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« Reply #3135 on: Nov 22, 2012, 09:06 AM »

In the USA...

Union asks suppliers to stop handling goods for Walmart

By Paul Harris, The Guardian
Wednesday, November 21, 2012 14:26 EST

Nationwide employee protests ahead of Black Friday continue as international union asks ship operators to raise concerns

An international trade union has asked ship operators handling goods in Walmart‘s global supply chain to raise concerns with the company about how it treats its US workforce.

Walmart has been affected by a series of walkouts and protests by several union-supported groups seeking to highlight what they say are low pay, poor benefits and retaliatory measures against those employees who speak out.

A series of high-profile protests are now planned to highlight “Black Friday” this week, which is the busiest single shopping day in the US calendar.

Organisers behind the OUR Walmart and Making Change at Walmartgroups say up to 1,000 actions are planned and several walkouts have already happened.

Now the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has written to shipping owners and ship captains who carry Walmart goods and asked them to contact the gigantic global company and express support for the protesting workers. “Walmart workers taking industrial action know that their jobs are at risk. The least we can do to help is use our expertise at sea and relations with the shipping industry to back them in any way we can.”

ITF acting general secretary Steve Cotton told the Guardian: “We’re talking to captains and the ship operators moving Walmart goods, and asking them to register their concerns with the company about its treatment of staff – and the impact that could have on trade.”

The ITF is a global union federation representing around four and a half million transport workers worldwide.

In recent months, parts of Walmart’s outsourced warehouse supply chain in the US have been hit by strikes and demonstrations. Walmart has accused unions of seeking to cause trouble and organise its workforce. It has said previously that only a tiny minority of its 1.3 million US staff are joining the protests and has defended its wages and benefits as offering good jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans.

But the protests do appear to have rattled the firm. Walmart has filed a complaint with the labor board asserting that OUR Walmart’s protests violate federal law that prevents 30 days of picketing when a union is seeking recognition. Walmart says the protests fit that description and are actually sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. It has sought an injunction to prohibit the protests. Both OUR Walmart and the UFCW deny those allegations and say that they are not seeking union recognition.

However, Walmart spokesman Steve Restivo said: “There are only a handful of associates at a handful of stores who are participating in these UFCW publicity stunts. Most of the folks who are turning out aren’t Walmart associates but instead union representatives and members. An overwhelming majority of our associates are excited about Black Friday and are ready to serve our customers. We’re proud of the job they do not only during this busy holiday time but also throughout the year.”

OUR Walmart has also filed complaints alleging that public statements made by Walmart executives have amounted to a threat to protesting employees. Walmart spokesman David Tovar this week warned on CBS Evening News of the possible consequences for employees walking off their scheduled shifts. “If associates are scheduled to work on Black Friday, we expect them to show up and to do their job. And if they don’t, depending on the circumstances, there could be consequences,” he said.

That statement angered some OUR Walmart members. “Some of my co-workers are afraid, but this kind of intimidation by Walmart management is an example of why we are going on strike. I know my rights and I’m not afraid to protest,” said Dan Hindman, a California Walmart worker and member of OUR Walmart.

Those protests look set to go ahead and range from walkouts to leafleting of shoppers as they crowd into stores in the hunt for bargains to stunts like “flash mobs” and other events.

They are currently planned in various cities in states that include California, Illinois, Texas, Maryland, Louisiana, Florida, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Wisconsin.

© 2012 Guardian News


November 21, 2012 12:00 PM

Walmart Tells Management to Threaten Workers Against Striking

By Nicole Belle

I have a bit of an issue about being in large crowds, so Black Friday shopping is never on my list of holiday to-dos, nor do I ever shop at Walmart, because I hate their labor practices. So supporting the Walmart employees Black Friday strike is actually a big no-brainer for me. But I know that there are many people who don't have the luxury of other stores in their area to patronize or are financially strapped enough that the deals that can be had at Walmart can mean the difference between having a Christmas gift for everyone in the family or not. I'm not judging those in that situation. But as a progressive, I would hope that even if that is the case, you could manage to stay home that one day, in solidarity with Walmart employees who, despite working for the most successful company in the world and for the richest family in the world, routinely are living at or below poverty levels.

And for all their pooh-poohing of the Walmart Black Friday strike, it does look like the suits are getting nervous about how this is playing to their key customer base:

    In past interviews, Walmart has denied that it illegally retaliates against workers for activism, and [Walmart VP of Communications David] Tovar denied the latest allegations in an interview with The New York Times. But the company has not denied that it holds mandatory meetings to discourage it. (As in a union campaign, such “captive audience” meetings are legal, though some “threats” are not.) OUR Walmart confirmed that workers have reported being required to attend such meetings in the lead-up to Black Friday.

    Christopher Bentley Owen, an overnight stocker at a Tulsa Walmart supercenter, told The Nation he and his co-workers were lectured about the strike at a mandatory 10 pm meeting last night. According to Owen, the highest-ranking manager on the graveyard shift read, “word for word,” what appeared to be a prepared script from corporate headquarters slamming the Black Friday actions planned by the labor group OUR Walmart. The statement called OUR Walmart a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, called its actions a “stunt,” and warned that by discouraging customers, the Black Friday actions would hurt employees’ end-of-quarter bonuses. Rather than downplaying it, said Owen, “It seemed like they were treating it like the notion of people picketing outside of stores could be a big deal.”

    Owen said that his manager read, verbatim, a list of questions and answers that appeared to have been designed to instruct managers how to respond to workers’ questions, rather than to be read word for word. According to Owen, the manager read a hypothetical question from a worker who had heard that the strikes were legally protected, followed by an answer that, “It seems to us that this action is not protected by the law.” He read a hypothetical question from a worker about whether striking on Friday could lead to punishment, and then, “Answer: No comment.” After reading that, said Owen, “He kind of chuckled.”

    Judging by the scripted questions and answers, said Owen, “They want to communicate to us, or plant the idea in our heads, that we could get disciplined.” Owen described the statement as “very much corporate-speak. It didn’t seem like it was written by our guy.” When the co-manager opened the floor for actual questions, said Owen, no one spoke up.

CREDO Action has an ongoing campaign for people to voice their support of the workers at Walmart for liveable wages and better working conditions. Please take the time to make the call and report back to CREDO. Let the Walton family know that they should be thankful for all their blessings in this season and pass just a little bit more on to the employees that built that largesse for them.


The Christian Science Monitor

Black Friday walkout: why Wal-Mart is focus of labor's struggle

By Gloria Goodale, Staff writer   
posted November 21, 2012 at 9:44 am EST

Los Angeles

As the hottest shopping day of the retail calendar looms, the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, is embroiled in a battle to defend its image, even its formula for success. A growing number of employees, protesting low wages and benefit cuts, is vowing to walk out on Black Friday.

Wal-Mart charges that outside union agitators with the United Food and Commercial workers union (UFCWU) are making trouble. Both sides have filed grievances with the National labor Relations board (NLRB).

Coming alongside the failure of talks between labor and management at yet another iconic American company, Hostess Brands Inc., Wal-Mart’s travails have put a sharp focus on working conditions following the worst post-Depression recession in the nation’s history, say both labor and business experts.

“Wal-Mart has become the poster child for all the issues surrounding labor right now,” says Scott Testa, a Philadelphia-based business consultant and blogger who has studied Wal-Mart’s business practices extensively. The company has implemented aggressive anti-union measures, he notes, closing a store in Canada rather than negotiate.

The issues at stake are not peripheral, says Mr. Testa, adding that they go to the very soul of Wal-Mart’s business model. The Arkansas-based company, founded a half-century ago by Sam Walton, lives and dies by its ability to cut costs, he says.

Testa notes that Wal-Mart has evolved over the years by dwelling on the fringes of urban areas.

“Many of the municipalities where Wal-Mart has thrived were happy to give the company big open spaces of under-used land, where there was no development,” he says, adding that employees in hard-hit regions have been grateful for the jobs.

But now that the company is expanding into major urban areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, “they are experiencing a kind of worker pushback that they have largely been able to avoid,” adds Testa.

Wal-Mart is not unionized. But for the first time in the company’s 50-year history, dozens of workers in southern California stores went out on strike on Oct. 4. They were not calling for unions, but for better working conditions and the elimination of retaliatory practices by management. In the past six weeks, the work stoppages have spread around the country.

Wal-Mart is the most robust example of a trend that has been growing for years, says Chris Rhomberg, assistant sociology professor at Fordham University in New York.

Increasingly, employers are refusing to negotiate with unionized workers, he says. “Low wage labor has spread throughout the economy, and income inequality has grown dramatically in the US,” he says via e-mail.

The real issue, he suggests, is what model of economic growth we should have in America.

“Should we support the low-wage, low-road model practiced by Wal-Mart, or can we promote higher wages and purchasing power to help drive our economy?” asks Professor Rhomberg, adding that the Wal-Mart strikers “have helped put that question on the public agenda.”

Wal-Mart disputes what it calls an unfair depiction of its workers' satisfaction.

“Many of our associates have urged us to do something about the UFCW's latest round of publicity stunts,” says Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg, maintaining that the vast majority of workers are satisfied. “They don't think it's right that a few associates that are being coerced by the UFCW are being portrayed by the media as representative of what it's like to work at Walmart,” he adds via e-mail.
Mr. Lundberg maintains the company has data that reflect worker satisfaction and retention.

He points to 250,000 associates that have worked for the company for more than 10 years as well as 165,000 hourly associates who were promoted last year. This is out of an overall Wal-Mart work force of some 1.3 million.

Wal-Mart’s aggressive anti-union stance is not the only force working to suppress higher wages and benefits for workers, points out Don Schroeder, a labor attorney with Mintz Levin in Boston. Civic realities are also bearing down on cities all over the nation. As the recent rollback of government workers’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin demonstrates, many small cities and towns are facing fiscal crises.

“Many of these are headed towards insolvency as they face unfunded pension liabilities,” he says, adding that the pressures to renegotiate contracts with workers both inside and outside public services will affect the abilities of unions to make demands.

While the Wal-Mart workers are carefully avoiding demands to unionize, they are taking the fight to the court of public opinion, he notes.

“This is a very strong stand,” he says of the Wal-Mart workers, adding, “this is just the beginning of a long struggle.”


November 21, 2012 04:00 PM

California Law Criminalizes Sleeping While Homeless

By Diane Sweet
Crossposted from Occupy America

Nevada City, California will provide a handful of permits to homeless persons if they submit themselves to a police background check. Even if they have done nothing illegal, the small number of permits give the police the power to send anyone else having the audacity to want to shut their eyes and rest their weary head while living in abject poverty moving on down the road to the next town.

How is it that when your world falls down around you, your basic rights vanish and the police treat you like some vermin that must be eradicated?


    Nevada City, California has passed a new law which requires homeless people to have a permit to sleep in public.

    Chief James Wickham told CBS Sacramento: “The goal is to start managing the homeless population within our city. Those are the ones we really don’t want in our city and that we’re trying to keep from camping in our city.”

    A no-camping ordinance was also passed by the city, which would criminalize the poor for sleeping in a car, tent or in the woods.

    However, if the police give a permit to a homeless person, then that poor person would not be arrested for sleeping.

    There are no similar permits required for non-homeless people who might take a nap in a park.

Wickham says he has identified about 60 homeless persons in Nevada City, and will hand out approximately 6 to 10 sleeping permits. If it "works out" he will consider more permits in about 6 months.

The Chief claims that the majority of the area's homeless are "troublemakers," and "criminals," and he hopes his goal of managing the city's homeless population will rid them of these undesirables.

I've got more than a handful of people now that I would like to see be visited by three spirits in the night, and not a moment too soon.


November 21, 2012 07:00 PM

Robert Reich: GOP Loses if U.S. Goes Over Fiscal Cliff

By Diane Sweet
Crossposted from Occupy America

“Viewpoint” host Eliot Spitzer and Robert Reich, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, discuss the latest fiscal cliff negotiations in Washington. Robert Reich believes Democrats have the power in the budget battle, because the Bush tax cuts for the rich — which Republicans want to extend and Democrats oppose — will expire no matter what anyone agrees on come January.

“The question is, will the Democrats actually hold firm?” Reich asks. Reich also addresses whether limiting tax deductions instad of raising marginal tax rates on the rich could generate the $1.6 trillion in new tax revenues that Obama has set as a goal: “Just by limiting deductions for the wealthy you can’t get anywhere near the $1.6 trillion. … Now if you made the tax on capital gains equal to the tax on ordinary income, maybe that preference would get you closer. But nobody is talking about doing that, unfortunately.”

Reich said that Republicans would be the losers if Congress failed to negotiate a deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.

“I think we are moving in the right direction and we are moving in the right direction because the Democrats are holding most of the trump cards,” he said. “If nothing is done, remember, we go back to the Clinton tax rates of the 1990s, which were not all that bad, in fact the economy did quite well under those tax rates. If nothing is done, basically the Republicans lose.”

“And, if the Republicans try to make a case that they are not going to vote for an extension of middle class tax cuts unless the rich also get a tax cut that puts the Republicans in the position of showing America that they are going to hold the middle hostage and they sure are shills for the very rich -- something that a lot of people suspect anyway, but that kind of demonstration is not going to be good for the GOP,” Reich added.

Across-the-board spending cuts are set to go into effect at the beginning of 2013 if Congress fails to pass a budget that reduces the federal deficit. The Bush tax cuts are also set to expire.

Democrats have said they won’t accept any fiscal cliff deal that doesn’t let the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to expire, however they want to leave tax rates for middle and lower-income Americans unchanged.

Republicans have said they will oppose any increase in tax rates, but are open to reducing tax write-offs to increase revenue.

“Just by limiting deductions for the wealthy you can’t get anywhere near the $1.6 trillion,” Reich noted.

Robert Reich has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He also served on President-Elect Obama's transition advisory board. He has written twelve books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet; and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His commentaries can be heard weekly on public radio's "Marketplace." In 2003, Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclav Havel Vision Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2008, Time Magazine named him one of the ten most successful cabinet secretaries of the century. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.


The Christian Science Monitor -

Rebuilding the GOP: Can Republicans pitch a bigger tent?

By Husna Haq, Correspondent   
posted November 21, 2012 at 1:20 pm EST

With a rainbow coalition of voters propelling President Obama to a decisive Electoral College victory in which all but one battleground state turned blue, election night 2012 was a wake-up call for many Republicans. Now, the GOP is beginning to delve into a long and likely divisive period of self-examination over what it can do to right itself with a rapidly changing America.

The consensus among many top Republican strategists and politicos, from Karl Rove to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to Sen. Marco Rubio is this: If the GOP can't rebuild a foundation more welcoming to key subsets of the electorate, it runs the risk of being shut out of the White House for good.

"Our party needs to realize that it's too old and too white and too male, and it needs to figure out how to catch up with the demographics of the country before it's too late," Al Cardenas, head of the American Conservative Union, told Politico after the election. "Our party [has] a lot of work to do if we expect to be competitive in the near future."

If the goal is straightforward, however, the course is anything but. How does the GOP bridge that waning demographic gap exposed by the election and recalibrate its message to a changing electorate? How does it preach change to a staunch base of party faithful? How does it embrace a more colorful coalition of voters without alienating its fundamental values or its base? These are the difficult – and divisive – questions that the Republican Party will be grappling with for years to come.

But grapple it must, warns Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, "or else [it will be] wiped off the electoral map."

That process begins with diagnosing what, exactly, went wrong Nov. 6. Many party activists interpret the election's close split in popular vote as evidence that the fundamentals of the party are solid. These individuals, including Rush Limbaugh and tea party activist Matt Kibbe, say the problem was the candidate, not the party. If anything, they say, the GOP must become more conservative.

"We wanted a fighter like Ronald Reagan who boldly championed America's founding principles," Tea Party Patriots cofounder Jenny Beth Martin told The Dallas Morning News shortly after the election. "What we got was a weak, moderate candidate, handpicked by the Beltway elites and country club establishment."

Citing the roughly 51 percent to 49 percent split in popular vote, Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak says Mitt Romney's loss was not a repudiation of conservative ideals, but a cautionary tale about superior Democratic campaigning.

"Conservatives don't feel like conservatism lost. Conservatives feel like they nominated another establishment, moderate nominee and came up short," he says.
'Demographic realities'

That line of reasoning is self-destructive, says John Hudak, an analyst in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"People who think it was Mitt Romney's fault that Republicans lost and not the Republican brand don't have a full grip on demographic realities," Mr. Hudak says. "If they don't settle on the idea that they have a demographic problem, they will be demographically barred from controlling the White House."

While many factors undoubtedly played a part in the GOP's thrashing in the election, it's difficult to deny the party's "pathetic job of reaching out to people of color," as former Governor Huckabee told Fox News.

Consider the numbers: The president won Latinos 71 percent to 27 percent, Asians 73 percent to 26 percent, gays and lesbians 77 percent to 23 percent, and blacks 93 percent to 6 percent. Single women gave 68 percent of their vote to Mr. Obama and voters under age 30 gave him 60 percent of their vote. All are growing sectors of the electorate.

There was one area where Mr. Romney trumped Obama: He won the white vote 59 percent to 39 percent. That's the best a GOP nominee has done among whites since 1988. But that's the one sector of the electorate that is shrinking.

"The GOP's on the wrong side of history, in a demographic sense," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. "We're becoming much more a minority nation."

To remain viable, then, the GOP must become more of a "minority party."
Changing the party

With projections predicting that Latinos will make up 30 percent of the population by 2050, Republicans' first order of business is courting the Latino vote. "If we don't do better with Hispanics, we'll be out of the White House forever," says Republican strategist Ana Navarro.

That means immigration reform.

"It's very simple," says Mr. O'Connell, chairman of the Civic Forum PAC in Washington. "We've got to take control of immigration reform."

Republicans can look to rising stars like Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Senator Rubio of Florida for leadership on reform, including a better system to admit temporary workers and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants – an ongoing point of contention in the party. Amnesty should be an option "if we can come up with a plan to secure the border," O'Connell adds.

Another leader the GOP can turn to for guidance? George W. Bush, who won 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, Hudak says.

"Oddly, their path to success with Latinos is to do what George W. Bush did. They have to ask themselves, 'What would George do?' "

That includes reaching out to Latino communities and community leaders, helping Spanish-speaking individuals gain access to education and resources, and ending vilifying rhetoric about deportation, he says. "They have a playbook; Karl Rove wrote it and George Bush executed it masterfully."

Next on the GOP's agenda: social issues.

"The GOP cannot continue to engage in fire-and-brimstone rhetoric with respect to social issues," O'Connell says. "The GOP mantra for the past decade has generally been, 'Our way or the highway.'... And while the GOP is primarily a pro-life, traditional-marriage party, it can maintain those positions and win in a national election, but it has to acknowledge that not everyone may agree with those positions."

In other words, the GOP doesn't need to change its stance on abortion or start cutting ribbons for Planned Parenthoods across the country; it simply needs to shut down rhetoric about Planned Parenthood and "legitimate rape" and moderate its position enough to allow abortion supporters to consider the party.

Here, Republicans can look to Romney for guidance. "Romney started this by saying I am pro-life with exceptions, but I am not going to push to change our current abortion laws," O'Connell says.

The GOP can make inroads among new parts of the electorate "if, and only if, it stops being the police of social issues," Hudak says.

But how does it forge a platform more palatable to a changing America while remaining true to its conservative principles, and without alienating its base? "That's their challenge," Hudak says. "Tiptoeing through a mine field."
Message make-over

The best strategy, he says, is one Republicans themselves honed on same-sex marriage.

"It was on everyone's lips in '04 and '06, then [the GOP] realized people are changing their minds, no one cares about this. And what they did was just stop talking about it," Hudak says. "Maybe that's what they need to do on abortion, just stop talking about it."

As for immigration reform, both O'Connell and Hudak say there is a strong economic argument to be made in favor of reform. The party will find a receptive audience among business leaders and moderate Republicans, as well as Mormons, whose church is pro-reform, and Roman Catholics, whose institutional memory of ill treatment renders them sympathetic, they say.

In short, it's more of a messaging problem than a principles problem, O'Connell says.

"I don't know necessarily that [the party] needs to change principles as much as it needs to change the way it communicates. We have a communication problem on social issues," he says. "[We need to] figure out how to better communicate, package, and sell our policies."

What does a remade GOP look like?

"It's one that is definitely more inclusive," O'Connell says. "It better reflects the battleground states in terms of demographics; it looks more like Florida and Virginia. It's also one where fiscal issues trump and [one that] recognizes not everyone agrees on social issues."

Hudak takes it a step further.

"A well-reinvented Republican Party has to be the party of fiscal responsibility and fiscal pragmatism, and it needs to get away from social issues entirely.... Social issues will go the way of women's suffrage – no one's going to care about it. But we're always going to have economic problems. We're always going to have periods of recession in a cyclical capitalist economy. Brand yourself as an economic policy party and you do well.

"That's what a reinvigorated, reinvented, reenergized Republican Party looks like. The path [to get] there is a rocky one, with demographic speed bumps; but if you can talk economy, you can get there."


How the 2012 election polling really was skewed for Mitt Romney

By The Guardian
Wednesday, November 21, 2012 20:36 EST

There is a fear runs through any good prognosticator’s bones when dealing with a seemingly close election. Polls are not perfect. They are instruments to judge public opinion, and they can be wrong.

2012 also had the added feature of Republican confidence. You didn’t have to look very far to hear the word “skewed” in response to polling data. The polls had too many Democrats, or so the claim went. Republicans were also banking on national polls that were kinder to Romney than state surveys.

The national polls, as it turned out, were not systematically biased against Republican Mitt Romney. The final surveys pointed to President Obama’s re-election, and they were right. That does not mean, however, that the polls weren’t biased. It won’t be until all the ballots are counted that we can access who the most accurate pollster was on the state level, but we do know that Mason-Dixon and Rasmussen were off the mark. Right now, we can only make statements about national polling.

We know that the national surveys tilted heavily against Obama. When we don’t count any one survey date twice (that is, tracking polls such as from Gallup only have each day counted once), we can say that the average of national polls taken after the first debate through election day had Obama winning by 0.3 percentage points. President Obama currently has a 3.2pt lead nationally and it seems like he may finish with an edge above 3.5pt.

Let’s say you don’t want to count Gallup and Rasmussen because you judge that they were biased. The average of non-Gallup and non-Rasmussen surveys after the first debate had Obama leading by 0.7pt: that’s still going to be an error of at least 2.5pt and perhaps nearly 3pt.

You might think it’s unfair to count polls taken so far back from election day (although most scoring techniques utilize a similar method to the one employed here). Even if you only count the surveys done over the final week of the campaign, Obama’s lead is 1.3pt; that’ll be an error of around 2pt. Eliminating Gallup and Rasmussen put the final average up at 1.5pt, yet, that is also going to be perhaps up to 2pt biased against Obama.

Some math indicates that internet polls were more accurate than other surveys. That’s true to an extent, yet internet polls were biased, as well. Over the final month, an average of internet polls gave Obama a 1.6pt lead, to give an overall bias of at least 1.5pt, and perhaps near 2pt. For example, an average of all Google polls, post-first debate, gave Obama a 1.4pt advantage.

Unlike the overall aggregate, internet polls were not too much more accurate in the final week than in the month before the election. They had Obama ahead by only 1.8pt. Counting each pollster only once (as Google had many one-day surveys in the final week), Obama is ahead by a slightly larger 2.2pt – at least a percentage point off the final margin.

What about the pollsters who did everything right, according to polling gold standards? Those who conducted surveys over the phone with people doing the interviewing and including cellphone calling? The average of those polls after the first debate had Obama ahead by an average by just 0.1pt. Eliminating Gallup puts the average at a slightly higher 0.5pt – in other words, way off the mark.

These live-interview cellphone calling pollsters were slightly better in the final week. They pegged Obama’s lead at 1.2pt – still at least 2pt too low. Without Gallup, Obama’s edge climbs to 1.5pt, which is not a whole lot better.

It’s fairly clear that no matter what method is utilized, the national polls were too favorable towards Romney. Only eight out of 113 polls (or 7.1%) during the final month had Obama’s lead at above 3pt. Three of the eight were from the Rand Corporation, two were from Google, and the rest were scattered between Democracy Corps, IBD/TIPP, and the United Technologies/National Journal survey.

During the final week, only three out of 30 polls (or 10%) conducted had Obama’s lead above 3pt. They belonged to Democracy Corps, Google, and Rand. If Obama’s lead climbs to 3.5pt, then, even with rounding, the vast majority of national polls were off in the final week. (Note: usually one would consider a poll giving Obama’s victory margin as 3pt to be right if the final result were between 2.50 and 3.49pt.)

Only two pollsters with at least two surveys post-first debate out of about 30 (less than 10%) had Obama’s average lead at 3.5pt or above. Again, it was Democracy Corps (Obama +3.5) and Rand (Obama +4.0).

The fact that it’s these two pollsters that may come closest to the final result is interesting to say the least. Democracy Corps is a fine polling organization, though some might assume bias in an outfit founded by Democratic operatives James Carville and Stan Greenberg. Rand was a panel-back survey (that is, using the same respondents over and over again), which weighted respondentsaccording to how sure they were to vote and for whom. That is, a respondent might say they were only 60% likely to vote and 60% likely to vote for a particular candidate. There were doubts whether Rand’s methodology was sound, but it clearly worked this year.

Overall, it’s fairly clear that the national polls missed the mark, big time. Depending on the final count, it seems possible that less than 10% of surveys came close to correctly projecting Obama’s edge. Few will talk about the national miss because Obama won. But just imagine that the same magnitude of error had resulted in almost all the polls showing a narrow Romney lead going into election day, but Obama had won by just 1pt. Then we’d be having a conversation.


November 21, 2012

Oversight Failures Documented in Meningitis Outbreak


Newly released documents add vivid detail to the emerging portrait of the Food and Drug Administration’s ineffective and halting efforts to regulate a Massachusetts company implicated in a national meningitis outbreak that has sickened nearly 500 people and killed 34.

In the documents, released on Tuesday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the agency would threaten to bring the full force of its authority down on the company, only to back away, citing lack of jurisdiction.

The company, the New England Compounding Center, at times cooperated with F.D.A. inspectors and promised to improve its procedures, and at other times challenged the agency’s legal authority to regulate it, refused to provide records and continued to ship a drug in defiance of the agency’s concerns.

Some of the documents were summarized last week by Congressional committees that held hearings on the meningitis outbreak. Republicans and Democrats criticized the F.D.A. for failing to act on information about unsafe practices at the company as far back as March 2002.

By law, compounding pharmacies are regulated primarily by the states, but the pharmacies have grown over the years into major suppliers of some of the country’s biggest hospitals. The F.D.A. is asking Congress for stronger, clearer authority to police them, but Republicans have said the agency already has enough power.

Records show that the agency was sometimes slow in pursuing its own inspection findings. In one case involving the labeling and marketing of drugs, the agency issued a warning letter to New England Compounding 684 days after an inspection, a delay that the company’s chief pharmacist complained was so long that some of the letter’s assertions no longer applied to its operations.

The agency said in a statement Wednesday that it “was not the timeline we strive for,” but that much of the delay was because of “our limited, unclear and contested authority in this area.” Because of litigation, it said, there was “significant internal discussion about how to regulate compounders.”

The agency first inspected the company in April 2002 after reports that two patients had become dizzy and short of breath after being injected with a steroid made by the company.

 On the first day of the inspection, Barry Cadden, the chief pharmacist, was cooperative, but the next day, the agency inspectors wrote, Mr. Cadden “had a complete change in attitude & basically would not provide any additional information either by responding to questions or providing records,” adding that he challenged their legal authority to be at his pharmacy at all.

The F.D.A. was back at New England Compounding in October 2002 because of possible contamination of another of its products, methylprednisolone acetate, the same drug involved in the current meningitis outbreak.

 While the F.D.A. had the right to seize an adulterated steroid, officials at the time said that action alone would not resolve the company’s poor compounding practices. In a meeting with Massachusetts regulators, F.D.A. officials left authority in the hands of the state, which “would be in a better position to gain compliance or take regulatory action,” according to a memo by an F.D.A. official summarizing the meeting.

 David Elder, compliance branch director for the F.D.A.’s New England District, warned at the meeting that there was the “potential for serious public health consequences if N.E.C.C.’s compounding practices, in particular those relating to sterile products, are not improved.”

 The company fought back hard, repeatedly questioning the F.D.A.’s jurisdiction. In a September 2004 inspection over concerns that the company was dispensing trypan blue, a dye used for some eye surgeries that had not been approved by the F.D.A., Mr. Cadden told the agency inspector that he had none in stock.

But in the clean room, the inspector noticed a drawer labeled “Trypan Blue,” which contained 189 vials of the medicine.

A few days later, Mr. Cadden was defiant. He told the agency that he was continuing to dispense trypan blue and that there was nothing in the law saying a compounder could not dispense unapproved products.

 The conversation turned testy. “Don’t answer any more questions!” Mr. Cadden told another pharmacy executive, according to the F.D.A.’s report.

Mr. Cadden rejected many of the assertions in the warning letter that finally came in December 2006. The next correspondence from the agency did not come until almost two years later, in October 2008, saying that the agency still had “serious concerns” about the company’s practices, and that failing to correct them could result in seizure of products and an injunction against the company and its principals.

It is not known whether any corrective actions were taken. The agency did not conduct another inspection until the recent meningitis outbreak.


Originally published November 21, 2012 at 9:02 AM | Page modified November 21, 2012 at 3:44 PM   

US abortions fall 5 pct, biggest drop in a decade

U.S. abortions fell 5 percent during the recession and its aftermath in the biggest one-year decrease in at least a decade, perhaps because women are more careful to use birth control when times are tough, researchers say.

AP Medical Writer


U.S. abortions fell 5 percent during the recession and its aftermath in the biggest one-year decrease in at least a decade, perhaps because women are more careful to use birth control when times are tough, researchers say.

The decline, detailed on Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, came in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Both the number of abortions and the abortion rate dropped by the same percentage.

Some experts theorize that some women believed they couldn't afford to get pregnant.

"They stick to straight and narrow ... and they are more careful about birth control," said Elizabeth Ananat, a Duke University assistant professor of public policy and economics who has researched abortions.

While many states have aggressively restricted access to abortion, most of those laws were adopted in the past two years and are not believed to have played a role in the decline.

Abortions have been dropping slightly over much of the past decade. But before this latest report, they seemed to have pretty much leveled off.

Nearly all states report abortion numbers to the federal government, but it's voluntary. A few states - including California, which has the largest population and largest number of abortion providers - don't send in data. While experts estimate there are more than 1 million abortions nationwide each year, the CDC counted about 785,000 in 2009 because of incomplete reporting.

To come up with reliable year-to-year comparisons, the CDC used the numbers from 43 states and two cities - those that have been sending in data consistently for at least 10 years. The researchers found that abortions per 1,000 women of child-bearing age fell from about 16 in 2008 to roughly 15 in 2009. That translates to nearly 38,000 fewer abortions in one year.

Mississippi had the lowest abortion rate, at 4 per 1,000 women of child-bearing age. The state also had only a couple of abortion providers and has the nation's highest teen birth rate. New York, second to California in number of abortion providers, had the highest abortion rate, roughly eight times Mississippi's.

Nationally since 2000, the number of reported abortions has dropped overall by about 6 percent and the abortion rate has fallen 7 percent.

By all accounts, contraception is playing a role in lowering the numbers.

Some experts cite a government study released earlier this year suggesting that about 60 percent of teenage girls who have sex use the most effective kinds of contraception, including the pill and patch. That's up from the mid-1990s, when fewer than half were using the best kinds.

Experts also pointed to the growing use of IUDs, or intrauterine devices, T-shaped plastic sperm-killers that a doctor inserts into the uterus. A study released earlier this year by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that does research on reproductive health, showed that IUD use among sexually active women on birth control rose from less than 3 percent in 2002 to more than 8 percent in 2009.

IUDs essentially prevent "user error," said Rachel Jones, a Guttmacher researcher.

Ananat said another factor may be the growing use of the morning-after pill, a form of emergency contraception that has been increasingly easier to get. It came onto the market in 1999 and in 2006 was approved for non-prescription sale to women 18 and older. In 2009 that was lowered to 17.

Underlying all this may be the economy, which was in recession from December 2007 until June 2009. Even well afterward, polls showed most Americans remained worried about anemic hiring, a depressed housing market and other problems.

You might think a bad economy would lead to more abortions by women who are struggling. However, John Santelli, a Columbia University professor of population and family health, said: "The economy seems to be having a fundamental effect on pregnancies, not abortions."

More findings from the CDC:

- The majority of abortions are performed by the eighth week of pregnancy, when the fetus is about the size of a lima bean.

- White women had the lowest abortion rate, at about 8.5 per 1,000 women of child-bearing age; the rate for black women was about four times that. The rate for Hispanic women was about 19 per 1,000.

- About 85 percent of those who got abortions were unmarried.

- The CDC identified 12 abortion-related deaths in 2009.


November 21, 2012

Constitution Experts Denounce Oklahoma Judge’s Sentencing of Youth to Church


Initially there was little outcry in Muskogee, Okla., last week when a judge, as a condition of a youth’s probation for a driving-related manslaughter conviction, sentenced him to attend church regularly for 10 years.

The judge, Mike Norman, 67, had sentenced people to church before, though never for such a serious crime.

But as word of the ruling spread in state and national legal circles, constitutional experts condemned it as a flagrant violation of the separation of church and state.

This week, the American Civil Liberties Union said it would file a complaint against Judge Norman with the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints, an agency that investigates judicial misconduct, seeking an official reprimand or other sanctions.

“We see a judge who has shown disregard for the First Amendment of the Constitution in his rulings,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the civil liberties union branch in Oklahoma.

The 17-year-old defendant, Tyler Alred, was prosecuted as a youthful offender, giving the judge more discretion than in an adult case. Mr. Alred pleaded guilty to manslaughter for an accident last year, when he ran his car into a tree and a 16-year-old passenger was killed.

Although his alcohol level tested below the legal limit, because he was under age he was legally considered to be under the influence of alcohol. Mr. Alred told the court that he was happy to agree to church attendance and other mandates — including that he finish high school and train as a welder, and shun alcohol, drugs and tobacco for a year. By doing so, he is avoiding a 10-year prison sentence and has a chance to make a fresh start.

But his acquiescence does not change the law, Mr. Kiesel and others pointed out. “Alternative sentencing is something that should be encouraged, but there are many options that don’t violate the Constitution,” Mr. Kiesel said. “A choice of going to prison or to church — that is precisely the type of coercion that the First Amendment seeks to prevent.”

Mr. Alred and his family already attend a church, although Judge Norman said in an interview that he had not known that when he ruled.

The judge said he was surprised at the criticism. “I feel like church is important,” he said. “I sentenced him to go to church for 10 years because I thought I could do that.”

He added, “I am satisfied that both the families in this case think we’ve made the right decision,” and noted that the dead boy’s father had tearfully hugged Mr. Alred in the courtroom. If Mr. Alred stops attending church or violates any other terms of his probation, Judge Norman said, he will send him to prison.

As for the constitutionality of his ruling, Judge Norman said, “I think it would hold up, but I don’t know one way or another.”

Judge Norman did not specify which religious denomination Mr. Alred must follow. But he also said: “I think Jesus can help anybody. I know I need help from him every day.”

Randall T. Coyne, a professor of criminal law at the University of Oklahoma, agreed that the judge’s church requirement was unconstitutional. But unless the defendant fights the ruling, he said, civil liberties advocates have no way to challenge it in court, leaving the complaint to the judicial review agency as their only option.

Over the years, several judges around the country have mandated church attendance as part of sentences, sometimes stirring criticism. In the early 1990s in Louisiana, Judge Thomas P. Quirk ordered hundreds of defendants in traffic and misdemeanor cases to attend church once a week for a year. The judge said that he had imposed the condition only on people who agreed to it, and that it provided a good alternative to sending defendants to overcrowded jails or imposing fines they could not afford.

The Judiciary Commission of Louisiana found that Judge Quirk had engaged in knowing violations of the Constitution and recommended that he be suspended without pay for 12 months. But the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that while the judge might have erred, he did not engage in “judicial misconduct,” and it rescinded the sanctions.

In 2011, the city of Bay Minette, Ala., required first-time misdemeanor offenders to choose between doing jail time and attending church weekly for a year. The city dropped the program after the American Civil Liberties Union called it unconstitutional.


America is a Christian Nation. If We Don’t Like it, We Should Get Out

By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson November 21st, 201

“You leave my white children the f*ck alone!”

This would be better translated as, “If you don’t support our fantasy that America is a Christian Nation, you should get out.”

Because America is not a Christian nation. It has never been.

I’m sure we’d know: the Constitution would say so.

But it doesn’t.

Yet this is the position we hear often from the minority block of Evangelical voters, who comprise just 24 percent of the electorate (of whom, one-quarter are not extreme enough to want to ban abortion in every instance).

There is more than a little hubris in a member of an extremist minority claiming ownership of an entire country to the detriment of the other three-quarters of the population. But then the old cry of “America, Love it or Leave it” always had overtones of “America as I imagine it” rather than “America as it is” or “America as it was meant to be.”

Yet that’s just what Christian broadcaster Joni Lamb said to her viewers the other day: “that if you live in America and you understand that we are a Christian society then you can’t be offended by things like that or you shouldn’t live here.”

This all came about because of a Christian prayer at a graduation ceremony. We all know that fundamentalist Christians love to use graduation ceremonies as a proselytizing opportunity, a chance to cement the supposed bond between the Church and young people as they enter adult life – a sort of coming of age thing.

Graduations are often held in churches or imbued with religious overtones, much to the discomfort of the non-Christians who make up a growing segment of the population.

Fundamentalist Christians see nothing wrong with this. To their mind, it is not the non-Christians who are the victims, but the Christians who are being told they cannot force their religion on the other students.

To their mind, anything which impinges on the special rights of Christians is a form of persecution.

Like doubting the “eye witness” account in the Bible of the earth’s creation, which. asserts Bryan Fischer, proves the job was done in seven days (and in the process, refuting the Big Bang and evolution): “So, the only eyewitness account we could possibly have would have to come from the creator himself, and fortunately he left us an eyewitness account.”

The Religious Right has had a very rough time of it since Election Day, showing themselves to be even more intransigent (if possible) than the anti-government Tea Party racists and plutocrats who are the other major components of the Republican Party.

We’ve seen how they prayed for Obama’s defeat; we’ve seen how they’ve dealt with the belief that their god said “no” to their prayers. We’ve seen that their reaction has a lot of “if only…” in it: if only everyone still went to church; if only there weren’t so many icky brown people wanting free things; if only young unmarried women didn’t all want unrestricted access to penises without consequences…if only…

The other part of their reaction revolves around God’s punishment. One of the realizations they took from God’s denial of their prayers was that his judgment is upon us all for electing Obama. I mean, they hate Obama; how could God possibly approve of him?

You get the idea – and this is far from the first time in history this has happened – that God is more of a artificial construct created with the purpose of justifying and legitimizing their bigotries and hatreds. Fundamentalists were not created in God’s image; God was created in their image.

The old expression “as above, so below” has become “as below, so above.” If it is true here, it must be true in heaven. Meaning God is some ugly-ass middle-aged white man with a huge round belly who doesn’t bathe often enough and has a gun-rack in the back window of his pickup right alongside a Confederate flag decal.

So their hatred and bigotry has resulted in the belief that God is mighty angry on behalf of his troubled white children over their bullying by the icky brown people. He hasn’t turned anyone into a pillar of salt yet, but boy, you just wait till your Father gets home…

Franklin Graham says God is so mad he’s going to bestow on us sinful Americans an economic collapse. That’ll teach us! For the audacity of daring to believe we have to fix our economic problems without factoring God into our economic forecasts, Franklin says God will slap the smiles off our faces:

    “What has happened is we have allowed ourselves to take God out everything that we do – and I believe that God will judge our nation one day…maybe God will have to bring our nation to our knees – to where that we just have a complete economic collapse. Maybe at that point, people will again call upon the name of almighty God.”

Sweet Jesus! Yeah, I’m sure that will work.

Even more upset than Franklin Graham are the clowns at Liberty Counsel. Reports Right Wing Watch,

    It has been two weeks since President Obama was re-elected and Mat Staver and Matt Barber do not seem to have gotten over it yet as they dedicated a recent program to lamenting that America has re-elected the “most liberal, socialist, anti-liberty, anti-Israel, anti-life, anti-marriage, anti-religious values, anti-religious freedom, anti-free enterprise and pro-regulation president in American history” and, in doing so, has brought God’s judgment upon itself by “adopting sin as official public policy.”

I look at that long list of sins and my first thought is, “So apparently the God of Moses hates regulation?”

Well f*ck me sideways! Who knew?

See how much God resembles his worshipers? To the male Jahwists who comprised the top 1 percent of post-exilic Israel’s population, God was a bearded, self-righteous Jewish male who wanted to subordinate women and tell everyone in the kingdom what to believe and how to go about believing it. He was just the God they needed, embodying as he did all their bigotries and prejudices.

To the various authors of the New Testament God was also just who they needed him to be, creating a whole lotta dysfunction and contradiction in the new Gentile covenant with the God of Moses. For a group that stresses an inflexible doctrine over moral relativism, the God of Moses has been a God of a whole lotta various things, depending upon the needs of the moment.

He isn’t a God at all. He is every religious extremist’s bitch. A sock puppet.

And if we don’t like it, we can get out?

Pardon us for saying, “Whoa there, just a minute. Back up and explain yourselves.”

There is something almost charming about listening to the clueless chatter of a defeated minority who thinks they’re a majority, dealing with cognitive dissonance.

I said “almost” charming.

Because laugh at them as we will (and we will), there is real venom in their words and actions. They seriously believe we all ought to get out. They seriously believe we all ought to do as they say, if not as they do. Be warned: In Kentucky, if they can’t make you get out for denying their god, they can sure as shootin’ put you in prison.

Ugliness and hypocrisy abound in Evangelical circles: General David Petraeus and his hypocritical policy of “spiritual fitness” for the soldiers while he was getting it on with his biographer; an attorney for the fundamentalist anti-gay organization, Alliance Defense Fund, which though dedicated to “transforming the legal system and advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family” has attorneys like Lisa Biron working for it. Lisa was arrested. She allegedly loves ecstasy, marijuana and cocaine and forcing young girls into sexual relationships.

Apparently, if we don’t approve of such things – and logically, God must approve – we should get out.

That’s their play.

And God is somehow mad at us liberals. God hates black people. He hates women. He hates Latinos. He hates government.

He LOVES rich people, even though his son who was also himself and some sort of spirit-entity, had not one good thing to say about them.

You would think at the very least Obama’s re-election would cause some head-scratching but they seem more sure than ever of the sanctity of their discredited position.

On some deep level they actually seem to revel in the seeming evidence of their persecution as they continue to drive around in big fancy cars and living the high life while bilking the gullible sheeple of their hard-earned fleece.

So while you’re packing your bags, don’t shed a tear for David Petraeus. He’ll be fine. Fundies love a good redemption story. He’ll find out he hadn’t found God after all but he’ll find God now, good and certain, and be a popular hero again. Lisa Biron will find out she was possessed by a gay demon and submit to gay therapy, to be at last the demented fag-hating heterosexual God always meant her to be.

And America? Once all the icky brown people get out, America will be white and Evangelical, just like the Good Lord intended.

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11/22/2012 02:54 PM

Deciphering the Ceasefire: Israeli Press Declares Victory for Hamas

By Ulrike Putz in Beirut

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to claim Wednesday's ceasefire deal as a personal success. But not many seem to agree. Influential commentators in Israel believe that Hamas came out ahead -- and that the Islamist group has now been elevated to the status of negotiating partner.

If you believe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Gaza offensive, which just came to a halt as a result of the Wednesday evening ceasefire agreement, was the jewel in the crown of his political career. "We need to navigate this ship of a state in stormy waters with responsibility and wisdom, that's how a responsible government acts," he said in praise of himself during a statement to the nation on Wednesday. "We've executed a military action but also stayed open for a diplomatic solution."

His comments were anything but brief, but the message was not a complicated one: Israel won, in part due to the brilliance of the prime minister. A leader, the subtext continued, who deserves to be re-elected in the January 22 vote. His statement, wrote the Jerusalem Post, "effectively ended an eight-day military campaign and began an election one."

Unfortunately for him, however, the Israeli press is not joining Netanyahu in praising Netanyahu. To be sure, most analysts agree that the current ceasefire bringing the Israeli Gaza operation "Pillar of Defense" to a halt is a positive development due to the return of calm to southern Israel. But in the Israeli press, Netanyahu's name was not among the victors listed on Thursday morning. Rather, leading commentators in the country agree that the primary beneficiaries from the week-long clash are the Hamas leadership and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who negotiated the truce.

A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi's summertime election had led to significant distrust in the West. Now, writes Anshel Pfeffer in the influential Israeli daily Haaretz, the crisis has propelled Mursi into the role of an important regional statesman. The proof: As the ceasefire was being finalized this week, US President Barack Obama telephoned with Morsi multiple times.

Minor Victories

Pfeffer emphasized that even Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman saw it necessary to thank Morsi for his role in bringing about a truce. Given Lieberman's hard-line stance, such a move counts as a mini-sensation in Israel. After all, the Israeli foreign minister is hardly a fan of Egypt or Hamas, having in the past called for the bombardment of the Aswan Dam and demanded that the Gaza Strip be treated as the Russians do Chechnya.

Hamas too has managed to extract minor victories from the conflict, according to analysts. For one, the Islamist leaders of the Gaza Strip inserted a clause in the ceasefire agreement which calls for at least a partial lifting of the blockade Israel imposed on the Palestinian area after Hamas came to power in 2006. Furthermore, the fact that the Hamas leadership didn't collapse in the face of heavy bombardment, along with the fact that their rockets continued to rain down on Israel throughout the conflict, has been interpreted as a success.

But even more important for the Islamists, according to Haaretz, is that their rockets were able to hit both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And they were able to position themselves as a negotiating partner for the Israeli leadership, guaranteeing them a role as an actor in the Middle East for at least the immediate future.

Indeed, one could argue that the Netanyahu administration has marginalized moderate voices in the Palestinian Territories in the last three years and prepared the groundwork for a Hamas resurgence. Simon Shiffer, the veteran writer for Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, writes that Hamas has now become the most influential Palestinian power because Netanyahu has undertaken negotiations with them while ignoring the Palestinian Authority and its President Mahmoud Abbas.

A Failed Adventure?

Shiffer's colleague at Yedioth, Alex Fishman, would seem to agree. "Hamas has morphed from the enemy that must be brought down to the enemy that is the lesser of two evils," Fishman writes. Although Israel's official position remains that of not recognizing Hamas as a potential negotiating partner, he writes, Israeli leadership has now used the group to exert control over even more radical groups in the Gaza Strip. "Until just a few days ago, such ideas would have been considered blasphemy," Fishman writes.

The deal struck between Israel and the Islamists calls for an immediate stop to all aggression, to be followed by talks aimed at a lasting ceasefire. Border crossings into the Gaza Strip are also to be reopened soon. The goal is to make it easier for both goods and people to cross into the coastal territory following years of Israeli blockade. Hamas has said that the border crossings are to be opened within 24 hours of the beginning of the ceasefire. Egypt has been charged with monitoring the deal.

In the Gaza Strip, thousands took to the streets on Wednesday evening to celebrate what they see as a victory over Israel. Foreign journalists reported chaotic scenes of joy involving Hamas fighters firing machine guns into the air. Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, currently in Egypt, has also claimed victory. The government in Jerusalem, he said, had failed with its military "adventure."


Rival protests as Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi grants himself sweeping powers

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 23, 2012 6:57 EST

Hundreds turned out on Thursday in support of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s new declaration granting him sweeping powers, as a rival protest criticised “the making of new dictator.”

“The people want the cleansing of the judiciary,” chanted hundreds of Islamist protesters, who had gathered outside the High Court three hours before Morsi had even made his announcement.

The new declaration allows the president to “issue any decision or measure to protect the revolution,” according to the text.

Morsi also ordered the reopening of investigations, and retrials, in cases of the killing of protesters during the uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

“I am here to celebrate the president’s decisions,” said Mahmud Abbas, 29. “I am really happy. The decisions are pro-revolution.”

They “will bring justice to the martyrs and will hold the corrupt accountable,” said Mahmud Sultan, among the crush of protesters in central Cairo.

But a few kilometres (miles) away in Mohammed Mahmud street, the scene of four days of clashes between police and protesters, there were vocal denunciations of Morsi’s declaration.

“We didn’t have an uprising so that we put in place another dictator,” said a furious Khaled Ali.

“He’s not just a pharaoh, he thinks he’s God,” said Ali.

“Justice will only come when Mohamed Morsi leaves,” said Alaa Zaghloul, carrying a sign that read “Mohamed Morsi Mubarak.”

The decision will once again pit Islamists against secularists and comes on the eve of planned protests in Tahrir Square to demand justice for hundreds who died during the 2011 uprising.

Morsi, who hails from the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, is the first elected president since the popular uprising that toppled Mubarak last year.


November 22, 2012

Citing Deadlock, Egypt’s Leader Seizes New Power and Plans Mubarak Retrial


CAIRO — With a constitutional assembly on the brink of collapse and protesters battling the police in the streets over the slow pace of change, President Mohamed Morsi issued a decree on Thursday granting himself broad powers above any court as the guardian of Egypt’s revolution, and used his new authority to order the retrial of Hosni Mubarak.

Mr. Morsi, an Islamist and Egypt’s first elected president, portrayed his decree as an attempt to fulfill popular demands for justice and protect the transition to a constitutional democracy. But the unexpected breadth of the powers he seized raised immediate fears that he might become a new strongman. Seldom in history has a postrevolutionary leader amassed so much personal power only to relinquish it swiftly.

“An absolute presidential tyranny,” Amr Hamzawy, a liberal member of the dissolved Parliament and prominent political scientist, wrote in an online commentary. “Egypt is facing a horrifying coup against legitimacy and the rule of law and a complete assassination of the democratic transition.”

Mr. Morsi issued the decree at a high point in his five-month-old presidency, when he was basking in praise from the White House and around the world for his central role in negotiating a cease-fire that the previous night had stopped the fighting in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas.

But his political opponents immediately called for demonstrations on Friday to protest his new powers. “Passing a revolutionary demand within a package of autocratic decisions is a setback for the revolution,” Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a more liberal former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and a former presidential candidate, wrote online. And the chief of the Supreme Constitutional Court indicated that it did not accept the decree.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said, “We are seeking more information about President Morsi’s decisions and declarations today, which have raised concerns.”

Mr. Morsi’s advisers portrayed the decree as an attempt to cut through the deadlock that has stalled Egypt’s convoluted political transition more than 20 months after President Mubarak’s ouster. Mr. Morsi’s more political opponents and the holdover judicial system, they argued, were sabotaging the transition to thwart the Islamist majority.

The liberal and secular opposition has repeatedly threatened to boycott the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly. (It is led by Mr. Morsi’s allies in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Members were picked by Parliament, where Islamists won a nearly three-quarters majority.) And as the assembly nears a deadline set under an earlier interim transition plan, most secular members and the representatives of the Coptic Church have walked out, costing it up to a quarter of its 100 members and much of its legitimacy.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Constitutional Court — which Mr. Mubarak had tried to stack with loyalists and where a few judges openly fear Islamists — is poised to issue a decision that could dissolve the current assembly and require a new one. The same court already dissolved an earlier assembly and, on the eve of Mr. Morsi’s election in June, also dissolved Parliament, in each case citing technical issues of eligibility.

After the dissolution of Parliament, leaders of the council of generals who had ruled since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster seized all legislative power and control of the budget.

But in August, Mr. Morsi won the backing of many other generals and officers for a decree that returned the army to its barracks and left him in sole control of the government, with executive and legislative authority.

Thursday’s decree frees Mr. Morsi, his decrees and the constitutional assembly from judicial oversight as well.

In a television interview, Mr. Morsi’s spokesman, Yasser Ali, stressed that the expanded powers would last only until the ratification of a new constitution in a few months, calling the decree “an attempt to end the transitional period as soon as possible.”

“Going around in a vicious circle in a transitional period has to end,” he said, apparently referring to the deadlocked constitutional assembly. In some respects, Mr. Morsi’s decree fulfills opposition demands. Secular representatives in the constitutional assembly had walked out in part over their accusation that the Islamists were unfairly rushing the work. But the decree pushes the deadline back two months from the end of the year.

Mr. Morsi also replaced the public prosecutor, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, a Mubarak appointee widely criticized for failing to win stronger sentences against Mr. Mubarak and his associates, and against abusive police officers. (Mr. Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison for overseeing the killing of protesters, but the verdict found no direct evidence of his involvement, paving the way for an appeal.)

Mr. Mahmoud’s replacement is Talaat Ibrahim Abdullah, former leader of the movement for judicial independence under Mr. Mubarak.

Mr. Morsi ordered retrials for Mr. Mubarak and others accused of responsibility for killing civilian protesters during the uprising. He stripped the accused of protections against being tried twice for the same crime and issued a law setting up a new transitional legal system to handle the retrials.

Another decree provision granted the president the “power to take all necessary measures and procedures” against any potential threat to the revolution.

On the Web site of the state newspaper Al Ahram, a prominent jurist, Salah Eissa, urged citizens “to take to the street and die, because Egypt is lost,” adding, “immunizing the decisions of the president with a constitutional declaration is a forgery and a fraud.”

Nathan J. Brown, a scholar of the Egyptian legal system at George Washington University, summed up the overall message: “I, Morsi, am all powerful. And in my first act as being all powerful, I declare myself more powerful still. But don’t worry — it’s just for a little while.”


Iran cautiously backs Gaza truce deal

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 22, 2012 17:18 EST

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a qualified welcome Thursday to a truce deal between Israel and Hamas, mediated by Egypt to end eight days of violence that killed six Israelis and 163 Palestinians.

“I agree that the truce is a good thing, but we will have to see the basis of this truce,” Ahmadinejad told Pakistan TV channel Geo in an interview given in Farsi and translated into Urdu by the network.

Visiting Islamabad to attend the Developing Eight summit of Muslim leaders, he lashed out against Israel saying there was “no reason whatsoever for any military attacks” but made no mention of Hamas rocket attacks on the Jewish state, Iran’s arch enemy.

“Zionism is a serious threat for the world. They have a hand behind all subversive activities and terrorism, and Palestinians are being made victims of Zionist plans,” Geo television quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.

Ahmadinejad downplayed the threat of an Israeli attack on his country as “child’s wish”.

“They know that Iran does not attack others, but they have a desire to attack us and waiting for an opportunity, but we know how to defend ourselves,” Ahmadinejad told a press conference at Iranian embassy in Islamabad.

“We do not take their desire to attack us as more than a child’s wish.”

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal on Wednesday thanked Iran as well as Egypt for their support during the conflict, saying Iran “had a role in arming” his Islamist movement.

During the eight-day conflict, Israel said it hit more than 1,500 targets, as militants in the Gaza Strip fired 1,354 rockets over the border, 421 of which were intercepted by Israel’s anti-missile system.


November 22, 2012

For Israel, Gaza Conflict Is Test for an Iran Confrontation


WASHINGTON — The conflict that ended, for now, in a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel seemed like the latest episode in a periodic showdown. But there was a second, strategic agenda unfolding, according to American and Israeli officials: The exchange was something of a practice run for any future armed confrontation with Iran, featuring improved rockets that can reach Jerusalem and new antimissile systems to counter them.

It is Iran, of course, that most preoccupies Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama. While disagreeing on tactics, both have made it clear that time is short, probably measured in months, to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

And one key to their war-gaming has been cutting off Iran’s ability to slip next-generation missiles into the Gaza Strip or Lebanon, where they could be launched by Iran’s surrogates, Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, during any crisis over sanctions or an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Michael B. Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States and a military historian, likened the insertion of Iranian missiles into Gaza to the Cuban missile crisis.

“In the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. was not confronting Cuba, but rather the Soviet Union,” Mr. Oren said Wednesday, as the cease-fire was declared. “In Operation Pillar of Defense,” the name the Israel Defense Force gave the Gaza operation, “Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran.”

It is an imprecise analogy. What the Soviet Union was slipping into Cuba 50 years ago was a nuclear arsenal. In Gaza, the rockets and parts that came from Iran were conventional, and, as the Israelis learned, still have significant accuracy problems. But from one point of view, Israel was using the Gaza battle to learn the capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad — the group that has the closest ties to Iran — as well as to disrupt those links.

Indeed, the first strike in the eight-day conflict between Hamas and Israel arguably took place nearly a month before the fighting began — in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, as another mysterious explosion in the shadow war with Iran.

A factory said to be producing light arms blew up in spectacular fashion on Oct. 22, and within two days the Sudanese charged that it had been hit by four Israeli warplanes that easily penetrated the country’s airspace. Israelis will not talk about it. But Israeli and American officials maintain that Sudan has long been a prime transit point for smuggling Iranian Fajr rockets, the kind that Hamas launched against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over recent days.

The missile defense campaign that ensued over Israeli territory is being described as the most intense yet in real combat anywhere — and as having the potential to change warfare in the same way that novel applications of air power in the Spanish Civil War shaped combat in the skies ever since.

Of course, a conflict with Iran, if a last-ditch effort to restart negotiations fails, would look different than what has just occurred. Just weeks before the outbreak in Gaza, the United States and European and Persian Gulf Arab allies were practicing at sea, working on clearing mines that might be dropped in shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz.

But in the Israeli and American contingency planning, Israel would face three tiers of threat in a conflict with Iran: the short-range missiles that have been lobbed in this campaign, medium-range rockets fielded by Hezbollah in Lebanon and long-range missiles from Iran.

The last of those three could include the Shahab-3, the missile Israeli and American intelligence believe could someday be fitted with a nuclear weapon if Iran ever succeeded in developing one and — the harder task — shrinking it to fit a warhead.

A United States Army air defense officer said that the American and Israeli militaries were “absolutely learning a lot” from this campaign that may contribute to a more effective “integration of all those tiered systems into a layered approach.”

The goal, and the challenge, is to link short-, medium- and long-range missile defense radar systems and interceptors against the different types of threats that may emerge in the next conflict.

Even so, a historic battle of missile versus missile defense has played out in the skies over Israel, with Israeli officials saying their Iron Dome system shot down 350 incoming rockets — 88 percent of all targets assigned to the missile defense interceptors. Israeli officials declined to specify the number of interceptors on hand to reload their missile-defense batteries.

Before the conflict began, Hamas was estimated to have amassed an arsenal of 10,000 to 12,000 rockets. Israeli officials say their pre-emptive strikes on Hamas rocket depots severely reduced the arsenal of missiles, both those provided by Iran and some built in Gaza on a Syrian design.

But Israeli military officials emphasize that most of the approximately 1,500 rockets fired by Hamas in this conflict were on trajectories toward unpopulated areas. The radar tracking systems of Iron Dome are intended to quickly discriminate between those that are hurtling toward a populated area and strays not worth expending a costly interceptor to knock down.

“This discrimination is a very important part of all missile defense systems,” said the United States Army expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe current military assessments. “You want to ensure that you’re going to engage a target missile that is heading toward a defended footprint, like a populated area. This clearly has been a validation of the Iron Dome system’s capability.”

The officer and other experts said that Iran also was certain to be studying the apparent inability of the rockets it supplied to Hamas to effectively strike targets in Israel, and could be expected to re-examine the design of that weapon for improvements.

Israel currently fields five Iron Dome missile defense batteries, each costing about $50 million, and wants to more than double the number of batteries. In the past two fiscal years, the United States has given about $275 million in financial assistance to the Iron Dome program. Replacement interceptors cost tens of thousands of dollars each.

Just three weeks ago, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited an Iron Dome site as a guest of his Israeli counterpart during the largest American-Israeli joint military exercise ever. For the three-week exercise, called Austere Challenge, American military personnel operated Patriot land-based missile defense batteries on temporary deployment to Israel as well as Aegis missile defense ships, which carry tracking radars and interceptors.

Despite its performance during the current crisis, though, Iron Dome has its limits.

It is specifically designed to counter only short-range rockets, those capable of reaching targets at a distance of no more than 50 miles. Israel is developing a medium-range missile defense system, called David’s Sling, which was tested in computer simulations during the recent American-Israeli exercise, and has fielded a long-range system called Arrow. “Nobody has really had to manage this kind of a battle before,” said Jeffrey White, a defense fellow for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There are lots of rockets coming in all over half the country, and there are all different kinds of rockets being fired.”


November 22, 2012

Life in Gaza’s Courtyards: Displays of Pride and Sacrifice


GAZA — The graffiti on the cinder-block walls deep in the Sijaya neighborhood of Gaza City chronicles the recent history of the Jabari family.

Inside a courtyard there are faded remnants of “Congratulations from the uncles,” from the April wedding of a son of Ahmed al-Jabari, the commander of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, whose assassination last week was the start of the latest round of intense battle between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

On the wall outside, the colorful Arabic script reads “Welcome hajji, Abu Muhammad,” a reference to Mr. Jabari’s return from a pilgrimage to Mecca last month. Nearby, the freshest paint pronounces a message from the troops: “Rest in peace. The mission has been accomplished.”

As thousands paraded through the streets of this bomb-blasted city on Thursday afternoon holding portraits of Mr. Jabari in jubilant celebrations of the cease-fire agreement with Israel, his widows, mother and sister sat in the courtyard surrounded by 20 female relatives, praising God.

“Allah give him a big honor because he is going to go to paradise; thanks for God for all this,” said Eman Hussein, one of Mr. Jabari’s two wives. “All this happened because this is from our God and this is the work of Jabari and the fighters here in Gaza. Thanks for God. It’s a big victory.”

The women said they had passed every day since the funeral in the courtyard. They sat on plastic chairs in a rectangle, wearing brown or black abayas and plain white or gray head scarves. Children scurried in and out. Mr. Jabari’s mother held a tiny one in her arms.

“It’s not a problem to sacrifice,” said his sister, Um Aiman, 60. “We have to sacrifice all people to reach to this victory.”

Students Speak of War

Another courtyard, another day. This one was grassy, scattered with glass shards from the windows of the home in the neighborhood of Nasser that had been blasted out during the obliteration of the nearby headquarters of the Hamas prime minister a few days before.

Five well-dressed young men sat, also on plastic chairs. They said they were supposed to be taking exams at the Islamic University of Gaza this week, in political science or public relations or engineering. Instead they were smoking, laughing and guessing the make and model of weapons they heard coming in and going out. “They are trying to stop our lives,” said Luay Ouda, 32, who is working toward a master’s degree in political science. “With our laughs and sitting here, we resist.”

They were far from fighters, these men in their expensive jeans. The luxurious home of Jerusalem stone they were sitting outside belonged to Adli Yazeroi, 52. He is one of about 70,000 people in Gaza who collect salaries from the Palestinian Authority — Mr. Yazeroi is assigned to the prime minister’s office — but have not actually gone to work in five years, since Hamas took control of Gaza after having won elections, because they are presumed loyal to the rival Fatah faction.

But the young men were boundless in their support of Hamas, especially its Qassam Brigades’ successful firing of rockets deep into Israel this week. “From 1948 until now, negotiations and political talks have done nothing for us; the only thing that will stop them is bombing back,” said Arafat al-Haj, 29, who is also earning a master’s in political science.

“The last war, they slaughtered us and we just screamed,” he added, recalling Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s air and ground offensive that killed 1,400 people here four years ago. “This time, we put the knife farther away from our necks.”

Saif al-Yazeroi, an aspiring public relations student and younger cousin of the homeowner, painted the picture. “You saw in Tel Aviv, all the people are in shelters,” he said. “For the first time, the Israelis are hiding now, not us.”

The homeowner weighed in. “Israel has always taken the battle into other people’s land,” he said. “The rocket that hit Jerusalem, the Israelis went to the shelters, and the Palestinians went to see the rockets.”

This was Tuesday, the war still raging. The streets were yet quiet, most families huddling inside, perhaps sending the men to market at midday to replenish the vegetable bin. But the students said they were not afraid.

“It’s not the first time,” the younger Mr. Yazeroi noted.

“The house is not safer than the street,” Mr. Haj added.

A few minutes later, the air exploded with the sound of a missile landing nearby. Everybody flinched, then laughed a little more.

An Elder, ‘Undetermined’

Hazem Sarraj, at 61 already a wise old man with a white beard, is an eye doctor and respected Islamic preacher. After a stroke in 2007, the metal crutch that attaches to his left forearm is not quite enough to help him walk, so a young disciple holds up his other side.

Still, he joined the cease-fire celebrations on Thursday afternoon, making the rounds to greet the people. He stopped to shake hands at the Saed Juice Shop, across from the bombed government complex on Omar al-Mukhtar Street, which was doing a brisk business pulverizing sugar cane sticks into a green froth, 75 cents per plastic cup.

Dr. Sarraj said he had lived in Spain for 17 years. He used to watch the families there on Sundays sitting outside with picnics, children playing. But there are no public parks to speak of in Gaza, and “most of these children are handicapped,” Dr. Sarraj said, the exaggeration understandable.

He spoke first in Arabic, through an interpreter, then in English, broken but clear. He recalled that when he had left Gaza years ago to live abroad, the travel documents issued by the Israeli government said of his nationality: “undetermined.” And then he further recalled his childhood here in Gaza before the Israeli occupation in 1967, seeing cows shipped in via the Mediterranean from Somalia, each one branded with the country’s name.

“Cow, animal, with nationality, and a man — doctor — without anything,” he said. “Therefore, all the airports in the world see you, undetermined, treat you like a terrorist.”

Fares Akram contributed reporting.
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« Reply #3137 on: Nov 23, 2012, 07:18 AM »

Originally published Thursday, November 22, 2012 at 4:37 AM
Egypt Brotherhood leader blasts peace with Israel

The Associated Press


The top leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood denounced peace efforts with Israel and urged holy war to liberate Palestinian territories on Thursday - one day after the country's president, who hails from the movement, mediated a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians to end eight days of fierce fighting.

"The enemy knows nothing but the language of force," said Mohammed Badie. "Be aware of the game of grand deception with which they depict peace accords," he said in a statement carried on the group's website and emailed to reporters.

His statement was a sharp deviation from the role played by President Mohammed Morsi in the last week. Egypt's role in brokering the deal has been hailed by U.S. officials.

The Brotherhood sometimes delivers conflicting messages, depending on its audience. There are also ideological and generational divisions within the movement, with older leaders like Badie often seen as more conservative.

The Muslim Brotherhood doesn't recognize Israel and - at least officially - its members refuse to hold direct talks with Israeli officials. But Morsi has said that he will abide by the terms of Egypt's 1979 treaty with Israel, and many members say they are in little hurry to enter into armed conflict with the Jewish state.

Badie declared that "jihad is obligatory" for Muslims. But he also said that taking up arms would be the "last stage," only after Muslims achieved unity. "The use of force and arms while the group is fragmented and disconnected, unorganized, weak in conviction, with faint faith - this will be destined for death."

In the meantime, he called on Muslims to "back your brothers in Palestine. Supply them with what they need, seek victory for them in all international arenas." Badie's title - General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood - also implies a leadership role in the Islamist group's sister movements across the world.

Under the deal, Gaza's ruling Hamas is to stop rocket fire into Israel while Israel is to cease attacks and allow the opening of the strip's long-blockaded borders.

The Hamas-Israel fighting was the first major international test for Morsi, who was caught between either supporting Hamas, one of the Egyptian Brotherhood's sister movements, and Cairo's regional and international commitments.
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« Reply #3138 on: Nov 23, 2012, 07:21 AM »

November 22, 2012

In New Tack, Congo’s Army Starts to Fight


GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — The Congolese Army tried a new tactic on Thursday: fighting back.

In the past week, the rebel force has marched into a string of towns in eastern Congo, culminating in the capture of Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province, and raised serious questions about the future of this vast and often troubled country.

In most of the battles, demoralized government troops abandoned their positions and literally ran for the hills.

But on Thursday, the army tried a comeback, pounding the rebel-held town of Sake with mortar fire and battling the rebels with machine guns. Tens of thousands of civilians fled.

“The integrity of this country is not a negotiable matter,” Congo’s prime minister, Augustin Matata Ponyo, said in a telephone interview on Thursday night.

According to witnesses, government troops, aided by local militiamen, ambushed the rebels by firing down on them from the hills ringing Sake, about 15 miles west of Goma. By nightfall, it was unclear which side had the upper hand, with some army officers saying they had recaptured the town. But motorcycle taxi drivers in the area said the outcome was still unclear.

People streamed out of Sake all day, carrying their worldly possessions on their heads — mattresses, blankets, charred and dented cooking pots and bulging sacks of corn. They joined the hundreds of thousands of people already displaced by the recent conflict. They are left to camp out with little to protect them from the rain or the mosquitoes that can carry malaria.

“Chaos breeds chaos,” said Tariq Riebl, an official with the aid agency Oxfam in eastern Congo. “There are hardly any places left that are safe from conflict and violence.”

He said cholera and other fatal waterborne diseases could spread if the fighting and refugee crisis continued.

One of the militias that has allied itself with the government to attack Sake has been accused of massacring hundreds of villagers in recent months. Likewise, the rebel force, called the M23, has a long history of killing civilians.

Though there have been rumors about negotiations between the government and rebels, both sides are still talking tough. If the army succeeds in recapturing Sake, many residents in Goma fear the government may try to forcibly take back the city, which could mean that its 500,000 to 1 million residents — population figures here are vague — would be stuck between opposing military forces.
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« Reply #3139 on: Nov 23, 2012, 07:24 AM »

Saudi Arabia implements electronic tracking system for women

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, November 22, 2012 10:54 EST

RIYADH — Denied the right to travel without consent from their male guardians and banned from driving, women in Saudi Arabia are now monitored by an electronic system that tracks any cross-border movements.

Since last week, Saudi women’s male guardians began receiving text messages on their phones informing them when women under their custody leave the country, even if they are travelling together.

Manal al-Sherif, who became the symbol of a campaign launched last year urging Saudi women to defy a driving ban, began spreading the information on Twitter, after she was alerted by a couple.

The husband, who was travelling with his wife, received a text message from the immigration authorities informing him that his wife had left the international airport in Riyadh.

“The authorities are using technology to monitor women,” said columnist Badriya al-Bishr, who criticised the “state of slavery under which women are held” in the ultra-conservative kingdom.

Women are not allowed to leave the kingdom without permission from their male guardian, who must give his consent by signing what is known as the “yellow sheet” at the airport or border.

The move by the Saudi authorities was swiftly condemned on social network Twitter — a rare bubble of freedom for millions in the kingdom — with critics mocking the decision.

“Hello Taliban, herewith some tips from the Saudi e-government!” read one post.

“Why don’t you cuff your women with tracking ankle bracelets too?” wrote Israa.

“Why don’t we just install a microchip into our women to track them around?” joked another.

“If I need an SMS to let me know my wife is leaving Saudi Arabia, then I’m either married to the wrong woman or need a psychiatrist,” tweeted Hisham.

“This is technology used to serve backwardness in order to keep women imprisoned,” said Bishr, the columnist.

“It would have been better for the government to busy itself with finding a solution for women subjected to domestic violence” than track their movements into and out of the country.

Saudi Arabia applies a strict interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law, and is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.

In June 2011, female activists launched a campaign to defy the ban, with many arrested for doing so and forced to sign a pledge they will never drive again.

No law specifically forbids women in Saudi Arabia from driving, but the interior minister formally banned them after 47 women were arrested and punished after demonstrating in cars in November 1990.

Last year, King Abdullah — a cautious reformer — granted women the right to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections, a historic first for the country.

In January, the 89-year-old monarch appointed Sheikh Abdullatif Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, a moderate, to head the notorious religious police commission, which enforces the kingdom’s severe version of sharia law.

Following his appointment, Sheikh banned members of the commission from harassing Saudi women over their behaviour and attire, raising hopes a more lenient force will ease draconian social constraints in the country.

But the kingdom’s “religious establishment” is still to blame for the discrimination of women in Saudi Arabia, says liberal activist Suad Shemmari.

“Saudi women are treated as minors throughout their lives even if they hold high positions,” said Shemmari, who believes “there can never be reform in the kingdom without changing the status of women and treating them” as equals to men.

But that seems a very long way off.

The kingdom enforces strict rules governing mixing between the sexes, while women are forced to wear a veil and a black cloak, or abaya, that covers them from head to toe except for their hands and faces.

The many restrictions on women have led to high rates of female unemployment, officially estimated at around 30 percent.

In October, local media published a justice ministry directive allowing all women lawyers who have a law degree and who have spent at least three years working in a lawyer’s office to plead cases in court.

But the ruling, which was to take effect this month, has not been implemented.
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« Reply #3140 on: Nov 23, 2012, 07:29 AM »

Catalonia election: What will happen the morning after?

22 November 2012
El Periódico de Catalunya Barcelona   

The regional elections of 25 November should hand the Catalonian nationalists a majority. The independence referendum they are promising, however, must first get the approval of Madrid and the support of the Catalans.
Josep Oliver Alonso

November 25 is approaching – D-Day for Spain. Whatever the election results, they will not be the end of the debate on our future, nor of the debate on Catalonia’s change of course. It will be the beginning of a long period in which our economic and political relations with Spain will be redefined. Despite what many now believe, and despite the confidence that the whole thing can be pulled off quickly, a drawn-out process awaits us all.

One of the most striking aspects of the events of recent months in Catalonia is how quickly a not inconsiderable part of Catalonia has gone from viewing the proposed economic agreement with Madrid as something desirable, though difficult to reach, to something that must be rejected radically. That would be a good thing – for those who believe in miracles. But in economics, as in everything, there are no real roads or shortcuts to such a quick solution. Processes that are seriously defining, like the one we find ourselves in, are long and arduous, with advances and retreats, and they have no certain future.

As D-day nears, so does the morning after, which is what these elections are really about. The surveys suggest a political roadmap that, with the exception of the possible collapse of the PSC, is not substantially different from the current lay of the political landscape. A large majority of members of organisations are in favour of self-determination (CiU, ERC and ICV), a distinct minority (PP and Ciutadans) oppose it, and the PSC is in the middle, in favour of self-determination if it can be brought off legally. That constitutes an overwhelming majority in favour of a public consultation. The day after the election, therefore, the crucial issue of the referendum could be put on the table. And that's where, over the next years, the battle will be articulated.

We are not the first

But we must begin with whether the Spanish state will allow it. It is a hard one for Madrid: accepting the call for a referendum, regardless of how the question is posed, means accepting the core of the debate that has brought us into confrontation with Spain in recent years. I refer to the recognition of Catalan sovereignty as distinct from the Spanish – a Catalan sovereignty capable of deciding its own future. This is the heart of the matter. On the day after the elections we will hear the pistol shot of the starting gun – not for the process of independence, but for the process that should lead to the Catalan public being consulted about what it wants to do and how its economic and political relations with Spain should be construed.

This is a question we have to start with, but in the heat of the elections it appears to be a secondary one. The public debate (the morning after) will focus on whether Catalonia wants to be independent or, in the economic sphere, whether we will be in the European Union, or whether we will keep the euro. If only this is what the discussion would be about! It would show that Spain has agreed to reform its Constitution radically; that it has admitted that Catalonia is an autonomous political entity with the right to take decisions; and that it has agreed that it is the Catalans who will decide on their own future. Getting there is not going to be easy.

Moreover, we are not the first, and other attempts, in countries with democratic traditions that are more solvent than the Spanish, have not been so straightforward. In Canada’s experience of the last referendum (in 1995), its Constitutional Court was called on to lay down strict rules on how the right of secession should be exercised: it is now the federal Parliament that must approve how the question is formulated, and there must also be a “sufficient” majority. Although Europe has the precedent of Montenegro, where the EU demanded a 55 percent majority, the consensus in Canada is that the majority should not be less than 66 percent.

Spanish parties brutally closed door

In Britain, the Scottish National Party campaigned in the last election on a promise to hold a referendum and, after winning an absolute majority, that is what it will do. Polls there, however, show support for a vote for independence is not even at 40 percent. In contrast, the capability to decide, and the need for consultation, were voted for overwhelmingly. These are two distinct issues.

Here we had the opportunity to amend the Constitution by the back door, with the lamented Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. But the Spanish parties brutally closed that door. Now a section of the Madrid intelligentsia is expressing its concern over the possible secession of Catalonia – a case of soup being served up after the dinner! The process towards a consultation on the self-determination of Catalonia has begun. When it will be reached and under what economic conditions is another story. The times of deep crisis that we are living through are not the best for radical changes.

That’s why November 26 will mark the start of a long process, in which the first assault will be against our ability to convene the consultation. As this is the keystone, all kinds of threats and pressures will build up. But make no mistake. We are not arguing about independence, nor on what our future in Europe will be. What will really begin to be discussed that day is our right to be consulted.

Counterpoint: No room for those who stay on the side-lines

The debate over the secession from Spain is monopolising Catalonia's regional elections, scheduled for November 25. Yet there are some voters who do not want to choose a side. This is, in particular, the case for "charnegos" (Catalan immigrants from other Spanish regions) writes, in El Periódico, journalist Julia Otero, herself a "charnega".

    Passing for a separatist in Madrid and a "Spanish-lover" in Catalonia is an exciting experience which, if not fatal, increases the capacity to survive. [...] In the midst of the battle of the flags, confused and quiet, there are an infinite number of people with no other homeland than the people they love and no other hope than to live with dignity [...] A fascinating epoch is arriving for those with profound patriotic sentiments. They are lucky. They are unaware of the unease that come from being from nowhere.

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« Reply #3141 on: Nov 23, 2012, 07:34 AM »

November 22, 2012

Reopening an 18-Year-Old Wound in Argentina


BUENOS AIRES — Eighteen years have passed since a suicide bomber drove a Renault van loaded with explosives into the headquarters of the Jewish community center here, killing 85 people. Since then, investigations have meandered. Interpol arrest warrants have led nowhere. Aging suspects connected to the attack have begun to die.

But in the elusive quest for justice in the bombing, which ranks among the deadliest anti-Semitic attacks anywhere since World War II, few developments have riled Argentina’s Jewish leaders as much as the government’s move in recent weeks to improve relations with Iran, the nation shielding in the high echelons of its political establishment various people accused by Argentine prosecutors of having authorized the attack.

Each country has domestic reasons to reach out to the other. As Argentina’s economic growth slows, it is finding in Iran a robust client for its agricultural commodities, with trade volumes between the two nations surging more than 200 percent over the last five years to more than $1.2 billion.

Iran, meanwhile, is seeking to blunt its diplomatic isolation, expanding on the warm ties it has forged with other nations in Latin America, notably Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

“We cannot comprehend this,” said Guillermo Borger, the president of the Argentine Mutual Aid Association, the center that was bombed in 1994. “The world is shutting its doors to Iran, and we’re giving Iran a chance to say that Argentina is somehow now its friend. The Iranians have not budged in their assertion that their people are innocent, so why should Argentina be in dialogue with them?”

The reaction is markedly different in Tehran, where leaders have welcomed Argentina’s diplomatic pivot. “We expect this lawsuit to be dropped, and never raised again,” said Hamid Reza Taraghi, who heads the international department of the influential Islamic Coalition Party, referring to the investigative case here overseen by prosecutors. “Such a move will help ease the international pressure on our country.”

Both Argentina’s former president, Néstor Kirchner, and his widow, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who succeeded him, offered strong support for the investigations into the bombing. Their approach stood in contrast to that of Carlos Saúl Menem, who was president at the time of the bombing and is formally accused of obstructing the investigation. Mr. Menem, now a senator, has denied the charge.

The investigation was marred by corruption charges, delays and incompetence, but Alberto Nisman, a special prosecutor who took over the case in 2005, seemed to breathe vigor into the case. He accused Hezbollah, the Lebanese group with strong ties to Iran and Syria, of carrying out the bombing, and senior Iranian officials of planning and financing it.

Despite that, Argentina and Iran are re-engaging, informally in September at the United Nations General Assembly in New York and again in formal talks in October in Geneva. Another round of negotiations is scheduled for late November.

Not everyone among Argentina’s Jews, Latin America’s largest population with about 250,000 people, opposes the talks. In an interview, Sergio Burstein, a supporter of Mrs. Kirchner and the leader of a group representing relatives of victims killed in the bombing, said the negotiations offered a “flicker of hope” for the possibility that Iran might hand over suspects to stand trial here.

Just as mystery still shrouds many aspects of the bombing, doubt and secrecy cloak the current talks. Argentina’s Foreign Ministry has rejected requests from survivors of the attack and Jewish leaders in Argentina, made through the office of Mr. Nisman, the prosecutor in the bombing investigation, for information on the negotiations.

Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, who is leading the diplomatic outreach, also declined a separate request for an interview on the talks, which began after Iran repeatedly refused to comply with Argentina’s order for international arrest warrants for nine people. Those suspects included a former Iranian president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Iran’s defense minister, Gen. Ahmad Vahidi.

While Argentine and American investigators have long agreed that the suicide bombing was carried out by a militant from Hezbollah, Mr. Nisman, the prosecutor overseeing the case, has contended that the decision to attack AMIA, as the cultural center is known by its Spanish initials, was made at a 1993 meeting in the Iranian city of Mashhad in Mr. Rafsanjani’s presence.

Others involved in investigating the attack, including James Bernazzani, a former F.B.I. agent who was head of the bureau’s office on Hezbollah, have disputed the explicit link to Iran.

In a telephone interview from the United States, Mr. Bernazzani, who assisted the Argentines in their investigation, criticized their circumstantial cross-referencing of telephone records, without actually having intercepts of those calls, to make the case that Mohsen Rabbani, Iran’s cultural attaché in Argentina in 1994, was involved in coordinating the attack.

In addition, Mr. Bernazzani questioned Argentine investigators’ use of testimony by an Iranian defector whose reliability has been called into question. “Although I highly suspect Iranian complicity because of the relationship with Hezbollah, that does not stand up to F.B.I. standards,” he said. “We need proof, and what we proved was an individual who was in that van was the son of a leading Hezbollah patriot.”

Of course, Ibrahim Hussein Berro, the 21-year-old Lebanese man identified through DNA analysis as the suicide bomber at the helm of the Renault van, is dead. Another suspect, Samuel Salman El Reda, a Colombian whom Argentine prosecutors accuse of coordinating the Hezbollah cell that carried out the bombing, is thought to be living in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the Iranians connected to the case seem to be unhindered by the arrest warrants against them. In an October interview from the Iranian city of Qum with a Brazilian newspaper, Mr. Rabbani, Iran’s former cultural attaché here, scoffed at Argentina’s investigation, proclaiming his innocence. General Vahidi, Iran’s defense minister, traveled in 2011 to neighboring Bolivia.

Adriana Reisfeld, the president of Active Memory, a group representing relatives of people killed in the attack, said her expectations were low that the diplomatic overtures with Iran would lead to closure.

“All we want now is to get as close to justice as we can,” said Ms. Reisfeld, whose sister was killed in the blast. “We can’t let the AMIA case close and be forgotten.”

Thomas Erdbrink contributed reporting from Tehran, and Emily Schmall from Buenos Aires.

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« Reply #3142 on: Nov 23, 2012, 07:36 AM »

Obama under pressure at UN global warming summit to show he is serious about climate change

By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Friday, November 23, 2012 7:43 EST

The climate has been back on Obama’s lips since his re-election, but the Doha conference will show if he is all talk

Barack Obama is being pressed for proof of his intent to act on climate change ahead of next week’s United Nations global warming summit in Doha.

The proof might boil down to just two words: two degrees. An early statement at Doha that America remains committed to the global goal of limiting warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels would be a clear sign.

Every statement from US diplomats at the Doha negotiations will be closely scrutinised for signs that Obama will indeed make climate change a priority of his second term – and that America remains committed to the global agreement diplomats have been seeking for 20 years.

Campaigners say Obama’s re-election, superstorm Sandy and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement – predicated on climate change – put climate change back on the domestic agenda.

Opinion polls suggest public concern in the US about climate change was rising even before Sandy. Campaigners argue Obama needs to engage on climate, if he wants to safeguard his legacy as president.

“President Obama’s re-election provides him with an opportunity to seal his legacy as a truly transformative leader, but he needs to address climate change,” said Andrew Steer, president of the World Resources Institute. “I think history will judge any president from now onwards not to have succeeded if he doesn’t really grapple with this issue seriously.”

Early indications are that Obama will spend more time on climate change than in his first term. He invoked “the destructive power of a warming planet” in his re-election speech. He told reporters he would make climate change a personal mission of his second term. At his first White House press conference, Obama spoke of starting a national conversation about climate risks, and building a bipartisan consensus for action.

But the president also made clear the economy remained his number one focus.

At Doha, negotiators will be looking for signs of how Obama plans to put his climate mission in action.

Hardened climate observers will be watching whether Todd Stern, the state department climate envoy, reaffirms America’s commitment to the climate platform reached in Durban last year – including a core goal of limiting warming to 2C.

Some campaigners fear America is backing off from that promise, following a speech at Dartmouth University earlier this year in which Stern said signing on to the 2C goal was unrealistic for some countries.

“It makes perfect sense on paper. The trouble is it ignores the classic lesson that politics – including international politics – is the art of the possible,” Stern said in the speech. “If countries are told that, in order to reach a global goal, they must accept targets their leadership sees as contrary to their core interest in growth and development those countries are likely to say no.”

The talk, with its suggestion of a retreat from the Durban platform, caused enormous concern among campaign groups.

Jennifer Morgan of WRI said in the reporters’ conference call she would be watching to see whether America continued to back away from the goal, or whether it was back on side.

Stern has not been giving interviews prior to the Doha talks.

The larger question, however, is how Obama intends to use his authority to act on climate in his second term – even if Congress remains opposed to additional regulations.

Obama committed America to a 17% cut in emissions this decade from 2005 levels. That was seen as too weak in most of the world, but efforts for economy-wide action collapsed in the Senate in 2010.

Republicans in Congress then fought to undercut the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency. But Obama did manage to steer $90bn towards green investment in the economy recovery plan, and set new 54.5mpg fuel efficiency standards.

Even after Obama’s re-election, the House of Representatives is still controlled by Republicans, including a heavy contingent from the Tea Party conservatives who discount the very existence of climate change and oppose government intervention in the economy.

But campaign groups in the US are hoping the Environmental Protection Agency steps up – by finalising a rule approved in March that would put severe limits on the construction of new power plants. Campaigners are also looking to the EPA to bring in new rules on existing coal-fired plants.

“We recognise there are constraints on the president – in no small part from Congress – but the electorate wants action on climate change before superstorm Sandy becomes business as usual,” Janet Redman, co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network said in a statement. “There are measures we can take now. We can join European countries and agree to tax financial transactions, which could raise hundreds of billions of dollars for climate programmes and other public goods. And we can promote the Green Climate Fund as the main channel for public finance to support low-carbon and climate-resilient sustainable development priorities of countries and communities most impacted by climate change.”

 © Guardian News and Media 2012
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« Reply #3143 on: Nov 23, 2012, 07:37 AM »

Science budget cuts will threaten Europe’s recovery, say research heads

By Ian Sample, The Guardian
Friday, November 23, 2012 7:51 EST

European Commission president warned that infrastructure projects crucial to the growth of member states will be hit

The heads of some of the world’s leading research organisations have warned the president of the European commission that cuts to the EU science budget will threaten the economic recovery of the region.

A shortfall in science funding would undermine basic training for young researchers and hit major infrastructure projects that are considered crucial for European science and the financial growth of member states, the scientists say in a letter to José Manuel Barroso.

The senior figures at Europe’s eight largest research organisations, including the European Space Agency and Cern, home of the Large Hadron Collider, warn that protecting the science budget is “absolutely vital” for “a return to growth” in the region.

EU officials at this week’s summit in Brussels are due to decide on funds for science and innovation covering 2014-20. The EU had earmarked €80m (£65m) for what it calls the Horizon 2020 budget, which pays for facilities, postdoctoral training and young researchers who are setting up new labs, but that figure is now under negotiation.

Among the projects that may lose out if funding is slashed is Elixir, which aims to link medical information to the human genome and share the results with researchers. The project could help doctors treat individual patients.

The letter states that “at a time when a return to growth is the most pressing policy priority across Europe, it is absolutely vital that investment in our scientific resources – both human and technical – is sustained.”

“Science leads the way out of recession, so cutting science budgets is most certainly not the way forward,” said Rolf Heuer, the director general of Cern, who signed the letter. “In times of recession, it is incumbent on the public sector to maintain the basic science base, ensuring that there is science for industry to apply.

“We keep hearing that Europe has a shortage of qualified scientists and engineers running to a deficit of tens of thousands of graduates each year. If that’s the case in recession, think what the shortage will be when the economy picks up. Cutting science budgets not only damages science in the short term, it passes the wrong message to the young people who could be the scientists and engineers of the future. It would be an unqualified error.”

Another scientist who signed the letter, Professor Andrew Harrison, director of the world-class Institute Laue-Langevin (ILL) research centre in Grenoble, France, told the Guardian that cuts to the budget could undermine Europe’s position as a global leader in science.

“When it comes to the economy and growth, science and innovation have to be at the centre of that. Unless we make smart decisions now, we’re going to get trampled over in the next decade or two. We passionately believe in science, but hard-headed business underpins this.” Harrison said.

He said the loss of scientific expertise and hi-tech industry from the region could turn Europe “into a theme park”.

Professor Iain Mattja, director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, said the science budget was already under considerable pressure.

Other scientists who signed the letter include Professor Alvaro Giménez Caňete, director of science and robotic exploration at ESA, and Professor Tim de Zeeuw, director general of the European Southern Observatory.

© Guardian News and Media 2012
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« Reply #3144 on: Nov 23, 2012, 07:46 AM »

11/23/2012 11:07 AM

Deadlock in Brussels: EU Budget Summit Heading toward Failure

By Carsten Volkery  in Brussels

Despite hours of talks in Brussels on Thursday night, European Union leaders made little progress toward agreement on the bloc's budget for the years 2014 to 2020. Britain and other countries have remained steadfast in their demands for cuts. A second summit looks to be the only likely outcome.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz began losing his temper as time wore on. It is "extremely irresponsible," he told the 27 European Union heads of state and government gathered in Brussels, when EU member states deny the bloc necessary funding. The €1.091 trillion budget proposed by the European Commission, he said, is commensurate because it will also stimulate growth.

Schulz spoke just before midnight as the European Union budget summit, aimed at agreeing on bloc funding for the seven-year period between 2014 and 2020, finally got underway after a three-hour delay. His plea had little effect, though. British Prime Minister David Cameron, his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte and Swedish Premier Fredrik Reinfeldt continued to demand billions in cuts. German Chancellor Angela Merkel likewise found the proposed budget to be too large.

Every seven years, European Union leaders must come together to agree on a new spending plan, and this year's Commission proposal has been particularly controversial. At a time when many EU countries have tightened their belts significantly, an increase to the EU budget, slight though it may be, has not proven popular among net contributors. They would like to see the budget cut to between €890 billion (the British target) and €960 billion (as Germany has proposed). But the 17 net recipient countries support the higher Commission proposal.

Progress toward consensus was limited on Thursday night. Immediately prior to the summit, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy had proposed €81 billion in cuts, for a total of €1.01 trillion. But the reduction was not enough for net contributors. German government sources said that Berlin wanted to see further "moderate cuts." Cameron, for his part, presented a whole laundry list of difficult demands, including an increase of the retirement age for Eurocrats to 68 in addition to a 10 percent pay cut and pension reductions.

An endless series of bilateral meetings prior to the summit were unable to bridge the differences between the two camps. At the end of the night, Merkel indicated that the positions were still radically divergent and voiced doubt that agreement will be reached during this summit. "In all probability," she said, "there will be a second stage."

French President François Hollande was also skeptical. It is probable that no deal will be reached, he said. "That's what everyone thinks," he said at a late-night press conference.

An Attempt at Compromise

After 15 hours of preliminary, bilateral talks, Van Rompuy presented a slightly altered proposal. He reduced the cuts to agricultural subsidies from €25 billion to €17 billion, and the reductions to the structural and cohesion funds from €29 billion to €18 billion. Both were a result of pressure from France and Poland. In exchange, he suggested heavier cuts to infrastructure and research spending. But the revised proposal still included some €81 billion in cuts against the original Commission proposal. At that point, net contributors pushed for a break so they could sleep on it.

The main conflict is between the UK and France. The gulf between the two countries seems to be so wide that neither Hollande nor Cameron saw fit to hold a bilateral discussion. "We know our positions," Hollande said. As for Cameron's demand that EU officials be the next victims of cuts, the French president said there would always be "extreme proposals," he said. Next, he said, will be the proposal that Strasbourg be abandoned as the second seat of European Parliament, an idea that Hollande said was "unacceptable."

But the Socialist politician did meet with Merkel, apparently coming to an agreement on agricultural subsidies. The two leaders decided that Van Rompuy's original spending cut proposals for both these and the cohesion funds should be limited, Hollande said. "That was a first positive step," he added.

Meanwhile Merkel is taking on the role of intermediary between net contributors and the beneficiary countries. It seems unlikely, however, that net contributors will be able to push through cuts beyond those included in the Van Rompuy proposal. A compromise that comes to less than €1.01 trillion would have no chance of being passed by European Parliament, warned the body's President Schulz -- a warning that must be taken seriously given parliament's veto over budgetary matters.

Still, EU leaders made clear on Thursday night just how little respect they have for the European Parliament. Recently, EU parliamentarians had rejected the nomination of Luxembourgian Yves Mersch to the European Central Bank's governing council, insisting that a woman be appointed instead. The 27 heads of state and government, however, ignored the appeal and installed Mersch anyway.


European Council: Major confusion over EU budget

22 November 2012
The Daily Telegraph, Público, El País & 4 others   
Ruben L. Oppenheimer

Meeting in Brussels for an extraordinary European Council summit, Europe’s leaders are to about to outline the EU’s budget for years to come in an atmosphere that has already been marked by threats of a veto from various countries. The European press examines the bargaining process and attempts to identify the probable winners and losers.

Negotiations are to be based on proposals put forward by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, which plan to trim € 75 billion from an initial figure of €1,048bn. Major contributing countries, especially the United Kingdom, want to see their contributions reduced, while smaller states are worried about cuts to the precious cohesion fund.

According to the Daily Telegraph’s leader –

    Mr Cameron (and, we trust, the leaders of other contributor countries whose taxpayers are similarly fed up with the institution’s shameless profligacy) is prepared to take a stand this time. Since the EU is negotiating a budget for the next seven years, this is the opportunity to put a brake on the Commission’s fiscal incontinence, an ambition that should be shared by those who worry that threats of a veto are jeopardising Britain’s long-term position in the EU. If anything, the arrogant refusal of Brussels to countenance any slimming down of its bloated bureaucracy is fomenting the very anti-Europeanism that the EU’s cheerleaders are anxious to avoid.

Portugal goes to today’s summit fearing that its structural funds and rural development grants will be slashed by €5.25 billion. Público in Lisbon writes –

    The approval of budgets has always been a difficult task, but this time national interests, wounds opened by disagreements over the euro crisis, not to mention differing perceptions about the EU’s future have made a deal a mission well-nigh impossible. If the European Commission had the political strength of yore, perhaps member states would accept a 5% increase to the financial package. […] But, given the current balance of power, [Commission’s president José Manuel] Durão Barroso’s proposal was immediately reduced by the [European] Council president [Herman Van Rompuy] and, even then, still meets with reservations from various countries, which threaten to veto the proposal […] the cacophony grows shriller and Europe is coming closer to institutional chaos.

In Spain, El País expresses similar concerns about the cuts, which have come at the worst possible moment for Madrid –

    If the [Van Rompuy] proposal is successful, Spain stands to lose € 20 billion. At a time when it is in the throes of a full-blown recession, it is about to become a net contributor to the EU for the first ever.

In Budapest, the conservative daily Magyar Nemzet rails against an adjustment it believes to be unfair –

    It is absolutely scandalous and unacceptable that the cuts will benefit richer member states while undermining poorer ones. And not surprisingly, given this context, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán can expect a special slap in the face: for mysterious reasons, Brussels wants to cut funding for Hungary by more than it does for any other member state.

“Europe, don’t flinch” headlines Gazeta Wyborcza. The Warsaw daily notes that Van Rompuy’s compromise budget is quite good for Poland, adding that saving the proposal from further big cuts would be quite a success.

    Van Rompuy’s offer is very ‘German’. Berlin’s experts speculate an additional €2-3 bn could be offered to France for its farmers, while €2-3 bn will be taken away from Poland. Then we’ll have a deal. [...] The problem is that rational calculations are overshadowed by increasingly strong eurosceptic emotions in crisis-stricken Europe.

Le Monde looks at the national interests invoked by European capitals to defend against some of the budgetary options under discussion in Brussels and concludes that “the selfishness of European states” is largely “bogus”. For the Parisian daily, the insistence on “getting money back” which recalls former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is part of a well rehearsed theatrical performance –

    This selfish credo is far removed from the reality of the euro [...] Europeans do not want to stand together, but the truth is they do. Like an old couple that is unable to get a divorce and forced to share the same house, they have resorted to counting their pocket money to show their defiance.

In a similar vein, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung argues that the situation is hardly dramatic. Notwithstanding any outstanding divergences, it writes that the “EU budget is now on the home stretch” –

    Everywhere you look, the signs are encouraging. Even the British, who were threatening to use their veto, have welcomed the latest compromise presented by Herman Van Rompuy. […] In the context of the economic crisis, the fear of the extensive damage to the EU that could result from unsuccessful talks is simply too great. […] The strategy adopted by the Commission is clear: it does not want to burden major contributors with excessive demands. […] That is why Van Rompuy has planned on member states committing € 973 billion, which is close to the 960 billion recommended by Germany.


Eurozone crisis: EU set back a generation

23 November 2012
Dziennik Gazeta Prawna Warsaw   

It will be decades before the most economically stricken countries recover their pre-crisis standard of living. And the gulf between with these states and those doing well is widening all the time, threatening the unity and stability of the EU.
Jędrzej Bielecki

Angela Merkel warned as early as in 2009: let’s not expect a miracle, because not even the boldest political decision will turn the European economy back on the path of growth. “At the time she was alone in saying this. Today it’s clear that she was right”, said Nicolas Veron, a senior fellow at Bruegel, the Brussels-based think tank.

In the fifth year of the crisis, the EU’s economic condition remains dismal, 17 out of the Union’s 27 member states being in recession. In the hardest-hit countries, such as Spain or Portugal, bringing living standards back to pre-crisis levels will take at least a generation. But the EU may not last as long. For the first time since its inception, the EU – unlike the eurozone – could disintegrate. The scenario is becoming more and more real with each successive month. It’s hard to say what is happening faster: the construction of an integrated eurozone bloc around Germany or the secession of the eurosceptic countries, notably Britain.

Nonexistent common market

Ms Merkel, it needs to be admitted, didn’t want the EU to evolve in such a way and tried to prevent it. In particular, she was interested in keeping within a new, more closely integrated Union the countries of Central Europe, including Poland. They are not only Germany’s economic base (German companies having relocated much of their manufacturing operations here), but also Berlin’s frequent, and precious, ally in the EU Council, where they support structural reforms and responsible budget policies.

But this didn’t work. Market pressure meant that the eurozone leaders finally started laying the foundations of separate eurozone institutions: banking supervision, fiscal policy governance, a separate budget. “This was assumed to be a minimum step for ensuring the eurozone’s efficient functioning, but one that won’t undermine the EU’s foundations. Today it’s clear such expectations were unrealistic”, admitted Cinzia Alcidi at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels.

Under particularly heavy pressure has been the pillar of integration – the single market. In countries trusted by investors, such as Germany or the Netherlands, the cost of credit is several times lower than in the peripheral economies. A level playing field, something that Brussels tried to ensure for the last five decades, is simply not there any more.

End of the European social model

This leads us to another of the failures of European integration: cohesion policy, aimed at ensuring equal living standards throughout the EU. Thanks to structural funds, but also to the EU’s open market, disparities in living standards were indeed minimalized. As recently as in 2009, Greece’s GDP per capita stood at 94 percent of the EU average, which was very close to what Germany’s (115 percent). Today the gap has widened: Greece’s GDP per capita has fallen to 75 percent and is similar to Poland’s, while Germany’s has risen to 125 percent of the EU average. Economists expect these disproportions to keep growing in the coming years.

“Such an evolution means that member states’ interests have increasingly diverged. Whereas the Romanians, Bulgarians, Greeks or Portuguese will want to retain at least the framework of the EU’s regional policy and will be pressing Brussels to concentrate funds there, the Germans and Swedes will focus on ecology or alternative energy sources. This will be a dialogue of the deaf,” said Mr Veron.

The crisis has also wiped out another of the great achievements of European integration, the object of the world’s envy for many decades: the European social model. The austerity measures already introduced or being planned not only in Spain or Greece but also in France or the UK mean a radical reduction of sick-leave benefits, employee rights, pensions or unemployment benefits. A generation of young people is emerging with no prospects of regular employment, nor the conditions to start a family.

Failure of common foreign policy

Even the pro-European Der Spiegel admits that the EU’s decision-making centre has now shifted from Brussels to Berlin. This happened by elimination, not even because of any particular pressure from the Germans. Among the EU’s six major economies, two dropped out because of economic woes: Italy and Spain. Britain effectively excluded itself from the debate. And Poland, not even an eurozone member, remains too small an economy to be a major player. For some time it seemed that Europe would be driven by the Franco-German duo, the famed “Merkozy”. But at least since Francois Hollande’s election as president it has been clear that France has such economic problems that it is hardly a match for Germany in the European game. This left only Berlin.

Focused on its own problems, Europe has been too weak to play an active role internationally. This is yet another bleak prophecy that is coming true in front of our very eyes: collapse of common foreign policy. Ukraine’s creeping authoritarianism, the tragedy of Syria or China’s continued human rights abuses are but some examples of the EU’s newfound powerlessness.

The subject of enlargement has disappeared from the agenda; membership remains a viable prospect only for the Balkan countries. A more ambitious membership offer, particularly for the post-Soviet republics and Turkey, is no longer seriously discussed.

In the fifth year of the crisis, united Europe has survived so far. But the losses are colossal. In some respects, the EU is back on the integration path to where it was thirty or forty years ago. And even the optimists are hoping for things not to get worse...


November 23, 2012

Veto Threats Hinder E.U. Budget


BRUSSELS — With a traditional welcome banquet reduced to a menu of cold dishes, European leaders gathered on Thursday to argue over cuts to a trillion-euro budget for the European Union, the world’s biggest economic unit in terms of total production but one increasingly troubled by tensions between 27 widely different member states.

Amid bitter arguments over where cuts should fall, Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, summed up the sour mood on his arrival on Thursday at the European Council, the venue for the summit meeting, with a burst of rhetoric redolent of the Wild West, rather than the gentle circumlocutions of European summitry.

“My idea is that you have to keep your loaded gun in your pocket,” Mr. Rutte said, referring to veto power that allows each country to block a budget deal. As many as nearly a third of the Union’s membership have hinted at the threat of a veto.

Mr. Rutte also suggested delaying any final decision until next year rather than stretching the talks over the weekend and risking a failure to reach agreement. It was a suggestion also made by Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel.

Much of the attention before the special budget summit meeting in Brussels has focused on the position of David Cameron, the British prime minister, who was among the first to threaten to use his veto. Britain, where hostility towards the European Union has grown sharply, is pushing for deeper cuts than most other countries.

The negotiations over the budget, or the Multiannual Financial Framework, is held every seven years and, focused on hard cash, tends to push national interests to the fore and swamp feel-good talk of European peace and unity,

Diplomats recall with dark humor how Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, has noted that the last round of negotiations in 2005 were even tougher than his experience of trying to broker peace in Northern Ireland.

The budget, which amounts to about €130 billion, or $180 billion, per year, goes mostly to subsidize farmers and support regional projects in poorer member states.

But differences in economic performance between individual member states are huge and this means at the budget talks they have starkly divergent agendas. In large measure this is because what began as an economic bloc comprising six similarly developed, market economies in Western Europe is now a 27-member body that includes 10 much poorer East and Central European nations formerly part of the socialist bloc.

As well as divisions between east and west, there is also a big gulf between northern countries, especially Germany, and so-called Club Med states like Greece, which, burdened with huge debts, is struggling to stay afloat.

Pushing hardest for cuts is Britain, which has made austerity a cornerstone of its own domestic policy and insists that the Union make similar sacrifices.

“I’m not happy at all,” said Mr. Cameron in Brussels on Thursday, referring to a budget plan put forward last week by Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, which represents E.U. leaders. A British official said later that London wanted to wring “tens of billions” of euros in cuts from Mr. Van Rompuy’s proposal.

Britain’s tough stand is shaped by memories of Margaret Thatcher, who in 1984 badgered European leaders into granting Britain the so-called rebate — worth €3.6 billion in 2011 — on its annual contributions. Mrs. Thatcher, suspicious of the European project and what she viewed as its spendthrift, centralizing ways, is revered by many in Mr. Cameron’s Conservative Party as a model of how to deal with the European Union.

Writing this week in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, Boris Johnson, elected mayor of London and possible contender for the future leadership of Mr. Cameron’s party, taunted the prime minister for lacking Thatcher-like backbone. It is time, said Johnson, “to whirl his handbag round his head and bring it crashing to the table with the words no, non, nein, neen, nee, ne, ei and ochi, until they get the message.”

Mr. Cameron also has to strike a deal that helps satisfy calls at home for deep cuts without painting himself into a corner in Europe before another summit in December that will focus on banking reforms, an issue of vital importance to the British financial industry. A veto by Mr. Cameron could likely lead other governments to proceed with those reforms without considering a British demand for leeway in limiting the impact of banking regulation decisions it opposes.

Leaders spent much of the first day of the summit being led to a plain room with tables draped in white cloths for face-to-face meetings with Mr. Van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission.

Mr. Van Rompuy called the short negotiating sessions to hammer out a new proposal before the leaders all sit down to the dinner of cold dishes.

Officials explained that Mr. Van Rompuy would hold the welcome dinner on a different floor than usual to allow advisers to come and go, making it necessary to serve a more modest menu.

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« Reply #3145 on: Nov 23, 2012, 07:55 AM »

11/23/2012 01:00 PM

Opposition Opposed: German-Swiss Tax Evasion Deal Blocked in Berlin

Germany's center-left opposition torpedoed a long-awaited tax treaty with Switzerland on Friday, saying it didn't go far enough in solving the problem of tax evasion. A compromise may still be found, but the vote leaves the deal teetering on the brink of failure.

It was supposed to end decades of disagreement between Switzerland and Germany over tax evasion, but on Friday lawmakers in Berlin put a stop to it. The country's upper legislative chamber, the Bundesrat, voted against implementing a long-awaited tax treaty that parliament had already approved.

The conflict between the two neighboring countries on the issue now threatens to continue after members of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party used their majority to block the measure in the Bundesrat, which represents the interests of Germany's 16 states. The issue must now be addressed by the Mediation Committee between the upper and lower parliamentary chambers. But any potential agreement would then have to be re-approved by Switzerland.

The tax treaty, which would have retroactively taxed the unclaimed money held by German citizens in Swiss bank accounts, was expected to bring in about €10 billion ($12.9 billion) in tax revenues. Under the agreement, money stashed in Switzerland over the last 10 years would be taxed at a rate of between 21 and 41 percent, and the tax evaders would remain anonymous. Beginning in 2013, they would then be taxed at normal German rates. But the SPD and Greens said the agreement didn't go far enough.

They voted against the measure despite warnings from Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The party's General Secretary Hermann Gröhe told daily Neue Westfälische ahead of the vote that their "total refusal" on the issue is "irresponsible" and will cost the country's states billions.

A 'Non-Negotiable' Matter

Earlier in the week during budgetary debates in parliament Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble also referenced the states' empty coffers, saying it would be unacceptable if the Bundesrat failed to approve the measure. As claims on back taxes become invalid due to the statute of limitations, billions are being lost, he said. SPIEGEL has learned that the finance minister also offered the states some €3 billion in additional funding if they approved the treaty.

That prompted Peter Friedrich, an SPD member of the Bundesrat from Baden-Württemberg, to accuse Schäuble of trying to buy the state's votes. "Our substantial criticisms haven't been addressed. Instead there is an attempt to whitewash mistakes with money." he told news agency DAPD. "For us, tax fairness and ethics are non-negotiable."

In an interview with radio station Deutschlandfunk, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia's Finance Minister Norbert Walter-Borjans said that Germany must "make clear where the limit is when one side earns its money from another's losses," he said. The state finance minister also criticized Schäuble's calculation that the treaty would bring in billions in new tax revenues, calling it a "lively fantasy."

Despite the Bundesrat's rejection of the treaty, Switzerland, where the treaty has already surmounted parliamentary hurdles, signaled that it would not give up on coming to an agreement on the issue. The Swiss Banking Association also expressed its regret over the Bundesrat decision.


November 22, 2012

And on Your Left, Behind Those Walls, Lobbyists Are at Work


BERLIN — The sold-out walking tour began along the Spree River here, within sight of the Reichstag’s glass dome. But the group would not visit the historic Parliament building, Checkpoint Charlie or the Brandenburg Gate. About 30 people assembled instead to spend a gray Saturday afternoon in November standing outside office buildings in a cold drizzle.

They were there to follow Timo Lange, 30, dressed all in black, with a hint of stubble on his chin, to learn how influence peddlers ply their trade in the German capital. Mr. Lange is a campaigner for the nonprofit group LobbyControl, which began giving the tours in 2009, to unexpected success for such a seemingly wonky subject.

This year the group has given 144 tours for about 3,400 participants, who pay around $13 (half price for students). The tour’s success reflects an electorate that, by American standards, has a low tolerance for money in politics.

“The problem is the linkage between economic power and political power,” said Daniela Haug, 49, a commercial producer and photographer who joined several friends for the crash course on how interest groups, businesses and trade associations try to affect policy. “You see things differently, and you can make decisions better yourself, when you experience it firsthand.”

In front of the unassuming dark brick building that is the home to offices of the German Brewers Federation, Mr. Lange explained how that group hosted parties and flattered politicians. He held up a photograph of a conservative Bavarian politician, Ilse Aigner, the group’s “ambassador of German beer” for 2009, as well as one of a prominent Social Democrat, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was given the same designation in 2008.

“Him?” an older woman asked with more than a hint of surprise, as she grasped the tour’s first lesson: lobbying is not a game for any single party or for half of the political spectrum. Another example Mr. Lange offered: the leader of the cigarette lobby in Germany was, until last month, a former Green Party member of Parliament who does not smoke.

Mr. Lange regaled the tour group with war stories. After a series of high-profile cases of alcohol poisoning among teenagers, the brewers teamed up with broadcasters and soccer teams to derail a drive for restrictions on the sale and advertising of beer. At the next stop, he gestured at a plaque for the German Chemical Industry Association as he detailed how the chemical industry worked overtime to soften new European regulations on its products.

And then there was the Initiative for a New Social Market Economy, which paid for a soap opera to use scripts portraying unpopular labor market changes more favorably, Mr. Lange said. That backfired when the move became public.

“We are very thin-skinned when it comes to any form of propaganda,” Claas Lorenz, 25, a student on the tour, said in a succinct reference to Germany’s Nazi history. “We had very bad experiences with it in our past.”

Andrea Römmele, a professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, said: “Money in campaigns in the United States is freedom of speech; it’s seen as a way of expressing oneself. In Germany, giving money in politics is always seen as trying to buy access.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leading political challenger, former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück, suffered a significant setback last month when it was revealed that he had made about $1.6 million from speaking fees in three years.

German attitudes toward politics and money help explain the enduring appeal of Ms. Merkel, who still lives in the apartment she got before she became chancellor, and who hikes on vacation. “Merkel is so beloved for her sober, unglamorous style of governing,” said Frank Decker, a professor of political science at the University of Bonn. “With her, you would never imagine that she might use politics to become rich.”

Germany is 10 months away from the parliamentary election that will determine whether Ms. Merkel wins a third term and her party, the Christian Democratic Union, maintains its grip on the Bundestag. Yet nothing awaits Germans like the multibillion-dollar orgy of political fund-raising and the mind-numbing barrage of television advertisements that tormented swing-state voters in the United States.

The Christian Democrats spent a combined total of just $112 million during the 2009 election year, which included the races for all 598 seats in the federal Parliament and elections for six state Parliaments, as well as regional and municipal votes.

German voters will have a few weeks of debates and campaign rallies. Lampposts will carry demure and even rather old-fashioned posters with little more than the names and faces of local politicians and their party affiliations. Free television advertisements will run on publicly financed stations.

“You could pay for advertising on other networks, and I think it’s occasionally done,” said Karl-Heinz Nassmacher, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Oldenburg, “but this is a Pandora’s box, and the parties refrain from opening it. So TV advertising is basically free of charge.”

It is not that the laws are stricter here than in the United States; in many cases, they are looser. Businesses can give unlimited contributions directly to political parties, as can private individuals. Donations below 10,000 euros, or about $13,000, are not reported.

The difference is largely cultural. Germans dislike costly campaigns and rampant fund-raising, and the parties have seen what happens to those too cozy with donors.

The pro-business Free Democrats had their greatest postwar showing in 2009, winning 14.6 percent of the vote in federal elections and becoming the junior partner in a coalition government. The party pushed for a reduction in the sales tax for hotels, but when news emerged that the Free Democrats had received about $1.4 million in contributions connected to a hotel chain, their popularity plunged. The party failed to reach even the 5 percent threshold for representation in several state Parliaments.

“Germans believe more strongly in social justice and not just servicing your clientele,” said André Ringel, 42, a graphic designer on the tour.

Mr. Lange taught tourgoers translations of English expressions like “door opener” (“türöffner”), for the connected former politicians who can easily arrange meetings. Some terms were not translated, like “AstroTurf,” for a fake grass-roots movement or campaign. “Lobbyist” works in both languages.

The rain fell harder, and umbrellas came out, but participants stuck it out. For those wishing to make the rounds in the coming off-season, LobbyControl sells a guidebook called “LobbyPlanet Berlin, the Travel Guide Through the Lobby Jungle,” which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Lonely Planet guides. The group, which has offices in Berlin and Cologne, produced a second edition for touring Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union.

The tour stopped in front of Café Einstein, a famous meeting place for politicians that Mr. Lange said was “too open” for effective lobbying. “You have journalists at the neighboring table,” he said.

Instead, he led the group down the avenue and through a passageway to a red carpet leading to an elevator door marked with the emblem of the China Club, a members-only establishment where politicians can meet with lobbyists without worrying about who might be seated at the next table.

“There’s an underground garage entrance if you don’t want to be seen at all,” Mr. Lange said.

Chris Cottrell contributed reporting.
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« Reply #3146 on: Nov 23, 2012, 07:59 AM »

Japan’s secret economic weapon: women

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 23, 2012 7:11 EST

In next month’s general election, politicians — nearly all of them men — will make promises on what they will do to fix Japan’s economic morass. Very few of them will even mention women.

The country’s problems are well known: more older people are living longer as the workforce that supports them gets smaller. The result is rising welfare costs and a shrinking tax base.

An influx of immigrants would boost the number of workers, but Japan has little appetite for migration on a European scale.

Observers say the answer lies within: get more of the nation’s women to work.

Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, said last month that women could rescue Japan’s chronically underperforming economy if more of them had jobs.

A Goldman Sachs report in 2010 estimated that Japan’s GDP could jump by a staggering 15 percent if female participation (currently 60 percent) in the workforce was to match that of men (80 percent).

The report says seven out of 10 women leave the workforce after their first child. And only 65 percent of women with a college-level education work.

Women across the board make only 60 percent of what men make, according to labour ministry data, in part due to a larger number of part-time workers.

Although for some women, staying at home is a positive choice they have made, commentators say for others it is a lack of opportunities.

Japan is ranked an embarrassing 101st out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual Global Gender Gap Report, down three places from last year. Near neighbour China is at 69th.

“The gender issue is really ignored in Japan,” said Kaori Sasaki, president and CEO of consulting firm ewoman.

“Japan was strong for five, six decades after World War II because a certain group of men occupied top positions in the fields of economy, media and politics,” she said.

“This boys’ network shared the same values and made decisions unopposed.”

But its failure to adapt to the challenges of the last 20 years means Japan has stood still.

Japanese government data shows women account for a mere 1.2 percent of executives at 3,600 listed companies.

Sasaki said Japanese men need to realise the effort to close the gender gap is no longer a rights issue.

“This is a management and growth strategy,” she said adding scandal-hit companies — including Olympus, which hid $1.7 billion of losses and Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant — would have been better at dealing with their disasters if they had a more diverse senior management.

“When you try to manage crisis, create products or design services, diversity really counts,” she said.

Saadia Zahidi, the WEF’s head of gender parity and human capital agreed.

“How is the innovation going to happen if you have the same people in exactly the same situation as in the past? So where are the new ideas going to come from?” she said at the launch of a special taskforce in Tokyo Thursday.

Masahiro Yamada, professor of family sociology at Tokyo’s Chuo University, says it’s not just a case of Japan needing women if it is going to do things better.

Rather he says, it needs women to become workers — and realise the financial gain that this entails — just to survive.

“Unless more women work and get their own incomes, they cannot start a family,” Yamada said.

“Without women joining the workforce, the government’s tax revenue won’t pick up” because the population will continue to shrink, he said.

A lack of childcare makes returning to work difficult for many women; nursery places are at a premium and in any case only usually available during the day.

For some women, the problem is the incompatibility of family life and Japan’s famously long hours, where after-work socialising is almost compulsory.

There are pockets of change, says Hodaka Yamaguchi, 38, whose Tokyo-based IT employer is more sympathetic than many to the needs of its female workforce.

Yamaguchi gave birth to a baby girl in 2009 and came back to a promotion after a 15-month maternity leave. She said her productivity has not fallen despite the fact she is now working six-hour days.

“In this company, working women are well protected,” she said.

Her company allows parents of either sex to take a total of up to six years parental leave — well beyond the 18 months of maternity leave allowed by law.

Although anything above the statutory period is unpaid, the employee’s job is guaranteed.

Ewoman’s Sasaki agrees that things are better than they were, but problems still remain.

“Many young working women say they no longer feel the glass ceiling,” she said. “But I tell them it’s still there. It just moved up.”
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« Reply #3147 on: Nov 23, 2012, 08:07 AM »

11/22/2012 03:30 PM

Teenage Angst: Berlin's Turn of the Century Growing Pains

By Eva-Maria Schnurr

Prior to 1870, visitors to Berlin found themselves confronted with little more than a swampy backwater. As the turn of the century approached, however, the city underwent vast and rapid change, becoming one of Europe's most modern metropolises by 1914. But along with industry and infrastructure, the changes also brought poverty and pestilence.

Editor's Note: Berlin is currently celebrating its 775th anniversary. In the coming days, SPIEGEL ONLINE International will be publishing a series of stories on the history of the German capital city. This is the second part of the series. The first can be read here.

The air smells of dust and the ground is riddled with construction pits. Here a house is being torn down, there the skeleton of a new one stands nearly twice as high as the old building rows. Nearby, workers are leveling the sand for a new street.

The city is so full of construction sites and such a vast array of new buildings are coming into being, that anyone returning to the city after an absence of a couple months, or visiting after having consulted an outdated guidebook, is bound to feel out of place.

"I feel lost in Berlin. It has no resemblance to the city I had supposed it was. There was once a Berlin which I would have known, from descriptions in books … a dingy city in a marsh, with rough streets, muddy and lantern-lighted, dividing straight rows of ugly houses all alike, compacted into blocks as square and plain and uniform and monotonous and serious as so many dry-goods boxes. But that Berlin has disappeared … It is a new city; the newest I have ever seen … The main mass of the city looks as if it had been built last week," American author Mark Twain wrote in the Chicago Daily Tribune after spending half a year in Berlin, starting in October 1891.

If a city can be seen as a living organism, then the years between 1870 and 1914 were Berlin's adolescence, a time when the sleepy capital of the Kingdom of Prussia became a booming metropolis, a place both contradictory and disorderly, always shifting between extremes, sometimes sparkling and sometimes abject, sometimes ruled by military discipline and sometimes by bohemian excesses, but always willing to experiment, forging ahead impatiently toward the future.

The Chicago of Europe

Amazed by Berlin, Mark Twain called it "the Chicago of Europe," after the city considered at the time to be the most modern in the world.

Berlin is the most American city in Germany, many proud Berliners said in praise of their home. "A new Berlin emerged, with modern facilities, asphalt paving, an enormous network of tram lines and with all the comforts modern technology could produce," reflected author Edmund Edel, chronicler of Berlin's bohemian scene, looking back in 1908.

Berlin is the most American city in Europe, others complained with distaste, wrinkling their noses at this upstart culture, the big city materialism and "mishmash" of architecture and culture.

The city came to represent both promise and purgatory. The only thing everyone could agree on, it seemed, was a distinct lack of enthusiasm when Berlin became capital of the German Empire in 1871.

Even Chancellor Otto von Bismarck initially considered establishing the seat of his empire in the city of Kassel instead. He found the Berliners too liberal, too subversive and too prone to socialist intrigues, and the liberal press in particular bothered him.

Yet the inhabitants themselves were largely unconcerned by their city's new role. "It's nothing at all… the king has become an emperor," noted Marie von Olfers, who ran a literary salon in Berlin.

Breathtaking Pace

This elevation to imperial capital was only one final push along with many forces driving Berlin's transformation. In the years before and after the founding of the empire, many different processes of change combined to create "the greatest shake-up that this city, which was successively the capital of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Empire, went through at any point in its history," says historian Michael Erbe.

Berlin caught up to other European metropolises at a breathtaking pace. The railroad provided the first catalyst, transforming Berlin in the 1840s into one of central Europe's most important rail hubs. Goods and commodities could now be transported long distances, an important development for mechanical engineering and for the trade in metals and textiles, as well as for the electrical industry, which established itself here in the city on the Spree River drawing many job-seekers to Berlin.

Industry was the true founder of the city, sociologist Werner Sombart argued around 1900. By 1864, over half the city's inhabitants were not native Berliners. These new residents came primarily from Brandenburg -- the region surrounding Berlin -- and Silesia, in what is today the Czech Republic and Poland. The economic boom after 1871, sparked by the receipt of five billion francs in reparations from wartime enemy France, only increased Berlin's draw, providing fertile ground for the establishment of banks, insurance companies and trade and industrial enterprises -- 250 new businesses registered in the year 1872 alone.

The government kept pace, putting its stamp on the city with awe-inspiring halls of justice, schools and palatial post offices, while the newly minted kaisers publicly displayed their power and their tastes with museums, grand boulevards and equestrian statues.

A Constant Coming and Going

The first place in which the new Berlin began to unfold was in the area around the city palace on the boulevard Unter den Linden. Once people had lived in the upper stories of these buildings, while stores and workshops at street level produced and sold day-to-day items, but now a modern city developed here, a place where people worked, governed and went out, but hardly anyone lived.

During the day, nobles, townspeople and the simply curious strolled along Friedrichstrasse, where they stopped to admire the city's first electrical interior lighting at Café Bauer, installed in 1884, indulged in a cool pale ale at the Pschorr Brewery's beer palace or took in an operetta at the Apollo Theater.

"The palaces receive their officers and civil servants; there is a constant coming and going: The crowd swarms out. The stock exchange employees drive to work with their own wagons or by cab; errand boys with "express" written on their red caps positions themselves on the most advantageous corners. Students stroll through the university grounds, savoring the atmosphere of the academic quarter before going in. A hearse on its low wheels heads home … and now the knitting old lady takes up position in front of the opera, calling out the program and the lyrics of the opera that will play tonight … Finally, the guards draw up. The Kaiser approaches the window to greet them. Berliners gaping and foreigners stretching their necks from their cabs all raise their hats," wrote young Frenchman Jules Laforgue, who served as a French reader for the empress, describing a morning in front of the Kaiser's palace in 1887.

In 1870, it was still possible to cross the city from one end to another in an hour by foot. Beyond the city's borders, woods and fields testified to the agrarian nature of the region. In 1892, German writer Theodor Fontane described the area around a lake called Halensee, now in urban western Berlin, as a "desert panorama, crisscrossed with asparagus beds and railroad embankments."

Not long after, though, the newly constructed avenue Kurfürstendamm transformed the area into the downtown center of the western part of the city. Stately apartments with 15 or more rooms lined this grand boulevard, where Wilhelm II had the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church erected in 1895 in memory of his grandfather Wilhelm I. Writers, artists and cabaret performers met here at the Café des Westens, which drew everyone from composer Richard Strauss to poets Christian Morgenstern and Else Lasker-Schüler.

"A circle of young men sits up front…Bleary-eyed, they have city dwellers' faces. Extremely elegant. Something restless, tough, strained in their gaze. They talk of Nietzsche, of the most recent horse races, of the theater premieres," Berlin author and cultural researcher Hans Ostwald described one coffeehouse scene.

Major industrial companies such as Siemens & Halske, AEG and Borsig moved from the city's center toward its outskirts, seeking space for their enormous factories. The city encroached onto the surrounding countryside, its boundaries with neighboring cities such as Charlottenburg, Spandau, Schöneberg and Lichtenberg becoming indistinct, although those communities remained officially separate until 1920.

From Pestilent to Pristine

Population growth was similarly dramatic in the city itself, which until 1920 had its boundary to the north at the edges of Wedding and present-day Prenzlauer Berg, to the south in what is today Kreuzberg, to the west in what is now Tiergarten to the east in present-day Friedrichshain. Berlin's population in 1849 was only around 412,000, but by 1880 it had passed the 1 million mark. By 1914, 1.84 million people lived in the city, which had become Europe's most densely populated.

Berlin's old baroque buildings were massively overcrowded even in the 1860s, and sanitary conditions were catastrophic. With few toilets, people relieved themselves in public if necessary and disposed of wastewater and excrement in the street gutters, where thick, stinking filth made crossing any road an adventure.

British health expert Edwin Chadwick called Berlin the "most foul-smelling, dirtiest and most pestilent" capital in the civilized world in 1872, declaring that its citizens could be "recognized by the smell of their clothes."

Relief came in the form of an underground sewage system, a "radial system" that used pressure pipes and pumping stations to direct wastewater to sewage irrigation fields at the city's outskirts. The before and after effect was astonishing: By 1900, Berlin was considered the cleanest large city in Europe.

This was one of the few successes achieved by Berlin's city planners. Administrative responsibilities here were fragmented. Although Berlin had its own magistrate and thus a certain degree of administrative autonomy, important aspects such as public health, police and the supervision of construction still fell to Prussian authorities, with the result that spats arose frequently over these different groups' responsibilities, and for the most part the metropolis was allowed to expand haphazardly, driven by speculators' greed.

Ruler-straight streets sprang up, always at 90-degree angles, and along them kilometers of tenement houses with no front yards. The owners of these square-shaped lots squeezed in as many apartments as they could behind grand, stucco-decorated facades, nesting as many as seven buildings behind one another and leaving inner courtyards of just precisely the mandatory 28 square meters (300 square feet) necessary to use a fire extinguisher.

The Downsides of Progress

The wealthy lived in the front buildings that faced onto the streets, while the rest of the population squeezed together in the rear buildings, as well as the buildings' damp cellars and drafty attics. To help make the rent, many families took in boarders as well. Photos from the early years of the 20th century show tiny rooms chock full of beds, often with six people or even more living in a single room, with laundry drying on lines and clothes stacked in the corners. One missionary in the city reported in 1871 of a building in which 250 families lived, with 36 families along a single corridor.

Berliners differentiated clearly between the upscale parts of the city -- those who could afford to do so built villas in Grunewald or Lichterfelde, or took up quarters in spacious apartments in Tiergarten or Charlottenburg -- and working class neighborhoods such as Luisenstadt (now Kreuzberg) and Wedding were home to laborers, whose wives also worked from home, sewing clothing for the textile industry. In 1905, while middle-class Tiergarten had an infant mortality rate of 5.2 percent, 42 percent of newborns died in proletarian Wedding.

These miserable living conditions, the talk of the entire town, were the downside of Berlin's evolution into a big city, and stood in stark contrast to the progress achieved by constant technological advancements. The rapid pace of development meant that the well-off and newly rich quickly left the proletarian portion of the population far behind.

New Modes of Communication and Travel
By 1850, telegraph lines connected the city with Frankfurt, Cologne, Hamburg, Breslau (today Wrocaw in Poland) and Verviers, Belgium, meaning that news and information arrived quickly. Mail carriers sorted letters even as they were on their way to deliver them to the recipients. By 1881, the first brave souls had installed a telephone. The first round of subscribers to the service numbered just 94, but not 10 years later, Berlin possessed 15,000 telephones.

This increasing tempo in both communication and travel left people feeling ever more hectic and nervous, but at the same time it made for an exciting time of unparalleled inventiveness. Faster and faster modes of transportation crisscrossed the city, and those who could afford to tried out each one as soon as they could: first the horse-drawn omnibus, then horse and steam-powered trolleys and finally the world's first electric trolley, inaugurated by Werner von Siemens in Gross-Lichterfelde, at the time still a separate town from Berlin, in 1881.

Soon these vehicles were creaking their way through the city streets, powered by overhead lines, as well as battery power in some of the fancier areas of town. The emperor banned streetcars from the grand boulevard Unter den Linden, but by 1914, 130 electric trolley lines traversed the city, charging a fare of 10 pfennig.

Like blood pulsing through an artery, Europe's first viaduct rail line linked the city from end to end, connecting Charlottenburg in the west to Schlesischer Bahnhof (today Ostbahnhof) in the east. "A tremendous edifice has arisen before us; such an assembly of bricks as has perhaps not been seen since the walls of Babylon and the aqueducts of Rome," enthused the Nationalzeitung, established by Bernhard Wolff, a Jewish Berliner and son of a banker.

The very first Sunday after its opening, the new trains transported 67,000 passengers. Tradesmen, bars and restaurants took up quarters in the archways beneath the elevated tracks. "People in Berlin love transportation," declared the "City Documents," a series of 50 publications released by journalist and researcher Hans Ostwald in 1905.

The Emerging Middle Class

The height of modernity, meanwhile, came in the form of a combined elevated and underground train line that ran between Stralauer Tor and Potsdamer Platz starting in 1902, although this particular experience was at first enjoyed by only a small segment of the population. The elegant stations and train cars fitted out with red leather and mahogany, and especially the steep price, made this an exclusive form of transportation used mainly by salesmen, businesspeople and civil servants.

This bourgeois segment of society was a relatively new phenomenon in the city on the Spree. Its members worked in the powerful institutions of the banking quarter between Französische Strasse, Mauerstrasse and Behrenstrasse, in the trading and insurance firms on Leipziger Strasse, served as professors at the state universities and research institutes or earned their living as doctors at new hospitals such as the Charité. Most numerous, though, were those employed by the government administration here in the formerly Prussian, now German, capital, which required more and more civil servants to run it.

Half of Berlin's residents came from the working class, while the other half consisted of the middle class and nobility -- and the middle class was growing powerful. The city's industrial boom had brought this segment of society money and social standing, and now its members put their all into distancing themselves -- through education and a picture-perfect family life of velvet curtains and plush sofas -- from the proletarian lower classes and the decadent nobility.

"All the gentlemen in whose company you find yourself are cultured, polite, well-bred people, albeit entirely unfamiliar with the smaller customs of great society, all occupied, each having his own well-ordered work, with presenting a healthy opinion on the literary and scientific efforts of the time. They have not the polish, the superficial gloss of the high society in the palace on Unter den Linden; they are no experts at tying ties and their garments date from the last years of the empire: Yet at the same time they are strangers to the petty idle chatter that blossoms in the environs of the Kaiser. They have a simple temperament and shy manners; yet their intellectual faculties are highly developed and in proper equilibrium; it is a pleasure to converse with them, and never without its benefits," wrote an anonymous French author around 1883, describing an evening at a middle-class home, at which the daughter of the family exhibited her talents on the piano for the assembled guests, after a dinner of roast venison, salad and fruit.

Pleasure, Not Politics

These Berliners got their information from liberal Berlin newspapers such as the Vossische Zeitung, the Nationalzeitung, the Berliner Börsen-Courier, the government-aligned Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung and, starting in 1878, the Berliner Zeitung (today's B. Z.). The circulation and coverage of all these newspapers increased steadily. Publishers such as Leopold Ullstein, August Scherl and Rudolf Mosse built themselves grand headquarters around Kochstrasse and often addressed political issues in their papers, many of which came in both a morning and an evening edition. They were subject to sometimes blatant political influences, especially from Chancellor Bismarck, who at times financed the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung from his own secret funds.

Still, most of the new middle class remained largely apolitical. "When it comes to politics, these people are fully as incapable of rendering an opinion and just as indifferent as those in high society," the anonymous French observer found.

Certainly Berlin's importance as a capital city could hardly be overlooked. Government buildings sprang up around Wilhelmstrasse, while the city's government quarter, including the Reichstag, was completed in 1894 after many delays. Yet many in the middle class had only a very limited interest in the decisions reached there, in part because the freely elected parliament hardly had the power to make real decisions. The arrangement of the city's electoral districts and the existence of a majority voting system also combined with the result that voters had comparatively little influence on parliament members' mandates.

Far more important than politics, and certainly more exciting, were entertainment and consumption. Berliners went to the theater, opera and vaudeville shows. They marveled at the first movies with their rattling film reels and went out to cafés with dancing, to card-playing clubs and to amusement parks.

These pleasure-seekers could find the programs for such events on advertising pillars known in German as "Litfasssäulen" after printer Ernst Litfass, who erected these purpose-built columns around the city. "At regular intervals all through the city are tidy round columns, around 18 feet (5.5 meters) high and as big around as a large barrel, with small black and white theater programs and other notices posted on them. You can almost always find a group of people gathered around these columns, reading the notices," noted Mark Twain.

New department stores such as Wertheim, Tietz, Jandorf and later KaDeWe on Kurfürstendamm likewise used advertisements to draw attention. These stores presented a previously unheard of range of enticing products under a single roof: dashing men's fashions, racy lingerie, thick carpets, sumptuous fabrics and furniture. The palace of consumption built on Leipziger Strasse in 1897 by businessman Georg Wertheim from Stralsund was even favored with a 1910 visit from Kaiser Wilhelm II and his wife. "Athens on the Spree is dead, Chicago on the Spree has arrived," opined Walther Rathenau, son of the founder of AEG and himself later a liberal politician.

"Damned Always to Become And Never to Be"

Still, not everyone shared this optimistic view of progress. There were some who felt the city had lost its values, and who could no longer find their way amid the new metropolis' speed and restlessness. "The older gentlemen and others who valued comfort above all else moaned and complained. They lost one lovely little old house after another. They watched as entire neighborhoods, in which the Berlin of past centuries had moldered, were taken away from them, torn down and replaced with newfangled buildings," Edmund Edel scoffed in the "City Documents" series.

The old elite watched resentfully as these up-and-comers who were unconcerned with tradition, and many of whom were Jewish, gained standing in Berlin society, while at the same time the new middle class feared losing its own social status. Strains of anti-Semitism and anti-modernism crept into society.

Then there were those who could do no more than cast longing looks at the city's new shop window displays or dream of its opera premieres: the homeless, the neglected working children, the prostitutes -- people who had lost their footing with the rapid pace of development.

Berlin was a city under high tension. The economic boom had ignited an explosion and now all the city's individual parts were pulling in many directions, straining separately toward the future and held together only tenuously by the idea of a German capital.

The city didn't manage to find calm. Art critic, journalist and admirer of Impressionism Karl Scheffler summed up the situation in 1910, in a sentence that has been quoted often ever since. Berlin, he wrote, was "damned always to become and never to be."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein


11/21/2012 03:48 PM

The Late Bloomer: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Germany's Capital

By Michael Sontheimer

It wasn't until 1871, with the establishment of the German Reich, that Berlin finally took its place among other European capitals. Its wild race to catch up was cut short by World War II and then hindered by division. Now, more than a century later, Berlin is still trying to find itself.

Editor's Note: Berlin is currently celebrating its 775th anniversary. In the coming days, SPIEGEL ONLINE International will be publishing a series of stories on the history of the German capital city.

One might be tempted to draw comparisons, but it can also become an obsession. Still, that's exactly what Berliners tend to do, at least when it comes to their city.

Whenever it happens, Berlin suddenly isn't good enough for them, and they constantly feel compelled to draw comparisons -- not with just any old cities, but with the crème de la crème. "Berlin, the German metropolis, can once again measure up to the likes of London, Paris and New York," the city's then-mayor said shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The die-hard residents of the German capital don't like to aim any lower than that. They see Berlin as the sassy little sister of London, Paris and New York, a city that successfully contended for a spot in the exclusive family of cosmopolitan cities in the 1920s.

Berlin went into decline during the Nazi era and after it was divided into a free west and communist east. But Berliners like to think that, since Germany's reunification in 1990, the city has been on a path to rejoining the club of the world's great cities.

The obsession with comparisons was already widespread in Berlin in the 1860s. In a satirical play called "Haussegen oder Berlin wird Weltstadt" ("Domestic Bliss, or Berlin Becomes a Cosmopolitan City"), a servant says with a sneer: "Yet another building has collapsed, three people have disappeared without a trace and the bodies of six newborn babies have been found on the Waisenbrücke (Orphans' Bridge). London and Paris can no longer compete with us."

Picture of Misery

But the notion that Berlin's development and rise to prominence could be compared with the histories of London and Paris is just plain wrong. Indeed, all one has to do is look back in time -- to 1648, for example, when the Protestants and the Catholics finally made peace after 30 years of war.

At the time, Old Berlin and its then sister town, Cölln, were pictures of misery. Its outer edges lay in ashes, the citizens of the small twin cities on the Spree River were dirt-poor after being pillaged time and again, and about a third of the structures stood empty. The plague had struck Berlin six times. By the end of the Thirty Years' War, the population of the twin cities, later combined into Berlin, was only about 6,000 people.

London had at least 60 times as many people at the time, and Paris was even bigger, with a population of some 450,000. King Louis XIV had boulevards built and street lanterns installed.

Since around 1200, young men thirsty for knowledge had been flocking to Paris to study at its university. By the mid-17th century, Berlin only had a prestigious secondary school called the Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster, and its first university didn't open its doors until 1810.

Indeed, Berlin was a late bloomer, lagging far behind its European counterparts. As then-Bavarian Minister of Culture Alois Hundhammer said in 1948: "Bavaria was already an organized country with written laws when wild boars were still rubbing their backsides against pine trees in the place where Berlin was eventually built."

From Industrial Powerhouse to Divided Wasteland

Berlin was late to appear on the stage of history, but as a result its debut was all the more forceful. As if its long-pent-up energy suddenly had to be released, the city developed its trademark "Berliner Tempo." At the same time, this discharging of energy always went hand in hand with a strong and destructive element.

German historian Bernd Sösemann writes that the "rise of the little late-comer" began in 1871 with the establishment of the German Reich, or German Empire, which had made Berlin its capital. Then the city really exploded, becoming Europe's largest industrial center. Within roughly a quarter-century, its population doubled to more than 1.6 million people.

Nevertheless, the feeling of having arrived too late on the scene, of having missed out on a place in the sun and of being underestimated by neighboring nations led the Germans into World War I. Although they deposed the Kaiser once they'd lost the war, Berlin and Germany were internationally isolated, and the city's growth slowed to a crawl in the years of the Weimar Republic.

Berlin still managed to become a mecca of cultural modernity -- at least until Adolf Hitler and his Nazi movement took over. But the city paid a high price for the violence that emanated from it during the Nazi years, bringing death to 60 million people in the war and during the Holocaust. In the spring of 1945, Berlin was in ruins. And before it had a chance to rise up from the ashes, it was split into two.

Seen in the light of the horrific end of the war in 1945, Berlin's late birth seems more like a curse than a blessing. Rather than continuous growth, the city's history has been characterized by periods of sharp decline and numerous metamorphoses.

From Pagan Backwater to Dynamic Metropolis

The ancient Romans were responsible for Berlin's status as a latecomer. At the time when the eternal city of the Tiber was the center of the world, Teutons lived in the swampy forests in the large Havelland area west of Berlin, where they offered up human sacrifices in a sacred grove. The Romans wanted nothing to do with these barbarians.

Starting at the end of the 7th century, after many of the Teutons had migrated to the southwest, they were replaced by Slavs from what are now the Czech Republic and Poland. People began to settle in what would become Old Berlin and Cölln when, in the mid-12th century, Albert the Bear subjugated the pagan West Slavs known as Wends on behalf of the Christian Germans.

Berlin's slow rise and arduous, orchestrated settlement with colonists are associated with the Hohenzollern dynasty. When Frederick the Great, its most famous member, was born in the Berlin City Palace in 1712, the city had a population of some 60,000. When he died in 1786, it had already increased to about 150,000. Berlin had gradually reached the critical mass that made it an attraction.

Nevertheless, in 1847, a few years after studying at Berlin's university, the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev would write: "What is there to say about a city in which people get up at 6 in the morning, eat dinner at 2 in the afternoon and go to bed long before the chickens?"

Of course, that description was a gross exaggeration. Granted, Prussia was significantly behind "on the long road to the West," as German historian Heinrich August Winkler has called the Germans' reluctant integration into democratic Europe. But science and the economy became an engine of industrialization that unleashed a lasting dynamism in Berlin.

In 1837, August Borsig built an iron foundry near the Oranienburg Gate, in Berlin's Mitte district, and soon he had produced his first locomotive. Ten years later, Werner Siemens and Johann Georg Halske founded their Telegraphen-Bauanstalt (Telegraph Construction Company). In 1871, Ernst Schering established a chemical company that would grow into a pharmaceutical giant.

Enamored of the New

Since there was little in the way of tradition in the relatively young city of Berlin, its residents greeted everything new with open arms: French fabrics, Viennese hats and American shoes. Indeed, for Berliners, the key criterion was that it had to be new.

Young Germans were especially enthusiastic about Berlin. "This nervous, constantly jittery Berlin air," the protagonist in an 1889 novel raved, "that affects people like alcohol, morphine or cocaine, exciting, invigorating, relaxing and deadly: the atmosphere of a Weltstadt."

The term Weltstadt, which literally means "world city" and has been so popular in Berlin, is actually a German creation. The French and the British would use the term "metropolis," instead.

It was only in 1871 that Berlin became what Paris and London had already been for centuries: the capital of a nation-state. It took so long for Berlin to attain this status because it took that long for Germans to come together into a single country. While the French, the English and the Spaniards were already establishing cohesive nation-states by the 13th century, German rulers were devoted to the idea of the Holy Roman Empire until 1806, after which they split into a collection of small states.

Berlin Wasn't Foregone Conclusion for Location of Capital
When it came time to choose the city that would be the capital of the German Reich, Berlin wasn't a foregone conclusion. Aachen and Frankfurt am Main in the west, and Erfurt in the east, were also in the running. In the end Berlin, as the capital of Prussia, by far the largest state in the new empire, was chosen.

For Berlin, its designation as the new capital marked the beginning of a short, 50-year phase of innovation and dynamism that would last until 1933. "The well-built, prim, dull and somewhat provincial Residenz (seat of royalty) was endeavoring with feverish energy to transform itself into a world city, a Weltstadt," British diplomat Lord Frederick Hamilton would observe in his memoirs.

From 1871 until the turn of the century, Berliners built a city of more than a million people, razing many of the existing structures in the process. Walter Benjamin wholeheartedly supported the unhesitating removal of old buildings. "The destructive character knows only one motto: Create space," the Berlin philosopher wrote. "Destruction revitalizes because it eliminates the traces of our own age."

The architectural results of this destructive fever and construction boom were agonizing for those who appreciated older styles. Now everything was neo: neo-Renaissance, neo-Baroque. The more plaster, the better. Masons would allegedly say to their foremen: "The shell is finished. So what sort of style are we putting on top?"

A City Loved and Hated

In reference to Berlin, the German publisher and writer Wolf Jobst Siedler once wrote: "Lack of tradition is the true tradition of the city." For Siedler, the only constant was change. Berlin was undoubtedly an upstart, a parvenu. The city was not loved, not even by all of its residents.

In the rest of the Reich, while some admired the polarizing capital, others hated it. When the Marxist philosopher Rosa Luxemburg first arrived in the city in May 1898, she complained: "Berlin makes the most repugnant impression on me. It is cold, crude and massive -- a real barracks."

A young soldier from the Austrian countryside had a different impression of Berlin: "The city is magnificent, a real Weltstadt," he wrote on a postcard in 1917. "Yours truly, A. Hitler."

Between 1871 and 1913, the population grew from some 825,000 to almost over 2 million. Almost three-quarters of the immigrants came from the East, from Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia. "I believe most Berliners are from Posen (today's Polish city of Poznan) and the rest from Breslau (Wroclaw)," wrote the industrialist and politician Walther Rathenau.

The city's restlessness, its inner urge to make up for lost time and its obsession with the new, later fascinated Bertolt Brecht, who preferred Berlin to other cities "because it is constantly changing." In 1928, Brecht, a poet who had moved to Berlin from the Bavarian city of Augsburg, wrote: "My friends and I hope that this great, lively city retains its intelligence, its fortitude and its bad memory, in other words, its revolutionary characteristics."

After visiting the city in 1892, American author Mark Twain called Berlin "The Chicago of Europe." "The bulk of the Berlin of today has about it no suggestion of a former period," he wrote. "The site it stands on has traditions and a history, but the city itself has no traditions and no history. It is a new city; the newest I have ever seen. .... The main mass of the city looks as if it had been built last week."

'Tempo, Tempo'

There was one thing that distinguished Berlin's history after 1871 from the histories of other German cities. The history of the German capital was inexorably linked to the history of the German nation. Indeed, the city led a dual existence: On the one hand, it was a physical, social and cultural organism; on the other, it was a symbol of and showcase for all of Germany.

However, even with its explosion at the end of the 19th century, Berlin did not nearly reach the dominant position in Germany that Paris held for France or London for Great Britain. This, again, was a result of its delayed development.

Unlike its competitors, Berlin was dealt a serious setback by World War I. After the war was over, the German capital found itself internationally ostracized and isolated. In 1925, fewer than 700 Frenchmen were registered in the city, about 1,000 Americans and fewer than 1,500 Britons. The proportion of foreigners was less than 2 percent, lower than in Dresden and Munich.

"Tempo, Tempo." That was the slogan Berliners used in the 1920s to celebrate their placid traffic, as if they were still trying to catch up to other cities. Residents jeered at newspaper delivery boys sprinting through the city on racing bikes, warning that they would fall flat on their face because of their hurry.

In 1920, Berlin shot its way up to the top of the list of metropolises with a trick, namely the formation of Greater Berlin, incorporating seven cities, 59 rural communities and 27 rural districts. The population grew from 1.9 to 3.8 million overnight, making Berlin the world's third-largest city, next to London and New York. In terms of area, it was second only to Los Angeles worldwide. Today, according to United Nations figures, Berlin ranks 102nd in population among the world's metropolitan areas.

The city saw an explosion of freedom and creativity in the 1920s. Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity in Berlin. In art and literature, Expressionism came and went. The film studios in Babelsberg were Europe's most modern and successful. The New Objectivity movement emerged in architecture. Emanating from Berlin, the Weimar years also brought a more liberal relationship to physical love. It was a "new wave of sex," historian Walter Laqueur wrote, "that included naked performances and luscious pornography."

In its liberalism and creativity, Berlin was now ahead of its time, surpassing its rival metropolises.

'World Capital Germania '

But at the end of 1926, Joseph Goebbels, a man from the Rhineland, set out to rid the capital of its creative spirits, as well as to cleanse it of Jews, leftists and democrats, and to conquer Berlin for his movement. Goebbels used provocation and mayhem to attract attention to the Nazi Party, but the majority of Berliners rejected the Nazis, known as brownshirts, until 1933.

In the last free elections to the parliament, the Reichstag, in November 1933, the Communists captured 31 percent of the vote in Berlin and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) received 23 percent. The Nazi Party emerged as the second-most powerful force, with 26 percent of the vote.

Most of the top Nazis didn't like Berlin. But because it was the capital, it became the command center for Nazi terror. The SS and the Gestapo had at least 50 important offices scattered around the city, where men like Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis organized mass murders.

Adolf Hitler had giant axes and monumental buildings planned for what he called the "World Capital Germania," and he fantasized about a "Third Reich" comparable only to the British Empire. But on the night of Aug. 25, 1940, 81 British aircraft flew the first air raid over Berlin, in retaliation for the German "Blitz" on London.

Because of the increasingly intensive bombardment by the Royal Air Force and later the US Air Force, Hitler was barely able to begin to make his lunatic construction plans a reality. The population, which had reached its highest point in 1942, at almost 4.5 million, declined again as a result of evacuations made necessary by the air war.

At the zero hour, in May 1945, the hubris of the Nazis finally led to a horrible end for Berlin. The center of the city had been turned into a smoking wasteland.

More than half of all buildings in the Mitte district were irretrievably destroyed. Entire blocks had been reduced to rubble. There was no drinking water, no electricity and no gas. The streets were littered with bombed-out tanks, burned-out streetcars and bodies. Bertolt Brecht described Berlin as a "pile of rubble near Potsdam."

Berlin Is Too Late to the Game

Berlin was devastated and in ruins, and yet it continued to hold the world's attention, this time as a stage and bone of contention in the Cold War that quickly developed between the Soviet Union and the United States. Its demoralized residents were left to serve as marionettes and extras on both sides. "The desire for recognition is enormous," Swiss author Max Frisch noted in 1947. "Anyone who now asserts that Berlin is unbroken in its intellectual life is an important thinker."

That, of course, was nonsense. After its rapid -- too rapid -- rise from 1871 to 1933, and its self-destruction before 1945, the city had reached the end of its success story. Now a radical process of deceleration began. Occupied by the Allies and robbed of their dynamism, the Western sectors were turned into an artificial showcase of the free world, while the Eastern sector became the "Capital of the German Democratic Republic" and a "City of Peace."

The two halves of the city still had some things in common: They were kept afloat by their respective republics, and the petite bourgeoisie was able to hoist itself up to become the dominant and style-defining class, obsessed with becoming a cosmopolitan city once again.

The partition and the constant presence of the lost war meant that Berlin could not look to the future with as little hesitation as other German cities. There were still bombsites all over the city decades after the war had ended, and many gray facades were still riddled with bullet holes from the final battle for Berlin.

Against this morbid backdrop, it seemed only fitting that the suicide rate in West Berlin was twice as high as in the rest of West Germany, and even 20 percent higher than in East Berlin.

Destruction of the Traditional

During reconstruction, politicians on both sides of the city subscribed to Walter Benjamin's notion of "destructive character" and "making space." Wolf Jobst Siedler, who sharply criticized the anti-historic obsession with demolishing buildings in his book "The Murdered City," wrote "that Berlin has only remained true to itself in the destruction of the traditional."

It wasn't until the end of the 1970s that the heavy-handed use of the wrecking ball to overcome the past came to an end. At that point, it was no longer possible to say whether the war or postwar city planners had been responsible for more destruction.

Berlin was known as a divided city, but it also had no meaning. This was painful to Berliners, especially against the background of their illustrious past. Berliners and their politicians were still characterized by a combination of an inferiority complex and megalomania for years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

At first, they fantasized over a new, gigantic burst of growth similar to what happened after 1871. But although construction resembling that of the Gründerzeit period soon began, industry did not return to the city, despite all efforts, nor did its famous "tempo."

No matter how hard it tries, Berlin cannot catch up to megacities of the 21st century, like Istanbul, Shanghai or São Paulo. Always a later bloomer, Berlin is now truly too late to the game.

Post-Industrial Party

Since the turn of the millennium, Berliners have slowly acquired a more realistic and relaxed view of their city. To put it simply, Berlin is poor from a financial standpoint, but rich in terms of culture and history, and it is relatively slow but relaxed.

Parts of Berlin have turned into a and culture park for more than 10 million visitors a year. Foreigners are attracted to its history, of course: the Kaiser, Hitler and the Wall. But Berliners are not as interested in the past, and they make up only about 10 percent of visitors to the memorials that can be found all over the city.

Berlin, as an urban individual, simply grew too quickly to smoothly develop its own identity. It experienced and survived five extremely different political systems in only 120 years, from 1871 to 1990. The city's prehistory and its present pale by comparison to the city's stormy growth bordering on self-destruction.

The city and its residents have received an overdose of history and endured a roller coaster of ideologies. Since the fall of the wall, older residents can finally recover from the dramas and catastrophes of the 20th century, which is something that younger Berliners, thanks to having been born later, don't need. And more than half of the current population came to the city after reunification.

The burdens of history have been removed from their shoulders. But this also has its drawbacks, because Berlin's uniqueness has been passé since 1990. Even the memories of its uniqueness are fading, as Berlin slowly becomes a normal city.

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« Reply #3148 on: Nov 23, 2012, 08:15 AM »

In the USA...

Watch: The disenfranchisment of Native Americans continues today

By Megan Carpentier
Raw Story
Thursday, November 22, 2012 1:00 EST

Though the story of the first American Thanksgiving in which the Pilgrims host a great banquet to thank Native Americans who helped them survive the first winter, there is a darker history to the encounter.

The man behind that generosity, Tisquantum (Anglicized as Squanto), had been kidnapped by a British seafarer named Thomas Hunt in 1614 while Hunt was serving under Captain John Smith (he of Jamestown and the story of Pocahontas). Hunt sold Tisquantum — a Patuxet nation member, which was a part of the Wampanoag confederacy — into slavery in Spain, from which he eventually escaped. Tisquantum then signed up as an interpreter for a Newfoundland-bound ship, and made his way back to New England only to find that he was the sole survivor of a smallpox epidemic that claimed every other Patuxet. He is nonetheless credited with teaching basic survival skills, like planting and fishing, to the Pilgrims and helping them survive the harsh conditions, which was the reason for the November 1621 feast Americans now celebrate as Thanksgiving.

Tisquantum died in 1622, of smallpox.

“Reclaiming Their Voices: The Native American Vote in New Mexico” is an award-winning documentary film by Dorothy Fadiman that looks at the historical roots of the modern-day disenfranchisement of another Native people: the Laguna Pueblo. In it, she traces the historical roots of their oppression at the hands of Spanish colonists and their early efforts — led by Popé, depicted above — to overthrow their oppressors, as well as their modern-day fight for the right to vote and the freedom to access the polls, which Native Americans are still often denied.


Making of

While I was making the film STEALING AMERICA: Vote by Vote, one of the stories I followed was about irregularities in New Mexico during the 2004 Presidential election. The final tallies in New Mexico were extremely controversial. Complaints ranged from people voting for "Kerry" and seeing "Bush" appear on the touch screens, to huge discrepancies between how many people voted and how many votes were tallied. In addition, people in New Mexico began to tell me about ongoing disenfranchisement of Native American voters, with those problems reaching a crescendo in the 2004 Presidential election.

Through word of mouth (with very little published information) I found my way to the Laguna tribe. Their story encapsulated some of the most egregious examples of voting problems in New Mexico, as well as across the country in 2004.

I followed the Laguna story through 2010, weaving together the problems they'd faced with growing activism among tribal members.

While documenting that story, people began to tell me about another dramatic situation. I learned about Native people who had, in recent years, fought to preserve the Sacred Petroglyphs in Albuquerque. They tried to use voting to further their cause, but that effort met with various difficulties, and they were unsuccessful. And so I decided to put these two stories together.  Juxtaposed, they reveal multiple facets of both disenfranchisement and mushrooming activism among Native People.


Native people around the world are stepping forward and speaking out against injustice. RECLAIMING Their VOICE: The Native American Vote in New Mexico & Beyond begins by documenting the American Indian suffrage movement historically. The film then follows two groundbreaking projects in New Mexico. One focuses on the creation of the Native American Voters Alliance and their efforts to protect Sacred Land.  The other is a call to increase voter participation, led by members of the Laguna, NM Native Pueblo. Viewers can see how Laguna’s Voter 500 Project leads to changes in New Mexico state election law. Both stories serve as models for how disenfranchised minority populations can work together to have an impact as these groups in New Mexico are taking action through the political process. Their work reflects a microcosm of growing awareness among minority populations taking root across the United States.  Personal stories demonstrate how American Indian communities are participating more fully in decisions that will affect their lives.

Click to watch the documentary:


Popé, the leader of the Pueblo Revolt

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« Reply #3149 on: Nov 23, 2012, 08:27 AM »

In the USA...

Originally published Thursday, November 22, 2012 at 7:46 PM   

Army faces budget cuts, uncertainty about its future role

The Army is facing big budget cuts and questions about its future role in a Pentagon strategy that emphasizes air and naval power over ground forces.

By Greg Jaffe
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — For much of this year, Sgt. Maj. Raymond Chandler, the Army's top enlisted soldier, has traveled to bases around the world with a simple message: "We've allowed ourselves to get out of control."

His solution has been a raft of new regulations governing tattoos, the length of soldiers' sideburns and the color of the backpacks they are allowed to carry while in uniform. The tighter rules are intended to improve discipline in a force that is recovering from a decade of war.

But some fellow troops viewed the new regulations as one piece of a larger, more worrisome trend in the Army. Instead of embracing change, some officers worry that the service is reverting to a more comfortable, rigid and predictable past.

"We are at a crossroads right now and I don't get the sense that we know what we are doing," said Maj. Fernando Lujan, a Special Forces soldier who has served multiple combat tours. "I am worried about the Army."

These are tough times for the Army. The service is facing big budget cuts and questions about its future role in a Pentagon strategy that emphasizes air and naval power over ground forces. It also is still fighting a messy war in Afghanistan and dealing with the mental wounds of combat. Ten months into 2012, the number of suspected suicides of active-duty soldiers had exceeded last year's total of 165.

This month, the service suffered another psychological blow when retired Gen. David Petraeus, the most lauded Army officer of the post-Vietnam War era, was forced to step down as director of the CIA after admitting to an extramarital affair with his biographer.

"We've always come down in numbers after conflicts and our budget has always gone down, too," said Lt. Gen. John Campbell, a top Army general at the Pentagon. "The difference is that we are doing this while we are still continuing to fight."

Officials, however, said the Army is not facing the crippling problems with discipline and drug abuse that followed the Vietnam War. Although multiple combat tours have strained marriages and contributed to the increasing suicide rate, the Army has retained its combat-tested junior leaders.

"Our young leaders learned to run cities in Iraq," Campbell said. "They are so ... adaptable and flexible."

One big struggle for the Army will be to keep these junior officers and sergeants interested in a stateside service in which fewer resources are available for tough, realistic training and a greater focus on minutiae such as drill and ceremony.

One midlevel sergeant at Fort Bragg, N.C., recently complained that he watched several junior soldiers get yelled at for donning Army-issued fleece hats on a cold morning when they were supposed to be wearing baseball-style patrol caps. "It's cold. They are cold. Let them wear what they want," the sergeant said.

As the Afghan war draws to a close, more senior officers worry that the Army has not been able to articulate a clear mission that will enable it to hold on to its shrinking share of the Pentagon budget.

"I want an Army that is capable of many missions at many speeds, many sizes, under many different conditions," Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, said this month.

In recent months, the Army has announced a new plan to focus individual combat brigades and divisions on specific regions, such as Asia, Africa or Europe. Soldiers in these units will receive special cultural and language training and could be sent on training missions to work with developing armies.

Some Army officers, however, worry that the regional plans are too vague. "What bugs me is being stuck in an institution that doesn't know where it is going," said one senior Army officer at the Pentagon.


The Christian Science Monitor -

Black Friday walkout: why Wal-Mart is focus of labor's struggle

By Gloria Goodale, Staff writer   
posted November 21, 2012 at 9:44 am EST
Los Angeles

As the hottest shopping day of the retail calendar looms, the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, is embroiled in a battle to defend its image, even its formula for success. A growing number of employees, protesting low wages and benefit cuts, is vowing to walk out on Black Friday.

Wal-Mart charges that outside union agitators with the United Food and Commercial workers union (UFCWU) are making trouble. Both sides have filed grievances with the National labor Relations board (NLRB).

Coming alongside the failure of talks between labor and management at yet another iconic American company, Hostess Brands Inc., Wal-Mart’s travails have put a sharp focus on working conditions following the worst post-Depression recession in the nation’s history, say both labor and business experts.

“Wal-Mart has become the poster child for all the issues surrounding labor right now,” says Scott Testa, a Philadelphia-based business consultant and blogger who has studied Wal-Mart’s business practices extensively. The company has implemented aggressive anti-union measures, he notes, closing a store in Canada rather than negotiate.

The issues at stake are not peripheral, says Mr. Testa, adding that they go to the very soul of Wal-Mart’s business model. The Arkansas-based company, founded a half-century ago by Sam Walton, lives and dies by its ability to cut costs, he says.

Testa notes that Wal-Mart has evolved over the years by dwelling on the fringes of urban areas.

“Many of the municipalities where Wal-Mart has thrived were happy to give the company big open spaces of under-used land, where there was no development,” he says, adding that employees in hard-hit regions have been grateful for the jobs.

But now that the company is expanding into major urban areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, “they are experiencing a kind of worker pushback that they have largely been able to avoid,” adds Testa.

Wal-Mart is not unionized. But for the first time in the company’s 50-year history, dozens of workers in southern California stores went out on strike on Oct. 4. They were not calling for unions, but for better working conditions and the elimination of retaliatory practices by management. In the past six weeks, the work stoppages have spread around the country.

Wal-Mart is the most robust example of a trend that has been growing for years, says Chris Rhomberg, assistant sociology professor at Fordham University in New York.

Increasingly, employers are refusing to negotiate with unionized workers, he says. “Low wage labor has spread throughout the economy, and income inequality has grown dramatically in the US,” he says via e-mail.

The real issue, he suggests, is what model of economic growth we should have in America.

“Should we support the low-wage, low-road model practiced by Wal-Mart, or can we promote higher wages and purchasing power to help drive our economy?” asks Professor Rhomberg, adding that the Wal-Mart strikers “have helped put that question on the public agenda.”

Wal-Mart disputes what it calls an unfair depiction of its workers' satisfaction.

“Many of our associates have urged us to do something about the UFCW's latest round of publicity stunts,” says Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg, maintaining that the vast majority of workers are satisfied. “They don't think it's right that a few associates that are being coerced by the UFCW are being portrayed by the media as representative of what it's like to work at Walmart,” he adds via e-mail.
Mr. Lundberg maintains the company has data that reflect worker satisfaction and retention.

He points to 250,000 associates that have worked for the company for more than 10 years as well as 165,000 hourly associates who were promoted last year. This is out of an overall Wal-Mart work force of some 1.3 million.

Wal-Mart’s aggressive anti-union stance is not the only force working to suppress higher wages and benefits for workers, points out Don Schroeder, a labor attorney with Mintz Levin in Boston. Civic realities are also bearing down on cities all over the nation. As the recent rollback of government workers’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin demonstrates, many small cities and towns are facing fiscal crises.

“Many of these are headed towards insolvency as they face unfunded pension liabilities,” he says, adding that the pressures to renegotiate contracts with workers both inside and outside public services will affect the abilities of unions to make demands.

While the Wal-Mart workers are carefully avoiding demands to unionize, they are taking the fight to the court of public opinion, he notes.

“This is a very strong stand,” he says of the Wal-Mart workers, adding, “this is just the beginning of a long struggle.”


November 22, 2012

One-Party Control Opens States to Partisan Rush


CHICAGO — Come January, more than two-thirds of the states will be under single-party control, raising the prospect that bold partisan agendas — on both ends of the political spectrum — will flourish over the next couple of years.

Though the Nov. 6 election maintained divided government in Washington, the picture is starkly different in capitals from California to Florida: one party will hold the governor’s office and majorities in both legislative chambers in at least 37 states, the largest number in 60 years and a significant jump from even two years ago.

“For quite a period of time, people were voting for divided government because they wanted compromise, middle ground,” said State Senator Thomas M. Bakk, the minority leader — and soon to be majority leader — in Minnesota. Democrats there seized control of both legislative chambers, creating single-party rule in St. Paul for the first time in more than two decades. “But they’ve come to realize that compromise is getting awfully hard to accomplish. The parties have gotten too rigid. Maybe this whole experiment with voting for divided government is starting to wane. I think that’s what happened here.”

Twenty-four states will be controlled by Republicans, including Alaska and Wisconsin, where the party took the State Senate, and North Carolina, where the governorship changed hands. At least 13 states will be Democratic, including Colorado, Minnesota and Oregon, where control of the legislatures shifted, and California, where the already dominant Democrats gained a supermajority in both chambers. (The situation in New York, where the potential for single-party control by the Democrats rests on the makeup of the Senate, is still uncertain.)

Power will be split in, at most, 12 capitals — the fewest, said Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures, since 1952.

So while President Obama and Republican leaders in Washington have made postelection hints of an openness to compromise, many in the states may see no such need.

“The fact is, they can do whatever they want now,” Chris Larson, the Democrats’ newly chosen Senate minority leader in Wisconsin, said of the Republicans in his state. He noted, glumly, that they have been holding planning meetings behind closed doors since the election.

Robin Vos, a Republican selected last week as the speaker of Wisconsin’s Assembly, voiced a willingness to work with Democrats, but also quickly ticked off plans to press for an income-tax cut, education changes and a “top-to-bottom review” of state regulations.

In Minnesota, where a budget fight last year between a Republican-led Legislature and the Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, led to a shutdown of state government for two weeks, the governor seemed buoyed.

“We’ll trade gridlock for progress,” said Mr. Dayton, who added that his plans included increasing taxes on the richest Minnesotans and devoting more money to education. Still, Mr. Dayton, whose term is up in two years, sounded a note of caution even as he huddled with aides to strategize after the election results were in.

“I said to my staff, ‘The easier two years are over, and the harder two years are now beginning, because we have the added responsibility to lead,’ ” Mr. Dayton said. “And this is a responsibility I welcome, but given the challenges the state faces and our country faces these days, it’ll be a lot of hard work.”

Some politicians are mindful that one-party control carries with it one-party blame — and a risk that a particularly partisan agenda will eventually irk voters and lead to a reversal in the next election. In Maine, where the Republicans swept into sole control of the capital two years ago, the Democrats this month took back both chambers of the Legislature. Some viewed the outcome as an indication of overreaching by Republicans, including Gov. Paul R. LePage, who has sharply opposed the new health care law and has moved to cut the number of residents eligible for Medicaid.

Representative Mark Waller, newly elected as the Republican minority leader in Colorado, said: “The Democrats absolutely have the votes to do anything they want to do, but that’s a pretty tricky proposition. They’ve got to be very careful about how they do what they do.” Democrats in the state have already pledged to bring back a proposal to allow civil unions for same-sex couples, which was blocked during a special session this year.

There is also a risk of intraparty factions and, in the words of Fred A. Risser, a Wisconsin state legislator since 1956 (and the longest-serving sitting state lawmaker in the country), intramural fights. In Kansas, which has one-party Republican control, conservative Republicans have increasingly battled with moderate Republicans. And though Democrats have run Illinois for a decade, leaders have still been unable to find an answer to the state’s profound financial woes, including the most gravely unfinanced pension liabilities in the nation.

Over all in this election, Democrats had more victories among the roughly 6,000 state legislative seats that were up for grabs, benefiting in part from the presidential victory. One factor in the Democrats’ net of more than 150 legislative seats nationwide was the stunning number of seats — more than 100 — they gained in New Hampshire’s State House, taking control of that chamber. But both parties made gains in the number of states with single-party control.

Not every state fits the dynamics of single-party domination. In Nebraska, the state’s unicameral Legislature is officially nonpartisan, making one-party control in the Republican-leaning state technically impossible. And in Rhode Island, the governor, an independent, shares power with a Democratic General Assembly.

In New York, election results appeared to show that the Democrats had seized control of the Senate, giving them hold over Albany and leaving only 11 state capitals divided. But the practical outcome remains murky, with votes still being counted in several races, talk of some Democrats’ caucusing with the Republicans, and leaders on both sides expressing confidence that their party will ultimately hold on to control.

Nationally, though, the shift to single-party dominance in state government is pronounced; only eight years ago, 30 capitals were divided between the parties. Some state leaders attribute the change to partisan influences at play in the once-a-decade redrawing of political districts before the election this year. Others say it reflects a weariness and dissatisfaction among voters with the discord and gridlock of split control.

Either way, the result is likely to speed along state legislative proposals from both corners, experts said, but less so from the middle.

“We are going to see government activism to the left and to the right that we haven’t seen in years,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. “If you wondered what Washington would look like under single-party rule, the states are a laboratory for that now.”


November 22, 2012

Seeking Ways to Raise Taxes but Leave Tax Rate As Is


WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators, trying to avert a fiscal crisis in January, are examining ideas that would allow effective tax rates to rise for the wealthy without technically raising the top tax rate of 35 percent. They hope the proposals will advance negotiations by allowing both parties to claim they stood their ground.

One possible change would tax the entire salary earned by those making more than a certain level — $400,000 or so — at the top rate of 35 percent rather than allowing them to pay lower rates before they reach the target, as is the standard formula. That plan would allow Republicans to say they did not back down in their opposition to raising marginal tax rates and Democrats to say they prevailed by increasing effective tax rates on the rich. At the same time, it would provide an initial effort to reduce the deficit, which the negotiators call a down payment, as Congressional tax-writing committees hash out a broad overhaul of the tax code.

That idea could be combined with the reinstatement of tax code provisions that once prevented the rich from taking personal exemptions or itemizing deductions. Those rules were eliminated by the tax cut of 2001. Reinstating them would tack an additional one to two percentage points onto the effective tax rates of high-income households without raising the 35 percent rate, but which households would be affected has not been decided. In all, tax experts say, families in the top tax bracket would find their effective tax rate jump to 41 percent, even though the top statutory rate would remain 35 percent.

The proposals have been floated as a way to speed up negotiations to avert a crisis in January when the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush expire and across-the-board spending cuts on military and domestic programs automatically kick in. This “fiscal cliff” would squeeze hundreds of billions of dollars out of the fragile economy next year and, many economists say, send the country back into recession.

President Obama met a week ago with House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio; Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader; Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader; and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the leader of the Senate Republicans, and both parties emerged confident a deal could be struck.

Since then, progress has slowed considerably. The Congressional leaders had said that aides would provide concrete ideas by Wednesday on deficit reduction targets through revenue increases and changes to social programs, especially Medicare. White House and Congressional staff members did meet early this week, but no such ideas were produced. Democrats want Republicans to first define what they mean by “structural changes” to Medicare and Medicaid. Republicans say Mr. Obama should make the first move, using what they say is the political capital gained by his re-election.

But aides involved in the negotiations said they remained confident, in part because many of the ideas that could break the impasse were fleshed out during successive but fruitless deficit negotiations between the president and Mr. Boehner and between Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, and during the deliberations of the Congressional “supercommittee” on deficit reduction formed during the 2011 impasse over raising the nation’s borrowing limit. One Republican aide involved in the current talks said both sides believe a deal can be reached before Christmas.

The supercommittee drafted a proposal that would have eliminated tax brackets lower than 35 percent for affluent families, taxing the first dollar of taxable earnings at the highest tax bracket. In the late 1980s, the tax code included a similar rule, which “clawed back” savings from lower tax rates for some rich families.

Under the existing tax code, the first $17,400 of adjusted gross income for a couple filing jointly is taxed at 10 percent. Above that level, up to $70,700, income is taxed at 15 percent. Income between $70,701 and $142,700 is taxed at 25 percent. Gross incomes up to $217,450 are taxed at 28 percent. The next bracket, 33 percent, ends at $388,350 for couples. The top bracket hits adjusted gross incomes only above $388,350.

All taxpayers get the advantage of the lower tax rates below the top threshold, whether they earn $40,000 or $40 million.

If Republicans insist that the top 35 percent rate cannot change while Congress tries to rewrite the tax code, negotiators could decide to technically keep all the Bush-era tax rates in place, but eliminate the lower tax rates for rich households.

“Would you consider that a tax rate increase?” asked one aide familiar with the idea. “It would not impact the top marginal rate, and no one would have an effective rate over 35 percent.” But, he added, taxes would rise for the rich. He, like other aides, spoke on condition of anonymity because Congressional leaders want negotiations to be kept quiet.

A Democrat familiar with the proposal called it plausible, but said its future would depend on an official scoring of how much revenue it would raise. White House and Congressional aides “are looking at lots of creative options,” the Democrat said.

Negotiators have at least agreed on the shape of a deal. They would establish a framework that would stipulate fixed amounts of revenues to be raised through rewriting the tax code and through savings to be generated by changes to social programs and other federal programs like farm subsidies. The negotiators also want to propose additional cuts in programs included in annual Congressional spending bills, although Democrats want to hold further cuts to a minimum, arguing they agreed to $1 trillion in domestic discretionary cuts over 10 years in last year’s Budget Control Act without a dime in tax increases.

It would be up to Congressional committees next year to draft the legislation to meet those targets, but Congress would be given special instructions to ease passage of the bills.

Once the target numbers are settled, negotiators would have to come up with a down payment on deficit reduction to show the world’s financial markets that Washington is serious. That is where the creative tax ideas would come in. The negotiators would also have to agree on a fallback plan that would ensure the deficit would be cut even if Congress failed to approve tax and entitlement overhauls.

The down payment and the fallback are sticking points. Democrats want a large down payment, financed immediately by higher taxes on the rich, preferably by simply letting the top two income tax rates from the Bush era expire. Republicans say the down payment can be minimal.

Arguments over the fallback reflect a philosophical divide. Many Democrats want it to be so onerous that Congress would see no choice but to act on more sensible plans. Some argue that after six months the current looming crisis would simply reappear. Some Republicans say the fallback plan should itself be an acceptable alternative.


November 22, 2012

A Kansas Town Seeks Fame as a Chapter in Lincoln’s Rise


LECOMPTON, Kan. — Cloaked in a top hat, frock coat, pleated shirt and cravat, Paul Bahnmaier is on a frenetic campaign to thrust his 625-person hometown into the spotlight by heralding its seismic yet little-known place in antebellum history: The first step toward Abraham Lincoln’s election as president took place here.

Over the past couple of weeks, Mr. Bahnmaier, the earnest president of the Lecompton Historical Society, has contacted every local newspaper and television station in this eastern Kansas market, urging them to publicize this blue-collar bedroom community’s story. He is reaching out to about 10 national media outlets and enlisting his sister in Wisconsin to contact the media there.

Although his passion for his hometown’s history started before he was old enough to drive, Mr. Bahnmaier, 70, deemed this a timely opening for a full-court publicity blitz because of the recent release of the Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln.”

“He has sunk his heart and soul into this town to keep the history alive,” said Robin Kofford, 44, working at the family business, Kroeger’s Country Meats, Lecompton’s only market and restaurant. Normally, Mr. Bahnmaier dines there on a turkey sandwich, but on a recent afternoon, he was so excited about the possibility of national coverage of the town’s history that he allowed himself a quarter-pound cheeseburger.

Mr. Bahnmaier is the embodiment of the pride that people in this small town, which draws about 6,000 tourists a year, have in their history. The importance of Lecompton to the Civil War era, he believes, rivals the likes of Fort Sumter, Gettysburg and Appomattox.

“None of those places would be important had the events not occurred here in Lecompton,” he said.

Kansas became a territory of the United States in 1854, and Lecompton was named the territorial capital the next year. It was here that the territorial legislature — elected through fraud because many pro-slavery Missourians crossed the border to cast ballots — drafted a constitution to admit Kansas to the union as a slave state, even though a majority of its settlers were against slavery.

When the document was sent to Washington for ratification, it passed the Senate but stirred debates in the House so intense that a fight broke out in the chamber one night. It ended when two Wisconsin Republicans, John Potter and Cadwallader Washburn, ripped the wig off the head of William Barksdale, a Mississippi Democrat, and Mr. Potter declared, “I’ve scalped him.”

The House eventually rejected the Lecompton Constitution in February 1858, but not before it drove deep wedges within the Democratic Party. President James Buchanan pushed for passage of the constitution. But Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a firm believer that each state should decide whether to legalize slavery with a popular vote of its people, opposed the constitution because of the territory’s voting fraud.

The division led the Democrats to put up two candidates for president in 1860, including Mr. Douglas, and they (along with a third-party candidate) split the party vote, opening the way for Lincoln to win the election as a Republican with about 39 percent of the popular vote.

“Lincoln would not have been president except for the Lecompton Constitution,” said Jonathan Earle, a history professor at the University of Kansas, who is writing a book on the 1860 presidential race.

The Lecompton Constitution is remembered in the two-story balloon-frame clapboard hall where it was drafted in this hilly town on the Kansas River. The building, stilted to a grassy slope with limestone pegs, houses a museum on the events surrounding the constitution and Bleeding Kansas, the years of deadly fighting over slavery in Kansas.

The second-floor space, about the size of a large classroom, where most of the territorial legislature’s 60 members met for weeks to draft the constitution, has been spruced up with flags hanging from the ceiling, exhibits tacked to the walls and polished gray wooden planks covering the original cottonwood floors. Locals treat visitors to re-enactments of speeches and debates from the era.

Constitution Hall is an ode to Lecompton’s more bustling days in the late 1850s, when it was the capital and businesses packed the streets. People flocked here, including Mr. Bahnmaier’s great-grandfather, who immigrated from Germany and worked as a tailor at a hotel. The population peaked at 4,000 in 1858, Mr. Bahnmaier said.

But after Topeka became the capital when Kansas was admitted as a free state in 1861, Lecompton, near the University of Kansas in Lawrence, dwindled. Today, the city is so tranquil that it is easy to hear a chorus of hissing, chirping and fluttering birds. The only businesses along the main thoroughfare are a gift emporium and an art shop. Clapboard homes line the streets, and several yards hold rusty vehicles.

Looking back on Lecompton, some might see a black eye in Kansas’s history, what with the town’s having served as a hub for pro-slavery forces. But Mr. Bahnmaier disputed that view.

Lecompton was “where slavery began to die,” he said. “Without this constitution splitting the Democratic Party, Lincoln wouldn’t have been elected president, and who knows how much longer slavery would have existed?”

And a movie named “Lincoln” would not be playing in multiplexes across the country.

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