Tuesday, February 3, 2009

It’s Not Going to Be OK

It’s Not Going to Be OK

By Chris Hedges

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The daily bleeding of thousands of jobs will soon turn our economic crisis into a political crisis. The street protests, strikes and riots that have rattled France, Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Iceland will descend on us. It is only a matter of time. And not much time. When things start to go sour, when Barack Obama is exposed as a mortal waving a sword at a tidal wave, the United States could plunge into a long period of precarious social instability.

At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or has the possibility of totalitarianism been as real. Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. And poverty and despair will sweep across the landscape like a plague. This is the bleak future. There is nothing President Obama can do to stop it. It has been decades in the making. It cannot be undone with a trillion or two trillion dollars in bailout money. Our empire is dying. Our economy has collapsed.

How will we cope with our decline? Will we cling to the absurd dreams of a superpower and a glorious tomorrow or will we responsibly face our stark new limitations? Will we heed those who are sober and rational, those who speak of a new simplicity and humility, or will we follow the demagogues and charlatans who rise up out of the slime in moments of crisis to offer fantastic visions? Will we radically transform our system to one that protects the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate state, or will we employ the brutality and technology of our internal security and surveillance apparatus to crush all dissent? We won't have to wait long to find out.

There are a few isolated individuals who saw it coming. The political philosophers Sheldon S. Wolin, John Ralston Saul and Andrew Bacevich, as well as writers such as Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, David Korten and Naomi Klein, along with activists such as Bill McKibben and Ralph Nader, rang the alarm bells. They were largely ignored or ridiculed. Our corporate media and corporate universities proved, when we needed them most, intellectually and morally useless.

Wolin, who taught political philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley and at Princeton, in his book "Democracy Incorporated" uses the phrase inverted totalitarianism to describe our system of power. Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism and the Constitution while cynically manipulating internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions. Political candidates are elected in popular votes by citizens, but they must raise staggering amounts of corporate funds to compete. They are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists in Washington or state capitals who write the legislation. A corporate media controls nearly everything we read, watch or hear and imposes a bland uniformity of opinion or diverts us with trivia and celebrity gossip. In classical totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics. "Under inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true," Wolin writes. "Economics dominates politics-and with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness."

I reached Wolin, 86, by phone at his home about 25 miles north of San Francisco. He was a bombardier in the South Pacific during World War II and went to Harvard after the war to get his doctorate. Wolin has written classics such as "Politics and Vision" and "Tocqueville Between Two Worlds." His newest book is one of the most important and prescient critiques to date of the American political system. He is also the author of a series of remarkable essays on Augustine of Hippo, Richard Hooker, David Hume, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and John Dewey. His voice, however, has faded from public awareness because, as he told me, "it is harder and harder for people like me to get a public hearing." He said that publications, such as The New York Review of Books, which often published his work a couple of decades ago, lost interest in his critiques of American capitalism, his warnings about the subversion of democratic institutions and the emergence of the corporate state. He does not hold out much hope for Obama.

"The basic systems are going to stay in place; they are too powerful to be challenged," Wolin told me when I asked him about the new Obama administration. "This is shown by the financial bailout. It does not bother with the structure at all. I don't think Obama can take on the kind of military establishment we have developed. This is not to say that I do not admire him. He is probably the most intelligent president we have had in decades. I think he is well meaning, but he inherits a system of constraints that make it very difficult to take on these major power configurations. I do not think he has the appetite for it in any ideological sense. The corporate structure is not going to be challenged. There has not been a word from him that would suggest an attempt to rethink the American imperium."

Wolin argues that a failure to dismantle our vast and overextended imperial projects, coupled with the economic collapse, is likely to result in inverted totalitarianism. He said that without "radical and drastic remedies" the response to mounting discontent and social unrest will probably lead to greater state control and repression. There will be, he warned, a huge "expansion of government power."

"Our political culture has remained unhelpful in fostering a democratic consciousness," he said. "The political system and its operatives will not be constrained by popular discontent or uprisings."

Wolin writes that in inverted totalitarianism consumer goods and a comfortable standard of living, along with a vast entertainment industry that provides spectacles and diversions, keep the citizenry politically passive. I asked if the economic collapse and the steady decline in our standard of living might not, in fact, trigger classical totalitarianism. Could widespread frustration and poverty lead the working and middle classes to place their faith in demagogues, especially those from the Christian right?

"I think that's perfectly possible," he answered. "That was the experience of the 1930s. There wasn't just FDR. There was Huey Long and Father Coughlin. There were even more extreme movements including the Klan. The extent to which those forces can be fed by the downturn and bleakness is a very real danger. It could become classical totalitarianism."

He said the widespread political passivity is dangerous. It is often exploited by demagogues who pose as saviors and offer dreams of glory and salvation. He warned that "the apoliticalness, even anti-politicalness, will be very powerful elements in taking us towards a radically dictatorial direction. It testifies to how thin the commitment to democracy is in the present circumstances. Democracy is not ascendant. It is not dominant. It is beleaguered. The extent to which young people have been drawn away from public concerns and given this extraordinary range of diversions makes it very likely they could then rally to a demagogue."

Wolin lamented that the corporate state has successfully blocked any real debate about alternative forms of power. Corporations determine who gets heard and who does not, he said. And those who critique corporate power are given no place in the national dialogue.

"In the 1930s there were all kinds of alternative understandings, from socialism to more extensive governmental involvement," he said. "There was a range of different approaches. But what I am struck by now is the narrow range within which palliatives are being modeled. We are supposed to work with the financial system. So the people who helped create this system are put in charge of the solution. There has to be some major effort to think outside the box."

"The puzzle to me is the lack of social unrest," Wolin said when I asked why we have not yet seen rioting or protests. He said he worried that popular protests will be dismissed and ignored by the corporate media. This, he said, is what happened when tens of thousands protested the war in Iraq. This will permit the state to ruthlessly suppress local protests, as happened during the Democratic and Republic conventions. Anti-war protests in the 1960s gained momentum from their ability to spread across the country, he noted. This, he said, may not happen this time. "The ways they can isolate protests and prevent it from [becoming] a contagion are formidable," he said.

"My greatest fear is that the Obama administration will achieve relatively little in terms of structural change," he added. "They may at best keep the system going. But there is a growing pessimism. Every day we hear how much longer the recession will continue. They are already talking about beyond next year. The economic difficulties are more profound than we had guessed and because of globalization more difficult to deal with. I wish the political establishment, the parties and leadership, would become more aware of the depths of the problem. They can't keep throwing money at this. They have to begin structural changes that involve a very different approach from a market economy. I don't think this will happen."

"I keep asking why and how and when this country became so conservative," he went on. "This country once prided itself on its experimentation and flexibility. It has become rigid. It is probably the most conservative of all the advanced countries."

The American left, he said, has crumbled. It sold out to a bankrupt Democratic Party, abandoned the working class and has no ability to organize. Unions are a spent force. The universities are mills for corporate employees. The press churns out info-entertainment or fatuous pundits. The left, he said, no longer has the capacity to be a counterweight to the corporate state. He said that if an extreme right gains momentum there will probably be very little organized resistance.

"The left is amorphous," he said. "I despair over the left. Left parties may be small in number in Europe but they are a coherent organization that keeps going. Here, except for Nader's efforts, we don't have that. We have a few voices here, a magazine there, and that's about it. It goes nowhere."

Obama prepares another trillion-dollar bank bailout

Obama prepares another trillion-dollar bank bailout

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While most media attention is focused this week on the Senate debate on the economic stimulus package, the Obama administration is preparing to roll out a new plan to bail out the banks, involving a trillion dollars or more in public assets.

Under the plan, which Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is expected to announce within the next two weeks, the government will buy up virtually worthless mortgage-backed securities and other "toxic" assets held by the banks and provide guarantees against future losses for much of their remaining assets. It will also continue to inject cash directly into the banks.

Well aware of popular opposition to the Wall Street bailout, the White House and the media are engaged in a calculated campaign to soften up public opinion and pave the way for a taxpayer handout to the financial elite even bigger than the $700 billion already doled out in the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which was rushed through Congress last autumn with the support of then-presidential candidate Obama. The total cost of government cash infusions, loans and guarantees to the major banks and financial firms, already estimated at $8 trillion, will soar even higher, by far eclipsing the money allocated in the so-called stimulus and recovery program.

Indeed, one of the purposes of the stimulus package is to provide political cover, in the form of aid to "Main Street," for the offloading of Wall Street's losses onto the American people. Meanwhile, the stimulus plan, which does nothing to halt the destruction of jobs or the wave of home foreclosures, but includes lucrative tax write-offs for business and funnels government projects to private companies, is being weakened further at the behest of Wall Street and congressional Republicans. It is now reported that Obama has dropped a provision that would allow bankruptcy judges to lower the principal and ease mortgage terms for distressed homeowners.

The administration is mounting a public relations campaign—starting with Obama's public wrist-slap of Wall Street executives for continuing to reward themselves with billions in bonuses—to give the impression that it is cracking the whip on executive compensation. But as the Washington Post reports, "[T]he administration is likely to refrain from imposing tough restrictions on executive compensation at most firms receiving government aid" because "harsh limits could discourage some firms from asking for aid."

The new bank bailout, like every measure that has been devised in response to the financial meltdown, will be tailored entirely to the interests of the financial aristocracy. Under the terms of the plan, as outlined in various press reports, the bad assets accumulated through speculation and fraud will be transferred to a "bad bank" owned by the government. The government will buy these assets not at their actual market value, which is pennies on the dollar, but, according to the Financial Times, on the basis of a "valuation model," guaranteeing premium prices for bank executives and big shareholders.

Once these assets have been taken off the banks' books, as Max Holmes, a finance professor at New York University and chief investment officer of an asset management firm, told the New York Times, "[T]he stock prices of the good banks are likely to soar, as they will be the four best capitalized and cleanest banks in the world."

In other words, the ruling elite will emerge from this process richer than ever. The American people—who have no responsibility for the economic disaster—will be left to pay the bill through drastic cuts in social benefits, including bedrock programs like Social Security and Medicare, and a continuous erosion of their jobs and living standards.

The Wall Street crisis and the government response have exposed the reality of class relations in America.

The press is full of articles expounding on the economic, legal and moral hazards involved in any government restriction on the pay of bankers whose greed and criminality played a major role in the ruination of their own companies and the eruption of a global economic crisis deeper than any since the Great Depression. But Obama and Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, had no problem making as a condition for emergency loans to the auto companies—a drop in the bucket compared to the trillions for the banks—the slashing of auto workers' wages and benefits to the level of non-union workers. And to enforce the impoverishment of the workers, the auto bailout law included a provision stripping them of the right to strike.

As Obama has made clear, there will be no examination or public exposure of the policies and methods that led to the crash of 2008, as if a rational solution can be found without such an investigation.

None of the executives will be held accountable for their actions, which have led to a staggering level of social misery. Already, still in its initial stages, the crisis has claimed scores of lives: tragic instances of killings and suicides provoked by the sudden loss of a job and the prospect of destitution and homelessness, the deaths of people whose utilities have been shut off, like the 93-year-old worker in Bay City, Michigan.

No bankers are being grilled by Congress. There is no talk of criminal investigations or prosecutions. Instead, those who have played a central role in the Wall Street bailout, such as the new treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, are being brought into the Obama administration to head up the next phase. Geithner spelled out whose interests are to be defended when he stated recently: "We have a financial system that is run by private shareholders, managed by private institutions, and we'd like to do our best to preserve that system."

The economic crisis is the result of the failure of the capitalist profit system. It was prepared over decades in which the American ruling elite dismantled much of basic industry in order to obtain higher levels of profit through ever more parasitic and reckless forms of financial speculation.

No progressive solution to the crisis can be found within the framework of the capitalist system. If the working class—the vast majority of the population—is to defend its interests, it must advance it own solution to the crisis.

This must begin with the fight for the nationalization of the banks and financial institutions and their transformation into public utilities under the control of the working class. All decisions on the allocation of financial resources must be made democratically in the interests of society as a whole.

As for the ill-gotten wealth of bankers whose methods precipitated the present crisis, it should be seized and used to finance emergency relief. The deposits and savings of working people and small business owners should be secured, and cheap credit made available to them.

Trillions must be made available to guarantee decent jobs, health care, education and housing for all, including the launching of genuine public works programs to provide jobs and rebuild the country's decayed physical, economic and cultural infrastructure.

Emergency measures must be taken to halt all foreclosures and evictions and provide immediate relief to all distressed homeowners and workers and young people burdened with crushing levels of debt.

The financial records of the major banks, financial firms and hedge funds must be opened to public inspection in order to reveal how society's resources were plundered for private gain. Those responsible must be held accountable, including by means of criminal prosecution.

This can be achieved only through the independent social and political mobilization of the working class. Mass resistance must be organized to oppose layoffs, home foreclosures and cuts in vital social programs, including strikes, plant occupations and demonstrations.

Macy's to cut 7,000 jobs, slash dividend

Macy's to cut 7,000 jobs, slash dividend

Retailer stresses 'unified' approach behind reorganization effort

By William Spain

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Joining the parade of companies laying off thousands, department-store chain Macy's Inc. said Monday it would make deep cuts in its workforce and slash its dividend by more than half.

Shares of New York-based Macy's fell as much as 16% but clawed their way back to end with a 4% loss at $8.59. A year ago, the shares had a value of more than $28 before they scraped all the way down to the $5 range last November.

Macy's said about 7,000 jobs -- about 4% of its total employee base -- would be eliminated as part of an effort to save $250 million this year and $400 million annually starting in 2010.

The Macy's board also approved a 62% reduction in its quarterly dividend, down to 5 cents a share from the current payout of 13.25 cents, while the company commenced a tender offer to redeem $950 million in debt set to mature later this year.

The company cited "current economic conditions and expectations for lower sales in 2009" as precipitating the moves.

Further, the company's "My Macy's" localization program, rolled out in 20 markets last spring, will expand across the country in an attempt to "drive sales with a compelling national brand and with stores and merchandise assortments focused on local customer needs and preferences in each location."

The new structure will mean Macy's "will have one unified buying organization, one unified merchandise planning organization, one unified stores organization, one unified marketing organization and one unified organization for each corporate function such as finance, logistics, information technology and human resources instead of four of each operating divisionally," said Terry Lundgren, chief executive.

"By reducing duplication, we will be able to react faster to market trends, simplify our relationship with vendors and ensure that our expense dollars are devoted to activities that will drive the business most effectively," he said in a statement.

Macy's is assuming that same-store sales -- generated by outlets open at least a year -- will be down between 6% and 8%, the company said.

Factoring that in, it expects to earn 40 cents to 55 cents a share, excluding restructuring charges, for the full fiscal year. That compares to the $1.17-a-share average estimate derived in a poll of analysts by FactSet Research.

The new 5-cent dividend is payable April 1 to shareholders of record in March 13, the company said.

World stocks fall on poor earnings, banking woes

World stocks fall on poor earnings, banking woes

World stocks mostly lower as investors prepare for more bad earnings, deeper economic downturn

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World stock markets finished mostly lower Monday, with financial and energy stocks leading the way down as investors prepared for another week of poor earnings reports and gloomy economic data.

After Asian markets slipped, there was little appetite to buy in Europe as faith in a rapid turnaround in the global economy and corporate earnings faded. Britain's benchmark FTSE 100 ended down 1.7 percent at 4,077.78, while the German DAX dropped 1.5 percent at 4,271.04. France's CAC 40 shed 1.5 percent at 2,930.05.

On Wall Street, some buying in technology stocks lifted the Nasdaq composite, which rose 18.01, or 1.22 percent, to 1,494.43. But the Dow Jones industrial average 64.03, or 0.80 percent, to 7,936.83, hurt by sliding industrial, energy and financial stocks.

Department store operator Macy's Inc. also spooked investors by announcing it plans to cut 7,000 jobs or about 4 percent of its work force and reduce its dividend.

Bank shares were hit particularly hard Monday, with Barclays PLC down 10.6 percent in London after ratings agency Moody's downgraded its long-term credit rating.

Ashraf Laidi, chief market strategist at CMC Markets, said the downgrade has dominated other news "as they imply the potential for similar downgrades across the European continent."

"Risk reducing trades emerge across the board," Laidi said. That means investors are dumping vulnerable equities in favor of safer assets like government bonds.

BNP Paribas fell 8.7 percent after its acquisition of parts of troubled lender Fortis NV was revised Friday, while energy stocks slumped as crude prices dropped below $41 a barrel on expectations that demand will languish as countries struggle with recession.

"The spotlight is on the economy and earnings and doubts about when the recovery in the U.S. will materialize," said Song Seng Wun, head of research at CIMB-GK in Singapore. "We are likely to continue experiencing bouts of optimism alternated with periods of uncertainty. Tomorrow the markets could be racing ahead."

Beyond corporate news, economic data from the U.S. was mixed, with weak consumer spending offset somewhat by a small rebound in the ISM manufacturing index. The ISM rose to 35.6 in January from 32.9 the previous month. However, analysts warned that this was still not a sign of recovery in the U.S. industrial sector.

"Blind panic set in at the end of last year. That panic may now be fading, but conditions are still desperately weak," said Paul Ashworth, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics.

Markets are expected to continue focusing on government efforts to help banks. The Federal Reserve is prepared to buy Treasuries to help the economy, talks continue on a so-called "bad bank" to absorb toxic assets from financial firms, while the Bank of England is from today cleared to buy "high quality" assets from banks to provide liquidity and boost lending.

Analysts say the bailouts and rescue packages have not been wholly successful in keeping banks safe from swelling losses and write-downs, and have yet to prove they can help the economy.

"Such rescue efforts so far have failed to stem financial sector problems. Bankers fear that as the recession deepens, the risk-weighting of the assets they hold is likely to grow, eroding their capital reserves as they are measured by regulators," said Christine Li, analyst at Moody's Economy.com in London.

She said the problem with the U.S. plan to create a "bad bank" to store the toxic assets is how to value those assets -- if the price is too high, the taxpayer will be burdened, and if it is too low, it will not help banks improve their balance sheets and recover.

Looking at the week ahead, a slew of interest rate cuts are due in Britain, Norway, Australia, and the Czech Republic, although that has not been enough to boost sentiment. On Thursday all eyes will be on the European Central Bank, which has already signaled it would leave rates unchanged despite the economic downturn.

Latin American stocks fell as investors bet that another week of poor earnings and gloomy economic data would further sink markets.

Brazil's benchmark Ibovespa index dropped 1.6 percent to 38,666, as lower oil prices pushed shares of state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA down 1.4 percent to 24.69 reals.

Mexico's Bolsa was closed Monday for a public holiday, but Argentina's Merval fell 1.8 percent to 1,058, while Peru's IGBVL lost 1.4 percent to 6,811 and Colombia's IGBC dipped 0.8 percent to 7,728. Chilean stocks gained, with Santiago's IPSA rising 0.2 percent to 2,554.

Toronto's S&P/TSX composite index also retreated, ending down 70.07 points to 8,624.83.

In Asia, Hong Kong's Hang Seng slid 3.1 percent to 12,861.49 and Japan's Nikkei 225 stock average dropped 1.5 percent to 7,873.98. South Korea's Kospi fell 1.3 percent at 1,146.95. Australia's main index fell 1.2 percent and markets in Singapore, Thailand and India fell 2 percent or more.

Mainland China's market, reopening after the weeklong Lunar New Years holiday, rose amid a report the government is considering new steps to boost growth. The Shanghai Composite index gained 1.1 percent to 2,011.68.

Oil prices tumbled nearly 4 percent in a volatile trading day fraught with more bad economic news, including thousands of job cuts by Macy's department store. Light, sweet crude for March delivery fell $1.60 to settle at $40.08 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange after tumbling at one point to $39.83.

The 16-nation euro rose to $1.2827 in New York trading from $1.2794 late Friday. The British pound sank to $1.4269 from $1.4456, while the dollar slipped to 89.60 yen from 89.88 yen. The dollar jumped to 1.2449 Canadian dollars from 1.2290.

U.S. Economy: Manufacturing Shrinks, Spending Falls

U.S. Economy: Manufacturing Shrinks, Spending Falls

By Bob Willis

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Manufacturing in the U.S. shrank again last month and consumer spending recorded an unprecedented sixth monthly decline in December, offering no sign the economy has hit bottom.

The Institute for Supply Management’s factory index was 35.6 in January; readings less than 50 signal a contraction and the measure has been below that level since February 2008. The Commerce Department said personal spending fell 1 percent in December, and reported a third monthly drop in construction.

Factories are likely to cut back further as the slump in household purchases leaves companies with stockpiles of unsold goods. General Motors Corp. plans to slash production at 15 plants through June in an effort to work off the surplus inventory, and Chrysler LLC, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. are also cutting back.

“The numbers are still terribly weak,” said James O’Sullivan, senior economist at UBS Securities LLC in Stamford, Connecticut. “Manufacturing is still contracting rapidly” while consumer spending is unlikely to recover “for a while,” he said.

Treasuries advanced and stocks gyrated between gains and losses. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Stock index closed down 0.1 percent at 825.43 in New York. Yields on benchmark 10-year notes fell to 2.72 percent from 2.84 percent at last week’s close.

A separate report from the Federal Reserve today showed a majority of U.S. banks made it tougher for consumers and businesses to get credit in the past three months even as lenders received infusions of taxpayer funds.

Tightened Standards

“About 65 percent of domestic banks reported having tightened lending standards on commercial and industrial loans to large and middle-market firms,” the Fed said in its quarterly Senior Loan Officer survey.

Senate lawmakers this week start deliberations on a fiscal stimulus bill in excess of $800 billion as President Barack Obama pushes Congress to enact his recovery plan to save jobs and boost spending. The House passed its version of the measure, which would provide tax cuts, spending on everything from schools to highway repairs and aid to state governments, last week.

Today’s construction report showed that the collapse in residential building may be spreading to commercial properties. Nonresidential construction slid 0.6 percent in December, the biggest drop since July. Total building fell 1.4 percent in the month, capping the worst year on record.

Savings Rate Increases

Consumers boosted savings in December as they sought to insulate themselves from the spreading U.S. recession. The rate rose to 3.6 percent, the highest level since May, when it climbed with the receipt of tax rebates from a previous fiscal- stimulus effort. Personal incomes slipped 0.2 percent in the month.

The economic downturn continues to keep inflation at bay, while raising some risk of deflation -- which would worsen the recession by making debts harder to pay and banks less likely to lend. The Federal Reserve’s preferred measure, the personal consumption expenditures price index excluding food and energy, was unchanged in December for a third month, Commerce said.

The median estimate of 70 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News was for an ISM reading of 32.5.

New Orders

The ISM’s gauge of new orders rose to 33.2 from 23.1 the prior month, when it reached its lowest level since records began in 1948. ISM’s export orders gauge increased to 37.5 from 35.5.

The gauge of inventories fell to 37.5, the lowest since July 2001, from 39.6.

The group’s employment index was unchanged at 29.9 in January. The economy lost 2.6 million jobs last year, and economists forecast job losses to continue as the recession heads into its second year.

“Manufacturing has a long way to go toward recovery,” Norbert Ore, chairman of the ISM factory survey, said in a conference call. Companies are in a “very strong liquidation mode” regarding the inventories.

The world’s largest economy may contract at a 5.5 percent annual pace this quarter after declining at a 3.8 percent rate in the last three months of 2008, according to a forecast by economists at Morgan Stanley in New York. Last quarter’s drop was the biggest since 1982.

Consumer Spending

Consumer spending is likely to keep sliding through the first six months of this year after dropping in the last half of 2008, according to economists. Purchases have not contracted for four consecutive quarters since records began in 1947.

Retailers are sacking workers as sales slump. Macy’s Inc., the second largest U.S. department store company, today said it was cutting 7,000 jobs.

The ISM’s gauge of prices paid rose for the first time since June, to 29 from 18 in December, when it reached its lowest level since 1949 as oil and other commodities plunged. Economists had projected that the measure, which averaged 66 in 2008, would be unchanged at 18.

“The recession is deepening and the urgency of our economic crisis is growing,” Obama said Jan. 30 as he announced a task force to boost the middle class that will be led by Vice President Joe Biden.

Automakers have led the downturn in manufacturing as U.S. sales in December fell 36 percent from a year earlier. General Motors on Jan. 15 cut its estimate for 2009 U.S. industrywide auto sales to 10.5 million units, a 27-year low.

‘Depression Levels’

“Industry sales are at depression levels,” Michael Jackson, chief executive officer of AutoNation Inc., said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Jan. 21. “It’s going to take extraordinary measures to get sales moving again.”

The factory slump has spread well beyond autos as demand from abroad also weakens. The U.S., Japan and the euro region are simultaneously in a recession for the first time in the postwar era. The International Monetary Fund last week projected global growth this year at 0.5 percent and said losses from the credit crisis will total $2.2 trillion.

After seeing “significant deceleration” in demand, Rockwell Automation Inc., the Milwaukee-based maker of factory automation equipment, today lowered its 2009 outlook. The ISM figure “still says recession,” said Rockwell’s Chief Executive Officer Keith Nosbusch in an interview.

Call to Try Bush

Call to Try Bush

Julio Godoy

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Now that former U.S. president George W. Bush is an ordinary citizen again, many legal and human rights activists in Europe are demanding that he and high-ranking members of his government be brought before justice for crimes against humanity committed in the so-called war on terror.

"Judicial clarification of the crimes against international law the former U.S. government committed is one of the most delicate issues that the new U.S. president Barack Obama will have to deal with," Wolfgang Kaleck, general secretary of the European Centre for Human and Constitutional Rights told IPS.

U.S. justice will have to "deal with the turpitudes committed by the Bush government," says Kaleck, who has already tried unsuccessfully to sue the former U.S. authorities in European courts. "And, furthermore, the U.S. government will have to pay compensation to the innocent people who were victims of these crimes."

Kaleck and other legal experts consider Bush and his highest-ranking officials responsible for crimes against humanity, such as torture.

Many agree that the evidence against the U.S. government is overwhelming. U.S. officials have admitted some crimes such as waterboarding, where a victim is tied up and water is poured into the air passages. Also, human rights activists have gathered testimonies by innocent victims of torture, especially some prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

In an interview with the German public television network ZDF, Austrian human rights lawyer Manfred Nowak, UN special rapporteur on torture, said that numerous cases of torture ordered by U.S. officials and perpetrated by U.S. authorities are well documented.

"We possess all the evidence which proves that the torture methods used in interrogation by the U.S. government were explicitly ordered by former U.S. defence minister Donald Rumsfeld," Nowak told ZDF. "Obviously, these orders were given with the highest U.S. authorities' knowledge."

"George W. Bush is without doubt responsible for crimes such as torture," says Dietmar Herz, professor of political science at the university of Erfurt, 235 km southwest of Berlin.

"According to the U.S. constitution, the U.S. president is responsible for all actions carried out by the executive," Herz told IPS. "Therefore, George W. Bush is responsible for the torture methods used by U.S. authorities, such as waterboarding."

International justice against crimes against humanity began in 1945, with the Nuremberg trials against Nazi criminals, says Kaleck. Leading prosecutor Robert Jackson said at the opening of the trials in October 1945 that "we are able to do away with...tyranny and violence and aggression by those in power against the rights of (the) people...only when we make all men answerable to the law."

But since then this promise has been fulfilled only in exceptional cases, Kaleck said.

"Crimes against humanity have been repeatedly committed ever since, but very few people have been brought before international courts for these crimes," he said, adding that this impunity is particularly obvious for leaders of the Allied countries (such as the U.S., France and Britain), who had organised the Nuremberg trials.

Nobody was ever judged for crimes against humanity committed in Algeria by France, in Vietnam and Latin America by the U.S., in Afghanistan by the Soviet Union and in Chechnya by Russia.

Only in the 1990s, after the Yugoslav wars of secession, the Rwanda genocide, and civil wars in countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone were state criminals captured, judged and convicted.

"The creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002 in The Hague in the Netherlands marks a turning point in the prosecution of state officials accused of crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity or of war," Kaleck added.

But prosecution for crimes of war or for crimes against humanity continues to be highly selective. So far, only perpetrators from weak or failed states from south-eastern Europe, or from the south, especially Africa, have been brought to court. In a case such as that of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Britain acted as an accomplice to protect him.

Over the last couple of years, human rights activists and some national courts in Europe have been fighting these arbitrary ways. They are appealing for, and in some cases even applying, a universal jurisdiction of national courts.

The Spanish judiciary has opened cases against Latin American dictators such as Guatemalan general Efraín Ríos Montt, who ruled the Central American country between 1982 and 1983, and Argentinean military officers involved in kidnapping and killing civilians.

A Bankrupt and Discredited Country The Era of American Leadership Is Over

A Bankrupt and Discredited Country. The Era of American Leadership Is Over

By Paul Craig Roberts

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" -- -Vast numbers of people in the United States and abroad are hoping that President Obama will end America’s illegal wars, halt America’s support for Israel’s massacre of Lebanese and Palestinians, and punish, instead of reward, the shyster banksters whose fraudulent financial instruments have destroyed economies and imposed massive sufferings on people all over the world. If Obama’s appointments are an indication, all of these hopeful people are going to be disappointed.

James Petras examines Obama’s foreign policy appointments and finds the largest collection of Zionist militarists outside of Avigdor Lieberman’s far right political party in Israel.

Petras concludes that Obama’s “diplomatic” team has Iran in its sights, an hostility that meshes with Israel’s own intent. Not realizing that a member of the press had been mistakenly invited to a selected audience, the Israeli ambassador to Australia said that Israel’s attack on Gaza was a dress rehearsal for a major attack on Iran. Netanyahu, the expected winner of Israel’s March elections, has again declared that Israel will not permit Iran to have a nuclear energy program as it would provide the basis for developing nuclear weapons.

It makes no sense for Israel to baldly state its intention to attack Iran if Israel does not mean it. What if the Iranians believe the Israelis and decide to strike first with their long-range missiles?

Obama’s economic appointments are just as discouraging. Obama chose as his Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the man who helped Bush’s Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, engineer the $700 billion dollar rip off of the US taxpayer, money that was gifted to the crooked banksters who destroyed Americans’ pensions, jobs and health care coverage.

These banksters, and the negligent federal regulators that enabled them, should be put in prison, not handed hundreds of billions of dollars.

Instead, Obama has appoined one of the chief orchestrators of the rip off to the helm of the Treasury. Obama’s National Economic Council is just as depressing. Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, is its head. Summers recently declared that he had no inkling that a financial crisis was about to hit. Why did Obama put a person without a clue in charge?

Summer’s colleagues are just as bad. Obama has appointed Diana Farrell, lead author of a phony study that claimed offshoring of American jobs is a win-win game for Americans, as deputy director of the National Economic Council. Farrell is affiliated with McKinsey & Company, a firm that helps American corporations offshore their operations. In his book, Outsourcing America, economist Ron Hira tore Farrell’s McKinsey report to shreds.

Why not appoint Ron Hira and Nouriel Roubina, who predicted the crisis, to the National Economic Council?

With Israel’s most fervent American allies whispering in one ear and banksers and offshoring propagandists whispering in the other, how can President Obama fulfill any of the hopes that people have?

The discouraging fact is that even when faced with crisis in the economy and in foreign policy, the American political system is incapable of producing any leadership. Here we are in the worst economic crisis in a lifetime, perhaps in our history, and on the brink of war in Pakistan and Iran while escalating the war in Afghanistan, and all we get is a government made up of the very people who have brought us to these crises.

Just as the Bushites could not admit the failure of their man, the Obamacons will not be able to admit the failure of their man.

The era of American leadership has passed. America’s shyster financial system has brought economic crisis to the world. America’s wars of aggression are seen as serving no purpose except the enrichment of the military industries associated with Dick Cheney. The world is looking elsewhere for leadership.

Vladimir Putin made a play for this role at Davos, where his speech at the opening ceremony was the most intelligent speech of the event.

Putin reminded the World Economic Forum that “just a year ago, American delegates speaking from this rostrum emphasized the US economy’s fundamental stability and its cloudless prospects. Today, investment banks, the pride of Wall Street, have virtually ceased to exist. In just 12 months, they have posted losses exceeding the profits they made in the last 25 years.”

Putin made his case that the existing financial system based on the US dollar and American financial hegemony has failed.

Putin showed that his economic understanding was superior to that of the Obama team when he said that creating more debt on top of the “hopeless debts,” as Obama is doing, would “prolong the crisis.”

With another swipe at America’s failed economic leadership, Putin said it is time to get rid of virtual money, false financial reports, and dubious credit ratings. Putin proposed a new reserve currency system to “replace the obsolete unipolar world concept.”

Putin said that a secure world requires cooperation which requires trust. He made it clear that the Americans have proven that they cannot be trusted.

This was a powerful message. It got a lot of applause.

Gaza and the Crimes of Mubarak

Gaza and the Crimes of Mubarak

By Rannie Amiri

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As staggering as the statistics detailing Gaza’s destruction may be, they still do not present a complete picture of the unique travesties and tragedies suffered by individuals, families, neighborhoods and villages during Israel’s savage 22-day assault on the tiny territory. Yet, they bear repeating. From the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (www.pcbs.gov.ps) and various NGOs:
  • 1,334 killed, one-third of them children (more children than ‘militants’ were killed)
  • 5,450 injured, one-third of them children
  • 100,000 displaced, 50,000 made homeless
  • 4,100 residential homes and buildings destroyed, 17,000 damaged (together accounting for 14 percent of all buildings in Gaza)
  • 29 destroyed educational institutions, including the American International School
  • 92 destroyed or damaged mosques
  • 1,500 destroyed shops, factories and other commercial facilities
  • 20 destroyed ambulances
  • 35-60% of agricultural land ruined
  • $1.9 billion in total estimated damages

In the face of such massive devastation and hardship—and this after the crippling 18-month siege had already reduced Gazato a state of bare subsistence—the behavior and actions of the regime of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak remain as contemptible after the war as they were before.

On Dec. 25, just two days prior to the onset of the vicious aerial bombardment of Gaza, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with Mubarak in Cairo. It is understood that Egypt gave the green light for the attack in the hope that the ruling (and democratically-elected) Islamist group Hamas would be toppled and the more pliant Fatah faction, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, would supplant it.

Rafah crossing sealed

The reasons for Mubarak’s animus toward Hamas, and by extension, for his reprehensible decision to keep the vital Rafah border crossing with Gaza closed to humanitarian supplies was explained earlier.

Apologists for the dictator will say the 2005 agreement between Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the European Union (EU) that regulates movement across the border prohibits it from being opened in the absence of PA and EU observers.

It makes no mention, however, of barring critical humanitarian goods from reaching the territory, where conditions were becoming ever more desperate. Additionally, Egypt was a non-signatory to the treaty, which had already expired after one year and was never renewed.

If keeping the Rafah crossing—the only gateway to non-Israeli territory from Gaza—closed before and during the war was not a criminal act, doing so in its aftermath must surely be.

Preventing Gaza’s children from obtaining medical care

Reporting for The National, Jonathan Cook details four cases of children in Gaza who required urgent, life-saving surgery in France, but were denied entry into Egypt via Rafah. As the aunt of the one of the war’s child casualties remarked, “Each morning we arrived at the crossing and the Egyptian soldiers cursed us and told us to go away.”

Doctors accompanying the children were allowed to pass into Egypt, but the ambulances carrying them were not. Their exclusion was attributed to the Palestinian health ministry in Ramallah who did not authorize their exit, stating there was “no more reason to refer any more children for treatment abroad.” Egyptian authorities abided by their ruling, not wanting to create diplomatic trouble.

But that is no excuse.

First, Hamas, democratically elected to power in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, is the legitimate governing authority. Second, the term of Mahmoud Abbas as president of the PA expired on Jan. 9. Finally, emergency medical situations always take precedent over (alleged) bureaucratic considerations. Those in control of the Rafah crossing must be held directly responsible.

Feeding Israeli soldiers, not Gaza’s people

In light of catastrophic circumstances due to lack of basic foodstuffs (75 percent of Gaza’s children are thought to be malnourished and 30 percent are stunted in growth), a recent report by the popular Egyptian weekly Al-Osboa was all the more shocking. It revealed that an Egyptian company was allowed to provide Israel Defense Force soldiers with food during the war while Gazans were starving.

Iranian Red Crescent ship kept offshore

An Iranian ship sent by the country’s Red Crescent Society carrying 2,000 tons of medical supplies and other humanitarian aid for Gaza continues to be anchored 15 miles off Gaza’s shore. It had already been intercepted and prevented by the Israeli navy from reaching Gaza. Now, it awaits permission to dock in the Egyptian port of Al-Areesh to unload its cargo. To date, permission has not been grated.

In light of the above, blistering criticism of the Egyptian regime’s behavior has come from Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah:

“[Egypt] told the Arab and Islamic world that the Rafah border was opened and it was not … The opening of the Rafah crossing is crucial to the Palestinian people, the Resistance and the living conditions there … its closure is one of the biggest crimes in history.”

The reply from the Egyptian government was all too predictable:

“Hassan Nasrallah's criticism of Egypt confirms once more that he is nothing more than an agent of the Iranian regime and takes his orders from Tehran.”

Irrespective of whether Nasrallah takes orders from Tehran or Tokyo, there were no substantive answers to his accusations. Instead, Egypt reverted to parroting tired anti-Iranian rhetoric which increasingly is falling on deaf ears.

Abetting the siege of Gaza, giving sanction to the Israeli onslaught and its crimes against humanity, and afterward, preventing aid from getting into the territory and the injured from getting out, are all egregious offenses.

Just as many call for Olmert, Barak, Livni and the generals and soldiers who participated in this war to be prosecuted for violating international law and committing war crimes, Mubarak’s own complicity makes him equally liable in facing similar charges.

When Did We Stop Caring About Civilian Deaths During Wartime?

When Did We Stop Caring About Civilian Deaths During Wartime?

The mere monitoring of bloody conflict assumes precedence over human suffering

By Robert Fisk

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I wonder if we are "normalising" war. It's not just that Israel has yet again got away with the killing of hundreds of children in Gaza.

And after its own foreign minister said that Israel's army had been allowed to "go wild" there, it seems to bear out my own contention that the Israeli "Defence Force" is as much a rabble as all the other armies in the region. But we seem to have lost the sense of immorality that should accompany conflict and violence. The BBC's refusal to handle an advertisement for Palestinian aid was highly instructive. It was the BBC's "impartiality" that might be called into question. In other words, the protection of an institution was more important than the lives of children. War was a spectator sport whose careful monitoring – rather like a football match, even though the Middle East is a bloody tragedy – assumed precedence over human suffering.

I'm not sure where all this started. No one doubts that the Second World War was a bloodbath of titanic proportions, but after that conflict we put in place all kinds of laws to protect human beings. The International Red Cross protocols, the United Nations – along with the all-powerful Security Council and the much ridiculed General Assembly – and the European Union were created to end large-scale conflict. And yes, I know there was Korea (under a UN flag!) and then there was Vietnam, but after the US withdrawal from Saigon, there was a sense that "we" didn't do wars any more. Foreigners could commit atrocities en masse – Cambodia comes to mind – but we superior Westerners were exempt. We didn't behave like that. Low-intensity warfare in Northern Ireland, perhaps. And the Israeli-Arab conflict would grind away. But there was a feeling that My Lai had been put behind us. Civilians were once again sacred in the West.

I'm not sure when the change came. Was it Israel's disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the Sabra and Chatila massacre by Israel's allies of 1,700 Palestinian civilians? (Gaza just missed that record.) Israel claimed (as usual) to be fighting "our" "war against terror" but the Israeli army is not what it's cracked up to be and massacres (Qana comes to mind in 1996 and the children of Marwahine in 2006) seem to come attached to it. And of course, there's the little matter of the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988 which we enthusiastically supported with weapons to both sides, and the Syrian slaughter of thousands of civilians at Hama and...

No, I rather think it was the 1991 Gulf War. Our television lads and lasses played it for all it was worth – it was the first war that had "theme" music to go with the pictures – and when US troops simply smothered alive thousands of Iraqi troops in their trenches, we learned about it later and didn't care much, and even when the Americans ignored Red Cross rules to mark mass graves, they got away with it. There were women in some of these graves – I saw British soldiers burying them. And I remember driving up to Mutla ridge to show a Red Cross delegate where I had seen a mass grave dug by the Americans, and he looked at the plastic poppy an American had presumably left there and said: "Something has happened."

He meant that something had happened to international law, to the rules of war. They had been flouted. Then came Kosovo – where our dear Lord Blair first exercised his talents for warmaking – and another ream of slaughter. Of course, Milosevic was the bad guy (even though most of the Kosovars were still in their homes when the war began – their return home after their brutal expulsion by the Serbs then became the war aim). But here again, we broke some extra rules and got away with it. Remember the passenger train we bombed on the Surdulica bridge – and the famous speeding up of the film by Jamie Shea to show that the bomber had no time to hold his fire? (Actually, the pilot came back for another bombing run on the train when it was already burning, but that was excluded from the film.) Then the attack on the Belgrade radio station. And the civilian roads. Then the attack on a large country hospital. "Military target," said Jamie. And he was right. There were soldiers hiding in the hospital along with the patients. The soldiers all survived. The patients all died.

Then there was Afghanistan and all that "collateral damage" and whole villages wiped out and then there was Iraq in 2003 and the tens of thousands – or half a million or a million – Iraqi civilians killed. Once more, at the very start, we were back to our old tricks, bombing bridges and radio stations and at least one civilian estate in Baghdad where "we" believed Saddam was hiding. We knew it was packed with civilians (Christians, by chance) but the Americans called it a "high risk" operation – meaning that they risked not hitting Saddam – and 22 civilians were killed. I saw the last body, that of a baby, dug from the rubble.

And we don't seem to care. We fight in Iraq and now we're going back to fight in Afghanistan again and all the human rights and protections appear to have vanished once more. We will destroy villages and we will find that the Afghans hate us and we will form more criminal militias – as we did in Iraq – to fight for us. The Israelis organised a similar militia in their occupation zone in southern Lebanon, run by a crackpot Lebanese army major. But now their own troops "go wild". And the BBC is worried about its "impartiality"?

Closing Dealers Stun Buyers With Liens On Trade-In

Closing Dealers Stun Buyers With Liens On Trade-In

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The national wave of auto dealership closures has come crashing down on thousands of people who are on the hook for used-car loans that dealers were supposed to absolve.

When a car buyer still owes money on a vehicle he is trading in, the dealer promises to pay off the outstanding loan, then resells the vehicle. But as more dealers go out of business, some are sticking consumers with the bill. Lenders can then go after the previous owner who thought the debt was paid, or repossess the car from the new owner who assumed it came with clear title.

"It's devastating for people when it happens because they have two car payments and they can't afford them," said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that lobbies on behalf of vehicle owners. "Their credit is destroyed for no fault of their own because the dealer defaulted."

Regulators in California and other states, including Florida, Iowa and Washington, are seeing a surge in consumer complaints. They warn the problem is sure to grow this year because of the deepening recession and continued trouble in the auto industry.

About a quarter of all car buyers are vulnerable because they still owe money on their trade-in or lease when they buy another vehicle, according to industry tracker Edmunds.com. It's become more common for a driver to owe money on a trade-in as people stretch their car payments over six or seven years to make them more affordable.

Inga and Brian Randle of Elk Grove, a Sacramento suburb, are among those who got burned.

In 2006, they bought two 2001 Mercedes vehicles, a CLK430 convertible and an E320 sedan, finding out afterward that the small Sacramento dealer had not paid off the previous owners' liens.

Creditors called, and the Randles found they owed $40,000 on the old loans.

"I stopped paying on both of those loans because I couldn't afford to keep paying. It's a huge stain on my credit -- and I had very good credit," Inga Randle said. "Our life has really been affected by what's going on here."

The Randles now drive 15-year-old vehicles they own outright. Brian Randle is working more overtime to rebuild their savings, and the couple has been dragged into the dealership's bankruptcy proceedings.

A few states have programs that require dealers to post substantial insurance bonds to repay victimized car buyers. Consumers in states with no such program, or a poorly funded one, have little recourse but to sue and hope for at least a small slice of the assets if the dealer has filed for bankruptcy.

Authorities have brought charges in rare cases where they have proof of intentional wrongdoing, but local prosecutors, motor vehicle departments and state attorneys general are paying more attention as the problem grows.

California state Sen. Ellen Corbett, a Democrat from San Leandro, has introduced legislation that would require dealers to prove they are paying off a vehicle's lien before transferring the title. That's already a requirement in some states, said Jason King, spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

Corbett's bill would require auto dealers to post bonds as high as $250,000 with the California Department of Motor Vehicles so liens could be paid off if a dealership collapses.

"It's becoming a serious problem because the consumer, through no fault of their own, may be facing financial ruin just because they purchased a car," Corbett said.

California is hit particularly hard because it has the nation's largest auto market, more dealers going out of business, and more buyers who owe money on their trade-ins.

DMV spokesman Mike Marando said the agency had 319 open investigations on dealers for failing to pay off liens or register a vehicle as of December, up from about 200 cases at the same time a year ago. It fielded 1,655 vehicle-transfer complaints against dealers from July to September, nearly double the number of consumer complaints for the same period in 2007.


Complaints also are rising in Florida.

Between March 1 and Sept. 1, 2008, Florida officials deemed valid 103 complaints regarding auto dealers' delinquent loan payments. By comparison, there were 37 confirmed complaints during the same period in 2007.

Florida also received more than 1,886 confirmed complaints of delays in title transfers during that five-month period in 2008, compared with 900 a year earlier, said Ann Nucatola, spokeswoman for the state's motor vehicle department.

Data regarding auto loan defaults are not compiled nationally, but other states have similar problems, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association, National Consumer Law Center, prosecutors and private attorneys who are suing bankrupt dealerships.

Washington state created a task force in October after an agency that oversees dealer licenses saw a 4 percent increase in complaints against dealers who failed to transfer titles.

Officials are having trouble helping consumers who still owe money on trade-in vehicles if a dealer defaults, said Mary Lobdell, an assistant attorney general for the state. For now, they are advising consumers to hire attorneys and seek a share of the dealer's $30,000 bond.

"The problem is once they've gone out of business, there's no money. You can't get blood from a turnip," Lobdell said.

Nevada Department of Transportation investigator Gordon Rogers said he is dealing with about four cases a month, double the number of a year ago.

More than 5,000 new and used car dealerships closed nationwide last year, according to industry groups. That includes 450 in California.

"Unfortunately, with this economy, we can expect to see a growing number of dealers go out of business in the next year," said Iowa Assistant Attorney General Bill Brauch, who heads the National Association of Attorneys General auto working group. "I think there are going to be problems around the country with consumers having to be made whole and consumers having to eat significant costs."

Iowa, like California, requires dealers to post a $50,000 bond, but some states' bonds are as low as $5,000. Even $50,000 is often too little to cover defaults, Brauch said.

California lawmakers took an extra step by creating a Consumer Recovery Fund in 2007, with money coming from a $1 fee on each vehicle sold. Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia also have restitution funds, according to the National Consumer Law Center and the Ohio attorney general's office.

But California's fund cannot be used yet because the state is still forming the agency that will consider claims and distribute the money.

Consumers are left to sue the dealer, which typically has declared bankruptcy and has no money to reclaim, said Armando Botello, a spokesman for the California DMV. He said the state can suspend the dealer's license or refer the dealer to local prosecutors but cannot recover buyers' money.

Before they land in trouble, used-car buyers should insist on seeing a vehicle's title to make sure it has no liens, consumer advocates say. They also say buyers offering trade-ins should first pay off the loan themselves if possible, or deal only with high-volume dealers who are part of a larger auto group and thus are less likely to fold.

"You've got to check out the dealer's financial health as best you can if you're going to let them handle your vehicle resale," said Jesse Toprak, executive director of automobile industry analysis for Edmunds.

Some ways consumers can avoid problems with dealers when they seek to trade-in a vehicle with an outstanding loan or are considering buying a used vehicle:

-- If you still owe money on your old car and you can afford to pay off the loan yourself, do so before trading in the vehicle. Otherwise, it's important to find a reputable, financially stable dealer who will pay off the loan. Look for high-volume dealers, usually in urban areas, who are part of a larger auto dealership group. They usually are less likely to go out of business and more likely to clean up their commitments if they do fold.

-- If you are buying a trade-in, insist on seeing the used vehicle's title to make sure it is in the dealer's name -- not the former owner's. There should be no lien on the vehicle, and if there is one, there should be a lien release attached to the title.

-- Check the vehicle's history. They are available from Web sites such as carfax.com for a fee, but many reputable dealers will provide them for free.

-- If you run into problems, complain to the agency that regulates auto dealers in your state, often the Department of Motor Vehicles. Many state attorneys general and local prosecutors also are getting involved with this growing problem.

-- You may be able to file a claim against the bond the dealer posted with the state. However, the bonds often are too small to cover all the losses, and payments are usually made on a first-come, first-served basis. File early.

-- Hire a lawyer. Your recourse may be to sue the dealer. But if the dealer goes out of business and is bankrupt, there often is no money left for consumers.

86 Israeli war criminals are now wanted by international courts

86 Israeli war criminals are now wanted by international courts, says Raji Al-Sourani

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Palestinian human rights activist Raji Al-Sourani has disclosed Wednesday that at least 86 Israeli military officers were now wanted by a number western courts for their role in the holocaust in the Gaza Strip.

In a forum held in this regard in the Egyptian capital Cairo, Sourani accused the European governments of adopting unfair stand over the Israeli massacres in Gaza Strip, opining that such behavior would bring the world back to the " law of the jungle."

He said that a number of lawsuits were filed by international human rights organizations against Israeli military officers before courts in Britain, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Spain over their role in the brutal war on Gaza, underlining that 86 of those officers were now wanted by those courts.

"The Palestinian human rights organizations will keep on chasing those Israeli war criminals, and they won't forgive or forget what the Israeli occupation army had done in Gaza", Sourani stressed.

According to Sourani, the Israeli holocaust in Gaza was the bloodiest and most brutal holocaust in the Israeli occupation history in Palestine, adding that the Palestinian legal groups were relentlessly documenting those crimes to use them against the Israeli officials.

Moreover, Sourani deprecated Europe for not doing anything to bridle the Israeli criminal activities against the Palestinian civilians in Gaza, stressing, "We aren’t relying too much on the American stand because we know it is biased for Israel, but we blame Europe that claims to advocate democracy and human rights, but when it comes to condemning Israeli war crimes in Gaza, European governments refuse to vote for a resolution by the UNHRC.

He also pointed out that the Israeli crimes weren’t limited to the Gaza Strip, adding that the Israeli occupation government was and still practicing ethnic cleansing in the occupied city of Jerusalem against Palestinians, and expanding the Israeli settlements there at the expense of the Palestinian lands.

Iraq tribes threaten to take up arms over poll

Iraq tribes threaten to take up arms over poll

By Fadhel al-Badrani

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Tribal sheikhs who helped drive al Qaeda militants out of Western Iraq threatened on Monday to take up arms against the provincial government because of what they said was fraud in Saturday's provincial polls.

The election was the most peaceful in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, but there has been tension in the west of the country between Sunni Arab groups, many of whom boycotted the last provincial ballot in 2005.

Anbar province, Iraq's vast western third, was once the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency against U.S. troops but is now largely quiet, thanks to tribal guard units known as Awakening councils that helped drive out al Qaeda militants.

In one of the toughest-fought contests of the election, the tribes have challenged the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), a Sunni religious party which has run the province since 2005.

With the IIP claiming the results will keep it in power, Awakening leaders alleged fraud in the voting.

"We threatened the electoral commission not to allow fraud. We said we will transform from a political entity to an armed wing against the electoral commission and the IIP because we discovered fraud," Awakening movement head Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha told Reuters.

Hamid al-Hais, head of the Anbar Tribes list in the election, travelled to Baghdad to lodge a protest.

"We will set the streets of Ramadi ablaze if the Islamic Party is declared the winners of the election," he told Reuters, referring to Anbar's provincial capital. "We will make Anbar a grave for the Islamic Party and its agents. We will start a tribal war against them and those who cooperate with them."

Electoral authorities say official preliminary results will not be announced for days and final results may take several weeks. The IIP says it came in first and expects to hold onto power in the province.

"We are convinced that we will be the first in Anbar and we will make a coalition with any entity that wants to work with us," said Khalid Mohammed al-Alwani, IIP head in Falluja, the Anbar town where there were fierce battles between U.S. forces and insurgents in 2004.

Authorities imposed an overnight curfew on Monday to prevent outbreaks of violence. Colonel Mahmoud al-Esawi, chief of police in Falluja, said the curfew would be in force from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. (1900-0200 GMT) throughout the province.

Witnesses said supporters of both sides fired guns into the air late on Sunday to celebrate perceived victories -- IIP supporters near the governor's office in Ramadi and Awakening movement supporters just outside the town.

No one was hurt, but the gunfire rattled throughout the city for about two hours.

The electoral commission has said the election took place without major violations. However, it has acknowledged that thousands of people were unable to vote because they could not find their names on registration lists.

Greek riot police fire tear gas at farmers

Greek riot police fire tear gas at farmers

Greek riot police have fired tear gas at farmers to prevent them from driving their tractors to Athens to stage a demonstration.

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At least two people, including an opposition politician, were injured in scuffles between police and the protesters at the port of Piraeus outside the Greek capital.

The farmers are demanding financial help from the government and the tense stand off at Piraeus is the latest twist in nearly two weeks of protests.

The farmers, who had used their tractors to block border crossings and major raods across the country for days, complain that they are receiving low prices for their products.

"Farmers are not second-class citizens. All they want to do is make their presence felt," said Alekos Alavanos, an MP on the island of Crete and leader of the Left Coalition party leader.

About 1,000 farmers from Crete, as well as mayors of the island's towns and MPs, arrived in Piraeus on overnight ferries along with dozens of tractors, trucks and other agricultural vehicles they intended to drive through Athens to the agriculture ministry.

But Greek authorities said they would only be allowed to carry out a demonstration on foot, not with vehicles that would snarl up traffic in the capital.

"I am awaiting the farmers at the ministry. We consider the ministry to be the home of all farmers and our door is always open," said Michalis Papadopoulos, the deputy agriculture minister.

A group of farmers, black flags fluttering from their tractors, attempted to break through the police lines inside the port, and riot police fired tear gas to push them back.

Nuclear power workers join wildcat strike action over foreign labour

Nuclear power workers join wildcat strike action over foreign labour

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The wave of wildcat strike action that has swept across the UK escalated today as hundreds more workers walked out in the protest against foreign labour.

Contract workers from the Sellafield nuclear site in Cumbria, the Heysham nuclear power station in Lancashire and a site at Staythorpe, in Nottinghamshire, joined the unofficial action over the hiring of Italian and Portuguese workers on a Lincolnshire power station project.

Workers from the Longannet power station in Scotland joined those at the Grangemouth oil refinery, who voted to continue their strike, while 200 employees at Fiddlers Ferry power station in Widnes, Cheshire, also walked out this morning.

In west Wales, up to 500 contractors at the South Hook LNG gas terminal in Milford Haven downed tools for a second day. Many of the strikers took part in a similar protest on Friday. Around 150 contract workers at Aberthaw power station, in south Wales, also walked out.

Outside the Lindsey oil refinery in Killingholme, Lincolnshire, where the protests began, more than 1,000 demonstrators gathered for a mass meeting, voting unanimously to allow union officials to start talks with management.

"Over the last week, your heroic actions here have inspired thousands in our county, hundreds of thousands in our country, and millions across the globe," Kenny Ward, from the Unite union, told the crowd.

"The fight started here at Lindsey: the fight against discrimination, the fight against victimisation and the fight to put bread on your table for your children. Gordon Brown said it is indefensible. If the prime minister will not defend the working man, if parliament will not defend the working man, then the union will defend the working man."

He said "people in Europe" needed to take note, and judges who interpreted the law "to the advantage of the employer" needed to have "a rethink".

Gordon Brown said the unofficial strikes sweeping the country were "counter-productive". Speaking at a joint press conference after talks with the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, Brown said his priority was to promote the jobs of British workers in the face of the current recession.

"I recognise people are concerned about their jobs," he said. The prime minister insisted the government was doing everything it could to ensure fair treatment for UK workers.

The business secretary, Lord Mandelson, denied that UK firms and workers faced discrimination, and called for the unofficial strikes to stop. He said he understood the concerns of British workers but stressed that Total, which runs the Lindsey plant, had rebutted claims that UK workers had been excluded from contracts.

In a statement to the House of Lords this afternoon, Mandelson said it was important to "respect and guarantee" the principle of free movement, which was an "intrinsic part" of membership of the European Union. Around 300,000 British companies operated elsewhere in the EU, he said.

"On the Lindsey site, the great majority of the workers are actually British, so clearly no policy of discrimination or exclusion of British nationals is being operated at the refinery," he said.

Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union, said Mandelson was "in denial about the nature of the problem" and the Labour party had been aware of the issue for five years.

"The facts are that the manner in which the EU 1996 Posted Workers Directive was applied into UK law in 1999 was botched," he said. "The Labour party recognised this in 2004 and made a manifesto commitment to apply Article 3(8) properly into UK law. That commitment, which was repeated in 2008, has not been honoured."

About 600 mechanical contractors met at the Sellafield site's Yottenfews car park at 7.30am to agree a 24-hour walkout in support of the Lindsey action.

One of the strikers, the GMB convener Willie Doggert, said: "All we want is a level playing field. It's not just about foreign workers. We need jobs to be advertised with transparency so that everybody gets a fair crack of the whip at getting them."

Total said talks would be held today with the conciliation service Acas, senior union representatives and Jacobs, the main contractor at Lindsey.

"We recognise the concerns of contractors but we must stress that it has never been, and never will be, the policy of Total to discriminate against British companies or British workers. We have been a major local employer for 40 years and the majority of our 500 permanent staff are local," the company said.

It said its £200m investment in the site would help to secure the long-term future of the refinery and local employment opportunities.

A small group of protesters gathered about 100 yards from the Forest Pines hotel, near Scunthorpe, where the talks were understood to be taking place. Police were guarding both entrances to the hotel.

Management at Sellafield said the contractors who walked out this morning had been building new storage facilities. A Sellafield Ltd spokesman said there were very few foreign workers employed at the site, and 90% of contractors were from west Cumbria.

A similar row has been raging at Staythorpe for months and several demonstrations have been held to protest that UK workers were being overlooked in favour of foreign staff.

Around 700 contractors at the Grangemouth oil refinery in central Scotland walked out again today after unofficial action on Friday. They decided they would return to work tomorrow.

The wildcat action began after the Italian company IREM won a £200m construction contract and supplied its own permanent workforce. It is understood 100 Italian and Portuguese workers are already on site and 300 more are expected in the coming days and weeks.

Moves are under way to set up a panel under an independent chairman to review the recruitment. Total had put a contract out to tender for the construction project with five UK firms and two European contractors.

On Friday, up to 3,000 workers from at least 11 oil refineries and power plants in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland mounted protests and unofficial strikes over the contract.

Mandelson told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that claims that British workers had been excluded from the disputed contract, or that foreign workers were being paid less than the going rate, were unfounded. He conceded few people from Teesside took advantage of work opportunities across Europe, but denied that he was suggesting Britons should "get on their bike" to look for work.

"No one is forcing anyone to travel. There are other jobs being created in the UK economy. What is at stake is the opportunity for the movement of people who, if they wish, can apply for jobs or follow their companies around the European Union."

The shadow business secretary, Kenneth Clarke, condemned the strikes. "I understand people being worried about their jobs; I don't think this is the right way to demonstrate it," he said. "The idea that people think the reaction to these concerns is to start threatening to close down power generation at the time of a cold snap is obviously something we all disapprove of."

A spokesman for the Energy Department said: "We're not aware of any current or potential impact of the unofficial strikes on gas, electricity or fuel supplies."