December 11, 2012
Cayman Islands Premier Arrested in Corruption Investigation
By KARLA ZABLUDOVSKY
MEXICO CITY — The premier of the Cayman Islands, the Caribbean’s offshore financial center, was arrested Tuesday as part of a corruption investigation that might involve illegally imported explosives, the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service said.
The premier, W. McKeeva Bush, 57, was arrested at his home in the West Bay area, near the capital of George Town, and was released hours later after questioning, the police said. He was expected to return for more interviews on Wednesday.
The police said in a statement that Mr. Bush was under investigation for suspected misuse of a government credit card, breach of trust, abuse of office and conflict of interest “in connection with the alleged importation of explosive substances without valid permits.”
In an interview on Cayman 27 News, the police commissioner, David Baines, said he could not give any further details.
Mr. Bush’s chief of staff, Leonard Dilbert, urged people to let the investigation run its course and to pray for Mr. Bush.
“At the risk of having to endure the howls of outrage of the cynical, I nevertheless urge you, pray for him, and for his family, anyway,” Mr. Dilbert said in a statement.
The Cayman Islands is known as a haven for corporate subsidiaries, hedge funds and other financial interests that take advantage of its bank secrecy laws to avoid or lessen tax payments and other obligations.
It drew attention during Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign because the private equity firm he founded, Bain Capital, had set up dozens of companies there.
Mr. Bush is a popular and outspoken politician who, analysts say, prided himself on not having finished high school and serving long enough in the legislature to earn the nickname “Father of the House.”
A self-employed businessman and the leader and founding member of the United Democratic Party, Mr. Bush has been the target of previous investigations. In April, when an inquiry into financial irregularities concerning a land deal became public, Mr. Bush brushed it off as a politically motivated attack.
Analysts said he might have been at odds with the British government, which has jurisdiction over the territory, though Mr. Bush is its elected head of government.
“The British are insisting on greater accountability,” said Thomas F. Phillips, a professor of economics at Trent University in Canada and a columnist for Grand Cayman Magazine. “McKeeva wouldn’t be a model for accountability,” he said, alluding to the investigations.
The chairman of the islands’ stock exchange, Anthony Travers, said there was no reason for international investors to be concerned about the case.
“The financial services industry is quite independent of the political and the legislature,” he said.
It was the second arrest of a political figure from a British overseas territory in recent days. On Friday, Michael Misick, the former premier of the Turks and Caicos Islands, was arrested in Brazil on an international warrant from Interpol in connection with a corruption investigation.
December 11, 2012
Where War Still Echoes, Recalling Earlier Battles
By GRAHAM BOWLEY
HERAT, Afghanistan — For a country disfigured by decades of conflict, it seems fitting that Afghanistan should have a place set aside for reflecting on war.
The Jihad Museum on a forested hillside in the western provincial capital of Herat is many things: a temple to the mujahedeen heroes who battled the Soviets in the 1970s and ’80s, and a memorial for the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who were slaughtered or fled the fighting.
It is also, for many Afghans, a not-so-veiled portrayal of a likely future: they review the museum’s dioramas of historical violence with clenching knots in their stomachs, fearing that the scenes may play out again soon, after the end of the NATO combat mission here in 2014.
“I think the worst days are yet to come,” said Obaidullah Esar, 51, a former fighter, who was touring the museum one recent afternoon.
The museum is a blue, green and white rotunda covered on the outside with the names of hundreds of victims from the war, all set in a watered garden of flower beds and fountains.
It boasts captured Soviet weaponry like tanks, a MIG fighter jet and helicopters. It has a portrait hall of fame of mujahedeen commanders.
The star attraction is a graphic diorama showing models of Afghan villagers rising up in a hellish wartime landscape to cudgel the heads of Soviet oppressors, in a triumphant if rather rosy narrative arc: Soviets commit heinous acts against poor villagers, farmers besiege Soviet tanks with sticks, Soviet soldiers are throttled, Soviet soldiers are shot. At the end, the army of the mujahedeen marches home victorious.
Still, if its view is more triumphal than strictly historical, it is one of the few accounts of the era that is easily accessible here.
“Since most Afghans are uneducated and we don’t have good historians to write our histories, our children don’t know who the Russians were, why the Afghans fought against them and what was the result of their resistance,” said Sayed Wahid Qattali, a prosperous 28-year-old politician and businessman who is the son of a former jihadi commander. Mr. Qattali’s father established the museum with the help of Ismail Khan, a mujahedeen warlord and former governor of Herat.
Mr. Qattali says one of the motivations for building the museum is the reluctance of the country’s official history books to address the painful events of the past four decades. In an attempt to depoliticize the history of a country pulled in so many different ways by ethnic tensions, school textbooks tell Afghanistan’s history in depth only up until about the 1970s, skipping over major events since then like the Soviet invasion, civil war, the Taliban’s reign and the American-led invasion and military presence.
Mr. Qattali wants the museum to fill that void, in particular telling his version of the mujahedeen’s exploits — before time moves on and the next chapter of history is inevitably written.
His family has profited during the relative calm of the past 10 years, with interests from chicken farms to a security firm that guards NATO fuel convoys, and he runs his own television station.
Recently, he toured the garden of the museum, showing off the mujahedeen’s trophies, like the MIG jet.
“Afghans have very bad memories of this,” he said, shaking his head, before strolling past an 82-millimeter light-rocket launcher perched in the grass. Near a Soviet helicopter, behind some bushes, Mr. Qattali hunched his shoulders and grew even more morose. “A lot of people were killed by this kind of helicopter,” he said. “We lost a lot of relatives and loved ones. Of course, we fought to the end.”
Inside the hushed museum, shoeless feet — visitors are required to remove their shoes — shuffled past glass cabinets of centuries-old rifles seized from British soldiers in earlier conflicts. The British were repelled, too, and the guns were used against the Soviets, showing an Afghan knack for taking whatever weapons invaders bring and turning them to their advantage.
A museum visitor might reflect that the arsenal of weaponry currently being supplied to Afghanistan by the American-led coalition could one day be piled here, too.
After the guns, a long corridor is lined with more than 60 iconic portraits of mujahedeen commanders who made their names during the fighting against the Soviets and, later, the Taliban: men like Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq.
Though they share a hallway, the warlords hardly were united.
After the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, the jihadists fought ferociously among themselves, wreaking their own devastation. That sad story is not told here, though a facet of it is implied: In the Jihad Museum, the portraits of warlords allied with Mr. Khan appear proudly front and center, while the mujahedeen of rival parties like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are bestowed only grudging prominence, virtually hidden as an afterthought in the corner.
Even as the faces of factionalism haunt this museum, they also loom over the present-day politics in the capital, Kabul. Many of the same men and their supporters uneasily share space in the halls of government. When Afghans sketch out their fears about a coming civil war, those are also the men they envision leading it.
After the hall of fame, stairs rise to the museum’s most dramatic offering — the painted landscape of chalk figurines, tanks and villagers, consumed in an inferno of war around Herat, this province where some of the early resistance to the Soviets and the Soviet-backed government came together. A loudspeaker pipes in the terrible booms and rattles of war.
The clear message here is to remind that war is horrifying, and that if it comes again it will bring destruction and force people to flee to lives of exile in Iran and Pakistan, as many in older generations did, Mr. Qattali said. He concedes, though, that there is also a message encoded for the Taliban here: If the ordinary folk of Herat once again faced an invading oppressor, they would fight.
Indeed, Mr. Khan is already rallying his followers in this region, stirring controversy by urging them to prepare to fight alongside the Afghan Army against the Taliban after the international troops are gone.
“The Afghans will ultimately face the truth — and that is, after the Americans leave and the Taliban come back, they don’t have a choice but to fight the Taliban if they want to protect what we have achieved in the past 10 years,” Mr. Qattali said.
December 11, 2012
Slow Gains in Justice for Afghan Women
By ALISSA J. RUBIN
KABUL, Afghanistan — Women who are victims of violence in Afghanistan are often afraid to report abuses to government authorities and rarely see their cases taken to trial, though prosecutors regularly obtain convictions when cases do go forward, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations office here.
The detailed study of the Elimination of Violence Against Women Act, enacted by Afghanistan in 2009, found that the use of that law had increased significantly, with prosecutions doubling, but still lagging far behind the growing number of complaints.
More than 4,000 reports of abuse of women were recorded by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission from over the seven months ending in October, which far outstrips the number recorded during the 12 preceding months, March 2011 to March 2012.
However, in the United Nations’ study of 16 Afghan provinces, including some of the most populous, only a small percentage of those reports were registered with the police or the courts, and prosecutors took barely a third of the complaints — just 163 — to trial. Still, they obtained 100 convictions.
The antiviolence law lists 22 acts that constitute violence against women, including rape, forced prostitution, forced marriage, child marriage, harassment or persecution, and causing injury or disability.
The reasons for the huge gap between the number of reports and the number investigated and brought to trial have much to do with Afghan culture, which discourages discussing family troubles with strangers, and with widespread discrimination against women, which leads to “acceptance of violence against them,” said Georgette Gagnon, the director of human rights for the United Nations’ Afghanistan office, who discussed the findings at a news conference.
In many places, the police and prosecutors discourage women from pressing their cases in court, Ms. Gagnon said. The commitment of government authorities varies, with some deeply supportive of the law — to the extent of risking their lives to help women — and others reluctant to move cases into the courts.
“Rather than following required legal procedures in all cases, police and prosecutors’ offices continue to refer numerous cases, including serious crimes of violence against women, to jirgas and shuras for advice or resolution,” she said.
Shuras and jirgas, tribal councils that use male elders to determine solutions, often return women to the circumstances in which they were abused, and rarely punish the perpetrators. The use of shuras and jirgas is prevalent in ethnic Pashtun areas of the country, but it is not unknown in Tajik areas. Of 52 cases registered by the provincial office of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan, 17 were sent to jirgas, the report indicated.
The report noted that in some areas, government authorities appeared to be so reluctant to invite public attention that they reported no cases of abuse at all. That was the situation in Panjshir Province, which is overwhelmingly ethnic Tajik, as well as in Wardak and Logar Provinces, which are both majority Pashtun. In Panjshir, abuse complaints were diverted to jirgas, the United Nations report said.
Women are afraid to make their troubles public in part because they fear retribution, Ms. Gagnon said. “Women will tell you that most of them don’t go to authorities to complain,” she said. “And how would they go? They can’t get out of the house.”
Prosecutors are most active in Herat, in western Afghanistan, and in Kabul, the two largest metropolitan areas, which together accounted for more than half of the instances of violence that were registered with prosecutors’ offices. That indicated better systems for reporting there and perhaps a greater awareness of the issues, women’s rights advocates said.
Still, the tiny percentage of prosecutions outraged the advocates, who said a major problem was a culture of impunity that allowed abusers who occupied positions of power in communities to go unpunished.
“From now on we should stop using the word ‘violence’ and use the word ‘crime’ when we talk about this,” said Selay Ghaffar of the Afghan Women’s Network. “Unfortunately, those who violate women’s rights have not been punished, and they still walk free.”
December 12, 2012
Panetta Visits Afghanistan to Discuss Troop Levels
By THOM SHANKER
KABUL, Afghanistan — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Wednesday to meet with commanders and discuss proposals for future troop levels that he said would be presented for President Obama’s consideration over the next few weeks.
Although it is traditional for a defense secretary to visit troops in December ahead of the holidays, Mr. Panetta said a central goal of his visit is to discuss future deployment plans with Gen. John R. Allen, the top American commander. General Allen is preparing a range of proposals to guide American force levels after the NATO mission ends on the last day of December 2014.
Those options should be presented to the president “within the next few weeks,” Mr. Panetta said, and will help set the goal for the larger withdrawal schedules in the months ahead for the rest of the 66,000 American troops here. Mr. Panetta said that only after decisions are made on what the American force levels could be after 2014 would Mr. Obama and his national security team decide on the rate of withdrawal to reach that number over the next two years.
(General Allen remains in command while the Defense Department inspector general scrutinizes e-mails he exchanged with a Tampa socialite, although his nomination to be the supreme NATO commander is currently on hold.)
Mr. Panetta is making his fifth trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary and it is likely this will be his last, as it is widely anticipated that he will be among the Cabinet members to retire early next year.
Mr. Panetta said the mission in Afghanistan is “on a far better path” than four years ago. But he acknowledged that significant challenges remain.
He specifically cited unreliable governance, continuing corruption, the existence of insurgent safe havens in Pakistan and a resilient Taliban insurgency within Afghanistan’s borders.
In more positive developments, the defense secretary said that Taliban insurgents have “not been able to regain any of the territory that they have lost during these last few years.” And he noted that so-called “insider attacks” on American and allied troops by assailants in Afghan uniforms have fallen to two killed in November from a high of 12 deaths in August.
Overall, though, insider attacks by Afghan security forces on their NATO coalition partners, while still small, are up significantly this year: there have been 37 so far, compared with 2 in 2007.
Mr. Panetta’s visit comes the same week that the Pentagon released a report that found that only one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the United States and NATO.
The report, released Monday, found that violence in Afghanistan is higher than it was before the surge of American forces into the country two years ago, although it is down from a high in the summer of 2010.
As bright spots, the report identified the continued transition by Afghan security forces into taking the lead on most routine patrols throughout the country and a decline in violence in populated areas like Kabul, the Afghan capital, and Kandahar, the largest city in the south.
Afghan security force levels have reached their goal of 352,000 soldiers and police officers.
Italy: A country in a coma
11 December 2012
La Stampa Turin
In his documentary "Girlfriend in a coma", the former editor of The Economist Bill Emmott analyses the reasons for Italy's insurmountable resistance to the necessary changes and reforms. An attitude it shares with many European countries, it partly explains why Silvio Berlusconi wants to get back in business.
If someone had told me, a dozen years ago, that by now I would be writing and thinking, and even making a film, not about Japan, China or my other old topics but instead about Italy, I might have wondered whether they were smoking illegal substances. But as I think about it now, and as I think too about how crucial will be Italy’s imminent general election, the way I have spent my past several years isn’t surprising at all.
The reason is not just those two infamous words, Silvio and Berlusconi. It is because Italy is central to many of the things that have long worried me about the future of the West.
I first became passionate about Italy because of, yes, Silvio Berlusconi. We at The Economist declared him “unfit to lead Italy”on our cover in April 2001 for reasons of principle, not anything to do with the sort of sex scandals for which he later became notorious in Britain and America.
We were against the capture of the powers of government in a western democracy by a single, huge private interest, and against the erosion by that interest of the rule of law. As Umberto Eco says in my film, we in other countries also have tycoons and concentrated media and powerful lobbies, so this was and still is a danger for Britain, America and many others too.
Resistance to change
That cover began my Italian journey, a journey enlivened by two libel cases from Berlusconi (both of which The Economist won), but then intensified by the knowledge I gradually absorbed about the nature of Italy’s problems, in all their forms – economic, political or moral.
This process was fascinating and often fun, but also had two effects on me: it made me more pessimistic, and it made me even more worried about the sicknesses of the west.
The journey made me gradually more pessimistic because I became steadily more conscious of the huge amount of resistance there is to change and reform in Italy, from interest groups of all kinds. This resistance has been Prime Minister Mario Monti’s biggest problem during the past year.
He thought that if he could persuade such interest groups, be they trade unions or big companies, professional orders or pensioners, that everyone was going to make some concessions and give up some privileges for the common benefit, then they would do so, rather as countries agree during disarmament negotiations to give up their tanks and missiles. But so far this hasn’t worked.
It hasn’t worked because Monti had to depend for his parliamentary support on parties that refused changes in order to please their core voters or just to spite each other. And it hasn’t worked because everyone knew that the Monti government was temporary: just delay and “the night will pass” as the saying goes. Even local governments used this tactic, delaying the implementation of new laws knowing that elections would soon come.
Country in self denial
This made me pessimistic too for a second reason. For years, until the bond-market crisis of 2011 forced the elite to acknowledge Italy’s true economic sickness, I had noticed a strong, very widespread tendency towards denial of reality, to use false or outdated facts to reassure oneself that the country was really strong rather than weak: high household savings (they have actually halved), rich families (try selling the house that underpins that "wealth", strong manufacturing (only one-seventh of GDP, and getting less competitive, not more), an innate Italian creativity (yet meritocracy has been destroyed, and the most creative new graduates emigrate to Berlin, London and New York).
The bond-market shock seemed to change this. But did it, really? If interest groups still block reform so fiercely, they presumably think that change is not necessary, after all. In my optimistic moments, I tell myself that they are just playing for time, hoping to be stronger relative to other interest groups after the 2013 elections. Equally, however, they may simply be hoping that something magical will occur to enable change to be avoided: a miracle cure from Mario Draghi at the European Central Bank, or a sudden German decision to pay for debt write-offs by southern European countries, or something else. The truth is still being avoided.
These tendencies, of interest groups hanging on to their entitlements and privileges, and of elites seeking to avoid facing reality, are not unique to Italy. Such problems exist in the rest of the West too. As America waits and watches to see how its Congress deals with “the fiscal cliff”that threatens its economy after January 1, it too is waiting and watching interest groups defending their privileges and elites denying reality.
Asleep to the dangers
The difference with Italy is that this process has been going on for so long – 20 years, in truth – and that meanwhile other economic and social strengths have degenerated. America and Britain are just at the start of this process, and I still hope we can avoid it. But Italy, as in my film’s title, has put itself in a coma.
Will it wake up? The apparent decision by Berlusconi to run for the elections by opposing Monti’s fiscal austerity suggests reality-denial remains strong at least on the right. The election is going to be a crucial, perhaps even historic test. A test of whether political parties, and the interest groups that support them, truly understand the nature of Italy’s problems and realise that continuing old policies is not an option. A test of whether the demand of voters for new ideas, new accountability and even new faces will be met. And, for the West, it will be a test of whether our faith in democracies’ability eventually to correct mistakes is justified.
Prime Minister Monti is right to resign and to bring that test closer. It is not a test that can or should be delayed any longer.
Editorial: What is happening in Budapest?
December 12, 2012
Since his return to power in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who was a moderate and liberal government leader in 1990s, seems to be intent on becoming a fully fledged autocrat. With the support of a two-thirds majority in parliament and the far-right movement Jobbik, he appears today more eager to ensure the hegemony of his Fidesz party than he is to defend the achievements of the post-communist state, and more inspired by a nationalist nostalgia for a Greater Hungary than by the values of the European Union, which his country joined in 2004.
With his growing control over legislative, judicial and economic powers, his measures to curb the media and his nationalist discourse, Viktor Orbán is a cause for concern, and some have called for sanctions, or even Hungary’s exclusion from the EU. In a bid to facilitate an understanding of the mechanisms of a political crisis that could become a long-term problem for Europe, these articles selected from the press in Hungary and other European countries retrace the development and examine the ideological basis of this "national revolution," and also explore possible responses.
*********Hungary: Viktor Orbán gives his side of story
"Orbán: 'now is the time to consolidate,'" headlines Magyar Hírlap, which like most Hungarian newspapers, has devoted its front page to the interview accorded by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to national press agency MTI, in which he defends his far-reaching and controversial institutional reforms. Viktor Orbán "sees no need to change those laws already adopted," reports the Budapest daily, which is close to the ruling Fidesz party. "The government has increased the independence of the Central Bank," and remains ready to negotiate with the IMF "without preconditions," Orbán told MTI.
As for criticism from the European Union, he is asking for "a balanced judgement" on the part of the European Commission and highlighted that "the criticisms from the international press are personal opinions". Orbán is convinced that-
... nothing is new in the current situation: when the left is not in power, for the opposition and for its foreign partners democracy is at an end. […] But we have always been the democrats and we have always fought for democracy while our current adversaries defended the Communist dictatorship.
These "national wrongdoers", as Magyar Hírlap calls them in its leader article -
... want to bring down not only Orbán, but also everything Hungarian. They want the fall of democracy by majority rule, of the will of the Hungarian people. We have no other choice but to struggle for our independence, for our land, for our Homeland.
***********Central Europe: Vienna-Budapest, a journey into the past
Le Monde Paris
AFP/ PE Sanchez / Pareeerica
Heirs to the Hapsburg Empire, Austria and Hungary have something else in common: an ambiguous relationship with history and a tendency to tolerate political excesses. Ten years after European sanctions against Vienna, why does the Budapest seem to be stuck in the 1930s?
Some years ago, they finally built a comfortable rail link between Vienna and Budapest. It is actually fast, certainly a lot faster than the one I took almost a quarter of a century ago when a trip between the two cities still meant crossing the Iron Curtain.
Today Austria and Hungary are both members of the European Union, and their capitals seem like two cousins that have finally made peace after a long feud. With their wide avenues swept by breezes from the Danube, their neo-Renaissance palaces built by barons of industry, their adoration of Empress Sissi of Austria and her great love for Hungarian rebels – both cities share a common heritage, the legacy of Central Europe.
So when traveling from Vienna to Budapest, why do you get the nagging impression that you are taking a train back to the 1930s? No doubt from the anti-Semitic violence and and political hatred that have been expressed in Hungary. But also from the widening gap, that has emerged between two countries with similar experiences: both were born from the trauma of the First World War. Like Hungary, Austria lost the greater part of its territory, which was distributed to the peoples it had dominated – before being reduced, in the wake of the Anschluss in 1938, to a simple province in Hitler’s Germany.
The "cowardice" of European conservatives
Indentured to the Hapsburgs, the Hungarians had been granted the right to dominate and forcibly Hungarianize Croats, Slovaks, Romanians and other vassals, but with the Trianon Treaty in 1920, they had to pay the bill for these abuses, and they have never really recovered. Had you had the opportunity to visit one of the offices of the current Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs, János Martonyi, in early 2010, you might have been surprised to see a map of Greater Hungary with its pre-1920 borders.
Following the 1986 election of Kurt Waldheim, who become president in spite of revelations about his time in the Wehrmacht, Austria had to come to terms with its role in the Nazi catastrophe. In contrast, Hungary has continued to take refuge in its assumed role of victim, in which others – the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, the Jews, the liberals, the Germans, the Russians, the Gypsies, and now the European Commission and the Strasbourg Parliament – are always to blame.
"Hungary is Europe’s most long-suffering nation," ironically remarks former Austrian vice-chancellor Erhard Busek, of the ÖVP People’s Party, one of the rare Christian Democrats to have held out against any alliance with FPÖ extreme-right populist Jörg Haider. It is a familiar rhetoric in Austria, he adds: for many years the country presented itself as the "first victim of Nazism," while forgetting that it had supplied many of the highly ranked members of Hitler’s regime.
Mr Busek deplores the "cowardice" of European conservatives with regard to Mr Orbán. Torn between the fury prompted by Budapest’s attacks on their companies and a slightly shameful solidarity, the Austrians have hardly dared to criticise Hungary’s excesses. They know what it means to be in the spotlight – an experience they lived through in January 2000, when they had to endure a seven-month preventive purgatory of European sanctions.
For Austrians, Europe has been a good deal
The goal of the sanctions was the symbolic isolation of a government that conservative Wolfgang Schüssel had formed with a party imbued with the legacy of Nazism – an ignominious lesson that was poorly received. Even today, many Austrians are convinced that they were unjustly punished because Austria is a small country, just as many Hungarians believe that the international press has now fallen into the grip of "hysteria."
Remarkably, even at the height of the crisis, Mr Schüssel remained a devout European. In his office he had a large canvas by painter Max Weiler, who for many years had been rejected as too modern by Austrian public opinion. Whereas Mr Orbán likes to appear before a dense thicket of Hungarian flags, swears by the Holy Crown, and likens Brussels to a "new Moscow."
This is perhaps explained, remarks Hungarian political analyst Zoltán Kiszely, by the fact that many Hungarians do not believe the European Union will survive the current turmoil. "We had the Hapsburg monarchy, and it came to an end. Then we sided with Nazism, and that failed to work out. Thereafter we thought the Soviet Union was going last until its collapse took us by surprise."
For the Austrians, on the contrary, Europe has been a good deal: a recent study has revealed that their country has derived the most economic benefit from belonging to the EU. However, that has not prevented the current successor to the late Jörg Haider, Heinz-Christian Strache, from adroitly surfing the wave of the European financial crisis to boost his ratings in the polls. Vienna-Budapest, anyone?
Demonstration: 100,000 say “Viktor, we love you"
Over 100,000 people participated in the “Békemenet” (March for Peace), on January 21, organised in Budapest by journalists close to Fidesz, the party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The demonstration was a show of force in favour of a government that is increasingly contested in Brussels. Slogans chanted during the march were anti-EU such as "We will not be a colony" or "EU = USSR", as well as pro-Orbán: "1989 – 2012 – Viktor we love you".
Conservative daily Magyar Nemzet, surprised at the lack of international press reaction, writes that-
... the Hungarian government was the target of such exaggerated and unworthy criticism that this boomerang effect should astonish no one [...] The opposition must realise that it does not have the power to overthrow Orbán, and there is no sign of a shift in the country's domestic policy.
**********Hungary: MEPs place Orban under surveillance
On 17 February the European Parliament decided to evaluate the latest laws adopted in Hungary to determine whether they comply with European values. The resolution, which was passed by left-wing MEPs, liberals and environmentalists, against the advice of more conservative deputies, is “a slap to Orbán,” leads Népszava. For the leftist daily -
The question comes up as to whether the government’s story is true – that this is a leftist-liberal conspiracy, and why is Hungary always the target? [...] We must not forget that by joining the Union, we respect not only Community law but democratic values as well. [...] For the moment, this motion has no legal consequences. Parliament has given enough time to the Hungarian government to act. We should make the most of it.
Unsurprisingly, Magyar Hirlap attacks the Hungarian socialist MEPs. In a commentary entitled “A mess of pottage,” Zsolt Bayer, journalist member of the Fidesz party of Victor Orbán, and personal friend of the latter, wonders -
How is it possible that there is a communist group within the European Parliament? [...] They are no better than the Nazis. [...] The behaviour of the Hungarian Socialists is unimaginable in any other country. During the sanctions against Austria at the time of Haider, for example, the leader of Austria’s Socialist Party called for the hounding of his country to stop.
For detailed and complete information about what has been happening in Hungaria please click here:http://www.presseurop.eu/en/content/topic/1359231-hungary-under-viktor-orban#dossier-text-3
December 11, 2012
Co-op Laws in Cuba Are Seen as Progress
By DAMIEN CAVE
MEXICO CITY — The Cuban government authorized a wide range of co-ops on Tuesday, allowing workers to collectively open new businesses or take over existing state-run businesses in construction, transportation and other industries.
The new laws published Tuesday are the latest step in a slow, fitful process of opening Cuba’s economy to free-market ideas. The latest announcement calls for the creation of more than 200 co-ops as part of a pilot program. If it grows, analysts said, the experiment could do more for economic growth and productivity than earlier efforts to allow for self-employment, or to reform agriculture.
Co-ops that are run independent from the government could shift a large portion of the island’s economy to free-market competition from government-managed socialism, analysts contend, a change from earlier co-op efforts within state-run agriculture.
“The potential is large,” said Richard E. Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego. “The Cubans are looking for something in between the old state-owned enterprise and a pure free market. Cooperatives are an answer, so looking forward, they could play a significant role.”
For some Cubans, the new laws will just legalize what is already going on in the black market. But the government also seemed interested in encouraging consolidation among small entrepreneurs. The new laws call for lower tax rates for co-ops than for self-employed workers. That means barbers or fishermen or carpenters who now work as individuals will have an incentive to join co-ops, companies in which each worker has a vote.
The new laws also say that co-ops can be formed with as few as three people, and that in addition to converting state businesses into co-ops — with first preference given to workers already there — co-ops will be able to bid for leases of idle government properties.
The co-ops “will not be administratively subordinated to any state entity,” the government said in a summary of the laws in Granma, the state-run newspaper. But the government will play a large role in determining who gets the chance to open businesses. Workers seeking to start co-ops must submit applications that go to local government offices that pass them up to the Council of Ministers, which includes President Raúl Castro, for approval.
It is not yet clear whether higher-skilled professionals, like architects or doctors, will be able to form co-ops. Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan policy group, said that initially the co-ops would probably fill a gap in basic services, like transportation for farm products. He predicted co-ops would most likely reduce the likelihood of theft.
“People pilfer from the state; they don’t from a business in which they have a stake,” he said. But to fully reach the co-ops’ potential, he and other experts said, questions about the government’s interaction with them will need to be answered.
“They have not been liberated overnight from operating in the Cuban context,” said Professor Feinberg, who was an adviser to the Clinton administration. “How do they get credit? How do they get inputs? How are workers going to be properly trained? How will management be properly trained? These are all outstanding issues.”
December 11, 2012
That Crush at Kosovo’s Business Door? The Return of U.S. Heroes
By MATTHEW BRUNWASSER
PRISTINA, Kosovo — Prime Minister Hashim Thaci is in a bind. His country’s largest and most lucrative enterprise, the state telecommunications company, is up for sale. The jostling among buyers is intense. Narrowing the bidders has hardly helped.
One bid is from a fund founded by former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. Lobbying for another was James W. Pardew, the Clinton-era special envoy to the Balkans. Both former diplomats are among the Americans who hold the status of heroes here for their roles in the 1999 intervention that separated Kosovo from Serbia and created one of the world’s newest states.
In a meeting with Mr. Pardew in October, the prime minister explained his “difficult position” in having to choose between the buyers, according to a memo leaked to the newspaper Zeri, “because whichever of the two bidders behind them wins, he will be seen by 2 million people to have betrayed the other one.”
So many former American officials have returned to Kosovo for business — in coal and telecommunications, or for lobbying and other lucrative government contracts — that it is hard to keep them from colliding.
They also include Wesley K. Clark, a retired Army general and the former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe who ran the bombing campaign against the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic; and Mark Tavlarides, who was legislative director at the Clinton White House’s National Security Council.
The State Department has no policy that forbids former diplomats from lobbying on behalf of nations where they served or returning to them for profit, beyond the one applying to federal employees as a whole, which prohibits senior officials from contacting agencies where they once worked for one year and bans all federal employees for life from advising on the same matters.
Kosovo is not the only nation where former officials have returned to conduct business — Iraq is another example — but it presents an extreme case, and perhaps a special ethical quandary, given the outsize American influence here. Pristina, the capital, may be the only city in the world where Bob Dole Street intersects Bill Clinton Boulevard.
Foreign policy experts say the practice of former officials’ returning for business is more common than acknowledged publicly. Privately, former officials concede the possibility of conflicts of interest and even the potential to influence American foreign policy as diplomats who traditionally made careers in public service now rotate more frequently to lucrative jobs in the private sector.
Asked for comment, former officials involved said their business dealings with the Kosovo government would benefit Kosovars by building a more prosperous economy. “We’re going to employ people, provide training, create exports and help the country grow and develop as a democracy,” said General Clark, who is chairman of Envidity, a Canadian energy company seeking to explore Kosovo’s lignite coal deposits and produce synthetic fuel.
Lawrence Lessig, a law professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, said the appearance of “cashing in” risked undermining the prestige of the United States by clouding the humanitarian nature of the 1999 intervention, which was aimed at ending Serbian atrocities against Kosovars.
After the separation, Kosovo was an international protectorate run by thousands of officials from other countries and the United Nations serving as government representatives and private contractors. Four years of internationally “supervised independence” ended in September. About 6,000 peacekeepers remain.
The closeness of the ties between the state-builders and the state they built has made it easy for officials to change hats. Though the country is one of Europe’s poorest, there is still the potential for profit, particularly as the government privatizes critical assets.
Albright Capital Management, founded by Ms. Albright, has been shortlisted in the bidding for a 75 percent share in the state telecommunications company, PTK. The company’s sale is expected to bring in between $400 million and $800 million.
Senior executives of a sister company, Albright Stonebridge Group, are already small shareholders in PTK’s only competitor, the private company IPKO, raising concerns on the threat to market competition if Ms. Albright’s consortium wins the bid.
Mr. Pardew, the former American envoy, lobbied top Kosovo officials on behalf of a competing consortium, Twelve Hornbeams S.a.r.l /Avicenna Capital LLC.
The memo on the prime minister’s meeting with Mr. Pardew, from within the consortium, was leaked by someone unhappy with the running of the tender process. The choice of Mr. Pardew as their emissary was “vitally important,” the memo noted, because Kosovo’s elite “know and love him for his role on the ground during the war.”
After the memo became public, Mr. Pardew withdrew from lobbying for the consortium, and he declined to comment. It is still possible that neither of the American-backed bidders will win the tender, which is expected to be decided in January.
Ms. Albright responded to an interview request with a statement. Citing limits to disclosure during the tender process, the statement from Nelson Oliveira, managing director and general counsel of Albright Capital Management, read in part, “We take seriously all of our obligations — legal and ethical, in this and all other potential investments.”
“We believe that a transparent, well managed privatization of the state-owned telecom company should bring substantial benefits to the economy and people of Kosovo,” the statement added.
Kosovo’s government denied that any of the former diplomats got special treatment. “I hope they will make money in Kosovo and that Kosovo will make money from their investments,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi. “The Kosovo government will not choose a company just because it’s American.”
Telecommunications in Kosovo can be a rough business. In 2007, gunmen tried — first with firearms, then with a mortar attack on his car — to kill Anton Berisha, the head of the telecommunications regulatory agency. He survived both attempts, which took place not long after he awarded Kosovo’s second cellphone license to the Slovenian-owned IPKO. A year later, he became ambassador to Slovenia.
In 2004, Ms. Albright became a special adviser to the chairman of the board of IPKO, Akan Ismaili, who is now Kosovo’s ambassador to the United States.
The telecommunications deal is just one of many that Americans have angled for. The biggest infrastructure project in Kosovo’s post-Yugoslav history, a 63-mile stretch of highway connecting Pristina to the Albanian border, was awarded in 2010 to Bechtel of San Francisco in a joint venture with a Turkish company, Enka.
At the time, the prime minister estimated the deal at $1 billion.
Bechtel had help getting the contract from Mr. Tavlarides, the legislative director at the National Security Council during the 1999 Kosovo intervention. According to a lobbying report filed with the United States government, Mr. Tavlarides lobbied on behalf of Bechtel in Kosovo on “highway-related issues” while working for Van Scoyoc Associates, a Washington-based lobbying firm.
Mr. Tavlarides now works at Podesta Associates, which signed a $50,000 monthly contract with the Kosovo government on Jan. 1, advising it on communications and strengthening Kosovo’s ties to the United States government. Podesta Associates was co-founded by John Podesta, White House chief of staff in Mr. Clinton’s second term. Mr. Podesta left the firm in 1993. It is still owned by his brother, Anthony.
Mr. Tavlarides declined to comment, citing his firm’s policy to not speak with the news media about clients.
For his part, General Clark said it was “insulting” to suggest that there could be any conflict between private profit-making and his past responsibilities. “My business is aboveboard, transparent and helps the Kosovar people,” he said. “We are going to use a resource that had no value to the Kosovo people and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars of investment.”
United States military officers have a one-year post-retirement ban on contacting their former armed service about official matters, and a lifetime ban on any contacts related to the same matters on which they worked, according to the Pentagon.
Watchdog groups raise the possibility that Kosovo’s government might see doing business with former American officials as a conduit to the current United States administration. They also fear that the influence of former officials diminishes competition and hurts consumers.
The appearance of an inside track by some companies had discouraged competitors “because they know the game is set,” said Avni Zogiani, a Kosovar journalist who heads Cohu, an anticorruption organization in Pristina that has investigated the links between the telecommunications business, crime and politics. “There is no interest in investing in Kosovo by reputable companies anymore.”
Even some former officials acknowledge discomfort at the extent of the interplay between dealing and diplomacy.
Steven P. Schook, a retired United States army brigadier general and former chief of staff of KFOR, NATO’s force in Kosovo, said he had “mixed feelings” about it.
Mr. Schook, who also served as the deputy head of the United Nations mission in Kosovo, has returned as a private consultant for former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who was acquitted last month by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. He says that he works for Mr. Haradinaj because of a belief in his leadership and that his only compensation is his expenses living in Kosovo, about $2,600 a month.
“There are a lot of ex-diplomats coming in and out that are now representing private interests,” he said. “If I’m a large corporation and I want to get in to be competitive, I want to work with people to help me do that.”
“But on the other hand, it seems a bit tawdry,” Mr. Schook added. “One minute you’re liberating a place, and the next minute you’re trying to get an energy tender.”
12/12/2012 12:25 PM
French-German Compromise: Chances Improve for EU Deal on Bank Supervision
Europe has moved closer to implementing common European banking supervision thanks to a compromise between Germany and France, a media report said on Wednesday. The deal calls for the European Central Bank to only monitor the Continent's largest institutions.
For months, European Union nations have been wrangling over how to create a common banking supervisory authority. But they now appear to be close to resolving their dispute.
Germany and France have agreed to a compromise on plans for the European Central Bank to be the bloc's banking watchdog, German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on Wednesday, ahead of a finance ministers' meeting about the subject. EU leaders want to sign a deal on bank supervision at a summit on Thursday and Friday.
According to the Süddeutsche, German and French officials agreed that the ECB should supervise all banks deemed system-relevant, in addition to those being propped up with public money. The other banks would remain under the supervision of national authorities, but the ECB would have the right to give directions and to assume responsibility for monitoring particular banks in justified cases.
German business daily Handelsblatt reported that the ECB may supervise between 60 and 150 banks in Europe. Those include banks with total assets that exceed €30 billion, or with assets that are greater than 20 percent of their country's gross domestic product.
France and Germany had been mired in disagreement on parts of the plan, leaving little time left for the EU to meet its pledge to complete the framework for a banking union by the end of the year.
France had wanted an EU banking watchdog that covered all banks in Europe, while Germany only wanted to submit the biggest banks to common supervision.
Shielding Public Finances
The compromise follows a proposal submitted this week by Cyprus, which holds the rotating EU presidency. Under the proposal, only Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, central cooperative bank DZ Bank, all the big state-owned regional banks and a few other savings and cooperative banks would come under the ECB's supervision in Germany.
Berlin had resisted a reform that would have made the ECB responsible for monitoring all its savings and cooperative banks.
EU leaders hope setting up a single banking authority and later establishing a resolution fund for distressed banks will stop them from pulling their countries into crisis. They also plan to create a way of coordinating national deposit guarantee schemes.
Most countries support the idea of supervision, which is the first pillar of a full banking union, but they disagree on how to structure it and on the extent to which bank risks are to be shared. The latter point is of particular concern to financially strong Germany, which fears it may end up shoring up foreign banks.
All 27 countries in the European Union must give their approval for the project to go ahead, but only euro zone banks will fall under the banking union to start with.
Süddeutsche quoted a senior EU diplomat who said that the Franco-German compromise had boosted the chances of an agreement among EU finance ministers on Wednesday.
"That is the breakthrough we had all been waiting for," said the diplomat. However, the official added that some non-euro countries -- especially the UK, Sweden and the Czech Republic -- were demanding additional voting rights. "The demands of some non-euro countries are the last big problem," he said.
12/12/2012 12:14 PM
A Cold Heart for Europe: Merkel's Dispassionate Approach to the Euro Crisis
By Konstantin von Hammerstein and René Pfister
Chancellor Merkel has more power in Europe than any of her postwar predecessors. Yet there is little passion in her relationship with the EU, preferring instead a strategy of what can only be described as pedagogical imperialism. She sees the bloc primarily in terms of euros and cents -- and worries that it is rapidly losing relevance.
The crisis has its comical sides, of course. Take, for example, the story with the submarine. Angela Merkel starts to giggle. It was lopsided. Suddenly she snorts with laughter, as tears run down her cheeks. She can't even talk anymore. Lopsided, she says, trying to pull herself together. But she can't. The chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany has succumbed to an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
The story Merkel is having so much trouble relating goes like this: The Greeks ordered a state-of-the-art, class 214 submarine from the Howaldtswerken-Deutsche Werft shipyard in the northern port city of Kiel. But when the vessel was ready, they refused to pay. The Greek military experts who had traveled to Kiel explained that the Papanikolis listed even in slight swells, and they declined to take delivery of the vessel.
The Germans tested, measured and checked the sub, but found nothing amiss. The boat's lopsidedness is apparently something only Greeks, up to their eyeballs in debt, can detect -- an anecdote that still sends the chancellor into fits of laughter years later.
Oh, those Greeks. Sometimes, when things get really bad, Merkel resorts to gallows humor. But it doesn't really help. The show must go on, and in the end, it all comes back to her, anyway.
For three years now, the euro crisis has been smoldering. It has brought down governments in Ireland and Spain, in Italy and Slovenia, and has led to countless summit meetings in Brussels, at which first a temporary and then a permanent bailout fund was established.
European leaders will meet in the Belgian capital once again this Thursday and Friday, at what is expected to be the year's most important summit. The agenda consists of nothing less than the political realignment of the euro zone and the question of whether members can agree to a European banking union to save the Continent's ailing banks. In the midst of it all, as always, is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Fate of Europe in her Hands
All eyes in Europe are directed at Merkel. No other politician on the Continent arouses as many hopes -- or as much hatred -- as Merkel. When she visits Greece, protesters wearing Nazi uniforms march through the streets of Athens, and yet a word from Merkel can also mean saving a euro country from bankruptcy.
She currently holds the fate of Europe in her hands. If the euro is rescued, Merkel will get most of the credit, and if it falls apart, she will be forced to shoulder the blame. No other German chancellor has had as much power on the European continent as Merkel. And yet, ironically enough, none of Merkel's predecessors were as dispassionate about the European Union as the woman currently governing from the Chancellery. Merkel is different.
Germany's first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, together with then French President Charles de Gaulle, established the foundation for the Franco-German friendship. Later, Chancellor Helmut Kohl would tear up whenever he mentioned the "House of Europe," and even his successor Gerhard Schröder, initially concerned that German money was being "frittered away" in Brussels, eventually became an ardent supporter of Europe.
National interests, of course, have always been part of European politics. After the war, Adenauer wanted to firmly anchor Germany in the West. For France, on the other hand, Europe was a means to keep its neighbor across the Rhine in check. But passion was always the fertilizer on which Europe thrived. And passion is exactly what Merkel lacks.
Her Shangri-La was not Paris or Rome, but America. The United States was the antithesis to the musty stuffiness of East Germany, and for her, Europe did not promise any deliverance. This attitude distinguished her from those members of the conservative Christian Democratic Union who came of age in the western part of Germany. They grew up with the belief that the rehabilitation of the Germans, and the recovery of Germany's national dignity and identity after the crimes of the Nazi era, could only be achieved through Europe.
For Merkel, Europe is no dream, vision or object of desire. She has since learned that it is part of the Christian Democratic etiquette to sugarcoat Europe with pathos, which is one of the reasons she traveled to Oslo on Monday for the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU. It was, however, little more than a show for the public. In the end Europe, for Merkel, is a question of prosperity, of euros and cents -- and not a matter of the heart.
A Brief Lecture
Which begs the question: Can this woman lead Europe out of crisis? Or is a dispassionate politician like Merkel precisely what Europe needs -- someone who lacks the unrealistic emotionalism that led the euro astray in the first place?
Close observation of Merkel this year, as she travels through Europe and around the world this year, reveals a relentlessly objective woman, one who is primarily interested in key indicators like growth rates, demographic trends and debt levels. When Merkel is asked about the causes of the euro crisis, she likes to reply with a brief lecture on economics.
"Where are my beloved tables?" she asks, seated in a plane in the summer. Then she pulls out a stack of papers. On one side, they show the skyrocketing labor costs in Southern Europe. On the other side are the low interest rates that enabled countries like Greece, following the introduction of the common currency, to embark on such an unrestrained path to debt in the first place.
It isn't sentimentality that drove Merkel to make €400 billion ($520 billion) of German money available to help prop up the euro zone. This quickly becomes clear when she speaks. She treats the debt-ridden countries of Southern Europe like unruly children that have to be brought to their senses so that Germany isn't dragged into the abyss of the euro crisis along with them.
When she flew to Greece in October, she prepared by reading an interview with the Greek prime minister in the leading German business daily Handelsblatt. In it, Antonis Samaras said that he now makes himself available to his ministers on weekends, and that he also has time for face-to-face meetings. The message he was trying to convey is that the era of inefficiency is finally over. But one could also interpret the premier's words differently, namely as evidence of the long road ahead for Greece. How can a prime minister, after all, believe that having to work on the weekend is even worth mentioning?
For months, Merkel wavered over whether or not Greece should remain in the euro zone. As recently as summer, she couldn't decide whether to believe in the domino or the ballast theory, as she called the two alternatives. According to the first theory, a Greek bankruptcy could drag other threatened euro countries into the abyss. Proponents of the second theory, on the other hand, believe that Greece is the ballast that the euro zone has to jettison to recover.
It's difficult to say why Merkel eventually chose the domino theory. Perhaps it was partly the doing of Chinese fund managers who, during her visit to Beijing in the summer, bluntly described to her what they saw as the devastating consequences of ejecting Greece from the euro zone. If that happened, they said, China would no longer have any confidence in the euro and, as a result, would stop buying bonds issued by euro-zone member states.
Perhaps it was also the warnings coming from her counterparts in Europe. The Slovenian prime minister, for instance, told her that a Greek bankruptcy would result in a 5 percent shrinkage of his country's economy. That too made an impression on Merkel.
What don't tend to make an impression on Merkel are the protests against her. She is undoubtedly Europe's most-hated woman at the moment. When she traveled to Athens in October, her motorcade quickly swept through the empty streets of the Greek capital; it felt like the setting for one of those films that depicts a world devoid of human beings.
Visiting Lisbon in mid-November, she met with her Portuguese counterpart in a centuries-old fortress on the Atlantic coast, where police officers dressed in black and carrying submachine guns were posted along the battlements. A helicopter circled overhead, while frogmen in an assault boat kept watch over the sea approach.
The chancellor's motorcade had hardly left the airport before demonstrators greeted Merkel with Hitler salutes and extended middle fingers. In the summer, Time ran a cover story titled "Why everybody loves to hate Angela Merkel."
The chancellor was horrified at first over the amount of aversion she encountered, say her advisors. But now she sees things in a more pragmatic light. Her confidants say that the protests do sometimes lead Merkel to wonder if she is on the right track. She usually answers the question in the affirmative.
Disney World for Tourists from China
Every morning, Berlin's Press and Information Office compiles a summary for Merkel of what the Greek press is writing about her. It often isn't very flattering. But by now Merkel finds it amusing that the proponents of austerity in Greek politics are known as "Merkelists."
On the one hand, she is of course aware that it's meant as a disparagement. On the other hand, she has no objection to her name becoming synonymous with saving money. In fact, the protests abroad benefit Merkel, because they demonstrate that she isn't simply giving away Germany's billions in aid but is instead tying them to strict conditions. She isn't losing any sleep over being regarded as the iron chancellor.
What earns Merkel's respect is discipline. When she flew to Indonesia in the summer, she lionized President Susilo Yudhoyono. He is a short, inconspicuous man, but his country has managed to reduce its deficit from 80 percent of gross domestic product to 20 percent within just a few years.
Indonesia is the kind of place she wishes Greece resembled: industrious, calm and inspired by the will to make up for the mistakes of the past. If Indonesia can get its debt crisis under control, Europe certainly should be able to do the same. That was the unspoken message of Merkel's trip.
Merkel's reality holds: Germany is strong, but not strong enough to keep a sick Europe going in the long term. "We want a European Germany, not a German Europe," author Thomas Mann said after the war. Merkel would probably subscribe to Mann's somewhat abstract statement. But in practical terms, she believes that it wouldn't hurt Europe to become a little more German, at least when it comes to incurring debt. How else is the Continent supposed to compete with the up-and-coming Asian economies?
Since becoming chancellor, Merkel has been to China six times. The only non-European country she has visited more often is the United States. She admires the efficiency with which the Chinese have managed to become the second-largest economic power on earth in the space of three decades. But she also knows how this has shifted the balance of power worldwide -- and that it doesn't look good for the Europeans.
A Trio of Factoids
The people who work for her are familiar with Merkel's favorite trio of factoids: Europe represents only 7 percent of the world's population, it accounts for about 25 percent of global economic output but also hands out half of worldwide social expenditures. You don't have to have a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry, as does Merkel, to understand that Europe has a problem.
It's important to prevent the worst from happening, the chancellor says sometimes, and she is quick to describe what "the worst" means for her: that Europe might eventually become a place to tour the evidence of past successes, a sort of Disney World for Chinese tourists.
For this reason, she finds trips to China instructive. For three millennia, Chinese civilization was considered the most advanced in the world. But then poor political decisions resulted in China falling behind the rest of the world and it became irrelevant.
Merkel fears that Europe could now be at a similar historical fork in the road. The financial crisis of the last few years has clearly demonstrated that the Western model of freedom isn't nearly as firmly established as it might seem.
It is a conviction that is mirrored in her conversations with counterparts around the world, many of whom view the old continent with a mix of condescension and pity. The feeling is that Europe has completely lost all momentum. Her husband Joachim Sauer, a chemistry professor, likewise tells her how Europe is talked about at international scientific conferences. The image painted is not an optimistic one.
What, then, is to be done? Merkel has opted for a policy of pedagogical imperialism. Her exports include fiscal discipline, structural reform and bank regulation. She would never expect the Germans themselves to put up with most of it. And none of her predecessors would have dared to push through his agenda in such an uncompromising fashion, if only for historic reasons. But Merkel's dominance is of the quiet and inconspicuous sort. She isn't loud like Schröder, nor is she a massive and all-encompassing presence like Kohl. This reduces resistance.
The Philosophy of Muddling Along
In Europe, she applies the same method she has already perfected in domestic policy -- a method she essentially acknowledged two years ago when she quoted Karl Popper during her New Year's address. The actual quote, "the future is wide open," was surreptitious, but it served to demonstrate that Merkel is familiar with the social philosopher, who died in 1994. And her familiarity is telling.
Popper, after all, is the great theoretician of a policy best described as muddling along. He argued that policy should not be based on visions, but instead should move forward in small, manageable steps. Popper called this approach "piecemeal social engineering," and it holds that even far-reaching social changes can only be achieved through small steps. If they prove to be flawed or wrong, they can be corrected or reversed as necessary.
Helmut Schmidt -- who once said: "People who have visions should go see a doctor" -- was the last chancellor to publicly invoke Popper. Merkel hasn't been known to make similarly categorical statements, but Popper would nonetheless be pleased.
Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder was at his best when the air in the Chancellery was saturated with testosterone and a showdown was looming. He yearned for the great dramatic moment, a giant explosion or the ultimate political dispute. It's an approach that his successor finds abhorrent.
You don't solve things with grand posturing, she said this summer. She prefers to dissect problems, making them smaller and she slows things down if need by, thereby removing the tension from certain processes.
At a recent dinner at the Chancellery, Merkel reportedly worked out a simple equation: According to former Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, she said, 50 percent of the economy is psychology. Therefore, she noted, would only say nice things about Greece from then on. With regard to the remaining 50 percent, she explained there is a 50 percent chance that the right decisions have been made. Combine the two numbers and you have a 75 percent probability of success. She couldn't have put it more coolly.
"It can't be said often enough," she told delegates to the convention of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Hanover last Tuesday. "The European debt crisis cannot be solved with a single stroke, a single bang, the one supposed panacea." It was a typical remark for Merkel and one that she has indeed repeated several times.
She finds visions -- and master plans -- horrifying. Who knows what the world will look like in a year? She proceeds cautiously, moving from one crisis summit to the next. If a decision proves to be a mistake, she corrects herself.
And she has made many mistakes in years gone by. For instance, it was her hesitation that led debt-ridden Greece to the brink of failure in the spring of 2010. "There are no budget resources for the Greeks," she said through her spokeswoman in March of that year, with an eye to the upcoming parliamentary elections in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. She knew how unpopular an aid package for the Greeks would be.
But a day before the election, the situation had evolved such that she no longer had a choice. Merkel's hesitation had exacerbated the situation in Greece to such an extent that European leaders, in a dramatic nighttime meeting, were forced to approve a European bailout package for Athens. Since then, things have only gotten worse in Greece.
It's a policy devoid of passion, one that assumes that voters should only be given the truth in homeopathic doses. She treats the Germans like children, covering their eyes when reality becomes too horrible to look at. Merkel deliberately keeps things up in the air and ambivalent, leaving room for a variety of possible outcomes.
Her opponents are clueless, not knowing how to attack Merkel and her approach. She is a moving target and therefore is rarely caught. Her Social Democratic challenger for the Chancellery in next year's general election, Peer Steinbrück, calls it a "veil dance." And it is one that completely flummoxes his Social Democratic Party. They criticize Merkel's approach to Europe only to vote in favor of it in parliament every chance they get.
A Degree in Communications?
Merkel doesn't want to alienate anyone, not the euro skeptics and certainly not the euro supporters. Everyone is taken along for the ride, and because progress only consists of small steps forward, hardly anyone knows where the journey is headed.
That's the advantage of the Merkel method. If she had announced, a year-and-a-half ago, that the Germans would soon be backing Europe to the tune of €400 billion, which is significantly more than an entire annual budget, it would likely have triggered a political earthquake. And now? Most voters have reluctantly accepted the fact that they'll eventually have to pay up, hoping merely that it might be a while longer before it happens.
Merkel spoke to the delegates for an hour at the CDU convention last week. Only after she had talked about the problems associated with the JadeWeserPort harbor project did she turn to the biggest challenge of her chancellorship. Yet only a few minutes later, she was done, having said all there was to say about Europe. What else could she have said?
Unlike her finance minister, she has no plan for Europe to announce. In an interview with SPIEGEL in June, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said that he saw the possibility of German referendum on further political integration in Europe -- and was promptly criticized by fellow CDU members.
Such a thing would never have happened to Merkel. She steers clear of sweeping ideas, knowing that they would only provoke resistance. People have supported her until now because the Germans are still the big winners in the euro crisis. They are lulled by the pleasant feeling of finally being able to set the tone in Europe. It's easy to support a Europe in which one sets the tone.
But now things are beginning to shift. Merkel has admitted, for the first time, that a debt haircut in Greece is conceivable. The crisis is about to become expensive, especially for Germany. The question will be whether the Germans will continue to support Merkel's levelheaded approach when they're being asked to fork over real money.
The chancellor senses what she could be in for. After German reunification Merkel, with her doctorate in physics, sometimes said that she wished she had studied law, because most of her counterparts in the West were lawyers. These days, though, she has changed her mind again, saying that she now wished her focus had been communications.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Uruguayan congress moves to legalize same sex marriage
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 12, 2012 7:40 EST
Uruguayan lawmakers approved a bill early Wednesday to legalize same-sex marriage and sent it on to the Senate.
The Chamber of Deputies approved the measure after eight hours of debate, with 81 votes in favor out of 87 legislators present. The result was greeted with thunderous applause from around 200 activists watching from the gallery.
The bill — introduced by members of President Jose Mujica’s leftist Frente Amplio — seeks to reform the civil code so that “heterosexuals, homosexuals, lesbians and the transgendered are allowed to have a monogamous marriage” and emphasizes the “transformation of the family as an institution.”
“This is not a homosexual or gay marriage law,” said Julio Bango, a Frente legislator and one of the bill’s authors. “It is a measure to equalize the institution of marriage independent of the sex of the couple.”
The small South American country has taken a progressive stance towards gay rights over the past six years, approving civil unions, adoptions by gay and lesbian couples, sex changes starting at age 18, and gays in the armed forces.
In Latin America, same-sex marriage has been legal in Mexico City since 2009 and in Uruguay’s neighbor Argentina since 2010.
Topless activists stage anti-corruption protest as fight erupts in Ukraine’s new parliament
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, December 12, 2012 9:00 EST
Activists from Ukraine’s feminist group Femen staged a topless anti-corruption protest on Wednesday outside the ex-Soviet country’s newly-elected parliament as a fight erupted between lawmakers inside.
The opening session of the Verkhkovna Rada began in a typically raucous fashion, after the October 28 parliamentary elections which were condemned by the West as a setback for democracy.
Four young women jumped over the fence surrounding parliament and stripped naked to protest outside th entrancea, with only black panties protecting them from freezing temperatures, an AFP photographer witnessed.
The activists, who said on their Facebook page that they were protesting against corruption among lawmakers, were quickly detained by security guards.
In the meantime, a fight erupted in the chamber between opposition MPs and two deputies whom they accused of defecting to the pro-government camp.
Several lawmakers from the opposition nationalist Svoboda group chased two men they called “turncoats” — a father and a son — to prevent them from taking the oath.
Ukraine’s parliament has seen several physical confrontations in recent years amid bitter confrontation between opposition and pro-government camps.
It is due later Wednesday to vote on reinstating as prime minister President Viktor Yanukovych’s ally, Mykola Azarov.
With support from Communists and some independent deputies, Azarov’s candidature has a good chance of success, a source close to the ruling Party of Regions told the Interfax news agency.
All three opposition factions in parliament — jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna, boxer Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR (Punch) and Svoboda — which together hold 170 of the 450 seats, refused to vote for Azarov.
Femen specialises in topless activism, supporting women’s rights and fighting prostitution and trafficking and its slogan is “We came, we undressed, we conquered”.
Restoration of Roman tunnels gives a slave’s eye view of Caracalla baths
By Tom Kington, The Guardian
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 21:34 EST
In the middle of a patch of grass amid the ruins of the Caracalla baths in Rome, there is a staircase that takes visitors deep into the ground to a world resembling the lair of a James Bond villain.
“This is our glimpse at maniacal Roman perfection, at incredible hydraulic technology,” said archaeologist Marina Piranomonte, as she descended and waved at a network of high and wide tunnels, each measuring six metres (20ft) high and wide, snaking off into the darkness.
The baths, on a sprawling site slightly off the beaten track in a city crowded by monumental attractions, hold their own against the nearby Circus Maximus, its shattered walls standing 37 metres high, recalling its second century heyday when it pulled in 5,000 bathers a day.
But for Piranomonte, it is the three kilometre, triple-tiered grid of tunnels that lies under the site – the first tract of which will open for visits this month – which really shows off how seriously the Romans took their sauna time.
An army of hundreds of slaves kept firmly out of sight of bathers scurried along the tunnels feeding 50 ovens with tonnes of wood a day to heat water surging through a network of underground channels that arrived via aqueduct from a source 100km away. Below that, massive sewers, which are now being explored by speleologists, flowed towards the Tiber.
“It’s the dimension and the organisation that amazes – there is no spa as big as this anywhere in the world today,” said Piranomonte.
Upstairs, Romans would kick off a visit with a session in one of two gyms, then enjoy a sauna and a spell in a hot tub in the 36 metre (120ft) wide, domed caldarium – slightly smaller than Rome’s Pantheon. The tepidarium then beckoned, before a cool down in the frigidarium, a space so elegant its design and dimensions were copied at Union station in Chicago.
“The side room at the station where the shoot-out on the stairs is set in The Untouchables actually contained a large cold bath here,” said Piranomonte.
To complete the experience, a pool 50 metres long and a garden complete with lending library flanked the baths. “The emperor Caracalla was cruel, but he built beautiful things,” said Piranomonte, who is charged with the site’s upkeep.
A thousand years after it was built, the ghostly ruins of the massive buildings were overgrown and abandoned. “Because it was on the outskirts of Rome, no one built on top of it and the tunnels were simply forgotten, probably sealed by undergrowth,” she added.
Following their rediscovery at the end of the 19th century, Mussolini strengthened the tunnels when he decided to stage operas amid the ruins overhead, but Piranomonte was less than impressed with his handiwork.
“Look at the rain water trickling through; that’s Mussolini’s bricks leaking while ours are fine,” she said, pointing to the perfect Roman brick arches disappearing into the gloom.
The reopening of a short stretch of the tunnels on 21 December caps a clean-up of the baths. The opera, which used the remains of the caldarium for a stage and kept a stage-set workshop in one of the saunas, has been shunted back into the gardens.
A €450,000 (£360,000) restoration programme also resulted in the reopening this month of an underground temple at the baths, linked to the tunnel network and dedicated to Mithras, the deity whose popularity soared just before Christianity took hold in the Roman empire. Entering the temple, which boasts black-and-white floor mosaic and is the biggest of its kind in the Roman empire, Piranomonte points to a frieze of Mithras holding a globe but missing his head. “Probably taken off by the Christians,” she said.
A chamber flanked by space for spreading out on during banquets centres on a large pit where a drugged bull was placed on a metal grill and butchered. Below the grill is a small niche where an initiate to the cult would crawl to be drenched with litres of bull’s blood. “It was a cruel cult, for men only, so you understand why Christianity got the upper hand,” said Piranomonte.
Emerging from the temple, the archaeologist turns left and pauses before what she describes as her favourite part of the baths – an authentic Roman roundabout. A large arch leads to the entrance of the tunnel network, where carts carrying tonnes of logs would queue to enter to feed the ovens. Now fully excavated and restored, the tunnel starts with a roundabout that circles a guard’s kiosk to stop traffic jam.
“A Roman spa with a roundabout,” said Piranamonte, “That I find really fascinating.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012
Mayan Calendar 2012: What’s Really Happening In Guatemala
BY Mark Johanson
December 12, 2012 4:44 PM
Perhaps it’s only natural that, as Dec. 21 approaches, many have found supposed connections between their views of the Mayan calendar and the prophecies of Nostradamus, the alignment of celestial bodies and even the Bible. Perhaps it’s just human nature that a whole host of people are trying to make a quick buck out of terrifying the world with various doomsday theories -- out of selling books, making movies and drawing a hefty profit off their “official” 2012 end of the world websites.
Yet, as Dr. David Stuart, professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, points out in his book “The Order Of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012,” the paranoia says a lot more about us than it does about the Maya.
“It’s as if the ancient Maya could somehow anticipate the fears and struggles we experience in our modern industrial life and offered a mystical end game we could look forward to,” he writes. “No such luck. The truth of the matter is that the Maya calendar was inseparable from the ancient world that created it: a lost worldview of kings, gods and ancestors. By wrenching this special vision of time and cosmology away from that particular cultural and historical milieu, we do nothing more than manipulate the past for our own purposes and messages.”
“The truth is no Maya text -- ancient, colonial or modern -- ever predicted the end of time or the end of the world,” he continues.
The current doomsday theories stem from an interpretation of a single set of tablets discovered in the 1960s at the archeological site of Tortuguero in the Mexican state of Tabasco that depict the return of a Maya god at the end of a 13th period.
Indeed, many of the theories swirling around on the Internet offer an extremely loose interpretation of what the Maya actually believed. The great civilization reached its peak between 250 and 900 A.D. and was fascinated by mathematics, astronomy and the cycles of time. Its Long Count calendar began in 3114 B.C. and moves forward in 394-year periods known as bak’tuns. The winter solstice in 2012 marks the completion of the 13th bak’tun.
Epigraphists say the prophecy foretells the beginning of a new era, according to the traditional Long Count calendar, but argue that the Maya never mentioned that the world nor time would end. Several other Maya ruins, after all, describe dates far beyond 2012.
Nevertheless, the occasion has offered Mayanists and the local Maya themselves a soapbox from which to show the world the intricacies of one of its greatest and still mysterious civilizations. But for a while, it was looking like Guatemala, the cradle of the Maya world, would exploit the doomsday for financial gain.
The AFP ran a widely circulated story, which is still making rounds, that the Culture Ministry had invited some of the world’s biggest celebrities to a “World Summit for Humanity” on Dec. 20 and Dec. 21. in Tikal, one of the most important Maya archeology sites. Culture Minister Carlos Batzin told the news organization he had invited artists such as Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, U2 and Placido Domingo to attend.
Since then, several news outlets have suggested that all of these artists would, in fact, be in Guatemala “for the end of the world.” But Carla Molina, president of Ecotourism & Adventure Specialists, said, “You can rest assured there will be no laser beams and no U2 in Tikal.”
“It’s been very complicated this year, because we have a new government, and they didn’t have a very big sensitivity for the indigenous people. They wanted to bring Bono and U2, and we thought ‘we will just look ridiculous in the eyes of the world,’ not to mention the fact that it would go against the laws of our cultural heritage sites.”
So, her organization and others banded together to fight something they believed was of “the utmost inappropriate nature.” Instead of a celebrity-packed spectacle, the ceremony in Tikal will now feature something far more appropriate: Ajq'ij, ceremonial priests or spiritual guides in charge of counting the days.
The Ajq’ij will usher in the new era on Dec. 21 -- one that will not be of the corn people (as it is now), but of the men of honey, who are in harmony with nature and, like bees, only take from it what they need, according to legend.
Molina’s organization will be on hand to help assist park guards in translating the ceremony to the large crowds expected at the event, and, though Tikal is expected to be busy, limited accommodation and strict rules for the national parks announced on Monday will keep the site from looking too apocalyptic. After all, Molina said it will be more like a church service than a doomsday concert.
2012 Mayan Apocalypse: Why The End Of The World Will Not Happen On Doomsday, Dec. 21, 2012, NASA Says
BY IBTimes Staff Reporter
Dec 12, 2012
Despite many conspiracy theories, Internet campaigns and propaganda, NASA scientists do not believe there will be an apocalypse on Dec. 21, 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar, calling it a "manufactured fantasy" about a doomsday.
On Wednesday, NASA astrobiologist David Morrison was part of a Google+ Hangout where he and other scientists debunked many of the rumors floating around that the world will end and all life will cease to exist within the next three weeks.
"There is no true issue here," Morrison said. "This is just a manufactured fantasy."
"While this is a joke to some people and a mystery to others, there is a core of people who are truly concerned," he said. "I think it's evil for people to propagate rumours on the Internet to frighten children."
Morrison said he was enlisted to answer questions from the public regarding science for the past decade but has seen an influx in questions about the end of the world after Christian radio host Harold Camping forecasted the apocalypse.
"These are questions about astronomy and planets and life in the universe," he said. "And that went along fine until about four years ago when suddenly I started getting these questions about the end of the world."
"One touching letter was simply," he said, "'My best friend is my little dog, please tell me when I should put her to sleep so she won't suffer in the apocalypse.'"
Morrison admitted some of the letters have been disturbing, as the public should not be alarmed for the end of the world.
"I'm disturbed by letters from kids who are afraid. I think that is the worst part of this hoax. And it is a hoax."
"I have received letters from young people who say they are contemplating suicide; I've received a few from mothers who say they're planning to kill their children and themselves," he said.
Morrison said he is most excited for Dec. 22, when he says he will wake up and the hoax will be over.
"I've become sort of obsessed with doomsday 2012, and I'd be glad to drop it," he said.
Fears for the alleged apocalypse came about because Dec. 21 marks date of the winter solstice on the Mayan calendar, signaling the end of the cycle called the 13th b'ak'tun. Scholars of the Mayan calendar have said ancient Maya do not believe this day would be apocalyptic but rather may have a cosmic event that some interpret to mean the end of life.
NASA said there are no asteroids, rogue planets or solar flares that could hit and threaten life on Earth in December. Don Yeomans, a planetary scientist who tracks near-Earth objects at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said there is no object threatening the Earth at this moment, except an asteroid which will pass far from Earth at about 3,963 miles away on Feb. 13, 2013. NASA also dismissed claims that Earth's magnetic field will reverse or will fall into a black hole, along with other doomsday theories.
In fact NASA has had forum which explains scientifically why the world will not end for perhaps another billion years or so, which it has maintained since January 2012.
Guatemala Nobel winner pissed at profiteering of ‘Mayan doomsday’ hysteria
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 18:24 EST
Rigoberta Menchu, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is unhappy about the commercial hype over the supposed ancient Maya predictions of an end of the world on December 21.
The date marks the end of an era that lasted over 5,000 years, according to the Mayan “Long Count” calendar. Some believe that the date, which coincides with the December solstice, marks the end of the world as foretold by Mayan hieroglyphs — an idea ridiculed by scholars.
Nevertheless, millions of tourists are expected to flock to Mexico and Central America for celebrations that will include fireworks and concerts held at more than three dozen archaeological sites.
But don’t expect much authenticity, said Menchu, an indigenous Guatemalan of Maya ethnicity.
“The authentic celebration of the Mayas — that will not be seen by everyone, that is part of the private lives of the Mayas,” said Menchu late Monday as she marked the 20th anniversary of her Nobel win.
“We are going to bid farewell to the grandfather sun and will bid him farewell in thousands of ways,” Menchu said. “We don’t care what the government will do.”
The government of President Otto Perez has planned events at 13 archeological sites, especially at Tikal, some 530 kilometers (330 miles) north of Guatemala City.
Native Maya communities, however, have separate ceremonies planned at 11 other sites.
Menchu is hardly the first native Mayan to decry the exploitation of her heritage.
“We are speaking out against deceit, lies and twisting of the truth, and turning us into folklore-for-profit,” Felipe Gomez, leader of the Maya alliance Oxlajuj Ajpop, said in October. “They are not telling the truth about time cycles.”
The Maya culture flourished between the years 250 and 900, then slowly entered a period of decadence ending around 1200.
Archeologists believe long catastrophic drought sparked political destabilization and triggered wars that led to the collapse of Maya culture.
Scholars say that December 21 simply marks the end of the old Mayan calendar and the beginning of a new one.
In the USA..
The Right to Work Shot Heard Around the World Won’t End Well for Conservatives
By: Sarah Jones
December 11th, 2012
The people calling themselves ‘conservatives’ are full of glee over what Americans for Prosperity (the same Koch-funded group behind Walker’s assault on workers) is calling the “shot heard around the world” – also known as the Michigan Republicans shoving an ALEC/ Koch funded kill unions bill down the people’s throats in the heart of the American union.
They gloat. It’s what they do. But what they don’t see the long-term impact of what they’re doing.
The unions have been dying for years. The orchestrated ALEC-based hits on collective bargaining in Republican-led states was no doubt meant to be the deathblow.
But instead, it has sparked ongoing debate about the point of unions. Many Americans who never had a reason to think about unions before are now aware of the issue. So while it pains me personally that Republicans did this in my home state, taking aim at all my Grandfather worked for his entire life just weeks after he passed away, I see an opportunity here.
This is the time to talk to your friends and neighbors about why the union was started, what collective bargaining rights have to do with human rights around the globe (collective bargaining is recognized internationally as a basic human right), and how the union isn’t Big Boss, but rather teacher Dad and line-worker Mom and electrican Brother, etc, and how unions actually help the market self-regulate.
Worker-friendly states (those without “right to work” laws) have higher incomes on average and better working conditions. An NEA study concluded, “Eleven of the 15 states with the highest poverty rates are RTW, while nine of the 11 states with the lowest poverty rates are worker-friendly.” If that doesn’t get it, how about a discussion regarding productivity? An analysis of gross domestic product per capita shows that worker friendly states “appear to be significantly ‘more productive’ than the RTW states.” Furthermore, “12 of the 14 most productive states are worker-friendly states, while five of the six least productive states are RTW states. The median GDP per capita for the worker-friend?ly states is $41,529.50, compared to $38,745.50 in RTW states.”
The premise of unions is very simple. When there are two sides negotiating something, the side with the most power does not have to give. Who has the power in corporate America? The boss. Sometimes the boss is a nice person, sometimes not. But depending upon the benevolence of a person is a fickle business.
Even worse, depending upon the benevolence of an entity with no heart and an obligation to shareholders with no moral core is a fool’s game. Hence, by coming together as a group, workers around the world have found a way to have a seat at the table. They hardly have equal power, and what little power they have is clearly resented by the Elite, but with solidarity comes enough power to matter; enough to bargain for a decent wage and retirement — the things CEOs get (though in much greater amounts seemingly due to their inherent “worthiness”) without question. Retention fees, if you will. Or, as a good businessperson might see it, ways to motivate employees and increase morale and output. In fact, “right-to-work” laws may be a detriment when a business is considering moving to a state:
“Right to work is not high on employers’ things to consider when they move to a state,” Dale Belman, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, said Thursday. “For existing employers it doesn’t provide a benefit and may be a detriment,” he said, because of worsening labor relations in right-to-work states.
Some businesses are run with the idea that good business means less turnover, and less turnover means treating employees as valued commodity. So, certainly not all corporations are greedy vultures. But by design, the market is supposed to temper their greed with their reputations, among other non-monetary assets. This is why you see conservatives trying to sell the idea that greed is good. If, for example, we stop holding corporations responsible for looting their employees’ pension funds, there is no balancing act to the greed.
It’s ironic, but the modern day conservative movement is not conservative at all. They are rigging the market to have no power to self-regulate, in order to feed the greedy hands of the corporations at the top who stand to benefit from a skewed market.
By destroying the very function of the capitalism they claim to not only stand for, but love, conservatives are tolling their own ideological death bell. It’s not unions that wanted to kill capitalism. Unions are a part of capitalism; they are one of the self-regulating forces that can serve to keep “too-big-to-fail” at bay. They are a check, if you will, on absolute power.
No, it’s not unions that are killing American capitalism. It’s the greedy corporations masquerading as conservatives that are killing capitalism – destroying competition from smarter and leaner mom and pops, rigging the market with government subsidies and bailouts, and killing all measures of self-regulation. The public is slowly waking up to this reality — a fact that will not serve the alleged “conservative” cause well. It’s called backlash, and yes, it requires patience and diligence, but it’s real.
Republicans don’t stand for business. They don’t stand for conservatism. They don’t stand for capitalism. They stand for the greed of corporations who seek absolute power with no free market to regulate them.
Unions are part of the free market. Unions are a global part of freedom. Unions, working as a measure of corporate reputation, are a part of what conservatives claim makes capitalism work — self-regulation. What will the market bear, they ask.
I ask, who is the market? The market is the American people. What will you bear?
Granholm: GOP punishing Democratic voters with ‘Orwellian’ right-to-work law
By Eric W. Dolan
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 20:17 EST
Former Michigan governor and Current TV host Jennifer Granholm on Tuesday slammed Republicans after they pushed a so-called “right-to-work” law through the state legislature.
“The ‘Workplace Fairness and Equity Act,’ the Orwellian name will surely give historians a big laugh,” she said. “Was the ‘free beer and ice cream’ act already used? Fairness and equity? Like the term right to work itself, the act does the opposite of its name. There is nothing ‘fair’ or ‘equitable’ about crushing unions and driving down wages, which is what right to work does. As the president said, right to work is really right to work for less.”
The law prohibits workers from having to pay mandatory fees as a condition of employment in unionized workplaces. Opponents named it the “Freedom to Freeload” law, noting that it allows workers to benefit from collective bargaining agreements without paying any union dues.
Granholm noted that workers in states with “right-to-work” laws tend to earn lower wages and receive less benefits than workers in other states. She added that minority groups like women, African Americans and Hispanics benefited most from union membership.
“Is it a coincidence that these are the groups hurt most? No, this is the Republican Party agenda, paid for by wealthy people who can buy our government and shape it for their personal benefit,” Granholm said.
“They want to ensure a permanent Republican majority by cutting off the democratic fundraising base, unions, and by punishing their constituencies.”
Michigan Democrat on union busting bill: ‘There will be blood’
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 18:29 EST
Thousands of protesters descended on Michigan’s legislature Tuesday as Republican lawmakers passed union-curbing “right-to-work” bills in a state seen as the heart of the labor movement.
Once signed into law by Republican Governor Rick Snyder, the two measures will weaken unions by allowing public and private sector workers to get the same wages and benefits as union members even if they refuse to pay any dues.
Democratic lawmakers pleaded with their Republican colleagues not to pass the controversial bills, which they warned would unleash deep social and political strife.
“There will be blood. There will be repercussions,” state representative Douglas Geiss told the House chamber.
Geiss reminded his colleagues of the violent clashes that accompanied the struggle to form unions in the 1930s and warned that people feel just as strongly about solidarity today.
“If 10 people walk in and say I’m not going to pay dues anymore, there’s going to be fights,” he said.
At least two people were arrested and troopers deployed pepper spray as the protest got rowdy in Lansing, state police said.
Currently, Michigan has a “closed shop” policy that requires workers who profit from collective bargaining to pay fees but does not make it mandatory for them to become union members.
The right-to-work law creates an incentive for people not to join the union — in what is known as the “free rider” problem — because it allows them to benefit from collective bargaining without paying for it.
Snyder insists the law is necessary “to maintain our competitive edge” and attract new jobs, especially after neighboring Indiana became the 23rd state to enact right-to-work legislation earlier this year.
The business-backed measures had previously been restricted to states — in the south and western center of the country — that already had a weak union presence.
The expansion to the industrial heartland states of Indiana and Michigan — birthplace of the United Auto Workers union — represents a major shift.
It comes as the Rust Belt struggles to recover from major battles over efforts to radically restrict the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers in Wisconsin and Ohio after Republicans swept to power in 2010.
But while business may profit from weakening unions, the real motivation for lawmakers is political, said Roland Zullo, a labor relations expert at the University of Michigan.
“This whole right-to-work thing is retribution,” Zullo told AFP. “It’s really about the fact that unions in Michigan were very important actors in helping to elect Democrats this last election.”
Unions are a key source of financial and grassroots get-out-the-vote support for President Barack Obama’s Democrats, and he was quick to slam the controversial bills in an appearance at a Michigan auto plant Monday.
“You know, these so-called right-to-work laws — they don’t have to do with economics: they have everything to do with politics,” Obama told a cheering crowd of unionized workers.
“What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”
Boos and chants of “veto” poured into the chamber from the gallery after the House voted 58-51 to pass the first bill, which covers public workers. The second bill, which covers workers in the private sector, passed 58-52 after another impassioned debate.
Hundreds of union members and supporters crowded into the capitol dome, blowing whistles and chanting “the people are united” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting!”
Thousands more shivered in the cold outside, television news footage showed.
“The right wing forces in Michigan are trying to take power away from working families,” United Auto Workers union chief Bob King told reporters.
“They want working families to have less income, less security. This is about partisanship, not bringing the state together.”
Republican state representative Lisa Lyons insisted that the law was about giving workers their constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of association.
“We are witnessing history in the making,” she told the House chamber. “This is the day that Michigan freed its workers.”
Republicans push for more spending cuts in fiscal cliff bargain
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 18:55 EST
US President Barack Obama and Republicans waged a new spat over spending cuts Tuesday, as time ran short and little progress was evident towards ending a vexing year-end austerity and tax crisis.
After days dueling over Obama’s demand for higher taxes on the rich, each side accused the other of failing to lay out specific spending cuts, digging in to familiar positions on the showdown known as the “fiscal cliff.”
If the two sides cannot agree a deal before the end of the year, taxes will go up on all Americans and automatic and savage cuts to government spending will begin, prompting fears the economy could dive into a new recession.
Top Republicans accused Obama of failing to lay out spending reductions that they say are needed for them to bargain on tax rates, saying he was running down the clock and could force America past the damaging January 1 deadline.
“The longer the White House slow-walks this process, the closer our economy gets to the fiscal cliff,” Republican House speaker John Boehner said.
“We’re still waiting for the White House to identify what spending cuts the president is willing to make as part of the balanced approach that he promised the American people,” Boehner said on the House floor.
“Where are the president’s spending cuts?” he asked, referring to Obama’s proposal to pare the runaway debt by raising $1.6 trillion in new tax revenues.
Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, made a similar charge, and then told reporters “we’re running out of time.”
At the White House, however, spokesman Jay Carney insisted that Obama had laid out clear, detailed savings, in a deficit reduction document he sent to Congress in September 2011.
“The president, unlike any other party to these negotiations, has put forward detailed spending cuts as well as detailed revenue proposals,” Carney said.
Obama and Boehner met Sunday at the White House for a meeting described by both sides as “cordial.”
The White House said it was deliberately not revealing details of any talks with Republicans in the hopes of not prejudicing progress.
Boehner has also remained tight-lipped, but said Tuesday that he was “hopeful that we can reach an agreement.”
It was tough to tell amid radio silence from both sides whether Tuesday’s posturing masked intensifying behind-the-scenes talks.
It was also unclear whether Republicans decided to switch the conversation to spending as they thought they were losing the tax issue, as polls show a majority of Americans back Obama’s call to raise taxes on the rich.
If there is no deal by January 1, tax cuts passed under former president George W. Bush will expire and all Americans will get a tax hike.
Obama wants to extend the cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers, but to allow rates on the top two percent to go up from 35 percent to 39.6 percent.
Republicans want to extend the tax cuts for everyone, and make up the revenue that both sides agree is needed to chip away at the deficit by closing loopholes and capping some deductions.
Obama says that such an approach will not secure sufficient funds and there is no alternative for well off Americans paying more.
John Boehner’s Attempt To Pressure Obama on the Fiscal Cliff Completely Backfires
By: Jason Easley
December 11th, 2012
John Boehner took to the House floor to pressure President Obama, but instead he only made things worse for the Republican Party.
Transcript from Speaker Boehner:
Mr. Speaker, last week, Republicans made a serious offer to avert the fiscal cliff, and most of it was based on testimony given last year by President Clinton’s former chief of staff, Erskine Bowles. And as Mr. Bowles himself said on Sunday: ‘we have to cut spending.’ Well he’s right. Washington has a spending problem. Let’s be honest – we’re broke. And the plan that we’ve offered is consistent with the president’s call for a ‘balanced approach.’
A lot of people know that the president and I met on Sunday. It was a nice meeting, it was cordial. But we’re still waiting for the White House to identify what spending cuts the president is willing to make as part of the ‘balanced approach’ that he promised the American people.
You know, where are the president’s spending cuts? The longer the White House slow-walks this process, the closer our economy gets to the fiscal cliff.
Well here’s what we do know. We know that the president wants more ‘stimulus’ spending and an increase in the debt limit without any cuts or reforms. That’s not fixing our problem. Frankly, it’s making it worse.”
And on top of that, the president wants to raise tax rates on many small business owners. Now even if we did exactly what the president wants, we would see red ink for as far as the eye can see. That’s not fixing our problem either – it’s making it worse and it’s hurting our economy. I think the members know, I’m an optimist. I’m hopeful that we can reach an agreement. This is a serious issue and there’s a lot at stake. The American people sent us here to work together towards the best possible solution, and that means cutting spending.
Now if the president doesn’t agree with our approach, he’s got an obligation to put forward a plan that can pass both chambers of the Congress. Because right now the American people have to be scratching their heads and wondering, ‘when is the president going to get serious?’
Boehner and the Republicans are trying to use a little political sleight of hand in an attempt to distract the American people from the fact that they refuse to raise taxes on the wealthy. The one thing missing from Boehner’s remarks is any mention of raising taxes on the highest income earners. Instead, the Speaker pulled out the tired trick of hiding their protection of the wealthy behind concern for “small businesses.”
Rep. Boehner’s refusal to even acknowledge raising taxes on the wealthy is why his latest blame Obama gamble is destined to blow up in his face. Boehner didn’t try to make his case to the American people for why spending cuts are better than tax increases. He simply refused to acknowledge the most important issue in the minds of the American people. This isn’t just bad politics. It’s bad governance.
All Boehner managed to do was confirm that the Republicans are the ones standing in the way of a deal. The question of how we tackle deficit was already resolved on Election Day. Post election polls continue to show that the public is siding with Obama and the Democrats on the fiscal cliff issue.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Republicans are playing a losing hand, but it takes a special “talent” to turn a losing hand into total catastrophic failure.
Red states are making a decision that could cost some residents their lives
By: Dennis S
December 11th, 2012
All day Tuesday there were a series of quasi-political events scheduled in Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina. Health care advocacy groups made up the majority of the activists that called a morning news conference, held afternoon training sessions and conducted an early-evening public forum featuring Robert Greenwald, the director of the Harvard Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation. The activists were calling attention to Governor Nikki Haley’s decision to reject the option to expand the state’s Medicaid program. The purpose of the daylong focus on Haley’s action was to reach state legislators and persuade them to statutorily override a move that could prove very counterproductive to the state’s health care interests.
The opt-out clause was part of the ‘fine print’ in the Supreme Court’s National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius decision last June, a ruling roundly applauded by progressives because it appeared to uphold the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in declaring its mandate constitutional as a tax (but not acceptable under the commerce clause). That’s great up to the point that ACA calls for expanded Medicaid coverage for all non-seniors with incomes lower than the 133% of the poverty line. That’s roughly $15,000 and below. And you can be assured folks working for that amount have nothing resembling health insurance. Incidentally, 15 grand is weeks take for somebody in the $780,000 annual earnings range.
However, in including the opt-out clause in its decision, the court gave the states the choice of either taking their own sweet time in its adoption or telling millions of people in desperate need of funding for serious health conditions to go to hell. The latter turned out to be the popular Republican choice. It took Haley all of a week back in early July to make her decision. South Carolina alone has an estimated quarter of a million people who would be expected to sign up for Medicaid expansion.
I’m sure you’ll not be even remotely surprised at the roster of right-wing governors who share Haley’s hatred of the feds and therefore have chosen to opt-out as well. Do the names Jindal, Scott, Perry and Walker ring a bell? Add Republican gubernatorial Neanderthals from Oklahoma, Iowa and South Dakota to the list (at latest count) and you have the funeral home directors of opt-out states cheering at the top of their collective lungs because their businesses stand to benefit mightily.
There’s no question about it, in many cases withholding these funds will result in death. A real life example: I know a fellow who has a severe heart condition. He could barely walk a quarter of a block without being rendered breathless. He was scheduled to be placed on the heart transplant list. To live long enough to receive a transplant, he would need the duo implants of a pacemaker and something called an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator. His state had dallied around with his application for so long that he still didn’t have Medicaid (even though declared 100% disabled) after many, many months of phone calls, emails and paperwork. These unconscionable delays are another obscenity that needs to be addressed.
My friend was admitted to a hospital a few months ago with uncontrolled ventricular fibrillation. Each breath he took, was agony. Still, the heart surgeons refused to operate without Medicaid coverage for the patient. As this gentleman was IV-dripped into a fog and lay dying in the ICU, his Medicaid finally came through and the surgery was performed early the next day. He not only lived, but his condition improved dramatically. He’s now walking fair distances and breathing normally, however bionic his heart may be.
But the red state extremist politicians don’t care whether people die or not. And it’s not only the question of Medicaid expansion. MSNBC’s Al Sharpton, on his show PoliticsNation, passed along the fact that work-place fatalities in Right-to-Work states are 53% higher than in non-RTW states. Clearly, elected right-wingers are a one party death panel.
The expansion option doesn’t officially begin until January 1, 2014, but a state can sign on early if so inclined and five states and the District of Columbia (all blue of course) have done so. This, in spite of the fact that the feds only pay the current match level of 50%. By the 2014 start date these states will have already signed up 600,000 people for expanded coverage. One of those states, California let’s the counties decide if they want to go the full 133% or somewhat less.
The first 3 years of the expansion, 2014-2016 are paid in full by the fed. States then gradually pay incrementally more as their share until state contributions peak at 10% in 2022 and remain there. The government then covers 90% annually.
The recalcitrant states will say it’s all about money. In a way they’re right. Refusal to participate leaves roughly $3 billion of that money on the table in South Carolina. The South Carolina Hospital Association citing a study by the University of South Carolina Moore School of Business estimates the economic impact of Medicaid expansion would create nearly 44,000 jobs in the next 7 years. The $11.2 billion in federal spending over that same time period would generate nearly $644 million in state revenues; more than enough to cover the state’s contribution to the program.
Absent the expansion, people in the expansion window will still go to hospitals. Depending on the doctors, many will die, when they could have lived (see above). Those who are treated will be by and large charity cases. And that lost revenue will have to be made up somewhere. That’s where you come in kemosabe.
The Chairman of the South Carolina Hospital Association Board of Trustees who is also the CEO of Palmetto Health summed up the case for adoption of the expansion best, “There is a strong economic case for expansion, coupled with an important health benefit to the newly enrolled. Having health insurance makes a difference for individuals and families, and these benefits are shared by the business community through a strong, healthy workforce.”
Can I have an “Amen?”
December 11, 2012
As Fiscal Talks Heat Up, Questions on Whether Boehner Can Get the Votes
By JACKIE CALMES and JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — With negotiations quickening on Tuesday to prevent a year-end fiscal crisis, White House officials once again are confronting a vexing question: Can Speaker John A. Boehner deliver enough Republican votes for whatever deficit-reduction plan he and President Obama might decide?
Eighteen months ago the White House was forced to answer in the negative after secret negotiations between the two leaders collapsed once word leaked of their tentative deal, with its proposed revenue increases. But once again, Mr. Obama must put his fate in Mr. Boehner’s hands on the issue that will help define the president’s second term, and his legacy.
On Monday, the president presented a new offer and on Tuesday, Mr. Boehner answered back as he and the president conferred by telephone. That talk came two days after a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office without staff members present — their first solo meeting since those failed talks toward a “grand bargain” in July 2011. While neither provided details, one person familiar with the White House proposal said Mr. Obama had reduced his call for $1.6 trillion in additional revenues from the wealthy over the first 10 years to $1.4 trillion, still $600 billion higher than the Republicans’ position. And another said the president also proposed that the two sides commit to working on overhauling the corporate tax code next year.
Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Boehner made a rare statement from the floor of the House admonishing the president to offer more, and more specific, spending cuts.
In an interview with ABC News, Mr. Obama said that if Republicans relent on their resistance to tax rates going up on the wealthy, “then we are prepared to do some tough things on the spending side.”
“Taxes are going to go up one way or another,” he said, “and I think the key is that taxes go up on high-end individuals.”
The direct discussions followed a week in which preliminary negotiations among top-level staff advisers had not gone well, according to people in both parties, with time running out before a year-end deadline for action.
The president has no choice but to rely on Mr. Boehner, who leads Republicans’ only center of power. “It’s not like there’s another path; he’s the speaker of the House,” said a senior administration official, who would not comment further about the relations between Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner, which were strained by last year’s failure.
But Democrats in the White House and Congress also say that they believe Mr. Boehner does hold greater sway among Republican colleagues than he did in the summer of 2011, his first year as speaker, given the chastening experience for junior Republicans of both last year’s budget fights and the 2012 election results.
Contributing to that sense of Mr. Boehner’s greater empowerment was the letter he sent to Mr. Obama last week, in which he acknowledged Republicans’ willingness to raise new revenues as part of a deal: It was also signed by the House Republican leadership team, including Mr. Boehner’s occasional intraparty rival, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, and Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman and former vice-presidential nominee who has a following among antitax conservatives.
Both men and their advisers continued on Tuesday to be silent on the leaders’ private discussions, which many in both parties took as a sign of potential progress. But the speaker sought to turn up the public pressure on Mr. Obama — and dispel the sense of progress, Republican aides said — with his blast before the C-Span cameras.
“Where are the spending cuts?” Mr. Boehner asked. “The longer the White House slow walks this process, the closer our economy gets to the fiscal cliff.”
His statement seemed directed as much at Republican lawmakers and party activists — to reassure them that he was fighting the good fight against government spending, given Republicans’ likely concessions on taxes — as at the president and the broader public.
Conservatives have been growing nervous about any deal with Mr. Obama. “I have great respect for the speaker,” said Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Budget Committee, “but he doesn’t have my proxy.”
And Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Tea Party favorite, disparaged any deal that could be struck by “two elected officials and their unelected staff.”
“This is not the end of the world if we go over the fiscal cliff,” he said.
The ambitious goal of the talks is twofold: a framework for long-term deficit reduction through both tax increases on affluent Americans and cuts in spending for Medicare and other entitlement-benefit programs, with many details to be hashed out next year, and an immediate measure to block more than $500 billion in economically threatening spending cuts and tax increases that would take effect in January absent the alternative deficit-reduction compromise.
Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, emerged from a luncheon caucus with other Senate Democrats to say a resolution would be “extremely difficult” before Christmas. Failure would force lawmakers to return to the Capitol in the week before the New Year’s deadline for 11th-hour legislative drama — risking a voter backlash much like last year. He also pointed to what he called “infighting going on with the House leadership” about the direction of the talks, but Republicans dismissed that notion.
That 2011 showdown between Mr. Obama and Congressional Republicans over increasing the nation’s debt limit hurt both the recovery and the public-approval ratings of both sides, but especially Republicans, who lost seats in the House and Senate. The $1 trillion spending-cuts deal that ended that fight followed the collapse of the Obama-Boehner talks for a $3 trillion deal to stabilize the growth of federal debt.
This week the president and speaker took direct control after staff-level talks bogged down late last week, largely over what one person close to the White House called “the big 2”: Republicans’ demands that Mr. Obama agree both to a slow increase in the eligibility age for Medicare, to 67 from 65, and to a new formula that would reduce cost-of living increases for Social Security.
Mr. Obama has balked; he opposes both ideas and faces heavy pressure from unions and other progressive groups to reject them. But his stance is undercut by the fact that he had tentatively agreed to both proposals in last year’s secret talks, in return for Mr. Boehner’s support for raising taxes on high-income earners.
The president and his aides have told Mr. Boehner and his team that both proposals would be a hard sell to other Democrats, people close to the talks say.