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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1082845 times)
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« Reply #3270 on: Dec 01, 2012, 07:55 AM »

November 30, 2012

In South Africa, Lethal Battles for Even Smallest of Political Posts


OSHABENI, South Africa — It was, by all accounts, an ordinary small-town political meeting. The leaders of the local branch of the African National Congress gathered in September at a convent here to discuss candidates for a newly vacated seat on the ward council, the lowest-level elected position in South Africa.

When it was over, Dumisani Malunga, the local party chairman and the front-runner for the seat, stopped at a friend’s house for a late meal of chicken curry. As he and another party official, Bheko Chiliza, drove home at 9:30 p.m., a gunman fired into their car. Their bloody, bullet-riddled bodies were later found sprawled on the ground beside the white Toyota hatchback.

Mr. Malunga and Mr. Chiliza were the latest casualties in an increasingly bloody battle for local political posts in South Africa. Dozens of officials, including ward councilors, party leaders and mayors, have been killed in what has become a desperate, deadly struggle for power and its spoils.

The killings threaten to tarnish the image of the so-called rainbow nation, whose largely bloodless transition from white minority rule to nonracial democracy has made it a beacon of peace, tolerance and forgiveness.

Amid rising corruption and waning economic opportunities, political killings are on the rise. Here in KwaZulu-Natal Province, nearly 40 politicians have been killed since 2010 in battles over political posts, more than triple the number in the previous three years, according to government figures. Over the past few years, dozens more have been killed in provinces like Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo.

The A.N.C., once a banned liberation movement engaged in one of the 20th century’s most important struggles for justice and human rights, is now in power, and it has come under harsh scrutiny for the rampant poverty, deep inequality and widespread unemployment plaguing the country. A wave of wildcat strikes that began in August, and the lethal crackdown against them, has fueled anger at a party seen as increasingly out of touch and whose leaders appear only to seek to fill their pockets.

That is a stark change from the A.N.C.’s early days, when people risked their lives and freedom to join the party and its fight to end apartheid. But in recent years, the party has sharply increased recruitment of new members, with little consideration for who joins and why.

Many new members come in search of wealth and power. Fewer than half of South African’s young black adults have jobs, and many lack the basic skills to find work after years of attending substandard schools in townships and rural areas. For these youths, politics is a seemingly certain route out of poverty. The rise in corruption has fed the belief that political posts mean kickbacks and contracts.

In the ranks of public servants, the post of rural ward council member in a speck of a town like this one would seem no great prize. The job pays about $150 a month, and its occupant must digest a steady diet of complaints from residents about the most fundamental ailments afflicting South Africa: schools that do not teach, taps that do not deliver water, crime that the police seem helpless to stop, jobs that are impossible to find.

But ward councilors are also a conduit for development projects in their areas, and they can influence the awarding of government contracts. The potential upside — earnings from bribes or surreptitious deals — is high.

“Due to the high rate of unemployment, people look for any opportunity to create an income and capitalize on it,” said Mzwandile Mkhwanazi, the regional chairman of the A.N.C. in the area that includes Oshabeni. “They are influenced by levels of poverty. They come up with any ways and means of getting money.”

Such changes in fortune explain why the post of ward councilor in Oshabeni, an impoverished town nestled in rolling hills about 15 miles inland from the Indian Ocean, was so hotly contested. When the woman who held the post died of illness in August, many local politicians were eager to throw their hats into the ring.

One of them was a young taxi driver named Sfiso Khumalo, the leader of the local branch of the A.N.C.’s Youth League. But Mr. Khumalo did not have a very good reputation, fellow Youth League members said. He was hotheaded, they said, and had spent nine years in prison for theft.

“We knew him as a stealer,” said Gcinile Duma, the secretary of the Youth League. “He had been in jail and was with the wrong kind of people.”

Other members of the local A.N.C. branch’s executive committee said they were worried that Mr. Khumalo was not a suitable candidate.

“Some people get into politics for the wrong reason, only for money,” said one local party leader who did not want to be named discussing party business. “Sfiso Khumalo was not looking to help people, only to help himself.”

Standing in his way was Mr. Malunga, 42, the party chairman and a popular local figure.

“People liked Dumisani and saw him as a good leader,” Ms. Duma said.

On Sept. 9, Mr. Khumalo attended the meeting at the Daughters of St. Francis of Assisi Convent to declare his candidacy. There was no open confrontation between Mr. Malunga and Mr. Khumalo, people who attended the meeting said. But when Mr. Malunga was found shot to death near his house, few doubted who was the prime suspect.

“We told the police, ‘We know who did this. It was Sfiso Khumalo,’ ” Ms. Duma said.

After two days of investigations, the police arrested Mr. Khumalo, who promptly confessed that he had conspired with a local businessman to have Mr. Malunga killed. On Sept. 18, Mr. Khumalo was sentenced to 22 years in prison. The person accused of being his co-conspirator is still in court.

In a statement, the leader of the A.N.C. in KwaZulu-Natal condemned the violence and the culture it springs from.

“The A.N.C. can ill afford the development of the culture of the underworld, criminality and violent elimination of opponents,” said the provincial chairman, Zweli Mkhize. “Neither can the A.N.C. afford the association of political appointment to self-enrichment where ascendancy to office is not linked with capacity, competence and dedicated service to our people.”

Party officials paid for Mr. Malunga’s burial, and his brick and stucco grave looks lavish next to the unadorned earthen mounds in the family graveyard that hold his father, brother and nephew.

Mr. Malunga’s mother, Sizakele Malunga, has already buried 5 of her 11 children, but losing her youngest son was a special blow, she said. Mr. Malunga lived with her and kept her company in her widowhood.

“I am lonely, but nothing will bring him back,” Mrs. Malunga said. “I just try to make the time pass without him.”

Mukelwa Hlatshwayo contributed reporting.
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« Reply #3271 on: Dec 01, 2012, 07:57 AM »

11/30/2012 04:08 PM

Corruption in Russia: Putin Strikes a Pose against 'Thieves and Traitors'

By Benjamin Bidder in Moscow

First the defense minister had to go, and now Vladimir Putin's agriculture minister is being pushed out on suspicion of corruption. State-run television has begun an aggressive hunt for "thieves, traitors and enemies of the people." The main target, however, seems to be that of improving the Russian president's approval ratings.

The latest stage of the fight against corruption is illustrated by Russian state television with footage from the Côte d'Azur, images of wild parties with black caviar and diamond-encrusted Kalashnikovs. Then the correspondent approaches Hollywood star George Clooney's villa in a helicopter before more villas come into view. Here is where "Moscow's government officials go to be pampered," the show intones.

The station devoted 70 minutes to portraying the country's chronically corrupt and notorious civil servants. They are a "force in gray jackets who can sabotage reforms and are boycotting laws," moderator Arkady Mamontov says.

Usually Mamontov devotes himself to adversaries of the Russian state. He's made a film about Russian human rights activists who supposedly worked with British spies, and has already done three shows about the punk band Pussy Riot, in which he suggested the activists were the paid handmaids of the United States.

But instead of taking on the opposition, this time Mamontov has a member of the power elite in his sights: President Vladimir Putin's former agriculture minister, Elena Skrynnik, who was in his cabinet from 2009 to 2012. She has been accused of nepotism and it is said that those close to her have seen their personal wealth skyrocket. For years, the 51-year-old was the head of the state-run company Rosagroleasing, which was set up to purchase agricultural machinery. But under her aegis, a significant sum of money is said to have slipped away. Mamontov's reporters interview one of the company's workers who named the sum of 39 billion roubles, or around €1 billion ($1.3 billion).

Putin Plays the Corruption Fighter

Skrynnik's case is the second corruption affair in just one month to involve a former minister. In early November, Putin made the surprise move of firing Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. Since Serdyukov's departure, hardly a day has gone by without some new revelation about irregularities in defense industry privatization efforts. Broadcasters run stories about the scandal during prime-time and newspapers sympathetic to the Kremlin run them on their front pages. The aim of the campaign? Portraying Putin -- who, in his 13th year of power has the worst approval ratings in over a decade -- as a dedicated opponent of corruption. In September, just 41 percent of Russians said they trusted the president.

Alexei Mukhin, a political scientist at the Putin-friendly Center for Political Information has spoken of a "cleansing of the elite," and of fine-tuning the image of a "new Putin." Next up, according to Mukhin, could be the head of the Russian Space Agency or the ill-reputed former Health Minister Tatyana Golikova.

Elena Skrynnik, the former agriculture minister, has spoken to the press about her situation, albeit from abroad, a trip she said was approved by Putin. Yes, she was questioned, she said. And yes, she owns a home in France, but she earned it honestly during her time as a businesswoman between 1993 and 2000. Furthermore, under her leadership at Rosagroleasing it "was impossible to steal money."

That is difficult to believe, however. Oleg Donskich, previously Skrynnik's right-hand man, has a warrant out for his arrest and has left the country. Other suspects include Leonid Novitskiy, Skrynnik's brother. Sponsored by his sister, the cross-country rally driver rose to become the deputy head of Rosagroleasing.

Old News

State-run television highlighted the accusations with photographs of a dilapidated industrial farming operation. Some 280 million roubles (€7 million) had been set aside for modernization, but the facilities are rotting away nonetheless. A local farmer complains to the camera that in Russia there are "no officials who think of the country."

Still, the results of Mamontov's alleged investigative report is hardly new; it is but a collection of facts that have long been known. Moscow dailies and magazines have been reporting for years on Skrynnik's circle.

What is new, however, is the fervor with which the station has been addressing the issue. Inside the offices of Russian authorities, there is a "colossal battle underway between the thieves and honest people who think of the country," thunders Sergey Markov, a former parliamentarian in the Duma, into the camera. Now the corrupt "traitors" must be removed, he says.

Then a white-haired political scientist speaks up. Vitali Tretyakov is a hard-liner who, during the German-Russian Petersburg Dialogue in mid-November, predicted the downfall of Europe due to widespread homosexuality. "Today there is more being stolen than by the Bolsheviks and czars together," he complains, adding that officials "no longer fear anyone at all. Not Stalin, not Lenin, God, the devil, angels and not democracy either." Indeed, the term "enemy of the people" ought to be reintroduced and used in reference to corrupt officials, he says.

His comments were met with applause by the studio audience. Indeed, such tough posturing could be just the thing to turn Putin's poll numbers around. It remains to be seen whether it will result in a reduction of corruption.
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« Reply #3272 on: Dec 01, 2012, 07:59 AM »

November 30, 2012

Brazil Registers Anemic Growth, Surprising Economists


SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Brazil’s economy registered anemic growth in the third quarter as investment levels remained disappointingly low, according to figures released on Friday. The results cast doubt on policies meant to prevent Brazil from turning into a laggard among Latin America’s economies.

Gross domestic product grew just 0.6 percent from the previous quarter, stunning economists who had forecast double that rate. Brazil’s economy is now expected to grow only about 1 percent in 2012, delivering a challenge to President Dilma Rousseff, who has tried to increase growth through an array of huge stimulus projects.

Even economists with favorable views of Ms. Rousseff’s policies of assertively directing large government banks and other state-controlled enterprises to promote growth expressed surprise. The figures reflect a sharp departure from 2010, the last year of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s presidency, when Brazil’s economy grew 7.5 percent.

Antônio Delfim Netto, an influential former economic policy chief, called the G.D.P. figures “a tragedy” in comments to reporters here on Friday. Under Ms. Rousseff, who has been president since 2011, Brazil is on track to deliver its weakest two-year period of growth since the early 1990s, before a stabilization program that radically restructured the economy. Finance Minister Guido Mantega contends that Brazil is on the cusp of a recovery, forecasting 4 percent growth next year.

While growth has declined considerably from the boom years, the slowdown has been blunted by state-supported projects aimed at creating jobs, like a shipbuilding sector conceived to support the oil industry. Brazil’s unemployment rate, 5.3 percent, is still hovering near historical lows.

Authorities are also financing broadly popular antipoverty programs. Federal spending surged 9 percent in October compared with October 2011, partly a result of outlays for an moderate-income housing program called Minha Casa Minha Vida (My House My Life). As millions of poor Brazilians are shielded from the slowdown, Ms. Rousseff’s approval ratings remain high.

Still, critics are growing more vocal about the need for Brazil to become more energetic in addressing complex structural dilemmas weighing the economy down, including its byzantine bureaucracy and woeful public schools. Ms. Rousseff is moving to address these issues; she changed an oil royalties bill on Friday, shifting 100 percent of future proceeds to an education fund.
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« Reply #3273 on: Dec 01, 2012, 08:00 AM »

11/30/2012 03:36 PM

Squabbling in the Bundestag: German Parliament Rubber Stamps Aid for Greece

Despite serious doubts over Chancellor Angela Merkel's handling of the euro crisis among the center-left, German parliamentarians on Friday voted to approve a new round of aid measures for Greece. Most Germans, however, would prefer to see the country go bankrupt.

As Germans become increasingly uneasy about the potential price tag for bailing out a struggling Greece, the country's parliament in Berlin on Friday approved by a wide margin the latest measures aimed at ensuring that the euro zone's weakest member doesn't drop out of the currency union.

By a vote of 473 to 100, German lawmakers approved the package of measures hammered out by euro-zone finance ministers in late-night negotiations earlier in the week. While 23 lawmakers belonging to Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition rebelled, the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens voted in favor of the package as expected. The vote also clears the way for the next tranche of emergency aid, worth €44 billion ($57 billion), to be paid out to Athens.

The aid package includes a cut in interest rates Athens must pay on loans already received as well as an extension on the periods of those loans. It also includes a debt buyback program, which will see Greece repurchase sovereign bonds for a fraction of their face value.

It is hoped that the measures will shrink Greece's overall debt burden to a level of 124 percent of gross domestic product by 2020 and even further in subsequent years. It is projected that Greek debt will spike to 190 percent of GDP next year before beginning to fall. But the measures stopped short of outright debt forgiveness of the kind that many think will become necessary to shrink Greek debt to a level that will be sustainable in the long term. Indeed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), heavily involved in efforts to bail out Greece, had been insisting on just such a debt cut before ultimately giving in to political realities in Europe on Monday night negotiations in Brussels.

Forgoing Revenue

Still, the new measures will, for the first time, have a direct impact on Germany's budget. Reduced interest income combined with the decision to reserve profits earned by the European Central Bank -- which are then distributed to national central banks -- for the Greeks mean that Berlin's 2013 revenues will take a €730 million hit. Germany will be forced to do without billions more over the course of subsequent years.

Belying the overwhelming majority in favor of renewed aid to Greece in parliament on Friday, the vote had been accompanied throughout the week by strong criticism of Merkel's handling of the debt crisis. The SPD in particular has energetically accused Merkel of merely trying to buy time and push the issue of Greek finances off the agenda until after general elections scheduled for next autumn.

Such criticism played a significant role in parliamentary debate on Friday morning. SPD floor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that a debt haircut for Greece was "economically unavoidable" and thundered in Merkel's direction: "You can postpone it until after Christmas, until after the Lower Saxony election, the Bavarian election or the federal elections. But it will come." In comments addressed at Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, Steinmeier said that the package of measures was "not an enduring solution for the Greeks."

Peer Steinbrück, the SPD's candidate to take on Merkel in the 2013 race for the Chancellery, likewise sought to walk the fine line between voting for the aid packaged negotiated by the government, while still criticizing the government at the same time. "We will vote for it because we don't want our reliability as European partners left in any doubt. It has nothing to do with the government," Steinbrück said.

Signs of Life?

The new package of measures to assist Greece became necessary when European leaders agreed to give Athens two more years to achieve its budgetary targets earlier this month. In addition, Greece fell behind in its reform efforts early this year, partially the result of holding two general elections within just a few months. But the success of the new measures is also dependent on a significant improvement in results from the biting austerity measures Athens has pushed through, steps that have significantly worsened the economic situation of most Greeks and left the economy in tatters. Should the economy fail to show signs of life soon, the debt reduction targets set this month will prove illusory.

Still, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble made it clear exactly what was at stake in Friday's parliamentary vote. Comparing Greece's situation to that of Eastern European countries following the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, Schäuble said, "essentially, we are making a decision here on whether to continue or to interrupt aid to Greece -- with all of the consequences that such a step would have for the Greeks and for Europe."

What he meant was clear. If Europe withholds aid, Athens will go bankrupt and tumble out of the euro zone. Still, that is an eventuality that Germans would now accept. According to a survey released on Friday, some 46 percent of those surveyed are opposed to new aid to Greece, even if it means the country would become insolvent. Forty-three percent of those surveyed said they were in favor of additional assistance for Greece.
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« Reply #3274 on: Dec 01, 2012, 08:04 AM »

The private life of Charles Darwin

By James Randerson, The Guardian
Friday, November 30, 2012 8:28 EST

When not busy pioneering his theory of natural selection, Darwin also applied scientific logic to courting the female of the species

There are few books that provide a better insight into genius than Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Not only does it give a powerful sense of the decades of meticulous work that lay behind his theory of natural selection, it also has some really good lines. His oft-quoted sign-off is one of my favourite passages, although there are plenty of others:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

And for a window into the man himself, Darwin’s diligent and personal correspondence with close colleagues is full of acres of revealing material about his motivations, beliefs and fears.

But for my money, it is his internal monologue – recorded meticulously in two personal notes – about whether to marry his cousin Emma Wedgewood that sheds perhaps most light on how the mind of a genius worked.

In the notes – made in April and July 1938 when he was 29 years old – Darwin weighs the options, listing the positive and negative points for matrimony with a pragmatic and analytical detachment that doubtless served him well in his scientific inquiries. When choosing a soulmate though, Darwin’s approach comes across as – how can I put it – a little less than romantic.

On the plus side of the ledger he cites “Children (if it Please God)” and companionship,

* Charles_Darwin_aged_51-via-Wikimedia-e1354282074866.jpg (45.26 KB, 613x344 - viewed 104 times.)
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« Reply #3275 on: Dec 01, 2012, 08:36 AM »

In the USA...

Senate approves increased sanctions against Iran

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, November 30, 2012 15:35 EST

The US Senate unanimously approved new economic sanctions Friday aimed at further crippling Iran’s energy, shipping and port sectors, a year after Congress passed tough restrictions against Tehran.

The amendment, tacked on to a sweeping defense spending bill being debated by the chamber, passed 94-0, and should sail through the House of Representatives.

It was introduced by Senator Robert Menendez out of concern that Iran was pressing ahead with its nuclear weapons drive despite earlier sanctions that had been hailed as the toughest-ever against the Islamic republic.

“Yes, our sanctions are having a significant impact, but Iran continues their work to develop nuclear weapons,” said Menendez, a Democrat.

He cited last week’s report by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran continues to defy the United Nations and the world community by refusing to slow down enrichment facilities, denying access to inspectors, and conducting live tests of conventional explosives that could be used to detonate a nuclear weapon.

“By passing these additional measures ending sales to and transactions with Iranian sectors that support proliferation — energy, shipping, ship-building and port sectors as well as with anyone on our specially designed national list — we will send a message to Iran that they can’t just try to wait us out.”

Senator John McCain offered his characteristically blunt assessment of Iran’s intentions, and the need for expanded sanctions.

“The screws need to be tightened,” he said on the Senate floor just before the vote. “The centrifuges are still spinning in Tehran.”

McCain said the new sanctions “can — I emphasize can — lead to a way to prevent a conflagration in the Middle East.”


November 30, 2012

Senate Votes to Curb Indefinite Detention


WASHINGTON — The Senate voted late on Thursday to prohibit the government from imprisoning American citizens and green card holders apprehended in the United States in indefinite detention without trial.

While the move appeared to bolster protections for domestic civil liberties, it was opposed by an array of rights groups who claimed it implied that other types of people inside the United States could be placed in military detention, opening the door to using the military to perform police functions.

The measure was an amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which is now pending on the Senate floor, and was sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Mike Lee, Republican of Utah. The Senate approved adding it to the bill by a vote of 67 to 29.

“What if something happens and you are of the wrong race in the wrong place at the wrong time and you are picked up and held without trial or charge in detention ad infinitum?” Ms. Feinstein said during the floor debate. “We want to clarify that that isn’t the case — that the law does not permit an American or a legal resident to be picked up and held without end, without charge or trial.”

The power of the government to imprison, without trial, Americans accused of ties to terrorism has been in dispute for a decade.

Last year, in the previous annual version of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress included a provision stating that the government had the authority to detain Qaeda members and their supporters as part of the war authorized shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But lawmakers could not decide whether that authority extended to people arrested on American soil, and so they left it deliberately ambiguous.

Ms. Feinstein, arguing that law enforcement officials have proved capable of handling cases that arise on domestic soil, said the amendment was intended to “clarify” that the government may not put Americans arrested domestically in military detention.

Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, objected to the restriction on security grounds, saying that even American citizens arrested inside the United States on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack for Al Qaeda should be held under the laws of war and interrogated without receiving the protections of ordinary criminal suspects, like a Miranda warning of a right to remain silent.

From the other direction, an array of civil liberties and human rights groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights First — objected to the amendment because it was limited to citizens and lawful permanent residents, as opposed to all people who are apprehended on United States soil.

“Senator Dianne Feinstein has introduced an amendment that superficially looks like it could help, but in fact, would cause harm,” said Chris Anders of the A.C.L.U.

But on the floor, Ms. Feinstein said that she limited the amendment to citizens and green card holders because she believed that language would “get the maximum number of votes in this body.”

The Senate on Thursday also passed, 94-0, a series of additional American sanctions on Iran. The amendment would impose penalties on individuals selling commodities to Iran that might be used in ship-building or the nuclear program, including aluminum and steel. It also threatened countries, like Turkey, which are buying Iranian oil with gold, in an effort to circumvent banking sanctions.

The current language does not give the president the power to issue waivers, as he has done for countries like Japan, South Korea and India that buy Iranian oil. The White House has opposed the amendment, with officials saying they fear it could “threaten to confuse and undermine” existing effort to get allies, China and other countries to impose other sanctions already in the pipeline.

Also on Thursday, the Senate voted, 62 to 33, for a nonbinding amendment calling for an accelerated withdrawal of United States combat forces from Afghanistan. The measure was sponsored by Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, and was backed by 13 Republicans.


U.S. birth rate hits record low, plummets especially among immigrant women

By Samantha Kimmey
Friday, November 30, 2012 20:40 EST

The U.S. birth rate, calculated as the annual number of births per 1,000 women between 15-44, hit an all-time low in 2011, reported Pew Research, largely attributed to the Great Recession.

While final data are not available, the rate hit 63.2 per 1,000 women last year — the lowest since 1920, before which reliable numbers are not available.

The U.S. birth rate fell by 8 percent between 2007 and 2010.

The birth rate among immigrant women in the country is plummeting compared to non-immigrants. While the rate among U.S.-born women fell 6 percent between 2007 and 2010, it fell 14 percent among all immigrant women and 23 percent among Mexican-born women.


November 29, 2012

Class Wars of 2012


On Election Day, The Boston Globe reported, Logan International Airport in Boston was running short of parking spaces. Not for cars — for private jets. Big donors were flooding into the city to attend Mitt Romney’s victory party.

They were, it turned out, misinformed about political reality. But the disappointed plutocrats weren’t wrong about who was on their side. This was very much an election pitting the interests of the very rich against those of the middle class and the poor.

And the Obama campaign won largely by disregarding the warnings of squeamish “centrists” and embracing that reality, stressing the class-war aspect of the confrontation. This ensured not only that President Obama won by huge margins among lower-income voters, but that those voters turned out in large numbers, sealing his victory.

The important thing to understand now is that while the election is over, the class war isn’t. The same people who bet big on Mr. Romney, and lost, are now trying to win by stealth — in the name of fiscal responsibility — the ground they failed to gain in an open election.

Before I get there, a word about the actual vote. Obviously, narrow economic self-interest doesn’t explain everything about how individuals, or even broad demographic groups, cast their ballots. Asian-Americans are a relatively affluent group, yet they went for President Obama by 3 to 1. Whites in Mississippi, on the other hand, aren’t especially well off, yet Mr. Obama received only 10 percent of their votes.

These anomalies, however, weren’t enough to change the overall pattern. Meanwhile, Democrats seem to have neutralized the traditional G.O.P. advantage on social issues, so that the election really was a referendum on economic policy. And what voters said, clearly, was no to tax cuts for the rich, no to benefit cuts for the middle class and the poor. So what’s a top-down class warrior to do?

The answer, as I have already suggested, is to rely on stealth — to smuggle in plutocrat-friendly policies under the pretense that they’re just sensible responses to the budget deficit.

Consider, as a prime example, the push to raise the retirement age, the age of eligibility for Medicare, or both. This is only reasonable, we’re told — after all, life expectancy has risen, so shouldn’t we all retire later? In reality, however, it would be a hugely regressive policy change, imposing severe burdens on lower- and middle-income Americans while barely affecting the wealthy. Why? First of all, the increase in life expectancy is concentrated among the affluent; why should janitors have to retire later because lawyers are living longer? Second, both Social Security and Medicare are much more important, relative to income, to less-affluent Americans, so delaying their availability would be a far more severe hit to ordinary families than to the top 1 percent.

Or take a subtler example, the insistence that any revenue increases should come from limiting deductions rather than from higher tax rates. The key thing to realize here is that the math just doesn’t work; there is, in fact, no way limits on deductions can raise as much revenue from the wealthy as you can get simply by letting the relevant parts of the Bush-era tax cuts expire. So any proposal to avoid a rate increase is, whatever its proponents may say, a proposal that we let the 1 percent off the hook and shift the burden, one way or another, to the middle class or the poor.

The point is that the class war is still on, this time with an added dose of deception. And this, in turn, means that you need to look very closely at any proposals coming from the usual suspects, even — or rather especially — if the proposal is being represented as a bipartisan, common-sense solution. In particular, whenever some deficit-scold group talks about “shared sacrifice,” you need to ask, sacrifice relative to what?

As regular readers may know, I’m not a fan of the Bowles-Simpson report on deficit reduction that laid out a poorly designed plan that for some reason has achieved near-sacred status among the Beltway elite. Still, at least you can say this for Bowles-Simpson: When it talked about shared sacrifice, it started from a “baseline” that already assumed the end of the high-end Bush tax cuts. At this point, however, just about all the deficit scolds seem to want us to count the expiration of those cuts — which were sold on false pretenses, and were never affordable — as some kind of big giveback by the rich. It isn’t.

So keep your eyes open as the fiscal game of chicken continues. It’s an uncomfortable but real truth that we are not all in this together; America’s top-down class warriors lost big in the election, but now they’re trying to use the pretense of concern about the deficit to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Let’s not let them pull it off.


November 30, 2012

In Latest Campaign, Obama Takes Deficit Battle to the Public


HATFIELD, Pa. — The blue “Forward.” signs with the lonely period were gone. But U2’s “City of Blinding Lights” once again blared over the loudspeakers, and some in the audience broke into a chant of “fired up, ready to go!”

President Obama doffed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. Someone shouted, “We love you,” and he gave his typical “I love you back” response. Then, sounding like he was still a candidate, he said he was “fighting” for the middle class and called on the crowd to enlist in the battle.

If Mr. Obama’s visit to a toy factory here on Friday felt like a time warp back to the campaign trail, then get used to it. The lesson he drew from four years of often-frustrating relations with Congress was that sit-down negotiations with the opposition do not work unless he turns up the public heat on lawmakers. And so, just weeks after his re-election, Mr. Obama has made it clear that the campaign will continue.

The goal at this point is not winning re-election but instead promoting his plan to raise taxes on the wealthy and avert a year-end fiscal crisis. While House Republicans have signaled a willingness to generate additional tax revenue, they are still resisting raising rates on higher income.

Mr. Obama framed the issue in terms of extending the Bush-era cuts for families with income under $250,000, which would have the effect of allowing them to expire on income above that level for the 2 percent of Americans who earn more. Without agreement, the Bush-era cuts will expire at the end of the year for all taxpayers.

The president mentioned spending cuts only in passing, and without specifics. “I’ve been keeping my own naughty and nice list for Washington,” he told workers on a factory floor featuring a series of K’NEX construction toys assembled in the shapes of roller coasters, a merry-go-round and an American flag. If Republicans refuse to go along, he said, then everyone could end up paying more next year. “That’s sort of like the lump of coal you get for Christmas. That’s a Scrooge Christmas.”

Mr. Obama’s return to the hustings seemed to irk Republicans. “Campaign-style rallies and one-sided leaks in the press are not the way to get things done here in Washington,” the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, complained on Thursday. Hours later, Republican aides leaked Mr. Obama’s opening bid in the fiscal negotiations.

On Friday, Mr. Boehner again rejected that bid, a $4 trillion, 10-year deficit-reduction package with $1.6 trillion in new taxes and $50 billion in immediate stimulus spending. “There’s a stalemate. Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said. “Right now we’re almost nowhere.”

Mr. Boehner did not offer a counterproposal, but he made it clear that Republicans stood firm in favor of extending the tax cuts across the board. “Increasing tax rates draws money away from our economy that needs to be invested in our economy to put the American people back to work,” he said.

With a few cracks developing in Republican solidarity, Democrats are increasing the pressure on Mr. Boehner to take up a Senate-passed bill extending middle-class tax cuts. Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, called on him to schedule a vote for next week. If not, she would circulate what is known as a discharge petition to force a vote if it draws 218 signatures. That remained a long shot, but Democrats were increasingly confident they were playing a winning hand.

Mr. Obama’s trip here evoked many of the atmospherics of the campaign. As if seeking volunteers for Election Day, Mr. Obama asked supporters to engage in the tax fight directly. “I want you to call, I want you to send an e-mail, post on their Facebook wall,” he said. The White House even set up a special hashtag word for Twitter users to express their support.

Minutes after Mr. Obama spoke at the factory, the White House sent its e-mail list a letter from David Plouffe, an Obama senior adviser, that had the tone and feel of a fund-raising letter, albeit without asking for money.

“You’re changing an entire policy conversation. And we have to keep it up,” he wrote.

“There’s no denying the power of your voices,” he added.

“Will you speak out today?”

The strategy stemmed from what the White House saw as successful public campaigns to press Congress to renew a temporary payroll tax cut a year ago and to extend lower federal student loan rates this summer. In both cases, Republicans complained that the president was more interested in campaigning than negotiating, but he ended up getting what he wanted and, in his team’s view, he scored political points too.

In some ways, Mr. Obama’s actions are reminiscent of those of presidents like Ronald Reagan, who went over the heads of a Democratic House to rally public support for his legislative priorities.

“Public persuasion by the president as part of Congressional negotiations can be an effective tactic,” said Frank J. Donatelli, the White House political director under Mr. Reagan. The difference, he said, was that Mr. Obama seemed to be neglecting the negotiation side of the equation.

“Public pressure can help to close differences, but cannot be a substitute for the negotiations themselves,” Mr. Donatelli said. “Reagan compromised with Democrats to win his tax bills in 1981 and 1986 and in negotiations to save Social Security in 1983. Thus far, we have seen very little give in Obama’s positions.”

That may change as the end-of-the-year deadline gets closer. Few people, if any, in Washington expected the two sides to show their hands so early. If nothing else, the president and House Republicans have strong incentives to fight, or at least look like they are fighting, right up until the last minute to convince their respective liberal and conservative bases that they resisted as long as possible whatever concessions they ultimately decide to make.

“In Washington, nothing is easy,” Mr. Obama said in the one statement of the day that both sides could agree on. “So there is going to be some prolonged negotiations. And all of us are going to have to get out of our comfort zones to make that happen.”

Peter Baker reported from Hatfield, Pa., and Jonathan Weisman from Washington.


Pelosi Backs Limiting Oversight of Debt Ceiling

Representative Nancy Pelosi on Friday endorsed a proposal by the Obama administration that would require Congress to cede most of its authority over the debt ceiling, a statutory limit on the government’s borrowing.

As part of the White House’s bold opening bid in the negotiations to resolve the looming financial crisis, The Times reported Friday, the plan would significantly curtail Congressional purview over the debt ceiling, institutionalizing a proposal floated last summer by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, during negotiations over increasing the debt limit.

The ceiling itself is not strictly speaking necessary, and many other developed countries do not have one. Congress already determines the country’s overall level of debt by budgeting how much tax revenue the government takes in and how much it spends. Rather, the ceiling acts as a secondary budgetary check – and often as a political football.

Back in 2006, for instance, a senator from Illinois took to the floor to bash Republicans for raising the ceiling without taking other efforts to right the country’s fiscal course.

“Leadership means that the buck stops here,” then-Senator Barack Obama said. “Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”

Last year, Republicans staunchly refused to raise the ceiling without significant spending cuts. That led to a stand-off with the White House, a wave of anxiety running through financial markets and ultimately fruitless negotiations on a long-term debt deal, as well as the creation of the so-called fiscal cliff looming at the end of this year.

This time, some Republicans have said they would consider not raising the debt ceiling if Mr. Obama vetoed a bill passing the Bush-era tax cuts for all levels of income.

The administration, it seems, has had enough. Recently, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who presented the plan to Republicans this week, has argued for getting rid of the ceiling once and for all. On Thursday, he actually proposed doing it. Congress could pass a resolution blocking an increase in the ceiling, though a president could veto that resolution, aides told the Times. And many Democrats have argued that the president has the Constitutional authority to raise the debt limit unilaterally, under the 14th Amendment.

The White House might love to see the debt ceiling become a historical relic. But it seems exceedingly unlikely that Congress would agree to that sort of proposal, undercutting its authority. On Friday, Republican aides dismissed the idea out of hand.


November 30, 2012

Simpler Taxes Now, Growth Later


WASHINGTON — As lawmakers consider rolling back many of the $1 trillion a year in tax breaks now doled out to businesses and individuals, some are promising that streamlining the tax code will not only raise revenue, but also spur economic growth.

But a number of prominent economists cautioned that, while cleaning up the code is a worthy goal, it would do little to stimulate the flagging economy.

The kinds of changes being discussed in the heated back-room negotiations between President Obama and the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio — raising $800 billion to $1.6 trillion in additional tax revenue, along with significant down-the-road spending cuts — would most likely depress growth in the short term.

Longer term, economists said, streamlining the code might improve the allocation of capital enough to raise growth modestly. The overall economy might be 1 to 2.5 percent bigger than it otherwise would be after five or 10 years, translating into perhaps more than one million jobs.

While that growth would certainly be welcome, it falls far short of claims from some tax reform evangelists, who predict that adding certainty and simplicity to the tax code would by itself ignite an economic boom.

“This religious faith that a broader base gives you a better tax system and economy is overly optimistic and simplistic,” said Alan J. Auerbach, the director of the Robert D. Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance at the University of California, Berkeley. “I think the benefits can be overstated.”

Economists from across the political spectrum concur that the nation’s complex tax code most likely hampers growth. Tax rates Americans pay are so uneven that they not only raise fairness issues, but also cause distortions in the economy, inducing financial decisions that individuals might not otherwise make, and might not be the most efficient use of capital.

Tax rates on different kinds of individual income vary by 20 percentage points. More than $1 trillion a year in breaks — as varied as a tiny effort to aid domestic makers of toy arrows and the huge exclusions for state and local taxes — riddle the code.

The cumulative effect of those loopholes, preferential rates and special programs distorts how investors invest, economists said. “You put money in less-productive investments,” said Joel B. Slemrod of the University of Michigan, summarizing the problem.

For instance, analysts say generous tax breaks on home mortgage interest encourage Americans to buy bigger and more expensive houses, with little long-term benefits to innovation and economic growth. They also believe generous tax breaks on employer-provided health care spur higher health costs overall.

The bulk of economists agree in principle in the sensibility of “broadening the base” — or eliminating deductions and exclusions, to make more income taxable and allow for lower rates — to improve the overall investment climate.

Hypothetically, economists said, the growth effects of broad tax reform could be enormous. Huge overhauls, like replacing the income tax with a consumption or value-added tax, could increase economic output in the long run by as much as 9.4 percent.

But a consumption tax has few supporters in Washington because many warn that it would be regressive, shifting too large a portion of the tax burden onto lower- and middle-income Americans. Moreover, few politicians think that Congress could agree on passing such a big reform.

In the scheme of things, economists said, the kinds of changes on the table in Washington are far too small to make much of a difference, meaning in the long run they might inject a meager-to-modest boost to growth.

“Nobody’s talking about reforms that big,” said R. Glenn Hubbard, the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Business and a top Republican economist. “Limiting deductions to raise revenue? That’s not going to raise growth at all. And raising rates would hurt growth.”

“I’m not even sure that the academic literature on tax rates and growth maps well onto what people are talking about now.”

Several experts cautioned that changes to increase taxes on investment and savings income might hurt long-run growth, even if it improved the progressivity of the code.

“There are some tax subsidies that can be reduced with little effect,” said William McBride, chief economist at the Tax Foundation, an independent research group. But he believes that increasing taxes on capital gains and dividends — as the Obama administration is seeking to do — would “significantly slow economic growth” by shrinking the pool of money available for investment across the economy.

In the short term, policy experts expect that the combination of increased tax revenue and reduced government spending would put a drag on the economy. Both Democrats and Republicans have warned that too-steep tax increases or too-deep spending cuts might create a recession.

Nevertheless, a short-term “down payment” on a broader tax and entitlement reform process might sap growth in the next year or two. That so-called fiscal drag might be offset by increased business investment because of the removal of uncertainty, or a “relief rally” in the stock markets.

After that, any tax reform that significantly changed deductions, credits and breaks might cause economic disruption and even a little drag in the short term, economists said. But in the long term, a cleaner code that raised more money might rationalize investment decisions and aid growth, said many economists.

Besides, some economists said even small changes in macroeconomic figures could mean big changes in the lives of thousands of Americans. Edward D. Kleinbard, former director of the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, said that if eliminating tax expenditures did bring a one-half-percent increase in the annual pace of economic growth it would be a significant accomplishment.

“You’d be taking victory laps,” said Mr. Kleinbard, now a law professor at the University of Southern California. He said that the difference between economic growth of 3.5 percent and 3 percent a year means the economy would double in size in 21 years rather than 24. “It’s not earth-shattering, but it is meaningful, and there are very few things in the tax world that give you that kind of bend in the G.D.P. curve,” he said referring to the nation’s gross domestic product, or overall economic activity.

Moreover, economists point to another powerful benefit to getting the country’s debt under control: investors might feel more comfortable keeping their money in American bonds, American companies and American dollars down the road.

“There would be nothing better for the economy” than to get the debt under control in the long term, said Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics.


Originally published Friday, November 30, 2012 at 8:07 AM

Congress looks at doing away with the $1 bill

American consumers have shown about as much appetite for the $1 coin as kids do their spinach. They may not know what's best for them either. Congressional auditors say doing away with dollar bills entirely and replacing them with dollar coins could save taxpayers some $4.4 billion over the next 30 years.

Associated Press


American consumers have shown about as much appetite for the $1 coin as kids do their spinach. They may not know what's best for them either. Congressional auditors say doing away with dollar bills entirely and replacing them with dollar coins could save taxpayers some $4.4 billion over the next 30 years.

Vending machine operators have long championed the use of $1 coins because they don't jam the machines, cutting down on repair costs and lost sales. But most people don't seem to like carrying them. In the past five years, the U.S. Mint has produced 2.4 billion Presidential $1 coins. Most are stored by the Federal Reserve, and production was suspended about a year ago.

The latest projection from the Government Accountability Office on the potential savings from switching to dollar coins entirely comes as lawmakers begin exploring new ways for the government to save money by changing the money itself.

The Mint is preparing a report for Congress showing how changes in the metal content of coins could save money.

The last time the government made major metallurgical changes in U.S. coins was nearly 50 years ago when Congress directed the Mint to remove silver from dimes and quarters and to reduce its content in half dollar coins. Now, Congress is looking at new changes in response to rising prices for copper and nickel.

At a House subcommittee hearing Thursday, the focus was on two approaches:

-Moving to less expensive combinations of metals like steel, aluminum and zinc.

-Gradually taking dollar bills out the economy and replacing them with coins.

The GAO's Lorelei St. James told the House Financial Services panel it would take several years for the benefits of switching from paper bills to dollar coins to catch up with the cost of making the change. Equipment would have to be bought or overhauled and more coins would have to be produced upfront to replace bills as they are taken out of circulation.

But over the years, the savings would begin to accrue, she said, largely because a $1 coin could stay in circulation for 30 years while paper bills have to be replaced every four or five years on average.

"We continue to believe that replacing the note with a coin is likely to provide a financial benefit to the government," said St. James, who added that such a change would work only if the note was completely eliminated and the public educated about the benefits of the switch.

Even the $1 coin's most ardent supporters recognize that they haven't been popular. Philip Diehl, former director of the Mint, said there was a huge demand for the Sacagawea dollar coin when production began in 2001, but as time wore on, people stayed with what they knew best.

"We've never bitten the bullet to remove the $1 bill as every other Western economy has done," Diehl said. "If you did, it would have the same success the Canadians have had."

Beverly Lepine, chief operating officer of the Royal Canadian Mint, said her country loves its "Loonie," the nickname for the $1 coin that includes an image of a loon on the back. The switch went over so well that the country also went to a $2 coin called the "Toonie."

Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., affirmed that Canadians have embraced their dollar coins. "I don't know anyone who would go back to the $1 and $2 bills," he said.

That sentiment was not shared by some of his fellow subcommittee members when it comes to the U.S. version.

Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., said men don't like carrying a bunch of coins around in their pocket or in their suits. And Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said the $1 coins have proved too hard to distinguish from quarters.

"If the people don't want it and they don't want to use it," she said, "why in the world are we even talking about changing it?"

"It's really a matter of just getting used to it," said Diehl, the former Mint director.

Several lawmakers were more intrigued with the idea of using different metal combinations in producing coins.

Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, said a penny costs more than 2 cents to make and a nickel costs more than 11 cents to make. Moving to multiplated steel for coins would save the government nearly $200 million a year, he said.

The Mint's report, which is due in mid-December, will detail the results of nearly 18 months of work exploring a variety of new metal compositions and evaluating test coins for attributes as hardness, resistance to wear, availability of raw materials and costs.

Richard Peterson, the Mint's acting director, declined to give lawmakers a summary of what will be in the report, but he said "several promising alternatives" were found.


November 30, 2012

Supreme Court to Look at a Gene Issue


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court announced on Friday that it would decide whether human genes may be patented. The justices considered but took no action on requests that the court hear one or more cases concerning same-sex marriage.

The case the court added to its docket concerns patents held by Myriad Genetics, a Utah company, on genes that correlate with increased risk of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

The patents were challenged by scientists and doctors who said that their research and ability to help patients had been frustrated. “Myriad and other gene patent holders have gained the right to exclude the rest of the scientific community from examining the naturally occurring genes of every person in the United States,” the plaintiffs told the Supreme Court in their petition seeking review. They added that the patents “prevent patients from examining their own genetic information” and “made it impossible to obtain second opinions.”

The legal question for the justices is whether isolated genes are “products of nature” that may not be patented or “human-made inventions” eligible for patent protection.

A divided three-judge panel of a federal appeals court in Washington ruled for the company. Each judge issued an opinion, and a central dispute was whether isolated genes are sufficiently different from ones in the body to allow them to be patented.

“The isolated DNA molecules before us are not found in nature,” wrote Judge Alan D. Lourie, who was in the majority. “They are obtained in the laboratory and are man-made, the product of human ingenuity.”

The company urged the justices not to hear the case, saying that the “isolated molecules” at issue “were created by humans, do not occur in nature and have new and significant utilities not found in nature.” It has long been settled, the company’s brief went on, that “the human ingenuity required to create isolated DNA molecules” is worthy of encouragement and that its fruits are worthy of protection.

The plaintiffs in the case, Association of Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, No. 12-398, were supported by friend-of-the-court briefs filed by the American Medical Association, AARP and women’s health groups.

The justices were also scheduled to consider on Friday 10 closely watched appeals in cases concerning same-sex marriage, but they gave no indications about which ones, if any, they will hear. It is not unusual for the justices to discuss petitions seeking their attention more than once, particularly when the cases present complex and overlapping issues.

The court is widely expected to agree to hear one or more cases on the constitutionality of the part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 that forbids the federal government from providing benefits to same-sex couples married in states that allow such unions.

The court has also been asked to hear cases about Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California, and an Arizona measure that withdrew state benefits from both gay and straight domestic partners.


November 30, 2012

Health Insurers Will Be Charged to Use New Exchanges


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Friday that it would charge insurance companies for the privilege of selling health insurance to millions of Americans in new online markets run by the federal government.

The cost of these “user fees” can be passed on to consumers. The proposed fees could add 3.5 percent to premiums for private health plans sold in insurance exchanges operated by the federal government.

In a separate action, federal officials said that consumers would soon have access to nationwide health plans similar to those available to members of Congress and other federal employees. These plans will be offered by private insurance companies under contract with the United States Office of Personnel Management. The agency already provides insurance to eight million federal employees, retirees and dependents.

“This new initiative will promote competition in the insurance marketplace and ensure individuals and small businesses have more high-quality, affordable insurance choices,” said John Berry, director of the personnel agency.

The steps announced on Friday show the White House rushing to carry out the health care law signed by President Obama in March 2010. They also illustrate the rapidly growing role of the federal government in the nation’s health care system.

Consumer advocates, insurers and some state officials had expressed concern about delays in publication of the rules proposed on Friday.

Starting in October, consumers are supposed to be able to enroll in new health plans, for coverage beginning on Jan. 1, 2014, when most Americans will be required to have insurance. At least two nationwide health plans chosen by the federal government will compete with private health plans in the insurance exchanges being established in every state.

The exchanges are supposed to be financially self-sustaining after 2014. States, like the federal government, can charge fees to insurers. Or they can try to raise money in other ways — for example, by charging consumers or employers for using the exchange.

In proposing the new rule, Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said that fees charged by the federal government would be “sufficient to cover the majority of costs related to the operation of federally facilitated exchanges.” She did not say how the remainder of the money would be raised.

Ms. Sebelius said she could not estimate the total amount of federal user fees because she did not know exactly how many states would have federal exchanges. She said the federal fees should generally be “commensurate with fees” charged by state-run exchanges.

The federal government will run the exchange in any state that is unable or unwilling to do so. Indeed, it now appears that federal officials could be running the exchanges — alone or in partnership with local officials — in more than half the states.

Fees charged for use of the federal exchange come on top of a separate annual fee to be imposed on health insurance companies to help offset the cost of expanding coverage under the new law. The annual fees, to be apportioned among insurers according to their shares of the nation’s health insurance market, are expected to total $6 billion in 2014 and more than $100 billion over 10 years.

“Any new fees to pay for the administration of exchanges will add to the cost of coverage,” said Robert E. Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade group.

Erin Shields Britt, a spokeswoman for Ms. Sebelius, predicted that insurers would not raise prices. “Exchanges will provide already profitable insurance companies with access to 30 million new customers while cutting down insurers’ marketing and advertising expenses,” Ms. Shields Britt said. “Exchanges force insurance companies to compete and drive down costs for consumers. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated consumers will save up to 20 percent on their premiums.”

The Office of Personnel Management said its nationwide plans would follow state insurance laws and standards, except in unusual circumstances.

The administration said it “retains authority to make the final decision” on rates if it finds that a state acted in an arbitrary or capricious way in denying a rate increase sought by a nationwide health plan.


November 30, 2012

A Hospital War Reflects a Bind for Doctors in the U.S.


For decades, doctors in picturesque Boise, Idaho, were part of a tight-knit community, freely referring patients to the specialists or hospitals of their choice and exchanging information about the latest medical treatments.

But that began to change a few years ago, when the city’s largest hospital, St. Luke’s Health System, began rapidly buying physician practices all over town, from general practitioners to cardiologists to orthopedic surgeons.

Today, Boise is a medical battleground.

A little over half of the 1,400 doctors in southwestern Idaho are employed by St. Luke’s or its smaller competitor, St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center.

Many of the independent doctors complain that both hospitals, but especially St. Luke’s, have too much power over every aspect of the medical pipeline, dictating which tests and procedures to perform, how much to charge and which patients to admit.

In interviews, they said their referrals from doctors now employed by St. Luke’s had dropped sharply, while patients, in many cases, were paying more there for the same level of treatment.

Boise’s experience reflects a growing national trend toward consolidation. Across the country, doctors who sold their practices and signed on as employees have similar criticisms. In lawsuits and interviews, they describe growing pressure to meet the financial goals of their new employers — often by performing unnecessary tests and procedures or by admitting patients who do not need a hospital stay.

In Boise, just a few weeks ago, even the hospitals were at war. St. Alphonsus went to court seeking an injunction to stop St. Luke’s from buying another physician practice group, arguing that the hospital’s dominance in the market was enabling it to drive up prices and to demand exclusive or preferential agreements with insurers. The price of a colonoscopy has quadrupled in some instances, and in other cases St. Luke’s charges nearly three times as much for laboratory work as nearby facilities, according to the St. Alphonsus complaint.

Federal and state officials have also joined the fray. In one of a handful of similar cases, the Federal Trade Commission and the Idaho attorney general are investigating whether St. Luke’s has become too powerful in Boise, using its newfound leverage to stifle competition.

Dr. David C. Pate, chief executive of St. Luke’s, denied the assertions by St. Alphonsus that the hospital’s acquisitions had limited patient choice or always resulted in higher prices. In some cases, Dr. Pate said, services that had been underpriced were raised to reflect market value. St. Luke’s, he argued, is simply embracing the new model of health care, which he predicted would lead over the long term to lower overall costs as fewer unnecessary tests and procedures were performed.

Regulators expressed some skepticism about the results, for patients, of rapid consolidation, although the trend is still too new to know for sure. “We’re seeing a lot more consolidation than we did 10 years ago,” said Jeffrey Perry, an assistant director in the F.T.C.’s Bureau of Competition. “Historically, what we’ve seen with the consolidation in the health care industry is that prices go up, but quality does not improve.”

A Drive to Consolidate

An array of new economic realities, from reduced Medicare reimbursements to higher technology costs, is driving consolidation in health care and transforming the practice of medicine in Boise and other communities large and small. In one manifestation of the trend, hospitals, private equity firms and even health insurance companies are acquiring physician practices at a rapid rate.

Today, about 39 percent of doctors nationwide are independent, down from 57 percent in 2000, according to estimates by Accenture, a consulting firm.

Many policy experts praise the shift away from independent practices as a way of making health care less fragmented and expensive. Systems that employ doctors, modeled after well-known organizations like Kaiser Permanente, are better able to coordinate patient care and to find ways to deliver improved services at lower costs, these advocates say. Indeed, consolidation is encouraged by some aspects of the Obama administration’s health care law.

“If you’re going to be paid for value, for performance, you’ve got to perform together,” said Dr. Ricardo Martinez, chief medical officer for North Highland, an Atlanta-based consultant that works with hospitals.

The recent trend is reminiscent of the consolidation that swept the industry in the 1990s in response to the creation of health maintenance organizations, or H.M.O.’s — but there is one major difference. Then, hospitals had difficulty managing the practices, contending that doctors did not work as hard when they were employees as they had as private operators. Now, hospitals are writing contracts more in their own favor.

“Hospitals are constructing compensation in ways that are based on productivity and performance,” said Steve Messinger, president of ECG Management Consultants, which advises on physician acquisitions.

But the consolidation of health care may be coming at a hefty price. By one estimate, under its current reimbursement system, Medicare is paying in excess of a billion dollars a year more for the same services because hospitals, citing higher overall costs, can charge more when the doctors work for them. Laser eye surgery, for example, can cost $738 when performed by a hospital-employed doctor, compared with $389 when done by an unaffiliated doctor, according to national estimates by the independent Congressional panel that oversees Medicare. An echocardiogram can cost about twice as much in a hospital: $319, versus $143 in a doctor’s office.

Conflicts over the changes are numerous. One Florida primary care physician said he could earn a $5,000 bonus for keeping patients in the hospital for less than three days, according to a lawsuit he filed this year. Hospitals, which are typically reimbursed a fixed amount of money for treating a specific illness, can make more money if patients stay for shorter periods of time.

Last month, the Justice Department reached a $9.3 million settlement with Freeman Health System, a hospital group in Joplin, Mo., which was rewarding doctors it employed partly based on how many tests they ordered. Freeman says that it alerted regulators to the potential violations and that patient care was not affected.

Recently, the Office of Inspector General at the Health and Human Services Department sent a letter to emergency physicians across the country asking for information about inappropriate admissions. Federal regulators are also examining the higher numbers of physician contracts being created, searching for violations of laws that prevent hospitals from rewarding doctors for admitting patients or for ordering lucrative tests and procedures.

Health Management Associates, a for-profit hospital chain; EmCare, a Dallas-based emergency room staffing company for hospitals; and other hospitals have disclosed that they are the subjects of federal investigations. Regulators are looking into whether the hospitals improperly pressured physicians to admit patients.

Pumping Up Admissions

According to two emergency room doctors who worked at Carlisle Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania, the message could not have been clearer: more patients needed to be admitted.

The doctors were employed by EmCare, whose parent company was later acquired by the private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice in 2011 as part of a $3.2 billion deal. EmCare, in turn, was under contract to provide emergency room doctors for the hospital, which is owned by Health Management Associates. In interviews, doctors said that hospital administrators created targets for how many patients they should admit. More admissions translated into more dollars for the hospital.

Dr. Jean-Paul Romes, one of the physicians, recalled getting phone calls in the middle of the night questioning why he had not admitted an older patient whose hospitalization he could easily have justified. “The pressure to admit was so high,” he said. Dr. Romes left the hospital last year.

After another physician, Dr. Cloyd B. Gatrell, raised concerns that the hospital had too few nurses to keep patients safe, an EmCare executive warned him to “back off,” according to a lawsuit Dr. Gatrell filed last year. EmCare later fired him at Carlisle’s request, according to the suit. Dr. Gatrell’s wife, Kathryn, a nurse at Carlisle, had been fired earlier and also filed a lawsuit. Both Gatrells maintained they were fired for bringing up patient safety concerns, according to Dr. Gatrell’s lawsuit.

Health Management, which operates 70 hospitals, said United States attorneys’ offices in seven states were investigating physician referrals, including financial arrangements and the “medical necessity of emergency room tests and patient admissions.”

EmCare said in an e-mailed statement that it could not comment on continuing legal matters involving it or its clients, but that its “first concern is the well-being of the patient.”

Health Management is also the target of a suit filed last year in Florida state court by a former executive who says there were improper admissions. The executive, Paul Meyer, an officer in the company’s compliance office, was a longtime employee of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He said in his lawsuit that he was fired from H.M.A. in 2011 in retaliation for raising questions about what he felt were improper admissions at four of the chain’s hospitals. H.M.A. said its overall admission rate from the emergency department had remained constant in recent years and that its practices were in line with those of other hospitals. It also said there was no indication that Carlisle admitted any patients unnecessarily. Admissions are “based solely on what is best for patient care,” it said in an e-mailed statement.

The company said that it had addressed all of Mr. Meyer’s concerns, and that he was fired for what the company said was a failure to cooperate in an internal investigation. Health Management fired the Gatrells, it said, “for performance issues,” an accusation Dr. Gatrell strongly denied.

Doctors at other hospitals also say they have faced pressure to meet financial targets. Dr. Manuel Abreu said his contract with All Care Medical Consultants, a practice in Clearwater, Fla., allowed him to earn a bonus as high as $5,000 if he kept patients’ hospital stays to an average of no more than three days, according to a copy of the contract included with a lawsuit he filed in Florida state court this year. The parties reached a settlement and the case was voluntarily dismissed, court records show. Calls to Dr. Abreu’s lawyer and a lawyer for All Care were not returned.

Other physicians say they are pushed to ignore what is best for patients by referring them to doctors working for the same hospital. Dr. Victoria Rentel, a family practice doctor near Columbus, Ohio, recalled feeling pressured when she was employed by a local hospital to send her patients to doctors there for tests and procedures.

“I routinely got reports about the money I kept in the system,” Dr. Rentel said, detailing how much revenue she was generating for the hospital through in-house referrals. “I tended to refer to specialists I knew who would deliver better care.” The hospital eventually closed the clinic where she worked.

Some physicians also complain about quotas. Dr. Patricia F. White, an emergency room physician who worked at Baptist Health in Jacksonville, Fla., said that starting in 2010, her compensation was partly calculated based on the number of patients she saw an hour, according to a lawsuit she filed in August against the hospital and Emergency Resources Group, which provided emergency room staffing to Baptist.

The staffing group said it had no choice but to agree to the hospital’s demands. “If we don’t comply with their wishes as good partners, there is a termination notice in our contract,” wrote Paul Davidson, administrator for the group, in a series of e-mails that were included with Dr. White’s lawsuit.

In an e-mailed statement, Baptist Health said that patients expected timely access to quality care and that an emergency room physician’s “productivity and efficiency are vital components to delivering good patient care as well as ensuring patient safety and satisfaction.” A lawyer for Emergency Resources Group echoed those sentiments in an e-mailed statement, adding that efficiency was only one component of physician compensation.

Doctors at numerous hospitals said it was often difficult to criticize the policies instituted by hospitals or investor-owned physician groups because, as employees, they could easily be fired.

“We all have families, and we have mortgages,” said an emergency room physician. “If you get fired, it looks bad and it’s hard to get another job.”

Rising Medical Costs

It was about three years ago that Dr. Julie A. Foote, who has been an endocrinologist in Boise for 18 years, began noticing the ads in the local newspaper.

Each week, another advertisement appeared, heralding the hire of a physician or a practice group by either St. Luke’s or St. Alphonsus, which is part of Michigan’s Trinity Health, one of the nation’s largest hospital systems. “The playing field wound up being divvied up pretty aggressively,” Dr. Foote said.

In the last four years, St. Luke’s acquired 22 physician practices in the area.

Dr. Mark Johnson, a family practice physician who has worked in Boise for about 25 years, was part of a five-person practice that sold itself to St. Luke’s. Among the factors behind the decision were the high cost of adopting an electronic health records system, and a concern that the group members would not be able to find younger doctors willing to buy them out of the practice.

“But probably the driving reason was the changing landscape of health care delivery and the uncertainty around that,” Dr. Johnson said. “The thought was that we were going to be in a safer position if we were aligned and affiliated with a network.”

But as St. Luke’s moved forward with its plans to acquire most of the Saltzer Medical Group — a practice of about 50 doctors in Nampa, Idaho, about 20 miles west of Boise — St. Alphonsus filed an injunction to block the purchase.

St. Alphonsus argues that St. Luke’s dominance is hurting its business because it has experienced steep declines in hospital admissions and referrals from physicians acquired by St. Luke’s.

St. Luke’s says it is positioning itself to compete better by improving its ability to coordinate patient care. It recently filed an application with Medicare officials to become a so-called accountable care organization. Hospitals designated as A.C.O.’s can usually keep a portion of any savings they generate. They cut health care costs by avoiding unneeded procedures and tests or by keeping patients out of the hospital, while still meeting quality targets.

But St. Luke’s remains under investigation by state and federal authorities for possible antitrust violations. While most physician group purchases are too small to draw regulators’ attention, concerns have been raised about whether consolidation is resulting in higher prices and fewer choices for patients.

In 2009, the F.T.C. forced the sale of two outpatient clinics that had been acquired by Carilion Clinic, based in Roanoke, Va., saying Carilion’s fee structure would have increased patients’ out-of-pocket expenses for a brain imaging test, for example, to $350 from $40.

In another case, the F.T.C. and the Nevada attorney general ordered Renown Health in Reno to release 10 cardiologists from their noncompetition agreements after the hospital system bought the two largest cardiology groups in the area, giving it 88 percent of the market.

In Boise, doctors are pressured to refer only within their own system, according to St. Alphonsus in its complaint. It reported a 90 percent drop in admissions to its hospitals by physicians employed by St. Luke’s. In one community, independent doctors often send patients 40 miles away for CT scans because prices at St. Luke’s are 60 percent higher, the complaint said.

Mr. Pate, the St. Luke’s chief executive, disputed the notion that physicians employed by St. Luke’s were prohibited from referring patients to outside doctors.

“My own wife was referred by a St. Luke’s physician to a St. Al’s physician for her particular condition because he felt the St. Al’s physician was the best for this problem,” he said. “If the wife of the C.E.O. is being referred to a physician at another hospital, that should prove that our physicians send many referrals over there.”

Mr. Pate acknowledged that prices for some services had risen, but he said this was only because they had been severely underpriced. In the long run, he argued, overall costs will decline as St. Luke’s is better able to coordinate care, avoiding expensive emergency room visits and redundant tests.

But some people remain skeptical that patients will be better served.

“I’m not certain what all this means is that patients are getting cost-effective care, which is how the nation is painting this evolution,” Dr. Foote said. “If this is better quality for less price, I want to see the less price.”


November 30, 2012

Small Employers Weigh Impact of Providing Health Insurance


Like many franchisees, Robert U. Mayfield, who owns five Dairy Queens in and around Austin, Tex., is always eager to expand and — no surprise — has had his eyes on opening a sixth DQ. But he said concerns about the new federal health care law had persuaded him to hold off.

“I’m scared to death of it,” he said. “I’m one of the ones sitting on the sidelines to see what’s really going to happen.”

Mr. Mayfield, who has 99 employees, said he was worried he would face penalties of $40,000 or more because he did not offer health insurance to many of his full-time workers — generally defined as those working an average of 30 hours a week or more. Ever since the law was enacted in 2010, opponents have argued that employers who were forced to offer health insurance would lay off workers or shift more people to part-time status to compensate for the additional cost. Those claims have drawn considerable attention — and considerable anger in response — in recent weeks.

John H. Schnatter, the chief executive of Papa John’s, the pizza chain, said some franchisees were likely to reduce their employees’ hours to avoid having to provide coverage. And an unhappy Denny’s franchise owner in Florida warned that he would raise prices 5 percent as a “surcharge,” adding that disgruntled customers could offset that by reducing their tips.

Some health care experts said comments like those came from outliers and sometimes resulted from confusion about a highly complicated new law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Many of the provisions do not go into effect until 2014. Federal officials are still tweaking the fine print, like defining exactly what constitutes a 30-hour workweek. Even so, restaurants and hotels are among the industries likely to be squeezed the hardest by the law because they are low-wage industries that do not offer coverage to most of their workers.

Most employers, even small businesses, already offer health insurance, and the federal law is not expected to have a significant impact on what they do over the next year or so. But businesses that rely heavily on low-income workers, many of whom do not make enough to afford their share of the cost of the insurance premiums, are being forced to rethink their business models.

Almost half of retail and hospitality employers do not offer coverage to all their full-time employees, according to a recent survey by Mercer, a benefits consultant.

“They’re all developing their strategies,” said Debra Gold, a senior partner with Mercer who advises several major retailers.

Many who oppose the requirement say the cost of providing health insurance could mean hiring fewer workers. “Any dollar that gets diverted, whether it’s through Obamacare or increased tax rates, puts franchisees one dollar further away from being able to expand their businesses,” said Don Fox, chief executive of Firehouse Subs, a fast-growing chain of 559 restaurants based in Jacksonville, Fla. At the 30 stores the corporation owns, only full-time managers are offered coverage. Mr. Fox is wrestling with whether to absorb the considerable cost of covering 100 more employees or pay the penalties — which would probably cost him less — but risk losing valued employees to competitors who choose to offer coverage.

Employee health coverage now averages nearly $6,000 for an individual plan. That is considerable for businesses like restaurants in which the majority of workers make $24,000 a year
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« Reply #3276 on: Dec 01, 2012, 08:38 AM »

In the USA..

The Republican Obsession With Obstructing Obama is Endangering the Country

By: Rmuse November 30th, 2012

The spectrum of behaviors characterized by abnormal mental or behavioral patterns manifest as violations of normalcy, including a person becoming a danger to others, is a broad definition of insanity. Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” and his definition aptly describes the Republican Party for the past thirty years. However, since President Obama won re-election three weeks ago, members of the GOP in Congress have gone off the rails, and the consequences to the government, and 98% of the people, represents a clear danger to the nation’s fragile economic recovery. Even though the election proved voters rejected Republican obstructionism and loyalty to the wealthy, they are digging in their heels and threatening tactics they used over the past four years as if the people demanded they continue making government unmanageable.

When S&P downgraded the country’s credit rating last year, they said “America’s governance was becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable,” and blamed Republicans for using “the statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default as political bargaining chips to resist any measure that would raise revenues.” S&P recognized that sequestration leading to the so-called fiscal cliff was “a fallback mechanism designed to encourage Congress to embrace a more balanced approach to deficit reduction,” but they understood Republicans were intent on letting the “2001 and 2003 tax cuts, due to expire by the end of 2012, remain in place.” The Republican proposals beginning the day after the election informed that S&P recognized what many Americans have witnessed for the past four years and that is the Republicans will continue obstructing any attempt to increase revenue that includes raising taxes on the rich. In fact, they are still pushing Romney’s tax plan for fiscal cliff negotiations that include reducing tax rates for the wealthy and closing tax loopholes for the middle class.

In an effort to unblock the logjam in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid is proposing changing filibuster rules to disallow Republicans from obstructing bills from even coming up for discussion, and it prompted Speaker of the House John Boehner to pre-condemn a change to the filibuster by threatening that, “Any bill that reaches a Republican-led House based on Senate Democrats’ heavy-handed power play would be dead on arrival.” However, there have been bills that did pass the filibuster prone Senate Republicans, like keeping tax cuts for 98% of Americans and 97% of small businesses, that House Republicans refuse to bring up for a vote, or discussion. Republican obstructionism is not dependent on Senate procedures, but on giving preference to the wealthy and opposing any Administration or Democratic measure regardless if it helps create jobs, boost the economy, or reduce the deficit.

Yesterday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner presented President Obama’s proposal for avoiding the fiscal cliff Republicans voted for last year, and Republicans dismissed it with extreme prejudice because it is not austerity with more tax cuts for the rich. The President’s proposal adheres to the kind of broad framework of the deal Boehner wants with an upfront deficit-reduction “down payment” that cancels automatic tax increases and spending cuts while still signaling seriousness on the deficit, and a second stage giving Congress the opportunity to work on overhauling the tax code and social programs to secure more deficit reduction next year. Still, it does not include reducing taxes on wealthy and corporations’ while drastically cutting social safety nets and spending on infrastructure. Boehner said, “The Democrats have yet to get serious about real spending cuts,” and that “no substantive progress has been made in the talks between the White House and the House over the last two weeks. Listen, this is not a game, jobs are on the line, the American economy is on the line. And this is a moment for adult leadership.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “They took a step backward, moving away from consensus and significantly closer to the cliff,” which is simple code for not proposing severe austerity to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy that, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), will not reduce the deficit.

In the CBO’s Budget and Economic Outlook for Fiscal Years 2012 – 2022, it says if Bush-era tax cuts are allowed to expire at the end of the year, then the projected deficit will shrink from $1.1 trillion to $196 billion; an 82% reduction over the next six years. As a result, an increase in tax revenues combined with spending cuts will nearly halve the deficit in 2013, reducing it to $585 billion. They also claim that because the Bush-era tax cuts were never paid for, they will remain 60% of the deficit through 2019 because the country is still paying on borrowed money to benefit the wealthy.

There are signs that some Republicans realize the election was a repudiation of Republicans and their persistent obstructionism and refusal to help all Americans, but the majority are still of the mindset that preventing economic progress will “make President Obama a one-term President.” The Republican hatred of President Obama transcends economic policy and permeates their entire reason for living. The recent statements by some Senate Republicans that they will not confirm anyone the President nominates to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State has nothing to do with the Benghazi attack that killed four Americans and everything to do obstructing President Obama. Their opposition to any Administration proposal is not founded in sound economic or foreign policies, but their insane obsession with preventing the President from working for the American people.

Last year’s S&P report was correct in its appraisal that Republicans have made governance less stable, less effective, and less predictable, and one may have thought the election signaled that their intransigence on balanced deficit reduction was not acceptable, but they learned nothing whatsoever. In fact, they immediately trotted out Willard Romney’s tax plan, made Paul Ryan point-man on fiscal cliff negotiations, and assailed the President for not putting the Affordable Care Act on the table as a means of deficit reduction; anything to prevent raising tax rates on the wealthiest 2% of income earners. Their obsession with protecting the rich is more than just a form of mental illness; it is hazardous to this country’s economic health the American people cannot survive as long as they continue making governance less stable and effective.

President Obama gave Republicans a proposal that cuts the deficit, cuts spending, creates jobs through infrastructure improvements, and preserves tax cuts for 98% of the population and 97% of small businesses. Republicans countered with Romney’s austerity plan and greater tax cuts for the wealthy, and they show no signs of relenting despite the looming fiscal cliff. Americans cannot tolerate another four years of Republican obstructionism just to benefit 2% of the population, or Draconian cuts to social safety nets that tens-of-millions of Americans depend on for basic survival. It has come to the point that Republicans are not doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, because they are doing the same thing they have for the past four years and expect the same results of making governance impossible, and unfortunately for America, their insane obsession with obstructing the President is a danger to economic recovery and 98% of the population.


November 30, 2012

The Monster of Monticello


Durham, N.C.

THOMAS JEFFERSON is in the news again, nearly 200 years after his death — alongside a high-profile biography by the journalist Jon Meacham comes a damning portrait of the third president by the independent scholar Henry Wiencek.

We are endlessly fascinated with Jefferson, in part because we seem unable to reconcile the rhetoric of liberty in his writing with the reality of his slave owning and his lifetime support for slavery. Time and again, we play down the latter in favor of the former, or write off the paradox as somehow indicative of his complex depths.

Neither Mr. Meacham, who mostly ignores Jefferson’s slave ownership, nor Mr. Wiencek, who sees him as a sort of fallen angel who comes to slavery only after discovering how profitable it could be, seem willing to confront the ugly truth: the third president was a creepy, brutal hypocrite.

Contrary to Mr. Wiencek’s depiction, Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.

There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.

But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.

Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.

Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.

Jefferson also dodged opportunities to undermine slavery or promote racial equality. As a state legislator he blocked consideration of a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state.

As president he acquired the Louisiana Territory but did nothing to stop the spread of slavery into that vast “empire of liberty.” Jefferson told his neighbor Edward Coles not to emancipate his own slaves, because free blacks were “pests in society” who were “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” And while he wrote a friend that he sold slaves only as punishment or to unite families, he sold at least 85 humans in a 10-year period to raise cash to buy wine, art and other luxury goods.

Destroying families didn’t bother Jefferson, because he believed blacks lacked basic human emotions. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote, and their love lacked “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.”

Jefferson claimed he had “never seen an elementary trait of painting or sculpture” or poetry among blacks and argued that blacks’ ability to “reason” was “much inferior” to whites’, while “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.” He conceded that blacks were brave, but this was because of “a want of fore-thought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”

A scientist, Jefferson nevertheless speculated that blackness might come “from the color of the blood” and concluded that blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”

Jefferson did worry about the future of slavery, but not out of moral qualms. After reading about the slave revolts in Haiti, Jefferson wrote to a friend that “if something is not done and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children.” But he never said what that “something” should be.

In 1820 Jefferson was shocked by the heated arguments over slavery during the debate over the Missouri Compromise. He believed that by opposing the spread of slavery in the West, the children of the revolution were about to “perpetrate” an “act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”

If there was “treason against the hopes of the world,” it was perpetrated by the founding generation, which failed to place the nation on the road to liberty for all. No one bore a greater responsibility for that failure than the master of Monticello.

Paul Finkelman, a visiting professor in legal history at Duke Law School, is a professor at Albany Law School and the author of “Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson.”
« Last Edit: Dec 01, 2012, 08:45 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #3277 on: Dec 02, 2012, 08:10 AM »

Egyptian President Morsi calls for December referendum on constitution

By Abdel-Rahman Hussein, The Guardian
Saturday, December 1, 2012 18:01 EST

President puts faith in popular vote to silence critics of government’s sweeping powers as about 50,000 rally in Cairo

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has announced a snap referendum on a new constitution that has already deepened divisions in a country still struggling to find its identity more than a year after it emerged from Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

Morsi, who has triggered a fresh crisis in Egypt by assuming sweeping powers and pushing the constitution through an Islamist-dominated assembly, called the 15 December vote after tens of thousands of his loyalists rallied in support of the document.

Opposition leaders have condemned the constitution, saying its basis in Islamic laws could undermine women’s rights and freedom of speech. Mohamed ElBaradei called it a violation of universal values and vowed that the struggle against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood would continue.

Earlier, an estimated 50,000 people congregated near Cairo University, many bussed in from the countryside to show their support for the president and sharia law. Members of the president’s Muslim Brotherhood were joined by large numbers of their Salfi Muslim allies.

“I’m here to support Morsi’s decree and the constitution. He is the first elected president, and his decisions are all correct,” said protester Shaaban Hassan. Fellow protester Mustafa Abdel-Razak stressed that it was a religious duty to support Morsi. “It’s a matter of religion, to support my custodian [Morsi]. It is religiously decreed to support my custodian, as long as he does not order us to sin.”

Morsi’s decree and the resulting furore has repolarised Egyptian politics and society. Opposition forces immediately took to the streets to decry what they termed a dictatorial power grab, which granted Morsi judicial immunity in all decisions and ringfenced the assembly given the task of drafting the constitution.

Morsi has insisted that the measures are temporary and will speed Egypt’s democratic transition.

However, by giving himself extensive powers and putting his decisions beyond judicial challenge he has pushed the country into fresh turmoil. His assertion of authority in a decree issued the day after he won world praise for brokering a Gaza truce between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement dismayed his opponents.

Saturday was the first showing of Islamist forces since the uproar began after they cancelled a demonstration last Tuesday because it coincided with opposition forces marching on Tahrir Square. Initially Saturday’s protest was scheduled for Tahrir Square, but was relocated to Cairo University to avoid opposition protesters who were continuing a sit-in.

In an effort to defuse the crisis, and also avoid possible dissolution by a supreme court ruling due on Sunday, the drafting assembly rushed to finish in time for Morsi to ratify it and call the referendum. The final draft drew criticism at home and abroad for its ambiguous language, its weak and contradictory articles on human rights, women’s rights and civil liberties, and for the creeping sense of religiosity. The assembly was also criticised for its homogeneous nature after liberal and Christian members withdrew.

“We fundamentally reject the referendum and constituent assembly because the assembly does not represent all sections of society,” said Sayed el-Erian, 43, a protester and member of a party set up by ElBaradei.

Privately owned media announced a press blackout on Tuesday and Wednesday in protest. Morsi’s unilateral actions and refusal to back down have dismayed secular opposition forces, who are adamant that he must rescind these powers before a solution can be discussed.

“Morsi’s actions display a lack of wisdom,” said university professor Mustafa Kamel el-Sayed, who withdrew from the assembly drafting the constitution because of the Islamist domination of the group.

“The head of state should try to promote national reconciliation. And by insisting on a course of action which is rejected by a considerable number of Egyptians, the president is basing his power exclusively on one political force, marginalising all others.”

However, Sayed Sabah Abdallah, a member of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice party, who was present at the pro-Morsi rally, laid the blame of the current crisis squarely at the door of the secular opposition.

“The forces in Tahrir want to bring down this constitution because they know we are the biggest organisational force in the country and that we would sweep the parliamentary elections that must be held right after the constitution is passed in the referendum,” he said.


02 December 2012 - 09H42 

Egypt court delays session on charter amid protests

AFP - A top Egyptian court postponed on Sunday a session at which it was to examine the legality of a panel that drew up a controversial constitution, as hundreds of Islamists protested outside.

A judicial official told AFP that the Supreme Constitutional Court had not even begun sitting when it called an "administrative delay" to the session that would have also looked into the status of the Islamist-dominated senate.

Both the official and state television did not mention when the court would hold any new session. A lawyer told reporters it had been delayed because the judges felt they could not enter the courtroom because of the protesters.
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« Reply #3278 on: Dec 02, 2012, 08:17 AM »

 02 December 2012 - 13H14 

EU urges Israel to annul massive settlement plan

AFP - EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Sunday urged Israel to annul plans to build 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying it would be "an obstacle to peace".

"The European Union has repeatedly stated that all settlement construction is illegal under international law and constitutes an obstacle to peace," Ashton said in a statement.

"I ask the government of Israel to show its commitment to the early renewal of negotiations to end the conflict and the occupation by not taking forward these plans," she added.

Israel revealed plans to build the 3,000 homes a day after the historic UN vote Thursday recognising Palestine as a non-member state of the world body.

Ashton recalled that during last week's debate on upgrading Palestine's United Nations status she had urged both sides to resume direct negotiations without delay or preconditions and "to pursue actions which could build confidence, not undermine it."

"I am therefore extremely worried by the prospects of settlement expansion on such a scale," she said.

"The reaction of the international community to any such decision is likely also to be influenced by the extent to which such expansion may represent a strategic step undermining the prospects of a contiguous and viable Palestine with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both it and Israel.

On Saturday, Arab and Turkish foreign ministers condemned the Israeli plan.


Middle Eastern diplomats condemn Israeli settlement plans

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, December 1, 2012 20:30 EST

Arab and Turkish foreign ministers on Saturday condemned Israel’s plans to build 3,000 settler homes in east Jerusalem after the Palestinians won non-member observer status at the United Nations.

The ministers “condemned the Israeli decision to establish 3,000 housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank,” according to a joint statement released at the end of the Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum in Istanbul.

They called on the international community to exert all efforts to halt the Israeli settlement activities which they said “are illegal and contrary to (UN) Security Council decisions resolutions and international law.”

Israel revealed plans to build the 3,000 new homes a day after the Palestinians’ historic success at the United Nations on Thursday.

The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly backed a resolution on Thursday recognising Palestine as a non-member observer state, a move Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas said was part of “a last chance” for a negotiated two-state solution.

Israel and the United States have both criticised the UN vote as an obstacle to efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

In opening remarks, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called for an “independent Palestinian state” and urged the international community not to allow Israel to undermine peace efforts in the Middle East.

Davutoglu welcomed the upgrading of the Palestinians’ status at the United Nations as a “significant step.”

“Now is the time to restore permanent peace in the region,” said Davutoglu, adding that the establishment of “an independent Palestinian state” was a precondition to achieving peace.

“We hope that the Palestinian flag will be hoisted at the United States with full member status,” Davutoglu said.

He also criticised the Israeli aggression in Gaza which he said dragged the Middle East into new chaos. “Now is the time to show strong reactions to Israeli policies which undermine the peace process,” he said.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, addressing the forum, welcomed the UN vote about the Palestinians but said: “We must see and admit that Palestine is also a country under occupation despite the fact that it won observer status.”

Erdogan, a vocal critic of Israeli aggression, branded Israel as a “terrorist state” and accused it of “ethnic cleansing” in the Gaza Strip, which was battered by air strikes last month.

He also called for Palestinian unity to form a “state with East Jerusalem as its capital”.


02 December 2012 - 11H08  

Israel 'halts Palestinian tax transfer' over UN bid

AFP - Israel is halting the transfer of tax and tariff money it collects for the Palestinians in response to their successful bid for UN non-member observer state status, Israeli media reported on Sunday.

Israeli radio and two local newspapers reported that the Israeli government would no longer be transferring funds it was scheduled to deliver to the Palestinian Authority this month, in response to their UN bid.


Originally published Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 4:54 PM    

Israelis stunned by Germany's abstention on U.N. Palestine vote

Most stinging of all in the U.N. vote on the status of Palestinians was the decision by Germany, long one of Israel's most dependable supporters, to abstain rather than vote against the declaration.

By Sheera Frenkel
McClatchy Newspapers

JERUSALEM — Israeli officials had long known they would be on the losing end of the U.N. General Assembly's vote on whether to grant Palestine official status as a nonmember observer state. Palestinian officials months ago had said they had gathered enough votes to win the declaration.

But it wasn't until the final votes were cast Thursday that Israeli officials realized how lopsided the outcome would be. Most stinging of all was the decision by Germany, long one of Israel's most dependable international supporters, to abstain rather than vote against the declaration.

"Germany has historically been one of our staunchest allies in Europe," said a senior Israeli diplomat who agreed to discuss the issue on condition of anonymity. "It was truly a shock they would abstain."

Perhaps no two countries have a more tangled history than Germany and Israel, one that was born of the Holocaust, the extermination campaign by Nazi Germany that claimed the lives of at least 6 million Jews and prompted the flood of Jewish immigration from the rubble of World War II Europe to what became Israel.

In the decades since, Germany has paid more than $32 billion in war reparations to Israel or Israelis. Last year, Germany voted "no" on Palestine's successful bid to join UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural body.

Despite that history, there were signs in the past year that the German government had grown impatient with the stance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That finally was what drove Germany's decision not to object to declaring Palestine an observer state, a German diplomat said at a background briefing in Jerusalem, the conditions for which required that he not be identified.

"Not only has Israel refused to consider even a partial freeze of the settlements to appease the Palestinians, they have refused to even discuss the issue," the diplomat said. "Our decision at the U.N. was based on the widespread feeling that Israel had failed to make real steps toward peace, and that they had made a mockery of our past support."

The impact of that decision was immediate. Once Germany had declared itself as abstaining ahead of the vote, one European country after another announced it would either vote for the Palestinian bid or abstain.

When the final tally was announced, only nine countries opposed the designation: Israel, Canada, the Czech Republic, Panama, the United States, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau. Voting in favor were 138 countries, with 41, including Germany, abstaining.

France, Spain, Italy and Greece voted in favor of the declaration.

"It was a slap in the face. A wake-up slap in the face — we hope," said another senior Israeli diplomat. He asked to be quoted anonymously because Israeli officials had been ordered not to discuss what he termed "a stunning defeat."

"None of our predictions expected such low numbers for us," said the senior Israeli diplomat.

Israel appeared unchastened by the outcome. On Friday, Israeli news outlets reported the government was pushing forward with the development of Jewish settlements in contentious areas east of Jerusalem and the West Bank.


December 1, 2012

Dividing the West Bank, and Deepening a Rift


JERUSALEM — High up in an empty, mountainous expanse east of this city there is a stone patio with a pair of green metal benches and a plaque marking the cornerstone of a future Jewish community. Dedicated in 2009, the plaque promises the new city will be built “adjacent to the united Jerusalem, which will be quickly re-established.”

Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians see as their capital, is anything but united, with fierce fights over its development posing perhaps the greatest threat to the prospects of peace. And beyond the cornerstone, nothing has been erected since in this contentious 4.6-square-mile area, known as E1, where there are many more goats than people.

But Israel’s announcement on Friday that it was moving ahead with zoning and planning preparations for the area could change all that, and many fear that it could close the window on the chance for a two-state solution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Construction in E1, in West Bank territory that Israel captured in the 1967 war, would connect the large Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim to Jerusalem, dividing the West Bank in two. The Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem would be cut off from the capital, making the contiguous Palestinian state endorsed by the United Nations last week virtually impossible.

Although Israeli officials did not call the move retaliation for the United Nations vote, most people here assumed the timing was not coincidental.

“It’s like two 3-year-old children playing, and one is hitting and the other is slapping instead of sitting down,” said Alex Lash, 56, an Israeli who was having a breakfast at a bustling restaurant here on Saturday morning in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina after a three-hour mountain-bike ride. “It’s a never-ending story: we are doing something, they are doing something, one movement brings the other side’s movement. There is no end for that.”

Zakaria al-Qaq, a professor of national security at Al Quds University here and a resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, also described the situation as a hopeless “cycle of action and reaction,” and said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was under pressure to act because of the Israeli elections on Jan. 22.

“Maybe the Palestinians got something on paper and morally, but he got something on the ground,” Mr. al-Qaq said. “Netanyahu is trying to enforce something on the ground and gain the hearts and minds of the Israeli public. It’s a strong message to the Palestinian leadership that Netanyahu is not without cards in his hand.”

The development of E1, a project that the United States has blocked several times since 1994, has long been seen as a diplomatic third rail, and several experts said Saturday that they expected that Israel may once again back down from building there. But several other controversial housing projects within Jerusalem have sped forward in recent months, raising the ire of the Palestinian leadership, left-leaning Israelis and the international community, most of whom see the settlements as a violation of international law.

Along with zoning and planning for E1, Israel on Thursday approved 3,000 new housing units in unspecified parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Dani Seidemann, a Jerusalem lawyer and longtime antisettlement activist, said that even before the latest decision, the government had issued tenders for the construction of 2,366 units in 2012, more than twice the number built in the previous three years combined.

These include more than 1,200 units in Ramot and Pisgat Zeev — decades-old upscale Jewish neighborhoods of 40,000-plus residents that straddle Beit Hanina in the northern reaches of the municipality. Late last month, final approval of 2,610 units in an undeveloped southern stretch known as Givat Hamatos was postponed under international pressure because it was scheduled while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was in the region trying to negotiate an end to Israel’s bloody conflict with the Gaza Strip.

“Now approaching the point of no return,” Mr. Seidemann said during a tour of the area Saturday. “It’s the largest settlement surge in Jerusalem since the 1970s.”

Israel began building and expanding East Jerusalem in 1968, shortly after it wrested control of the area from Jordan. There were about 69,000 Palestinians living there then. Now, nearly 300,000 Palestinians and more than 190,000 Jews live in dozens of separate communities scattered throughout the areas north, east and south of the Old City that are collectively called East Jerusalem. (Some 2,500 Jews have also settled house by house in close-in neighborhoods like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah.)

Most Israelis do not see these as settlements; Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, and considers the whole city its capital, though most of the world considers East Jerusalem occupied territory.

The Jewish communities here are a far cry from the hilltop outposts that start with trailers in the rugged reaches of the West Bank. French Hill is filled with professors from the nearby Hebrew University, whose stunning views now include the barrier that separates Palestinian territory from Israel. Ramot has luxurious homes with in-ground swimming pools. Pisgat Zeev has a mall of Israel’s leading chains, while Har Homa, a working-class stretch of apartment blocks whose construction in the 1990s prompted an international outcry, is studded with state-of-the-art playgrounds.

Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, has embarked on an ambitious development plan since his election in 2008. The city’s maps do not mark neighborhoods as Jewish or Palestinian, and Mr. Barkat’s aides say the new construction is meant to benefit both communities.

“Jerusalem must remain a united city under all circumstances,” Mr. Barkat said in an e-mail interview this spring about the Givat Hamatos development. “There is no example of a split city, divided either administratively or geographically, that ever worked. Ask Berliners what they think of the idea.”

But Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said Israel is moving at “a mad pace” to “impose its own solution” to the conflict.

“They want to predetermine the fate and status of Jerusalem,” she said in an interview on Saturday. Israel, she said, “does everything to create on the ground facts that would make any solution impossible.”

If construction in E1 would be “the fatal heart attack” of the two-state solution, as Mr. Seidemann describes it, Givat Hamatos is its “silent killer, high blood pressure.” With a four-part plan including 4,000 homes and 1,000 hotel rooms, it would be the first new neighborhood built in Jerusalem since Har Homa. Like E1, it too would be a roadblock to plans for a contiguous Palestinian state, splitting Bethlehem and the southern West Bank from the thriving Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa and the rest of Jerusalem. “It will kill the village,” said Mahmoud Zohar, 46, who lives in Beit Safafa at the foot of Givat Hamatos. “The village is getting suffocated.”

While the Hamatos plan includes housing for Palestinians, Hagit Ofran of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Project said a similar provision in Har Homa never came to fruition. Since 1967, she said, Israel has built over 50,000 houses occupied by Jews, and fewer than 700 for Palestinians.

“It’s not only to be able to connect the dots between one Palestinian house and another, it’s also to be able to expand the Palestinian cities,” Ms. Ofran said to explain her objection. “Some people say, O.K., let’s build an underpass or an overpass, but what future will they have?”

A few miles away in E1, there is already such a road, built in 2007, its lanes divided by a concrete wall designed to look like Jerusalem stone. One side is meant for Israelis, and would have exits to Maale Adumim and various parts of Jerusalem. The other, for Palestinians, would have few offramps but provide a path from Ramallah to Bethlehem to answer criticism about contiguity.

The road is fenced off, as is a never-used bridge from E1 to Maale Adumim, since all previous efforts to build in the area have been halted.
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« Reply #3279 on: Dec 02, 2012, 08:19 AM »

02 December 2012 - 13H25 

'Sixty samples taken' in Arafat poison probe

AFP - Around 60 samples were taken from the remains of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for a probe into whether he was poisoned by polonium, a Swiss newspaper reported Sunday, quoting a lead investigator.

The samples were distributed among three teams doing separate analyses eight years after Arafat's death in a French hospital, Patrice Mangin told Le Matin Dimanche.

A Palestinian pathologist was the only person allowed to touch the body when Arafat's grave was opened on Tuesday in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

He was able to "take all the samples that were wanted, around 60 in total," said Mangin, the director of the Swiss University Centre of Legal Medicine in Lausanne.

A French team is carrying out a separate probe at the request of Arafat's widow Suha, while a Russian team was appointed by the Palestinian authority.

Mangin said the investigation would take three or four months.

Speaking shortly after the exhumation process was completed, Tawfiq Tirawi, who heads the Palestinian investigation into Arafat's death, said Ramallah would petition the International Criminal Court in The Hague if it found proof that the veteran leader was poisoned.

The investigations were set up after evidence emerged that abnormal amounts of polonium, a radioactive substance, were found on Arafat's personal effects.

Polonium was the substance that killed Russian ex-spy and fierce Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.
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« Reply #3280 on: Dec 02, 2012, 08:27 AM »

December 1, 2012

Flow of Arms to Syria Through Iraq Persists, to U.S. Dismay


WASHINGTON — The American effort to stem the flow of Iranian arms to Syria has faltered because of Iraq’s reluctance to inspect aircraft carrying the weapons through its airspace, American officials say.

The shipments have persisted at a critical time for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who has come under increasing military pressure from rebel fighters. The air corridor over Iraq has emerged as a main supply route for weapons, including rockets, antitank missiles, rocket-propelled grenade and mortars.

Iran has an enormous stake in Syria, which is its staunchest Arab ally and has also provided a channel for Iran’s support to the Lebanese Islamist movement Hezbollah.

To the disappointment of the Obama administration, American efforts to persuade the Iraqis to randomly inspect the flights have been largely unsuccessful.

Adding to American concerns, Western intelligence officials say they are picking up new signs of activity at sites in Syria that are used to store chemical weapons. The officials are uncertain whether Syrian forces might be preparing to use the weapons in a last-ditch effort to save the government, or simply sending a warning to the West about the implications of providing more help to the Syrian rebels.

“It’s in some ways similar to what they’ve done before,” a senior American official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “But they’re doing some things that suggest they intend to use the weapons. It’s not just moving stuff around. These are different kind of activities.”

The official said, however, that the Syrians had not carried out the most blatant steps toward using the chemical weapons, such as preparing them to be fired by artillery batteries or loaded in bombs to be dropped from warplanes.  

Regarding the arms shipments, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton secured a commitment from Iraq’s foreign minister in September that Iraq would inspect flights from Iran to Syria. But the Iraqis have inspected only two, most recently on Oct. 27. No weapons were found, but one of the two planes that landed in Iraq for inspection was on its way back to Iran after delivering its cargo in Syria.

Adding to the United States’ frustrations, Iran appears to have been tipped off by Iraqi officials as to when inspections would be conducted, American officials say, citing classified reports by American intelligence analysts.

Iran’s continued efforts to aid the Syrian government were described in interviews with a dozen American administration, military and Congressional officials, most of whom requested anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

“The abuse of Iraqi airspace by Iran continues to be a concern,” an American official said. “We urge Iraq to be diligent and consistent in fulfilling its international obligations and commitments, either by continuing to require flights over Iraqi territory en route to Syria from Iran to land for inspection or by denying overflight requests for Iranian aircraft going to Syria.”

Iraqi officials insist that they oppose the ferrying of arms through Iraq’s airspace. They also cite claims by Iran that it is merely delivering humanitarian aid, and they call the American charges unfounded.

“We wouldn’t be able to convince them, even if we searched all the airplanes, because they have prejudged the situation,” Ali al-Musawi, the spokesman for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq, said of the American concerns. “Our policy is that we will not allow the transfer of arms to Syria.”

Mr. Musawi acknowledged that one of the planes was not inspected until it was returning from Damascus, but said it was a simple error, not a deliberate effort to help the Iranians. “Mistakes sometimes occur,” he said.

But one former Iraqi official, who asked not to be identified because he feared retaliation by the Iraqi government, said that some officials in Baghdad had been doing the bare minimum to placate the United States and were in fact sympathetic to the Iranian efforts in Syria.

The Iranian flights present challenges for the Obama administration, which has been reluctant to provide arms to the Syrian rebels or to establish a no-fly zone over Syria for fear of becoming entangled in the conflict. They also illustrate the limits of the administration’s influence with the Maliki government and point to divergent foreign-policy calculations in Washington and in Baghdad.

While Iraq’s actions clearly benefit Iran, a Shiite country with close ties to many Iraqi officials, Mr. Maliki may have his own reasons to tolerate the flights.

Mr. Maliki, American officials say, is worried that if Mr. Assad falls from power it may embolden Sunni and Kurdish forces in the region, including in Iraq, which could present challenges to his Shiite-dominated government.

Iran’s support for Syria is vital to the Assad government, American officials said. In addition to flying arms and ammunition to Syria, Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force is sending trainers and advisers, sometimes disguised as religious pilgrims, tourists and businessmen, the officials say.

Iran’s flights of arms to Syria drew the concern of American officials soon after the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq last December. Iraq lacks an air force and is unable to enforce control of its own airspace, and Iran took advantage by ferrying arms to Syria.

Under American pressure, Iraqi officials persuaded the Iranians to hold off on the flights as Iraq prepared to host the Arab summit in Baghdad in March. Soon after the meeting, President Obama, in an April 3 call to Mr. Maliki, underscored that the flights should not continue.

But after a bombing in Damascus in July that killed ranking members of Mr. Assad’s government, the Iranian flights resumed. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. raised American concerns over the flights in an Aug. 17 phone call with Mr. Maliki. So did Denis McDonough, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, who met with Mr. Maliki in Baghdad in October.

When Mr. McDonough raised concerns over the inspection of the plane that was on its way back to Iran, Mr. Maliki responded that he was not aware that the inspection had been carried out that way, according to one account of the meeting by an American official. A spokeswoman for the National Security Council declined to comment.

There is evidence of collusion between Iranian and Iraqi officials on the inspections, according to American intelligence assessments. In one instance, according to an American intelligence report, Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, ordered that a flight to Syria carry only humanitarian goods. An Iraqi inspection occurred soon after, when the plane was asked to land in Iraq on Oct. 27.

Much of the American intelligence community’s concerns about possible collusion has focused on Hadi al-Amiri, Iraq’s minister of transportation, who is believed to be close to the Iranians and was among the Iraqi traveling party when Mr. Maliki visited Washington last year. Mr. Amiri said: “This is untrue. We are an independent country and our stance is clear. We will search whichever plane we want, whenever we want. We will not take orders.”

Nasir Bender, the head of civil aviation in Iraq, said there was no indication that Iraqi officials had tipped off the Iranians. “We have orders to search any plane that we feel is suspicious, but the ones we have searched were only carrying medical supplies and clothing,” he said, adding that the Iraqis had inspected only two Iranian flights because of the cost of fuel. “We can’t search every plane because there are so many heading to Syria,” he said. “It would be a big waste of money. Each plane we take down we must refill with fuel.”

In one instance in late October, however, an Iranian flight ignored an Iraqi request that it land, according to American intelligence assessments, presumably because the Iranians did not want its cargo to be inspected.

Iraq’s attitude toward the Iranian flights has drawn the concern of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who has been mentioned as a possible secretary of state in Mr. Obama’s second term.

“If so many people have entreated the government to stop and that doesn’t seem to be having an impact,” Mr. Kerry said in September, “that sort of alarms me a little bit and seems to send a signal to me maybe we should make some of our assistance or some of our support contingent on some kind of appropriate response.”

The activity at the Syrian chemical weapons sites, described by American, European and Israeli officials, poses an additional challenge for the West. The senior American official confirmed on Saturday that in the past two or three days, United States and allied intelligence have detected that the Syrian military was carrying out some kind of activities with some of its chemical stockpiles.

Since the crisis began in Syria, the United States and its allies have stepped up electronic eavesdropping and other surveillance activities of the sites.

Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Tim Arango from Baghdad. David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.


December 1, 2012

In Damascus, Tense Anticipation of Strongest Push Yet by Rebels


BEIRUT, Lebanon — As Syrian rebels and government forces clashed on the outskirts of Damascus, explosions rumbled in the distance and warplanes screeched overhead, the rebels appeared to be making their strongest push toward the city since the government repelled an offensive there in July.

A quiet tension prevailed downtown. But security checkpoints were proliferating, and there were reports that President Bashar al-Assad was preparing loyal divisions to defend the city, the capital and heart of his power.

Military analysts warned that it was impossible to know whether a decisive battle for Damascus was beginning, especially as Syrians lost access to the Internet for 53 hours, limiting the flow of information, before it was restored Saturday. But they said that a government fight to defend its core could be the fiercest and most destructive phase yet of the 20-month conflict.

“We’re waiting for the big battle to begin,” said Emile Hokayem, an analyst based in Bahrain for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

For decades, the Assad family has settled loyal military families, many from its minority Alawite sect, in the western outskirts of Damascus, where the presidential palace sits on a plateau overlooking the city. The current fighting suggested that the government was trying to insulate those areas, along with the city center and airport, from the semicircle of urban sprawl curving from northeast to southwest, where rebels have strengthened their position in recent days, overrunning a string of small bases.

Analysts say that Mr. Assad, knowing that losing Damascus could be a decisive blow, has been conserving his best and most loyal troops and much of his artillery for a battle there.

“We’re not yet at a point where the regime is in total panic mode and can no longer make rational — however nasty — decisions about military strategy,” Mr. Hokayem said. “He has to decide which cities around Damascus to destroy and which cities to keep in hand.”

When Damascus was threatened in July, the government pulled forces from parts of northern and southern Syria — allowing rebels to consolidate gains in the north — and there were reports that something similar was happening now. An activist in Damascus said Saturday that elements of the army’s feared Fourth Division, led by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, were at the Aqraba military airport near the Damascus airport. There were unconfirmed reports that other top divisions and special forces were headed for the city, said Joseph Holliday, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, in Washington.

“When the rebels score victories in Damascus, it forces the regime to contract more quickly” in the areas that it contests elsewhere, he said.

To some extent that has already happened, said one diplomat, Nasser Judeh, the foreign minister of Jordan. “There are large areas of Syria that are beyond the control of the regime now,” he said Saturday in Washington. “The opposition and the rebel forces are making serious advances. Things are moving in a different direction compared to what they were a few weeks ago.”

Analysts said rebels were unlikely to quickly overrun the government’s positions in the capital. The government has defended chosen strong points, including its most important helicopter base, in the northern province of Idlib, and a base on the road between Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo. Rebels have besieged both for months without taking them.

But the encroachment on Damascus has a profound psychological effect that could hasten the crumbling of Mr. Assad’s support — or deepen it among those who fear their fates are tied to his. In July, when rebels briefly held the southern Damascus neighborhood of Midan and bombed a military headquarters downtown, killing four top officials, some government supporters fled to Lebanon and coastal Alawite strongholds, analysts said.

Last month, rebel bombings in Mezze 86, a neighborhood of Alawite military families near the palace, unsettled government supporters amid suspicions of an inside job. In recent weeks, officials have expressed fear of commuting home to the suburbs, worrying that Sunni Muslim conscript soldiers at checkpoints will turn on them, shifting allegiance to the mostly Sunni uprising, said analysts, activists and a foreign reporter recently in Damascus.

On Saturday, a car bomb exploded in Ish al-Wuroor, an Alawite neighborhood at the north end of the palace plateau, activists said, adding to fears that the Damascus fighting would deepen the conflict’s sectarian cast.

If rebels hit Damascus or assassinate top officials, Mr. Holliday said, “you could have more elements of the Alawite leadership saying, ‘I’m not going down with the ship.’ ”

With most foreign airlines canceling flights and the roads contested, residents describe a sense of being trapped.

“I’m stuck in Damascus, but I don’t want to leave,” said an elderly woman whose home in Kafar Souseh, a southern suburb, is near where fighting has raged.

“I haven’t left home for six days now,” she said in a telephone interview. “I move from the kitchen to the living to the bedroom; these are the only places I go. I turn off the lights and follow the traces of light trying to see where shelling is coming from, and during the day I watch the smoke from the window and follow its location.”

The Old City of Damascus is known for its tranquil atmosphere, with vine-covered alleys, cafes and worshipers resting on the smooth stones of the Ummayad Mosque courtyard. But even there, explosions in the distance have awakened a sense of foreboding, residents and recent visitors say.

Rebels have made tactical improvements recently, shooting down aircraft with heat-seeking missiles and overrunning air bases ringing Damascus that were built to fend off Israeli warplanes. An activist in Damascus said that rebels shot down a Syrian warplane on Saturday that then crashed in the suburb of Jaramana, populated by minority Druse and Christians, where a deadly bombing last week enraged government supporters.

But they have not always consolidated tactical gains. Their push into Aleppo in the fall resulted in a disastrous government retaliation that alienated some rebel supporters.

Rebel success is counted not just in territory, Mr. Hokayem said, but also in the cost to civilians and whether rebels can provide security and services without provoking heavy attacks.

Mr. Hokayem said rebels around Damascus might avoid the mistakes of Aleppo, where the fighters were mainly civilians from the nearby countryside who lacked a coordinated military and political strategy.

Better-organized units of army defectors in southern Syria and Jordan have been training to attack Damascus, he said.

“Damascus is an opportunity for the rebels to show that they can get their act together better,” he said. “I’m not saying they might not mess it up.”

Reporting was contributed by Neil MacFarquhar and Hania Mourtada from Beirut; Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran; Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Elisabeth Bumiller from Washington.

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« Reply #3281 on: Dec 02, 2012, 08:31 AM »

December 1, 2012

Rebels Pull Out of Strategic City in Congo


NAIROBI, Kenya — The rebel group that recently captured Goma, a strategic city in the Democratic Republic of Congo, pulled out hundreds of troops on Saturday, but Goma was still waiting to exhale.

Residents packed the streets to watch the rebels chug out of town in big trucks, with rebel soldiers belting out victory songs as they left.

“We saw combat, and the enemy ran away,” the rebels cheered.

Another verse: “We’re leaving, but we’ll be back soon.”

The rebels, called the M23, were under intense international pressure to leave Goma after inflicting a humiliating defeat on Congolese forces and setting off a national crisis with antigovernment protests erupting across Congo. As much as Goma was a coveted prize — it is the capital of North Kivu Province and one of Congo’s most vital trade hubs — many rebel leaders said that holding the city and trying to administer it would have been too much trouble.

On Saturday afternoon, United Nations officials in Goma confirmed that the rebels were finally leaving. “It’s happening,” said Hiroute Guebre Sellassie, who heads the United Nations peacekeeping office in North Kivu Province. “By the close of business it should be done.”

Still, many of Goma’s residents were frightened about what lies ahead. Lawlessness has been increasing in the past week, with home invasions, carjackings and killings on the rise.

“Some people are worried that the army might be even worse than the M23 and that when the army returns they will start stealing,” said one Goma resident who did not want to be identified because of the risk of reprisals.

“Others,” the resident added, “said: ‘Let’s welcome the army. They may be thieves, but at least they are our thieves!’ ”

Goma’s residents, like people in many other parts of Congo, have been trapped for years between marauding rebel groups that rape, pillage and kill with complete impunity and a dysfunctional government army that often does the same.

Under a peace plan brokered by Congo’s neighbors, the M23 rebels are supposed to withdraw all their troops from Goma except for one company that will be allowed to stay at the airport along with government troops. A “neutral force” composed of soldiers from other African countries will also help keep the peace in Goma, a sprawling city of several hundred thousand people — maybe a million, no one really knows — spread out in the shadow of a smoking volcano.

On Saturday, Goma residents said they saw Ugandan and Tanzanian military officers in the city, possibly the vanguard of the neutral force.

The M23 group is widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, and a United Nations document leaked to The New York Times on Friday said that Rwandan troops had actually helped capture Goma.

Several of Rwanda’s staunchest allies, including the United States and Britain, have cut back on aid to Rwanda because of the growing evidence that it has fomented yet another rebellion in Congo.

Under the peace deal for Goma, the Congolese government has agreed to “listen, evaluate and resolve the legitimate grievances of M23.” Many analysts say that because of the weakness of the Congolese government, the M23 commanders will be given top positions in the army and that rebels will gain an even tighter grip on eastern Congo, home to gold, coltan and other mineral riches as well as several other equally brutal armed groups.

Even with most of the M23 rebels withdrawing from Goma, which was taken on Nov. 20, they will still be leaving behind many agents. The rebels have clearly infiltrated the police, with officers speaking Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda, strutting around town last week in police uniforms so new and freshly sewn that they still had loose threads hanging off them.
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« Reply #3282 on: Dec 02, 2012, 08:34 AM »

December 1, 2012

Alarm as China Issues Rules for Disputed Area


HAIKOU, China — New rules announced by a Chinese province last week to allow interceptions of ships in the South China Sea are raising concerns in the region, and in Washington, that simmering disputes with Southeast Asian countries over the waters will escalate.

The move by Hainan Province, which administers China’s South China Sea claims, is being seen by some outside analysts as another step in the country’s bid to solidify its claims to much of the sea, which includes crucial international shipping lanes through which more than a third of global trade is carried.

As foreign governments scrambled for clarification of the rules, which appeared vague and open to interpretation, a top Chinese policy maker on matters related to the South China Sea tried to calm worries inspired by the announcement.

Wu Shicun, the director general of the foreign affairs office of Hainan Province, said Saturday that Chinese ships would be allowed to search and repel foreign ships only if they were engaged in illegal activities (though these were not defined) and only if the ships were within the 12-nautical-mile zone surrounding islands that China claims.

The laws, passed by the provincial legislature, come less than a month after China named its new leader, Xi Jinping, and as the country remains embroiled in a serious dispute with Japan in the East China Sea over islands known in China as the Diaoyu and as the Senkaku in Japan.

The laws appear to have little to do with Mr. Xi directly, but they reinforce fears that China, now the owner of an aircraft carrier and a growing navy, is plowing ahead with plans to enforce its claims that it has sovereign rights over much of the sea, which includes dozens of islands that other countries say are theirs. And top Chinese officials have not yet clarified their intent, leaving room for speculation.

If China were to enforce these new rules fully beyond the 12-nautical-mile zones, naval experts say, at stake would be freedom of navigation, a principle that benefits not only the United States and other Western powers but also China, a big importer of Middle East oil.

An incomplete list of the laws passed in Hainan was announced by the state-run news agency, Xinhua, last week.

In an interview here on Saturday, Mr. Wu said the new regulations applied to all of the hundreds of islands scattered across the sea, and their surrounding waters. That includes islands claimed by several other countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines.

“It covers all the land features inside the nine-dash line and adjacent waters,” Mr. Wu said. The nine-dash line refers to a map that China drew up in the late 1940s that demarcates its territorial claims — about 80 percent of the South China Sea, whose seabed is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas.

That map forms the basis for China’s current claims. Some neighboring countries were outraged when China recently placed the nine-dash map on its new passports. Vietnam has refused to place its visa stamps in the passports as they are, insisting a separate piece of paper be added for the stamp.

Mr. Wu, who also heads a government-sponsored institute devoted to the study of the South China Sea, said the immediate intention of the new laws was to deal with what he called illegal Vietnamese fishing vessels that operate in the waters around Yongxing Island, where China recently established an expanded army garrison.

The island, which has a long airstrip, is part of a group known internationally as the Paracels that is also claimed by Vietnam. China is using Yongxing Island as a kind of forward presence in a bid for more control of the South China Sea, neighboring countries say.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said last week that China was within its rights to allow the coast guard to board vessels in the South China Sea.

The new rules go into effect on Jan. 1. According to a report in an English-language state-run newspaper, China Daily, the police and coast guard will be allowed to board and seize control of foreign ships that “illegally enter” Chinese waters and order them to change course.

Mr. Wu acknowledged that the new rules had aroused alarm in Asia, and the United States, because they could be interpreted as a power grab by China.

“A big worry for neighboring countries and countries outside the region is that China is growing so rapidly, and they see it is possible China taking over the islands by force,” he said. “I think China needs to convince neighboring countries that this is not the case.”  Essentially, he said, countries had to trust that China would not use force in the sea.

The Philippines, an ally of the United States and one of the most vociferous critics of China’s claims in the South China Sea, reacted strongly to the new rules.

In a statement, the Foreign Ministry in Manila said Saturday, “This planned action by China is illegal and will validate the continuous and repeated pronouncements by the Philippines that China’s claim of indisputable sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea is not only an excessive claim, but a threat to all countries.”

In order to dispel the dismay about the new rules, China needs to explain more, an American expert on the South China Sea, M. Taylor Fravel, said.

Mr. Fravel, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the United States and Asian nations might be overreacting to the legislation. “It was not passed down by Beijing as far as I can tell,” he said.

“The U.S. should seek to clarify with China the intent of the regulations and whether they will be used in and around disputed islands, a move that would clearly escalate tensions,” Mr. Fravel said.

On Saturday the Obama administration, in an effort not to escalate the situation, only obliquely criticized the Chinese action. “All concerned parties should avoid provocative unilateral actions that raise tensions and undermine the prospects for a diplomatic or other peaceful resolution,” said Peter P. Velasco, a State Department spokesman.

At a summit meeting of Asian leaders last month in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, President Obama raised the issue of the South China Sea with Premier Wen Jiabao of China, senior administration officials said. Mr. Obama asked the Chinese to resolve disputes peacefully, and to allow freedom of navigation, they said.

But this quiet approach, encouraged by smaller Asian nations that are friendly with the United States but economically dependent on China, will no longer work, said Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I don’t see a strategy on the U.S. side,” Ms. Glaser said.

She said China was confident that it could outmaneuver the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, which has unsuccessfully tried to find ways to resolve territorial disputes with China. “In Asean, there is an unwillingness to confront China; they are hopelessly divided,” she said.

Until now, some Asian countries had believed that China did not want to have simultaneous conflicts on two maritime fronts: in the East China Sea with Japan and the South China Sea with other countries. With the passage of the new laws in Hainan, that assumption has now proved incorrect, Ms. Glaser said.

Bree Feng contributed reporting from Haikou, and Elisabeth Bumiller from Washington.
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« Reply #3283 on: Dec 02, 2012, 08:38 AM »

02 December 2012 - 03H57 

Slovenians go to the polls amid social tension

AFP - Slovenians vote Sunday in a presidential run-off with polls favouring former prime minister Borut Pahor, despite his promise to help an increasingly unpopular centre-right government lead the eurozone country out of the crisis.

Pahor, 49, pulled off an upset on November 11 when he won the first round with 39.9 percent of the vote ahead of the favourite, incumbent President Danilo Turk, 60, who tallied 35.9 percent.

Pahor is backed by centre-left opposition party the Social Democrats (SD). A good-looking, relaxed, people's politician, he appeared to have won voters over by repeatedly admitting that some of his decisions as prime minister had been wrong.

Turk is running as an independent candidate with the backing of the largest centre-left opposition party, Positive Slovenija (PS). Most commentators considered he had lost most of the candidates' televised debates, despite his attacks on the government's unpopular austerity measures.

The latest polls, published Friday by the private Planet TV and independent weekly Mladina, suggested Pahor would win a little over 60 percent of the vote on Sunday, to 40 percent for Turk.

Analysts say that a wave of protests against the government's austerity measures over the last week could reflect on the results.

"Turk's victory would be a big surprise... but he still has some chances," Vlado Miheljak, a political specialist at Ljubljana University, told AFP.

It might be possible for him to "ride the wave" of social dissatisfaction with austerity, he said.

"People do not want their president to be excessively soft, they want somebody who can point his finger at the government," he argued.

A week after the first-round vote, 30,000 people attended a rally in Ljubljana called by the country's main unions to protest the government's austerity measures. Several others followed over the week.

At the latest, on Friday, police in Ljubljana used tear gas and water cannons and detained over 30 protestors after violence erupted at the end of a largely peaceful demonstration.

"The government's austerity measures have caused great damage.... The government should radically change its course," Turk said at a debate with his rival on Tuesday.

But Pahor, whose centre-left government suffered a no-confidence vote in 2011, has defended Prime Minister Janez Jansa's policy of austerity. There is no other option, he argues.

"We should not lose any more time speculating about possible alternatives," Pahor said during one debate.

"We should collaborate without further delaying the important decisions the government has to take."

The Slovenian president has little power.

But analysts argue that the prime minister would benefit from collaborating with the country's head of state -- particularly if the opposition and unions succeed in calling referendums to try to prevent the implementation of new austerity or reform measures.

Some 1.7 million Slovenians are eligible to vote on Sunday. Polls open at 7:00 am (0600 GMT), closing at 7:00 pm, with the first partial results expected later the same evening.

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« Reply #3284 on: Dec 02, 2012, 08:44 AM »

The Christian Science Monitor -
posted December 1, 2012 at 7:00 am EST

Mexico inaugurates new President Peña Nieto, but takes on 'old' party reputation

By Sara Miller Llana

Mexico City

Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto takes office today, but when Mexicans chose him as president in July, they voted for more than just a presidential platform. Voters elected to bring back to power a party that ran the state for 71 years through a combination of corruption and cronyism, and, at its worst, with a repressive authoritarian hand.

Some Mexicans do fear a return of past practices: Immediately upon his victory, Mr. Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) faced a scandal alleging that they systematically handed out gift cards in exchange for votes.

Many others, however, seem to think that Mexico of the 21st century leaves no space for the free reign that the PRI enjoyed while in power in the last century. and the PRI itself maintains it’s a new party, just as committed to democratic principles as any other.

Still, it is corruption, in its many different forms, that is likely to be the party’s constant challenge for the next six years.

Not only will the PRI likely have to continuously prove clean credentials to skeptics, corruption itself is deeply rooted in Mexico, affecting everything from fighting drug traffickers to collecting taxes. The National Action Party (PAN), which took power from the PRI in 2000, made some limited progress, but graft remains rampant. And corruption has morphed from a more localized problem of bribing to a sophisticated, multi-country phenomenon that involves multinationals and all three branches of government. Exhibit A is the recent Walmart scandal in Mexico, in which the American corporation allegedly bought permits to more quickly construct big-box stores here.

“Their biggest challenge is to convince people on the streets that they are really a new PRI. This is not going to be easy,” says Eduardo Bohorquez, head of Transparencia Mexicana, the Mexican chapter of the global watchdog Transparency International.

“As much as the PRI says it wants to change… the levels of systemic corruption… have also changed in the past 15 years. [Corruption] includes bribing a police officer, but there is a much more sophisticated form of corruption today.”

In order for the PRI to clamp down on the various forms that corruption takes, it will have to exercise a lot of political control, Mr. Bohorquez says. But then “it will resemble this idea of an authoritarian presidency. It’s not a simple balance.”


Last month Peña Nieto sought to allay general fears of shady state dealings by proposing a new anti-corruption commission that would have the powers to remove officials from office, hand out fines, and request prosecutions. But he has also proposed moving the federal police, who have taken a lead role in the fight against organized crime, under the domain of the Interior Department, which to some harks back to the PRI of the past, when the Interior Department was extraordinarily powerful – and opaque.

Some have expressed concern about his plans on reforming the structural organization of the police, who have long been one of the weakest links in the fight against crime. “We are concerned about the concentration of power,” says Antia Mendoza, a police expert and consultant for municipal police departments. “And so far, what he seems to be [proposing] is a new organization of the police, not an integral reform.”

Outgoing President Felipe Calderón swelled the ranks of the federal police, and with US support, sought to root out corruption through vetting and other integrity testing. But the efforts have failed to produce tangible results. The most recent scandal involves a federal police ambush of CIA agents in Mexico, which is still under investigation.

Edgardo Buscaglia, a senior law and economics fellow at Columbia University and the president of the Institute for Citizen Action for Justice and Democracy in Mexico City, says that neither commissions nor police reorganization alone will do enough to root out corruption, unless four areas of reform are tackled as well: creation of a functional justice system; a government “clean-up” with anti-corruption measures in place that includes prosecution; the confiscation of illegally obtained assets; and social policies and greater economic opportunities.

And despite what any leader attempts to do on the police front, as long as society is ambivalent about what it wants from its police, no changes can be long lasting says Scott Stewart, the vice president of analysis at the security consultancy firm Stratfor.

Mr. Stewart cites the Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations, or DOAN, in Guatemala as a prime example. Set up in the mid-90s, the DOAN was a newly established force of well-paid, US-trained, vetted recruits. But by 2002 they were disbanded for essentially becoming a drug-trafficking organization, Stewart says.

“I believe there are a lot of rich Mexicans who have a conflicting concept of the police. On one hand, if they are being victimized, they want a force they want to rely on that is honest. At the same time, they want to be able to offer [a bribe] to get out of a speeding ticket,” he says. "It is very difficult to have a really uncorrupted system until the culture demands and expects it.”

Mr. Bohorquez says that corruption is not endemic to culture but responds to systems. For example, when procedures for getting driving licenses were streamlined, payoffs largely disappeared in Mexico. “People adapt to systems that work,” he says.

Mexicans face an inordinate amount of corruption in their daily lives, and that has gotten worse despite transparency and access-to-information laws passed after the PAN took power. According to Transparencia Mexicana’s latest poll from 2010, paying bribes cost Mexican households 14 percent of their incomes. And specific acts of corruption actually increased during Calderón's term, from 197 million in 2007 to 200 million in 2010 (even though he’s been hailed for eliminating thousands of bureaucratic procedures at the federal level that reduce the room for payoffs).
'Adapt to new circumstances'

Mexicans themselves are divided on whether the PRI in power represents an additional challenge. The student movement called #YoSoy132, which has risen as a watchdog group of sorts over the PRI, is planning to protest Peña Nieto’s Dec. 1 inauguration. The losing leftist presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is also protesting what he says is a victory thanks to massive vote-buying.

Others say that there is no greater risk with Peña Nieto in power than with any other leader, especially since corrupt governors and municipalities would exist regardless of who is in the presidential suite. And the rise of civil society and stronger institutions forms a new barrier for the PRI, which once colluded with drug traffickers.

“The PRI is well known because of the corruption of the past, but it’s shown some evidence that it understands the reality of the country and that it will adapt to new circumstances,” says Jorge Chabat, expert on narcotics trafficking at Mexico's Center for Economics Research and Teaching.

There is also a good share of disillusionment with the government in general. The PAN, despite being an opposition voice for decades, did not leave Mexicans with the faith that it is any less corrupt than former rulers. The most common sentiment expressed on the streets is that all the parties are corrupt, but at least the PRI “shares the goods.” Mexico tied with Guatemala for last place in the latest 18-nation survey by Latinobarometro, which asked about citizens' satisfaction with democracy.

Hugo Said, a truck driver who delivers potable water from Mexico State, where Peña Nieto was the former governor, to the federal district of Mexico City, says that whether the PRI is corrupt or not is far from his top concern anyway. “No one is ever going to get rid of corruption, in any of the parties,” Mr. Said says. “But at least with the PRI we lived better.”

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