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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 546792 times)
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« Reply #2610 on: Oct 07, 2012, 06:53 AM »

October 6, 2012

Iran Denies Plan to End Nuclear Standoff

By THOMAS ERDBRINK
IHT

TEHRAN — Iranian officials on Saturday dismissed a New York Times report saying Iran had offered a “nine-step plan” for resolving a standoff with the United States and its allies over its disputed nuclear program, calling the report “baseless.”

The Times, quoting unnamed senior Obama administration and European officials, reported on Friday that Iran had quietly proposed a plan to Western countries in July in which it demanded that oil sanctions and other economic moves be lifted.

In exchange, Tehran would gradually suspend the production of the uranium that would be easiest for it to convert into a nuclear weapon. Iran has said that it needs to enrich uranium to a level of 20 percent purity to run future civil and medical reactors, but as part of the nine-step plan, the report said, it signaled its willingness to give up production of that medium-grade uranium.

On Saturday, Iran’s nuclear top negotiator, Saeed Jalili, told state news media that Iran had never made such an offer.

“Iran has never delivered any new proposal other than what had been put forward in talks with the P5+1,” Mr. Jalili told the state Islamic Republic News Agency, referring to official negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany. “The New York Times and other U.S. media reports are baseless.”

The Times report did not characterize the proposal as new, but said it was based on a proposal made to European officials in July, during the negotiations with the P5+1. Details of that proposal only began to emerge in the past week or two, when Iranian officials were attending the opening of the United Nations.

Sadollah Zarei, a columnist for the influential state-run Kayhan newspaper, said that during his recent visit to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran was ready to suspend 20 percent enrichment. “But only Mr. Jalili is authorized to make decisions in the nuclear talks,” Mr. Zarei said, “so when he denies, it means there has never been a ‘nine-step plan.’ ”

Several Iranian leaders and commanders have accused Mr. Ahmadinejad of having used his September trip to the United Nations to promote direct talks with United States officials, a political taboo in Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s staff has denied the allegations.

As reported by The Times, the Iranian plan called for a step-by-step dismantling of the sanctions while the Iranians ended work at one of two sites where they are enriching uranium to a level of up to 20 percent purity. United States officials dismissed the plan as unworkable because Iran could easily restart its program, but the sanctions would take years to reimpose.

Western powers fear that Iran’s nuclear program is a cover to make an atomic bomb and say that Iran’s insistence on nuclear fuel enriched beyond 5 percent is an example of this ambition.

Last week, Iran’s national currency, the rial, dropped more than 40 percent, prompting demonstrations on Wednesday. The government intervened on Saturday by trying to force money changers to sell their dollars at much lower rates, around 28,000 rials for $1, much less than the 37,500 the currency was trading for on Wednesday. Many traders said they refused to sell.
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« Reply #2611 on: Oct 07, 2012, 06:55 AM »

October 6, 2012

New Somalian President Picks a Businessman, a Political Newcomer, as Prime Minister

By MOHAMMED IBRAHIM
IHT

MOGADISHU, Somalia — The new Somalian president, Hassan Sheik Mohamud, on Saturday evening named as prime minister a political novice who is expected to lead the council of ministers for the next four years, officials said.

The nominee, Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid, promised that his government would not tolerate corruption or nepotism.

It was the first major appointment for the fledgling government of Mr. Mohamud, who was elected by Parliament last month after more than two decades of civil warfare and political instability. If Mr. Saaid’s nomination is confirmed by Parliament, as expected, he plans to nominate a council of ministers soon, he said.

“I promise that I will do my duty in line with the Constitution and the national laws,” Mr. Saaid said in a statement.

Mr. Mohamud, whose election marked the end of an internationally backed transitional government, is trying to set up the first effective central government in Somalia since 1991, when clan militias toppled the dictatorship of Maj. Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre. Among Mr. Mohamud’s challenges is an Islamist insurgency by the Shabab, an group linked to Al Qaeda that tried to assassinate him two days after his election.

The government and African Union forces have driven the Shabab out of Mogadishu, but it has been waging relentless attacks against them elsewhere.

A spokesman for the Shabab denounced Mr. Saaid as a stooge of foreign powers. “The new prime minister is not different from those before him — they were all brought by Westerners,” Ali Mohamud Rage, the spokesman, told Reuters. “He will not change Somalia. We shall fight and keep on foiling the infidel government.”

Mr. Saaid, 53, a businessman, was born in the town of Dhusamareb. He studied economics at the Somali National University of Gaheyr in 1983 and worked at the Ministry of Finance from 1983 to 1985, in the government of General Siad Barre. He left government work and opened a business in 1985, then moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where he opened another business.
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« Reply #2612 on: Oct 07, 2012, 06:57 AM »

October 6, 2012

Women Protest Shariah Law in Mali

By REUTERS

BAMAKO, Mali (Reuters) — More than 100 women marched on Saturday to protest the imposition of strict Islamic law in the northern Malian town of Timbuktu, but were dispersed by gunmen linked to Al Qaeda who fired shots in the air, witnesses said.

Islamists linked to Al Qaeda’s North African wing, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have been in control of Timbuktu since April, and have steadily imposed their interpretation of Shariah law, banning music and forcing women to wear veils.

Women gathered in the main square in late morning and were planning to march around the town, but were stopped by the gunfire.

“Life has become more and more difficult with these people,” Cisse Toure, one of the protesters, said by telephone. “We are tired. They impose veils on us and now they are hunting us like bandits for not wearing them.” Estimates for the number of women who took part ranged from 100 to 300.

Sanda Ould Bounama, a spokesman for the Islamists, confirmed that a protest had taken place but was not able to give any further details.
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« Reply #2613 on: Oct 07, 2012, 06:59 AM »

Venezuela election result set to upset global oil politics

By Jonathan Watts, The Guardian
Saturday, October 6, 2012 8:04 EDT

Hugo Chávez promises to increase production and reduce dependence on US market by doubling crude exports to Asia

While giant rallies in Caracas may be drawing the world’s attention ahead of tomorrow’s Venezuelan presidential election, the global significance of the vote can be found hundreds of miles to the east in the oil-soaked Orinoco Belt.

According to studies, Venezuela has overtaken Saudi Arabia to become number one in the world for proven oil reserves, largely thanks to the heavy crude found in this vast alluvial plain.

Whether this multi-trillion dollar asset is controlled by Hugo Chávez or the opposition challenger, Henrique Capriles, will influence which countries and companies are given the priority to exploit them and how much drivers around the world pay at the pump. According to a report this year by BP, Venezuela has reserves of 296.5bn barrels, about 10% more than Saudi Arabia and 18% of the global total. At the country’s current levels of production, this would last about 100 years.

If Chávez wins – as most polls suggest – he has promised to ramp up production and reduce his country’s dependence on the US market by doubling crude exports to Asia. To further this goal, Venezuela plans to build a pipeline through Colombia to the Pacific which would reduce costs and transport times to China and other Asian markets.

Capriles, who has mounted a strong challenge, says he would fire the oil minister, Rafael Ramírez, and rethink how crude is extracted and used. Until now Russian and Chinese companies have struck the biggest deals for future exploitation.

“We have to revise every deal. I think they are agreements that are not functioning,” he said. During the campaign, he has also said he would halt subsidised oil shipments to Cuba, Belarus, Nicaragua and Syria. Critics say he is a stalking horse for US interests.

Both Chávez and Capriles are calling for more investment so that Venezuela can increase not only output but also the quality of oil through the use of upgrading technology. But the volatile mix of politics and oil has made it difficult to secure partners.

In recent years Venezuelan oil production has fallen due to poor maintenance, low investment and the loss of key workers. Plans to open new fields have been repeatedly delayed. The state-owned oil company PDVSA says the holdups are over. Last week its joint venture with Russia’s Rosneft and Lukoil pumped its first barrel. Another operation, with a Vietnamese firm, has also reportedly begun. Projects with Chevron of the US, Spain’s Repsol and others are due to start early next year.

But there are still many empty blocks. Officials said BP, Shell and several other multinationals appear to be waiting to see if the government will change today before committing to possible joint ventures in the two main areas for expansion, Carabobo and Junín.

“There is a danger that British firms might miss out. In this country, oil and politics are intertwined. Many companies are waiting for the election result,” said Osmel Molina, deputy manager of the Carabobo region. “They hope for higher profits if the political situation changes. That’s why there is so much support for the opposition. They don’t necessarily want to oust Chávez, but they do want a weak government so they can control the biggest oil resources in the world.”

Venezuela has an oil-dependent economy – PDVSA accounts for 95% of the country’s export earnings. Domestically, the mix of populist politics, super-abundant oil and second-rate refining technology has left the country with a peculiar system in which the state sells crude for $100 (£61) a barrel, buys back petrol at $400, then sells it on to domestic drivers at such a discount that a full tank is cheaper than a cup of coffee. A gallon costs about 6p, leading to a lucrative cross-border petrol-smuggling business. Neither candidate has dared to commit to a raise.

Oil rose to the centre of the political debate in 2003, when the sector was crippled by striking workers. The Chávez government, which had survived a coup attempt the previous year, sacked most of the management and many of the workers, saying that they were pawns in a US-backed effort to destabilise the country.

The industry is now a bastion of government loyalists. Molina’s office is decorated with portraits of Chávez and Simón Bolívar. Most of the staff wear red Chávez re-election campaign T-shirts. Four oilfields are named after battles of independence.

Oil helps to explain why Chávez is vilified in the US. In 2000, a year after taking power, he made his first mark on global affairs with a tour of the Middle East to lobby key Opec members – Iraq, Iran, Libya, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia – to drive oil prices higher. Since then, the cost of Brent crude has risen from less than $20 a barrel to more than $100.

Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were among the leaders who joined Chávez to drive up prices. Molina believes it is no coincidence that they were deposed and killed: “There’s a plan in place to control the global oil market. Anyone who tries to erode the monopoly ends up in conflict with the [US] empire.”

In the past, Molina said foreign oil firms were paying only 3% royalties to the government, but Chávez pushed this up to 16%. He also helped to raise the value of the output from the Orinoco Belt by relabelling it as valuable heavy crude instead of cheap bitumin or tar, as it had previously been priced.

Some accuse the US and multinationals of trying to influence the presidential campaign. “Transnationals want control of the oil here. They want the submission of Latin America to supply the market needs of the US,” said Nicmer Evans, a political science professor at the Central University of Venezuela.

But the outside influence cuts both ways. Since 2007, the government has received $42.5bn in loans from the China Development Bank, with the biggest tranche coming in the year ahead of an election in which Chávez has increased public spending, the minimum wage and pensions. This is repaid largely through shipments of 430,000 barrels of crude a day to China in repayment.

Russian president Vladimir Putin showed his support with the gift of a puppy to Chávez this month.

But geopolitics is not the only factor at play in deciding who gets to exploit and use this pool of oil. Geography, market demand and refining technology are also help to explain why the US – despite Chávez’s rhetoric – remains Venezuela’s biggest customer.

The scale of the required investment will also be a struggle for any single country. Chávez has said Venezuela should look to the country’s Faja oil belt and promised to invest $130bn in the region to double national oil production to six billion barrels a day, pushing Venezuela past Iran as the world’s second-biggest producer. The money is needed to upgrade wells, processing plants, refineries, docks, roads and housing. Dire maintenance has plagued the industry, most recently with a huge fire at the Amuay refinery.

Local people say that the main road between Morichal and Maturin has been cut off at least twice in the past month, once because floods swept away a bridge and once because of a protest by nearby residents against power shortages.

© Guardian News and Media 2012
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« Reply #2614 on: Oct 07, 2012, 07:01 AM »

October 6, 2012

Slow-Burning Challenge to Chile on Easter Island

By SIMON ROMERO
IHT

HANGA ROA, Easter Island — Not long ago, as some elders of the Rapanui people wistfully recall, a sense of profound isolation pervaded this windswept speck of land in the Pacific. Horses were the dominant mode of transportation, flights to the outside world were few and far between, and the island’s Polynesian language enjoyed dominance in most spheres of life.

Now, so many cars roam the roads of this fragile island (it is smaller than Martha’s Vineyard) that Rapanui grimly joke how they may outnumber the moai, the prized towering statues their ancestors carved from volcanic tuff, beguiling archaeologists. Spanish, the language of Chile, which annexed Easter Island in 1888, now prevails across much of the island. New luxury hotels catering to rich Chileans and moneyed foreign visitors charge $1,100 a night, accentuating a festering income gap.

And there is yet another feature of life in Chile, a nation grappling with fierce antigovernment protests by students and indigenous groups, which has made it here: violent clashes with security forces.

Inspired by other parts of Polynesia that have obtained a considerable degree of political autonomy or are in the process of seeking independence, leaders of the Rapanui people are mounting a slow-burning rebellion against Chile. Their movement on the island — which they call Rapa Nui, not Easter Island — presents a unique test for a Latin American country: quelling a challenge to its rule in the middle of the South Pacific.

“Our nearest border is with the Pitcairn Islands, not Chile,” said Leviante Araki, 54, president of the Rapa Nui Parliament, a pro-independence organization, referring to the British overseas territory more than 1,200 miles to the west.

Newcomers from mainland Chile, which is almost twice that distance in the other direction, are fueling a sharp increase in Easter Island’s population, increasing it by 54 percent to 5,800 over the last decade. Continentals, as mainland Chileans are called here, now slightly outnumber Rapanui on the island, at about 3,000 to 2,800, according to the mayor, Luz Zasso Paoa.

Protests here have crystallized around the thwarted efforts by one prominent Rapanui clan, the Hitorangi, to reclaim land on which a luxury hotel was recently completed. But other sources of ire among the Rapanui have also emerged, including bitterness over privileges like subsidized housing that have been extended to some mainland Chileans, competition for jobs in the lucrative tourism trade and the mainland’s control over the island’s affairs.

Security forces violently evicted Rapanui protesters in 2010 who had occupied buildings and other sites. Images captured on cellphone cameras showed bloodstained Rapanui, drawing admonition from the United Nations last year over the use of force to resolve the island’s problems. Though the situation has calmed somewhat since then, nonviolent protests by the Rapanui have continued well into this year.

Despite the agitation, Easter Island still awes. Nearly a thousand monolithic moai remain strewed around volcanic craters and sandy shorelines, guarding the secrets of an island settled more than nine centuries ago by Polynesian explorers. Clusters of horses wildly roam the hills, as if Easter Island belonged to them.

But unresolved disputes over land and sovereignty, between the Rapanui and continentals — and even among some of the Rapanui themselves — are clouding this superficially easygoing outpost. Rather than subjugating the autonomy movement, the crackdowns seem to have added to the resentment here, with the Rapa Nui Parliament now taking its fight to the courts by filing a lawsuit on the mainland this year seeking independence.

The group says the island’s annexation, under an 1888 treaty, was made illegitimate by Chile’s inequitable administration of it, including the removal of Rapanui from ancestral lands, their forced confinement to the town of Hanga Roa and the leasing of almost the entire island for decades to the Williamson-Balfour Company, a Scottish sheep-ranching concern.

Some Rapanui contend that their last king, Simeón Riro Kainga, was poisoned in 1898 during a visit to Chile’s coast. The Rapa Nui Parliament last year unilaterally declared Valentino Riroroko Tuki, the 81-year-old grandson of the last monarch, as the new king, a step in its legal battle to void the annexation treaty. Still, other Rapanui groups have their own aspirants to the throne, reflecting the island’s fractious internal politics.

“This island was operated like a concentration camp,” said Mr. Riroroko Tuki, a mild-mannered farmer who gained fame for resisting oppressive rule in the 1950s, when Chile’s Navy prohibited Rapanui from leaving the island and publicly flogged islanders as punishment. He escaped on a fishing boat to the Cook Islands, more than 3,200 miles away.

Leaders of the Rapa Nui Parliament said they fully expected to lose the independence lawsuit on the mainland, viewing it as a step to pursue the claims in venues like the International Court of Justice. They are drawing inspiration from similar movements elsewhere in Polynesia, which may seem far-fetched in mainland Chile but not in the shifting political winds of the Pacific.

One model under study here is the Cook Islands, a self-governing parliamentary democracy in a “free association” with New Zealand. Another is New Caledonia, a French overseas territory where France is grappling with an independence movement.

Still, pro-independence sentiment, while supported by sizable factions of Rapanui, is by no means unanimous. Alberto Hotus, head of the Council of Elders, from which the Rapa Nui Parliament splintered off, pointed out that the island still depended on Chile for its health care, food, telecommunications and flights to the mainland.

“If we cut ties to Chile,” he said, “we will return to eating pasture.”

The authorities on the mainland are cautiously following the talk of independence. Carlos Llancaqueo, President Sebastián Piñera’s commissioner to Easter Island, said officials were well aware of the island’s problems and were moving ahead with plans to improve the power grid, potable water systems and bilingual education in both the Rapa Nui language and Spanish.

Additionally, Mr. Llancaqueo said new legislation governing migration and residency was under preparation, but Chile’s Constitution required the Rapanui people to be consulted before the law is enacted, a process just getting under way. He said another proposal would give Easter Island greater control over its own finances, though the idea has languished for years; as it stands, the island is a province of the Region of Valparaíso, so decisions regarding funds for everything from education to infrastructure are made on the mainland, a five-hour flight away.

“What is concrete are the very important problems affecting the island, which after 50 years of neglect this government is addressing, despite the political cost,” Mr. Llancaqueo said. He described the pro-independence lawsuit as “a subject for the future,” calling the Parliament “just one organization among many” representing Rapanui views.

While such divisions persist, the Rapanui have endured bigger problems in the past. They grappled in the 1870s with the megalomaniacal rule of a French mariner, Jean-Baptiste Dutroux-Bornier, a tyrant to rival Conrad’s Kurtz. Devastated by Peruvian slaving raids and a smallpox epidemic, their population dwindled to as low as 111 before Chile annexed the island, imposing austere military rule for decades.

The movement here is unfolding at a time when a major rethinking of Easter Island’s history is emerging, with scholars rejecting theories that the ancient Rapanui overexploited resources like trees, suggesting instead that they pioneered sustainable fertilization techniques on an island with poor soil. “Before the arrival of Europeans, the Rapanui succeeded in total isolation in a highly challenging environment,” said Terry Hunt, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii. “Now, they are vulnerable because the island is not solving its problems locally.”

Making matters more complex, disputes fester over squatting on ancestral land, and intermarriage is increasingly common.

“The Chileans treated us like dogs, and now we want what is ours,” said Lorenzo Tepano, 58, a fisherman who, with his wife, lives as a squatter in a wooden shack in the Rapa Nui National Park, just steps away from some of the monolithic stone figures lined up near the shore. As Mr. Tepano denounced Chile, his son-in-law, a continental, sat next to him, gazing at the waves and quietly sipping a beer.

Aaron Nelsen contributed reporting from Santiago, Chile.


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« Reply #2615 on: Oct 07, 2012, 07:06 AM »


October 5, 2012

New Zealand’s Hobbit Trail

By BROOKS BARNES and MICHAEL CIEPLY
NYT

THE hill is perfect — steep, shaggy and as green as a radioactive shamrock, like the matching hills around it. The sheep seem pretty idyllic themselves: polite little nibblers who only sometimes block the road.

As for the oak tree on the hill’s crest, it is quite literally perfect. Every flickering leaf was handcrafted, right down to the spidery plastic veins, a tribute to the meticulousness of Sir Peter Jackson, the movie director who staged this place, even creating the pond. (Where better for Paradise Geese to land?)

You are standing in Hobbiton, the place where J. R. R. Tolkien’s furry-footed Hobbits came to life in Mr. Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and will soon reappear in his “Hobbit” prequels. The sky is dramatic, with sunbeams radiating like spotlights from behind thunderheads. You are woozy from the two-hour car ride from Auckland on a twisting two-lane road (nonstop chatter from Mr. and Mrs. Fanny Pack standing next to you doesn’t help), but a few deep gulps of the agrarian air is restorative. And no matter how stubborn, cynical or reluctant you may be (we were all three), this place is most likely casting its spell.

For Mr. Jackson, New Zealand and the millions of fans who spent the last decade tromping this island country in search of “Lord of the Rings” filming locations, the journey is about to begin again. In Wellington, over 100,000 onlookers are expected to turn up on Nov. 28 outside the red-carpet premiere of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first of three “Hobbit” films planned for release by 2014. If all goes according to plan, the pictures will also reopen the floodgates of film tourism here.

Movies — ephemeral, imaginary — have a way of sending fans in search of something real. “The Sound of Music” left such an imprint on Salzburg after filming there in 1964 that tours to see where Julie Andrews played “Do-Re-Mi” on her guitar still attract tens of thousands of visitors annually. In Scotland, tourism skyrocketed at the Wallace Monument following the 1995 release of “Braveheart.” And in Natchitoches, La., devotees continue to spend $175 a night to sleep in the Shelby Room, where Julia Roberts became a star in “Steel Magnolias” some 23 years ago. (Yes, it is pink.)

But the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which took in over $3 billion at the global box office between 2001 and 2004, changed the film tourism game entirely. To the surprise of almost everyone, it took possession of an entire country.

When New Line Cinema released the first of the movies in December 2001, tourism officials here hoped the film would, at best, move New Zealand up a notch or two on the list of world travel destinations. After all, Mr. Jackson bulldozed half of his Hobbit village when he had finished filming. Who in their right mind would drive hours into the rural countryside to see it to begin with?

But people came. Since the first film’s release, about 266,000 people have visited the half-ruined Hobbiton, according to Tourism New Zealand, with a majority from abroad. Over 50,000 people came in 2004 alone, when “Lord of the Rings” fever peaked following the release of the Oscar-winning third installment. In fact 6 percent of all New Zealand visitors that year, or about 150,000 people, listed the movies as a “main” reason for coming; 11,200 said it was their only reason.

New Zealand’s travel and hospitality industries, initially caught off guard, raced to meet demand. In Queenstown on the South Island, where Mr. Jackson filmed numerous mountain scenes, 17 tour companies, many of them popping up overnight, started offering movie-related excursions. Hotels across the country rolled out “Lord of the Rings” promotions and packages, and airport customs officials strung up “Welcome to Middle-earth” banners.

The government is hoping that aggressive planning will raise the number of movie-fueled visitors exponentially this time around. Kiwi officials negotiated a deal with New Line to put a travel infomercial on every DVD. In August, the government began a global marketing campaign featuring the slogan “100% Middle-earth, 100% Pure New Zealand.” In all, the country is spending at least $50 million on Hobbit-related tourism promotions, with the biggest attraction remaining this 1,200-acre farm in the slow-moving, once-upon-a-time North Island town of Matamata.

On its Web site, Matamata (pronounced MAW-da MAW-da) is billed as “a rural hinterland.” For the most part, it is exactly that. The town center has about 6,000 inhabitants. Another 6,000 are spread across farms that fall within Matamata’s boundaries. It all sits two hours by car or bus south of Auckland, whether by a relatively direct route that includes State Highway 27 or by a bewildering patchwork preferred by locals who hold to State Highway 1 and its adjuncts. We took the scenic route and drove ourselves, but Auckland’s Red Carpet Tours offers a popular bus service.

Once you arrive in Matamata you’ll find a few older, no-frills motels and a smattering of bed-and-breakfasts catering to Hobbit visitors, including the new Chestnut Lane Cottage, where the charming owners greeted us with warm scones slathered in orange jam and whipped cream. In terms of restaurants, there is the homey yet stylish Redoubt Bar & Eatery, but this is a fundamentally provincial place. The local newspaper prominently reports soil temperatures, and businesses are practical, like Boltholder Limited, “specialists in bolts and nuts.”

Matamata caught its star, just barely, in 1998, when a farmer named Russell Alexander — jovial, bald and blunt — saw a stranger with binoculars peering across his land. Soon that interloper and his bearded boss, Mr. Jackson, returned with a request to build a “Lord of the Rings” movie set there.

Speaking at his farm in late June, Mr. Alexander recalled his father blurting out: “Lord of the what?” Mr. Alexander said he “kicked him under the table.”

What Mr. Jackson and his associates originally built on a hillside and at the bottom of a deep hollow was a wonderland. Through a camera’s lens or to a casual visitor, it looked like a fairy-tale village and a Hobbit’s Shire, with a munchkin-size mill and dozens of brightly painted Hobbit hole homes, each with a circular front door and most with itty-bitty chimneys and the mossy look of someplace you might stop to rest.

But once the movies had been made, what remained was an unlikely destination for tourists. As Mr. Alexander described it, untreated plywood sat warping in the rain. A bridge constructed from polystyrene “rocks” began to collapse. Sheep grazed through a half-bulldozed Shire that was kept somewhat intact only because Mr. Alexander undertook the cost of basic maintenance and repair. “The movie studio actively discouraged me,” he said. Nevertheless, “People just kept coming.”

So Mr. Alexander, while continuing to graze 10,000 sheep on the property, started to formalize the business, adding restrooms, building a restaurant and buying modern buses to cart people between those amenities and Mr. Jackson’s set, located down a gravel road in the interior of the farm.

Two years ago, when Mr. Jackson returned to Matamata to film his new “Hobbit” prequels, Mr. Alexander persuaded him to kick in a few million dollars to make the restored set permanent. Now a 50-50 venture between the Alexanders and Wingnut Films, which is Mr. Jackson’s production company, Hobbiton recently unveiled the improvements timed to the movie’s release and New Zealand’s summer tourism season, which starts in November. New features include a pub, more Hobbit homes, an electric fence to keep out the sheep and a gift shop offering high-end collectibles (magic cloaks, 900 New Zealand dollars, about $760 at 1.18 New Zealand dollars to the United States dollar).

But, if a recent visit is any indication, one of Hobbiton’s principal charms remains its lack of polish. Our guide, complete with naturally gnarled teeth and muddy work boots, approached us outside the gift shop (where you buy tour tickets) and herded us into an 11-seat van along with eight other foreign tourists, most of them devouring cookies purchased at Mr. Alexander’s Shire’s Rest cafe. We bumped along, reaching the set after stops to open and close several farm gates. Storm clouds looked ominous, so everyone grabbed an umbrella from a wooden rack and set forth behind our guide, who warned us to “watch out for rabbit holes.”

Facts were recited: The tiny houses are sized for Hobbits, presumed to measure about 3 feet 6 inches. Pictures were taken: The 44 Hobbit homes are each equipped with fenced yards and windowsills filled with diminutive knickknacks. Orders were given: Do not open those little round doors. (A tour guide snapped when, inevitably, a member of the group did just that. There’s nothing inside anyway. It’s a film set, after all.)

Wandering freely on the vast set, about 12 acres, is not allowed, but we didn’t feel the slightest bit rushed. Treacle is sparse here, which is part of the allure; there are no costumed Hobbits smiling and waving, Disney style. But we did see crews pruning hedges, expanding a parking lot and building that themed pub, in anticipation of the coming crowds.

Near the top of the hill, the fabric leaves of Mr. Jackson’s fake tree fluttered in the breeze, and we gasped at how completely Hobbit Valley enveloped us. While Hobbiton and its sheep farm rival the size of the theme park at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, it is a unique environment — a quiet, spare place where the line between nature and art fades to nothing.

HOBBITON is just a starting point for serious Tolkien tourists who will need focus, stamina and time to make a dent in the hundreds of miles and some 70 sites (spread across two islands) portrayed in Mr. Jackson’s movies. The locations stretch from Port Waikato at the top of the country’s North Island (used to film the author’s Weathertop fortress ruins) to the bottom of the South Island, a spot where “Hobbit” characters seek refuge with a man who can transform himself into a bear. The distance between those two places is about 1,000 miles, and attempting to visit all — or even most — of the sites would require various forms of transit and a questionably zealous determination.

For anyone interested in a four-day Middle-earth excursion situated solely on the more populated North Island, start in Auckland and rent a car, making sure to pick up a copy of Ian Brodie’s “Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook.” HarperCollins, which published the book in 2002, originally expected it to sell 18,000 copies, but Mr. Brodie, who helps supervise Hobbiton (and who can be seen in the “Rings” movies as a Gondorian bread seller), said 500,000 are now in print. He will publish a new guide as soon as Mr. Jackson permits disclosure of the “Hobbit” film sites.

After Hobbiton, drive about two hours south to the 300-square-mile Tongariro National Park, which has three active volcanoes and was selected by Mr. Jackson to stand in as Tolkien’s foreboding Mordor. The park, visited by about a million people annually, requires hard-core hiking to see properly, with an arduous eight-hour trek called Alpine Crossing taking you through scorched terrain to emerald lakes and steam vents. Film tourism here is not organized; most people follow the detailed where-to-go instructions Mr. Brodie offers in his book.

The centerpiece of Tongariro, aside from the volcanoes, of course, is an 83-year-old hotel called Chateau Tongariro, where Mr. Jackson and his crew camped, screening footage in its basement movie theater.

Though it looks from the outside like a cross between “The Shining” hotel and the Baltimore psychiatric hospital in “The Silence of the Lambs,” inside the atmosphere is lovely, with a grand piano in the lobby, swollen grapefruit-colored portieres and the sweet smell of old wood. When we were there it seemed to be filled with New Zealanders enjoying a weekend away, more interested in lounging in the lobby with cocktails than hiking, which suited us just fine, as we had the trails almost entirely to ourselves.

The hotel’s Ruapehu Room restaurant offers seafood appetizers and New Zealand standards as main dishes (a tasty rack of lamb with caramelized sweetbreads, 38 New Zealand dollars).

After a day in the shadow of Mordor, head to Wellington, a four-hour drive to the southern end of the island where Mr. Jackson’s film studio is. The offbeat, slightly San Francisco-ish capital offers more organized movie tours with visits to anywhere from 7 to 25 “Lord of the Rings” filming locations.

But don’t expect to see much at Mr. Jackson’s Weta Digital, a visual effects facility, or Stone Street Studios, which has four sound stages and all of the usual filmmaking trappings. Both are closed to the public. (Though Stone Street’s security guards may let you have a peek over the fence, depending on their mood.)

AS a Plan B, fans hang out in Wellington’s Seatoun district, a windy coastal enclave where Mr. Jackson owns property and has been seen driving one of his toys — a fanciful touring car used in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Or one can do a surgical strike and skip straight to the Weta Cave, a gift shop, mini-museum and theater devoted to Mr. Jackson’s movies near Weta Digital. The Hobbit collectibles veer toward the tacky, but we did pick up a few unusual postcards adorned with real-life wetas, giant New Zealand insects that serve as Mr. Jackson’s emblem.

Having only six days to investigate the Tolkien universe that is the country of New Zealand, we had to miss some no doubt impressive sights — the Rangitata Valley on this country’s South Island, for example, where a grassy outcropping called Mount Sunday can be seen in “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” as Rohan.

But we didn’t want to skip the South Island altogether, in part because it is where New Zealand’s most jaw-dropping mountains are. Moviemaking here is centered around Queenstown, a ski village nestled against a deep glacial lake. But filmmakers come for the Remarkables, a mountain chain so named because, well ... The jagged peaks have stood in for the Rockies in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” but it was the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy that most prominently featured them, and Mr. Jackson returned for extensive “Hobbit” filming.

Nomad Safaris was one of the first tour operators to start selling a themed excursion when fans started arriving a decade ago. “We completely underestimated the intensity of these fans,” said Nomad’s highly caffeinated owner, a British expat named David Gatward-Ferguson. “People would come and bawl their eyes out looking at where Aragorn stood.” Nomad now offers two “Safari of the Scenes” options, each priced at about $134 for adults and $65 for children and lasting four hours. The company said about 10,000 people took one last year.

When we arrived in June, after two-hour plane ride from Wellington, Queenstown was hoping for its first snow and Mr. Gatward-Ferguson was retooling one of his tours to include “Hobbit” locations. He offered to give us a sneak peek, so we paid our fee and climbed into one of Nomad’s six-passenger S.U.V.’s, thrilled to have no other tourists in tow.

The first stop was a lakeside meadow outside Queenstown called Little Paradise, which Mr. Jackson transformed into a helipad to transport actors to a remote shooting location across the water. It was, well, a pretty little field.

Speeding along and spewing factoids, Mr. Gatward-Ferguson next turned onto a gravel road and came to an abrupt stop (while simultaneously tuning the radio and sipping his coffee) at a shallow river about 30 feet across. Our destination was on the other side. Muttering under his breath, he shifted to four-wheel drive and eased into the water — gently — as we clung to the seat and wondered if we had irrevocably crossed the line between casual Hobbit fan and self-destructive fanatic.

Then, after a few sharp turns through some woods, we emerged in a narrow valley, clear but with evergreens on both sides. Our guide parked and hopped out of the truck. On this site, Mr. Gatward-Ferguson announced triumphantly, Mr. Jackson filmed footage to create the Isengard fortress from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Ah, yes: We recognized the place. The sun was sparkling, but a wind blasted down the mountainsides at what seemed like hurricane force. As a gust left us shivering, he pointed out a small hill that will figure prominently in the second “Hobbit” film as the home of Beorn, the man who can transform himself into a bear.

“Let’s get back in the truck,” he said cheerfully, as tree limbs whipped back and forth. “It’s a bloody death trap around here when the wind blows.”

About 10 minutes later, however, he was precariously parked again, this time on the side of an impossibly narrow road. After shooing us up an embankment and into a dense forest, he proceeded to re-enact the plundering of Mr. Jackson’s evil Orcs. It was a good show; Mr. Gatward-Ferguson is no slouch as an Orc, having played one in the films. Still, our enjoyment might have been hampered by the words, “bloody deathtrap” ringing in our heads.

Barreling back toward town after a few more stops, the conversation turned to Nomad’s high hopes for a Hobbit-fueled boom. This time, Mr. Gatward-Ferguson vowed, it would be positioned to take full advantage of any surge. There will be a new tour for hard-core fans involving costumes and props. (“We’ll haul them into the forest and let them swing weapons around,” he said.) And his store will be expanded and stocked with more themed merchandise, like plastic elf ears for 17 New Zealand dollars.

“No one should go home without some elf ears,” he said. “Sometimes I wear a pair myself while driving around town.”

MATAMATA

We stayed at Chestnut Lane Cottage, a five-minute drive from Hobbiton. Private and sparkling clean, this small bed-and-breakfast was where Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, stayed during filming of the “Hobbit” movies. Reservations are a must. A stand-alone one-bedroom cottage is 130 New Zealand dollars, including breakfast. Other rooms are 105 New Zealand dollars, about $89 at 1.18 New Zealand dollars to the United States dollar. (4 Chestnut Lane; 64-7-888-5173; chestnutlanecottage.com)

For dinner, try the Redoubt Bar & Eatery whose welcoming fireplace was ornamented with a women’s brassiere when we were there. The menu is broad, but eating light can be hard in New Zealand. We went with the bacon-wrapped chicken breast stuffed with blue cheese, served on a Parmesan-coated portobello mushroom, 31 New Zealand dollars. (48 Broadway; 64-7-888-8585; facebook.com/redoubtmatamata)

There is also Workmans Cafe Bar, a greasy spoon down the street, which locals seem to like. (52 Broadway; 64-7-888-5498; matamata-info.co.nz/workmans)

TONGARIRO NATIONAL PARK You can camp, rent a one-room “back country hut” or stay in a low-cost motel, but there is really only one place to stay here: the Chateau Tongariro. Rooms are standard-issue historic hotel (spare and medium-sized but clean) with cavernous bathrooms equipped with old-fashioned towel warmers. There are several nearby hiking trails (ask one of the friendly front-desk attendants for advice on which might be best for you), and other activities abound, including golf (on a simple nine-hole course) and, depending on the season, skiing and river rafting. (State Highway 48, Mount Ruapehu; 64-7-892-3809; chateau.co.nz)

WELLINGTON When Hollywood bigwigs come to Wellywood, as the film-industry here is known, they stay at the quirky Museum Hotel. Decorated in bright colors (magenta, turquoise, orange), the boutique hotel is on the waterfront across from Te Papa, New Zealand’s newly opened national museum. Rooms start at 200 New Zealand dollars. (90 Cable Street; 64-4-802-8900; museumhotel.co.nz)

Eat locally sourced steak or lamb near one of the rounded windows of Hummingbird, an upscale, recently renovated restaurant, and watch the scene unfold on one of New Zealand’s busiest night-life streets. (22 Courtenay Place; 64-4-801-6336; hummingbird.net.nz)

QUEENSTOWN

The Rees Hotel, a 60-room boutique hotel on the lakefront, is home to True South, one of the best-reviewed restaurants in the area. (If our room service was any indication, the critics are right.) Rooms have expansive private balconies and chic wood furnishings by a local designer, Ed Cruikshank. Rates start at 195 New Zealand dollars. (377 Frankton Road; 64-3-450-1100; therees.co.nz)

Fat, messy sandwiches have made Fergburger a local favorite. The Little Lamby (12.50 New Zealand dollars) is “mutton on a bun” topped with mint jelly and tomato relish. The Big Al starts with a half-pound of beef, bacon, cheese, two eggs and a slice of beet. The motto for this hole in the wall: “Let there be burgers for people when they are drunk to hell.” (42 Shotover Street; 64-3-441-1232; fergburger.com)

Tour Groups and Guides

The efficiency of New Zealand tour operators will thrill you, whether it’s Red Carpet Tours in Auckland (64-9-410-6561; redcarpet-tours.com) or Queenstown’s Nomad Safaris (64-3-442-6699; nomadsafaris.co.nz). A one-stop shop for accurate countrywide travel advice and booking help is Positively Wellington, the capital’s tourism division (corner of Wakefield and Victoria streets; 64-4-916-1205; wellingtonnz.com).

Getting Around

We drove 500 miles in total, covering a wide swath of the North Island, with nothing more than the maps app on our iPhone as a guide. Car rental agencies are plentiful (remember to drive on the left). We found hopping on domestic flights to be shockingly easy. For our flight from Queenstown to Wellington, for instance, there was no security screening or gate announcement. An airport employee simply appeared while we milled around the central waiting area and said, “All right then, anyone who’s going to Wellington, get on. That door.”

Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply cover Hollywood from the Los Angeles bureau.

click for a slide show:

http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2012/10/07/travel/07HOBBIT.html?ref=travel


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« Reply #2616 on: Oct 07, 2012, 07:19 AM »

In the USA...

October 6, 2012

For those in America please read and absorb this healine....and what it actually means in terms of what is going on in your country  .. the nature of your corporate media.

Unlike the Corporate Media, Citizens Aren’t Buying Romney’s Debate Lies

By: Sarah Jones
October 6th, 2012

A new tool was applied to social media following the presidential debate, and it showed that public sentiment was Obama won on substance, whereas Romney appeared to win by lying. The ability of social media to spread the word about fact-checks has changed the game.

NBC used a tool called ForSight, used to gauge public opinion in new media, to conclude that by Friday there was a sustained social media backlash against the punditry calling the Denver presidential debate for Romney. The new meme was that if Romney “won”, he did so by lying, whereas Obama had won on substance.

    The immediate consensus that Mitt Romney won Wednesday’s presidential debate has eroded significantly as fact-checkers have weighed in and supporters of President Barack Obama have fought back, according to NBCPolitics’ computer-assisted analysis of more than 1.3 million post-debate comments on social media.

    The analysis suggests that as debate over a news event continues unmediated over time, the impact of the conventional wisdom of journalists and partisan commentators can be mitigated…

    By Friday morning, the counterargument that Obama had actually won on substance had taken root, with online sentiment now favoring the president.

I am not presenting these revelations to argue that Obama won the debate. It was established by the media that Romney won the debate, even if this study — based upon the post mortem fact-checking that damaged Romney’s “win” — says otherwise. Romney has also gotten a small bounce in post debate polls so far among undecideds.

However, to the point of the social media backlash, the debate bounce is not a shift in the electorate precisely for the reasons people were citing on social media; the public does not find Romney trustworthy or presidential. According to numbers from a Reuters/Ipsos survey released Saturday, the bounce is not a shift in the electorate, but a short term bounce. “We haven’t seen additional gains from Romney. This suggests to me that this is more of a bounce than a permanent shift,” Ipsos pollster Julia Clark concluded.

Furthermore, Obama gained ground post debate on matters of character and who understands the electorate more, even among voters who thought Romney “won” the debate. Obama is still more liked than Romney (53-29), and he still has a slim overall lead over Romney. Voters feel Obama has right values needed for a President by 43 to 37. Ironically given the narrative that came out of Denver’s debate, Obama still leads 42-38 on who is “tough” enough to be President.

So, Romney “won” the debate but did nothing he needed to do in order to present himself as more presidential. Worse, our media gave a debate to the person who by all fact-checkers’ accounts, lied his way through the entire debate to such an astonishing degree that there were times we did not know who was standing on that stage. This was not the Mitt Romney who has been campaigning for the past six years. Mitt Romney “won” by disavowing himself of Mitt Romney. How is that a real “win”? Perhaps he won the debate only to lose himself.

Not bothered in the least by Romney stabbing Republican ideology in the back in order to present himself as Obama lite during Denver’s debate, the Romney camp were out with champagne and snarls the day after the debate — high on their first “win” in a long and rather embarrassing campaign season for them. Republicans took to the airwaves to gloat like frat boys, demonstrating the very reason why they should not be in charge of anything. Ambition happily sacrificed principles in the Romney camp.

If this is “winning”, then we need to redefine the purpose of these debates. Ostensibly, they exist to inform the people. How exactly did Mitt Romney inform the people of his policy positions so that they were better equipped to vote their conscience? He misled them, if anything, and he seemed to only confirm voters’ already dim opinions of his character. The media dropped the ball on this one, including the allegedly liberal media.

Things are so bad in our corporate media that we were told a liar won a debate for the Presidency because the other guy didn’t hit him back hard enough. These folks are paid for their ability to see past the trees, even if they are the right height, and focus on more than political theater.

The debate is supposed to be about who is best suited to be President, not about who won the WWE show, unless the media is conceding that our presidential debates are nothing but entertainment not subject to rules. The Denver debate and the post debate coverage was an unmitigated fail.

Just like the trolled Town Halls of 2010, the media got punked by manic hysteria and distortions meant to distract from the very issues at hand. The media did nothing to clear the air. But citizens took to social media to point through the crazed haze, revealing the little man behind the curtain of lies.

Romney won the debate, but failed to achieve what should have been his biggest goals; to change public perception of him and to come off as presidential.

******

Error and Fraud at Issue as Absentee Voting Rises

By ADAM LIPTAK

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — On the morning of the primary here in August, the local elections board met to decide which absentee ballots to count. It was not an easy job.

The board tossed out some ballots because they arrived without the signature required on the outside of the return envelope. It rejected one that said “see inside” where the signature should have been. And it debated what to do with ballots in which the signature on the envelope did not quite match the one in the county’s files.

“This ‘r’ is not like that ‘r,’ ” Judge Augustus D. Aikens Jr. said, suggesting that a ballot should be rejected.

Ion Sancho, the elections supervisor here, disagreed. “This ‘k’ is like that ‘k,’ ” he replied, and he persuaded his colleagues to count the vote.

Scenes like this will play out in many elections next month, because Florida and other states are swiftly moving from voting at a polling place toward voting by mail. In the last general election in Florida, in 2010, 23 percent of voters cast absentee ballots, up from 15 percent in the midterm election four years before. Nationwide, the use of absentee ballots and other forms of voting by mail has more than tripled since 1980 and now accounts for almost 20 percent of all votes.

Yet votes cast by mail are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth, statistics show. Election officials reject almost 2 percent of ballots cast by mail, double the rate for in-person voting.

“The more people you force to vote by mail,” Mr. Sancho said, “the more invalid ballots you will generate.”

Election experts say the challenges created by mailed ballots could well affect outcomes this fall and beyond. If the contests next month are close enough to be within what election lawyers call the margin of litigation, the grounds on which they will be fought will not be hanging chads but ballots cast away from the voting booth.

In 2008, 18 percent of the votes in the nine states likely to decide this year’s presidential election were cast by mail. That number will almost certainly rise this year, and voters in two-thirds of the states have already begun casting absentee ballots. In four Western states, voting by mail is the exclusive or dominant way to cast a ballot.

The trend will probably result in more uncounted votes, and it increases the potential for fraud. While fraud in voting by mail is far less common than innocent errors, it is vastly more prevalent than the in-person voting fraud that has attracted far more attention, election administrators say.

In Florida, absentee-ballot scandals seem to arrive like clockwork around election time. Before this year’s primary, for example, a woman in Hialeah was charged with forging an elderly voter’s signature, a felony, and possessing 31 completed absentee ballots, 29 more than allowed under a local law.

The flaws of absentee voting raise questions about the most elementary promises of democracy. “The right to have one’s vote counted is as important as the act of voting itself,” Justice Paul H. Anderson of the Minnesota Supreme Court wrote while considering disputed absentee ballots in the close 2008 Senate election between Al Franken and Norm Coleman.

Voting by mail is now common enough and problematic enough that election experts say there have been multiple elections in which no one can say with confidence which candidate was the deserved winner. The list includes the 2000 presidential election, in which problems with absentee ballots in Florida were a little-noticed footnote to other issues.

In the last presidential election, 35.5 million voters requested absentee ballots, but only 27.9 million absentee votes were counted, according to a study by Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He calculated that 3.9 million ballots requested by voters never reached them; that another 2.9 million ballots received by voters did not make it back to election officials; and that election officials rejected 800,000 ballots. That suggests an overall failure rate of as much as 21 percent.

Some voters presumably decided not to vote after receiving ballots, but Mr. Stewart said many others most likely tried to vote and were thwarted. “If 20 percent, or even 10 percent, of voters who stood in line on Election Day were turned away,” he wrote in the study, published in The Journal of Legislation and Public Policy, “there would be national outrage.”

The list of very close elections includes the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota, in which Mr. Franken’s victory over Mr. Coleman, the Republican incumbent, helped give Democrats the 60 votes in the Senate needed to pass President Obama’s health care bill. Mr. Franken won by 312 votes, while state officials rejected 12,000 absentee ballots. Recent primary elections in New York involving Republican state senators who had voted to allow same-sex marriage also hinged on absentee ballots.

There are, of course, significant advantages to voting by mail. It makes life easier for the harried, the disabled and the elderly. It is cheaper to administer, makes for shorter lines on election days and allows voters more time to think about ballots that list many races. By mailing ballots, those away from home can vote. Its availability may also increase turnout in local elections, though it does not seem to have had much impact on turnout in federal ones.

Still, voting in person is more reliable, particularly since election administrators made improvements to voting equipment after the 2000 presidential election.

There have been other and more controversial changes since then, also in the name of reliability and efficiency. Lawmakers have cut back on early voting in person, cracked down on voter registration drives, imposed identification requirements, made it harder for students to cast ballots and proposed purging voter rolls in a way that critics have said would eliminate people who are eligible to vote.

But almost nothing has been done about the distinctive challenges posed by absentee ballots. To the contrary, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state recently sent absentee ballot applications to every registered voter in the state. And Republican lawmakers in Florida recently revised state law to allow ballots to be mailed wherever voters want, rather than typically to only their registered addresses.

“This is the only area in Florida where we’ve made it easier to cast a ballot,” Daniel A. Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida, said of absentee voting.

He posited a reason that Republican officials in particular have pushed to expand absentee voting. “The conventional wisdom is that Republicans use absentee ballots and Democrats vote early,” he said.

Republicans are in fact more likely than Democrats to vote absentee. In the 2008 general election in Florida, 47 percent of absentee voters were Republicans and 36 percent were Democrats.

There is a bipartisan consensus that voting by mail, whatever its impact, is more easily abused than other forms. In a 2005 report signed by President Jimmy Carter and James A. Baker III, who served as secretary of state under the first President George Bush, the Commission on Federal Election Reform concluded, “Absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.”

On the most basic level, absentee voting replaces the oversight that exists at polling places with something akin to an honor system.

“Absentee voting is to voting in person,” Judge Richard A. Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has written, “as a take-home exam is to a proctored one.”

Fraud Easier Via Mail

Election administrators have a shorthand name for a central weakness of voting by mail. They call it granny farming.

“The problem,” said Murray A. Greenberg, a former county attorney in Miami, “is really with the collection of absentee ballots at the senior citizen centers.” In Florida, people affiliated with political campaigns “help people vote absentee,” he said. “And help is in quotation marks.”

Voters in nursing homes can be subjected to subtle pressure, outright intimidation or fraud. The secrecy of their voting is easily compromised. And their ballots can be intercepted both coming and going.

The problem is not limited to the elderly, of course. Absentee ballots also make it much easier to buy and sell votes. In recent years, courts have invalidated mayoral elections in Illinois and Indiana because of fraudulent absentee ballots.

Voting by mail also played a crucial role in the 2000 presidential election in Florida, when the margin between George W. Bush and Al Gore was razor thin and hundreds of absentee ballots were counted in apparent violation of state law. The flawed ballots, from Americans living abroad, included some without postmarks, some postmarked after the election, some without witness signatures, some mailed from within the United States and some sent by people who voted twice. All would have been disqualified had the state’s election laws been strictly enforced.

In the recent primary here, almost 40 percent of ballots were not cast in the voting booth on the day of the election. They were split between early votes cast at polling places, which Mr. Sancho, the Leon County elections supervisor, favors, and absentee ballots, which make him nervous.

“There has been not one case of fraud in early voting,” Mr. Sancho said. “The only cases of election fraud have been in absentee ballots.”

Efforts to prevent fraud at polling places have an ironic consequence, Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, told the Senate Judiciary Committee September last year. They will, he said, “drive more voters into the absentee system, where fraud and coercion have been documented to be real and legitimate concerns.”

“That is,” he said, “a law ostensibly designed to reduce the incidence of fraud is likely to increase the rate at which voters utilize a system known to succumb to fraud more frequently.”

Clarity Brings Better Results

In 2008, Minnesota officials rejected 12,000 absentee ballots, about 4 percent of all such votes, for the myriad reasons that make voting by mail far less reliable than voting in person.

The absentee ballot itself could be blamed for some of the problems. It had to be enclosed in envelopes containing various information and signatures, including one from a witness who had to attest to handling the logistics of seeing that “the voter marked the ballots in that individual’s presence without showing how they were marked.” Such witnesses must themselves be registered voters, with a few exceptions.

Absentee ballots have been rejected in Minnesota and elsewhere for countless reasons. Signatures from older people, sloppy writers or stroke victims may not match those on file. The envelopes and forms may not have been configured in the right sequence. People may have moved, and addresses may not match. Witnesses may not be registered to vote. The mail may be late.

But it is certainly possible to improve the process and reduce the error rate.

Here in Leon County, the rejection rate for absentee ballots is less than 1 percent. The instructions it provides to voters are clear, and the outer envelope is a model of graphic design, with a large signature box at its center.

The envelope requires only standard postage, and Mr. Sancho has made arrangements with the post office to pay for ballots that arrive without stamps.

Still, he would prefer that voters visit a polling place on Election Day or beforehand so that errors and misunderstandings can be corrected and the potential for fraud minimized.

“If you vote by mail, where is that coming from?” he asked. “Is there intimidation going on?”

Last November, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, suspended a school board member in Madison County, not far from here, after she was arrested on charges including absentee ballot fraud.

The board member, Abra Hill Johnson, won the school board race “by what appeared to be a disproportionate amount of absentee votes,” the arrest affidavit said. The vote was 675 to 647, but Ms. Johnson had 217 absentee votes to her opponent’s 86. Officials said that 80 absentee ballots had been requested at just nine addresses. Law enforcement agents interviewed 64 of the voters whose ballots were sent; only two recognized the address.

Ms. Johnson has pleaded not guilty.

Election law experts say that pulling off in-person voter fraud on a scale large enough to swing an election, with scores if not hundreds of people committing a felony in public by pretending to be someone else, is hard to imagine, to say nothing of exceptionally risky.

There are much simpler and more effective alternatives to commit fraud on such a scale, said Heather Gerken, a law professor at Yale.

“You could steal some absentee ballots or stuff a ballot box or bribe an election administrator or fiddle with an electronic voting machine,” she said. That explains, she said, “why all the evidence of stolen elections involves absentee ballots and the like.”

Amanda Cox contributed reporting from New York.

*************

October 6, 2012

Voters in Florida Are Set to Weigh in on Two Contentious Ballot Questions

By LIZETTE ALVAREZ

MIAMI — In a year in which most states have steered clear of contentious ballot initiatives, Florida voters are facing two proposed constitutional amendments — one on abortion, the other on the separation of church and state — that could have far-reaching repercussions.

Drafted by the Florida Legislature, along with nine other proposed amendments that will appear on the ballot in November, the first measure would restrict abortions and the second would allow public money to flow to religious institutions — an effort, opponents say, to revive school vouchers. The initiatives would require the approval of 60 percent of voters to take effect.

Both issues have galvanized supporters and opponents, including the Roman Catholic Church, reproductive rights groups, religious conservatives and the state teachers’ union, all of which are plunging money and volunteers into an effort to reach weary, long-badgered voters in this swing state.

Critics and backers of the amendments said they were concerned that voters, who will face long ballots printed in multiple languages and laden with various candidates and issues, may be unprepared to fully understand the consequences of the measures. In Miami-Dade County, for example, the ballot is 12 pages long, and some voters are likely to misunderstand the breadth of the amendments or run out of patience or time to make selections all the way down the ballot, policy analysts say.

“The bills are not that complicated,” said Tony Carvajal, the chief operations officer for the Collins Center for Public Policy in Tallahassee, which has analyzed the 11 amendments. “But the implications are huge.”

The abortion initiative, Amendment 6, seeks to bring Florida laws into line with more restrictive federal laws. The measure would ban state tax money from being used for abortions or for health insurance coverage of abortion, except in rare circumstances, among them rape, incest and when a woman’s life is endangered. The proposal would also narrow the definition of privacy in Florida as it relates to abortion, making it no broader than federal law.

If the amendment passes, the practical effect, analysts say, will be that state employees, with few exceptions, will not be able to use their insurance policies to cover abortions.

Also, by narrowing privacy laws, the Legislature, which is overwhelmingly Republican, will have an easier time approving, among other things, a bill requiring minors to get parental consent for an abortion. Currently, parents are notified if a minor seeks an abortion, but their consent is not required. A Florida law on parental consent was overturned in 1989 because of the state’s constitutional language regarding privacy.

“A minor child can’t get an aspirin at school, or a body piercing or a tattoo, but can get an abortion,” said Jim Frankowiak, the campaign manager for Citizens for Protecting Taxpayers and Parental Rights, which supports Amendment 6. “An abortion is a very serious health consideration.”

But opponents of the measure said the most immediate threat is for state employees, including teachers and police officers, whose insurance would not cover abortions, even if a pregnancy is detrimental to their health. A pregnant woman with cancer who requires chemotherapy, for example, would probably have to terminate her pregnancy to receive treatment, analysts said. But because she is not in “danger of death,” as the measure would require, her insurance might not cover the procedure, they said.

“In the real world, things can go tragically wrong in pregnancy, and women need all their options,” said Lillian Tamayo, the campaign chairwoman for Vote No on Amendment 6 and the president and chief enforcement officer of Planned Parenthood of South Florida and the Treasure Coast. “We should not be punishing or withholding care from public trusted servants.”

Ms. Tamayo portrayed Amendment 6 as part of a broader strategy by the Legislature to erode abortion rights by presenting voters with a little-understood measure. Planned Parenthood has raised nearly $2 million to defeat it and plans to run television advertisements against it.

“It’s not for politicians to decide what should or should not be covered as part of a woman’s health plan,” Ms. Tamayo said. “What keeps them from next preventing birth control as a health insurance benefit?”

A second initiative, pitting teachers and school boards against conservatives and many religious institutions, seeks to soften the barrier between church and state in Florida. The initiative, Amendment 8, would remove 19th-century language in the State Constitution that bars religious or sectarian institutions, or people, from receiving state money. Many states have similar provisions. The language was rooted in anti-Catholic sentiment and was written when Catholics were arriving in the country in large numbers.

Religious groups in Florida already receive state money, despite the language, but they are barred from using the money to proselytize. Typically, the money is used for social services and health programs run through organizations like Catholic Charities.

For religious leaders, the initiative is about protecting their ability to receive the money, a longstanding practice that they said is being threatened by a 2007 lawsuit against two religious groups that minister to Florida prisoners. The suit accuses the groups of pushing religion on the prisoners and raises questions about the separation of church and state.

Supporters say that Amendment 8 seeks to make the Florida Constitution no more restrictive on the issue than the United States Constitution.

“By getting rid of the language, we will protect the funding of these agencies,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who is working to get the amendment passed. “In fact, it has nothing to do with vouchers.”

But public school advocates and civil liberties supporters say the initiative is, in fact, about vouchers. Calling the amendment sweeping and misleading, opponents say it does not limit itself to social services. Instead, they said, it opens the door to another effort by the Florida Legislature to institute a voucher system that would allow public money to go to religious schools.

And by calling it the “religious freedom” amendment, critics say, the Legislature is being disingenuous with voters. “It’s not about religious freedom, which is guaranteed in our Constitution,” said Karen Aronowitz, the president of United Teachers of Dade. “It’s another attempt to make vouchers a funding item from our public tax dollars and take the money away from public schools.”

Experts on the initiative said that it would not automatically lead to vouchers, mostly because vouchers were overturned by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006 on different grounds.

But it would remove one of the obstacles standing in the way of vouchers, the experts said. If the initiative were to pass, Florida lawmakers could draft new voucher legislation based on the new language, they said.

“It is possible,” said Tim McLendon, a staff lawyer at the University of Florida law school’s Center for Government Responsibility. “They could redo it, and it could reappear.”

**********

Court orders Ohio to restore early voting for all residents

By Arturo Garcia
Friday, October 5, 2012 17:43 EDT

A federal appeals court has ruled that the state of Ohio extend early voting hours to all residents, overturning a measure that limited the practice to military members and voters living overseas.

Talking Points Memo reported that the ruling by the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allows for voting to take place on the weekend before the Nov. 6 general election.

“The State’s asserted goal of accommodating the unique situation of members of the military, who may be called away at a moment’s notice in service to the nation, is certainly a worthy and commendable goal,” the court said in its ruling (PDF). “However, while there is a compelling reason to provide more opportunities for military voters to cast their ballots, there is no corresponding satisfactory reason to prevent non-military voters from casting their ballots as well.”

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and the Ohio Democratic Party sued Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, calling state Senate Bill 295 “a cynical ploy.” State Sen. Nina Turner (D) called the bill a resurrection of Jim Crow, saying it was designed to suppress voting in precincts with a heavy African-American population.

According to MSNBC, about 93,000 residents vote during the three-day period preceding the election, many of them African-American voters who do so after their local church services.

****************

Seven dead as meningitis outbreak reaches nine states

By Arturo Garcia
Saturday, October 6, 2012 19:54 EDT

Seven people have died in a meningitis outbreak that has affected 64 people in nine states, The Associated Press reported Saturday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its website Saturday to confirm that there have been cases connected to the outbreak reported in Minnesota and Ohio, joining Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, Michigan, Virginia and Maryland.

The AP also reported that 30 cases of the outbreak of aspergillus meningitis have been reported in Tennessee. All of them are being blamed on injections of a contaminated spinal steroid from the New England Compounding Center (NECC) used to treat back pain.

The family of one victim, Janet Russell, told the AP Russell has been in intensive care since being injected with the steroid at a Nashville hospital a month and a half ago.

“She has headaches, and she cannot eat,” said her daughter, Teresa Russell. “She cannot even take a sip of water and hold it down to take her medication orally, the medication she can take orally. And she has been sick for a very long time now.”

ABC News reported that NECC has recalled three lots of the drug and shut down operations.

The Associated Press report on the Russell family’s case, posted Friday, can be seen below.

*********

October 6, 2012

Scant Oversight of Drug Maker in Fatal Meningitis Outbreak

By DENISE GRADY, ANDREW POLLACK and SABRINA TAVERNISE

Eddie C. Lovelace, a Kentucky judge still on the bench into his late 70s, had a penchant for reciting Shakespeare from memory and telling funny stories in his big, booming voice. But a car accident last spring left him with severe neck pain, and in July and August he sought spinal injections with a steroid medicine for relief.

Instead, Judge Lovelace died in Nashville in September at age 78, one of the first victims in a growing national outbreak of meningitis caused by the very medicine that was supposed to help him. Health officials say they believe it was contaminated with a fungus.

The rising toll — 7 dead, 57 ill and thousands potentially exposed — has cast a harsh light on the loose regulations that legal experts say allowed a company to sell 17,676 vials of an unsafe drug to pain clinics in 23 states. Federal health officials said Friday that all patients injected with the steroid drug made by that company, the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Mass., which has a troubled history, needed to be tracked down immediately and informed of the danger.

“This wasn’t some obscure procedure being done in some obscure hospital,” said Tom Carroll, a close friend to the Lovelace family, and their lawyer. “They had sought out a respected neurosurgeon who had been referred by their family doctor, at a respected hospital,” he said, referring to the St. Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgery Center. “How does this happen?”

The answer, at least in part, is that some doctors and clinics have turned away from major drug manufacturers and have taken their business to so-called compounding pharmacies, like New England Compounding, which mix up batches of drugs on their own, often for much lower prices than major manufacturers charge — and with little of the federal oversight of drug safety and quality that is routine for the big companies.

“The Food and Drug Administration has more regulatory authority over a drug factory in China than over a compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts,” said Kevin Outterson, an associate professor of law at Boston University.

The outbreak has also brought new scrutiny to the widely used procedure that Judge Lovelace and millions of Americans undergo each year.

Patients most likely assumed there was strong evidence that the procedure itself works. But the Cochrane Collaboration, an international group of medical experts, reviewed the data last year and found there was “no strong evidence for or against” the injections. Patients exposed to the drug in the current outbreak may have risked their health or even their lives for an elusive goal.

A Large Demand

Over the past two decades, pain control has become a growth industry, bolstered by the worn-out knees and aching backs of baby boomers. Pain clinics began popping up around the country.

Starting in the 1990s, spinal injections for back pain, known as lumbar epidural steroid injections, skyrocketed. They have since leveled off, but the number remains high. In 2011, 2.5 million Medicare recipients had the injections, as did an equal number of younger people, according to Dr. Ray Baker, president of the International Spine Intervention Society.

Many people seek them in hopes of avoiding surgery. The injections combine a steroid and a numbing drug in an effort to soothe inflamed and irritated nerves. Patients are told they may get weeks, months or even a year of relief.

The injections created a demand for steroids, including methylprednisolone acetate, the drug that New England Compounding was making.

To be sure, many compounding pharmacies perform well, producing formulations of drugs for specialized needs. Compounders have also provided hospitals and doctors with cheaper alternatives to F.D.A.-approved drugs.

For example, they are providing a far cheaper alternative to a drug called Makena, a new brand name version of an old drug used to reduce the risk of premature births. Once the drug got F.D.A. approval, the manufacturer of Makena began charging about a hundred times more for the drug than compounders. Officials from the F.D.A. wanted to ban the pharmacy-made versions on the grounds that Makena had met the agency’s rigorous safety standards, but senior Obama administration officials, concerned about Makena’s much higher price, stepped in to halt the ban.

In recent years, compounding pharmacies have sometimes filled gaps left by shortages of drugs made by pharmaceutical companies.

“As drug shortages have become more complex and common, pharmacies are turning to external compounding companies to help them,” said Cynthia Reilly, of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, referring to hospital pharmacies.

Shortages may have played a role in the large purchases of the injectable steroid now under suspicion from New England Compounding. The two manufacturers of the generic version of the drug had stopped making it.

Teva halted production in 2010 when it temporarily closed its Irvine, Calif., factory after receiving a warning letter from the F.D.A. about manufacturing quality problems.

The other manufacturer, Sandoz, stopped selling the product in the United States this year, according to the company, which would not provide a reason. Sandoz has also been reprimanded by the F.D.A. for manufacturing problems.

While the F.D.A. says the drug is not in short supply, the brand name product still available may have been considered too expensive, prompting some medical practices to turn to compounding pharmacists.

PainCare, a medical practice with 12 locations in New Hampshire, turned to New England Compounding for the injectable steroid now under suspicion when its usual supplier ran out, said the company’s chief executive, Dr. Michael J. O’Connell. The company’s two main locations alone do more than 100 injections a week.

Dr. O’Connell said he preferred compounding pharmacies because they could make the drug free of an alcohol often used as a preservative in drugs manufactured by big companies that he worried could damage nerves.

In addition, Medicare and many private insurers reimburse a fixed amount for the injections, about $300, giving doctors a financial incentive to prefer the less costly compounded versions, he said. “If you are using a more expensive product, there would be less left over,” Dr. O’Connell said.

PainCare paid New England Compounding $25 for a vial containing five 80-milligram doses, he said. A similar vial of the Depo-Medrol by Pfizer, with the alcohol preservative, costs about $40 to $46, according to the Web site of Clint Pharmaceuticals, a distributor.

About 186 of PainCare’s patients were injected with the suspect product. About two dozen have had symptoms that could indicate meningitis and have come in for spinal taps. The lab results are not back, Dr. O’Connell said, but the fluid samples were clear, rather than cloudy, as they would be if infected by a fungus.

Questions of Origins

Some physicians who work in big hospitals may not even know whether the drug they use is from a compounder.

Dr. Anders Cohen, the chief of neurosurgery and spine surgery at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, said: “We ask for the medication, it’s in stock, we use it. I don’t know if it’s coming from A, B or C. This is kind of a wake-up call about where your stuff is coming from.”

Because of the outbreak, Dr. Cohen has stopped performing spinal injections for now, and he was planning to declare a moratorium on them at his hospital until he was certain all the medicine was clean, even though his hospital is not on the list of facilities that received the potentially contaminated drug.

The size of New England Compounding appears to have reassured some doctors, who thought dealing with a large company might be safer than buying from a mom-and-pop compounder.

One pain specialist said he had heard from colleagues that the company had a good reputation and that even prestigious hospitals had used it. His practice did not buy the steroid medicine from New England Compounding but a contrast agent, a type of dye used for imaging. After he first contacted the Massachusetts company, it flew in a sales representative to meet him.

“We were impressed,” said the doctor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he had not yet consulted his malpractice insurer about whether he should publicly identify himself as having bought products from New England Compounding. “It seemed like big time.” The representative “assured me that all standards are being met.”

But all the dye the doctor bought from New England Compounding has had to be thrown out on the chance that it also might be contaminated, he said.

And the Massachusetts company itself has a troubled past. A series of complaints had been lodged against New England Compounding over the past decade. The State Health Department inspected in 2006. According to a warning letter sent by the F.D.A. from that year, the company was accused of illegally producing a standardized anesthetic topical cream, inappropriately repackaging a drug, and telling doctors that using an office staff member’s name was enough to put in an order, even though rules require a prescription for a particular patient.

Issues of Law

Meningitis can be caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi. Doctors say that the fungal type is the hardest to treat and devastating to patients because it can cause strokes. And indeed, some of the patients in the current outbreak have suffered strokes.

Federal inspectors last week removed samples of the suspect drug from New England Compounding to test for fungal contamination. The center, which takes in about $2.2 million a year, according to its corporate filings, is housed in a two-story brick building.

The company’s offices in suburban Boston were locked Friday, with a “no soliciting” sign on the door. The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment last week. Before it went offline, the company’s Web site said New England Compounding was licensed in all 50 states. State and federal officials said it had shipped out a prodigious amount of the potentially contaminated medicine to 75 pain clinics in 23 states.

Traditionally, the law meant compounding to be a local service in which pharmacists could tailor-make prescriptions for patients with special needs. Compounding pharmacies were not supposed to become miniature drug companies.

It is not clear how much large-scale compounding actually goes on. David G. Miller, executive vice president of the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists, estimated that large-scale compounders represented about 10 percent of all compounding pharmacies, but he could not say what percentage of compounded medicines they made.

As state and federal authorities pored over information about New England Compounding last week, there was little agreement among experts on whether the company broke the law by making products in bulk and shipping them around the country.

Compounding falls in a legal no man’s land, between the federal government and the states. The F.D.A. regulates manufacturers, but compounders register as pharmacies, putting them under a patchwork of state rules. The F.D.A. did develop a clear set of rules for compounding, but subsequent litigation that culminated in a Supreme Court decision in 2002 struck them down, and Congress never re-established the agency’s clear authority, Professor Outterson said.

Jeff Gibbs, a lawyer in Washington who has represented compounders and drug companies, said it was unusual for a compounding pharmacy to produce large quantities of a drug that is commercially available. Policies of the F.D.A. were more concerned about compounders’ making drugs that are already approved and on the market, and not so much about compounders’ producing large volumes of medicine, he said.

But Sheldon T. Bradshaw, a lawyer in Washington who was chief counsel for the F.D.A. from 2005 to 2007, said large-scale compounders often behave like manufacturers, complete with sales teams that market their products to doctors. And they do not have to abide by the F.D.A.’s regulations, which require that problems with products be reported to the agency. In effect, he said, the companies are circumventing the regulatory process.

He contended that the F.D.A. could invoke the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which makes it a criminal act “to introduce into interstate commerce an unapproved drug.” That is what New England Compounding’s products would most likely be considered because the company was doing more than traditional compounding, yet had not obtained a new drug approval, something that large drug makers spend millions of dollars and years to get. He said the agency has often sent letters to producers telling them to stop, and they usually comply, knowing there might be criminal charges if they do not.

“Some of these companies are just setting up big manufacturing shops in the guise of traditional compounding and making drugs that are, for the most part, commercially available,” Mr. Bradshaw said. “Instead of making fake Rolexes, they are making fake drugs.”

Jess Bidgood and Sheelagh McNeill contributed reporting.

****************

What an example of Neptune In Pisces !!

Maddow: Right wing copying Iranian mullas by creating their own reality

By David Ferguson
Saturday, October 6, 2012 11:02 EDT

Friday night on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” host Rachel Maddow compared so-called conservative “poll-truthers” to the mullahs and theocrats of Iran, who would rather construct an artificial, sanitized Internet than risk having their fellow Iranians access the wider internet and be exposed to new information.

Iran, Maddow began, is about to get its own Internet.  The religious leaders who control the country have always had an uneasy relationship with the Internet, blocking certain sites that could undermine their hardline religious rule.

“So they’ve been busy closing off bits of the Internet to the Iranian public,” she said.  ”You can’t use Google.  Now you can’t use YouTube.  You can’t use specific sites where the government doesn’t like what you can read there or what you can see there.”

Now, rather than continue to try and manage the crazy patchwork of censored and uncensored sites, Iran is creating its own, government-sponsored Internet environment for Iranians, keeping them from accessing anything too provocative or secular.

This week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) issued some of the best jobs numbers the nation has seen since President Barack Obama took office, with the unemployment rate falling below 8 percent for the first time since January of 2009.  Some Republicans have reacted to this, Maddow said, just like Iranian mullahs.  Rather than accepting a reality they don’t like, they’re just constructing a safer, alternate reality.

The host then rolled clips of conservatives loudly declaiming election polls from summer and fall 2012 that show Obama ahead of the Republican candidate, former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA).  Rather than accept that these polls might be telling the truth, Republicans flocked to Unskewed.com, a polling site that purports to correct mainstream polls for “liberal media bias,” therefore pushing Romney ahead of the president.

Similarly, when too many conservatives began to read things they didn’t like on Wikipedia, they decided to invent Conservapedia, which also purports to eliminate “liberal bias” and only gives conservatives information that will square with their view of the world.

“If you don’t like the real world,” she said, “invent your own.”

Conservatives are not alone in this, she said, talking about the new theory that Romney cheated during the debate by bringing a cheat sheet.  Maddow dismissed the theory out of hand, saying that whether or not Romney cheated, the reason that he won the debate was because the president turned in a lackluster performance.

“The worst example of this, though, the invention of a comforting new parallel reality that means you do not need to face hard truths,” she said, are the “poll-truthers,” people who allege that the Obama administration has fudged the new BLS numbers, accusing the president, the bureau and its head, Hilda Solis, of doctoring the unemployment rate in order to reinforce Obama’s re-election chances.

Maddow pointed to former GE CEO Jack Welch’s outburst on Twitter from Friday morning, in which he wrote, “Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbers.”

The right picked up that ball and ran with it all day Friday, from Rep. Allen West (R-FL) to Fox host Eric Bolling to conservative radio host Laura Ingraham.  Ingraham called the new data “total pro-Obama propaganda.”

“Forget the real world,” Maddow said.  ”They were going to build their own private world that made them happier.”

Maddow was joined by Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

*************

Joseph Stiglitz tells jobs ‘truthers’ the idea of a conspiracy is ‘literally absurd’

By Roxanne Cooper
Saturday, October 6, 2012 10:37 EDT

Appearing on Saturday morning’s edition of Up with Chris Hayes , Joseph Stiglitz took on jobs “truthers.”

The Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate in Economics explained the absurdity of former GE CEO Jack Welch’s assertion that the Obama administration cooked the books on yesterday’s jobs numbers in order to gain in the upcoming presidential election.

    Let me give you a story that illustrates why it’s so implausible. Back when President Clinton was running for his second term, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Affairs that comes up with the GDP number were changing the way we measure GDP growth, okay? And they were going to something that is a technical term called chained-weighted GDP. And the result of going to chain-weighted GDP was that the GDP number would be lower than the old methodology.

    The President was furious because everyone thought they were coming up with a number that was lower. He said, ‘Can’t you stop this? Can’t you wait until after the election?’ We said, ‘No, they’re an independent agency. We can’t touch them.’

    …but the point is no president –except maybe Nixon– would try to change what the Bureau of Labor Statistics does or what the BEA does. These are really independent statistical agencies. The idea that they would do that is …literally absurd.




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October 7, 2012

Chávez Wins New Term in Venezuela, Holding Off Surge by Opposition

By WILLIAM NEUMAN
IHT

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez, long a fiery foe of Washington, won re-election on Sunday, facing down cancer and the strongest electoral challenge of his nearly 14 years in office and gaining a new mandate to deepen his socialist revolution.

Though his margin of victory was much narrower than in past elections, he still won handily. With 90 percent of the votes tallied, Mr. Chávez received 54 percent, to 45 percent for his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the national election council said. Fireworks erupted in Caracas after the news, and Chávez supporters celebrated in the streets.

Shortly before 11:30 p.m. local time, Mr. Chávez stepped out onto the balcony of the presidential palace in Caracas and waved to a sea of jubilant supporters. “My words of recognition go out from here to all who voted against us, a recognition for their democratic temperament,” he said. A former soldier, he called the election a “perfect battle.”

Still, after a spirited campaign, the polarizing Mr. Chávez finds himself governing a changed country. He is an ailing and politically weakened winner facing an emboldened opposition that grew stronger and more confident as the voting neared, and held out hope that an upset victory was within reach.

Mr. Chávez has said that he would move forward even more aggressively to create his version of socialism in Venezuela in a new six-year term, although his pledges were short on specifics.

His health, though, remains a question mark. He has undergone several rounds of treatment for cancer in the last 15 months, but has refused to make public essential details of his illness. If he overcomes the disease and serves out his new term to its end in 2019, he will have been in power for two full decades.

Toward the end of the campaign, facing pressure from Mr. Capriles, he pledged to make his government more efficient and to pay more attention to the quality of government programs like education. He even made appeals for the middle class and the opposition to join in his revolution.

But Mr. Chávez spent much of the year insulting and trying to provoke Mr. Capriles and his followers. And on Sunday night, he had to face the fact that the people he taunted as squalid good-for-nothings, little Yankees and fascists, turned out to be nearly half the electorate.

As the opposition’s momentum grew, Mr. Chávez’s insults seemed to lose their sting. By the end of the campaign, young people in Caracas were wearing colorful T-shirts that said “majunche” or good-for-nothing, Mr. Chávez’s favorite taunt.

Mr. Capriles was subdued on Sunday night, congratulating Mr. Chávez and saying he hoped the president would see the result as “the expression today of a country with two visions, and to be president means working to solve the problems of all Venezuelans.”

He appeared poised to carry on his fight in the elections for state governors in December. “You should all feel proud, do not feel defeated,” he told supporters.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research institute in Washington, called the presidential election “a fundamental turning point.” He said Mr. Chávez was “going to have to deal with a very different society than he dealt with in his last term, a society that’s awakened and more organized and more confident.”

Even so, the opposition is a fragile coalition with a history of destructive infighting, especially after an election defeat. Mr. Capriles will have to keep this fractious amalgam of parties from the left, right and center together in order to take advantage of the new ground they have gained.

“The opposition has more power, it feels more support,” said Elsi Fernandes, a schoolteacher, who voted for Mr. Capriles on Sunday morning in Catia, a poor neighborhood in Caracas. “The difference is that we’re not going to stay with our arms crossed.”

The turnout was more than 80 percent, the highest in decades, the election council said. People stood in line for hours, although the voting appeared in most cases to run smoothly.

Venezuela uses a touch-screen electronic voting system, and voters are identified with a digital thumbprint reader; technical problems at some polling places caused long delays and, in some, a resort to backup paper ballots. Polling places were told to keep working until everyone in line at closing time had a chance to vote.

Venezuela is mired in problems, including out-of-control violent crime, crumbling roads and bridges, and power blackouts that regularly plague much of the country outside the capital. Oil production, the country’s mainstay, has plateaued in recent years, and other exports have not picked up the slack. The overall economy grew this year, largely because of a huge pre-election boost in government spending, but clouds loom. A devaluation of the Venezuelan currency, the bolívar, is widely seen as inevitable, and inflation remains stubbornly high.

Mr. Chávez has trumpeted his programs to help the poor, and has pointed to a sharp reduction in the number of people living in poverty. But he has governed during a phenomenal rise in oil prices, which have soared from $10 in 1998, the year before he took office, to more than $100 in recent years and the high $80s now, pouring huge amounts of revenue into Venezuela. Mr. Capriles, who has served as a legislator, mayor and governor, campaigned almost nonstop, seeking to contrast his energetic style with the reduced schedule of Mr. Chávez, who received a diagnosis of cancer in 2011.

Mr. Chávez has kept most details of his condition secret, refusing to say exactly what kind of cancer he has or where in his body it is. He received chemotherapy last summer after an operation to remove a tumor, but the cancer returned and he had another operation in February, followed by radiation therapy. The operations and treatments were performed in Cuba, taking Mr. Chávez out of Venezuela for extended periods.

His health, and whether he was well enough to serve a new six-year term, always loomed over the campaign, but it receded as an issue as Mr. Chávez gradually increased his public appearances. Still, he never threw himself into campaigning at the frenzied pace of Mr. Capriles.

Opposition to Mr. Chávez has long been divided and easily manipulated by Mr. Chávez, a master politician who kept his rivals off balance. Mr. Capriles changed that. He crisscrossed the country, campaigning in places long considered bastions of support for Mr. Chávez, including urban slums and poor rural areas. He told voters that he was the future and Mr. Chávez the past.

Mr. Chávez dismissed Mr. Capriles as an unworthy opponent, accusing him of lying about wanting to continue Mr. Chávez’s social programs. He called Mr. Capriles a right-wing oligarch in disguise who sought to bring back the bad old days of rule by the rich. In Catia, María Elena Severine, 59, who works as a cleaner in a bank, said that Mr. Chávez was still as fresh a candidate as when he first ran in 1998. She lives in a rental apartment but hopes someday to be given a new home government-built home.

“I like my president,” she said. “He is the revolution. He is change.”

Reporting was contributed by María Eugenia Díaz, Jonathan Gilbert, Girish Gupta and Andrew Rosati from Caracas, and María Iguarán from Cumaná, Sucre State.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 8, 2012

A previous version of this article erroneously said in a headline that Mr. Chavez had won a third term in office. In fact he won a fourth. He previously won in 1998, 2000 and 2006.   
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October 7, 2012

Philippine Rebel Group Agrees to Peace Accord To End Violence in South

By FLOYD WHALEY
IHT

MANILA — President Benigno S. Aquino III announced Sunday that the Philippine government had reached a deal with a major rebel group that officials hope will reduce the persistent violence in the southern part of the country.

“This framework agreement paves the way for a final, enduring peace in Mindanao,” Mr. Aquino said.

The deal with the rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has fought a war of independence for more than three decades, is the first step in what is expected to be a long, complex process of working through disputes that have lasted for centuries between the Christian-dominated national government and the predominantly Muslim residents of the southern island of Mindanao.

If the agreement succeeds in significantly reducing violence in Mindanao, it will be a historic achievement and a major political victory for Mr. Aquino, who has been heavily criticized in recent weeks for some of his legislative proposals.

Every Philippine president since the 1970s has tried to address the violence in Mindanao, which has claimed an estimated 120,000 lives and displaced more than two million people.

Fidel Ramos, president from 1992 to 1998, was able to forge a peace agreement in 1996 with another major rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front. Joseph Estrada, Mr. Ramos’s successor, declared all-out war against the Muslim rebels in an attempt to achieve peace through force.

But the violence has persisted, even with about 500 United States troops based in Mindanao as part of a joint Special Operations task force, which helps the Philippine military target the most violent and extreme insurgents.

Mindanao is plagued by roadside bombings, firefights between the military and various armed groups, gun battles between warring clans, kidnappings of Filipinos and foreigners, and general crime and lawlessness. Many countries, including the United States, Britain and Australia, strongly warn their citizens to stay out of the southern Philippines.

The agreement announced Sunday is the result of intermittent peace talks that have been taking place in Malaysia since 2001.

“The agreement will ensure that the Bangsamoro people will enjoy the dividends of peace, which they rightly deserve,” said Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, using a term that refers to the native people of the southern Philippines. “In turn, they should respect their fellow Filipinos of Christian faith, as moderation is the true Islamic way.”

Under the agreement, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front will no longer seek an independent state, Mr. Aquino said. Instead, the deal creates a new governing political entity, called Bangsamoro, for Mindanao.

As part of the deal, the new political entity will exercise a degree of autonomy in governing Mindanao while the national government retains authority over defense and security, foreign policy, monetary policy and citizenship matters. The deal also assures the people of Mindanao “a fair and equitable share of taxation, revenues and the fruits of national patrimony,” Mr. Aquino said.

“This means that hands that once held rifles will be put to use tilling land, selling produce, manning work stations and opening doorways of opportunity for other citizens,” Mr. Aquino said.

One important part of the agreement calls for the decommissioning of the military wing of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which reportedly has 11,000 fighters. In addition, the Philippine military will turn over law enforcement to the local police.

The accord sets out general guidelines for a more detailed agreement that will be fleshed out by working groups over the next few years, said David C. Gorman, who helped mediate the talks on behalf of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, an organization based in Geneva that is devoted to resolving armed conflicts.

“It’s going to be tough,” Mr. Gorman said. “It’s not a peace agreement. It’s a framework agreement. It is saying: ‘This is the road map to peace. These are the broad outlines. Now you have to work out the details.’ ”

“It is going to be messy and it is going to take time,” he added.

The deal includes provisions to address clan warfare, the proliferation of weapons, and the private armies that are blamed for widespread political violence in the southern Philippines. A private army employed by the Ampatuan clan in central Mindanao has been accused of the 2009 massacre of 57 people, including 31 journalists, in one of the country’s worst acts of political violence.

Though the Sunday agreement was reached with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main rebel group in the southern Philippines, it includes mechanisms to bring other organizations into the discussions on local government. Notably, this does not include extremist groups like the Abu Sayyaf, which is blamed for kidnappings, murders and beheadings.

“These extremist groups are always going to be difficult to deal with,” Mr. Gorman said. “There are always going to be those operating outside the agreement, but as long as they are not able to undermine the process they will remain marginalized.”

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement, a breakaway group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, staged a series of attacks and bombings in August during the final weeks of the peace talks. One attack, on Aug. 5, killed 80 militants and 10 soldiers and caused the evacuation of 189 residents.

Illustrating the challenges facing the government, and those seeking peace in Mindanao, the group said late Sunday that it would not respect the new agreement.
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« Reply #2619 on: Oct 08, 2012, 06:56 AM »

October 7, 2012

In Bid to End Crisis, Kuwait’s Parliament Is Dissolved

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

KUWAIT (AP) — Kuwait’s ruler dissolved Parliament on Sunday, a step toward ending months of political gridlock and calling the second elections this year that could again swing in favor of Islamist-led opposition groups.

The move by Kuwait’s leader, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, announced on state-run media, followed a failed attempt last month by the government to overturn a voting district law that appeared to favor the opposition. New elections must now be held within 60 days.

Kuwait is one of the United States’ most strategic military allies in the Persian Gulf. Its strategic importance to Washington rose sharply after the United States troop withdrawal from Iraq in December. It is now the hub for American ground forces in the region.

Kuwait has been locked in a political limbo for months as the government tried to challenge the voting system in the February elections, which gave Islamists and allies control of the 50-seat Parliament. A stopgap Parliament, composed of lawmakers elected in 2009, was installed in June, but it never held any sessions.

Opposition leaders had called on Sheik Sabah to end the impasse and call new elections.

Kuwait has not faced widespread unrest since the Arab Spring uprisings erupted last year across the Middle East, but it has been locked in deepening political battles and labor upheavals that have stalled many development plans.

The country was hit by a wave of strikes earlier this year, including walkouts that grounded the state carrier, Kuwait Airways, and temporarily closed customs posts and left hundreds trucks stranded at the border.

Calls for better working conditions have grown louder in the wake of the Arab Spring. Kuwaitis are used to well-paid government jobs and cradle-to-grave benefits that increasingly have become a burden on state finances.
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« Reply #2620 on: Oct 08, 2012, 06:59 AM »

Originally published Sunday, October 7, 2012 at 6:16 AM
 
Anti-austerity protests grip 56 Spanish cities

Tens of thousands of people marched in 56 Spanish cities Sunday to protest punishing austerity cuts they say will only increase unemployment and job insecurity in a country experiencing its second recession in three years and record high unemployment.

By HAROLD HECKLE
Associated Press

MADRID —

Tens of thousands of people marched in 56 Spanish cities Sunday to protest punishing austerity cuts they say will only increase unemployment and job insecurity in a country experiencing its second recession in three years and record high unemployment.

Around 20,000 people marched in Madrid behind a banner that said, "They want to ruin the country. We have to stop them." The rally in Spain's capital was supported by 150 organizations.

Protesters chanted slogans against cuts and waved placards reading "youth without jobs, society with no future." That is a reference to the youth unemployment rate, which surpasses 50 percent. Spain's overall jobless rate is nearly 25 percent and social unrest is on the rise.

"They are abusing the lower social classes," 54-year-old teacher Luis Diaz said. "By backing banks, they are torturing the working class and badly affecting public education, health care and pensions when what they should be doing is exactly the opposite."

Trade union leaders said the marches warned the government that tempers were rising and a general strike was brewing.

Workers Commissions union spokesman Ignacio Fernandez Toxo said a likely date for the strike could be as early as Nov. 14.

The government has implemented tough austerity measures over its nine months in office.
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« Reply #2621 on: Oct 08, 2012, 07:00 AM »

Originally published October 7, 2012 at 9:31 AM | Page modified October 7, 2012 at 1:03 PM   

Iran rulers eye currency mess from protected perch

Just as Iran's currency was rattling near bottom after a stunning free fall, officials in Tehran opened a trade exhibition that included advanced engineering tools, heavy machinery and robotics. Nearly every Iranian booth had some connection to the country's powerful Revolutionary Guard and the ruling system it safeguards.

By BRIAN MURPHY

Associated Press
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates —

Just as Iran's currency was rattling near bottom after a stunning free fall, officials in Tehran opened a trade exhibition that included advanced engineering tools, heavy machinery and robotics. Nearly every Iranian booth had some connection to the country's powerful Revolutionary Guard and the ruling system it safeguards.

This display of the regime's industrial muscle showcases why the collapse of Iran's rial is unlikely to pose any immediate threats to the country's real centers of power, despite protests last week that brought quick speculation in the West about the stirrings of a popular revolt.

The top end of Iran's economy remains fully in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard and its networks, which span from oil to aerospace. And the lifeblood for the ruling clerics and the Guard still comes from Iran's oil exports that - on paper at least - bring in tens of millions of dollars a day to buffer against the blows hitting the rest of the country: a tanking currency, skyrocketing prices for imported goods and double-digit inflation.

"There is a lot of breathless talk about the regime collapsing," said Salman Shaikh, director of The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "It is no doubt under severe pressures and cannot ignore the currency situation, but the fundamentals of the economy, from the standpoint of the ruling system, are still OK."

The sanctions target oil exports, banking, and other sectors. They are imposed over Iran's nuclear program. The U.S. and allies fear that the country's uranium enrichment labs could eventually produce warhead-grade material. Iran insists its nuclear efforts are only for energy and medical uses. But some in Washington and European capitals openly say that, the nuclear issue aside, they would be delighted if sanctions brought the downfall of Iran's clerical leadership.

To be sure, it would take far more than the small-scale demonstrations in Tehran last week to pose any immediate threat to Iran's ruling establishment, which has the huge strength of the Revolutionary Guard behind it.

But neither can Iranian leaders afford to ignore the latest upheavals. The battle for perceptions and longer term stability goes by different rules.

They must now explain to a reeling public how they intend to stabilize an economy slammed by Western sanctions that have cut into oil exports and a deflated currency that lost nearly 40 percent of its value in a weeklong plummet - and why taking to the streets in protests is not the answer.

Iran's leaders are desperate to quell any sense of uncertainty and panic - which largely drove the downward pressures on the currency. Even small flare-ups could start to erode their claims that sanctions and economic isolation cannot unravel the country.

"Iran knows it needs to keep a tight lid on open opposition," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a Syracuse University professor who follows Iranian affairs. "As everyone knows well, these things can snowball out of control."

One thing that cannot be contained is Iran's internal political skirmishing.

Conservatives are using the crisis to hammer President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who once enjoyed the favor of the real powers in the country - top clerics and the Revolutionary Guard - but whose star has been in decline since he tried last year to challenge the authority of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad must leave office next year and the battle is on to determine who will be his successor in June 2013 elections.

Ahmadinejad's political foes have openly scapegoated him as the cause for the rial's drop, which hit an all-time low of 35,500 to the dollar on Wednesday and touched off merchant strikes at Tehran's bazaar and sporadic clashes as police tried to round up sidewalk money changers. The rate was about 10,000 as recently as early last year.

On Sunday, the dollar was fetching about 30,000 rials among unofficial street traders, who effectively set the daily rate used in nearly all commerce.

The rush to accuse Ahmadinejad also appears part of efforts to insulate the ruling clerics - and their foreign policy - from blame. One of Ahmadinejad's main political foes, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, parsed the currency crisis this way last week: 80 percent traced to Ahmadinejad's policies and 20 percent tied to sanctions.

"The attacks are growing due to the economic problems," said Ali Reza Khamesian, a journalist at Tehran's independent Maghreb daily.

Some officials are making increasing appeals for the country to pull together as the Western pressures mount.

During Friday prayers at Tehran University, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami reached back to an earlier time where the country pulled together against an outside threat by calling the sanctions an "imposed economic war" - the same terminology Iran uses for its "imposed" 1980-88 war with Iraq.

But there is a risk of going too far in pointing the finger at the external foe.

Public support for Iran's nuclear program remains solid, but backers of the theocracy worry that closely linking the currency implosion to the sanctions could raise uncomfortable questions about Iran's defiance over uranium enrichment. Hence the attacks on Ahmadinejad.

"Frustration over high inflation and the state of the economy will persist, and sporadic protests such as Wednesday's are likely to become a new element in the Iranian political landscape," wrote Cliff Kupchan, Middle East director for the think tank Eurasia Group. "However, there is no evidence at this point that the temperature is reaching (the) boiling point."

One reason is the memory of how Iranian authorities brutally snuffed out the uprising after the disputed 2009 re-election of Ahmadinejad, before he lost favor. Officials unleashed civilian militias under the wings of the Revolutionary Guard to break up demonstrations.

While there are no signs of renewed street protests since last week's flare up, officials rushed ahead with efforts to calm domestic markets, get a grip on currency speculators and, hopefully, pump back some value in the rial. Parliament tabled other issues to focus on the economy.

In theory, Iran's leadership could attempt a rial rebound by opening up the treasury taps to flood the market with dollars. But plans last month to try to control exchange rates began "fueling doubts over the size of the government's accessible reserves and generating flight to other currencies," wrote Eurasia analyst Kupchan.

"The only thing that is likely to budge the regime is if they see or sense an existential threat," British Defense Minister Philip Hammond was quoted by The Observer newspaper on Sunday.

The European Union next week is expected to consider proposals for tougher sanctions, including a possible ban on Iranian natural gas. In July, the 27-nation EU placed on embargo on Iranian oil imports. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also warned that Washington could increase its economic squeeze on Iran, citing the currency fall as evidence of its impact.

"Make no mistake, the international community will continue to impose additional sanctions," Panetta said Saturday during a stop in Peru.

Iran's foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi fired back that the currency swings and inflation are not enough to upend the country - unlike Europe, which he suggested was torn apart over austerity plans.

"Iranian society is used to living with difficulties - perhaps better than those in Spain and Greece," he was quoted by the German weekly Der Spiegel in Sunday's edition. "We can count on our people's patience. Can you in Europe, too?"

---

Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
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« Reply #2622 on: Oct 08, 2012, 07:02 AM »

Potential capital gains tax increase scares wealthy French into abandoning Paris, lowering prices

By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, October 7, 2012 20:20 EDT

A flood of top-end properties are hitting the market as businessmen seek to leave France before stiff tax hikes hit, real estate agents and financial advisors say.

“It’s nearly a general panic. Some 400 to 500 residences worth more than one million euros ($1.3 million) have come onto the Paris market,” said managers at Daniel Feau, a real-estate broker that specialises in high-end property.

While it is not yet on the scale of the exodus of rich French after the election of Socialist president Francois Mitterrand in 1981, real estate agents said, the tax plans of France’s new Socialist President Francois Hollande are having a noticeable effect.

While the Socialists’ plan to raise the tax rate to 75 percent on income above 1.0 million euros per year has generated the most headlines, a sharp increase in taxes on capital gains from the sales of stock and company stakes is pushing most people to leave, according Didier Bugeon, head of the wealth manager Equance.

French entrepreneurs have complained vociferously against a proposal in the Socialist’s 2013 budget to increase the capital gains tax on sales of company stakes, which they argue will kill the market for innovative start-up companies in France.

Entrepreneurs in the high-tech sector in particular often invest their own money and take low salaries in the hope they can later sell the company for a large sum.

They say a stiff increase in capital gains tax would remove incentives to do this in France. They also argue that capital has already been taxed several times in the making.

The government has since backtracked, and Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac pledged Friday to return to the status quo when someone who has created a company seeks to sell it later.

French officials are looking for ways to reduce the country’s excessive public deficit and debt, and Hollande won election on a platform of making the wealthy carry more of the load.

Bugeon said he was seeing start-up entrepreneurs looking to move their headquarters out of France and taking their families with them.

With the Internet “it is now possible to work in any corner of the world and come and spend one week a month in France,” said Thibault de Saint Vincent, president of Barnes France, the principal competitor to Daniel Feau.

“Those who are going abroad fear a future tax on capital movements,” he added.

Daniel Feau agreed that the profile of those who are leaving has changed, from the idle rich to “managers of major international corporations, entrepreneurs and investors much younger than previously who are scared of the marginal tax rate of 62.21 percent on sales of stock.”

The head of the French employers federation Medef, Laurence Parisot, has complained recently of emerging “anti-enterprise racism” in France.

No one is certain if the rush to the exit will continue, but Daniel Feau noted: “Nobody until now believed that the capital gains on shares would be taxed so high.”

And it is not only the Paris region, more offers are coming onto the market in other areas of the country as well, the realtors added.

_______________________________________________

The preferred destinations of those leaving are London, New York and Geneva, as well as Canada, Israel and Singapore, said Laurent Demeure, head of Coldwell Banker France.

He also noted that Brussels remains a favourite of those older, who have already sold their business interests, and are looking to benefit from Belgium’s lighter taxation of trusts to pass on inheritances to their children.

“Next year to have dinner with friends, instead of a taxi I’ll more likely need to take the Thalys for Brussels or the Eurostar to London,” joked Demeure, referring to high-speed trains that link the three capitals.

He said he is currently receiving on average one request per day to appraise a luxury apartment or home.

As a result, in the previous two to three months the price of large Paris apartments had slid by five percent.

The real estate agents don’t expect a collapse, however, as the offers to sell still remain low and interest by foreign buyers firm.

Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said he has seen “no indication of a massive fiscal exodus”.

He told the daily Le Parisien that debate on the 75-percent income tax bracket was “closed” but noted that it was only a temporary tax for two years.
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« Reply #2623 on: Oct 08, 2012, 07:04 AM »

Finance ministers meets to launch 500-billion-euro rescue fund

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, October 8, 2012 7:50 EDT

The eurozone launches its much-awaited 500-billion-euro rescue fund on Monday, a positive backdrop for finance ministers trying to settle Greece’s tortuous debt bailout and as Spain agonises over seeking a rescue.

Finance ministers of the 17-nation euro bloc gather just 10 days before the EU’s 27 leaders meet in Brussels, with recent market calm giving them some breathing room after months of turmoil and anxiety over Spain’s future.

The meeting will see the formal launch and inaugural board meeting of the European Stability Mechanism, a key step forward in the eurozone’s defences against the debt crisis which has help push the bloc back into recession.

At the same time, the economic landscape is not encouraging, with recent data showing Europe back in recession and threatening to slip further into the doldrums.

EU officials said on Friday that they do not expect Greece to get the green light, either in Luxembourg or at the October 18-19 Brussels summit, for the resumption of its drip-feed bailout after differences with its EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund creditors.

The EU, IMF and ECB, the so-called “troika”, have been locked in discussions on more austerity with Greece which insists it has done as much as it can and now needs more time to meet the targets required.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said on Friday that the country could not take more tough medicine and if its next aid instalment worth 31.5 billion euros ($40.6 billion) did not arrive soon, then by November state coffers would be empty.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due in Greece on Tuesday and her visit may allow some easing of the tensions which have built up but the October summit comes “considerably too early” to resolve the problems, a senior EU official said on Friday.

The position has become more complicated after eurozone hardliners Germany, the Netherlands and Finland questioned commitments made at a June EU summit, which notably agreed that the ESM would be able to recapitalise banks directly once a single banking supervisor was in place, potentially by the end of the year.

The three said the ESM should not be used to help banks bailed out before it became operational — a stand on ‘legacy assets’ which must have been “very unwelcome” for Spain and bailed-out Ireland, another EU official said.

In the run-up to the eurozone and EU finance ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg on Monday and Tuesday, Spain has been in the spotlight over whether or not it would ask for a bailout, thereby activating the ESM and action by the ECB.

The ECB has said it will intervene, buying up government bonds to bring down their borrowing costs but only if a member state first asks the ESM for help — which will also come with conditions for reforms.

Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said on Thursday that Madrid did “not need a bailout at all” and insisted that the government’s tough austerity policies were putting the country on the right track.

Official briefings on Friday all suggested that finance ministers did not expect any imminent developments on Spain as Madrid’s latest austerity package showed the country was “going in right direction.”

At the same time, the recent easing of strains on the financial markets, in part due to the ECB’s stance, mean “market conditions are totally distant from any need for a full, macro-economic adjustment programme,” one official said.
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« Reply #2624 on: Oct 08, 2012, 07:06 AM »

Former Assad aide: Syrian president plans secret flight to Russia

By Stephen C. Webster
Sunday, October 7, 2012 19:09 EDT

Abdullah al-Omar, a former propaganda aide to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, said on an Al Jazeera English broadcast Sunday that Assad knows the end of his rule is drawing closer, and has already prepared plans to escape into Russia.

“I know the escorts of Bashar al-Assad, we used to sit and talk,” he said.
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