the U.S. and ignoring parliamentary demands could doom the ruling party to defeat in the next election and cause unrest meanwhile.

Probably the routes will be re-opened soon with the U.S. releasing some of the several billion owed to Pakistan for its role in fighting terrorists in Pakistan. Fees for transport will go up too. Even if the routes are reopened there will no doubt be frequent attacks on the convoys with much damage by militants. For more see this article.

South Africa demands goods made in West Bank settlements not be labeled made in Israel

If the South African decision is implemented it will be the first country to force companies to inform consumers which goods were produced in the settlements. Denmark however is considering a similar step and other EU countries could follow.

Moves by countries to follow suit could strain relations with Israel. However the economic damage would not be that great for Israel since less than 2 per cent of Israeli exports are from the settlements. However it could hurt the economy of the settlements.

Experts claim that it is mislabeling and against international law to list exports made in settlements regarded internationally as not part of Israel as made in Israel. Of course Israel claims they are quite legal and also that they are at present part of Israel.

Neve Gordon an Israeli political scientist and author said:"Israel's placing of a label 'made in Israel' on products made in the West Bank is fraud,""The South African decision would force Israel to expose its lie."

The South African decision was announced in a release by the Trade Minister indicating that merchants would be required "not to incorrectly label products that originate from the Occupied Palestinian Territory as products of Israel."

Of course settlers were furious and the Israeli foreign ministry said it would call in the South African ambassador to protest the action. For much more see this article.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

CBO warns politicians not to ignore coming fiscal cliff

The Congressional Budget Office warns that if the spending cuts and tax hikes go ahead as scheduled next January there will likely be a recession in the U.S. However they predicted that by the second half of the year there would be a rebound to an annual 2.3 growth rate. For the full year growth would be just .5 per cent.

While there is plenty of worry about the debt situation in Greece, the so called fiscal cliff facing the U.S. at the end of this year seems to be conveniently ignored. The political deal arranged last year would see an immediate cut of 1.2 billion from government spending while billions in tax cuts also expire. Consumer demand for many items would obviously contract.

Most analysts expect a new deal will be reached by the two parties yet it seems that both parties are concentrating on the coming elections rather than facing up to the issue. If the scheduled policies are removed or offset the CBO estimates the U.S. economy could grow at 4.4 per cent a respectable growth rate given the U.S. situation.

Ben Bernanke warned back in April::“The size of the fiscal cliff is such that there is, I think, absolutely no chance that the Federal Reserve could or would have the ability whatsoever to offset that effect on the economy,” The politicians should get moving on this issue or they will find they are faced with a crisis in November. For more see this article.

Oil Billionaire Harold Hamm chairs Romney energy advisers.

Harold Hamm an Oklahoma oil billionaire became one of Romney's top energy advisers in March. A few weeks later he also gave985,000 dollars to the Restore Our Future Super PAC a pro Romney PAC.

Continental Resources, Hamm's company has oil fields in North Dakota and Montana. On his website Hamm complains that the Obama administration has done everything in its power to stop fossil fuel usage. I doubt that many environmentalists would agree with that assessment!

Although PACs are by law supposed to be independent the contributions do not contravene the law even though the optics may not be good! The overlaps between campaigns and PACs is bipartisan it would seem.

The pro-Obama Priorities USA Action Super PAC was co-founded by Bill Burton a former Obama press official. Romney's 2008 national political director Carl Fort co-founded Restore Our Future.

Hamm has been named chair of Romney's Energy Policy Advisory Group. Hamm debunks Obama's emphasis on "green" energy. Hamm is an avid supporter of the oil industry and an advocate of less regulation. He also promotes a quick building of the Keystone XL Pipe line project and is critical of Obama's subsidies to green energy projects. For much more see this article.

Pakistani Doctor who helped CIA locate Bin Laden sentenced to 33 years

Shakil Afridi worked with the CIA to run a fake vaccination program which in fact collected DNA that proved Bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound where he was later attacked and killed. Afridi was convicted for conspiring against the state. I would have thought that the CIA would help Afridi flee Pakistan knowing that something such as this might happen.

Whereas in the U.S. the operation that killed Bin Laden was regarded positively and as a huge success by the vast majority, in Pakistan the action created outrage. There was no advance notice and obviously secret operations such as that involving the doctor were done without any notice to Pakistani intelligence. This is likely to lead to even more double dealing by Pakistani intelligence although no doubt there is cooperation with the U.S. at some levels still.

The U.S. has asked that Afridi be released saying that he served both U.S. and Pakistani agents. However a Pakistani intelligence official said:"He was working for a foreign spy agency. We are looking after our national interests,"

Afridi was detained after May 2. His trial start date was not revealed. Afridi was prosecuted under the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). The special laws for the tribal regions have been criticized for not providing suspects with due process. The laws are often applied to suspected terrorists. Accused have no right to legal representation, to present evidence, or even cross-examine witnesses.

A fine of $3,500 dollars was given on top of the prison term. Afridi can appeal to the FCR commissioner within two months.. No doubt there will be pressure from the U.S. to alter or overturn the sentence. For more see this article.

Australia tops Better Life Index rankings

Australia came up on top of the rankings in the Better Life Index of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) Each of eleven categories were ranked in 36 countries.

In spite of the highest rankings the Labor government of Julia Gillard has low ratings in polls in Australia! However, the Index stats are excellent. Life expectancy is 82 years two years above the OECD average of 80. Employment is also well above the average.

After Australia the next best country is Norway. Coming in a respectable third is the U.S. in spite of having a relatively high unemployment rate. Canada is further behind coming sixth after fourth place Sweden and fifth place Denmark. Turkey was in last place.

The new scale was used beginning in 2011 as a way to measure well being of countries in more ways than simply economic growth. As well as income and education, the scale includes work-life balance and life satisfaction.

Canada shows increasing income inequality. The report notes::"In Canada, the [household net-adjusted disposable income] of the top 20 per cent of the population is 53,988 USD a year, whereas the bottom 20 per cent live on 10,077 USD a year." Canada does not fare well on work-life balance or civic engagement either.

The average voter participation in OECD countries is 73 per cent while Canada is just 61 per cent. For more see this article and also here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Spain: Millions protest education cuts

Most schools and universities are closed today. Both teachers and students are in the streets protesting cuts to educational funding as part of the countries' austerity measures. The government has slashed billions of Euros from the education budget.

The strike spans the whole system from elementary schools to universities. Both teachers and students are taking part in demonstrations today May 22.

­ The austerity measures if passed will reduced government funding to schools by more than 20 per cent. Unions say this will result in poorer educational conditions, mass teacher layoffs, and also higher tuition costs. The Spanish government is adding more austerity measures in addition to the 30 billion Euros in cuts already planned for this year. Overall unemployment is running at 25 per cent already and 50 per cent among young people. There have been numerous mass protests already in 2012 most not much covered by the media. I include a video of the celebration of the 15M or indignados movement. For more including video and photos see this site.

Australia buries flawed Obama mugs Mafia style

An Australian Parliamentary official reported that 198 mugs featuring Barack Obama were destroyed because "Barack" was spelled "Barrack" The surprise is that the mugs were smashed and buried under wet concrete behind a loading dock. Shades of the Mafia!

The Australian government had made two hundred of the mugs to commemorate a visit to Australia by Obama in 2010. The visit never happened although he visited last year.

Only two mugs were ever sold from the Parliamentary gift shop. One was to a journalist who informed the shop that Obama's name was misspelled. Those two mugs would probably do well on eBay!

Bronwyn Graham a Parliament House official noted:"Due to the sensitivity associated with the mistake that was made with the president's name, the last thing we wanted was for the fragments to be found on a garbage tip somewhere," However it might have been better if the mugs had been cremated or put through some sort of shredder! Or perhaps they could all have been offered one by one on eBay to help reduce the Australian debt. For more see this article.

Mali: Protesters attack and injure interim president.

Dioncounda Traore the interim president of Mali was scheduled to step down on Monday but an agreement between West African leaders and the recent coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo was reached for Traore to stay on for a year and organize elections.

Coup supporters were angered by the deal Protests have been held with the army saying it has shot three people dead. The deal also gave Sanogo perks as leader of a successful coup. He is now recognized as former head of state and given a salary and mansion! Do you hear any howls from the U.S. who trained him?

A journalist in Mali reported that soldiers let some demonstrators into Traore's office. Traore suffered a head wound and was taken to hospital for treatment but later released.

Capt Sanogo led a successful coup on March 22 turfing out the elected president. In reaction the regional bloc ECOWAS suspended Mali from membership. However a deal was reached for Sanogo to turn over power to an interim government under Traore former speaker of the house. The new deal was an extension of Traore's term. The north of the country has been taken over by Tuareg rebels who have declared independence. There are a few U.S. special forces in Mali.

The coup leader complained about lack of action by the government to put down northern rebels who are said to have ties to Islamic militants. ECOWAS has said it will send 3000 troops to help regain the northern territory but not when. One can expect continued bloodshed in Mali against northern rebels with the support of the U.S. who accuse some in the north of being tied to Al Qaeda. For more see this article.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Michael Moore supports Quebec protests

This is the 27th consecutive night of protests in Montreal. Protests have surged if anything since a draconian new bill was passed by the Liberal Quebec government of Jean Charest. The bill has infuriated students who have for months been protesting planned tuition increases and have boycotted classes.

However, the new bill is opposed by a much wider group including unions, lawyers, and civil rights advocates. Another municipal bylaw has been passed in Montreal making it an offense to wear masks at demonstrations.

There was a large demonstration on Sunday night with about 5,000 people. They chanted:"Devrait pas nous f√Ęcher," (You shouldn't get us mad.)Demonstrators also gathered earlier at the University of Quebec in Montreal and headed downtown. The police declared the demonstration illegal under the terms of the newly passed laws which requires giving police notice of the event 8 hours before the demonstration and the route to be taken and at what time. Protesters reject such restrictions.

. Two journalists were arrested. One was wearing a ski mask to protect against chemical irritants.and suffered minor injuries. Both were released within half an hour.

The largest and most radical of the Quebec student groups CLASSE had hoped to broaden the movement beyond just student issues. The passage of the bill restricting protests seems to have done that. Several major Quebec labor unions as well as environmental and political groups oppose the new bill and have thrown support behind the protesters.

Michael Moore documentary film maker calls the Quebec student movement amazing. On Sunday he tweeted: "Canadians are in revolt in Quebec over new gov't law limiting democratic rights. No news of it in US press. Their uprising is inspiring #ggi." The most popular hashtag of the protest is #ggi (greve generale illimite (general unlimited strike)) The protests are primarily but not exclusively at Francophone institutions hence many of the protest signs are in French. The Quebec government website has been subject to cyber attacks. Student claim that about 150,000 college and university students are still on strike i.e. boycotting classes. For more see this article.

NATO starts first phase of missile defense system ignoring Russian objections

At the Chicago summit Obama and allies decided to initiate a first phase of the missile defense system.. A U.S. warship armed with interceptors has peen put in the Mediterranean and a radar system in Turkey activated under NATO command from a base in Germany.

NATO claims the system is not aimed at Russia but at such enemies as Iran. Moscow simply does not believe this. The NATO secretary general Anders Rasmussen defended the system noting that 30 different states seek or have ballistic missile technology. He said:“Missile defense is indispensable. We are faced with real missile threats,”“Against a real threat we need a real defense,” He did not elaborate on which countries aside from Iran might want to attack Europe.

Russia threatens to place short range missiles in Kaliningrad near Polandl if the defense system goes ahead. President Putin did not even attend the NATO summit.

NATO invited Russia to cooperate in the system. Russia would cooperate but only on condition that there be joint control of the system and a legally binding guarantee that the system is not aimed at Russia.

NATO has refused to grant either demand. I wonder why? Could is possibly be because it is aimed at Russia? For more see this article.

Two U.S. troops wounded in Yemen attack

The presence of U.S. boots on the ground is becoming more evident daily. According to this article a U.S. special forces commander toured the front line as Yemeni forces closed in on a town controlled by militants. The article describes the militants as Al Qaeda linked. and notes that the group is seen as a threat to the U.S. They will be perhaps after being attacked by special forces and U.S. drones.

Four Americans supposedly instructors were in a vehicle attacked in the city of Hudaida on the Red Sea. A Yemeni coastguard official said: "They were leaving their hotel in a Land Cruiser when militants in another car pulled up alongside and opened fire with rifles. One was shot in the neck and the other received a bullet in his leg," However another source said only one person was wounded.

The militant group Ansar al-Sharia claimed responsibility for the attack. . In a statement the group said:"The mujahideen (Islamic fighters) managed to hit three of them and, for certain, one suffered a serious injury in the neck,"

Elsewhere there have been clashes near the rebel held city of Jaar with both sides suffering casualties. There is no doubt a decision to deliberately reveal the extent of U.S. participation. Perhaps this will prepare Americans to accept involvement. There is no reason to expect the Republicans to attack Obama on this. Obama can be seen as tough on terrorism.

The Yemeni Defense Minstry claims that the head of U.S Central Command's Special Operations Force Major General Kenneth Tovo had visited the "area of the confrontations with al Qaeda" over the weekend. Tovo pledged more support for the army. Wake up U.S. taxpayers. It is happening again. Tovo said:"The Yemeni armed forces will receive the necessary support that would enable it to destroy al Qaeda," Of course groups such as Ansar al-Sharia are distinct from the AQAP which are Al Qaeda There are many groups opposed to the Yemeni government. All Yemeni President Hadi has to do is say they are linked to Al Qaeda and the U.S. will help put them down. For more see this article.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Nationalist Challenger wins presidency over incumbent in runoff

Tomislav Nikolic the nationalist candidate won a narrow victory over pro European union incumbent Boris Tadic. Nikolic won 49.4 per cent of the vote and Tadic 47.4. with 70 per cent of polling stations reporting.

Tadic conceded defeat saying:"I congratulate him on the victory, it was a fair and well-earned victory and I wish him luck" The voter turnout was quite low at around 36 per cent.

The win by Nikolic was a surprise as a comfortable victory for Tadic was predicted even at the last. Tadic concentrated on promoting integration within EU. Perhaps the troubles of Greece, Spain, and others make closer ties with the EU not all that attractive to the Serbs! Although not stressing further integration Nikolic also favors moves in that direction but not at any cost! For more see this article.

Chinese metal inventories soar as global economy slows

Workers are storing iron ore in granaries because regular storage is full. Copper ore is stored in car parks for the same reason.

In Quingdao port hundreds of piles of iron ore as tall as three story buildings occupy an area designated as "grains storage". In Shanghai car parks are being used for copper storage.

Copper stored in Shanghai is now twice the usual 300,000 tons average. Iron ore stocks are also a third more than average. With Europe in crisis demand is slowing and China itself is growing more slowly.

A manager at a copper tube manufacturer said:"New orders have slowed quite substantially from a year ago...With demand so weak, we've scaled back operations, shut one production line and reduced the number of shifts." For much more see this article.

12 year old Canadian Victoria Grant criticizes banking system in Philadelphia talk

A video of Victoria's talk at a recent conference of the Public Banking Institute in Philadelphia has been posted on You Tube by her father. Her ideas are no doubt influenced by her father as well.

Her speech is noteworthy for the clarity of argument and being simple and straightforward. Grant points out that until the 1970''s the government borrowed money directly from the Bank of Canada. However now the government borrows from private banks and thus has to pay interest to them. Canadian taxpayers are thus having to paying interest on these loans for private banks' profit instead of borrowing directly from our own central bank. The reason for the change is obvious. It provides greater profit for private capital.

Grant's argument is not new. George Crowell writing for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives last year argued that borrowing directly from the central bank “would make available tens of billions of dollars that are urgently needed to rebuild our public infrastructure, protect our environment, and strengthen Medicare and other social programs so vital in meeting human needs.” However it would not provide the banks more profits from interest!

Critics argue that the move would cause inflation as the government would print money whenever it liked. But was there greater inflation before the earlier practice was stopped? Imagine even a Green Party representative comes out for the bank ripoff. Ard Van Leeuwen a Greent Party of Canada activist said:"At zero percent interest we would actually be subsidizing, and hence encouraging, government borrowing," So would that not be a good idea to encourage green energy projects? I have included the You Tube speech. See also this article.

Greece and Spain fear panic runs on banks

An article in Der Spiegel notes that both Spain and Greece are worried about panic withdrawal of funds from banks. The Spanish government just recently has denied that one billion Euros was withdrawn from the major bank Bankia last week alone.

Moody's downgraded ratings on sixteen Spanish banks. Greeks who fear that the Euro might eventually be replaced by the Drachma are withdrawing hundreds of millions of Euros from their accounts. In Italy too the banks are under pressure as Moody's also downgraded a total of 26 Italian banks.

. The Spanish central bank has admitted that the proportion of bad loans in banks is at an 18 year high. Bad loans make up 8.36 per cent of loans in March up from 8.15 per cent a month earlier. No doubt the rate is even higher by now.

Some financial experts are calling for intervention by the European Central Bank before a surge of withdrawals increases. A sovereign debt analyst said:. "Once a bank run begins, it is very hard to stop without a credible deposit guarantee," "Given the fragile fiscal position of Spain, the European Central Bank is under increasing pressure to step in to calm depositors' nerves."

However the ECB has already provided banks cheap three year loans as part of the LTROs (Longer Term Refinancing Operations). Banks have borrowed almost one trillion Euros through this program. But banks are running out of assets to back those loans. If they lose deposits this will make the situation even worse. For much more see the full article.

Chicago Summit deflates Afghan goals

The U.S. will be playing the role of beggar at the Chicago NATO summit begging any NATO member who will listen to give more money towards financing the Afghan military between 2014 and 2024.

Even the Canadian Prime Minister has not committed yet to the new mission. Canada has 900 troops in a training role until 2014 but NATO wants Canada to keep troops in Afghanistan after that. Harper is usually eager to support the U.S. and NATO but in this case he still seems to be pondering whether the political fallout would be worth it. France has already announced that it is withdrawing combat troops by the end of the year.

After U.S. pressure Britain, Australia, and Germany have pledged between 100 and 200 million U.S. a year to fund the Afghan military. However this is a small part of the estimated 4 billion a year even a reduced Afghan force would require. The lion's share of the burden will fall on the already stressed U.S. taxpayers.

Obama of course stresses the fact that U.S. combat troops will be leaving by 2014 and is declaring that he is keeping his promise to wind down the war. However the other part of the story is that he has extended the U.S. commitment from 2014 to 2024.

U.S. troops will stay after 20024 it has just not been decided how many and under what terms. It is clear that special forces will continue with night raids and that also drone attacks will as well in spite of some restrictions in the Strategic Partnership Agreement.

The goals of the NATO mission are deflated considerably. No one talks of ensuring democracy and good governance or building more schools and ensuring more girls go to school.. Stephen Harper said that the goal should be to ensure that Afghanistan did not become a haven for international terrorism. Obama's security adviser Tom Donilon said:. “The goal is to have an Afghanistan that has a degree of stability such that forces like al-Qaeda and associated groups cannot have safe haven unimpeded,” “No. 2, an Afghanistan that has a set of security assets that allow it to provide for that modicum of stability and to be able to protect itself against groups like that.” NATO is even expected to reduce the size of projected security forces from 352,000 to a much smaller force as few as 228,500. But NATO may have problems even obtaining the financing for that. Even this smaller force will require a subsidy of about 4 billion plus per year. NATO publics faced with already serious debt problems and cuts in programs are not likely to put up with questionable expenditures in far off lands. For more see this article The U.S. at present is spending about 100 billion a year on the war

Saturday, May 19, 2012

U.S. set to impose 31 per cent tariff increase on Chinese solar panels

The U.S. is contemplating an increase of up to 31 per cent in the tariffs slapped on Chinese solar panels. The U.S. maintains that China is dumping the panels at below market prices.

Three major Chinese manufacturers have rejected the U.S allegations. Shen Danyang a spokesperson for the Commerce Ministry said:

"This is not consistent with China's development status, does not conform to the facts of China as a market economy and highlights the tendency of trade protectionism in the United States,"

The Obama government has itself subsidized the energy industry. See this article which points out:: "An investigation has revealed that the White House approved billions of dollars in federal funding for clean-energy firms. It also happens that nearly two-dozen of those companies have close ties with the president’s own cabinet."

The U.S. and China are cooperating on a clean energy drive and the Chinese says this action put that cooperation at risk. Both countries are promoting their own companies to generate jobs. Demand has weakened in Europe and this has increased competition from China.

U.S. solar panel manufacturers had asked the U.S. government to penalize the Chinese accusing it of selling below market prices. Even though U.S. manufacturer Solyndra received over half a billion in loans from the U.S. government it went bankrupt.

U.S. solar panel installers are upset by the government move as it will make the panels more expensive and likely reduce demand. The installers point out the Chinese make solar panels more affordable. Both China and the U.S. accuse each other of violating free trade pledges by subsidies to their own manufacturers. Both are probably correct! For more see this article.

Hollande repeats pledge to withdaw all French combat troops from Afghanistan by end of this year.

After a meeting at the White House with president Obama newly elected French president Francois Hollande repeated his campaign promise that he would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year.

Hollande said:“I reminded President Obama of the commitment that I made to the French people – the withdrawal of combat troops between now and the end of 2012,” However Obama said that both agreed to a long term commitment to Afghanistan. This may mean only that France will simply help financially in the period from 2014 to 20024 when the U.S. Afghanistan Strategic Partnership agreement will be in force. However perhaps some French troops might remain in a non-combat role.

There is majority opposition to the Afghan missions in both the U.S. and France but France is obviously going to withdraw troops early. However the U.S. is planning to keep troops in Afghanistan after 2014 who will not only be there in a training role but special forces will still conduct night raids and other anti-terror missions. The number of troops to remain has not as yet been determined nor the terms of their presence. As well the U.S taxpayer will be funding the Afghan military by at least a billion plus for year. The U.S. naturally would like to have more NATO countries share the burden but that is a political hard sell in many NATO countries. For more see this article.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Spanish economic troubles continue

As well as Greece Spain remains a concern in the ongoing EU debt crisis. Bankia the bank in which the government recently took a large stake was rumored to be losing depositors. Shares crashed on the stock exchange but recovered somewhat today.

Moodys credit agency added to the jitters by downgrading the credit ratings of several Spanish banks. If Greece were to leave the Euro zone this would cause even fear and investor worries about Spain. Any such move might make the cost of borrowing for Spain prohibitive.

Even the present problems are raising the cost of borrowing for Spain. Analysts estimate that Spanish banks may have up to 100 billion Euros in bad real estate loans. The government plans to require banks to retain up to 30 billion Euros to cover bad loans.

Spain may need to seek support for its banks through the European Financial Stability Facility. The uncertainties in Greece produce uncertainties in Spain. For more see this article and also here.

U.S. House approves indefinite detention and 8 billion increase in defense budget

A bill approving indefinite detention of terror suspects passed the House of Represenatives today. The detention applies even to U.S. citizens and even if they are captured in the U.S. The right of habeas corpus is by now ancient history.

An amendment that would bar indefinite detention sponsored by Adam Smith a Democrat and Justin Amash a Republican was defeated by a vote of 238 to 182. Amash noted:“The frightening thing here is that the government is claiming the power under the Afghanistan authorization for use of military force as a justification for entering American homes to grab people, indefinitely detain them and not give them a charge or trial,” Apparently this does not matter to a majority in the House.

A defense bill totaling a huge 642 billion was also passed by a vote of 299-120. The deficit cutting agreement reached by Obama and the Republicans was simply ignored. Instead of cuts 8 billion was added to the budget. The legislators simply ignored their own earlier legislative agreements.

To add insult to injury the bill as well calls for a missile defense system on the East Coast a system the military itself officially opposes. The bill also will prevent the scheduled reduction of nuclear weapons that is legally required under the terms of a treaty with Russia. No doubt this is part of a stimulus package for the military industrial complex. For more see this article.

Wisconsin Democrats want recall campaign funding from national office

Wisconsin Democrats are angry that the national party has so far refused their request for a big investment in the Scott Walker recall.according to this article.

At the same time the national Republican Party is sensitive to the importance of ensuring that the right wing anti-labor governor should remain in power. They are investing a lot of money in the campaign to defend Walker.

A top Wisconsin Democrat told the author:“We are frustrated by the lack of support from the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Governors Association,”“Scott Walker has the full support and backing of the Republican Party and all its tentacles. We are not getting similar support.”

Even though Scott Walker has already spent 30 million on his campaign the Democrats are still even in the polls with the Walker defense. The official continued:“We can get outspent two to one or five to one. We can’t get spent 20 to one.”

The Wisconsin Democrats apparently have asked the national party for half a million dollars to help with their field operations. The DNC (Democratic National Committee) has supported Wisconsin Democrats rhetorically but no financial help has come so far. The recall vote is scheduled for June 5th.

Polls indicate that most in Wisconsin have already made up their mind. Although the Walker campaign spent a great deal of money the polls have not changed much. Whoever is able to get the best turnout will probably win. The Wisconsin Democrats want funds for their field operations.

The Wisconsin Democrats are particularly angry because a loss in the recall could hurt them in the fall as well in the presidential election. A Wisconsin Democrat official told the author:“Scott Walker has made this a national election,”. “If he wins, he will turn his victory into a national referendum on his ideas about the middle class. It will hurt Democrats nationally. The fact that [national Dems] are sitting on their hands now is so frustrating. The whole ticket stands to lose.” If Obama is really committed to labor he must show it by helping fund this key battle against an anti-union Republican governor. For more see this article.

Canada: Nude portrait of Prime Minister creates a stir.

n Kingston Ontario a nude painting of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was submitted by Kingston artist Margaret Sutherland to the Arts Council's Annual Juried Art Salon.

The painting is titled "Emperor Haute Couture" . Its on display in a Kingston Public Library. I presume that the entrance to the library has some suitable warning about this library contains adult content etc..However the library decided that the painting would be removed when children's events are held in the room where the painting is displayed. The artist objected to this so a compromise was reached. The nude is now covered with a cloth making it opaque to the naked eye when children are present.

The painting is a political satire and is a takeoff on an 1863 painting by Manet called Olympia.which features a Venus like nude attended to by a slave. In the Sutherland painting the nude Harper is attended to by a headless woman in a power suit who gives him a Tim Hortons coffee on a silver plate. There is a dog in the painting.

The prime minister's office issued a release pointing out that everyone knows that the prime minister is a cat person. An opposition member said that this was one time when he was in favor of a Conservative coverup. For more see this article and here in the local paper.

UPDATE: You are too late the painting has been sold for 5,000 dollars. The buyer's identity has not been revealed. Probably a good investment.

Dental Service Management companies involved in dental abuse

There is a long article at Bloomberg News detailing abuses by Dental Management Service companies. These companies are often owned by private equity firms. In this report I will just deal with one example of questionable dental work.

Last October 4 year old Isaac Gagnon got off the school bus sobbing and showed his mother where it hurt. He had steel crowns on his back teeth. There was a dental statement in his backpack that showed he had two polpotomies or baby root canals, together with crowns and ten X rays. This happened all while he was at school. He didn't need the work.

Gagnon's mother said:“I was absolutely horrified,” “I never gave them permission to drill into my son’s mouth. They did it for profit.” This case and similar cases are being looked at by federal lawmakers. The companies follow a popular business model backed by Wall Street money and taking advantage of government programs.

ReachOut Healthcare is the dental service management company that sent the dentist to Isaac's school. The company is in the portfolio of Morgan Stanley Private Equity. The company has wide reach operating in 22 different states and dealing with 1.5 million patients. These management companies are the object of a Senate inquiry. There are reports of unnecessary procedures as in Isaac's case, poor quality treatment, and even unlicensed practice of dentistry. For much more see the entire article.

U.S. House passes new red line bill on Iran

Even as a second round of talks with Iran is slated about its nuclear program the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that threatens an attack when Iran obtains " nuclear weapons capability."

The present U.S. policy is that Iran should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. At present U.S. intelligence believes that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. The new red line that Iran cannot cross is that even the capability to produce nuclear weapons is unacceptable. "Nuclear weapons capability" is undefined and by some interpretations could already apply to Iran.

The vote on the bill passed overwhelmingly by 401-11. In spite of denials by both U.S. military and intelligence officials hawks continue to claim that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

That Iran simply has the capability of building nuclear weapons is itself a reasonable ground for a preventative attack according to the new hawkish doctrine.. However, there would be no imminent threat and any attack would not be self defense but a war of aggression. This means nothing to U.S. policy makers since they believe they determine the rules on such issues.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson who was formerly chief of staff for Colin Powell said: “This resolution reads like the same sheet of music that got us into the Iraq war, and could be the precursor for a war with Iran….it’s effectively a thinly-disguised effort to bless war.” Ironically, the U.S. resolution would provide Iran a good reason for an attack on the U.S. since it is an imminent threat to Iran. For more see this article.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

U.S. sends more troops to Pentagon Africa Command

With little fanfare or publicity the U.S. is increasing its military presence in Africa to project U.S. power throughout the continent. A brigade of U.S. troops is being assigned to the Africa Command.

The troops will spread out through many countries. They will train local forces and also participate in military exercises. No doubt there will be special forces active in the background as well as in countries such as Mali where a U.S. trained captain successfully overthrew the elected president. He later negotiated a return to a civilian government but gained influence in that government as well.

Often the regimes where there will be training and military exercises are undemocratic. Instead of direct occupation to project power there will be a shadow war often using proxy militias to ensure that the U.S. retains influence. Not only will the training form bonds with the U.S. military but also the U.S. will supply military equipment making the security forces dependent upon the U.S. as well.

The Pentagon Africa Command now trains and equips armed forces in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal and several other countries. The ubiquitous war on terror is often part of the justification. These missions prevent terrorist from establishing sanctuaries. However, militancy seems to be spreading rather than receding in many areas. Often U.S. intervention spawns more radical militancy as happened in Somalia.

General Odierno says the plan is “part of a new effort to provide U.S. commanders around the globe with troops on a rotational basis to meet the military needs of their regions,” Odierno forgot to specifically mention the supposed terrorist threat to the U.S. Within the U.S. there is virtually no discussion of this military expansion and no debate about the deployment in the U.S. Congress. For more see this article. or here.

Spain falls back in recession

Official statistics show that the Spanish economy shrank by .3 per cent during the first quarter of 2012. While this is not a large decline it is enough for Spain to be technically in a recession after two consecutive quarters in decline.

The new figures confirm the precarious state of the Spanish economy. Spain has a record 24.4 per cent unemployment rate the highest in the Euro zone. The contraction was caused by weaker demand with lower public and household spending as austerity measures take their toll.

Weaker growth in other parts of Europe have slowed exports and also tourism. However, exports did rise by 2.2 per cent while imports fell 7.2 per cent.

. Luis de Guindos Economy Minister predicted GDP would shrink by 1.7 per cent in 2012 but grow slightly by .2 per cent in 2013. Other forecasters were less optimistic with Commerzbank analysts predicting that Spain would still be in recession next year with a decrease in GDP of .3 per cent.

Spain's deficit last year was 8.5 per cent of GDP far off the 6.0 per cent agreed to with the EU. Austerity measures are supposed to bring the amount down to 5.3 per cent this year and to the EU ceiling of 3.0 per cent next year. This may be difficult to achieve if not impossible. For more see this article.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Greece: New elections to be held on June 17

Panagiotis Pikrammenos Council of State chief will head a caretaker government until a new government is formed after elections on June 17th. Numerous attempts to form a coalition government failed. The resulting uncertainty is roiling markets and caused a run on Greek banks. Many Greeks fear that Greece will return to the Drachma the former Greek currency. The caretaker government will not have the power to make any binding commitments.

About 898 million dollars have been withdrawn from Greek banks. A spokesperson said that as yet there is no panic but there is great fear. Theodore Krintas manager director of a wealth management company said:"I would expect the population to quietly be doing what it has been doing in the last days. In other words, some of the Greek citizens are afraid and are taking a portion of the money, but I'm not expecting a bank run,"

The election on May 6th was a disaster for the two leading pro austerity parties especially the socialist PASOK party. Greeks voted for parties that reject the austerity package imposed upon them by the EU's Troika..

The spending cuts and tax hikes have left the country mired in the fifth year of a deep recession and sent unemployment soaring to above 21 per cent, and many argue the country cannot hope for recovery if they stick to the deal. The Greeks are fed up with austerity measures that have brought a recession lasting five years now and an unemployment rate over 21 per cent. It is much higher among youth.

The Sytriza party ,an anti-austerity grouping, according to polls will increase its vote and come in first in the upcoming election. However, no doubt there will be a great deal of pressure upon the Greeks to vote for the austerity measures both from within and without the country. The prospect of Greece leaving the Euro zone is becoming a real possibility recognized even by the IMF. The IMF head Christine Lagarde said:"If the country's budgetary commitments are not honoured, there needs to be appropriate revisions, which means either supplementary financing and additional time, or mechanisms for an exit, which in this case must be orderly,""

The head of Syriza Alexis Tsipras that came second in the May 6 elections requested "that the caretaker government should not implement measures that would involve further cuts in salaries, pensions and public spending, that would dismantle labour relations or allow privatizations. . I also asked for a freeze on every ongoing process regarding the sale of state property."

Even if Tsipras does not win enough seats to govern alone after the next election his party will receive 50 extra seats for coming in first place and he should easily be able to form a majority with another anti-austerity party on the left. However so far the Greek communist party has rejected the idea of joining a coalition. The next government will in all likelihood reject the austerity agreement reached with the Troika.

Robert O'Daly of the Economist said:"This will make reaching an agreement between the next government and Greece's international creditors extremely difficult, raising the risk of a Greek exit from the euro and sovereign debt default," "The consequences of this would be dire for Greece and probably the rest of the euro area." For more see this article.

Monday, May 14, 2012

D.C. cuts librarians because they are a poor investment

D.C. (District of Columbia) officials plan to cut 34 librarians from staff in the 2012-2013 school year. The move is to cut costs in the Washington school system.

Chancellor Kaya Henderson said: “We have invested in full-time librarians for the last three or four years and we haven't seen the kind of payoff we'd like”While noting that she is not disparaging librarians she said "We have pulled away from programs where we haven't received a return on our investment.” Apparently a payoff on investment would involve improved test scores.

l This emphasis upon performance as measured by test scores is surely short sighted. The single minded pursuit of higher scores has encouraged cheating and teaching that focuses not providing students a broad education but preparing them for standardized tests.

Chicago has followed a course of cutting librarians resulting in some 160 schools without libraries. In Chicago there were demonstrations as a result. Parents occupied one school for months and were able to obtain a library. For more see this blogpost.

A commentator on the blog claims Los Angeles unified division is cutting all central funding to all 700+ school libraries for next year. This means that each school will be forced for find money for its library out of its own budget. Since schools are strapped for money the commentator notes that schools may be forced to do without a nurse or counselor or do without a library.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Pakistani students win film award in US but cannot attend ceremony

The FFTY or Film Festival for Talented Youth was held recently in Seattle Washington. A short film by Danish Qasim from Iqra University won the Best Audience Award in one category. The film was written and directed by Qasim along with five team members.

The 20 minute film revolves around the social, psychological, and economic effects of drone attacks on people in the tribal areas where the attacks occur..The film show the problems faced by families who have become victims of the attack and also how terrorist groups use families for their own interests..The filmmakers were all denied visas by the U.S. to appear at the awards ceremony.

Qasim said: “If we got the visa then it would have been easy for us to frame our point of view in front of the other selected youth filmmakers,” “The film gained interest from the audience across the globe compelling festival administrators to give Audience Award to the film,” Apparently U.S. officials are not anxious for U.S. audiences to hear Qasim's point of view. For more see this article. I have appended a very short clip from the film.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Pakistan may not attend upcoming Chicago summit on Afghanistan

     The Chicago Summit on Afghanistan sponsored by NATO is slated to start on May 20th. However Pakistan may not attend. The NATO general secretary more or less implied that Pakistan was not welcomed unless it reopens closed transit routes for NATO supplies through Pakistan to Afghanistan.
    However Pakistan has also suggested that unless drone strikes cease in Pakistan's tribal areas it will boycott the meeting. The U.S,. has indicated that it will not stop the attacks in fact they have been continuing even after several motion by the Pakistan parliament have demanded they cease.
   A recent Pentagon report claims that terrorists still have safe havens in parts of the Tribal Areas. This no doubt means that drone attacks will not stop. The two sides seem to be at an impasse. However talks are ongoing next week to try and solve the issues outstanding. It will be politically difficult for Pakistan to give in and allow continuing drone attacks but it also wants a great deal of money several billion it feels it is owed for past efforts against terrorism. For more see this article.

Does TSA fear diaper bombers?

An 18 month old little girl Ryanna the daughter of Middle Eastern descent Americans from New Jersey was prevented from boarding a flight from Florida. TSA agents boarded the plane just as it was about to depart. The parents who wished to remain anonymous called the whole incident absurd.

An airline employee approached the mother and told her that TSA agents were waiting to speak with the family back at the terminal. The mother asked why and the employee said: 'Well, it's not you or your husband. Your daughter was flagged as no fly.’”

The couple think that the TSA actually wanted to question them. Riyannas father said:"It's absurd," "It made no sense. Why would an 18-month-old child be on a no-fly list?" The wife wears a hijab.

The couple were humiliated and embarrassed when after the questioning they were cleared for boarding and went back to be seated in the plane that had been delayed for half an hour.

The TSA said it was a mistake by the airline that identified the little girl as on the no fly list. However, the airline said it was an issue for the TSA. It is not that uncommon for people to be interrogated because they have the same name as someone on the no fly list. No doubt this is what may have happened. However, one would think common sense would tell employees there had been some error given the age of the daughter. But maybe they fear diaper bombers. For more see this article,

Friday, May 11, 2012

Attempt to form Greek coalition government fails again

According to this article the third attempt to form a coalition government has failed. The PASOK socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos was able to bring the major New Democracy party into his coalition and at first it seemed that he had also the agreement of the Democratic Left a smaller party to join in the coalition.

However, the Demiocratic Left insisted that the 2nd place leftist Styriza party also be part of the coalition. Stryiza is strongly against the austerity plans and refuses to be part of any pro-bailout coalition.

Venizelos will speak to the president tomorrow:"I will brief tomorrow the president of the republic. I hope that during the phase of talks with the president, everyone will think more maturely and more responsibly," The deal with the Democratic Left would have given the coalition 168 seats in the 300 seat parliament. However if any one of the three were to vote against a measure along with the opposition a bill would fail.

Assuming there is no last minute agreement to form another coalition when Venizelos reports to the president, the president himself will try one last time to form a emergency salvation government by summoning all leaders. If that move fails then the president could call new elections as early as Sunday or Monday.

Styriza probably has little interest in forming a coalition. Opinion polls show that if new elections are held that its vote would go from 16.8 per cent to almost 28 per cent and win about 128 seats. The first place finisher gets 50 extra seats and this would give Sytriza enough seats to rule on its own. If that happens goodbye bailout deal. For more see this article or here.

Yemen: More U.S. troops being sent.

    There have been some U.S. Special Forces in Yemen for some time. Indeed a  group was attacked in Aden. However training of Yemeni forces was suspended during the time when there were negotiations for Saleh to step down. Now the U.S. supported president Hadi is in power military aid has resumed and now troops are being sent as well.
     The troops will cooperate with Yemeni security forces in counter terrorism operations. No doubt we will see renewed attempts to retake territory captured by militants in southern Yemen. Any militant Islamis group now seems to be described as Al Qaeda or linked to that group. AQAP is the official Al Qaeda group in Yemen.
     The new U.S. troops will work under secret arrangements. At the same time drone attacks are being increased. Targets have also been broadened with signature strikes based upon behavior now being allowed. Targets now need not be specifically identified. This broadening will no doubt increase the number of civilians casualties. For more see this article.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

University of California president targets critics of Israel

According to an article by Stephen Zunes here, U. of California president Mark Yudof has initiated a campaign against human rights groups and others who criticize Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza and support Palestinians.

In a March letter, Yudof posted a letter calling protest on campuses against Israel as hateful incidents and compared them to actions meant to intimidate gays, or blacks. The new policy seems to conflate the policies of Israel with the Jewish people so that any criticism of them becomes anti-semitic and hateful. This move seems to be aimed at making an criticisms of Israel simply an expression of anti-semitism and hence to be rejected.

One UCLA Professor David Shorter has received a public reprimand from the chair of the Academic Senate for including material about the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign against Israel even though he also included material that criticized the campaign as well. This strikes me as ominous. The reprimand represents a viewpoint that is even less fair and balanced than Fox News! For much more see the full article. Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. For more on Zunes see this site.

NOTE: More on Mark Yudof can be found here. The entry notes that Yudof has been criticized for not being forceful enough in his response to events considered anti-semitic at California campuses. There is also this interesting tid-bit:

""Also in 2009, Yudof came under criticism for an interview that he gave to Deborah Solomon of the New York Times, Big Man on Campus, in which he joked about taking a pay cut from his salary of over $800,000 to $400,000 in exchange for the White House and Air Force One.""

Remote tiny Spratly Islands could be conflct locale between U.S. and China

The Spratly islands are claimed by many countries including China (and Taiwan), Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. See this article for more about the islands.

Although there are no indigenous inhabitants countries who claim the island at times send military personnel to assert their territorial claims. There are rich fishing grounds in the area and at times there have been confrontations between fisherman from one nation and military patrols of another nation that claims the islands. This has happened between Vietnamese fishermen and Chinese military vessels and more recently Chinese fishermen and Philippine military. NOTE: The fishing is damaging the environment.. Explosives are sometimes used damaging the reefs and other illegal methods are used as well including poisoning.

As well as the fish there is evidence of rich gas and oil deposits under the sea in the area. This ramps up the race to claim possession of the islands. The U.S. comes into the picture as a country that wants to extend its domain and project its power into the region. The U.S. also wants to confront and contain the expanding Chinese influence in the region.

Historically the U.S. has projected its power through defense agreements with allies in the region. After the second world war the U.S. had great influence in the Philippines after liberating the islands from the Japanese--along with Filipinos themselves of course. In 1951 the U.S. signed a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines.

The treaty states: “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.” The U.S.supports the claim of the Philippines to the Spratly islands. Should there be a confrontation between the Philippines and China over the issue as there very well could be then the U.S. would be obliged to intervene on the side of the Philippines.

Recently the Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin claimed that the U.S. had an obligation to protect militarily Philippine territorial claims in the South China Sea. This would include the Spratly's. Gazmin pointed out that the U.S. Secretary of Defens Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton secretary of state had both renewed their pledge that the U.S. will honor the 1951 military pact. China naturally has recently objected to the U.S. backing the Philippines and also military presence in the area.

This U.S. Philippine relationship could spark serious confrontations between the U.S. and China. For example Philippine warships recently tried to capture Chinese fishing vessels in the region but were driven off by Chinese fighting vessels. China is increasing its military presence in the area to counter Philippine actions. For its part the U.S. has increased its military presence and cooperation with the Philippine government. For more see this article.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Second attempt to form a Greek coalition government fails

The leader of the second place finisher in Greek elections the Syriza party has admitted failure today in his attempts to form a coalition government. Alexis Tsipras said he failed because he insisted on rejecting the austerity measures required by the Troika in return for new bailout money.

Tsipras talked only with New Democracy and PASOK the first and third parties in election results. He might have tried a left coalition but the Communist Party has indicated it would not join in a coalition.

The leader of the third running party Evangelos Venizelos now has his turn although it seems unlikely he can be successful. If he fails then there will be elections in June and a long period of crisis. There may be a great deal of pressure on PASOK and New Democracy to form another coalition to avoid elections and carry on with reforms.

If Athens rejects the austerity deal the money that was promised in June will probably not be given. Both the EU and Germany have made it clear they expect Greece to keep its commitments if it expects to have new money.

In the short term the EU will provide an installment of 6.7 billion to meet immediate debt obligations. Representatives of the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) have aborted a trip to Athens that was to happen in mid May. No date has been set for another meeting. The Troika are obviously standing by until the situation in Greece becomes more stable or at least clearer! For more see this article..

Obama should agree with new French president on some points

In an article in the Huffington Post Robert Naiman suggests that Obama should agree with Francois Hollande the newly elected French president on two points. First he should agree that a new deal in Europe promoting growth rather than emphasizing austerity should be promoted. Secondly, he should agree with Hollande that withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan should be speeded up.

As Naiman points out Obama is likely to try and convince Hollande not to withdraw French troops more quickly.. Naiman says that both Hollande and Obama agree on ending the Afghan war. On this I think that Naiman is incorrect. Obama is not that nterested in ending the war at present. In fact the Strategic Partnership Agreement extends U.S involvement in Afghanistan until at least 2024.What he is interested in is to commit less troops so that there are fewer casualties and less negative political reaction in an election year. He knows that the war is unpopular. But at the same time he is committing the U.S. to financing Afghanistan's military to the tune of about a billion a year after 2014.

Obama still supports NATO's involvement in Afghanistan. He simply wants other NATO members such as France to share in the cost both in terms of troops and financially.

Perhaps Obama will make common cause with Hollande on changing European austerity policy. However, I would not be surprised if he were luke warm even to that knowing that U.S. ally Britain and key European player Germany are in favor of continuing austerity measures as are most financial capitalists. For more see the full article.

Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner investigating Twitter over data privacy concern.

Irish privacy regulators are launching an investigation into precisely how much data Twitter collects from, its URL-shortening system....