Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Nuclear moves...

Picture credit: U.S. DOE (Operation Upshot Knothole at Nevada test ground)

Nuclear Disarmament and the Nonproliferation Treaty, by Harald Müller – Peace Research Institute, Frankfurt, published in WMD Insights' Dec 2008/January 2009 issue, traces the connections between the nuclear 'haves' and the 'have nots' and argues (convincingly, in this blogger's opinion) that the actions of the former greatly influence those of the latter...

The article goes on to discuss how the NPT can be revived and progress made denuclearization. However, once again they have the order wrong, arguing for reductions by the "Big Two" before any by the other nuclear haves. Presumably this is because they believe that progress by the "Big Two" is necessary to convince the others to move.

As argued in the December 22nd 'Zero Global Zero' entry this blogger would argue that the British and French be 'pushed' to eliminate their nuclear weapons as an immediate first step. The next steps would be to leverage the momentum created by what would be a ground-breaking, paradigm-changing move to immediately look for quick progress on denuclearization by India and Pakistan, while beginning negotiations between Russia and the U.S., with China to be brought in once the "Big Two" have begun real reductions. (Note: the biggest potential stumbling block in the Asian subcontinent would be Pakistan, since nuclear weapons are more 'important' to them given India's overwhelming superiority in size and in conventional forces... Russia and the U.S. would have to work out some sort of guarantee that would be sufficiently robust for them to give up the nuclear fall-back option...).

Not mentioned yet is Israel - at some point they would have to be brought/forced into the denuclearization process to make it complete, though it must be admitted that it is hard to see when this could happen given the current situation on the ground and the fact that Israel's denuclearization would have to be tied to significant improvements and progress across the Middle East (i.e. resolution of the Israel-Palestinian issue; resolution of issues between Israel and Syria; between Israel and Lebanon; etc.)

P.S. Another article in the same issue, Commentary: U.S. Nonproliferation Policy – Selected Possibilities for a New Presidency, also touches on this topic, and argues further that the nonproliferation agenda needs to "keep up with science" and include other technologies e.g. thermobaric weapons and nanotechnology.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Minnesota Senate Seat...

Still no resolution in sight on the Minnesota Senate seat. With the recount mostly completed, Al Franken is very slightly ahead (0.002%, or 50 votes out of a total of 2.9 million) with some ballots remaining to be counted. Lawsuits are bound to follow...

Hmm, how about resolving this via rock-paper-scissors, best of three... Or, to make it a little more cerebral, a game of chess (no 'seconds,' no breaks until completed...)?

Hiatus... (stagnation)

There will be minimal posting from December 25th until December 31st due to holiday travel... However Tosk's daily tweets will continue without a break...

Friday, December 26, 2008

Stars and Journeymen

Something that has been happening for a while in our society is the widening gap between the "stars' and the "journeymen" (this blogger will use this term, journeyperson sounds bizarre...). This has occurred in many fields - sports (a much smaller number of mega-stars that are paid astronomical amounts while much larger numbers of "bit" players toil for much lower pay), finance (ditto, though the current economic crisis may have started to put a dent in this...), entertainment, and many other fields. This "split" has also been expanding into all sorts of areas. Whether it be missing children, where a small number receive ridiculous amounts of coverage (viz. Caylee Anthony on the Nancy Grace show on CNN) while other victims receive no coverage at all; to shows such as The Apprentice where the winner gets all manner of benefits while the "losers" get nothing (and are often humiliated to boot!); to some worthy causes getting showered with resources while others languish from lack of assistance, this habit of piling it on for the few while giving very little to the many is not a healthy trend!

In his panegyric to social connectivity, entrepreneurship, and the internet, Kristof introduces a young girl, Talia, who raised enormous sums for post-Katrina hurricane victims and other worthy causes. An even younger child, 'Alex', set up a lemonade stand in her yard and ralso aised millions for her cause. In both cases, for whatever reason, they caught the public's attention and their causes reaped the vast generosity of the American public. Meanwhile, large numbers of other kids toiled in anonymity for other causes just as worthy.

The television show 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' seems to also follow this pattern of unevenness. This blogger doesn't generally watch this show, but happened to catch an episode. In it, the family chosen certainly had seen a run of bad luck and had many needs, but this blogger was appalled by the excesses - the existing house that was torn down was replaced by one multiple times the size of the original; the appointments were really top of the line; in addition the father received a truck, a workshop full of tools, and a year of gas; etc. The gifts went on and on. It seemed to this blogger that while the premise of providing help to those in need was good, a much larger number of families could have been helped if the money used had been spread around to other needy families, and not just lavished on one family!

OK, so good for those who do well and are done well by! But it is to be hoped that this does not become the norm in our society. While there will always be differences (which is good) too great a disparity between the few and the many is not healthy for society...

How Jay Leno is Contributing to Our Awful Economy
Talia for President
RandomKid The Power of ANYone
Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Hospitals' financial update


The November 14th blog entry, Financial crisis and hospitals, reviewed the pressures on the nation's hospitals resulting from the financial downturn. In the last two months the rating agency Moody's has been downgrading more hospitals than it has been upgrading. Moody's also rated the financial health of all four major healthcare sectors (for-profits, not-for-profits, health insurers and medical device makers) negatively for the first time ever in its latest report. Hospitals have been having difficulty raising capital, and some have agreed to 'buy-back' provisions to access capital. Many hospitals are freezing hiring (e.g. the Cleveland Clinic) or cutting staff (e.g. Clarian Health in Indianapolis).

In the midst of this turmoil Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) may be planning to introduce legislation to set a minimum level of charity care (e.g. perhaps as a defined percent of revenues) that non-profit hospitals have to provide. In theory, hospitals that have non-profit status are supposed to provide a community benefit in return for the advantages conferred by the irnon-profit status. In reality all do, though to widely varying degrees. Also, with no clear definitions of how to calculate community benefit (e.g. include bad debt and write-offs or not, include "losses" on Medicaid patients or not, etc.) various hospitals calculate and report widely differing levels of community benefit. Senator Grassley has been concerned for some time that some hospitals actually provide very little charity care and community benefit, at least as compared to the amount of taxes they avoid by virtue of their non-profit status, and he has been holding hearings and pressing the industry to do more... Exasperated, he may be turning to legislation.

Now this blogger is always annoyed by and skeptical of special interest pleading. However, in this case and under the current economic conditions it is to be hoped that Senator Grassley et al. do not overdo it and move forward with a heavy hand. This sector of the economy, while under pressure, overall is still much healthier than many others e.g. automotive, etc. However, large parts of it are very fragile and it wouldn't take much to tip them over the edge!

Bond buy-backs could stress hospitals' liquidity, Moody's says
Moody's downgrades 18 hospital bond ratings in two months
Moody's predicts that non-profit hospitals may sell to for-profits in 2009
Cleveland Clinic freezes hiring, salaries
Hospitals continue struggle against financial collapse
Hospitals seeing record layoffs in 2008
Moody's reports question health of health-care industry
New measure would set minimum charity levels for non-profit hospitals
Grassley Targets Nonprofit Hospitals on Charity Care

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Art(?) in unusual places...

Photo credit: Spiegel Online

See this and other graffiti on the Israel-West Bank "separation barrier" here, Guerilla Art on the West Bank. Read Taking a 'Banksy Tour' in Bethlehem re this latest tourist attraction...

Quotes...

"... It should be the other way around. Several years ago an Iraqi boy whose limbs were amputated was shown on TV and everybody treated this as if it was okay, but when Janet Jackson exposed her breast during the Superbowl the American nation was appalled..."

- Raelian spokesman decrying the fact that nowadays the words "war," "violence" and "murder" have become more legitimate than "sex," "orgasm" and "pleasure."

OK, so it's a sect, and a mass orgy to promote world peace is crazy and asinine, but he has a point (re violence being more acceptable).

Mega-orgy in Tel-Aviv canceled due to public pressure

Monday, December 22, 2008

Zero Global Zero

A new international group has been formed to campaign for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Chock full of celebrities, political moves and shakers from the U.S. and around the world (e.g. former President Jimmy Carter; former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger; former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci; former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; Shaharyar Khan, a former Pakistani foreign minister; retired Air Chief Marshal Shashindra Pal Tyagi of India; and Malcolm Rifkind, a former British foreign secretary); and retired military men from multiple countries, etc. , they launched their efforts in Paris. The group is called Global Zero.

From the Global Zero web site: "... One hundred international political, military, business, and civic leaders from across political lines launched a new initiative today in Paris to eliminate nuclear weapons globally to combat the threat of proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Called Global Zero, the initiative will combine high-level policy work with global public outreach to achieve a binding agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons through phased and verified reductions. Each leader has signed a Global Zero declaration calling for a binding, verifiable agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons by a date certain. The group is developing a step-by-step plan to eliminate nuclear weapons ... Global Zero leaders emphasized that eliminating nuclear weapons will not happen overnight but instead must be done through phased and verified reductions over a period of years. Key steps include:
  • Deep reductions to Russian-U.S. arsenals, which comprise 96% of the world’s 27,000 nuclear weapons.
  • Russia and the United States, joined by other nuclear weapons states, cut arsenals to zero in phased reductions.
  • Establishing verification systems and international management of the fuel cycle to prevent future development of nuclear weapons.

... To finalize the step-by-step plan, Global Zero will form an international commission of distinguished political and military leaders and policy experts from key countries. Jointly led by two prominent individuals – one from Russia and one from the United States – to be named soon, the Global Zero Commission will emphasize establishing a Russian-U.S. partnership to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons ..."

The group "envisions U.S.-Russian negotiations to cut back nuclear stockpiles to roughly 1,000 weapons apiece, from current arsenals of about 5,000 warheads each, followed by a second phase bringing in countries such as China, Britain and France. From there the aim would be to attract would-be members of the nuclear club, such as Iran." The aim is to verifiably eliminate nuclear weapons by 2035.

This effort is a successor to previous calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons. For example, in January of 2007 George P. Shultz (former U.S. SecState), William J. Perry (former U.S. SecDef), Henry A. Kissinger (former U.S. SecState), and Sam Nunn (former U.S. Senator) penned a Wall Street Journal article, A World Free of Nuclear Weapons. In June of 2008 Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Lord Hurd of Westwell and Lord Owen (all former British foreign secretaries); and Lord Robertson of Port Ellen (a former NATO Secretary-General) penned 'Start worrying and learn to ditch the bomb' in the Times.

This blogger is not much impressed with any of these worthies and their putative calls for nuclear disarmament! While getting much laudatory press coverage, and gathering kudos and encomiums for their foresight and brilliance, they somehow manage to ensure a process that will be long and drawn out; they end up engaging in a lot of talk, somehow without putting any sort of pressure on the current nuclear "haves"; and generally the result is a lot of activity that produces few tangible results other than these worthies gaining kudos for being thought leaders!

The latest group effort seems to be in the same vein. Global Zero also includes stalwarts from the political, military, and defense establishments of France and the U.K. all of whom are deeply committed to the notion of nuclear disarmament! So much so that they want the United States and Russia to spend several years negotiating deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals BEFORE they take a look at their own nuclear arsenals! This blogger would like to know why the immediate elimination of the 'independent' nuclear forces of the U.K. and France is not Step 1 in their plan. This blogger would strongly argue that a key test of the seriousness of any plan put forth to achieve nuclear disarmament is whether they have this as the first step! If not, the plan is not a serious one.

Were the British and French to denuclearize they could/would immediately be seamlessly covered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, as is most of the rest of Europe. Is there any real, credible reason for these two countries to have their own nuclear weapons? Does anyone in their right mind really believe that the U.K. would ever use their nuclear weapons without the assent and permission of the United States? (Read, and get a chuckle out of the ArmsControlWonk's blog entry, 'Britain's Independent Deterrent.') It is abundantly clear (once you cut through the thickets of verbiage about deterrence, etc.) that in reality Britain has its "independent" nuclear forces, and France has its "force de frappe" almost if not exclusively for reasons of national prestige... The nuclear "have-nots" see this clearly and have taken away the lesson that having nuclear weapons lends prestige and 'heft' to a country. Without its nuclear weapons and without its permanent seat on the Security Council (an artifact of WW II) Britain clearly would be a second-rate political and economic power, and would play a much smaller role on the world stage.

It is precisely for this reason (i.e. the knowing and understanding of this across the world) that if the denuclearization of France and the U.K were to occur as an immediate first step, then countries around the world would immediately understand that it was no longer lip service but a serious effort; that calls for disarmament were not just one-sided, calling for the "have-nots" to give up something while the "haves' do not; that the promise of the NPT was beginning to be fulfilled; and many/most (but not all) countries around the world would be galvanized by this!

Sadly, this is precisely why this has not and probably will not happen any time soon, none of the worthies involved, especially the British and French establishments, are about to volunteer to go first. Once in office a President Obama should slowly ratchet up pressure on these two countries until they agree to this plan...

Getting to Global Zero (Nuclear Weapons)
World leaders try to ban nuclear weapons
The Logic of Zero: Toward a World Without Nuclear Weapons
To Nuclear Disarmers, It's Too Early to Worry About Violators

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Quotes

"... Finally, in 2007, after Hamas had usurped power in Gaza, it was clear to all that there was no alternative to President Bush’s vision of a state of Palestine and a state of Israel living side by side in peace and security ..."

- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking at the United Nations Security Council on December 16th. Apparently reporting on what has transpired over the last eight years in an alternative universe, Rice explained how President Bush came to office with the peace process at its nadir; how the fighting parties finally realized the wisdom of President Bush's vision of peace; and how the President built on this realization by initiating the Annapolis process, which will result in "... two independent and democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security ..."

Break out the Nobel peace prizes...

Moving to IFRS

Prediction: at some point over the next few years when a financial crisis blows up, some politician and/or financial person will blame the next crisis on the move from GAAP to IFRS (just as some have sought to obfuscate their responsibility in the present crisis by blaming FAS 157 and mark-to-market).

PwC IFRS blog
PwC International Financial Reporting Standards site
AICPA IFRS Resources
International Financial Reporting Standards - Wikipedia
KPMG IFRS Institute
IFRS: No Longer If, but When
Deloitte IFRS page

Why bother?

State Department worker gets probation for passport snooping. Recently a number of government employees were investigated for looking at the confidential passport-application files of celebrities and presidential candidates... A retired worker was sentenced to 12 months of probation and ordered to perform 50 hours of community service when found guilty of unauthorized passport file access.

Hmm, this blogger wonders why these government employee snoopers bother, it's not like there is anything super secret there, and in fact most of the information there is available in different places in the public sphere... True, the information is nicely aggregated to facilitate identity theft, but that has not turned out to be the reason for which why they snooped. Guess it probably is just as the guilty ex-employee said, "idle curiosity." And thus this will be reduced not by surveillance and punishment, but by keeping them busy!

(Information on the application form: 1. Name 2. Date of Birth 3. Sex 4. Place of Birth 5. Social Security Number 6. Mailing Address 7. Contact Phone Number 8.E-mail Address 9. Have You Used a Different name? 10. Parents; Information 11. Height 12. Hair Color 13. Eye Color 14.Occupation 15. Employer 16. Additional Contact Number 17. Permanent Address 18. Emergency Contact 19. Travel Plans 20. Have You Ever Been Married? 21. Have You Been Issued a U.S. Passport Book 22. Have You Ever Been issued a U.S. Passport Card?)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Misc TARP Updates...

The October 4th blog entry, Executive Compensation (Sec 111), looked at the TARP rules governing executive pay, and concluded that "... Bottom line, this is very lose - with undefined terms and hedged with exceptions and 'outs.' Enough for senators and representatives to tell their constituents that they have acted on this matter, too little for any meaningful effect..." Now, two and a half months later, the Congress suddenly appears to have realized this! Way to go, geniuses...

The September 27th blog entry, Confused and nowhere to go (updated), tried to estimate the amount of "toxic waste" that the TARP was intended to cure. Amazingly, so far not one dollar of the TARP has been used to purchase toxic assets (the TARP's ostensible purpose), and in fact one hardly hears about "toxic assets" any more in the news!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Rental car blues...

This blogger recently went on vacation. Arriving at HNL late in the evening after a long day of traveling he made his way to the Hertz lot to pick up a rental vehicle. Juggling paperwork, carry on bag, and checked luggage he checked in, then made his way through the drizzle to the Nissan Murano. Put the bags in the back and hopped in.

Whoa. Turns out that the car has an On/Off button on the dash (see below).

OK, pushed the button, to get a light on the dash - a picture of a key. and the warning "No Key" Hmm, this vehicle doesn't have a key, what does it expect? (Note: this blogger hadn't noticed that the Hertz agent had given him a fob without any attached keys, see picture at bottom). Aargh - tired, damp, and very annoyed this blogger was reduced to pulling out the manual to read up how to turn on the car!

OK, turns out that you have to insert the fob into a receptacle on the dash (hadn't noticed that in the dark...), and put a foot and push down on the brake pedal while pressing the On button to start the engine! So, all's well that ends well...

A couple of observations: First, this blogger wasn't particularly happy with Hertz, and that for a number of reasons. For example, the person at the counter gave this blogger a form with a car outline on it and said to visually check the car for scratches, dings, etc., and to mark them on the card and turn it in before leaving the lot. Very unhelpful, given that it was dark and drizzling outside and the Hertz lot has practically no lighting! It would also have been nice if the counter person had said something about the "key" situation - this isn't standard on many cars, and this blogger had never been in one with this arrangement. Nothing like making your (tired, bedraggled, and wet) customer feel stupid for having to read a manual to find out how to start the rental car!!

Second, this blogger was wondering re this keyless implementation. There don't seem to be any benefits that this blogger could discern. The owner/driver still has to carry around, have on his/her person, and insert the fob to use the vehicle; there is no biometric or code implementation of any kind with the fob, so anyone with the fob (e.g. someone who finds it if it gets lost, or someone who steals it...) can use it to start the car; and the fob isn't any more ergonomic or utilitarian (e.g. smaller, lighter, etc.) than a regular car key. There appear to be no or few additional security or other benefits of this system as implemented. The only possible positive that this blogger sees is that perhaps a thief would not be able to just break the ignition switch and hot wire the car (as they can with the current keyed systems). However, even this 'advantage' will probably be ephemeral, once this system is present on more vehicles (and, presumably, implementation of an electronic system would begin on higher-end vehicles) it will be reverse-engineered and the 'advantage' will be gone. Meanwhile, on the negative side, a long-used mechanical system has been replaced by a new electronic system. The ordinary car key has been used for so long that the implementation is practically foolproof from a mechanical and use standpoint. This keyless, electronic implementation being relatively new means that the MTBF of this system is probably much shorter, and would likely cost more to repair, when this is needed. Overall, not a clear enough benefit to move to this "keyless" system...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

UNIIC progress (?!)


The Commissioner of the UNIIC issued the "Eleventh report of the International Independent Investigation Commission" in December. The report is rather vague, reporting with respect to the Hariri murder:

"... The Commission shares the Lebanese people's frustration with the uncertainty about the time needed to complete the investigation... the Commission has refined its procedures to accommodate, in a secure environment, any potential witness who appears to be in physical danger ... For every inch of progress there is a mile of activity. Progress in an investigation is as much about excluding some leads as following up others. During the reporting period, certain information collected was deemed reliable and led to further investigation, while other information allowed some leads to be excluded ... The investigation into the Hariri case continues to be active in all areas. During the reporting period, the Commission's work has included forensic examinations; gathering and analysis of information from a wide range of sources; and 288 interviews ... Progress has been made ... the Commission has identified new information that may slow the Commission to link additional individuals ... collecting additional soil, sand and water samples from States in the region and additional isotopic investigations. The results of these activities help to identify the possible geographic origin of the suicide bomber ... the Commission has placed renewed emphasis on reviewing financial transactions that may relate to the attacks. The Commission's investigation in this area has already yielded leads that are being followed up ... The Commission has also completed and reviewed the inventory of exhibits, including exhibits previously held by the Lebanese authorities. This inventory consists of a total of over 10,000 forensic exhibits including more than 7,000 that relate to the Hariri case ..."

This could mean a lot, it could mean nothing. The report asks that its mandate, which expires December 31st, 2008, be extended to February 29th, 2009. The Special Tribunal is supposed to start March 1st, 2009, does this signify that we are reaching a denouement? Perhaps, though perhaps not - the report does say "... The launch of the Tribunal does not mean that the investigation has been completed..."

Amazing new species...

From National Geographic, some pictures of new species discovered the Greater Mekong River region in the last ten years....

Monday, December 15, 2008

Quotes...


"The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, had shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender."

- Indian Supreme Court, Aug 5th 2005, sentencing Mohammad Afzal to hang for his part in the 2001 attack on India's parliament.

India's Shame - "... three years later, the trial court sentenced Geelani, Shaukat and Afzal to death. Afsan Guru was sentenced to five years of "rigorous imprisonment". On appeal, the high court subsequently acquitted Geelani and Afsan, but upheld Shaukat's and Afzal's death sentence. Eventually, the supreme court upheld the acquittals and reduced Shaukat's punishment to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment. However, it not just confirmed, but enhanced Mohammad Afzal's sentence. He was given three life sentences and a double death sentence. In its judgment on August 5 2005, the supreme court admitted that the evidence against Afzal was only circumstantial, and that there was no evidence that he belonged to any terrorist group or organisation. But it went on to endorse what can only be described as lynch law ..."

Amnesty International - "... In the following days four Kashmiris, Mohammad Afzal, Syed Abdur Rahman Geelani, an Arabic lecturer in a New Delhi college, Shaukat Hussain Guru and his wife, Afsan Guru, were arrested. They were charged with conspiring, planning and abetting the attack under the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO) ... On 18 December 2002 all four received death sentences. Afsan Guru was sentenced to five years’ rigorous imprisonment. All were sentenced by a special court designated under the POTA ...which was repealed by the Government of India in September 2004 on the grounds that it had been misused ... In October 2003 the Delhi High Court heard the appeal against the convictions and acquitted Syed Geelani and Afsan Guru of all charges for lack of evidence, while confirming the other death sentences. On 4 August 2005 the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the Delhi High Court, acquitting both Afsan Guru and Syed Geelani and modifying the death sentence imposed on Shaukat Hussain Guru to ten years of rigorous imprisonment. They confirmed the death sentence on Mohammad Afzal under the Indian Penal Code ..."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

And yet...


As discussed and linked in previous blog entries (see below), despite Colin Powell being up to his neck in decisions re torture, etc., he has been given a 'free pass' by many... The (minimal) cost to this "good soldier" - a few denunciations of Republicans, Palin, Limbaugh, etc.

This week the Senate Armed Services committee released a report saying that waterboarding and other "harsh interrogation techniques" were discussed by top members of the National Security Council (in 2002 and 2003, when Powell was a member) and other senior administration officials. Further confirmation, were it really needed, that Powell was fully aware of and involved in decisions on this subject.

As previously noted in The Powell rehabilitation project, "... following Powell’s exit from the government, his former aide Colonel Larry Wilkerson came out strongly against the poor treatment of U.S. detainees; laid full responsibility at the door of Vice President Cheney and his staff; and said that Powell had no first-hand knowledge of how abuse/torture had come about. While this occurred, Powell remained silent on the issue and made no public proclamations. Due to the close relationship between the two Wilkerson’s views were taken as reflecting the views of Powell. Wilkerson's denunciations were part of an effort to preserve Powell's legacy and indicate that he hadn't been part of the administration's efforts to institutionalize torture... and Wilkerson saved Powell's reputation in the eyes of many people… Powell got “credit” for being a “good soldier”, “team player”, etc. while Wilkerson laid down cover for him… Recently, however, it has come out that the "enhanced interrogation techniques" were discussed in excruciating detail on multiple occasions at the Principals meeting with Colin Powell present. Powell has not really been called out on this. Once when Diane Sawyer asked re him this apparent contradiction Colin Powell said that he didn't have "sufficient memory recall" about the meetings; that he had participated in "… many meetings on how to deal with detainees…”; and, “… I'm not aware of anything that we discussed in any of those meetings that was not considered legal…” However, so far he has not had to explain why he let Wilkerson so publicly exonerate him as not being involved while he was actually very much in the loop ..."

Beyond the torture question, this week a leaked, draft report on Iraq reconstruction also came out... and Powell doesn't come out covered in glory here either e.g. he was fully aware that the officially released numbers of Iraqi security forces "standing up" were false and exaggerated; was unaware of the 'Future of Iraq Project' (the 'best' planning group extant at the time); concurred with the decision to put all post-invasion Iraq activities under the responsibility of the Department of Defense; limited his objections to a "war of memos." etc.

Despite all this, Powell gets a free pass, and it is even bruited about that he will be used in an Obama administration e.g. as a special envoy...

As expected - October 20th
The Powell rehabilitation project? - July 13th

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Important read...



A must read... An extract from the Preface:

"... The mere notion of a “meltdown” within the U.S. military may seem ridiculous to many. America’s armed forces are surely the best in the world, perhaps even in history. Democrats and Republicans, liberals, moderates and conservatives in Washington all agree on at least that. On what basis does a bunch of lesser known, if not obscure, analysts make such a preposterous assertion?

The vast majority, perhaps even all, of Congress, the general officer corps of the armed forces, top management of American defense manufacturers, prominent members of Washington’s think-tank community and nationally recognized “defense journalists” will hate this book. They will likely also urge that it be ignored by both parties in Congress and especially by the new president and his incoming national security team.

It is not just that following the recommendations of this book will mean the cancellation of numerous failing, unaffordable and ineffective defense programs, as well as the jobs, and more importantly careers, those programs enable. The acceptance of data and analysis presented in this book, and the conclusions and recommendations that flow from them, would require the elite of Washington’s national security community to acknowledge the many flaws in their analysis of weapons, Pentagon management and leadership of the nation in a tumultuous world. In too many cases, it would also require those elites to admit their own role in the virtual meltdown of America’s defenses ...
  • America’s defense budget is now larger in inflation adjusted dollars than at any point since the end of World War II, and yet brigades than at any point in that period, our Navy has fewer combat ships and our Army has fewer combatthe Air Force has fewer combat aircraft. Our major equipment inventories for these major forces are older on average than at any point since 1946; in some cases they are at all-time historical highs in average age.
  • ...
  • Despite decades of acquisition reform from Washington’s best minds in Congress, the Pentagon and the think tanks, cost overruns in weapon systems are higher today, in inflation adjusted dollars, than any time ever before. Not a single major weapon system has been delivered on time, on cost and as promised for performance. The Pentagon refuses to tell Congress and the public exactly how it spends the hundreds of billions of dollars appropriated to it each year. The reason for this is simple; it doesn’t know how the money is spent. Technically, it doesn’t even know if the money is spent. Even President George W. Bush’s own Office of Management and Budget has labeled the Pentagon as one of the worst managed agencies of the entire federal government ...
Ed. note: 271 page PDF

Bailout/handout

Photo credit: NYT

OK, so the drama at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago is well documented (e.g. see links below). Somehow this relatively small operation hit the country's current zeitgeist and became emblematic of a number of concerns, including the economic downturn, possible loss of jobs, hints of outsourcing, bailing out the big vs. bailing out the small, etc., etc. And of course the usual suspects piled on - the unions, Rainbow/PUSH and Jesse Jackson; soon followed by a horde of politicians e.g. Representative Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL), State Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and Governor Rod Blagojevich (thought these last two ended up being distracted by another, unrelated small matter i.e. the arrest/indictment of the Governor).

What this blogger is interested in is the role of Bank of America. The company had a line of credit from this lender, which it had maxed out. Apparently the business was not viable - it had been shrinking, etc. and the owner discussed shuttering the factory. Faced with this prospect the bank refused to extend further credit to the company. After closing the factory (perhaps in violation of a rule requiring a 60-day notice to workers) the owners told the workers they would not pay them severance, for their accrued time off, etc. The owner craftily attempted to shift responsibility, blaming BofA.

The workers readily bit on this - most coverage has copious quotes from effected workers re how they weren't getting the severance they were due because of the bank! And, having daily seen news re the TARP and the "bank bailout" for the past couple of months, it wasn't long before the "billions for the banks, nothing for the workers," and "you got bailed out, we got sold out" placards, sound bites, and remonstrations started. BofA finally caved under the political pressure and "loaned" Republic USD 1.35 million to make the severance payments to its workers, who have claimed "victory"...

OK, so these folks are in a very hard spot, not surprising that they would clutch at any and all straws available. However, this blogger would like to know what the politicians' excuse is for their stupidity... The moneys received by the banks are "ostensibly "loans," and the politicians insist that these be paid back so that the people/government eventually are made whole. One might suppose that this implies that the banks should use these monies wisely (or at least more wisely than they did in the run up to the crisis). Making a USD 1.35 million "loan" to a shuttered company knowing that the money will not be paid back (in fact they are unlikely to get back the USD 5 million loaned earlier!) hardly fits the definition of wise! So, we arrive at the non-sequitir pushed by some politicians that since the banks received billions they should blithely do the equivalent of pouring the money down a rat hole! Great, these are the folks that the public is counting on to turn around the current financial crisis!

Republic Doors and Windows Shuts Down Operations
Statement from Republic Windows and Doors
The 1930s Really Are Here Again: Workers Occupy Chicago Window Plant
Workers at Republic Windows continue sit-in after company closes
Even Workers Surprised by Success of Factory Sit-In - NYT Dcc 12th
Talks Fail to End Sit-In at Closed Factory - NYT Dec 8th
In Factory Sit-In, an Anger Spread Wide - NYT Dec 7th
After Layoffs, Workers Stay at a Factory in Protest - NYT Dec 6th

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Good for the goose

President-elect Obama has selected (ex-Senate Majority Leader) Tom Daschle as his candidate for the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), to be his point person for reforming our nation's health care system. Daschle et al. have written a book, outlining his proposals re how this can be done - Critical: What We Can Do About the Health Care Crisis

This blogger is now waiting with bated breath for denunciations from Paul Krugman, Steve Clemons, Josh Marshal, et al. After all when (during the campaign) Senator McCain proposed liberalizing the rules governing the health insurance companies and analogized it to a similar change that had occurred in banking, Krugman mocked him for "... promising that if we marketize health care, it will perform as well as the financial industry! ..." This meme was picked up and repeated by Steve Clemons, 'John McCain: Let's do to Health Care All the Great Things We Have Done to Banking.'

The centerpiece of Daschle's proposals is the creation of a Federal Health Board, a "... quasi-governmental organization, It would have a board of governors consisting of clinicians, health benefit managers, economists, researchers... chosen based on their stature , knowledge, and experience.... the president would appoint them to Senate-confirmed ten-year terms... would also have regional boards...", etc., etc. ... (This FHB) would oversee insurers, promote "high value" medical care, align incentives with high-quality care, and also "rationalize" the U.S. health-care infrastructure."

And what is this Federal Health Board based on? Why, the Federal Reserve Board which governs the U.S. banking system. So, perhaps it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that Daschle (and by extension Obama) is 'promising that if we similarly regulate health care, it will perform as well as the financial industry!' or else Senator Daschle (and by extension Obama) 'wants to do to health care all the great things we have done to banking!' Cue rolling of eyes and insane laughter...

Hello, Krugman, Clemons, Marshall, anyone... Waiting, still waiting... Cue chirping of crickets!

Truth RIP (updated 9/22)

Recession decision

On November 28th, 2008 the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER, see list of members below) declared that the expansion that began in November 2001 ended in December 2007, which is when the current recession began... This committee web site explains how the recession is "called" and has a short FAQ.

On average the NBER BCDC calls the start of a recession between six to eighteen months after the recession actually began. It seems like a more timely process (i.e. more accurate and timely data) would be much more useful to the country...

Committee members: Robert Hall, Stanford University (chair); Martin Feldstein, Harvard University and NBER President Emeritus; Jeffrey Frankel, Harvard University; Robert Gordon, Northwestern University; James Poterba, MIT and NBER President; David Romer, University of California, Berkeley; and Victor Zarnowitz, the Conference Board.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Happy 60th!


Today is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights... (also see below). The Secretary-General of the United Nations issued the following statement.

Still just a promise, and still a long, long way to go....

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Preamble

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, therefore,

The General Assembly,

Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4

No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7

All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11

  1. Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
  2. No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.
  2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14

  1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
  2. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15

  1. Everyone has the right to a nationality.
  2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16

  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17

  1. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
  2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
  2. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21

  1. Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
  2. Everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his country.
  3. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23

  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25

  1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
  2. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26

  1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27

  1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
  2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29

  1. Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
  2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
  3. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30

Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Great quotes...

"... Les chrétiens doivent penser profondément à ce problème qui constitue la menace numéro un pour leur survie, ajouté à l’émigration massive de ses jeunes diplômés ..."

- Samy Gemayel, son of Amin Geyamel. (Ed. trans. "... Christians ought to think profoundly about this problem, which constitutes the number one menace to their survival, added to the massive emigration of their young graduates ..."). This answer was in response to the question "... Face à l'explosion démographique des musulmans du Liban, quelle est la perspective des chrétiens?..." (Ed. trans. "In the face of the demographic explosion of Lebanese Muslims, what is the Christian perspective?"). So, a simple demographic change which results in a decreased portion of the population (and which presumably leads to a corresponding diminution in political representation/power) is now equivalent to an existential threat?

As long as the leadership of the various Lebanese factions equate the maintenance of their political primacy with their very "survival"the troubles will continue...

LA RENCONTRE DU MOIS : Samy Gemayel répond aux Identitaires

Civic literacy

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) "... was founded in 1953 to further in successive generations of American college youth a better understanding of the economic, political, and ethical values that sustain a free and humane society ... In 2003, ISI launched a new initiative, the American Civic Literacy Program, designed to study and strengthen the teaching of America's history and institutions at the college level. During the fall of 2005, ISI contracted with the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy (UConnDPP) to conduct an annual national survey in order to learn to what extent colleges and universities are teaching America's history and institutions to undergraduate students ..."

Results of the 2008 survey were not good - on the 33-question quiz, all respondents averaged 49% correct overall (an F)! A college education only moved the average up to 57% (still an F). Age, parental status, education, age, gender, income all did not make an appreciable difference to the results...

(Ed. note: this blogger's score - a few errors. In his defense he didn't grow up in the U.S.)

Intended humor?

Either Borders or one of its patrons has a sense of humor.... (Ed. note: picture from a Borders store in Waipahu, HI)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sunday, December 7, 2008

 
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