Monday, December 22, 2008

Greed has pushed political credibility and financial trust into freefall

Greed has pushed political credibility and financial trust into freefall

Recent scandals in America reveal a value system that puts the wealth of a few before the welfare of many

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'What an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality," Alan Greenspan told the Congressional House oversight and government reform committee on 23 October. "Everyone has one. You have to - to exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not." As the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, from 1987 to 2006, Greenspan stood at the helm of US monetary policy during the time conditions for the current meltdown were being created.

"And what I'm saying to you," he continued, "is, yes, I found a flaw. I don't know how significant or permanent it is, but I've been very distressed by that fact ... [I found a] flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works."

Greenspan's ideology was unfettered, free-market capitalism. Its understanding of how the world works was rooted in self-interest. It was a value system that placed the private before the public, the individual before the collective, and the wealth of the few before the welfare of the many.

So pervasive was this worldview that, after a while, it was not even understood to be a view at all. It was just the hard-nosed reality against which only lunatics and leftists raged. "Unlike many economists," Bob Woodward wrote of Alan Greenspan in his book Maestro (the title speaks volumes), "he has never been rule driven or theory driven. The data drive." They drove a sleek black limousine over the edge of a steep cliff. And since the invisible hand of the market ostensibly guided everything, there was no one who could really be held accountable or responsible for anything. The buck didn't stop anywhere. Indeed, for those who were already wealthy, the bucks just kept rolling in.

But the flaw in Greenspan's ideology did not just govern finance - it infected all spheres of human relations, including politics. "This process has become a great deal about money. A lot of money," said Tom Vilsack (whom Barack Obama has just picked as his agriculture secretary), as he withdrew from the Democratic primaries almost a full year before a vote had been cast. "So it is money, and only money, that is the reason why we are leaving today."

A poll released by Judicial Watch the day before Greenspan testified revealed that almost two-thirds of Americans "strongly agree" with the statement that political corruption played a big role in the US's recent financial crisis. A further 19% said they "somewhat agree".

The two most prominent scandals in recent weeks illustrate how the line between what is unethical and what is illegal in politics, and what is reckless and what is fraudulent in finance, has been so blurred as to have erased much in the way of meaningful distinction. Credibility in public life, like Greenspan's ideology and the stock prices it relied on, is in freefall.

The first scandal is the demise of Bernard Madoff, who was arrested after he confessed to defrauding investors of about $50bn in an elaborate, global Ponzi scheme. Madoff's alleged transgression went beyond just the financial. A pillar of the Jewish and financial communities, he traded on trust.

"In an era of faceless organisations owned by other equally faceless organisations," said his firm's website. "Bernard L Madoff Investment Securities LLC harks back to an earlier era in the financial world: the owner's name is on the door." Investors had to be recommended by friends - the exclusivity made it attractive - and the returns were constantly excellent. Madoff paid out about 15% a year, regardless of what the market was doing. In Palm Beach, Florida, people joined the Country Club and the golf club just so they could meet him. They virtually begged him to take their money. The roll call of the swindled is illustrious: Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, author and humanitarian Elie Wiesel, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, and the New York Daily News' publisher, Mortimer Zuckerman. It was as though America's rich and famous had succumbed to a huge online scam.

The level of returns seemed too good to be true, and it was. But the sense of entitlement the wealthy have to even more wealth is just too entrenched to bother with truth. In a heartbeat, generations of savings and entire charities have been extinguished.

The second scandal concerns the foul-mouthed Democratic governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who has the right to appoint a successor to the Senate seat left vacant by Obama. He was arrested after federal wiretaps allegedly revealed he was poised to sell the seat to the highest bidder. The day after the election, as at least half of the nation basked in the warm glow of Obama's victory, Blagojevich, it seems, was trying to line his pockets. He told one aide: "I've got this thing and it's fucking golden, and, uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for fucking nothing. I'm not gonna do it."

Suggestions that both men must have been seized by psychological disorders do not seem outlandish. Particularly Blagojevich, who has been under at least a dozen federal investigations since 2005 and knew he was being wiretapped. But far more worrying is the greater likelihood that they are entirely sane and rational. Blagojevich may be crude and sociopathic, and Madoff socially manipulative. Their actions may have violated the letter of the law. But they were consistent with the spirit of the ideology that has governed American life for at least a generation.

Blagojevich did not invent the notion that wealth and political influence go hand in hand. Had he been more patient, the lobbying deals and board memberships that routinely come after political office would have come his way. And anyone seeking a seat would have to show they could pay their way. Indeed, the New York governor, David Patterson, seems set to hand over Hillary Clinton's Senate seat to Caroline Kennedy at least in part because Kennedy can raise vast sums of money for a run in 2010. Unlike Blagojevich, Patterson is not looking to benefit from it personally. But no one is expecting him to end up in the poorhouse when his term is done.

As for Madoff, if the Securities and Exchange Commission, the financial services watchdog, had been doing its job, it could have prevented him from committing this crime. But if he had done it by the book, an analogous situation could have occurred that would have left his investors almost as broke. His fraud was exposed after some investors sought to withdraw more capital than he could produce. That is essentially the same as the bank runs we have seen over the last few months. But while Madoff is under house arrest, the bankers are about to reap huge bonuses.

When a political system where you have to pay to play meets a financial system run like a giant Ponzi scheme, widespread criminality, corruption and calamity are the only feasible outcomes. The only remaining questions then are what society is prepared to excuse, accountants are able to write off or lawyers are able to defend. "It is easier to rob by setting up a bank," argued the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, "than by holding up a bank clerk."

New Report: Worldwide Bankruptcy Wave About to Hit

New Report: Worldwide Bankruptcy Wave About to Hit

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Europe and the U.S. are about to experience a significant increase in business failures.

That's the conclusion reached by Paris-based Euler Hermes, the world's largest credit insurer, in a recently released 57-page report on business insolvencies worldwide.

With the exception of Japan, which recently emerged from its own "Lost Decade," Euler expects that almost every country in the world will see a rise in insolvencies far greater than previous economic downturns.

According to Euler, 28,000 businesses went bust in the U.S. in 2007. In 2008, that number increased nearly 45 percent -- to 42,000 insolvencies. Chapter 7 liquidations, Chapter 11 reorganizations, and Chapter 13 filings for individuals all showed dramatic increases in 2008; the only decrease came in the area of Chapter 12 filings, a chapter of the U.S. bankruptcy code usually reserved for family farmers and fishermen. (Who knows--maybe we'll all be farming or fishing six months from now.)

In 2009, Euler estimates that an additional 62,000 U.S. companies will become insolvent. If accurate, those numbers would mark the largest increase in corporate bankruptcies since the U.S. recession of 1993.

The situation is just as bad in Europe. Euler expects the number of insolvencies in Western Europe to rise from 169,000 this year to 197,000 next year, an increase of 16.7 percent. U.K. firms will account for a large portion of that bankruptcy surge, with the burst of the real estate bubble and worsening finance and banking crisis creating havoc for British companies. Spain is also expected to be particularly hard hit from the collapse of the construction and real estate market.

Euler believes that German companies will continue to suffer from bad debt risk, while The Netherlands, which underwent only a 10 percent increase in bankruptcies this year, will see its insolvency numbers jump nearly 40 percent in 2009. In Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic and Hungary will see bankruptcies increase by 15 and 20 percent, respectively.

As corporate failures become more widespread, Euler states that it will take actions to solidify its own business. The credit insurer will increase the premiums it charges to act as an underwriter on deals.

World Faces "Total" Financial Meltdown: Bank of Spain Chief

World Faces "Total" Financial Meltdown: Bank of Spain Chief

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The governor of the Bank of Spain on Sunday issued a bleak assessment of the economic crisis, warning that the world faced a "total" financial meltdown unseen since the Great Depression.

"The lack of confidence is total," Miguel Angel Fernandez Ordonez said in an interview with Spain's El Pais daily.

"The inter-bank (lending) market is not functioning and this is generating vicious cycles: consumers are not consuming, businessmen are not taking on workers, investors are not investing and the banks are not lending.

"There is an almost total paralysis from which no-one is escaping," he said, adding that any recovery -- pencilled in by optimists for the end of 2009 and the start of 2010 -- could be delayed if confidence is not restored.

Ordonez recognised that falling oil prices and lower taxes could kick-start a faster-than-anticipated recovery, but warned that a deepening cycle of falling consumer demand, rising unemployment and an ongoing lending squeeze could not be ruled out.

"This is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression" of 1929, he added.

Ordonez said the European Central Bank, of which he is a governing council member, would cut interest rates in January if inflation expectations went much below two percent.

"If, among other variables, we observe that inflation expectations go much below two percent, it's logical that we will lower rates."

Regarding the dire situation in the United States, Ordonez said he backed the decision by the US Federal Reserve to cut interest rates almost to zero in the face of profound deflation fears.

Central banks are seeking to jumpstart movements on crucial interbank money markets that froze after the US market for high-risk, or subprime mortgages collapsed in mid 2007, and locked tighter after the US investment bank Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in mid September.

Interbank markets are a key link in the chain which provides credit to businesses and households.

FDA Stuns Scientists, Declares Mercury in Fish to be Safe for Infants, Children, Expectant Mothers!

FDA Stuns Scientists, Declares Mercury in Fish to be Safe for Infants, Children, Expectant Mothers!

by Mike Adams

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In a truly astonishing betrayal of public safety (even for the FDA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration today revoked its warning about mercury in fish, saying that eating mercury-contaminated fish no longer poses any health threat to children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants.

Last week, the FDA declared trace levels of melamine to be safe in infant formula. A few weeks earlier, it said the plastics chemical Bisphenol-A was safe for infants to drink. Now it says children can eat mercury, too. Is there any toxic substance in the food that the FDA thinks might be dangerous? (Aspartame, MSG, sodium nitrite and now mercury...)

This FDA decision on mercury in fish has alarmed EPA scientists who called it "scientifically flawed and inadequate," reports the Washington Post. Even better, the Environmental Working Group (www.EWG.org) issued a letter to the EPA, saying "It's a commentary on how low FDA has sunk as an agency. It was once a fierce protector of America's health, and now it's nothing more than a patsy for polluters."

Is anyone really surprised? The FDA is a drug-pushing, people-betraying, scientifically illiterate criminal organization that, time and time again, seeks only to protect the profits of powerful corporations whose products poison the people. This statement is no longer a mere opinion. It is an observable fact based on the FDA's own pattern of behavior and its outlandish decisions that predictably betray the American public.

The real reason this is happening

You want to know the REAL reason the FDA is easing up on its warning about mercury in fish? It's because the agency is being relentlessly pounded over two related issues: Mercury in dental fillings and mercury preservatives in vaccines. And the FDA can't keep up its lie about the "safety" of vaccines and mercury fillings if it has already declared mercury to be dangerous in fish, right?

To the criminal minds running the FDA, the clever solution is to revoke the warning about mercury in fish. Thus, the FDA takes the position that all mercury is safe, and suddenly they're off the hook on mercury fillings and thimerosal in vaccines.

In other words, the FDA has just aligned itself as a defender of one of the most neurotoxic substances that's ever been found. Only a truly corrupt regulator could even attempt to defend such a position, and only a truly insane individual could argue that mercury exposure is safe for infants, children and expectant mothers. Not coincidentally, mercury exposure causes insanity (look up the historical term "mad as a hatter").

Given that most of the FDA decision makers probably have mercury fillings in their mouths and mercury molecules lodged in their brains from getting their vaccine shots, it's no stretch to consider the possibility that the FDA decision have, in a very strict medical sense, lost their minds due to mercury exposure. There's hardly any other way to explain the mad behavior of FDA officials.

I think it's time we called for an FDA MUTINY and declared the leaders of that agency to be too incompetent to run it anymore. These people need to be relieved of command before their hazardous pronouncements lead to yet more consumers being poisoned or killed. The FDA scientists, in my opinion, should revolt (in a non-violent way, of course) against the politically-motivated decision makers spewing all this "eat more poison" advice.

Russia starts missile delivery to Iran: Iranian MP

Russia starts missile delivery to Iran: Iranian MP

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Russia has begun delivering S-300 air defense systems to Iran which could help repel any Israeli and U.S. air strikes on its nuclear sites, the official IRNA news agency reported on Sunday.

"After few years of talks with Russia ... now the S-300 system is being delivered to Iran," IRNA quoted Email Kosari, deputy head of parliament's Foreign Affairs and National Security committee, as saying.

Kosari did not say when the deliveries began. Iran's Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the report. Russia's Foreign Ministry also declined comment, saying it may react on Monday.

The United States, its European allies and Israel say Iran is seeking to build nuclear arms under the cover of a civilian atomic energy program. Iran denies the charge.

Israel's insistence that Iran must not be allowed to develop an atomic bomb has fueled speculation that the Jewish state, widely assumed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, could mount its own pre-emptive strikes.

In October, Russia's Foreign Ministry denied media speculation that Moscow would sell the medium-range S-300 system, adding Moscow had no intention of selling weapons to "troubled regions."

But Russia's RIA news agency last week quoted "confidential sources" as saying that Russia was fulfilling a S-300 contract with Iran.

The most advanced version of the S-300 system can track targets and fire at aircraft 120 km (75 miles) away. It is known in the West as the SA-20.

Russian arms sales and nuclear cooperation with Iran have strained relations with Washington, which says Tehran could use them against their interests in the region and also against its neighbors.

Russia, building Iran's first nuclear power plant in the southern port city of Bushehr, says Tehran does not have the capability to make nuclear weapons.

Kosari said the S-300 system would be used "to reinforce Iran's capability to defend its borders."

"The delivery of this system is a display of good relations between Iran and Russia, which cannot be harmed by Israel," IRNA quoted Kosari as saying.

Cheney's Contempt for the Republic

Cheney's Contempt for the Republic

Robert Parry

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As Vice President Dick Cheney goes public in exit interviews about his vision of expansive executive powers, it's getting clearer how close the American Republic came to suffering major deformity – if not destruction – in the past eight years.

In a revealing Dec. 21 interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, Cheney disclosed that he briefed congressional Republican – and Democratic – leaders about the administration’s program of warrantless wiretapping inside the United States and that the leaders, presumably including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, endorsed the spying.

This so-called “terrorist surveillance program” fit with the Bush-Cheney view that the President wields virtually unlimited powers during wartime, even a conflict as vaguely defined as the “war on terror.”

Though Cheney cited constitutional precedents from the Civil War and World War II to justify his position, what has made the “war on terror” such an insidious basis for asserting the broadest presidential powers is that it is amorphous both in time and space.

Unlike conventional wars that have beginnings and ends – as well as battlefronts – this “war” is theoretically everywhere and never-ending. That means that the principles of a Republic – with constitutional limits on executive power and “unalienable rights” for everyone – would not just be suspended during a short-term emergency but essentially be eliminated forever.

In the interview, Cheney argued that the bridge to this new paradigm of an all-powerful Executive was crossed with the de facto granting to the President of the authority to retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack.

“I think that what we've done has been totally consistent with what the Constitution provides for,” Cheney told Wallace. “The President of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.

“He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn't have to check with anybody; he doesn't have to call the Congress; he doesn't have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in. It's unfortunate, but I think we're perfectly appropriate to take the steps we have.”

Justifying Everything

In Cheney’s view, it is now the threat of terrorism that justifies other executive powers – everything from spying on Americans and ignoring habeas corpus to torturing detainees and launching military strikes around the world.

“I think in wartime, when you consider [the President’s] responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief, clearly that means command of the Armed Forces. It also, when you get into use of forces in wartime, means collecting intelligence.

“And therefore, I think you're fully justified in setting up a ‘terrorist surveillance program’ to be able to intercept the communications of people who are communicating with terrorists outside the United States. I think you can have a robust interrogation program with respect to high-value detainees.

“Now, those are all steps we took that I believe the President was fully authorized in taking, and provided invaluable intelligence, which has been the key to our ability to defeat al-Qaeda over these last seven years.”

Cheney also argued that the President’s wartime powers trump laws passed by Congress.

“The Congress has -- clearly has the ability to write statutes and has certain constitutional authorities granted in the Constitution,” Cheney said. “But I would argue that they do not have the right by statute to alter presidential constitutional power. In other words, you can't override his constitutional authorities and responsibilities with a statute.”

Cheney’s chief regret appeared to be that the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly rejected the administration’s argument that these presidential powers allowed Bush to ignore fundamental individual rights incorporated in the Constitution, such as the writ of habeas corpus, an ancient legal principle requiring a government to show cause for imprisoning a person.

“I think that, frankly, the basic decision they [the Supreme Court justices] made was wrong,” Cheney said. “But it's their authority. The vote was 5-4.”

In other words, Cheney was suggesting that the replacement of one more justice from the court’s moderate wing by the likes of John Roberts or Samuel Alito – Bush’s two appointees – would have swung the Supreme Court into a historic reinterpretation of the Constitution.

Essentially, such a Supreme Court would have made the President all powerful and eliminated the founding U.S. principle of “unalienable rights” for individuals, protected by a government based on checks and balances.

Under that new paradigm – of an endless “war on terror” and an Executive who decides whether someone is or is not an “enemy combatant” – the key pillars of the American Republic would have been in ruins.

Instead of a Republic in which citizens possessed fundamental liberties enshrined in the Constitution – as the Founders envisioned – Americans would become, in effect, subjects to a monarchical President, who would apportion – or deny – freedoms as he would see fit.

Congressional Blessings

Beyond his legal arguments, Cheney noted that after 9/11, this new paradigm of presidential power was favored by most Americans and embraced by many members of Congress, at least in private.

“Go back and look at how eager the country was to have us work in the aftermath of 9/11 to make certain that that never happened again,” Cheney told Wallace.

The Vice President also disclosed that many congressional leaders, including some who have publicly criticized his expansive views on presidential power, privately went along with the administration’s actions, such as the warrantless surveillance program.

Cheney: “Well, let me tell you a story about the ‘terror surveillance program.’ We did brief the Congress and we brought in –“

Wallace: “A few members.”

Cheney: “We brought in the Chairman and the Ranking Member, House and Senate [Intelligence Committees], and briefed them a number of times up until -- this would be from late '01 up until '04, when there was additional controversy concerning the program.

“At that point, we brought what I describe as the ‘Big 9’ – not only the Intel [Committee] people, but also the Speaker, the Majority and Minority Leaders of the House and Senate, and brought them into the Situation Room in the basement of the White House.

“I presided over the meeting. We briefed them on the program and what we'd achieved and how it worked, and asked them, should we continue the program. They were unanimous, Republican and Democrat alike, all agreed, absolutely essential to continue the program.

“I then said, do we need to come to the Congress and get additional legislative authorization to continue what we're doing? They said, absolutely not, don't do it, because it will reveal to the enemy how it is we're reading their mail.

“That happened. I mean, we did consult. We did keep them involved. We ultimately ended up having to go to the Congress after The New York Times decided they were going to make the judge review all their -- make all of this available, obviously, when they -- in reacting to a specific leak.

“But it was a program that we briefed on repeatedly. We did these briefings in my office; I presided over them. We went to the key people in the House and Senate Intel Committees, and ultimately the entire leadership, and sought their advice and counsel and they agreed we should not come back to the Congress.”

Continued Dangers

Cheney’s description of a high-level bipartisan consensus on a program that ignored the clear legal requirements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act suggests that the threats to American liberties go deeper than simply the aggressive actions by the Bush administration.

It means that – among others – House Speaker Pelosi who served as both the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and as House Minority Leader would have been part of Cheney’s program of White House briefings.

In 2008, Speaker Pelosi joined in supporting a compromise bill fashioned by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that granted retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that collaborated with Bush’s warrantless surveillance.

Although that bill – and an earlier one approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress in 2007 – effectively legalized Bush’s apparent lawbreaking, Pelosi argued that one of the strengths of the 2008 bill was that it restated the principle that the President must abide by the FISA law, a paradoxical argument for legislation that ensured that the previous violation of law would go unpunished. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Dems Legalize Bush’s Crimes.”]

When the bill reached the Senate in early summer 2008, Sen. Barack Obama was one of the Democrats who voted for it, prompting sharp criticism from many in the Democratic “base” that Obama was flip-flopping on his earlier protests against Bush’s illegal spying program.

Now, with less a month before Bush’s presidency ends, Vice President Cheney has thrown down the gauntlet, again, regarding whether Pelosi, Obama and other Democrats actually will repudiate the Bush-Cheney concept of an imperial presidency.

Hunger mounts in the US

Hunger mounts in the US

By Tom Eley

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As the economic crisis deepens, its human toll is becoming more evident. A new survey of food charities in the United States has revealed a dramatic increase in hunger. Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the US, says that a growing number of families face difficulties in securing adequate nutrition. Meanwhile food banks have proven ill-equipped to meet the increased demand caused by layoffs and increased food costs, and many have collapsed or have restricted the allotments of food they make.

In a nationwide survey of 160 local food assistance programs, with operations covering virtually every county in the US, Feeding America found that there has been a 30 percent increase in requests for emergency food assistance, and that every food bank has seen an increase in demand for food relief. An opinion poll commissioned by the organization and released simultaneously found that a growing number of low-income families lack sufficient nutrition.

In a chilling statement on social conditions in the US, 72 percent of surveyed food charities said that they are unable to meet the current demands of local communities for assistance. In most cases, the charities have responded by offering smaller distributions to the hungry, and some have been forced to close down.

This is taking place in every region of the country. To cite a few examples, the Food Bank of New York City reported that organizations under its direction "have regularly reported over the past year that their shelves are bare and that they have had to turn people away due to their lack of food." The Cleveland Foodbank reported that the crisis "is moving at a pace so fast that our staff cannot catch a breath." The Food Bank of Corpus Christi, Texas, said that "our agencies are seeing such a drastic increase in new clients that they are having a hard time getting the money to acquire the food we need," while "other agencies are burning out and we are seeing a number of agencies closing their doors." Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee reported that its agencies have asked that it not refer new clients "because they are running out of food."

In its survey of households, Feeding America found that nearly two thirds of low-income households—defined as having an income at less than 200 percent of the official poverty level—said that within the past year "their food didn't last and they could not afford to buy more." Forty percent "ate less than they felt they should," and 36 percent "cut the size of meals or skipped meals because there wasn't enough money for food." A large majority of low-income respondents, 70 percent, said that they are reducing food spending, while 62 percent said they make multiple shopping trips for food "because they didn't have enough money to buy everything at one time." In New York City, in 2008, nearly 40 percent of all households said that they had faced difficulties in procuring sufficient food for their families, a sharp increase over figures from 2007.

Hunger is affecting ever-wider sections of the working class, including two-parent households and the gainfully employed. The survey of food banks found user increases of 99.4 percent among "first-time" users, 74 percent among unemployed workers, 59 percent of those with jobs, and 48 percent among families with children seeking assistance.

"When you hear someone say, ‘I never thought that I would have to come to the pantry to get food,' or to have someone say, ‘I used to donate to the pantry and now I am using it,' that's when you realize how tough things are," a representative of the Community Food Banks of South Dakota said.

A food charity in Bloomington, Indiana, reported that a food bank in what it called "a higher income per capita" area saw an increase from 60 visits per month last year to 700 this year. A food bank in Long Island, New York, said that it has witnessed "increased need among middle class people making between $40,000-$70,000, who are recently unemployed, having health problems, having difficulties managing mortgage payments, and going to pantries and soup kitchens for emergency food assistance." A survey of New York City households found that even among the college-educated, 36 percent faced hardship in 2008 in buying needed food, an increase from 11 percent in 2003. A food assistance program in California reported that it is "seeing people coming to us who have never been a part of our system and who never thought that they would need food assistance."

"We are in a national crisis," said Vicki Escarra, the president and CEO of Feeding America. "We have some food banks reporting as high as a 65 percent increase in need. There are record numbers of new men, women and children, who never thought they would need food assistance."

Financial hardship forces many families to choose among necessities such as food, health care, and home heating. The survey of households revealed that 40 percent of low-income families had, in the past year, been forced to choose between eating and paying for utilities.

The economic crisis is at the root of the growth in hunger. Upwards of 90 percent of food banks attribute the increase in hunger to rising food prices and unemployment. Sixty percent also cite fuel costs, and 52 percent listed the inadequacy of state food stamp programs as a cause.

A press release by Feeding America calls on Congress "to pass economic recovery legislation that will offer desperately needed relief to both low-income Americans and the nation's food banks, as the recent surge in unemployment has pushed millions to the brink of hunger."

Estimates on the size of the "economic stimulus" package that President-elect Barack Obama will put in place have ranged from $400 billion to $900 billion. Democrats have hedged their bets, moreover, by asserting that its passage will depend upon minority Republican support. But whatever its final size and content, Obama's "stimulus" will prove woefully inadequate in the face of the deepest social crisis since the Great Depression. The sums being discussed represent a small fraction of the more than $8 trillion that has already been doled out to the largest financial institutions.

Meanwhile, in the 2009 Federal Budget, only $62 billion has been appropriated for all food assistance programs, including food stamps and school lunches, which for many children provide the only substantial meal of the day.

More than 9 percent of all US households now rely on food stamps, the Supplemental Food Assistance Program, to help meet dietary needs. This is a sharp increase from 2001, when 6 percent used food stamps. But indications are that this number will rise sharply. A number of states, including Oregon and Washington in the Pacific Northwest, have seen record requests for food assistance. Food stamps function as vouchers that can be redeemed at grocery stores. Generally, they may be exchanged only for the cheapest items in stock, and only for staples such as milk, meat, and bread.

The program will not meet the level of hunger provoked by the crisis. In the Feeding America survey of households, one third of food stamp recipients said "their benefits only lasted for two weeks or less." Bureaucratic hurdles prevent a large number of eligible families from receiving aid. Undocumented immigrants, as well as immigrants who have been in the country legally for less than five years, are not eligible. Assistance is pegged to 130 percent of the official poverty level, meaning that large numbers of the so-called "working poor" are ineligible, including many of those surveyed by Feeding America.

Though they paint a grim portrait, the Feeding America surveys on hunger offer only a glimpse of the level of social misery to come. Significantly, the surveys were conducted at the end of November. Since then, layoffs have mounted precipitously.

Gaza near to collapse as Israel tightens grip, says bank

Gaza near to collapse as Israel tightens grip, says bank

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Israel's blockade of Gaza is pushing the territory to the brink of collapse and fuelling the growth of a black money market controlled by Hamas, the World Bank warned yesterday.

As tit-for-tat attacks across the Gaza border began to intensify following the end of a six-month truce on Friday, the World Bank said that an acute cash shortage in Gaza was playing into Hamas's hands. The militant Islamists, who took control of Gaza in June 2007 following violent street clashes with their more secular rival, Fatah, have large stashes of shekels which they have been selling on the black market at a premium because of the cash shortage.

There is also a worry that Hamas, with its dominant militant and bureaucratic control of Gaza, will begin to replace the shekel with US dollars, which are more easily obtained, to smuggle through the tunnels from Egypt in the south.

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Quartet - the US, the EU, Russia and the United Nations - warned Israel of the crisis in a letter to the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, more than a week ago, to no avail. Instead, Israel continued to tighten its 18-month blockade of the tiny coastal territory, forcing banks and businesses to shut their doors, water, sanitation and electricity services to cease, medical clinics to turn away patients, and bread queues to form in the streets. Since the end of the truce, daily clashes have resumed, with Israel launching air strikes on Palestinian rocket-launching teams and Palestinian fighters firing makeshift rockets and mortars at neighbouring Israeli towns.

Yesterday, Israel's air force attacked a rocket-launching site and Palestinians launched 18 Qassam rockets, one of which struck a house and another a factory, while a third exploded near farm labourers, injuring one. Most landed in open fields. In the afternoon gunmen also shot at workers near the perimeter.

The two main rivals in Israel's February elections both vowed yesterday to remove Hamas from power, using military means if need be. "The state of Israel, and a government under me, will make it a strategic objective to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza," said Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister who will lead the ruling centrist party, Kadima, in the polls. "The means for doing this should be military, economic and diplomatic."

Later, Binyamin Netanyahu, who leads the hard-right Likud party and who has been ahead in the polls for months, said: "In the long term, we will have to topple the Hamas regime. In the short term ... there are a wide range of possibilities, from doing nothing to doing everything, meaning to conquer Gaza."

Israel has been unable to find a lasting military solution to years of rocket fire from Gaza, and a series of reports from the World Bank suggests its policy of blockading the coastal area to break Hamas's control has not only failed but is now jeopardising the US-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Bush and Lawmakers Sneak a National DNA Databank into Existence

Bush and Lawmakers Sneak a National DNA Databank into Existence

Jim Kouri

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While most Americans were bombarded with news coverage regarding the presidential race without end, President George W. Bush almost silently signed a senate bill that would change America forever.

S.1858 allows the federal government to screen the DNA of all newborn babies in the United States. According to the legislation, the new law must be implemented within 6 months of Bush's bill signing in April 2008.

According to police experts, this infant DNA collection is now being carried out by individual states and sample DNA is being submitted to the feds. Congressman Ron Paul states that this bill is the first step towards the establishment of a national DNA database.

The rational for the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Act of 2007 is that it represents preparation for any kind of natural or man-made emergency or disaster. The bill states that the federal government should "continue to carry out, coordinate, and expand research in newborn screening" and "maintain a central clearinghouse of current information on newborn screening... ensuring that the clearinghouse is available on the Internet and is updated at least quarterly." Sections of the bill also make it clear that DNA may be used in laboratory experiments and tests.

DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus (where it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria (where it is called or mtDNA).

The information in DNA is stored as a code made up of four chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of those bases are the same in all people. The order, or sequence, of these bases determines the information available for building and maintaining an organism, similar to the way in which letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences.

DNA bases pair up with each other, A with T and C with G, to form units called base pairs. Each base is also attached to a sugar molecule and a phosphate molecule. Together, a base, sugar, and phosphate are called a nucleotide. Nucleotides are arranged in two long strands that form a spiral called a double helix. The structure of the double helix is somewhat like a ladder, with the base pairs forming the ladder’s rungs and the sugar and phosphate molecules forming the vertical sidepieces of the ladder.

An important property of DNA is that it can replicate, or make copies of itself. Each strand of DNA in the double helix can serve as a pattern for duplicating the sequence of bases. This is critical when cells divide because each new cell needs to have an exact copy of the DNA present in the old cell.

The New York State DNA Databank became operational with the first "hit" linking a convicted criminal with DNA evidence from a crime scene. The Databank is part of a national system called CODIS, a searchable software program with three hierarchical tiers of the DNA Index System (DIS) -- local (LDIS), state (SDIS), and national (NDIS).

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) serves as the NDIS connection and links New York State with other participating states. This tiered approach allows individual state and local agencies to operate their respective DNA databases according to applicable state law and local policy.

In New York State there are eight LDIS DNA laboratories. The State Police Forensic Investigation Center (FIC) in Albany serves as a LDIS site for forensic casework performed at the FIC and as the SDIS laboratory for New York State. All LDIS laboratories maintain a Forensic Index which is comprised of DNA profiles from crime scene evidence submitted by the agencies they serve.

These profiles are routinely compared in order to identify and link criminal incidents that may involve the same perpetrator. The SDIS database at the State Police FIC contains forensic DNA profiles uploaded by each of the LDIS laboratories and enables inter-comparisons of crime scene evidence DNA profiles among the participating LDIS laboratories in New York State and across the country.

According to a statement released by Texas Congressman Ron Paul, "S. 1858 gives the federal bureaucracy the authority to develop a model newborn screening program. [T]he federal government lacks both the constitutional authority and the competence to develop a newborn screening program adequate for a nation as large and diverse as the United States. ?"

There are also many law-enforcement officials who are uneasy with this centralized databank especially since a newborn has not committed any crime that warrants its DNA sample to be stored by the government.

"It's one thing for a state such as New York or Oregon to store the DNA of a convicted felon, but it's entirely inappropriate for the feds to collect DNA from someone who's never committed a crime," said a former New York City detective, Sidney Frances.

"I believe the framers of the US Constitution did not intend innocent babies to be treated the same way we treat convicted rapists and killers," the decorated detective added.

"Even if it's granted the DNA will be used to help protect children and adults during a medical emergency or disaster, there is no assurance that future administrations won't allow the stored DNA samples to be used with more sinister goals," said another veteran cop in New York.

"While it may be defensible to collect and store the DNA of dangerous human beings, I cannot understand the rationale for collecting such biological material from infants. I'm also not comfortable with the fact that the [DNA] law was passed without public scrutiny. Where are the watchdogs in the news media?" said Officer Edna Aquayo.

A World Enslaved

A World Enslaved

By E. Benjamin Skinner

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There are now more slaves on the planet than at any time in human history. True abolition will elude us until we admit the massive scope of the problem, attack it in all its forms, and empower slaves to help free themselves.

Standing in New York City, you are five hours away from being able to negotiate the sale, in broad daylight, of a healthy boy or girl. He or she can be used for anything, though sex and domestic labor are most common. Before you go, let's be clear on what you are buying. A slave is a human being forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence. Agreed? Good.

Most people imagine that slavery died in the 19th century. Since 1817, more than a dozen international conventions have been signed banning the slave trade. Yet, today there are more slaves than at any time in human history.

And if you're going to buy one in five hours, you'd better get a move on. First, hail a taxi to JFK International Airport, and hop on a direct flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The flight takes three hours. After landing at Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport, you will need 50 cents for the most common form of transport in Port-au-Prince, the tap-tap, a flatbed pickup retrofitted with benches and a canopy. Three quarters of the way up Route de Delmas, the capital's main street, tap the roof and hop out. There, on a side street, you will find a group of men standing in front of Le Réseau (The Network) barbershop. As you approach, a man steps forward: "Are you looking to get a person?"

Meet Benavil Lebhom. He smiles easily. He has a trim mustache and wears a multicolored, striped golf shirt, a gold chain, and Doc Martens knockoffs. Benavil is a courtier, or broker. He holds an official real estate license and calls himself an employment agent. Two thirds of the employees he places are child slaves. The total number of Haitian children in bondage in their own country stands at 300,000. They are the restavèks, the "stay-withs," as they are euphemistically known in Creole. Forced, unpaid, they work in captivity from before dawn until night. Benavil and thousands of other formal and informal traffickers lure these children from desperately impoverished rural parents, with promises of free schooling and a better life.

The negotiation to buy a child slave might sound a bit like this:

"How quickly do you think it would be possible to bring a child in? Somebody who could clean and cook?" you ask. "I don't have a very big place; I have a small apartment. But I'm wondering how much that would cost? And how quickly?"

"Three days," Benavil responds.

"And you could bring the child here?" you inquire. "Or are there children here already?"

"I don't have any here in Port-au-Prince right now," says Benavil, his eyes widening at the thought of a foreign client. "I would go out to the countryside."

You ask about additional expenses. "Would I have to pay for transportation?"

"Bon," says Benavil. "A hundred U.S."

Smelling a rip-off, you press him, "And that's just for transportation?"

"Transportation would be about 100 Haitian," says Benavil, or around $13, "because you'd have to get out there. Plus [hotel and] food on the trip. Five hundred gourdes."

"Okay, 500 Haitian," you say.

Now you ask the big question: "And what would your fee be?" This is the moment of truth, and Benavil's eyes narrow as he determines how much he can take you for.

"A hundred. American."

"That seems like a lot," you say, with a smile so as not to kill the deal. "How much would you charge a Haitian?"

Benavil's voice rises with feigned indignation. "A hundred dollars. This is a major effort."

You hold firm. "Could you bring down your fee to 50 U.S.?"

Benavil pauses. But only for effect. He knows he's still got you for much more than a Haitian would pay. "Oui," he says with a smile.

But the deal isn't done. Benavil leans in close. "This is a rather delicate question. Is this someone you want as just a worker? Or also someone who will be a 'partner'? You understand what I mean?"

You don't blink at being asked if you want the child for sex. "I mean, is it possible to have someone that could be both?"

"Oui!" Benavil responds enthusiastically.

If you're interested in taking your purchase back to the United States, Benavil tells you that he can "arrange" the proper papers to make it look as though you've adopted the child.

He offers you a 13-year-old girl.

"That's a little bit old," you say.

"I know of another girl who's 12. Then ones that are 10, 11," he responds.

The negotiation is finished, and you tell Benavil not to make any moves without further word from you. Here, 600 miles from the United States, and five hours from Manhattan, you have successfully arranged to buy a human being for 50 bucks.

The Cruel Truth

It would be nice if that conversation, like the description of the journey, were fictional. It is not. I recorded it on Oct. 6, 2005, as part of four years of research into slavery on five continents. In the popular consciousness, "slavery" has come to be little more than just a metaphor for undue hardship. Investment bankers routinely refer to themselves as "high-paid wage slaves." Human rights activists may call $1-an-hour sweatshop laborers slaves, regardless of the fact that they are paid and can often walk away from the job. But the reality of slavery is far different. Slavery exists today on an unprecedented scale. In Africa, tens of thousands are chattel slaves, seized in war or tucked away for generations. Across Europe, Asia, and the Americas, traffickers have forced as many as 2 million into prostitution or labor. In South Asia, which has the highest concentration of slaves on the planet, nearly 10 million languish in bondage, unable to leave their captors until they pay off "debts," legal fictions that in many cases are generations old.

Few in the developed world have a grasp of the enormity of modern-day slavery. Fewer still are doing anything to combat it. Beginning in 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush was urged by several of his key advisors to vigorously enforce the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, a U.S. law enacted a month earlier that sought to prosecute domestic human traffickers and cajole foreign governments into doing the same. The Bush administration trumpeted the effort—at home via the Christian evangelical media and more broadly via speeches and pronouncements, including in addresses to the U.N. General Assembly in 2003 and 2004. But even the quiet and diligent work of some within the U.S. State Department, which credibly claims to have secured more than 100 antitrafficking laws and more than 10,000 trafficking convictions worldwide, has resulted in no measurable decline in the number of slaves worldwide. Between 2000 and 2006, the U.S. Justice Department increased human trafficking prosecutions from 3 to 32, and convictions from 10 to 98. By 2006, 27 states had passed antitrafficking laws. Yet, during the same period, the United States liberated less than 2 percent of its own modern-day slaves. As many as 17,500 new slaves continue to enter bondage in the United States every year.

The West's efforts have been, from the outset, hamstrung by a warped understanding of slavery. In the United States, a hard-driving coalition of feminist and evangelical activists has forced the Bush administration to focus almost exclusively on the sex trade. The official State Department line is that voluntary prostitution does not exist, and that commercial sex is the main driver of slavery today. In Europe, though Germany and the Netherlands have decriminalized most prostitution, other nations such as Bulgaria have moved in the opposite direction, bowing to U.S. pressure and cracking down on the flesh trade. But, across the Americas, Europe, and Asia, unregulated escort services are exploding with the help of the Internet. Even when enlightened governments have offered clearheaded solutions to deal with this problem, such as granting victims temporary residence, they have had little impact.

Many feel that sex slavery is particularly revolting—and it is. I saw it firsthand. In a Bucharest brothel, for instance, I was offered a mentally handicapped, suicidal girl in exchange for a used car. But for every one woman or child enslaved in commercial sex, there are at least 15 men, women, and children enslaved in other fields, such as domestic work or agricultural labor. Recent studies have shown that locking up pimps and traffickers has had a negligible effect on the aggregate rates of bondage. And though eradicating prostitution may be a just cause, Western policies based on the idea that all prostitutes are slaves and all slaves are prostitutes belittles the suffering of all victims. It's an approach that threatens to put most governments on the wrong side of history.

Indebted for Life

Save for the fact that he is male, Gonoo Lal Kol typifies the average slave of our modern age. (At his request, I have changed his first name.) Like a vast majority of the world's slaves, Gonoo is in debt bondage in South Asia. In his case, in an Indian quarry. Like most slaves, Gonoo is illiterate and unaware of the Indian laws that ban his bondage and provide for sanctions against his master. His story, told to me in more than a dozen conversations inside his 4-foot-high stone and grass hutch, represents the other side of the "Indian Miracle."

Gonoo lives in Lohagara Dhal, a forgotten corner of Uttar Pradesh, a north Indian state that contains 8 percent of the world's poor. I met him one evening in December 2005 as he walked with two dozen other laborers in tattered and filthy clothes. Behind them was the quarry. In that pit, Gonoo, a member of the historically outcast Kol tribe, worked with his family 14 hours a day. His tools were simple, a rough-hewn hammer and an iron pike. His hands were covered in calluses, his fingertips worn away.

Gonoo's master is a tall, stout, surly contractor named Ramesh Garg. Garg is one of the wealthiest men in Shankargarh, the nearest sizable town, founded under the British Raj but now run by nearly 600 quarry contractors. He makes his money by enslaving entire families forced to work for no pay beyond alcohol, grain, and bare subsistence expenses. Their only use for Garg is to turn rock into silica sand, for colored glass, or gravel, for roads or ballast. Slavery scholar Kevin Bales estimates that a slave in the 19th-century American South had to work 20 years to recoup his or her purchase price. Gonoo and the other slaves earn a profit for Garg in two years.

Every single man, woman, and child in Lohagara Dhal is a slave. But, in theory at least, Garg neither bought nor owns them. They are working off debts, which, for many, started at less than $10. But interest accrues at over 100 percent annually here. Most of the debts span at least two generations, though they have no legal standing under modern Indian law. They are a fiction that Garg constructs through fraud and maintains through violence. The seed of Gonoo's slavery, for instance, was a loan of 62 cents. In 1958, his grandfather borrowed that amount from the owner of a farm where he worked. Three generations and three slavemasters later, Gonoo's family remains in bondage.

Bringing Freedom to Millions

Recently, many bold, underfunded groups have taken up the challenge of tearing out the roots of slavery. Some gained fame through dramatic slave rescues. Most learned that freeing slaves is impossible unless the slaves themselves choose to be free. Among the Kol of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, an organization called Pragati Gramodyog Sansthan (Progressive Institute for Village Enterprises, or PGS) has helped hundreds of families break the grip of the quarry contractors. Working methodically since 1985, PGS organizers slowly built up confidence among slaves. With PGS's help, the Kol formed microcredit unions and won leases to quarries so that they could keep the proceeds of their labor. Some bought property for the first time in their lives, a cow or a goat, and their incomes, which had been nil, multiplied quickly. PGS set up primary schools and dug wells. Villages that for generations had known nothing but slavery began to become free. PGS's success demonstrates that emancipation is merely the first step in abolition. Within the developed world, some national law enforcement agencies such as those in the Czech Republic and Sweden have finally begun to pursue the most culpable of human trafficking—slave-trading pimps and unscrupulous labor contractors. But more must be done to educate local police, even in the richest of nations. Too often, these street-level law enforcement personnel do not understand that it's just as likely for a prostitute to be a trafficking victim as it is for a nanny working without proper papers to be a slave. And, after they have been discovered by law enforcement, few rich nations provide slaves with the kind of rehabilitation, retraining, and protection needed to prevent their re-trafficking. The asylum now granted to former slaves in the United States and the Netherlands is a start. But more must be done.

The United Nations, whose founding principles call for it to fight bondage in all its forms, has done almost nothing to combat modern slavery. In January, Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, called for the international body to provide better quantification of human trafficking. Such number crunching would be valuable in combating that one particular manifestation of slavery. But there is little to suggest the United Nations, which consistently fails to hold its own member states accountable for widespread slavery, will be an effective tool in defeating the broader phenomenon.

Any lasting solutions to human trafficking must involve prevention programs in at-risk source countries. Absent an effective international body like the United Nations, such an effort will require pressure from the United States. So far, the United States has been willing to criticize some nations' records, but it has resisted doing so where it matters most, particularly in India. India abolished debt bondage in 1976, but with poor enforcement of the law locally, millions remain in bondage. In 2006 and 2007, the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons pressed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to repudiate India's intransigence personally. And, in each instance, she did not.

The psychological, social, and economic bonds of slavery run deep, and for governments to be truly effective in eradicating slavery, they must partner with groups that can offer slaves a way to pull themselves up from bondage. One way to do that is to replicate the work of grassroots organizations such as Varanasi, India-based MSEMVS (Society for Human Development and Women's Empowerment). In 1996, the Indian group launched free transitional schools, where children who had been enslaved learned skills and acquired enough literacy to move on to formal schooling. The group also targeted mothers, providing them with training and start-up materials for microenterprises. In Thailand, a nation infamous for sex slavery, a similar group, the Labour Rights Promotion Network, works to keep desperately poor Burmese immigrants from the clutches of traffickers by, among other things, setting up schools and health programs. Even in the remote highlands of southern Haiti, activists with Limyè Lavi ("Light of Life") reach otherwise wholly isolated rural communities to warn them of the dangers of traffickers such as Benavil Lebhom and to help them organize informal schools to keep children near home. In recent years, the United States has shown an increasing willingness to help fund these kinds of organizations, one encouraging sign that the message may be getting through.

For four years, I saw dozens of people enslaved, several of whom traffickers like Benavil actually offered to sell to me. I did not pay for a human life anywhere. And, with one exception, I always withheld action to save any one person, in the hope that my research would later help to save many more. At times, that still feels like an excuse for cowardice. But the hard work of real emancipation can't be the burden of a select few. For thousands of slaves, grassroots groups like PGS and MSEMVS can help bring freedom. But, until governments define slavery in appropriately concise terms, prosecute the crime aggressively in all its forms, and encourage groups that empower slaves to free themselves, millions more will remain in bondage. And our collective promise of abolition will continue to mean nothing at all.

The Pentagon is muscling in everywhere. It's time to stop the mission creep.

The Pentagon is muscling in everywhere. It's time to stop the mission creep.

By Thomas A. Schweich

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We no longer have a civilian-led government. It is hard for a lifelong Republican and son of a retired Air Force colonel to say this, but the most unnerving legacy of the Bush administration is the encroachment of the Department of Defense into a striking number of aspects of civilian government. Our Constitution is at risk.

President-elect Barack Obama's selections of James L. Jones, a retired four-star Marine general, to be his national security adviser and, it appears, retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair to be his director of national intelligence present the incoming administration with an important opportunity -- and a major risk. These appointments could pave the way for these respected military officers to reverse the current trend of Pentagon encroachment upon civilian government functions, or they could complete the silent military coup d'etat that has been steadily gaining ground below the radar screen of most Americans and the media.

While serving the State Department in several senior capacities over the past four years, I witnessed firsthand the quiet, de facto military takeover of much of the U.S. government. The first assault on civilian government occurred in faraway places -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- and was, in theory, justified by the exigencies of war.

The White House, which basically let the Defense Department call the budgetary shots, vastly underfunded efforts by the State Department, the Justice Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to train civilian police forces, build functioning judicial systems and provide basic development services to those war-torn countries. For example, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Justice Department and the State Department said that they needed at least 6,000 police trainers in the country. Pentagon officials told some of my former staffers that they doubted so many would be needed. The civilians' recommendation "was quickly reduced to 1,500 [trainers] by powers-that-be above our pay grade," Gerald F. Burke, a retired major in the Massachusetts State Police who trained Iraqi cops from 2003 to 2006, told Congress last April. Just a few hundred trainers ultimately wound up being fielded, according to Burke's testimony.

Until this year, the State Department received an average of about $40 million a year for rule-of-law programs in Afghanistan, according to the department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs -- in stark contrast to the billions that the Pentagon got to train the Afghan army. Under then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Defense Department failed to provide even basic security for the meager force of civilian police mentors, rule-of-law advisers and aid workers from other U.S. agencies operating in Afghanistan and Iraq, driving policymakers to turn to such contracting firms as Blackwater Worldwide. After having set the rest of the U.S. government up for failure, military authorities then declared that the other agencies' unsuccessful police-training efforts required military leadership and took them over -- after brutal interagency battles at the White House.

The result of letting the Pentagon take such thorough charge of the programs to create local police forces is that these units, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, have been unnecessarily militarized -- producing police officers who look more like militia members than ordinary beat cops. These forces now risk becoming paramilitary groups, well armed with U.S. equipment, that could run roughshod over Iraq and Afghanistan's nascent democracies once we leave.

Or consider another problem with the rising influence of the Pentagon: the failure to address the ongoing plague of poppy farming and heroin production in Afghanistan. This fiasco was in large part the result of the work of non-expert military personnel, who discounted the corrosive effects of the Afghan heroin trade on our efforts to rebuild the country and failed to support civilian-run counter-narcotics programs. During my tenure as the Bush administration's anti-drug envoy to Afghanistan, I also witnessed JAG officers hiring their own manifestly unqualified Afghan legal "experts," some of whom even lacked law degrees, to operate outside the internationally agreed-upon, Afghan-led program to bring impartial justice to the people of Afghanistan. This resulted in confusion and contradiction.

One can also see the Pentagon's growing muscle in the recent creation of the U.S. military command for Africa, known as Africom. This new command supposedly has a joint civilian-military purpose: to coordinate soft power and traditional hard power to stop al-Qaeda and its allies from gaining a foothold on the continent. But Africom has gotten a chilly reception in post-colonial Africa. Meanwhile, U.S. competitors such as China are pursuing large African development projects that are being welcomed with open arms. Since the Bush administration has had real successes with its anti-AIDS and other health programs in Africa, why exactly do we need a military command there running civilian reconstruction, if not to usurp the efforts led by well-respected U.S. embassies and aid officials?

And, of course, I need not even elaborate on the most notorious effect of the military's growing reach: the damage that the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and such military prisons as Abu Ghraib have done to U.S. credibility around the world.

But these initial military takeovers of civilian functions all took place a long distance from home. "We are in a war, after all," Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told me by way of explaining the military's huge role in that country -- just before the Pentagon seemingly had him removed in 2007 because of his admirable efforts to balance military and civilian needs. (I heard angry accounts of the Pentagon's role in Neumann's "retirement" at the time from knowledgeable diplomats, one of them very senior.) But our military forces, in a bureaucratic sense, soon marched on Washington itself.

As military officers sought to take over the role played by civilian development experts abroad, Pentagon bureaucrats quietly populated the National Security Council and the State Department with their own personnel (some civilians, some consultants, some retired officers, some officers on "detail" from the Pentagon) to ensure that the Defense Department could keep an eye on its rival agencies. Vice President Cheney, himself a former secretary of defense, and his good friend Rumsfeld ensured the success of this seeding effort by some fairly forceful means. At least twice, I saw Cheney staffers show up unannounced at State Department meetings, and I heard other State Department officials grumble about this habit. The Rumsfeld officials could play hardball, sometimes even leaking to the press the results of classified meetings that did not go their way in order to get the decisions reversed. After I got wind of the Pentagon's dislike for the approved interagency anti-drug strategy for Afghanistan, details of the plan quickly wound up in the hands of foreign countries sympathetic to the Pentagon view. I've heard other, similarly troubling stories about leaks of classified information to the press.

Many of Cheney's and Rumsfeld's cronies still work at the Pentagon and elsewhere. Rumsfeld's successor, Robert M. Gates, has spoken of increasing America's "soft power," its ability to attract others by our example, culture and values, but thus far, this push to reestablish civilian leadership has been largely talk and little action. Gates is clearly sincere about chipping away at the military's expanding role, but many of his subordinates are not.

The encroachment within America's borders continued with the military's increased involvement in domestic surveillance and its attempts to usurp the role of the federal courts in reviewing detainee cases. The Pentagon also resisted ceding any authority over its extensive intelligence operations to the first director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte -- a State Department official who eventually gave up his post to Mike McConnell, a former Navy admiral. The Bush administration also appointed Michael V. Hayden, a four-star Air Force general, to be the director of the CIA. National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley saw much of the responsibility for developing and implementing policy on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- surely the national security adviser's job -- given to Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, Bush's new "war czar." By 2008, the military was running much of the national security apparatus.

The Pentagon opened a southern front earlier this year when it attempted to dominate the new Merida Initiative, a promising $400 million program to help Mexico battle drug cartels. Despite the admirable efforts of the federal drug czar, John P. Walters, to keep the White House focused on the civilian law-enforcement purpose of the Merida Initiative, the military runs a big chunk of that program as well.

Now the Pentagon has drawn up plans to deploy 20,000 U.S. soldiers inside our borders by 2011, ostensibly to help state and local officials respond to terrorist attacks or other catastrophes. But that mission could easily spill over from emergency counterterrorism work into border-patrol efforts, intelligence gathering and law enforcement operations -- which would run smack into the Posse Comitatus Act, the long-standing law restricting the military's role in domestic law enforcement. So the generals are not only dominating our government activities abroad, at our borders and in Washington, but they also seem to intend to spread out across the heartland of America.

If President-elect Obama wants to reverse this trend, he must take four steps -- and very quickly:

1. Direct -- or, better yet, order -- Gates, Jones, Blair and the other military leaders in his Cabinet to rid the Pentagon's lower ranks of Rumsfeld holdovers whose only mission is to increase the power of the Pentagon.

2. Turn Gates's speeches on the need to promote soft power into reality with a massive transfer of funds from the Pentagon to the State Department, the Justice Department and USAID.

3. Put senior, respected civilians -- not retired or active military personnel -- into key subsidiary positions in the intelligence community and the National Security Council.

4. Above all, he should let his appointees with military backgrounds know swiftly and firmly that, under the Constitution, he is their commander, and that he will not tolerate the well-rehearsed lip service that the military gave to civilian agencies and even President Bush over the past four years.

In short, he should retake the government before it devours him and us -- and return civilian-led government to the people of the United States.

Calif. unemployment rate jumps to 8.4 percent

Calif. unemployment rate jumps to 8.4 percent

By MARCUS WOHLSEN

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California's unemployment rate climbed to 8.4 percent in November, the third-highest rate in the nation, federal officials said Friday.

The jobless rate announced by the U.S. Department of Labor was up from 5.7 percent a year earlier, and 8.2 percent in October. Only Michigan and Rhode Island posted higher jobless rates than California.

The agency said California shed 41,700 jobs last month, bringing the total jobs lost over the past year to 136,000. Florida and North Carolina were the only states to lose more jobs in November.

The U.S. unemployment rate rose to 6.7 percent in November -- a 15-year high. The nation lost 533,000 jobs last month, the largest monthly job loss in 34 years.

Just over 15 million Californians held payroll jobs last month. The number of people unemployed in California rose to 1.56 million, up by more than a half-million since November 2007, state officials said.

Of those unemployed, 679,200 were laid off, 97,200 left their jobs voluntarily, and the remaining were new to the labor market last month.

The jump in joblessness comes as California's unemployment insurance fund teeters on the brink of insolvency. The fund is expected to have a deficit of $2.4 billion at the end of 2009.

To keep unemployment checks coming, the state may have to borrow from the federal government for only the second time since the program was established in the 1930s.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cited Friday's numbers after vowing to veto an $18 billion deficit reduction plan that Democrats pushed through the Legislature on Thursday. The Republican governor said the plan didn't include the economic stimulus package he demanded.

"I've said countless times that any budget plan sent to my desk must include real stimulus that creates jobs," Schwarzenegger said in a statement Friday.

Scorched Earth

Scorched Earth

By David Glenn Cox

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There comes a point, as the car careens out of control down the icy highway, when we are no longer the driver but just the person holding onto the wheel. We try to do what’s right but the situation changes from instant to instant and it appears that our actions have little effect.

The undercurrents of history, however, may appear to move in unseen channels, but still we can’t escape cause and effect. The film "Charlie Wilson’s War" illustrates the case of a dundering, drunken, back-water Congressman who, through serendipity and right wing Bible thumpers, becomes involved in the Afghan mujahideen, fighting the Soviets.

From a budget of five million dollars a year to five hundred million a year, all to fight for the cause, not the cause of Afghan independence but the cause of putting our thumb into the eye of the Russian bear. Once the last Russian tank had crossed the border, headed north, all aid was withdrawn and Afghanistan dissolved into factional fighting courtesy of the millions of dollars of leftover military hardware. Charlie Wilson was given medals and accolades for basically making the situation worse in the grand scheme of things, but our goal was only to humiliate the Soviets, so, "mission accomplished."

Sometimes it's as if we’ve turned children loose in a boiler room; they turn a knob and suddenly steam is blowing through a pipe seam, so they turn another knob to see what happens next. The Federal Reserve uses its last card, cutting interest rates but forgetting to call "Uno!" The stock market soars as the dollar falls so what did they accomplish? Nothing! Not a damn thing. They fired the last shot in the gun only to remind us that they still had a gun. The seven hundred billion-dollar bailout has accounted for the massive rush by American banks to buy Chinese bank notes. They’ve cut interest rates for the banks and Americans still can’t get credit or a mortgage or a job.

General Motors cries, save me, save me, don’t you know me, I’m your native son! Yet promises that if they receive their bailout they will enact cost-cutting measures to eliminate American jobs. Already they are planning the expansion of their Mexican manufacturing plants to supply the American market. It would seem that following that business plan that they are asking the wrong government for the money. In 1932 Ford was shut down, as was Chrysler and GM. The Hoover administration offered loans to spur production. but it wasn’t money they needed, it was customers. The carmakers had money, Ford was loaning millions to keep the city of Detroit afloat, but their customers, they did not have any and the Hoover administration believed it to be morally wrong to lend money to private individuals.

Like Richard Dreyfuss piling up his mashed potatoes, these things mean something. This road that we are on leads us to the darkest part of the woods. In Greece the riots and protests continue unabated and have spread to new cities. In the German magazine, Der Spiegel, an article entitled "The Revolt of a Disappointed Generation" describes a grim picture.

"Jorgos Barutas, 29, had to struggle to make himself heard. The computer engineer, sporting a five-day beard and steel-rimmed glasses, stood at the foot of the steep rows of seats and shouted up to the audience with a throaty voice. 'We have to hold out until the government steps down.' Applause. 'We have to transform the protests into a political movement.' Applause. 'We have to formulate political objectives,' followed again by thunderous applause. Barutas stepped down from the stage, feeling satisfied, and the students poured out of the hall."

"It is day five of the intense rioting by young people in Athens. The protests began in the district of Exarchia -- a traditional haunt of artists, anarchists and left-wing intellectuals -- and rapidly spread throughout the entire country. They have also sparked violent unrest in the large cities of Thessaloniki, Patras and Heraklion -- and in 20 other Greek towns."

American officials scoff as the American media turns a blind eye to what is taking place in Greece. In the 1920’s it was Italy and the 1930’s it was Germany, but the message is always the same, when the needs of the people aren’t being met the arms of the people will be. It is easy to laugh them off just as the Polish government once tried to laugh off Lech Welensa and the American media once laughed off those crazy Germans marching in the streets with those ridiculous brown shirts. Adolph Hitler came to power on just two messages, that Germany was a great nation and traitors had stolen her greatness from her. His second message was only to blame the Jews, but without the acceptance of the first message the second message becomes meaningless, idle ranting.

Economic collapse brings about societal upheaval; failed wars bring about economic collapse. So round and round we go and where she stops nobody knows! I want to support Obama, I want him to be a successful President but his jobs and public works program looks a lot like filling water balloons to fight back panzers. A little here and a little there and little off the top ain’t going to cut it.

The government and the media need to start looking past their own foisted statistics and realize that what is going on here has meaning. Madoff, GM, the SEC, the Federal Reserve, when the people lose faith in the institutions that are supposed to protect them, the government then becomes nothing more than a cardboard cut-out. These institutions are the brick and mortar of government, and when they fail then what is plan B?

There’s battle lines being drawn, those who are aware, who have had the sand of corporatism and globalism kicked in their face are damn angry about it. Then there is the other camp, still trusting and docile and still employed but becoming confused by all the hubbub. The ones most trusting who wake to find out that the GM bonds that they staked their retirements on are now only worth thirty cents on the dollar. And that the Republicans that they voted for are trying to push GM into bankruptcy so that they might not be worth even that much, and so the angry camp grows.

This whole Blagojevich affair sickens me, but not because of the Governor's actions but by the public’s naiveté. This has always gone on. Do you think Joseph P. Kennedy was the US ambassador to Great Britain because he was a swell guy? Choice postings of US ambassadors always goes to prominent contributors so why should dealing for a US Senate seat be such a stretch of the imagination? This is a preemptive political attack on the new administration as already witnesses are lining up for the impeachment hearings that weaken the federal case against the governor before the federal case can even get off the ground.

This is window dressing for a castration. White Water, Monica, go on and give it a good smell test. Media headlines while Rome burns, as GM sinks and Madoff steals. Colin Powell, who may be the Republican's "One good man," tries to warn his party off from where they are going, but they won’t listen. No man is a prophet in his own hometown, but Powell, as a military man, knows scorched earth when he sees it. To lose at the ballot box and then to try and circumvent that victory by declawing the cat in advance.

Soon, very soon, if those in power and those about to be in power don’t wake up to the pressing economic emergency, they will find themselves spinning out of control on an icy highway, holding on to the wheel, not to steer with but for dear life. The media ignores what is going on in Greece because they don’t want to give you any ideas. In Greece the public has grabbed the attention of the government by the testicles and won’t let go until they are listened to, or the government falls. They are not rioting because they failed the government but because the government has failed them.

If the US government does not take care of the people, the people will take care of the government.