Thursday, March 26, 2009

Constitutional Scholar Calls Bush Torture Memos Treason

Do the Secret Bush Memos Amount to Treason? Top Constitutional Scholar Says Yes

By Naomi Wolf

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In early March, more shocking details emerged about George W. Bush legal counsel John Yoo's memos outlining the destruction of the republic.

The memos lay the legal groundwork for the president to send the military to wage war against U.S. citizens; take them from their homes to Navy brigs without trial and keep them forever; close down the First Amendment; and invade whatever country he chooses without regard to any treaty or objection by Congress.

It was as if Milton's Satan had a law degree and was establishing within the borders of the United States the architecture of hell.

I thought this was -- and is -- certainly one of the biggest stories of our lifetime, making the petty burglary of Watergate -- which scandalized the nation -- seem like playground antics. It is newsworthy too with the groundswell of support for prosecutions of Bush/Cheney crimes and recent actions such as Canadian attorneys mobilizing to arrest Bush if he visits their country.

The memos are a confession. The memos could not be clearer: This was the legal groundwork of an attempted coup. I expected massive front page headlines from the revelation that these memos exited. Almost nothing. I was shocked.

As a non-lawyer, was I completely off base in my reading of what this meant, I wondered? Was I hallucinating?

Astonished, I sought a reality check -- and a formal legal read -- from one of the nation's top constitutional scholars (and most steadfast patriots), Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been at the forefront of defending the detainees and our own liberties.

Here is our conversation:

Naomi Wolf: Michael, can you explain to a layperson what the Yoo memos actually mean?'

Michael Ratner: What they mean is that your book looks moderate in respect to those issues now. This -- what is in the memos -- is law by fiat.

I call it "Fuhrer's law." What those memos lay out means the end of the system of checks and balances in this country. It means the end of the system in which the courts, legislature and executive each had a function and they could check each other.

What the memos set out is a system in which the president's word is law, and Yoo is very clear about that: the president's word is not only law according to these memos, but no law or constitutional right or treaty can restrict the president's authority.

What Yoo says is that the president's authority as commander in chief in the so-called war on terror is not bound by any law passed by Congress, any treaty, or the protections of free speech, due process and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The First, Fourth and Fifth amendments -- gone.

What this actually means is that the president can order the military to operate in the U.S. and to operate without constitutional restrictions. They -- the military -- can pick you or me up in the U.S. for any reason and without any legal process. They would not have any restrictions on entering your house to search it, or to seize you. They can put you into a brig without any due process or going to court. (That's the Fourth and Fifth amendments.)

The military can disregard the Posse Comitatus law, which restricts the military from acting as police in the the United States. And the president can, in the name of wartime restrictions, limit free speech. There it is in black and white: we are looking at one-person rule without any checks and balances -- a lawless state. Law by fiat.

Who has suspended the law this way in the past? It is like a Caesar's law in Rome; a Mussolini's law in Italy; a Fuhrer's law in Germany; a Stalin's law in the Soviet Union. It is right down the line. It is enforcing the will of the dictator through the military.

NW: The mainstream media have virtually ignored these revelations, though it seems to me this is the biggest news since Pearl Harbor.

MR: I think that's right. We had a glimmering of the blueprint for some of this -- when they picked up Jose Padilla, the military went to a prison and snatched an American citizen as if they had a perfect right to do so.

Now we can see that these memos laid the legal groundwork for such actions. We knew the military could do this to an individual. We did not know the plan was to eliminate First Amendment constitutional rights for the entire population.

NW: If Bush only wanted these powers in order to prosecute a war on terror, why does he need to suspend the First Amendment? Isn't that the smoking gun of a larger intention toward the general population?

MR: Part of this plan was actually implemented: for instance, they tried to keep people like Padilla from getting to a magistrate. They engaged in the wiretapping, because according to these memos there was no Fourth Amendment.

They had to be planning some kind of a takeover of the United States to be saying they could simply abolish the First Amendment if the president believed it was necessary in the name of national security. It lays the groundwork for what could have been a massive military takeover of the United States.

Here they crept right up and actually implemented part of the plan, with Padilla, with the warrantless wiretapping. Yet they are saying in the White House and in Congress that it is looking backward to investigate the authors of these memos and those who instructed Yoo and others to write them.

But investigation and prosecutions are really looking forward -- to say we need the deterrence of prosecution so this does not happen again.

NW: What about the deployment of three brigades in the U.S.? How should we read that?'

MR: With terrorism as less of a concern to many, but now with the economy in tatters there is a lot more militant activism in U.S. -- the New School and NYU student takeovers, protests around the country and strikes are just the beginning. I think governments are now concerned over people's activism, and people's anger at their economic situation. I don't think those brigades can be detached from the idea that there might well be a huge amount of direct-action protest in the U.S.

There could have also been a closer election that could have been stolen easily and then a huge protest. Those troops would have been used to enforce the will of the cabal stealing the election.

NW: As a layperson, I don't fully understand what powers the memos actually manifest. Are they theoretical or not just theoretical? What power did the memos actually give Bush?

MR: They were probably, in fact almost for sure, written in cahoots with the administration -- [Karl] Rove, [Dick] Cheney -- to give them legal backing for what they planned or wanted to carry out.

What I assume happened here is people like Cheney or his aides go to the Office of Legal Counsel and say, "We are going to need legal backing, to give a face of legality to what we are doing and what we are planning." When the president then signs a piece of paper that says, "OK, military, go get Jose Padilla," these memos give that order a veneer of legality.

If you are familiar with the history of dictators, coups and fascism (as I know you are), they (the planners) prefer a veneer of legality. Hitler killed 6 million Jews with a veneer of legality -- getting his dictatorial powers through the Reichstag and the courts.

These memos gave the Bush administration's [lawless] practices the veneer of legality.

NW: So are you saying that these memos actually created a police state that we did not know about?

MR: If you look at police state as various strands of lawlessness, we knew about some of this lawlessness even before this latest set of memos.

But the memos revealed how massive the takeover of our democracy was to be -- that this wasn't just going to be a few individuals here or there who suffered the arrows of a police state.

These memos lay the groundwork for a massive military takeover of the United States in cahoots with the president. And if that's not a coup d'etat then, nothing is.

NW: Can I ask something? I keep thinking about the notion of treason. In America now, people tend to read the definition of treason in the Constitution as if they are thinking of a Tokyo Rose or an American citizen acting as an agent for an enemy state -- very much a World War II experience of the traitor to one's country.

But I've been reading a lot of 16th and 17th century history, and it seems to me that the founders were thinking more along the lines of English treason of that era -- small groups of Englishmen, usually nobility, who formed cabals and conspired with one another to buy or recruit militias to overthrow the crown or Parliament.

The notion that a group might conspire in secret to overthrow the government is not a wild, marginal concept, it is a substantial part of European, and especially British, Renaissance and Reformation-era history and would have been very much alive in the minds of the Enlightenment-era founders. (I just visited the Tower of London where this was so frequent a charge against groups of English subjects that there is a designated Traitor's Gate.)

So clearly you don't have to act on behalf of another state to commit treason. The Constitution defines it as levying war against the United States or giving aid and comfort to its enemies. It says nothing about the enemy having to be another state.

When the Constitution was drafted, the phrase "United States" barely referred to a singular country; it referred to a new federation of many united states. They imagined militias rising up against various states; it was not necessarily nation against nation.

Surely, when we have evidence Bush prepared the way to allow the military to imprison or shoot civilians in the various states and created law to put his own troops over the authority of the governors and the national guard of the various states, and when the military were sent to terrorize protesters in St. Paul, [Minn.], Bush was levying war in this sense against the united states?

Hasn't Bush actually levied war against Minnesota? And if our leaders and military are sworn to protect and defend the Constitution, and there is clear evidence now that Bush and his cabal intended to do away with it, are they not our enemies and giving aid and comfort to our enemies? Again, "enemy" does not seem to me to be defined in the Constitution as another sovereign state.

MR: You are right. Treason need not involve another state. Aaron Burr was tried for treason. I do think that a plan to control the military, use it in the United States contrary to law and the Constitution and employ it to levy a war or takeover that eliminates the democratic institutions of the country constitutes treason, even if done under the president of the United States.

The authority given by these memos that could be used to raid every congressional office, raid and search every home, detain tens of thousands, would certainly fit a definition of treason.

This would be the president making war against the institutions of the United States.

Across America, a bumper crop of food gardens

Across America, a bumper crop of food gardens

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More than a third of Americans -- including First Lady Michelle Obama -- are working the hoe at home, keen to grow their own tasty tomatoes, cucumbers and beans.

According to the National Gardening Association, home vegetable gardens are sprouting up a storm in the United States, with 37 percent of homes tending a patch -- up sharply from 19 percent a year ago.

"I want to make sure that our family, as well as the staff and all the people who come to the White House and eat our food, get access to really fresh vegetables and fruits," the First Lady said last week as she broke ground on the White House lawn.

But there are several factors playing into the boom. It comes at the crossroads of environmental awareness, increasingly frequent food safety scares and recession's economic bite.

"The number one reason is better tasting food (58 percent), number two is to save money on food bills (54 percent) and (third) is to grow better quality food and knowing it's safe (51 percent)," Bruce Butterfield, a researcher at the NGA, told AFP.

He conducted a study on America's would-be backyard farmers, who mean big business for makers of trowels and seed suppliers. Some 43 million homes will be tending a vegetable garden in 2009, up from 36 million last year.

And one in five backyard food gardeners -- including Michelle Obama herself -- will be a first-timer this year, according to the Harris poll of 2,500 people.

The move to plant the First Garden came following a public campaign, in which more than 100,000 people asked the first couple to plant a garden on a plot somewhere in the 16 acres (6.5 hectares) of White House grounds, according to Kitchen Gardeners International, a group which aims to inspire and teach people to grow their own food.

For Michelle Obama, the garden also creates family togetherness of a sort.

She joked at a ground breaking event last week that "everybody in the family will have to pull weeds -- whether they like it or not."

The garden is the first full-scale planting on the White House lawn in more than 60 years when then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden during World War II.

In 2008, facing sharply higher food prices, Americans started digging in larger numbers and tending vegetable plots; 10 percent of families ultimately coaxed crops from seeds and weeds.

One million Americans already bring their green thumbs to community gardens and demand is huge: another five million would like to do so.

And while about 8O percent of American homes have access to a garden or yard, for 20 dollars they can rent a miniplot in an organic community garden run by the National Park Service.

In Washington, which has a long growing season and warm, humid climate, there are about 20 community gardens across the city and time on waiting lists can hit two years.

Meanwhile garden sharing has taken off. At "Sharing Backyards DC", the website helps link up homeowners with no interest in gardening and green-thumbed neighbors ready to turn the plot into something productive.

Nathan Seaberry, a 55-year-old who gardens at the Blair community garden in Washington, plants potatoes, cabbage and broccoli. "It's better for my health and my wallet, prices of food have gone so high," says the father of seven.

Tough economic times have played a key role in getting people gardening in the cases of 34 percent of backyard plotters, the study also found.

It also showed that people spend an average 70 dollars on their plots, spend about five hours a week tending them, and that the yields are usually worth 530 dollars a year.

"It gives me a sense of security to have the garden," said Leigh Crenshaw, a gardener in her late twenties at the Mamie Lee community garden here. "I'm sure I'll figure out a way to survive, whether or not I have a job. (But) this garden and my community will keep me strong."

Health scares also have played into the passion for the plow.

"These ongoing food safety issues like the peanut butter and the spinach contaminated with E.coli have become even more a matter of great concern for people," said Robert LaGassi, executive director of the Garden Writers Association.

Seed sales are up 20-30 percent in this early spring season above last year's 20-percent gain, as Americans find comfort during challenging times by spending more time at home, said the NGA's Butterfield.

In these trying economic times, he said, "I think people now feel the need to go back to basics."

US jobless claims hit 652,000 in week

US jobless claims hit 652,000 in week

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The number of new jobless claims in the United States rose by 1.2 percent to 652,000 during the week ending March 21 as the country reeled from recession, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The initial claims for unemployment benefits was roughly in line with the 650,000 figure forecast by analysts and marked an increase of 8,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 644,000.

The claims peaked two weeks ago at 657,000, a 26-year high.

The four-week moving average of initial claims, a more reliable indicator of unemployment trends, was 649,000, down by 1,000 from the previous week's revised average of 650,000, the department said.

It said that the number of people receiving unemployment benefits for the week ending March 14 increased to a new record high of 5.56 million, an increase of 122,000 from the preceding week's revised level of 5.43 million.

The weekly report gives the most current snapshot of the labor market but is subject to volatility.

The latest monthly report showed February unemployment rate had jumped to a 25-year high of 8.1 percent, from from 7.6 percent in January as employers shed payrolls to cope with the economic slide.

Obama town hall meetings in Cali.: No answers for joblessness, austerity

Obama “town hall” meetings in California No answers for joblessness, austerity

By Dan Conway and Kevin Martinez

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Recent weeks have seen a marked acceleration of the state of California’s economic woes. The state’s official unemployment rate increased to 10.5 percent in February, the highest recorded in 26 years. Separate teams of University of California economists recently predicted that the rate will rise to as much as 15 percent by spring 2010, even though monies received from the federal stimulus package were included in the projection.

The state's deteriorating employment outlook was also a significant factor in a March 13 announcement by the state legislative analyst office, which stated the state faces an additional $8 billion shortfall through fiscal year 2009-2010. The announcement came a mere three weeks after the state legislature passed a budget including nearly $20 billion in spending cuts and regressive tax and fee increases (See "California legislature passes massive austerity budget").

These severe austerity measures, first proposed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in collusion with the leadership of the state Democratic Party, were meant to address the then $42 billion budget shortfall. The original figure was based on an expected unemployment rate of 9.1 percent and was revised after recent unemployment figures were made known. There is now every reason to expect that the state's budget outlook will continue to deteriorate as unemployment rises to levels not seen since the Great Depression.

Last week, President Obama visited California and held two public meetings in Costa Mesa and Los Angeles before an audience of hundreds of people who asked a range of questions dealing with the state and national economic crisis.

Friday's town hall meeting in Los Angeles was introduced by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, "one of the great innovators of state government," according to Obama and "an outstanding partner with our administration." This is a man who has decimated social services depended upon by millions of Californians and thrown into jeopardy the education of future generations.

It soon became evident that these meetings were merely a public relations stunt orchestrated by the Obama administration to feign outrage at Wall Street's theft of public funds while convincing the public that more of their money was necessary to bail out the banks and rescue the US financial system.

Regarding the wretched state of the economy in California, Obama was forced to say, "I don't need to tell you these are challenging times. I don't need to tell you this because you're living it every day. One out of every 10 Californians is out of work right now. You've got one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. Budget cuts are threatening the jobs of thousands of teachers across this state."

Having acknowledged this reality, Obama proceeded to offer nothing but empty platitudes for California workers.

A teacher from Santa Ana who received a pink slip from her school district told Obama, "Our class sizes are between 36 and 44. This is normal. I've been in the district for over 25 years. I have seen what our kids can do when someone cares. The Teacher of the Year also received a pink slip." She asked, "How are we going to make sure that money comes to our districts that need it the most, the urban districts?"

While Obama stated, "we've got to provide better teacher training," he went on to add, "I think that it is important for us to make sure that we have assessments that everybody can agree—because ultimately we've got to know that our kids are meeting high standards." In other words, unnecessary standardized testing will remain on the budget, teachers will not.

The president also appealed to economic nationalism when he explained, "We can't afford our kids to be mediocre at a time when they're competing against kids in China and kids in India who are actually in school about a month longer than our kids."

As opposed to the president's comments, which were largely disingenuous, the remarks made by audience members reflected a genuine sense of anger and anxiety about the current economic crisis. One rather poignant comment was made at the Los Angeles meeting by eight-year-old Ethan Lopez, who said, "President Obama, our school is in big trouble because of budget cuts. Twenty-five of our teachers have already been fired." He then showed the president a stack of letters he and his classmates had signed to help keep their teachers working. More than 8,000 teachers and educational staff in Los Angeles County received pink slips on March 16, the majority not expected to return to work next September.

Obama answered by quickly, claiming that the so-called America Reinvestment and Recovery Act would "give more money to the state to keep teachers in their jobs." In reality, the stimulus funds will not reach California's school districts in time to rescind the tens of thousands of pink slips sent out to teachers. The $4.8 billion in state stabilization funds set aside for California would be largely absorbed to pay for the additional $8 billion decline in revenues estimated since Gov. Schwarzenegger's budget was passed last month.

One of Obama's more feeble responses was given to a man who said, "Last October I lost my job after 13 years. I was laid off. Now when I look for a job, people tell me that I have a felony from 20 years ago—I can't get any work. I have a family to support. What do I do?"

Obama made a series of unserious proposals about investing in construction and infrastructure, as well as "clean energy," before getting back to the man's question. He told him, "In the meantime the most that I can do is to make sure that you've got unemployment insurance that you can rely on, that you've got COBRA that you can rely on, that your family is able to get some support during these difficult times, and then to try to get these jobs created as quickly as possible."

Obama asked the man what job he had, and he replied that he worked in the auto industry for Toyota. This became just another opportunity for the president to mention how he supports "clean, fuel-efficient" cars and plans on spending $15 billion a year for clean-energy auto technology. He made no mention of the struggle that millions are facing trying to find a job, or the wave of layoffs hitting autoworkers in the US and elsewhere.

One woman asked, "Since American taxpayers have had to bail out a lot of large banks—Citibank, etc.—and they don't feel they've gotten any benefit for themselves, do you support caps on interest rates that the same companies we have bailed out with our money can charge regular consumers on credit cards? Because it's up to 30 and 40 percent."

Obama could only muster vague support for the idea before adding, "Generally speaking, if you're just running up your credit card and you don't think that there's a bill to be paid, you've got problems. So all of us, I think, have to be more thoughtful about how we use them, and ultimately we've got to take responsibility if we are going on shopping sprees that we can't afford."

In explaining why the large banks are receiving hundreds of billions worth of public funds for running their institutions into the ground, Obama said, "Here's the problem. It's almost like they've got—they got a bomb strapped to them and they've got their hand on the trigger. You don't want them to blow up, but you got to kind of talk them—ease that finger off the trigger."

In other words, CitiCorp, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo are essentially acting like suicide bombers threatening the world financial system with calamity. Whether or not the president was aware of it, his comments underscored just who, and in whose interest, the country is run.

US government department routinely ignores labor law violations

US government department routinely ignores labor law violations

By Jerry White

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A report issued Wednesday by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) details how the Department of Labor routinely ignores low-wage workers who complain about the violation of federal minimum wage, overtime and child labor laws.

The Department of Labor's Wage and Hours Division (WHD) is responsible for enforcing the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was passed by the Roosevelt administration in 1938 in response to the massive working class struggles of the Depression era. The act established a national minimum wage, guaranteed time and a half for overtime in certain jobs, and prohibited most employment of minors in "oppressive child labor."

The ability of workers—particularly the lowest paid and most oppressed, such as immigrant workers—to seek protection from the Labor Department, which has little enforcement powers, has always been limited. Over the last three decades a bad situation has gotten worse as the minimal legal protections afforded to US workers have been systematically undermined by the government-backed offensive against the working class. The Labor Department has faced budget cuts and a reduction of inspectors by both Republican and Democratic administrations, which have perpetuated the myth of self-regulating employers.

The GAO reported actions initiated by the Labor Department on wage and hour violations dropped from approximately 47,000 in 1997 to fewer than 30,000 in 2007. The use of fines that punish repeat or egregious offenders declined by nearly 50 percent from 2001 to 2007.

Last July, the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, presented evidence on 15 cases where the WHD failed to investigate complaints filed by workers. The new report is a follow-up on these initial findings, based on a nine-month investigation by undercover agents from the GAO who posed as workers telephoning the WHD for help. The cases were in Alabama, California, Florida, Maryland and Texas—states that handled 13 percent of all complaints in 2007.

GAO investigators found that the Labor Department's division mishandled nine of the ten fictitious cases. In two cases, the WHD falsely reported that employers had paid back wages.

In one case, a caller posing as a meatpacker in Modesto, California, left a message with the WHD, reporting that he had seen under-aged children working during school hours with saws and meat grinders. While the government agency claims child labor violations are its top priority, four months after the call the WHD had not conducted an investigation and the complaint had not been recorded in its database.

The callous indifference of Labor Department representatives was striking. Several exchanges between GAO undercover agents and the WHD can be found here.

In one, a WHD employee seeks to dissuade a fictitious worker filing a complaint against his boss, suggesting, not too subtly, that this could result in him being fired.

WHD: "You're sure you don't want to just have a nice conversation with him yourself?"

Undercover investigator: "No, no, I don't want to, because he gets very loud and angry."

WHD: "O.K., well here's another avenue that you can pursue. O.K., do you have another job lined up?"

Investigator: "No."

WHD: "O.K., you might want to do that before you file a complaint with us, because I can't guarantee that he's not going to fire you."

In another case, a GAO investigator posing as an employer tells the WHD she cannot afford to pay back wages to a worker—and the matter is dropped.

WHD: "Ok, well you will have to pay him at least the minimum wage for all the hours that he worked."

Fictitious employer: "Well, you know, like I said, all our contracts have dried up, we really don't have anything coming in, so..."

WHD: "Ok, so you're not in a position where you can pay him?"

Fictitious employer: "No."

WHD: "Ok, well then I will let him know that he has his private right to action to pursue the funds."

In addition to the cases with fictitious employees and employers, the GAO found that the agency had "inadequately investigated" another 20 actual cases affecting at least 1,160 employees. In some cases it took over a year for the labor department to respond to a complaint. In others, cases were closed based on unverified information provided by an employer or simply dropped when an employer did not return phone calls.

For example, it took 22 months for the agency to assign an investigator after workers charged restaurants in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee with a series of child labor, minimum wage and overtime violations. The WHD determined that the enterprises owed $230,000 to 438 employees for the violations and for absconding with much of the workers' tips. The employers refused to compensate the workers for their tips. After rejecting the offer, the WHD dropped the case with no collection of back wages.

In another case, 93 workers at a boarding school in Thompson Falls, Montana were not paid more than $200,000 in overtime. The Labor Department first handled the complaint as a "self-audit," allowing the employer to review its own records. The company stalled, waiting for expiration of the statute of limitations, and then offered to pay only $1,000 in back wages. The WHD then closed the case.

Summing up its findings, the GAO wrote, "The investigation clearly shows that the Department of Labor has left thousands of actual victims of wage theft who sought federal government assistance with nowhere to turn."

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives' Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing to take testimony from GAO officials. Committee chairman, California Democrat George Miller, singled out the former Republican administration for blame, saying, "We owe it to all hard working Americans to ensure that we correct the incompetence of the Bush administration and ensure families are not being cheated out of their wages by unscrupulous employers. This was a massive failure. Former Secretary Chao was absent without leave."

Earlier, Obama's Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said the department was increasing the number of inspectors and would "refocus" its efforts on enforcing labor laws.

There is no doubt the Bush administration worked diligently to dismantle wage, job safety and environmental protections and appointed one representative of corporate America after another to head up regulatory agencies. The Democrats, however, have been complicit.

Before Bush, the Carter and Clinton administrations began the systematic undermining of such protections in the name of lifting undue restrictions on the operation of the free market. This is a process that the pro-business Obama administration will continue, despite its pretensions.

New York Times publishes “persecuted” AIG executive’s resignation letter

New York Times publishes “persecuted” AIG executive’s resignation letter

By Tom Eley

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The Wednesday New York Times published an "open letter" of resignation by one of the American International Group (AIG) executives who had recently received a huge bonus ("Dear A.I.G., I Quit!"). The letter from Jake DeSantis, Executive Vice President of AIG's Financial Products (AIG-FP) division, defended the AIG executive bonuses.

The Times's decision to give it such prominence—it covered more than half a page in its editorial section—shows, once again, that the leading organ of US liberalism is committed to the defense of the financial aristocracy. The letter's publication marks another volley in the ruling class counteroffensive over the AIG bonuses, in which the media has played a leading role (see, "The media defends executive bonuses" ).

DeSantis's letter will be added to the arsenal of those defending leading finance executives' "right" to enormous bonuses. The story was immediately picked up and promoted by a number of media outlets, which generally presented DeSantis and the AIG executives in a favorable light, including American Public Media and blogs associated with MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, to name a few.

DeSantis trains his fire on CEO Edward M. Liddy, who was brought in by the Federal Reserve to head AIG after its collapse. Liddy, DeSantis writes, "was not strong enough to withstand the shifting political winds."

DeSantis is angered that Liddy, in his congressional testimony regarding the AIG bonuses, had not taken a more defiant stand. "I and many others in the unit [AIG-FP] feel betrayed that you failed to stand up for us in the face of...members of Congress last Wednesday and from the press over our retention payments, and that you didn't defend us against the baseless and reckless comments made by the attorneys general of New York and Connecticut."

The letter claims the pressure on AIG-FP executives to return their bonuses was unfair, DeSantis writing he was "in no way involved in—or responsible for—the credit default swap transactions that have hamstrung AIG."

After news of the AIG bonuses first came out, generating enormous public outrage, politicians of both parties quickly engaged in political theater, cynically declaring their "outrage" over bonuses they had previously defended. Following a furious reaction from Wall Street and the media, however, plans to tax the bonuses at AIG have quickly been sidelined, and will likely be abandoned altogether.

DeSantis no doubt feels a sense of "injustice" that he and other executives were singled out, while all the other players in the game continue to receive their massive paychecks. The same day that it published DeSantis's letter, the Times also printed a report noting that the top 25 US hedge fund managers pulled in a combined income of $11.6 billion in 2008. DeSantis's own bonus—a net of $742,006.40—is "only" about 15 times the median annual US household income.

DeSantis argues that "employees at the [AIG] financial products unit needed some incentive to stay," after its government rescue. While he ostensibly worked for an annual salary of one dollar after the collapse, DeSantis understood his real salary would come with his year-end bonus.

Only these "incentives to stay" kept the finance "experts" of AIG from going elsewhere to ply their disastrous trade. "Many of the employees have, in the past six months, turned down job offers from more stable employers," DeSantis claims.

DeSantis declares he will hand over his executive bonus to charity. He makes explicit, however, that it is his prerogative to "dictate how my earnings are spent. [I] do not want to see them disappear back into the obscurity of the AIG's or the federal government's budget." In other words, DeSantis refuses to recognize the right of the government to tax his enormous bonus, or even his own corporation's fiduciary obligation to protect its balance sheet. He will provide "honorable service" to AIG, but only up until that service conflicts with the building up of his personal fortune.

DeSantis writes that he "can no longer effectively perform my duties in this dysfunctional environment," and that he "can no longer justify spending 10, 12, 14 hours a day away from my family for the benefit of those who have let me down."

Millions of workers work two or even three jobs for a fraction of DeSantis's 2008 bonus. Households with two wage earners pass whole weeks without spending time together as a family. The family vacation has all but disappeared for large sections of the working class.

DeSantis complains that he, "like many others here," lost "a significant portion of my life savings in the form of deferred compensation invested in the capital" of AIG. Yet DeSantis's one-year bonus was far larger than the retirement accounts of most American workers, which have been decimated due to the financial havoc emanating from Wall Street.

According to DeSantis, "none of us [AIG executives] should be cheated out of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house."

Whatever DeSantis's role at AIG, there is a crucial difference between the work of the plumber and that of the finance executive—besides the enormous disparity in pay. The plumber performs a socially useful labor. The financiers have played a socially destructive role, as the collapse of AIG and the larger economic crisis have made clear. Their entire raison d'etre is to enrich themselves and their cronies.

Those worried over DeSantis's fate after his premature retirement may rest assured. "I know that because of hard work I have benefited more than most during the economic boom and have saved enough that my family is unlikely to suffer devastating losses during the current bust," he writes.

DeSantis has no doubt made himself a very wealthy man over the last 11 years. But he and his Wall Street colleagues have done so at the expense of workers in the US and the world over who are suffering "devastating losses during the current bust."

The class agenda of the Obama administration

Two months on: The class agenda of the Obama administration

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Over the past two months, culminating in the events of the past week, the Obama administration has single-mindedly worked to win the confidence of Wall Street. It has sought to reassure the major banks and investment firms that it will not support any policies that threaten the wealth, prerogatives or power of the American financial aristocracy.

The administration, and Obama personally, view the economic crisis entirely through the eyes of the wealthiest 1 percent of the population. All of their actions have had as their central goal covering the losses—dollar for dollar and at the expense of the American people—of those who are responsible for the economic catastrophe.

For the vast majority of the population, the crisis means vanishing jobs, home foreclosures, the collapse of retirement savings. For Obama, its only significance is that it has shaken the confidence of US capitalism and threatened to undermine America's major banks and investment houses.

Hence the efforts of Obama and his top aides to defend AIG against public outrage over the bonuses awarded by the bailed-out insurance giant, and to derail congressional legislation to recoup them. This has coincided with the announcement of the latest scheme to funnel hundreds of billions of taxpayer money to the banks and hedge funds.

The so-called "Public-Private Investment Plan" unveiled by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Monday is so brazen a money-making racket for the banks—which get to offload their bad debts at vastly inflated prices—and the hedge funds and investment firms—which are virtually assured double-digit profits on money provided for the most part by the government—that even the New York Times acknowledged Wednesday, "In the end, it will be the taxpayer who will be largely footing the bill."

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Award-winning economist, in an interview with Reuters, was more blunt. He said the program offered "perverse incentives" that amounted to "robbery of the American people."

On Wednesday the Times published a report noting that the top 25 hedge fund managers—the very people the administration is courting with virtually free cash and government guarantees to absorb the bulk of any losses—took in $11.6 billion in 2008, even as the household wealth of the American people fell by trillions.

All of the various initiatives of the administration—its bank bailouts, its stimulus package, its housing and health care policies—have been worked out in the closest consultation with the denizens of Wall Street. The nature of the relationship between Obama and the most powerful bankers was indicated in a report published Tuesday by the Wall Street Journal. The article described the process by which Obama arrived at his housing proposals as follows:

"Treasury officials invited executives from Wells Fargo & Co., Bank of America Corp., and JPMorgan Chase & Co., among others. Around the Treasury's biggest conference table, they hashed out how the mortgage plan would work in practice for eight hours, ordering in pizza..."

The article continued: "On March 11, Mr. Dimon [JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon] was ushered into the White House and Treasury Department, where advisers brain-stormed with him about how banks and markets would react to their emerging policies. The following day, at a White House meeting, business executives implored Mr. Obama to get credit flowing again. ‘All right,' the president said, according to a transcript of the meeting. He'd have his people ‘talk to Jamie.'"

Obama will seek to further curry favor with Wall Street by holding an extraordinary meeting Friday at the White House with the CEOs of some the nation's largest banks.

At his Tuesday night press conference, Obama again sought to demonstrate his obeisance to the financial elite and defend a policy of upholding its interests at all costs. He admonished the American people against demonizing "every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit." It is private profit, he declared, "that has always fueled our prosperity, and that is what will ultimately get these banks lending and our economy moving once more."

In other words, the success of the administration's "stabilization and recovery" program will be defined by its ability to secure the financial interests of the ruling elite.

With breathtaking cynicism, Obama declared, "Finally, the most critical part of our strategy is to ensure that we do not return to an economic cycle of bubble and bust in this country. We know that an economy built on reckless speculation, inflated home prices and maxed-out credit cards does not create lasting wealth. It creates the illusion of prosperity, and it's endangered us all."

This from a president whose policy is to underwrite the fictitious capital of the banks and finance houses and protect shareholder wealth derived precisely from an economic bubble based on inflated home prices.

Further on he said, "Bankers and executives on Wall Street need to realize that enriching themselves on the taxpayers' dime is inexcusable, that the days of outsized rewards and reckless speculation that puts us all at risk have to be over." But, of course, enriching bankers and Wall Street executives "on the taxpayers' dime" is precisely what the administration is doing, while it subsidizes hedge fund speculation and defends the "outsized rewards" of AIG millionaires and Wall Street executives in general.

Obama again sought to assure Wall Street that once its interests had been protected at the cost of trillions of dollars in public funds, his administration would turn its attention to ruthlessly cutting social spending in order to pare back the budget deficit.

Having the day before allocated another trillion or so to bailing out the banks, tripling the previous record for federal budget deficits, he made the astonishing assertion that health care costs were the "biggest driver of long-term deficits." That—not the plundering of the country by the banks—was what "we're going to have to tackle," he declared.

What Obama means by "tackling healthcare costs" is relieving corporations of their health care obligations and forcing workers to accept, at best, third-rate coverage with higher out-of-pocket costs.

Obama was determined to get the message out to Wall Street that his administration was committed to imposing a brutal policy of austerity on the working class. "We are cutting out wasteful spending in areas like Medicare," he said. "We're looking at social service programs and education programs that don't work and eliminate (sic) them. And we will continue to go line by line through this budget, and where we find programs that don't work, we will eliminate them. But it is going to be an impossible task for us to balance our budget if we're not taking on rising healthcare costs..."

In response to a reporter's comment that his budget would leave deficits rising again after the next four or five years, Obama explained that the attacks on Medicare and Medicaid being prepared by his administration were not reflected in his budget proposal. "The biggest problem we have long term is Medicare and Medicaid," he said. "But whatever reforms we initiate on that front—and we're very serious about working on a bipartisan basis to reduce those deficits or reduce those costs—you're not going to see those savings reflected until much later."

He then returned to the basic thrust of his press conference, declaring: "And once we get out of this current economic crisis, then it's going to be absolutely important for us to take another look and say... Are there further cuts that we need to make? What other adjustments are—is it going to take for us to have a sustainable budget level?"

A reporter for Ebony magazine asked the only question that touched on the unfolding social disaster in America. Noting that one in fifty children are now homeless in the United States, he asked Obama "what would you say to these families, especially children, who are sleeping under bridges and in tents across the country?"

Obama had nothing to say, because none of his policies address the mounting social crisis or provide any real relief for the victims of job cuts, wage cuts, home foreclosures or collapsing retirement funds. All he could muster, beyond an utterly unconvincing profession of being "heartbroken" that children in America were homeless, was the claim that "we're going to be initiating a range of programs, as well, to deal with homelessness."

The class character of the Obama administration is emerging ever more openly. It is nothing but a front for the financial aristocracy. Its policies are not only inadequate, they are reactionary.

Despite the attempts of decrepit liberals from the Nation and other "left" publications to portray Obama, despite everything, as some kind of reluctant "progressive" who needs a shove from below to follow his true instincts, the policies of the new administration demonstrate the impossibility of effecting change through the ballot box within the framework of the existing political and economic system.

The stranglehold of the financial aristocracy must be broken and the productive resources of society harnessed to meet the needs of the people, rather than to protect and increase the personal fortunes of the wealthy few.

No we are not "All In This Together" by Cindy Sheehan

"We're All In This Together"

No we are not, that's the point.

By Cindy Sheehan

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President Obama basically said that we can't demonize every investor who earns a profit, because "we are all in this together." Sorry, but I am going to have to call a big fat "bull-shit" on this one.

When Obama said "we" did he have a mouse in his pocket? Obama, and his family have a very opulent, slave-built roof over their heads. He travels on the public nickel, his children attend an exclusive Washington, DC private school that has organic food on its menu, and has health care that covers everyone in his family from head to toe and side to side and inside out.

Even though he and every member of the administration, Congress and the Supreme Court are not hurting for anything, the bastard (sorry if your parents weren't married when you were conceived) Wall Street banksters are receiving billions of dollars of government welfare and are not so good about being in "this together" with us.

The only concrete steps the Treasury and Fed have taken are to buy "toxic" assets (if something is toxic can it still be an asset?) so companies like Goldman Sachs (via AIG) can have the public tit rescue them from their stupider than crap mistakes.

WE the ROBBED Class are in this together. THEY the ROBBER Class are in it for themselves. How many times does Obama have to demonstrate that his economic recovery is nothing but Reaganomics wrapped in a little bit of populist rhetoric to make it easier for the mis-informed Robbed Class to swallow. If anything transpires to alleviate the suffering in our Class at all, it will be because some of the prosperity got through the cracks in the deeply cancerous system and trickled ON us. Rest assured, this is just a mistake and the only time the Robber Class cares about us, is when the interests of the two classes collide.

I will feel like I am "in this" with the Obamas when I have a free house, free health care and if my children would not have to go into lifelong debt to pay for university.

I wonder if the wall to wall homeless population (it's growing at an alarming rate) here in San Francisco feels "in this together" with the Wall Street Robbers?

I wonder if the people standing waiting for hours in municipal Emergency Rooms waiting to get some, any medical attention feel "in this together" with Congress which has 110% medical coverage?

I wonder if the foot soldiers for the Empire feel "in this together" with the War Profiteer Robbers?

I wonder if the victims of the drug wars and street wars feel "in this together" with the children of the Robbers who ride to their schools in limos with bodyguards?

I wonder if our brothers and sisters living in tent cities with their children feel "in this together" with the Pelosis and Feinsteins of the world who live in their obscenely huge mansions in exclusive neighborhoods and fly back and forth from DC in private jets that suck down gas at an immoral rate?

I wonder if our brothers and sisters who just cashed a final unemployment check feels "in this together" with the Robbers who just cashed millions in bonuses?

I, myself, feel "in this together" with the homeless, hungry, sick, jobless, struggling, stressed, frightened, confused, yet resilient, brave and strong.

WE are in this together. WE need to step outside of the Robber Class system and start to build our own systems to help each other through this Robber Class/Goldman Sachs/Federal Reserve depression.

Is the Bailout Plan Breeding a Greater Crisis?

Is the Bailout Plan Breeding a Greater Crisis?

By Paul Craig Roberts

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At his March 24 press conference President Obama demonstrated that he is capable of understanding issues as presented to him by his advisers and able to pass on the explanations to the press. The question is whether Obama’s advisers understand the issues.

Obama’s advisers are focused on rescuing banks and the insurance company, AIG. They perceive the problems as solvency and paralyzing uncertainly or fear. Financial institutions, unsure of their own and other institutions solvency, hoard cash and refuse to lend. Credit is needed to get the economy moving, and the Federal Reserve and Treasury are doing their best to inject liquidity and to remove troubled assets from the banks’ books.

This perception of the problem and the “remedies” being applied, might be causing a greater problem for which there is no solution. Obama’s approach, and that of the previous administration, requires massive monetization of debt by the Federal Reserve and massive new debt issues by the Treasury.

The unaddressed question remains: Is the US dollar’s status as world reserve currency threatened by the massive debt monetization and multi- year, multi-trillion dollar issuance of new Treasuries?

The United States has become an import-dependent country. The US is dependent on imports for energy, manufactured goods including clothes and shoes, and advanced technology products. If the US dollar loses its reserve currency status, the US will not be able to pay for its imports. The ensuing crisis would dwarf the current one.

Obama’s advisers believe that the US can monetize debt and issue new debt endlessly, because America’s capital markets are the deepest and most liquid. The dollar is strong, Obama said at his press conference.

But already cracks and strains are appearing. The day after Obama’s press conference, an auction of UK bonds, known as gilts, failed when bids fell short of the supply offered and interest rates rose. This is a bad sign for Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s plan to market an unprecedented amount of new debt during the current fiscal year.

It is also a bad sign for Obama’s similar plan. In the US, interest rates on US Treasuries have risen in anticipation of unprecedented new Treasury issues despite the Federal Reserve’s recent announcement that it intends to purchase $300 billion of existing Treasuries held by the banking system. Normally, Fed purchases raise bond prices, thereby lowering interest rates. However, the inflation and interest rate implications of the unprecedented supply of new Treasuries necessary to finance the multi- year, multi-trillion dollar budget deficits are beginning to be recognized in bond and currency markets. Everyone knows that the Federal Reserve will monetize the new debt issues rather than allow a Treasury auction to fail. Recently, America’s largest creditor, China, expressed concern that the value of its massive holdings of US dollar investments is in danger of being inflated away.

The Fed cannot monetize new Treasury issues without the word getting out. If and when this happens, the US dollar’s exchange value is likely to drop while interest rates and inflation rise.

To avoid a crisis of this magnitude, the US needs to focus on saving the dollar as reserve currency. As I previously emphasized, this requires reducing US budget and trade deficits.

Despite the near-term budget costs of ending the occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, terminating these pointless military adventures would produce immediate large out-year budget savings. Closing many foreign military bases and cutting a gratuitously large military budget would produce more out-year savings. The Obama administration’s belief that it can continue with Bush’s wars of aggression while it engages in a massive economic bailout indicates a lack of seriousness about America’s predicament.

Rome eventually understood that its imperial frontiers exceeded its resources and pulled back. This realization has yet to dawn on Washington.

More budget savings could come from a different approach to the financial crisis. The entire question of bailing out private financial institutions needs rethinking. The probability is that the bailouts are not over. The commercial real estate defaults are yet to present themselves.

Would it be cheaper for government to buy the shares of the banks and AIG at the current low prices than to pour trillions of taxpayers’ dollars into them in an effort to drive up private share prices with public money? The Bush/Paulson bailout plan of approximately $800 billion has been followed a few months later by the Obama/Geithner stimulus-bailout plan of another approximately $800 billion. Together it adds to $1.6 trillion in new Treasury debt, much of which might have to be monetized.

Could this massive debt issue be avoided if the government took over the banks and netted out the losses between the constituent parts? A staid socialized financial sector run by civil servants is preferable to the gambling casino of greed-driven, innovative, unregulated capitalism operated by banksters who have caused crisis throughout the world.

Perhaps the Federal Reserve should be socialized as well. The notion of an independent, privately-owned Federal Reserve system was never more than a ruse to get a national bank into place. Once the central bank is part of the state-owned banking system, the government can create money without having to accumulate a massive public debt that saddles taxpayers’ and future budgets with hundreds of billions of dollars in annual interest payments.

Free market ideologues will say the government would inflate. However, the government has been inflating for generations and is now set on a course for hyperinflation. Monetization of troubled financial instruments by the Federal Reserve is just beginning. In addition, there are the multi-trillion dollar budget deficits which probably cannot be financed other than by monetization of new debt issues.

The US money supply as measured by cash in circulation and demand deposits (checking accounts) is currently about $1.4 trillion. If this year’s budget deficit is monetized, the money supply doubles. If next year’s budget deficit is monetized, the money supply would have tripled in two years. Inflation would explode. The combination of high unemployment and high inflation would be devastating.

In contrast, protecting depositors is not inflationary. It merely prevents monetary contraction.

If the Obama administration can think about socializing health care as a single-payer system, it should be able to think about socializing the banking system. Currently, Medicare is paid for by taxpayers, Medicare beneficiaries, healthy retirees, and doctors. Beneficiaries have to pay substantial premiums for supplemental coverage whether ill or healthy, and doctors are paid a pittance from the schedule of fixed prices. The insurers are the ones who make money, not the medical service providers. The single-payer system would shrink costs by the amount of the health insurance industry’s profits and the enormous paperwork and enforcement compliance costs.

The trade deficit is even more difficult to address. The American economy lost much of its manufacturing leg to offshoring. It has now lost its real estate and financial sector legs. Real incomes for the average family have not increased. The consumer-demand-driven economy became dependent on the accumulation of consumer debt, which has reached its limit.

When the production of goods and services for the domestic market is moved offshore, Americans lose income and the economy loses GDP. When the goods and services produced offshore return to be sold to Americans, they constitute imports that widen the trade deficit.

The US finances its trade deficit by turning over to foreigners ownership of existing US assets and their future income streams, which, of course, increases the flow of income away from Americans.

The claim that low prices in Wal-Mart compensate for all these costs is ridiculous. Nevertheless, the Obama administration, corporation executives, and the economics profession remain committed to offshoring.

The claim, expressed by Obama at his press conference, that retraining programs are the solution to manufacturing and IT unemployment caused by offshoring is also ridiculous. For a decade the only source of American job growth has been domestic services that cannot be offshored, such as hospital orderlies, barbers, waitresses and bartenders. Retraining is simply a government subsidy to educational institutions, a subsidy that insures their continued support for offshoring.

The enormous trade deficit that has been created by the pursuit of short-term corporate profits can only be closed in two ways. One is to stop the offshoring and to bring home the offshored production. Possibly, this could be done by replacing the corporate income tax with a tax based on whether value added to a company’s output occurs domestically or abroad.

The other way the trade deficit can be closed is by the inability of Americans to pay for imports. If debt monetization wrecks the dollar and drives up import prices, Americans will have to learn to live with less imported energy and manufactured goods. American annual consumption would shrink by the amount of the trade deficit.

The Bush/Obama approach to the crisis in the financial sector is to monetize existing debt and to accumulate massive new debt that will likely also require monetization. The monetization threatens inflation, high interest rates, and depreciation of the US dollar and loss of its reserve currency role. The accumulation of new public debt implies larger annual interest payments that could make future deficit reduction problematic. Clearly, the Obama administration needs to broaden its perception of the predicament to which financial deregulation and offshoring have brought the US economy.

How some military rabbis are trying to radicalize Israeli soldiers

An Army of Extremists

How some military rabbis are trying to radicalize Israeli soldiers.

By Christopher Hitchens

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Recent reports of atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers in the course of the intervention in Gaza have described the incitement of conscripts and reservists by military rabbis who characterized the battle as a holy war for the expulsion of non-Jews from Jewish land. The secular Israeli academic Dany Zamir, who first brought the testimony of shocked Israeli soldiers to light, has been quoted as if the influence of such extremist clerical teachings was something new. This is not the case.

I remember being in Israel in 1986 when the chief army "chaplain" in the occupied territories, Rabbi Shmuel Derlich, issued his troops a 1,000-word pastoral letter enjoining them to apply the biblical commandment to exterminate the Amalekites as "the enemies of Israel." Nobody has recently encountered any Amalekites, so the chief educational officer of the Israeli Defense Forces asked Rabbi Derlich whether he would care to define his terms and say whom he meant. Rather evasively—if rather alarmingly—the man of God replied, "Germans." There are no Germans in Judaea and Samaria or, indeed, in the Old Testament, so the rabbi's exhortation to slay all Germans as well as quite probably all Palestinians was referred to the Judge Advocate General's Office. Forty military rabbis publicly came to Derlich's support, and the rather spineless conclusion of the JAG was that he had committed no legal offense but should perhaps refrain in the future from making political statements on the army's behalf.

The problem here is precisely that the rabbi was not making a "political" statement. Rather, he was doing his religious duty in reminding his readers what the Torah actually says. It's not at all uncommon in Israel to read discussions, featuring military rabbis, of quite how to interpret the following holy order from Moses, in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 31, Verses 13-18, as quoted from my 1985 translation by the Jewish Publication Society. The Israelites have just done a fairly pitiless job on the Midianites, slaughtering all of the adult males. But, says their stern commander-in-chief, they have still failed him:

Moses, Eleazer the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, "You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord's community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every young woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man."

Moses and Eleazar the priest go on to issue some complex instructions about the ritual cleansings that must be practiced after this exhausting massacre has been completed.

Now, it's common to hear people say, when this infamous passage and others like it come up, that it's not intended to be "taken literally." One also often hears the excuse that some wicked things are done "in the name of" religion, as if the wicked things were somehow the result of a misinterpretation. But the nationalist rabbis who prepare Israeli soldiers for their mission seem to think that this book might be the word of God, in which case the only misinterpretation would be the failure to take it literally. (I hate to break it to you, but the people who think that God's will is revealed in scripture are known as "religious." Those who do not think so must try to find another name for themselves.)

Possibly you remember Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the man who in February 1994 unslung his weapon and killed more than two dozen worshippers at the mosque in Hebron. He had been a physician in the Israeli army and had first attracted attention by saying that he would refuse to treat non-Jews on the Sabbath. Now read Ethan Bronner's report in the March 22 New York Times about the preachments of the Israeli army's latest chief rabbi, a West Bank settler named Avichai Rontzski who also holds the rank of brigadier general. He has "said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath … is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred." Those of us who follow these things recognize that statement as one of the leading indicators of a truly determined racist and fundamentalist. Yet it comes not this time in the garb of a homicidal lone-wolf nut bag but in the full uniform and accoutrement of a general and a high priest: Moses and Eleazar combined. The latest news, according to Bronner, is that the Israeli Defense Ministry has felt compelled to reprimand Rontzski for "a rabbinal edict against showing the enemy mercy" that was distributed in booklet form to men and women in uniform (see Numbers 31:13-18, above).

Peering over the horrible pile of Palestinian civilian casualties that has immediately resulted, it's fairly easy to see where this is going in the medium-to-longer term. The zealot settlers and their clerical accomplices are establishing an army within the army so that one day, if it is ever decided to disband or evacuate the colonial settlements, there will be enough officers and soldiers, stiffened by enough rabbis and enough extremist sermons, to refuse to obey the order. Torah verses will also be found that make it permissible to murder secular Jews as well as Arabs. The dress rehearsals for this have already taken place, with the religious excuses given for Baruch Goldstein's rampage and the Talmudic evasions concerning the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Once considered highly extreme, such biblical exegeses are moving ever closer to the mainstream. It's high time the United States cut off any financial support for Israel that can be used even indirectly for settler activity, not just because such colonization constitutes a theft of another people's land but also because our Constitution absolutely forbids us to spend public money on the establishment of any religion.

Geithner 'open' to China proposal

Geithner 'open' to China proposal

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Geithner, at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the U.S. is "open" to a headline-grabbing proposal by the governor of the China's central bank, which was widely reported as being a call for a new global currency to replace the dollar, but which Geithner described as more modest and "evolutionary."

"I haven’t read the governor’s proposal. He’s a very thoughtful, very careful distinguished central banker. I generally find him sensible on every issue," Geithner said, saying that however his interpretation of the proposal was to increase the use of International Monetary Fund's special drawing rights -- shares in the body held by its members -- not creating a new currency in the literal sense.

"We’re actually quite open to that suggestion – you should see it as rather evolutionary rather building on the current architecture rather than moving us to global monetary union," he said.

"The only thing concrete I saw was expanding the use of the [special drawing rights]," Geithner said. "Anything he’s thinking about deserves some consideration."

The continued use of the dollar as a reserve currency, he added, "depends..on how effective we are in the United getting our fiscal system back to the point where people judge it as sustainable over time."

President Obama flatly rejected the notion of a new global currency at last night's press conference.

UPDATE: Evidently sensing a gaffe, moderator Roger Altman told Geithner that it would be "useful" to return to the question, and asked if he foresaw a change in the dollar's centrality.

"I do not," Geithner said, adding several forceful promises, including, "We will do what's necessary to say we're sustaining confidence in our financial markets."

More companies cut or end 401(k) plan matches

More companies cut or end 401(k) plan matches

By Laura Petrecca

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The battle for a secure retirement is about to get even tougher. Several new surveys of company executives show that they plan to reduce or suspend their company's retirement-plan contributions this year.

Dozens of employers in the past year have already slashed such costs.

The trend means one important thing for workers: smaller nest eggs, unless they save enough to make up for the missing company contributions and matches.

Arrangements vary, but employers have often matched 25 or 50 cents of every dollar an employee puts in a retirement account, up to 6% of pay.

Companies of all sizes, under financial pressure, are "retrenching on the 401(k) front," says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

General Motors, (GM) Eastman Kodak, (EK) FedEx (FDX) and Sears Holdings (SHLD) are among the companies that have suspended their 401(k) contributions, according to the center.

A survey released Wednesday by research and consulting company Spectrem Group says 29% of employers intend to reduce or eliminate contributions to "defined-contribution retirement plans" in the next 12 months.

While the survey has a large +/- 8 percentage point margin of error, other surveys back up the dire forecast.

A mid-February study by employment consulting company Watson Wyatt Worldwide found that 12% of 245 large companies have already cut their 401(k)/403(b) matches — and another 12% plan to do so in the next 12 months.

Most workers are unprepared to fund retirement.

Using data from the Federal Reserve's 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances, which was published before the financial crisis, Munnell pegged the median 401(k) balance for those approaching retirement at $60,000.

Given the stock market turmoil, those retirement funds are likely only worth about $40,000 now, she says.

Most employees seem braced for the news. Nearly half of workers said in November 2008 that they were concerned that the sour economy would cause their employers "to cut back on matches to 401(k)/ 403(b)/457 plans," according to MetLife's seventh annual Employee Benefits Trends Study, which was released on Monday.

Yet, even with all of the retirement worries, there was a silver lining for employers, according to MetLife.

The struggling economy has led workers to become much more thankful for the benefits that they do have, with 56% saying they appreciate their workplace benefits more than ever before.

IBM to shift 'large number' of US jobs to India

IBM to shift 'large number' of US jobs to

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Computer giant IBM plans to cut a "large number" of US employees in its business services unit and transfer their duties to India, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

The newspaper, citing "people familiar with the situation," said that IBM generally avoids public disclosure of layoffs and the number of US jobs being eliminated could not be determined.

It said that earlier this year, IBM sent notices of layoffs to around 4,600 employees in its software, sales, semiconductor and finance groups.

The Journal, citing an internal document, said the global business services group targeted for layoffs is the largest at IBM in terms of revenue and employment, with 180,000 employees worldwide.

The newspaper said IBM had 398,500 workers worldwide at the end of 2008 and 115,000 in the United States, down from 121,000 at the end of 2007.

IBM is one of the few major corporations to have weathered the global economic showdown and ended 2008 with 12.9 billion US dollars in cash and marketable securities in hand.

The Journal reported last week that IBM was in talks to buy computer server company Sun Microsystems Inc. and the Indian press has reported that IBM may be interested in fraud-hit software services exporter Satyam Computer Services.

Border plants to be killed to reveal smugglers

Border plants to be killed to reveal smugglers


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The U.S. Border Patrol plans to poison the plant life along a 1.1-mile stretch of the Rio Grande riverbank as soon as Wednesday to get rid of the hiding places used by smugglers, robbers and illegal immigrants.

If successful, the $2.1 million pilot project could later be duplicated along as many as 130 miles of river in the patrol’s Laredo Sector, as well as other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Although Border Patrol and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials say the chemical is safe for animals, detractors say the experiment is reminiscent of the Vietnam War-era Agent Orange chemical program and raises questions about long-term effects.

“We don’t believe that is even moral,” said Jay Johnson-Castro Sr., executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, located at Laredo Community College, adjacent to the planned test area.

“It is unprecedented that they’d do it in a populated area,” he said of spraying the edge of the Rio Grande as it weaves between the cities of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

Border Patrol agent Roque Sarinana said the pilot project aims to find the most efficient way to keep agents safer and better protect the nation’s border. “We are trying to improve our mobility and visibility up and down the river,” Sarinana said.

Criminals have grown adept at using the dense foliage to elude capture, he said.

“They can come over almost undetected,” he said.

Should the Border Patrol project prove efficient, cane removal could become part of its arsenal of tools that have been used along various parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, including walls, fencing and look-out towers.

Members of the Laredo City Council have raised concerns about the spraying program and called on Mexico President Felipe Calderon to intervene.

Mexican officials are raising concerns the herbicide could threaten the water supply for Nuevo Laredo.

A U.S. government outline of the project indicates the Border Patrol is going to test three methods to rid the 1.1-mile bank of river of carrizo cane, which has thick stalks that form tight, isolated trails that can be dark and all but invisible from higher up on the bank.

One method calls for the cane to be cut by hand and the stumps painted with the herbicide, Imazapyr.

Another involves using mechanical equipment to dig the cane out by the roots. It is unclear if herbicides would be necessary in this scenario.

The third and most controversial removal method calls for helicopters spraying Imazapyr directly on the cane — repeatedly — until all plant life in the area is poisoned.

The Border Patrol said that after using the herbicide, it plans to make the river’s edges green again by planting native plants.

Johnson-Castro said he has no issue with removing the cane, a non-native plant brought by the Spaniards centuries ago. The challenge, he said, is how it is done.

“We are saying it is one hell of a big deal,” he said.

Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas said he believes federal officials when they say testing shows the chemical is not dangerous, but that he also realizes opponents of the project have concerns to evaluate.

“It is a complicated situation because we have to think about protecting our border,” said Salinas, a retired FBI agent. “But let’s do it in a sensible, reasonable way to make sure humans won’t be harmed, nor the vegetation, nor the animals, nor the environment.”