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« Reply #3810 on: Jan 02, 2013, 07:49 AM »

Fiscal cliff: House of Representatives passes deal

Barack Obama praises passing of bill calling it a fulfilment of campaign promise to impose higher taxes on the wealthy

Ewen MacAskill in Washington, Wednesday 2 January 2013 07.40 GMT   

America's long-running fiscal cliff crisis was finally resolved on Tuesday night when Congress voted in favour of a White House compromise that will impose tax rises on the wealthiest and spare the working-class and middle-class.

Barack Obama, in a statement to reporters at the White House, hailed it as a fulfilment of his election campaign promise.

"The central premise of my campaign for president was to change the tax code that was too skewed towards the wealthy at the expense of working, middle-class Americans. Tonight we have done that," he said.

Obama, who broke off his holiday with his family in Hawaii to return to Washington to see the crisis resolved, left minutes later to fly back to Honolulu.

Before leaving, he issued a warning that he was tired of these repeated showdowns with Congress and would be looking for alternative ways of doing business in Washington.

Already the Republicans are gearing up for fresh confrontations as early as next month over spending cuts and the debt ceiling.

Obama called instead for a more bipartisan approach on issues such as spending cuts. "The one thing I think hopefully in the new year we will focus on is seeing if whether we can put a package like this together with a little bit less drama, a little less brinkmanship, not scare the heck out of folks quite as much," the president said.

The end of the fiscal cliff drama came when a large bloc of House Republicans, who had stubbornly opposed the bill, caved in and reluctantly joined Democrats to pass it comfortably by 257 to 167.

It exposed the extent of the Republican ideological divide, with 85 voting for and 151 unable to swallow the deal. The Democrats were more cohesive, with only 16 Democrats voting against.

The House vote came after the Senate passed the bill in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The bill is a short-term, messy compromise. Without the bill, every taxpayer in America would have faced rises from 1 January. Instead, the increases are confined to the wealthiest 2% of the population.

The bill also blocked automatic cuts in federal programmes from defence to welfare due to kick in on 1 January. A decision on cuts has been postponed for two months.

Obama, in his White House statement after the House vote, said: "Thanks to the votes of Democrats and Republicans in Congress I will sign a law that raises the tax on the wealthiest 2% of Americans while preventing a middle-class tax hike that could have sent the economy back into recession."

The Congressional vote amounts to only a partial victory for Obama. He had promised the new taxes would kick in at $250,000 but, to the dismay of leftwing Democrats, agreed to compromise, in the face of Republican opposition, on $450,000. The Republicans had wanted the threshold set at $1m.

America went over the 'fiscal cliff' at midnight on 31 December, with every taxpayer facing an automatic rise. The rises proved temporary. The new legislation reverses this, removing the increases from all but the wealthiest.

The White House had warned that failure to reach a deal could unsettle the markets as well as slow economic recovery. It is hoping the deal will calm the markets when Wall Street reopens on Wednesday.

Obama, feeling empowered by his election victory in November, had been hoping that he might at last be able to tame the Republican House members, many of them backed by the Tea Party.

Although he won a small victory over the fiscal cliff, it is far from the crushing one he had been hoping for. House Republicans are already planning a series of fresh showdowns, beginning next month over spending cuts and the debt ceiling.

Obama originally proposed a 'grand bargain' to deal with all of the remaining issues in the hope that he would avoid these regular and debilitating stand-offs with Congress.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, within minutes of Tuesday's vote, flagged up the coming battles ahead over spending and the debt ceiling.

So too did the Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who said: "Now the focus turns to spending. The American people re-elected a Republican majority in the House, and we will use it in 2013 to hold the president accountable."

But Obama insisted he had enough of such confrontation. If Congress decides to make an issue of raising the debt ceiling, it would be responsible for the "catastrophic" consequences.

The fiscal cliff crisis has been runnning since Obama won the election in early November. Attempts by Obama and the Republican House Speaker John Boehner to do a deal before Christmas collapsed. So too did negotations between the Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid and his Republican counterpart McConnell.

In the end, the deal was brokered over the weekend by McConnell and the vice-president, Joe Biden.

The bill was passed by the Senate, with 89 senators in favour and eight against, at 2am on Tuesday, too late to prevent the country breaching the midnight fiscal cliff deadline.

The bill restricts tax rises to individuals earning $400,000 or more a year and households earning $450,000 or more. Estate tax also rises, to 40% from 35%, but inheritances below $5m are exempted from the increase. Benefits for the unemployed are extended for another year.


The budgetary black holes that lie beyond America's fiscal cliff

Austerity may be the last thing the US economy needs right now, but the country's debt is $16tn
Phillip Inman   
The Guardian, Tuesday 1 January 2013 21.34 GMT   

It is more than a decade since the US last ran a budget surplus – and as negotiations to avoid America's fiscal cliff sailed past their new year deadline on Tuesday, it seems the country will have to wait another 10 years before it happens again. Bill Clinton was the last president to oversee a budget that prevented the country falling further into debt. The task may be beyond Hillary Clinton or whoever takes over the White House after Barack Obama departs in 2016.

The deal between the US Senate and Obama maintains most tax breaks for middle-income groups and the moderately rich that were brought in by George W Bush almost 10 years ago – at great cost – while at the same time delaying cuts in government spending. As such it will do little to reduce America's $1tn annual deficit of recent years, which has taken its total debt to more than $16tn, or just over 100% of GDP.

But according to many economists, the last thing the US economy needs now is a dose of austerity. If anything, there has been too much already.

In the last two years the US has cut almost as much from public spending as the UK, mainly at state and local level. Cities such as San Bernardino in California and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, have declared bankruptcy after a severe drop in tax receipts.

Paul Krugman, the Princeton economist, wrote before the Senate deal that the US needed several more years of public deficits to counter the steep cuts in borrowing by private sector firms and households. He has long argued that the lack of private investment since the financial crash, with the flow of credit having dwindled to a trickle, has left a huge hole in the economy that only the public sector can fill.

Despite being a consistent critic of Bush's deficit budgets in the last decade, Krugman argues that now is not the time for the type of austerity that pushes up unemployment and de-skills the urban working classes, increases social security costs and undermines confidence.

The poor can expect to be hit hard by whatever spending cuts are finally agreed in the coming months. Krugman said: "The reality is that President Obama has made huge concessions. He has already cut spending sharply, and has now offered additional big spending cuts, including a cut in social security benefits, while signalling his willingness to retain many of the Bush tax cuts, even for people with very high incomes. Taken as a whole, the president's proposals are arguably to the right of those made by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairmen of his deficit commission, in 2010."

The potent fiscal medicine recommended by the Bowles-Simpson plan was attacked for its cuts to social security and Medicare.

While Krugman has berated Obama for caving in to persistent rightwing demands, other liberal intellectuals have conceded the need to forge a long-term deal that gives some ground to the numerous champions of low taxes and smaller government.

Health and pension costs are the two big-ticket items over the next 20 years, just as they are in the UK and continental Europe. Americans spend more than 17% of their national income on healthcare. Some studies estimate that could jump to 30% by 2030, the date that marks the retirement of the last baby boomers.

Unlike in the UK, the US government only provides a safety net through Medicare and Medicaid, leaving most care to the private sector, but even this burden is expected to increase sharply.

Pension liabilities remain high after years in which private schemes have withered and workers have come to rely more heavily on the state. Schemes covering public sector workers also remain hugely in deficit.

The credit ratings agencies are deeply concerned about these costs, and the lack of any coherent plan to tackle the burden is one of the main reasons the US lost its AAA rating last year.

For the rest of the world the benefit of Congress striking a short-term deal is obvious. Chinese manufacturing has spent much of the last 18 months in the doldrums and has only recently begun to revive, largely on the back of a US economy that has slowly recovered despite the wrangling in Washington.

The eurozone, which has found the process of cutting subsidies to powerful interest groups even more difficult, is desperate for the US economy to accept its role as the engine of world growth.

Going over the fiscal cliff, which is another way of saying that the US would have allowed tax rises and spending cuts equivalent to more than 4% of GDP over the next year, would be a disaster. The markets never believed it would happen, but they are equally sceptical that the long-term issues will be resolved.


FTSE 100 breaks 6000 as fiscal cliff and eurozone fears recede

UK's leading share index has celebrated the first day of 2013 by trading above the 6000 level for the first time since July 2011

Nick Fletcher, Wednesday 2 January 2013 12.38 GMT          

July 2011 saw a European deal to supposedly save the Greek economy, poor second quarter UK growth figures, and plans by trainmaker Bombardier to cut half its workforce.

It was also the last time the FTSE 100 index of leading shares was trading above the 6000 level. Until now that is.

The leading index has celebrated the first day of 2013 by soaring nearly 2%, up more than 100 points to 6005.70 after the resolution of the US fiscal cliff concerns at the turn of the year. This is the first time the UK's leading index has started with a 6 since 8 July 2011.

Investors have had a rocky ride between the two market peaks, with the eurozone crisis dominating the agenda, along with fears about a severe downturn in the global economy, from the UK to the US and China.

Signs of progress in solving the financial crisis surrounding the likes of Greece, Spain and Italy pulled markets back from their lowest levels, with the FTSE 100 close to reaching the magic 6000 figure in the middle of March 2012 as Greece received approval for a €130bn (£107bn) bailout programme.

But it was not to last, as it became clear Greece needed yet more cash, Spain was pushed by many commentators to accept a bailout which it has so far resisted and political turmoil began to engulf Italy. There were also growing protests on the streets of eurozone countries, as people became increasingly angry about the austerity measures being imposed on them.

On top of that, all the signs from China were that it needed to take action to lift its struggling economy. The mining sector, a key component of the London market these days, was buffeted by any news from China, since the country is now one of the world's major consumers of commodities.

But since early November last year, the market has seen a steady recovery amid growing hopes that the eurozone crisis has eased, with Greece receiving yet another tranche of bailout money and persuading enough of its bondholders to take losses on their investments.

A bond buying programme announced by the European Central Bank – the OMT – also helped ease some of the eurozone's financial strains.

Towards the end of the year the new worry became the US fiscal cliff – the series of spending cuts and tax rises due to come into force early in 2013, which have caused conflict between the two major political parties. Even here, investors grew increasingly confident a resolution would be found before the worst happened and the US was pushed back into recession. That confidence was rewarded by a last-minute deal as 2012 turned into 2013.

But there are still uncertainties. The US deal has merely given politicians a two month breathing space to resolve the US's financial problems. In Europe there are continuing tensions, with Italy facing a political upheaval after technocrat prime minister Mario Monti announced he was stepping down and the prospect emerged of his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi returning to the helm at next year's elections. If Monti is no longer involved, investors are nervous that Italy may not stick to its agreed budgetary targets.

There is also a feeling that the eurozone crisis may have abated, but has not been resolved. Raoul Ruparel, head of economic research at thinktank Open Europe, said: "The fundamental flaws in the structure of the eurozone remain, and progress towards solving them is likely to continue to be slow. [In 2013] Italy, Spain and France face funding costs of €332bn, €195bn and €243bn respectively, which will keep markets on edge."

Despite this latest milestone the leading index is some way off its all time closing high of 6950, reached at the height of the dotcom boom on 30 December 1999.

But will it continue? Apart from the eurozone crisis the other clouds on the horizon include US debt worries and continuing tensions in the Middle East. There are optimists – including Citigroup who said in March 2012 that the FTSE 100 could double in a decade. In the shorter term, the bank is sticking with its forecast that the leading index will reach 6200 at the end of 2013 and 6750 in December 2014.

But the volatility that investors have become used to is likely to continue, suggesting that the index may breach the 6000 barrier – both ways – a few more times yet.

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« Reply #3811 on: Jan 02, 2013, 07:51 AM »

‘Toxic combination of extremism and hyper-partisanship’ makes 112th Congress ‘the least productive in history’: Rep. Louise Slaughter

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, January 2, 2013 4:31 EST

US lawmakers gave themselves a New Year’s resolution of sorts late Tuesday, but it was nearly a lump of coal: a “fiscal cliff” bill that few like, and which highlights the dysfunction gripping Washington.

Lawmakers’ inability to meet their own self-imposed year-end deadline or address the crucial element of the so-called fiscal cliff, billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts set to hit in 2013, is also promising an epic showdown on the financial problems that lay ahead.

Even as the US House voted 257-167 to pass a Senate bill permanently extending tax rates for some 100 million families, Republicans were up at arms because it hikes taxes, at least on the rich, for the first time in a generation and postpones deep federal spending cuts for two months.

While the legislation secured billions in stimulus spending like unemployment insurance, many Democrats were livid because the tax hike threshold was agreed at $450,000 of income, not $250,000.

Uniting each side in their anger was the prospect of a renewed fiscal fight just two months from now when automatic spending cuts known as “sequester” kick in, the nation reaches its federal borrowing limit, and everyone braces for a government budget battle.

Seniors in both parties spoke warmly of how lawmakers are able to overcome differences and do something for the good of the country, even if at the last minute.

But seething resentment was the undercurrent in the House.

“This is no profile in courage,” winced veteran Democratic congressman Charlie Rangel on the House floor.

His Democratic colleague Louise Slaughter agreed.

“It sets the nation up for another fiscal showdown in mere months,” she said.

“This toxic combination of extremism and hyper-partisanship has resulted in the 112th Congress being the least productive in history.”

The watered down legislation — both sides initially sought a multi-trillion-dollar grand bargain — and teeth-pulling negotiations that were required to bring it about, left lawmakers bidding good riddance to the 112th Congress and hoping the 113th, which begins Thursday, will be more productive.

“It’s a disappointing end to a disappointing two years for many in my freshman class,” Republican Tim Huelskamp told AFP, expressing the hope that his colleagues will show more backbone next time they are called upon to hold the line on taxes.

First-term Republicans like Huelskamp “came in to change things and the last vote we’re apparently going to take is a deal that the president of the United States really liked.”

Republicans felt quite the opposite, he said. Nevertheless, 85 of them held their noses and voted for it.

Even the Republican leadership failed to put up a united front for the important vote.

House Speaker John Boehner, who led two caucus meetings to discuss the measure, ultimately backed it but his deputy Eric Cantor did not.

The caucuses held in the Capitol basement Tuesday were no picnic. Most Republicans emerged furious at having to swallow a bill that raised taxes on the wealthy and offered no spending cuts. Some even ranted about the “sleep-deprived octogenarians” in the Senate who passed the bill overnight.

But one of the testiest moments in the high-stakes negotiations over the fiscal cliff deal came at the White House, when Boehner confronted top Senate Democrat Harry Reid with extraordinary language.

“Go f— yourself,” Boehner told Reid, according to Politico, citing multiple people present at the encounter just steps from the Oval Office.

Boehner had been the go-to Republican negotiator with President Barack Obama, but he punted his role to the Senate, where Reid accused Boehner of running a “dictatorship” in the House.

As if to highlight the dysfunction, House Republican leaders ended the session without announcing a vote on a key Senate-passed $60 billion relief bill for Hurricane Sandy victims.

If the next Congress begins with no Sandy bill passed in the House, lawmakers will need to start from scratch.

“The leadership just walked away,” Rangel fumed.

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« Reply #3812 on: Jan 02, 2013, 07:56 AM »

01/02/2013 01:09 PM

Unlimited Impossibilities: Republican Blockade Paralyzes America

An Analysis by Sebastian Fischer in Washington, D.C.

The US has managed to avoid plunging off the fiscal cliff -- for now. But the compromise is not meant to last and Washington will once again be faced with tough bugetary negotiations in several weeks. Much of the blame lies with a Republican Party that refuses to budge.

"Stop kicking the can down the road." It's the expression that seems to be most popular with politicians in the United States these days. But it's little more than lip service given that they all continue to procrastinate when it comes to solving the country's problems. Month in, month out.

The best example is the latest compromise in the budget dispute. A few rich Americans will now be paying slightly higher taxes, but is this any true and balanced plan to reduce America's debt? Far from it. The issue will be considered again in two months. Kick the can down the road.

The New York Times could hardly hide its bitterness in an editorial describing the agreement as a "weak brew that remains far too generous to the rich and fails to bring in enough revenue to deal with the nation's deep need for public investments."

The battle leading to this weak brew was, of course, led as if it were a question of war and peace. That, though, should deceive no one. Washington's last-minute compromise is far from being a breakthrough. And there will be many other last-minute negotiations in the coming months -- and even more "we've escaped this by the hair of our chins" moments. In February, for example, the country will reach its debt ceiling; shortly after that, the austerity timebomb that was just now avoided will begin ticking again.

We are, in short, witnessing a superpower losing its way in a maze of details, propelled forward by grandstanding politicians hewing slavishly to ideology. We are seeing the country of unlimited possibilities becoming one of non-stop standstill. The Disunited States of America. And this despite the long list of tasks that urgently need addressing: The country badly needs a new immigration policy, its infrastructure is crumbling and weapons laws are too lax, to name just a few.

The fundamental problem behind the stalemate is a divergence of the parties in a consensus-based system of government. Or, to be more precise, the drifting off course of one of the two parties involved: the Republicans. In the United States, the opposition also co-governs; despite not holding the White House, the weaker party often holds a majority in the Senate or in the House of Representatives, or even both. But what happens when the opposition refuses to do its part in governing?

It is difficult to run a country with the Republican Party in its current state. Negotiations over the fiscal cliff have made this abundantly clear. For fully a year and a half, US President Barack Obama has been wrestling with the Republicans over the debt and the deficit -- just to be able to bring forth this half-baked mini-deal. It was torturous, exhausting finger-wrestling. But some are already announcing their plans for revenge. "Round two is coming in a couple of months," South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said of the dispute over the US debt ceiling. Sounds like fun.

What is that has gotten into this party? What has become of its proud tradition -- that of the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan? These days, it is considered good form within the Republican Party not to look beyond the country's borders, to deny climate change and to practice the politics of faith rather than of expedience.

'A Catastrophic Loss of Species Diversity'

One of the reasons presidential candidate Mitt Romney lost the election to Obama in November was dubious comments he made about Latinos and women in order to attract his party's right-wing camp. But by doing so, he alienated voters at the party's center. Afterwards, the conservatives accused him of having been too centrist as a candidate. That was the problem, they argued.

It's not America itself that is ill, but rather a party. When one party in a two-party system begins to block everything, the outcome is predictable: the system falters and paralyzes itself. It's a checkmate in Washington, D.C. Congress in the legislative period that is now ending was not only the most unpopular in generations, with a mere 11 percent approval rating -- but also the most unproductive in US history.

In his recently published book "Rule and Ruin" about the "destruction of the Republican Party," historian Geoffrey Kabaservice poignantly noted: "the growth of ideologically polarized politics may prove toxic to government effectiveness and perhaps even to Americas social stability." Comparing American politics to an ecosystem, Kabaservice wrote that the disappearance of the moderate Republicans "represents a catastrophic loss of species diversity."

The division within the party was extremely apparent during the negotiations over the fiscal cliff. On the one hand, there was John Boehner, who as Speaker of the House is the de facto Republican Party leader. He is also a man of compromise. But Boehner's caucus also includes dozens of Tea Party followers, who torpedoed his negotiations with Obama. In the end, Boehner retreated.

It is telling that the deal finally reached was agreed to by two old men: Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Both men are septuagenarians and hail from an era in which Democrats and Republicans still did a good job of cooperating and enjoyed doing so.

On Tuesday, before the House vote, rifts in the Republican leadership became apparent. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House and also the leader of the Tea Party movement, declared that he couldn't agree to the current compromise. Boehner, on the other hand, voted yes despite the fact that the Speaker of the House generally abstains in voting. It's possible there could still be some movement within the party. New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, for example, comes to mind. He actually dared after Hurricane Sandy to tour the regions of his state devastated by the storm together with Obama, showering the president with praise for the help he had given. The right-wing camp of the Republican Party viewed the move as high treason.

Within the right-wing camp, politicians like Congressman Cantor or Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are highly esteemed. They all voted against the compromise, one that might have secured 2 million jobs and prevented a recession. They are all considered to be potential Republican Party candidates in the 2016 presidential race. Those who agree to compromises quickly lose their status as possible contenders.

That, at least, appears to be the dominant school of thought in the Republican Party -- also in 2013.

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« Reply #3813 on: Jan 02, 2013, 07:58 AM »

Greek debt crisis 'far from over'

Country faces year of destiny, with doubts about survival of government and of its eurozone membership as austerity bites

Helena Smith in Athens, Wednesday 2 January 2013 11.19 GMT

In the three years that Greece has been engulfed by the drama of its debt, crises have come and gone. But the next 12 months are likely to be more critical yet with politicians and pundits predicting that 2013 will ultimately define whether Athens remains in the eurozone. For once, Greeks are in accord with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who, adding to the prevailing pessimism, emphasised in her new year address that the worst crisis to ravage Europe since the second world war "is far from over".

Few doubt that the continent's most powerful leader had Greece – the country she recently confessed to thinking more about than ever before and not "without a certain inner involvement" – in mind. The uncertainty that has enveloped the nation since the debt drama erupted beneath the Acropolis has not been alleviated by the passage of time.

After five straight years of recession, the eurozone's weakest link moves into 2013 with an economy set to further contract, unemployment at a record 26%, one in three living on or below the poverty line, and the worst of austerity yet to come. In the runup to Christmas, even the Greek finance minister, Yannis Stournaras, felt fit to admit that despite being the recipient of €240bn in EU and IMF rescue funds – the biggest bailout in global history – Greece could still default on its massive pile of debt, a move that would result automatically in exit from the 17-nation bloc.

"We still face a possible risk of bankruptcy," he told the FT, adding that Athens's fate would undoubtedly be determined by the ability of the prime minister, Antonis Samaras's fragile coalition to survive the unrest that will inevitably erupt with enforcement of cuts worth €9.2bn in the new year alone.

Much would depend on whether the debt-stricken country meets the expectations of international creditors keeping insolvency at bay. And whether Greeks have the stamina, and their government the resolve, to accept and enact painful reforms.

"We can make it [in 2013] if we stick to the programme agreed with the EU and IMF," said Stournaras. "What we have done so far is necessary but not sufficient to achieve a permanent solution for Greece."

Analysts speak of a year of two parts, with the German general elections in September expected to play a pivotal role. Only then, say observers, will a newly installed government in Berlin – the main bankroller of bailout funds to date – be prepared to take the potentially costly decision of endorsing an official sector writedown of Athens's staggering €340bn debt load.

For while the fiscal adjustment made by Greece is by far the biggest of any OECD country in modern times, there is no one who believes that its debt load is anywhere near managable. "By about June everyone will be talking again about the inability of Greece to perform economically," said Giorgos Kyrtsos, a rightwing political commentator. "If the economy is to function again and the country to remain in the eurozone it has to be absolved of at least 50% of its debt. Currently, the situation is hopeless with debt at 180% of GDP."

On 31 January pensioners and civil servants will experience their first real wage cuts – on top of ever-growing taxes and utility prices – in more than a year.

"A lot of people, especially in the middle class, are going to find they have no salaries at all, as reductions, ranging from 15 to 20%, are applied retroactively," said Kyrtsos, an opponent of the growth through austerity policies that lenders have placed as the price of further aid. "All the measures we have been talking about for the past six months," he said, referring to the budget reforms the governing coalition has been forced to draft since its election in June, "will have to be implemented and that will create all kinds of side-effects. Unemployment will rise to 30. No civilised society can function like that."

With the country so dependent on cash handouts from foreign creditors, Samaras is acutely aware that there is no room for relaxation. The government is hoping that a long-delayed €34bn package of rescue loans, disbursed in December, will finally help energise Greece's near lifeless economy. "But," says Aliki Mouriki, a sociologist at the National Centre for Social Research, "the money that will be thrown into the Greek economy will take a very long time to trickle down to the people. Joblessness will continue to grow, the recession will get worse, more businesses will close. The big question will be who will survive?"

With many predicting a backlash by austerity-weary Greeks, there is speculation over whether the ruling alliance will last longer than the spring. An opinion poll released by the Kapa research group this week showed 77.3% were unhappy with the coalition.

Last year's double elections took the heat out of a population that long ago reached boiling point, pundits say.

"It delayed the expression of unrest," said Mouriki. "But unless people see a way out of this deplorable situation there will be an explosion. Anger and despair are building up. The explosives are there."

Many believe a clampdown on tax evasion and the perceived privileges of the rich, as well as a successful privatisation campaign and foreign direct investment will be critical to keeping chaos at bay. "In June the tourist season will begin and that will help," added Mouriki. "But until then we will have to hold our breath."

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« Reply #3814 on: Jan 02, 2013, 08:01 AM »

David Cameron sets free trade agreement as his G8 priority

PM to push for Europe-US deal despite problems of past muted response in Washington and his vulnerable position in the EU

Juliette Jowit and Ewen MacAskill   
The Guardian, Tuesday 1 January 2013 19.54 GMT   

David Cameron has made the establishment of a free trade agreement between Europe and the US a key priority during the UK's leadership of the G8 group of richest nations this year.

In a letter to fellow national leaders in the group, whose economies make up more than half the world's output, the prime minister said expanding free trade was one of three areas he wanted them to focus on.

As well as making progress with discussions ahead of trade deals with Canada, Japan and Russia, Cameron wants the even bigger prize of an agreement, at least in principle, on a deal with the US. Such a treaty could reduce duties on goods traded between European Union members and the US or at least lower "non tariff" barriers such as harmonising standards for certain goods.

Cameron also wants national and EU leaders to co-operate in a crackdown on tax evasion and insist on more transparency from developing nations which receive aid.

The UK leadership, which hosts the main G8 summit at Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, is also making a virtue of prioritising issues which do not necessarily involve expensive commitments from member states at a time when governments are trying to curb spending.

"This G8 will not be the kind of summit where we simply whip out a chequebook at the eleventh hour, pledge some money and call it a success," writes Cameron. "What we are talking about are long-term changes in our countries and the rules that govern the relationships between them. With ambition on this scale, I am convinced that success depends on us starting a debate on these changes now."

An EU-US trade agreement has been mooted for some time but has not made much progress in the US, especially on Capitol Hill. Cameron faces the problem that the deal is not strictly a G8 issue, and the PM's position and influence in the EU is also vulnerable while debate rages at home about the UK's membership of the organisation.

Development groups are also likely to warn that more G8 deals which exclude developing nations from expanding trade or tie them to unaffordable commitments could harm those nations' growth.

However, Whitehall sources point to existing EU support, including a speech by the trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, in November, and say the aim is to end the year discussing details of how, not if such an agreement can be implemented. Benefits to EU members of an "ambitious" deal are estimated at around €65bn (£53bn).

"With Europe and America together accounting for a third of global trade, perhaps the single biggest prize of all would be the beginning of negotiations on an EU-US trade agreement," writes Cameron.

"These are vital opportunities for global growth, and I hope that we in the G8 can offer leadership – in particular by working with businesses in every sector of our economies to mobilise support for these deals and by using the openness of our direct engagement as leaders to address the sticking points frankly and to fix them."

Nick Dearden, a spokesman for the Jubilee Debt Campaign, said he was concerned Cameron's focus on trade deals would harm developing nations in three ways: by excluding them from the benefits of such deals or by tying them to unaffordable commitments such as buying British arms, and by strengthening the international power of the financial sector – likely to be one of the major beneficiaries.

"Given the financial crisis we have seen, given the role of the City of London in creating that crisis, and the ongoing trade system, what Cameron should be doing is trying to rein in the financial and new-liberal free trade agenda, not go full steam ahead with extending it," said Dearden.

In the US there is substantial opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, despite it being in force for nearly 20 years, especially from Republicans and trade unionists who blame it for the loss of jobs.

There is not the same hostility towards an agreement with Europe: some groups representing agriculture have expressed unease but overall the response has been muted.

On tax, the PM wrote to fellow leaders: "No one country can, on its own, effectively tackle tax evasion and aggressive avoidance. But as a group of eight major economies together we have an opportunity to galvanise collective international action.

"We can lead the way in sharing the information to tackle abuses of the system, including in developing countries, so that governments can collect the taxes due to them. We can work together to sign more countries up to the international standards. And we can examine the case for strengthening those standards themselves – whether by improving existing standards or looking at new ones."

The UK presidency, which rotates with the other seven core G8 members Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the US, will last one year, and as well as the headline meeting in June includes a number of preparatory summits

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« Reply #3815 on: Jan 02, 2013, 08:04 AM »

January 1, 2013

Laos Could Bear Cost of Chinese Railroad


OUDOM XAI, Laos — Wang Quan, the new Chinese owner of a hotel in this farm town tucked into the tropical mountains of northern Laos, is hoping that the first of 20,000 Chinese workers will arrive here soon to start construction on a new railroad.

The Chinese-financed railway is to snake its way through dozens of tunnels and bridges, eventually linking southern China to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, and then on to the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar, significantly expanding China’s already enormous trade with Southeast Asia.

But Mr. Wang may have to wait a little longer to make his fortune from all the Chinese expected to descend on this obscure corner of Laos about 50 miles from the nearest border with China. Even though the project has run into some serious objections from international development organizations, most experts expect it to go ahead anyway. That is because China considers it vital to its strategy of pulling Southeast Asia closely into its orbit and providing Beijing with another route to transport oil from the Middle East.

The crucial connection would run through Oudom Xai between Kunming, the capital of China’s southern province of Yunnan, and the Laotian capital, Vientiane.

“China wants a fast-speed rail — Kunming to Vientiane,” George Yeo, a former foreign minister of Singapore, said in a recent speech to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Business Club in Bangkok.

Mr. Yeo, chairman of Kerry Logistics Network, a major Asian freight and distribution company, is considered one of the best-informed experts on the expansion of new Asia trading routes. “The big objective is Bangkok,” he said. “It’s a huge market, lots of opportunities. From there, Bangkok to Dawei in Myanmar — that will enable China to bypass the Malacca Straits,” a potential choke point between the Indian Ocean and China’s east coast.

But China is not particularly interested in sharing much of the wealth the railroad would generate. Most of the benefits, critics say, would flow to China while most of the costs would be borne by the host nation. The price tag of the $7 billion, 260-mile rail project, which Laos will borrow from China, is nearly equal to the tiny $8 billion in annual economic activity in Laos, which lacks even a rudimentary railroad and whose rutted road system is largely a leftover from the French colonial era.

In mid-November, when Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China visited Vientiane for a summit meeting of European and Asian leaders, he was expected to attend a groundbreaking for the railroad. The ceremony did not take place.

An assessment of the rail project by a consultant for the United Nations Development Program said the terms of the financing offered by China’s Export-Import Bank were so onerous they put Laos’s “macroeconomic stability in danger.” At the same time, construction through northern Laos would turn the countryside into “a waste dump,” the consultant’s report said. “An expensive mistake” if signed under the terms offered, the report concluded. As collateral for the loan, Laos was bound to provide China with minerals, including potash and copper.

Other international donors echoed the findings. “Partners, including the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, expressed concern, and the International Monetary Fund was here and said, ‘You have to be very careful,’ ” said an Asian diplomat briefed on the reservations expressed to the Laotian government.

Nonetheless, the National Assembly has approved the project as part of a much broader trans-Asian rail agreement signed by nearly 20 Asian countries in 2006. While the workings of the Communist Party that runs Laos are extremely opaque, diplomats here said, the project is most strongly backed by the pro-China deputy prime minister, Somsavat Lengsavad. Efforts to interview Mr. Somsavat were unsuccessful.

China’s exploding trade with Southeast Asia reached nearly $370 billion in 2011, double that of the United States in the same year. By 2015, when the Southeast Asian countries aim to have completed an economic community, China projects that its trade with the region will equal about $500 billion.

Even as it exports a variety of goods to the region, China relies on imports from its neighbors in Southeast Asia — natural resources and intermediate goods — to fuel its export machine, said Yolanda Fernandez Lommen, principal economist for the Asian Development Bank in Beijing.

The European Community, the United States and Japan are still China’s largest trading partners, she said, but “Southeast Asia is geostrategically and economically important to China, an increasingly important partner from both the trade and investment perspectives.”

Laos offers a perfect launching pad for China’s stepped-up regional ambitions. China has poured new investments into the capital, including in dozens of luxurious villas built on the banks of the Mekong River to house the European and Asian leaders who attended the November summit meeting.

A fancy new convention hall, part of a new complex called Vientiane New World, gives a 21st-century veneer to the shabby capital. In Luang Prabang, a popular tourist destination through which the railroad will run, China has built hospitals and upgraded the airport.

Some Laotians, unhappy with the unmistakable Chinese presence, complain that their country is becoming little more than a province of China or, more slyly, a vassal state.

Veterans of the Pathet Lao, the guerrilla movement that fought alongside North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, dominate a government that keeps its distance from Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited in July, the first visit by the United States’s top diplomat since the 1950s. The move was part of the Obama administration’s effort to forge stronger economic and military ties in the region as a counterweight to China.

In Laos, opposition to government policies is often squelched. The director of Helvetas, a Swiss development organization, was expelled on 48 hours’ notice last month, accused of an unfriendly attitude to the government. The director, Anne-Sophie Gindroz, had raised the issue of the government’s forcing peasants to sell their land at very low prices, a practice that is now seen as mainly serving the interests of Chinese-financed developers.

In Vientiane, the well-known Laotian director of a civil society group, the Participatory Development Training Center, disappeared last month after taking part in a People’s Forum where land issues were discussed on the sidelines of the November summit meeting. Diplomats said the director, Sombath Somphone, appeared to be in police custody.

Despite the sudden opposition to the Chinese railroad, a manager of a Chinese state-owned company in Vientiane, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said he had every expectation that it would go ahead. He said Hu Jintao, China’s departing president, “made the decision two to three years ago.”

A foreign diplomat agreed, saying that Vientiane and Beijing would find a way to paper over their financing dispute. “The Chinese will have their way,” he said.

Here in Oudom Xai, where a Chinese language school founded by Chinese businessmen has 400 students and 28 teachers, some paid by the Chinese government, Mr. Wang, the hotel owner, expresses confidence that the project will start within the next few weeks. Since arriving in Laos three years ago, Mr. Wang said, he has also acquired a wood processing plant.

Chinese immigrants have leased about half of the agricultural land around the town, he said.

“You can rent land for however many years you have money for,” Mr. Wang said. “People here recognize money, not people.”
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« Reply #3816 on: Jan 02, 2013, 08:06 AM »

January 1, 2013

Malls Blossom in Russia, With a Middle Class


MOSCOW — Shoppers who find that 250 stores aren’t enough can go ice skating, watch movies or even ride a carousel, all under a single roof.

While it sounds like the Mall of America, this mall is outside Moscow, not Minneapolis.

“I feel like I’m in Disneyland,” Vartyan E. Sarkisov, a shopper toting an Adidas bag, said recently while making the rounds of the Mega Belaya Dacha mall.

Instead of bread lines, Russia is known these days for malls. They are booming businesses, drawing investments from sovereign wealth funds and Wall Street banks, most recently Morgan Stanley, which paid $1.1 billion a year ago for a single mall in St. Petersburg.

One mall, called Vegas, rose out of a cucumber field on the edge of Moscow and became, its owners say, larger than the Mall of America if the American mall’s seven-acre amusement park is not counted in the calculation of floor space.

A few offramps away on the Moscow beltway, another mall scored a different kind of victory: the Mega Tyoply Stan shopping center drew 57 million visitors at its peak in 2007, well ahead of the 40 million annual visits reported by the Mall of America.

As American malls dodder into old age, gaptoothed with vacancies, Russia’s shopping centers are just now blossoming into their boom years, nourished by oil exports that are lifting wages.

“It’s 1982 all over again in Russia,” said Lee Timmins, the country representative of Hines, a Texas-based real estate group that is opening three outlet malls in Russia, referring to the heyday of the American mall experience. Russians, he said, love malls.

The mall boom illustrates an extraordinarily important theme in Russian economics these days. The growing crowds at malls, and the keen interest in Russian malls on the part of Wall Street banks, are signs that the emerging middle class that made up the street protests against Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow last winter is becoming a force in business as well as politics.

Investors, who with money at stake are a bellwether of the new trends, are not waiting for the next round of protests; they are already placing bets on the rise of a broad affluent class in Russia.

“Over the past 10 years, Russia has turned into a middle-class country,” Charles Slater, a retail analyst at Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate consulting firm, said in an interview. “What better to do than go to an enclosed, warm environment with many things on offer, whether that be bowling, cinema or food courts, things the customers have not been used to in the past?”

Moscow now has 82 malls, including two of the largest in Europe, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade association. Both are owned by Ikea Shopping Centers Russia, the branch of the Swedish assemble-it-yourself furniture franchise that manages 14 malls here. In Russia, malls are still novel; the first Western-style suburban mall opened in 2000. They are now changing hands as developers sell to institutional investors, like Morgan Stanley, shedding light for the first time on their eye-popping values.

At the core of the attraction for investors is the rising disposable income of Russians, nudged along by policies favoring the middle class, lest their challenge to President Putin’s rule intensify.

Russia has a flat 13 percent income tax rate. Most Russians own their homes, a legacy of post-Soviet privatizations, and so pay no mortgage or rent. Health care is socialized.

Not surprisingly, then, Russians have become fanatical shoppers. Russians spend 60 percent of their pretax income on retail purchases, a category that includes food, according to Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate consulting firm. The country in second place in Europe is Sweden, where retailing accounts for 40 percent of total private spending. Germans, by comparison, spend 28 percent of their salaries shopping, according to Jones Lang LaSalle.

Malls, where the secrets of Western capitalism were finally peeled open and laid bare, with fast food, clothes, ice rinks, electronics and appliances wherever the eye falls, have mesmerized shoppers here — much as they did in their early years in the United States, from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Olga N. Zaitsova, 55, who was in the Mega Belaya Dacha mall with her granddaughter Anastasia, said she came every weekend, drawn by the warm play area for toddlers. “It’s just not comfortable to be outside when it’s so cold,” she said.

When she shops, she said, “now we buy things we want, not things we need.”

So, more malls are going up. The essayist Joan Didion, who wrote of malls as they first opened in Southern California in the 1960s, said that they were “like pyramids to the boom years.” They were cities, sparkling and ideal, “in which no one lives but everyone consumes.”

A megamall built for Russians, not surprisingly, is subtly distinct from the idealized urban environment preferred by Americans, a result of careful analysis of consumer behavior and Russian retailing desires.

Most Russian malls have a huge grocery store as an anchor tenant, rather than a department store. Russians are still struggling to find groceries in their neighborhoods. And the sight of row upon row of groceries, stacked to the ceiling, surely soothes a lingering sore spot in the soul of Russian women who were compelled, just two decades ago, to serve their children such items as canned seaweed and powdered milk.

Moscow, the new capital of malls, has more floor space in malls than any other European city, with 34 million square feet.

And as if to drive home the point that the Russian capital has long since moved on from the deprivation and hardship its name still evokes, it has shattered other shopping center records recently.

Belaya Dacha was one of the largest malls in Russia from 2007 until 2010, when it was overtaken by Vegas. The interior space of Vegas is 4.15 million square feet, larger than the Mall of America excluding the Nickelodeon Universe amusement park.

“This is a big world with a lot of people in it,” Dan Jasper, the spokesman for Mall of America, said. “I think it’s great they are building these things in Russia, too.”

And a new record-setter is going up. Avia Park in northwest Moscow will have five million square feet of interior space including covered parking, which will make it the largest mall in the world outside Asia.

So, the market is buzzing. Morgan Stanley is in talks to buy another mall, the Metropolis in Moscow, for more than $1.2 billion, according to real estate professionals close to the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The seller is Capital Partners, a Kazakh developer that opened the mall in 2009.

Malls in Russia appear to be following a familiar course. While some American malls continue to flourish decades after opening, the arc of a mall from buzz to blight has been established in the United States. But it is not here yet.

Hines, which built one of the first megamalls in the United States, the Galleria in Houston, has made a big bet on outlet malls — one of the categories of retail space that have undercut the classic anchor-tenant model for malls in the United States. Others are strip malls and big-box parks, known as power centers.

For owners of traditional malls, it is an ominous development.

Hines opened an outlet mall a short drive from Mega Belaya Dacha on the territory of the same former collective farm, sharing the name — and, it hopes, some customers. It is called Belaya Dacha Outlet Village.

It was so cold on a recent weekend that the few visitors at the site of the outlet mall cupped their mittens over their faces, and, puffing and stamping their feet, browsed the shop windows.

Dmitry Razzhevajkin, a property manager with a doctorate in economics, watched intently, noting the monumental stakes of the experiment, a “first real test of street retail in Russia.”

In retailing, Russia could well be where the United States was in the 1990s. Now, the United States has 685 class-A, superregional malls, the large-scale type flourishing in Russia today. But it also has 65,840 strip malls.

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« Reply #3817 on: Jan 02, 2013, 08:09 AM »

January 1, 2013

Studying Marijuana and Its Loftier Purpose


SAFED, Israel — Among the rows of plants growing at a government-approved medical marijuana farm in the Galilee hills in northern Israel, one strain is said to have the strongest psychoactive effect of any cannabis in the world. Another, rich in anti-inflammatory properties, will not get you high at all.

Marijuana is illegal in Israel, but farms like this one, at a secret location near the city of Safed, are at the cutting edge of the debate on the legality, benefits and risks of medicinal cannabis. Its staff members wear white lab coats, its growing facilities are fitted with state-of-the-art equipment for controlling light and humidity, and its grounds are protected by security cameras and guards.

But in addition to the high-tech atmosphere, there is a spiritual one. The plantation, Israel’s largest and most established medical marijuana farm — and now a thriving commercial enterprise — is imbued with a higher sense of purpose, reflected by the aura of Safed, an age-old center of Jewish mysticism, as well as by its name, Tikkun Olam, a reference to the Jewish concept of repairing or healing the world.

There is an on-site synagogue in a trailer, a sweet aroma of freshly harvested cannabis that infuses the atmosphere and, halfway up a wooded hillside overlooking the farm, a blue-domed tomb of a rabbinic sage and his wife.

In the United States, medical marijuana programs exist in 18 states but remain illegal under federal law. In Israel, the law defines marijuana as an illegal and dangerous drug, and there is still no legislation regulating its use for medicinal purposes.

Yet Israel’s Ministry of Health issues special licenses that allow thousands of patients to receive medical marijuana, and some government officials are now promoting the country’s advances in the field as an example of its pioneering and innovation.

“I hope we will overcome the legal obstacles for Tikkun Olam and other companies,” Yuli Edelstein, the minister of public diplomacy and diaspora affairs, told journalists during a recent government-sponsored tour of the farm, part of Israel’s effort to brand itself as something beyond a conflict zone. In addition to helping the sick, he said, the effort “could be helpful for explaining what we are about in this country.”

Israelis have been at the vanguard of research into the medicinal properties of cannabis for decades.

In the 1960s, Prof. Raphael Mechoulam and his colleague Yechiel Gaoni at the Weizmann Institute of Science isolated, analyzed and synthesized the main psychoactive ingredient in the cannabis plant, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Later, Professor Mechoulam deciphered the cannabinoids native to the brain. Ruth Gallily, a professor emerita of immunology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has studied another main constituent of cannabis — cannabidiol, or CBD — considered a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety agent.

When Zach Klein, a former filmmaker, made a documentary on medical marijuana that was broadcast on Israeli television in 2009, about 400 Israelis were licensed to receive the substance. Today, the number has risen to about 11,000.

Mr. Klein became devoted to the subject and went to work for Tikkun Olam in research and development. “Cannabis was used as medicine for centuries,” he said. “Now science is telling us how it works.”

Israeli researchers say cannabis can be beneficial for a variety of illnesses and conditions, from helping cancer patients relieve pain and ease loss of appetite to improving the quality of life for people with post-traumatic stress disorder and neuropsychological conditions. The natural ingredients in the plant, they say, can help with digestive function, infections and recovery after a heart attack.

The marijuana harvest, from plants that can grow over six feet tall, is processed into bags of flowers and ready-rolled cigarettes. There are also cannabis-laced cakes, cookies, candy, gum, honey, ointments and oil drops. The strain known as Eran Almog, which has the highest concentration of THC, is recommended for severe pain. Avidekel, a strain rich in CBD and with hardly any psychoactive ingredient, allows patients to benefit from the drug while being able to drive and to function at work.

Working with Hebrew University researchers, the farm has also developed a version in capsule form, which would make exporting the drug more practical, should the law allow it.

Professor Mechoulam, now 82, said in an interview that he had been urging producers over the years to grow cannabis with less THC and more CBD, something in which nonmedical marijuana growers had little interest. He said what Tikkun Olam had done was not great science but “a very practical development.”

In Israel, he said, research in the field is “definitely a work in progress,” and he cautioned, “Science is not a 100-meters Olympic race; it is not who is first on the line that is important.”

The real advances, he said, are being made not on farms but in laboratories around the world, including in the United States and Europe. The professor, who collaborates with many teams abroad, said that chances were that in the next few years well-defined mixtures of the compounds, refined into something more like a medical drug, would replace today’s medicinal marijuana.

In the meantime, he said, offering products with different levels of key ingredients, as Tikkun Olam does, “is going towards personalized medicine.”

Yet experts say that many medical professionals in Israel remain skeptical and are reluctant to encourage patients to use marijuana, be it because of conservatism or a lack of knowledge about its potential benefits. Obtaining a personal-use license from the Health Ministry for a patient requires a special effort by doctors and can take more time than some patients have.

Yuval Tuby Zolotov, who works at Tikkun Olam’s small dispensary and instruction center in Tel Aviv, said that the license for his mother, who died of cancer three years ago, was finally approved as the family sat shiva, the traditional weeklong mourning period, after her death.

Still, there are stories of transformation. Of children whose pain dissolved with a cannabis candy. Or of the Hadarim retirement home at Kibbutz Naan in central Israel, where one of the residents began taking marijuana several years ago and started a trend.

“A few years ago, we found we had lost the way,” said Inbal Sikorin, the chief nurse at Hadarim. “We had learned to prolong life, but without quality.” The residents became part of a project, with Tikkun Olam, to test the broader use of marijuana, Ms. Sikorin said. As a result, she said, the feeding tubes are gone and the residents are much less restless.

“It was as if there were divine intervention,” she said.

In a story the mystics of Safed would appreciate, Ms. Sikorin related the case of a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor at the home whose hands and forearms had long been frozen in an upward, twisted position. After taking medical cannabis, the nurse said, she joined a tai chi class.

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« Reply #3818 on: Jan 02, 2013, 08:13 AM »

Higgs boson was just a start for Cern’s atom smasher – other mysteries await

By Ian Sample, The Guardian
Wednesday, January 2, 2013 0:39 EST

The Large Hadron Collider will shut down for an overhaul in preparation for exploring questions of dark matter, extra dimensions and other universes

When it comes to shutting down the most powerful atom smasher ever built, it’s not simply a question of pressing the off switch.

In the French-Swiss countryside on the far side of Geneva, staff at the Cern particle physics laboratory are taking steps to wind down the Large Hadron Collider. After the latest run of experiments ends next month, the huge superconducting magnets that line the LHC’s 27km-long tunnel must be warmed up, slowly and gently, from -271 Celsius to room temperature. Only then can engineers descend into the tunnel to begin their work.

The machine that last year helped scientists snare the elusive Higgs boson – or a convincing subatomic impostor – faces a two-year shutdown while engineers perform repairs that are needed for the collider to ramp up to its maximum energy in 2015 and beyond. The work will beef up electrical connections in the machine that were identified as weak spots after an incident four years ago that knocked the collider out for more than a year.

The accident happened days after the LHC was first switched on in September 2008, when a short circuit blew a hole in the machine and sprayed six tonnes of helium into the tunnel that houses the collider. Soot was scattered over 700 metres. Since then, the machine has been forced to run at near half its design energy to avoid another disaster.

The particle accelerator, which reveals new physics at work by crashing together the innards of atoms at close to the speed of light, fills a circular, subterranean tunnel a staggering eight kilometres in diameter. Physicists will not sit around idle while the collider is down. There is far more to know about the new Higgs-like particle, and clues to its identity are probably hidden in the piles of raw data the scientists have already gathered, but have had too little time to analyse.

But the LHC was always more than a Higgs hunting machine. There are other mysteries of the universe that it may shed light on. What is the dark matter that clumps invisibly around galaxies? Why are we made of matter, and not antimatter? And why is gravity such a weak force in nature? “We’re only a tiny way into the LHC programme,” says Pippa Wells, a physicist who works on the LHC’s 7,000-tonne Atlas detector. “There’s a long way to go yet.”

The hunt for the Higgs boson, which helps explain the masses of other particles, dominated the publicity around the LHC for the simple reason that it was almost certainly there to be found. The lab fast-tracked the search for the particle, but cannot say for sure whether it has found it, or some more exotic entity.

“The headline discovery was just the start,” says Wells. “We need to make more precise measurements, to refine the particle’s mass and understand better how it is produced, and the ways it decays into other particles.” Scientists at Cern expect to have a more complete identikit of the new particle by March, when repair work on the LHC begins in earnest.

By its very nature, dark matter will be tough to find, even when the LHC switches back on at higher energy. The label “dark” refers to the fact that the substance neither emits nor reflects light. The only way dark matter has revealed itself so far is through the pull it exerts on galaxies.

Studies of spinning galaxies show they rotate with such speed that they would tear themselves apart were there not some invisible form of matter holding them together through gravity. There is so much dark matter, it outweighs by five times the normal matter in the observable universe.

The search for dark matter on Earth has failed to reveal what it is made of, but the LHC may be able to make the substance. If the particles that constitute it are light enough, they could be thrown out from the collisions inside the LHC. While they would zip through the collider’s detectors unseen, they would carry energy and momentum with them. Scientists could then infer their creation by totting up the energy and momentum of all the particles produced in a collision, and looking for signs of the missing energy and momentum.

One theory, called supersymmetry, proposes that the universe is made from twice as many varieties of particles as we now understand. The lightest of these particles is a candidate for dark matter.

Wells says that ramping up the energy of the LHC should improve scientists’ chances of creating dark matter: “That would be a huge improvement on where we are today. We would go from knowing what 4% of the universe is, to around 25%.”

Teasing out the constituents of dark matter would be a major prize for particle physicists, and of huge practical value for astronomers and cosmologists who study galaxies.

“Although the big PR focus has been on the Higgs, in fact looking for new particles to provide clues to the big open questions is the main reason for having the LHC,” says Gerry Gilmore, professor of experimental philosophy at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge.

“Reality on the large scale is dark matter, with visible matter just froth on the substance. So we focus huge efforts on trying to find out if dark matter is a set of many elementary particles, and hope that some of those particles’ properties will also help to explain some other big questions.

“So far, astronomy has provided all the information on dark matter, and many of us are working hard to deduce more of its properties. Finding something at the LHC would be wonderful in helping us in understanding that. Of course one needs both the LHC and astronomy. The LHC may find the ingredients nature uses, but astronomy delivers the recipe nature made reality from.”

Another big mystery the Large Hadron Collider may help crack is why we are made of matter instead of antimatter. The big bang should have flung equal amounts of matter and antimatter into the early universe, but today almost all we see is made of matter. What happened at the dawn of time to give matter the upper hand?

The question is central to the work of scientists on the LHCb detector. Collisions inside LHCb produce vast numbers of particles called beauty quarks, and their antimatter counterparts, both of which were common in the aftermath of the big bang. Through studying their behaviour, scientists hope to understand why nature seems to prefer matter over antimatter.

“Unlike supersymmetry or the Higgs, there’s no theory of antimatter that we can test,” says Tara Shears, a physicist who works on the LHCb detector. “We don’t know why antimatter behaves a little differently to normal matter, but perhaps that difference can be explained by a deeper underlying theory of particle physics, which includes new physics that we haven’t found yet.”

Turning up the energy of the LHC may just give scientists an answer to the question of why gravity is so weak. The force that keeps our feet on the ground may not seem puny, but it certainly is. With just a little effort, we can jump in the air, and so overcome the gravitational pull of the whole six thousand billion billon tonnes of the planet. The other forces of nature are far stronger.

One explanation for gravity’s weakness is that we experience only a fraction of the force, with the rest acting through microscopic, curled up extra dimensions of space. “The gravitational field we see is only the bit in our three dimensions, but actually there are lots of gravitational fields in the fourth dimension, the fifth dimension, and however many more you fancy,” says Andy Parker, professor of high energy physics at Cambridge University. “It’s an elegant idea. The only price you have to pay is that you have to invent these extra dimensions to explain where the gravity has gone.”

The rules of quantum mechanics say that particles behave like waves, and as the LHC ramps up to higher energies the wavelengths of the particles it collides become ever shorter. When the wavelengths of the particles are small enough to match the size of the extra dimensions, they would suddenly feel gravity much more strongly.

“What you’d expect is that as you reach the right energy, you suddenly see inside the extra dimensions, and gravity becomes big and strong instead of feeble and weak,” says Parker. The sudden extra pull of gravity would cause particles to scatter far more inside the machine, giving scientists a clear signal that extra dimensions were real.

Extra dimensions may separate us from realms of space we are completely oblivious to. “There could be a whole universe full of galaxies and stars and civilisations and newspapers that we didn’t know about,” says Parker. “That would be a big deal.”

 © Guardian News and Media 2013

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« Reply #3819 on: Jan 02, 2013, 08:17 AM »

January 1, 2013

Beate Gordon, Long-Unsung Heroine of Japanese Women’s Rights, Dies at 89


Beate Sirota Gordon, the daughter of Russian Jewish parents who at 22 almost single-handedly wrote women’s rights into the Constitution of modern Japan, and then kept silent about it for decades, only to become a feminist heroine there in recent years, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 89.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, her daughter, Nicole Gordon, said.

A civilian attached to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s army of occupation after World War II, Ms. Gordon was the last living member of the American team that wrote Japan’s postwar Constitution.

Her work — drafting language that gave women a set of legal rights pertaining to marriage, divorce, property and inheritance that they had long been without in Japan’s feudal society — had an effect on their status that endures to this day.

“It set a basis for a better, a more equal society,” Carol Gluck, a professor of Japanese history at Columbia University, said Monday in a telephone interview. “By just writing those things into the Constitution — our Constitution doesn’t have any of those things — Beate Gordon intervened at a critical moment. And what kind of 22-year-old gets to write a constitution?”

If Ms. Gordon, neither lawyer nor constitutional scholar, was indeed an unlikely candidate for the task, then it is vital to understand the singular confluence of forces that brought her to it:

Had her father not been a concert pianist of considerable renown; had she not been so skilled at foreign languages; and had she not been desperate to find her parents, from whom she was separated during the war and whose fate she did not know for years, she never would have been thrust into her quiet, improbable role in world history.

Nor would she have been apt to embark on her later career as a prominent cultural impresario, one of the first people to bring traditional Asian performing arts to audiences throughout North America — a job, pursued vigorously until she was nearly 70, that entailed travel to some of Asia’s most remote, inaccessible reaches.

The daughter of Leo Sirota and the former Augustine Horenstein, Beate (pronounced bay-AH-tay) Sirota was born on Oct. 25, 1923, in Vienna, where her parents had settled.

When she was 5, her father was invited to teach at the Imperial Academy of Music in Tokyo, and the family moved there for a planned six-month stay. Mr. Sirota soon became revered in Japan as a performer and teacher, and they wound up living in Tokyo for more than a decade.

Beate was educated at a German school in Tokyo and, from the mid-1930s on, after the school became far too Nazified for her parents’ liking, at the American School in Japan. In 1939, shortly before her 16th birthday, she left for Mills College in Oakland, Calif. Her parents remained in Japan.

In December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it became impossible to contact Japan. Beate had no word from her parents, and no money.

She put her foreign language prowess to work: by this time, she was fluent in English, Japanese, German, French, Spanish and Russian.

Obtaining permission from Mills to take examinations without having to attend classes, she took a job at a United States government listening post in San Francisco, monitoring radio broadcasts from Tokyo. She later worked in San Francisco for the United States Office of War Information, writing radio scripts urging Japan to surrender.

Beate Sirota received her bachelor’s degree in modern languages from Mills in 1943 and became a United States citizen in January 1945. At war’s end, she still did not know whether her parents were alive or dead.

For American civilians, travel to Japan was all but impossible. She went to Washington, where she secured a job as an interpreter on General MacArthur’s staff. Arriving in a devastated Tokyo on Christmas Eve 1945, she went immediately to her family’s house. Where it had stood was only a single charred pillar.

She eventually found her parents, who had been interned in the countryside and were malnourished. She took them to Tokyo, where she nursed them while continuing her work for General MacArthur.

One of MacArthur’s first priorities was drafting a constitution for postwar Japan, a top-secret assignment, begun in February 1946, that had to be finished in just seven days. As the only woman assigned to his constitutional committee, along with two dozen men, young Beate Sirota was deputized to compose the section on women’s rights.

She had seen women’s lives firsthand during the 10 years she lived in Japan, and urgently wanted to improve their status.

“Japanese women were historically treated like chattel; they were property to be bought and sold on a whim,” Ms. Gordon told The Dallas Morning News in 1999. “Women had no rights whatsoever.”

Commandeering a jeep at the start of that week in February, she visited the libraries in Tokyo that were still standing, borrowing copies of as many different countries’ constitutions as she could. She steeped herself in them and, after seven days of little sleep, wound up drafting two articles of the proposed Japanese Constitution.

One, Article 14, said in part, “All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.”

The other, Article 24, gave women protections in areas including “choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile, divorce and other matters.”

The new Constitution took effect in 1947; the next year, Beate Sirota married Joseph Gordon, who had been the chief interpreter for American military intelligence in postwar Japan.

In the 1950s, Ms. Gordon joined the staff of the Japan Society in New York, becoming its director of performing arts. In that capacity, she introduced many Japanese artists to the West, including masters of traditional music, dance, woodblock printing and the tea ceremony.

In 1970, she became director of performing arts at the Asia Society in New York. She scoured Asia for talent, bringing Balinese gamelan ensembles, Vietnamese puppeteers, Mongolian dancers and many others to stages throughout the United States and Canada. She retired in 1991 as the society’s director of performances, films and lectures.

Ms. Gordon’s husband, who became a real estate developer, died last August. Besides her daughter, she is survived by a son, Geoffrey, and three grandchildren.

For decades, Ms. Gordon said nothing about her role in postwar Japan, at first because the work was secret and later because she did not want her youth — and the fact that she was an American — to become ammunition for the Japanese conservatives who have long clamored for constitutional revision.

But in the mid-1980s, she began to speak of it publicly. The release of her memoir, “The Only Woman in the Room,” published in Japanese in 1995 and in English two years later, made her a celebrity in Japan, where she lectured widely, appeared on television and was the subject of a stage play and a documentary film, “The Gift From Beate.”

In recent years, amid renewed attacks on the Constitution by Japanese conservatives, Ms. Gordon spoke out ardently in its defense.

Ms. Gordon was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, a high honor bestowed by the Japanese government, in 1998. But perhaps the greatest accolade she received came from Japanese women themselves.

“They always want their picture taken with me,” Ms. Gordon told ABC News in 1999. “They always want to shake my hand. They always tell me how grateful they are.”

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January 1, 2013

Tax Deal’s Passage Ends Latest Standoff


WASHINGTON — Ending a climactic fiscal showdown in the final hours of the 112th Congress, the House late Tuesday passed and sent to President Obama legislation to avert big income tax increases on most Americans and prevent large cuts in spending for the Pentagon and other government programs.

The measure, brought to the House floor less than 24 hours after its passage in the Senate, was approved 257 to 167, with 85 Republicans joining 172 Democrats in voting to allow income taxes to rise for the first time in two decades, in this case for the highest-earning Americans. Voting no were 151 Republicans and 16 Democrats.

The bill was expected to be signed quickly by Mr. Obama, who won re-election on a promise to increase taxes on the wealthy.

Mr. Obama strode into the White House briefing room shortly after the vote, less to hail the end of the fiscal crisis than to lay out a marker for the next one. “The one thing that I think, hopefully, the new year will focus on,” he said, “is seeing if we can put a package like this together with a little bit less drama, a little less brinkmanship, and not scare the heck out of folks quite as much.”

In approving the measure after days of legislative intrigue, Congress concluded its final and most pitched fight over fiscal policy, the culmination of two years of battles over taxes, the federal debt, spending and what to do to slow the growth in popular social programs like Medicare.

The decision by Republican leaders to allow the vote came despite widespread scorn among House Republicans for the bill, passed overwhelmingly by the Senate in the early hours of New Year’s Day. They were unhappy that it did not include significant spending cuts in health and other social programs, which they say are essential to any long-term solution to the nation’s debt.

Democrats, while hardly placated by the compromise, celebrated Mr. Obama’s nominal victory in his final showdown with House Republicans in the 112th Congress, who began their term emboldened by scores of new, conservative members whose reach to the right ultimately tipped them over.

“The American people are the real winners tonight,” Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, said on the House floor, “not anyone who navigates these halls.”

Not a single leader among House Republicans came to the floor to speak in favor of the bill, though Speaker John A. Boehner, who rarely takes part in roll calls, voted in favor. Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 3 Republican, voted no. Representative Paul D. Ryan, the budget chairman who was the Republican vice-presidential candidate, supported the bill.

Despite the party divisions, many Republicans in their remarks characterized the measure, which allows taxes to go up on household income over $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples but makes permanent tax cuts for income below that level, as a victory of sorts, even as so many of them declined to vote for it.

“After more than a decade of criticizing these tax cuts,” said Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, “Democrats are finally joining Republicans in making them permanent. Republicans and the American people are getting something really important, permanent tax relief.”

The dynamic with the House was a near replay of a fight at the end of 2011 over a payroll tax break extension. In that showdown, Senate Democrats and Republicans passed legislation, and while House Republicans fulminated, they were eventually forced to swallow it.

On Tuesday, as they got a detailed look at the Senate’s fiscal legislation, House Republicans ranging from Midwest pragmatists to Tea Party-blessed conservatives voiced serious reservations about the measure, emerging from a lunchtime New Year’s Day meeting with their leaders, eyes flashing and faces grim, insisting they would not accept a bill without substantial savings from cuts.

The unrest reached to the highest levels as Mr. Cantor told members in a closed-door meeting in the basement of the Capitol that he could not support the legislation in its current form.

Mr. Boehner, who faces a re-election vote on his post on Thursday when the 113th Congress convenes, had grave concerns as well, but he had pledged to allow the House to consider any legislation that cleared the Senate. And he was not eager to have such a major piece of legislation pass with mainly opposition votes, and the outcome could be seen as undermining his authority.

Adding to the pressure on the House, the fiscal agreement was reached by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, and had deep Republican support in the Senate, isolating the House Republicans in their opposition. Some of the Senate Republicans who backed the bill are staunch conservatives, like Senators Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, with deep credibility among House Republicans.

The options before the House Republicans were fraught with risks. Senate Democrats said they would not brook any serious amendments to their bill — one that was hard fought and passed in the dark of night with many clenched teeth on either side of the aisle. Senate Democratic leaders planned no more votes before the new Congress convenes Thursday afternoon.

An up-or-down House vote on the Senate measure presented many Republicans with a nearly impossible choice: to prolong the standoff that most Americans wished to see cease, or to vote to allow taxes to go up on wealthy Americans without any of the changes to spending and benefit programs they had fought for vigorously for the better part of two years.

“I have read the bill and can’t find the spending cuts — even with an electron magnifying glass,” said Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. “It’s part medicinal, part placebo, and part treating the symptoms but not the underlying pathology.”

But with their options shrinking just two days before the beginning of a new Congress, the House leadership made one of the biggest concessions of their rebellious two years and let the measure move forward to avoid being seen as the chief obstacle to legislation that Mr. Obama and a bipartisan Senate majority said was necessary to prevent the nation from slipping back into a recession.

The measure, while less reflective of Mr. Obama’s fiscal agenda than Senate Democrats had wished, still provided fewer concessions than the president initially offered in a, tentative agreement with Mr. Boehner last month, and it was a far cry from what was on the table in 2011 when negotiators tried to reach a so-called grand bargain. “I thank all of you who will vote for it,” said Representative Darrell Issa of California. “I cannot bring myself to vote for it.”

Still, many Republicans, in light of the broad party support for the bill in the Senate and the unwavering, rare discipline they faced from Democrats, concluded that they had little room to maneuver. They decided they would save their fire for the coming rounds — the effort to increase the nation’s debt ceiling again in another month or two and an expiring governmentwide spending bill.

“We can and will pursue comprehensive tax reform,” Representative Camp said.

Republicans hope to fight for more spending cuts in the debt-ceiling vote, but Mr. Obama warned against that tactic.

“While I will negotiate over many things,” he said, “I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills they’ve already racked up through the laws they have passed. Let me repeat: we can’t not pay bills that we’ve already incurred.”

The last time the House voted on New Year’s Day, according to Congressional staff members on the Rules Committee, was in 1951, on a measure concerning money for the Korean War.

Robert Pear and Peter Baker contributed reporting.


GOP caves on spending cuts demand as House passes bill to avert fiscal cliff

By Jonathan Terbush

Tuesday, January 1, 2013 21:27 EST

After a frantic day of last-ditch debate, the House of Representatives on Tuesday night passed a bill—approved by the Senate less than 24 hours prior— to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, finally putting an end to the deficit wrangling that had gridlocked Congress for much of the past year.

The final vote tally: 257 – 167.

The bill, which will now go to President Obama, will allow tax rates to revert to their pre-Bush levels for Americans with annual incomes over $450,000. That amounts to an estimate $600 billion in revenue over the next 10 years. Despite a Republican demand for budget cuts to be a part of any deal, there are no net spending cuts in the final deal.

For part of the day, the Senate compromise seemed destined for the dustbin, as a rift developed among House Republicans, some of whom said publicly that they would refuse to support the bill if it came to a vote untouched. Those openly revolting included House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), the number two Republican in the lower chamber, who surprisingly announced earlier in the day that he would oppose the deal.

Cantor did vote no on the final legislation, as did Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, putting them at odds with Speaker Boehner.

Boehner did not immediately allow a straight vote on the bill following its passage in the Senate, despite Democratic pressure on him to do so. Boehner faces reelection to retain his speakership in the new Congress and has already had a testy relationship with the right wing of his party.

Instead of holding an immediate vote on the raw bill as passed by the Senate, Republicans spent the day debating whether to tack amendments to it, and to then send it back to the Senate for a new vote there. Yet after hours of debate Tuesday, the Republican caucus could not muster enough support among themselves for specific amendments. And even had they pushed through an amended bill, Senate Democrats had previously said they wouldn’t consider it anyway, meaning negotiations would have started anew once the next session of Congress is sworn in.


January 1, 2013

Lines of Resistance on Fiscal Deal


WASHINGTON — Just a few years ago, the tax deal pushed through Congress on Tuesday would have been a Republican fiscal fantasy, a sweeping bill that locks in virtually all of the Bush-era tax cuts, exempts almost all estates from taxation, and enshrines the former president’s credo that dividends and capital gains should be taxed equally and gently.

But times have changed, President George W. Bush is gone, and before the bill’s final passage late Tuesday, House Republican leaders struggled all day to quell a revolt among caucus members who threatened to blow up a hard-fought compromise that they could have easily framed as a victory. Many House Republicans seemed determined to put themselves in a position to be blamed for sending the nation’s economy into a potential tailspin under the weight of automatic tax increases and spending cuts.

The latest internal party struggle on Capitol Hill surprised even Senate Republicans, who had voted overwhelmingly for a deal largely hashed out by their leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The bill passed the Senate, 89 to 8, at 2 a.m. on Tuesday, with only 5 of the chamber’s 47 Republicans voting no.

Twenty-one hours later, the same measure was opposed by 151 of the 236 Republicans voting in the House. It was further proof that House Republicans are a new breed, less enamored of tax cuts per se than they are driven to shrink government through steep spending cuts. Protecting nearly 99 percent of the nation’s households from an income tax increase was not enough if taxes rose on some and government spending was untouched.

A party that once disputed that there was any real “cost” of tax cuts encountered sticker shock when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that enacting them in place of the “fiscal cliff” provisions would cost $4 trillion over 10 years.

“I personally hate it,” Representative John Campbell, a Republican from California, said of the bill. “The speaker the day after the election said we would give on taxes, and we have, but we wanted spending cuts. This bill has spending increases. Are you kidding me?”

By all accounts, the tax deal negotiated by Mr. McConnell and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is one of the most sweeping fiscal policy changes in a decade, a measure that would bring a certainty to the tax code long demanded by the financial community and taxpayers.

The bill’s heft was confirmed on Tuesday by the Congressional Budget Office, which said the income and business tax cut extensions; new capital gains, dividend and estate tax rates; and unemployment compensation would add an estimated $4 trillion to the federal deficit compared with where the government would be if Congress did nothing to halt the tax increases and spending cuts that were triggered at the start of the year.

The independent Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said that measured against extending all 2012 policies, the deal would cut the deficit by $650 billion over 10 years. The group said the biggest cost, a “patch” to the alternative minimum tax to prevent it from suddenly affecting much of the middle class, should not be considered a cost at all because Congress has adjusted it each year anyway.

But the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate gave even some Democrats pause, especially since the bill would make permanent virtually all of the Bush tax cuts — a goal that Mr. Bush chased through the rest of his presidency. “For four years in my town hall meetings across the state, Coloradans have told me they want a plan that materially reduces the deficit,” said Senator Michael Bennet, one of three Democrats who voted against the bill. “This proposal does not meet that standard and does not put in place a real process to reduce the debt down the road.”

The bill would do much more than head off the automatic tax increases and spending cuts. It would fix in place a tax code that for more than a decade has caused struggles over regular sunset provisions, temporary solutions and fleeting incentives. The bill would finally make permanent five of the six income tax rates created in 2001 by the first Bush tax cut. It would codify Mr. Bush’s successful push, in 2003, to make tax rates on dividends and capital gains equal so that one form of investment income is not favored over the other.

But it would let lapse a two-percentage-point cut in the payroll tax, one of the recent tax policy changes most squarely aimed at the working class, meaning take-home pay may be less even if higher income taxes are headed off. The Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, estimated that 77 percent of Americans could pay more over all to the federal government this year.

“For me, this is very much an ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ thing,” said Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary in the years of Mr. Bush’s tax fights. “As a Bush loyalist, it’s fantastic that the Bush tax cuts, which now have to be seen inarguably as overwhelmingly for the middle class, are being made permanent. On the other hand, it’s inarguable that this adds $4 trillion to the federal debt.”

The 10-year price includes $762 billion to lock in the Bush tax rates of 10 percent, 25 percent, 28 percent and 33 percent, along with some of the Bush-era 35 percent bracket; $354 billion to continue Mr. Bush’s expanded child credit; and $339 billion to secure Mr. Bush’s 15 percent capital gains and dividend rates for families earning less than $450,000. Fixing the alternative minimum tax would cost the Treasury $1.8 trillion, according to the bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

Democrats say they had little choice. The Bush White House and Republican Congresses structured the tax cuts so that letting them expire would be politically difficult. Add the across-the-board spending cuts if Congress did nothing, and President Obama felt he had to extend most of the tax cuts or watch the economy sink back into recession.

“New occasions make for new truths,” said Representative Danny K. Davis, a Democrat from Illinois and a veteran of the partisan wars over the Bush tax cuts. “New situations make ancient remedies uncouth.”

Most galling for Republicans are provisions projected to add $330 billion in spending over 10 years, including $30 billion in unemployment compensation and $21 billion in payments to Medicare health providers. None of those provisions are objectionable on their own, but collectively they almost proved impossible for Republicans to accept.

Even one of the chief architects of the Bush tax cuts, R. Glenn Hubbard, a Columbia University economist, was not crowing about their potential enshrinement. He said some Bush-era policies were no longer relevant to the task of tailoring a tax code to a properly sized government.

The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts “are not the best anchoring point” for that debate, he said. “We need a tax system that can promote economic growth and raise the revenue the American people want to devote to government.”


January 1, 2013

On the Left, Seeing Obama Giving Away Too Much, Again


WASHINGTON — For President Obama, the fiscal deal passed by Congress on Tuesday finally ends four years of debate with Republicans about raising tax rates on the wealthy. But it seemed to reopen a debate within his party about the nature of his leadership and his skills as a negotiator.

While Mr. Obama got most of what he sought in the agreement, he found himself under withering criticism from some in his liberal base who accused him of caving in to Republicans by not taxing the rich more. Just as Speaker John A. Boehner has been under pressure from his right, Mr. Obama faces a virtual Tea Party of the left that sees his compromise as capitulation.

The main difference is that in the Obama era, the Democratic establishment has been less influenced, or intimidated, by the left than the Republican establishment has been by the right. Liberals have not mounted sustained primary challenges to take out wayward incumbents the way conservatives have. All but three Democrats voting in the Senate and 16 in the House supported the compromise on Tuesday, even as most House Republicans balked, giving Mr. Obama more room to operate than Mr. Boehner.

But the wave of grievance from liberal activists, labor leaders and economists suggested that the uneasy truce between Mr. Obama and his base that held through the campaign season had expired now that there was no longer a threat of a Mitt Romney victory. It also offered a harbinger of the president’s next four years.

The criticism has irritated the White House, which argued that Mr. Obama held true to principle by forcing Republicans to raise income tax rates on the wealthy and extend unemployment benefits and targeted tax credits. Mr. Obama also quashed Republican demands to trim the growth of entitlement benefits. Aides dismissed armchair criticism from those who have never had to negotiate with intractable opposition.

“There’s some frustration that over time you would think everybody would have a better understanding of the parameters of this,” said Robert Gibbs, a longtime adviser to Mr. Obama who once called such critics “the professional left.” “But he understands now probably better than at any other point in his presidency what it means to be a leader, what it means to have to do things that are good not just for one party but good for the country.”

The criticism from the left mirrors past complaints when Mr. Obama included tax cuts in his stimulus package, gave up on a government-run option in health care negotiations and temporarily extended Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy two years ago. Liberals said Mr. Obama should have capitalized on his re-election victory and the expiration on New Year’s Day of all of the Bush tax cuts to force Republicans to accept his terms.

“The president remains clueless about how to use leverage in a negotiation,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal advocacy organization. “Republicans publicly admitted they lost the tax debate and would be forced to cave, yet the president just kept giving stuff away.”

Robert B. Reich, the former labor secretary, said that Mr. Obama “has stiffened his tactical resolve” but that “he’s still the same President Obama who wants a deal above all else and seems willing to compromise on even the most basic principle.”

Richard L. Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said in a Twitter message on Monday that the agreement was “not a good fiscal cliff deal if it gives more tax cuts to 2 percent.” Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, said on the floor on Monday that “this looks like a very bad deal.”

Still, most Democratic lawmakers accepted it, however reluctantly, concluding that voting against it could cause greater economic disruption. Many liberals grew more comfortable once they learned more about the deal, and the revolt on Tuesday by House Republicans seemed to rally them behind the plan and against a common adversary. Mr. Trumka released a new statement hailing elements of the deal, while blaming “Republican hostage taking” for its flaws.

Mr. Obama succeeded in forcing Senate Republicans to raise the top income tax rate to 39.6 percent from 35 percent despite their adamant opposition, although he agreed to apply that to household income above $450,000, instead of $250,000. He also won an increase in taxes on wealthy estates to 40 percent from 35 percent, though it was not as high as liberals wanted.

The bill will extend unemployment benefits for two million Americans; renew tax credits for child care, college tuition and renewable energy production; raise capital gains taxes; and phase out deductions for the wealthy. Mr. Obama also insisted that a two-month postponement of automatic spending cuts be financed by $1 in tax revenue for every $1 in spending reductions.

“When the dust settles, there will be a lot of important elements in this for progressives,” Mr. Gibbs said. The deal can be evaluated only in combination with the result of the next fiscal talks, to be concluded by the end of February, he said, adding, “We won’t know the final score on that until you look at both of those negotiations together.”

Defenders of the White House said it was ludicrous to expect that the president would not have to compromise, given that Republicans control the House and have enough votes in the Senate to filibuster a bill. Without an agreement, economists warned that the country would have been pushed back into recession.

Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, said Mr. Obama had secured important victories like the one on unemployment benefits and stood firm against paring entitlement benefits. “The president was strong there,” he told CNN. “And I think he’ll continue to be strong. I think, you know, I notice a different president since he won this election.”

Jared Bernstein, a former economics adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said Mr. Obama had done what he thought he had to, but he expressed concern that the president might have squandered leverage unless he holds firm in the debate over the debt ceiling. Republicans want to use a vote to raise the ceiling to force Mr. Obama to accept deeper spending cuts, but the president has vowed not to negotiate over the borrowing limit.

“While some appear to think his team folded in the cliff debate, I don’t see it that way,” Mr. Bernstein said. “They saw a plausible path forward, and they took it. My point is it’s only plausible if they really don’t get derailed on the debt ceiling debate.”


January 02, 2013 07:00 AM

House Adjourns Without Passing Hurricane Sandy Relief

By karoli

    Fiery speeches right now on House Floor - lawmakers just found out they won't be taking up the Hurricane Sandy relief bill. Wow.

    — toddstarnes (@toddstarnes) January 2, 2013

Speaking as one who has been through several large and devastating earthquakes in my lifetime, I just think this is horrible. As Speaker Pelosi said on the floor Tuesday night, it's disrespectful to those people who have already lost so much.

After the vote on the tax compromise last night, the House held a few perfunctory votes and then opened up the floor for one-minute speeches. But John Boehner forgot one really important item of business: Relief for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Despite reports that a vote might take place on Wednesday before adjournment of the 112th Congress, Steny Hoyer came to the floor after the tax vote in a wave of fury, saying that he'd been told there would be no more votes held before the new Congress is sworn in.

The Senate passed a $60 billion aid package last week. There was a bill ready in the House that would have pared down the $60 billion to $27 billion, with a proposed amendment to bring the total back up to $60 billion.

Instead, it seems that John Boehner is going to adjourn this Congress without a vote. Evidently he takes his direction from conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin who called upon him to punish Democrats by not voting on Sandy relief. John Aravosis said it clearly:

    The most likely reason – Boehner is afraid of a revolt from conservatives if asked to spend even more money, even if it is to help victims of one of the greatest disasters in American history. Conservatives don’t care. Remember that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney called for closing down FEMA in the middle of the Hurricane Sandy.

Rep. Rush Holt came to the floor and said what many are thinking: They dropped the ball because the disaster happened in a blue state. He's not the only one to think so:

    Wonder if the House would adjourn without even voting on Hurricane #Sandy relief if it had hit red states the hardest. Having my doubts.

    — Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) January 2, 2013

This could possibly be the most despicable non-act of Congress ever. Howie Klein has more on one of the tea party idiots in New Jersey who is probably dancing a jig right now:

    Among the Koch whores in the House GOP threatening to disrupt the aid are right-wing hacks in New York (like Staten Island's corrupt Mafia-related Michael "Mikey Suits" Grimm) and New Jersey's worst extremist ideologue Scott Garrett. Long Island Congressman Peter King, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, which has been handling the bill, is worried that if the money doesn't get approved while he's still chair, Texas hate-monger Michael McCaul-- the richest member of the House and an anti-tax fanatic-- will kill it. Many Republicans still fighting the Civil War look at this as an opportunity to deal a painful blow to the hated Northerners.

I rest my case.


Peter King rips House GOP for skipping out on Sandy relief bill

By Arturo Garcia

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 9:54 EST

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) took to the House of Representatives floor on Tuesday night to slam his fellow lawmakers for not voting on a relief package for victims of Hurricane Sandy.

“Tonight’s action not to hold this vote is morally indefensible,” King said. “There are thousands and thousands of people throughout Long Island, Rockaway, Staten Island, New Jersey, throughout the Northeast, who are homeless tonight, who are without jobs, who lost their business. “This is absolutely indefensible.”

According to CBS News, the Senate approved a measure allocating $60.4 billion in aid to victims of the freak storm, which left 120 people dead while tearing through King’s home state, as well as New Jersey and several others along the Eastern seaboard.

The House Appropriations Committee had also prepared a $27 million aid package, which had been expected to be voted upon. But CBS News reported that, according to a House Republican aide, the House will leave the matter to the incoming Congress, which is scheduled to begin on Thursday.

King said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) provided the necessary paperwork to qualify for federal help.

“Everybody played by the rules, except tonight, when the rug was pulled out from under us,” he raged, hitting the podium. “Absolutely inexcusable. Absolutely indefensible. We have a moral obligation to hold this vote for people who are out of their homes. There are people who are cold. There are people who are without food. There are people who have lost their jobs. They don’t have the time to wait. We cannot just walk away from our responsibilities.”

King’s anger was shared across party lines; Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) told the Associated Press she felt “betrayed” by the House’s inaction, while Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) said it marked a first for him.

“I’m here tonight saying to myself for the first time that I’m not proud of the decision my team has made,” Grimm said. “It is the wrong decision, and I’m going to be respectful and ask that the [House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)] reconsider his decision. Because it’s not about politics, it’s about human lives.”

Watch King’s impassioned plea, posted Wednesday on YouTube by Think Progress, below.

Click to watch:


January 1, 2013

From Congress to Halls of State, in New Hampshire, Women Rule


Most states are red or blue. A few are purple. After the November election, New Hampshire turned pink.

Women won the state’s two Congressional seats. Women already held the state’s two Senate seats. When they are all sworn into office on Thursday, New Hampshire will become the first state in the nation’s history to send an all-female delegation to Washington.

And the matriarchy does not end there. New Hampshire’s new governor is a woman. So are the speaker of the State House and the chief justice of the State Supreme Court.

“Pink is the new power color in New Hampshire,” declared Ann McLane Kuster, one of the newly elected representatives, at a recent forum at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College in Manchester, where the women’s historic milestone was celebrated.

These women did not rise to the top together overnight. Nor was there an orchestrated movement to elect them. Each toiled in the political vineyards, climbed the ladder in her own time and campaigned hard for her job. But they have caught the state’s collective imagination, inspiring forums and media interest and prompting Jay B. Childs, a New Hampshire filmmaker, to make a documentary about them.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, 65, a Democrat and dean of the delegation, was the state’s first elected female governor and the first woman in United States history to be elected both governor and senator.

Senator Kelly Ayotte, 44, a Republican, was the state’s former attorney general.

Carol Shea-Porter, 60, a Democrat and former member of the House, lost her seat in 2010 and won it back in November.

Ms. Kuster, 56, a Democrat, is a lawyer and lobbyist who has not held office before but has long been active in the state and comes from a political family.

Maggie Hassan, 54, a Democrat and the new governor, was majority leader of the State Senate.

Women will make up 20 percent of the new Senate and 17.9 percent of the new House. These are records in Washington, but they fall far short of matching the 50.8 percent of the general population that is female.

While New Hampshire is doing more than its share of bolstering the number of women on Capitol Hill, six states — Alaska, Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi, North Dakota and Vermont — have never elected a woman to the House. And four of those — Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi and Vermont — have never sent a woman to the Senate.

The state after New Hampshire, with the next highest proportion of women in its Congressional delegation, is Hawaii, where both House members and one senator are women.

In only three other states, Maine, Missouri and Washington, do women make up at least half of the delegations. Sixteen states, including New Jersey, have no women in Congress.

Although the women in New Hampshire are serving all at once by happenstance, women have long held prominent positions in New Hampshire government.

One reason is the size of the State House, a typical pipeline for aspiring politicians. It has 400 members, making it the largest of the states and the fourth-largest governing body in the English-speaking world (after the United States Congress, the British Parliament and the Indian Parliament). With so many seats available, women have a better chance of being elected in New Hampshire than they have in many other states.

New Hampshire also has a long history of volunteerism, and serving in the General Court, as the legislature is known, amounts to an act of volunteerism because it pays just $100 a year, plus mileage. Every year since 1975, more than 100 women have served.

“There are lots of opportunities for women to pitch in, prove their competence and learn a lot about governing and the political process,” Ms. Hassan said in an interview. “We’ve had a very deep bench of women.”

Even if the legislature in New Hampshire is big, the state itself is small. That makes it easier for everyone to know everyone else, and most of the women in the Congressional delegation have intricate ties to one another.

Ms. Kuster’s mother, for example, a Republican state senator who ran for Congress in 1980, was a mentor to Ms. Shaheen. “She thought it was so important to elect women,” Ms. Shaheen said in an interview. “She was helpful to all women, not just me.”

Ms. Shaheen in turn has been a mentor to many of the others coming up through the ranks, including Ms. Kuster herself.

“A lot of people in office, even their managers and staff, are Shaheen protégés or were brought up through the Shaheen organization,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the Institute of Politics.

Ms. Kuster said the number of women in office made it easier for women to provide encouragement and support to one another. “In some other states, there’s more of a dominant old-boy network,” she said.

Most of these women grew up with mothers who worked, which set an example for them, and are mothers themselves, which, they say, has given them practice at reaching compromise and solving problems.

“Never underestimate the power of a woman with a minivan and a cellphone,” Ms. Hassan said.

They also had supportive families who urged them to run for office.

Ms. Shea-Porter said at the forum, which is on video, that she had been worried that running for Congress would take her away from her ailing mother.

“She just looked at me and said, ‘You better run,’ ” Ms. Shea-Porter said. Her teenagers, on the other hand, asked only that she not embarrass them.

Ms. Kuster praised her law firm, where she was the first part-time partner. She was allowed to work four days a week while she raised her children.

Still, the women said they faced obstacles that men did not, particularly with regard to their children. Ms. Ayotte, who noted at the forum that voters over the years had seen her “in all stages of pregnancy,” said that while campaigning, she was constantly asked what was going to happen to her children, who are now 8 and 5.

“I think those questions are there much more for women than they are for men,” she said. “That’s just the reality.”


Group warns military: Prepare now for risks of ‘mutant soldier’ future

By David Ferguson
Monday, December 31, 2012 17:26 EST

Researchers at California Polytechnic State University warn that the U.S. military is working to create and implement technologies that will give soldiers “mutant powers” without fully thinking through the consequences. According to Wired magazine’s “Danger Room” blog, the scientists warn that if the military fails to prepare properly, these advancements, including enhanced strength and endurance, superior cognition and a lack of fear, the technology could do more harm than good.

Patrick Lin and his colleagues Maxwell Mehlman and Keith Abney have produced a report for the Greenwall Foundation (.pdf), a foundation dedicated to rewarding excellence in the arts and humanities as well as in the growing field of bioethics.  The report, “Enhanced Fighters: Risk, Ethics and Policy” warns that “military human enhancements” could pose a decided risk to enlisted personnel. The means used to produce the enhancements, including drugs, special nutrition, electroshock, gene therapy and robotic implants, are all only dimly understood. The consequences of utilizing these techniques with anything but exquisite care could be devastating.

“With military enhancements and other technologies, the genie’s already out of the bottle: the benefits are too irresistible, and the military-industrial complex still has too much momentum,” wrote Lin in an email to Wired. “The best we can do now is to help develop policies in advance to prepare for these new technologies, not post hoc or after the fact (as we’re seeing with drones and cyberweapons).”

Unintended consequences of “mutant fighter” technology, the report said, could include maimed and killed soldiers from technologies gone awry, spurring costly lawsuits. Tweaked and modified soldiers could be found in violation of international law, spawning a fresh international crisis every time U.S. troops are deployed. Worse, the new technologies could kick off a frantic arms race between the U.S. and its enemies.

Lin pointed to the case of U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot, Maj. Harry Schmidt, who was returning from a 10-hour mission over Afghanistan when he saw flashes on the ground below him indicating weapons fire. Thinking that friendly troops on the ground were under fire by insurgents, Schmidt unloaded a 500-pound laser-guided bomb on the area from where the weapons fire was originating.

There were no insurgents on the ground, however, only Canadian troops on a live-fire training exercise. Four soldiers were killed in the incident.

Schmidt, who was stripped of his pilot’s wings by the Air Force, blamed the drug Dexedrine, an amphetamine routine prescribed by the Air Force for fighter pilots flying long missions. Post-amphetamine jitters can cause irritability, poor judgment and can impair decision making.

This information, said Schmidt, had been witheld from him.

“I don’t know what the effect was supposed to be,” Schmidt told Chicago magazine. “All I know is something [was] happening to my body and brain.”

This incident underscores the risks of using artificial means to push soldiers beyond their natural limits.  The “Danger Room” article raised the question of whether the military is ready for the consequences of “a future battlefield teeming with amphetamine-fueled pilots, a cyborg infantry and commanders whose brains have been shocked into achieving otherwise impossible levels of tactical cunning.”

If one side in a conflict were to deploy what the article called a “terrifying cyborg army,” what type of arms race could this potentially kick off between warring powers?  What international rules of conduct would govern what can be done to soldiers in the name of national defense?

In the 1970s, the Pentagon gave soldiers the hallucinogen LSD in hopes of developing hallucinogenic weapons.  During the Cold War, the U.S. military exposed troops to nerve gas, radiation and other toxins without their consent in the name of determining the effects on battle readiness.  Lin and the other report authors warn that soldiers should be given the option to opt out of enhancements and other experiments that may have unintended consequences.

“Should warfighters be required to give their informed consent to being enhanced, and if so, what should that process be?” the report asks.

The research group suggests a set of guidelines for the military as it tests and explores the frontier of military human enhancement.  Is there a legitimate military purpose for the enhancement?  Furthermore, “Is it necessary? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Can subjects’ dignity be maintained and the cost to them minimized? Is there full, informed consent, transparency and are the costs of the enhancement fairly distributed? Finally, are systems in place to hold accountable those overseeing the enhancement?”

Lin, Mehlman and Abney warn that the time to think about the ethical ramifications of human enhancement is now, not when problems have arisen.

“In comic books and science fiction, we can suspend disbelief about the details associated with fantastical technologies and abilities, as represented by human enhancements,” the report warns.  “But in the real world — as life imitates art, and ‘mutant powers’ really are changing the world — the details matter and will require real investigations.”


January 1, 2013

Rig Runs Aground in Alaska, Reviving Fears About Arctic Drilling


WASHINGTON — One of Shell Oil’s two Arctic drilling rigs is beached on an island in the Gulf of Alaska, threatening environmental damage from a fuel spill and calling into question Shell’s plans to resume drilling in the treacherous waters north of Alaska in the summer.

The rig, the Kulluk, broke free from a tow ship in stormy seas and ran aground Monday night. The Coast Guard was leading an effort to keep its more than 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel and lubricants from spilling onto the rocky shoreline.

At a news conference in Anchorage on Tuesday afternoon, Capt. Paul Mehler III, the federal on-scene coordinator, said that a reconnaissance flight showed the Kulluk was upright and stable, with no significant motion.

“The results are showing us that the Kulluk is sound,” Captain Mehler said. “No sign of breach of hull, no sign of release of any product.” He said the response team hoped to get salvage experts aboard the ship to get a better picture of damage.

Steven Russell of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said that, so far, there was no sign of harm to the environment or wildlife.

The Kulluk’s 18 crew members had been evacuated by Coast Guard helicopters on Saturday after the rig first went adrift in high winds and rough seas.

The grounding was the latest in a series of mishaps to befall Shell’s ambitious plans to prospect for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off the North Slope of Alaska.

Shell halted drilling for oil in September after equipment failures, unexpected ice floes, operational missteps and regulatory delays forced the company to scale back its plans.

Its drilling rigs completed two shallow pilot holes and left the Arctic in late fall to return to Seattle for maintenance work but have encountered problems in transit.

If the Kulluk, which Shell upgraded in recent years at a cost of nearly $300 million, is wrecked or substantially damaged, it will be hard for the company to find a replacement and receive the numerous government permits needed to resume drilling in July, as planned.

Under Department of Interior rules governing Arctic drilling, the company must have two rigs on site at all times to provide for a backup vessel to drill a relief well in case of a blowout, an uncontrolled escape of oil or gas.

A separate containment system designed to collect oil in the case of a well accident failed during testing, preventing Shell from drilling into oil-bearing formations during its abbreviated exploration season last summer and fall. Shell’s Alaska vice president, Pete Slaiby, said he could not discuss the latest accident, saying that company officials were working with a Coast Guard-directed unified command and could not comment separately.

An official involved in the response operation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, said: “We don’t know about the damage. It’s too dark. The weather is horrendous.” The official said that when a helicopter flew over the rig Monday night: “It looked upright about 1,600 feet off the beach. There was no sign of any spill.” The official said the fuel tanks on the vessel were well protected inside the hull, making a spill unlikely.

The Kulluk, which does not have a propulsion system of its own, ran into trouble late last week when its tow ship, the Aiviq, lost engine power and the towline separated. A Coast Guard cutter and other ships arrived, and crews struggled through Monday, in seas up to 35 feet, to reconnect tow lines to the rig, succeeding several times. But each time the lines separated.

On Monday night, the Kulluk, 266 feet in diameter, broke free from one tow ship and the Coast Guard ordered a second ship to disconnect, fearing for the safety of its crew.

The Kulluk is sitting on the southeast coast of Sitkalidak Island, an uninhabited island separated by the Sitkalidak Strait from the far larger Kodiak Island to the west. The nearest town, Old Harbor, is across the strait on Kodiak Island; it has a population of about 200 people. The strait is home to a threatened species of sea lion.

A spokesman for the Interior Department’s offshore drilling safety office would not say whether the latest problem would cause a re-evaluation of the agency’s approval of Shell’s overall Arctic program. But the spokesman, Nicholas Pardi of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said that any equipment Shell proposes to use off the Alaskan coast must meet federal safety and testing standards. He added that regulations require a federal inspector be present around the clock during drilling operations.

The other ship Shell has used in the Arctic, the Noble Discoverer, has had problems of its own. In July, before sailing to the Arctic, it nearly ran aground after dragging its anchor in the Aleutian Islands. Then in November it had a small engine fire.

Later that month, during an inspection in the Alaskan port of Seward, the Coast Guard found more than a dozen violations involving safety systems and pollution equipment. Last week, the Noble Corporation, the Swiss company that owns the 512-foot-long drillship and is leasing it to Shell for $240,000 a day, said that many of the problems had been repaired and that the ship was preparing to sail to Seattle to fix the remainder of them.

Critics said that the accident confirmed their worst fears about Shell’s Arctic project and should force federal regulators to stop it.

“We’re learning that oceans, while beautiful, are dangerous and unforgiving,” said Michael LeVine, senior Pacific counsel for the environmental group Oceana. “Shell has demonstrated again and again that it’s not prepared to operate in Alaskan waters. Hopefully something good will come out of this latest incident, and the government will take a careful look at whether activities such as this can be conducted safely, and if so, what changes are needed to make that possible.”

Shell was on the verge of drilling in 2011, but delays in getting final approval for an air quality permit forced the company to put off drilling until 2012. More equipment failures and unpredictable weather continued through the year. In September, Shell had to abandon preliminary drilling in the Chukchi Sea when sea ice moved toward the drilling area only a day after work began.

And finally, the company was forced to put off completing the two wells it had begun to drill for another year when a barge containing a spill containment dome was badly damaged during a testing accident. During the testing, a mechanical device malfunctioned as the containment dome was lowered into the water, and a submarine robot became tangled in some of the dome’s anchor lines.

Clifford Krauss contributed reporting.


December 31, 2012

The Emancipation of Abe Lincoln


ONE hundred and fifty years ago, on Jan. 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln presided over the annual White House New Year’s reception. Late that afternoon, he retired to his study to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. When he took up his pen, his hand was shaking from exhaustion. Briefly, he paused — “I do not want it to appear as if I hesitated,” he remarked. Then Lincoln affixed a firm signature to the document.

Like all great historical transformations, emancipation was a process, not a single event. It arose from many causes and was the work of many individuals. It began at the outset of the Civil War, when slaves sought refuge behind Union lines. It did not end until December 1865, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which irrevocably abolished slavery throughout the nation.

But the Emancipation Proclamation was the crucial turning point in this story. In a sense, it embodied a double emancipation: for the slaves, since it ensured that if the Union emerged victorious, slavery would perish, and for Lincoln himself, for whom it marked the abandonment of his previous assumptions about how to abolish slavery and the role blacks would play in post-emancipation American life.

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Lincoln’s statement in 1864 that he had always believed slavery to be wrong. During the first two years of the Civil War, despite insisting that the conflict’s aim was preservation of the Union, he devoted considerable energy to a plan for ending slavery inherited from prewar years. Emancipation would be undertaken by state governments, with national financing. It would be gradual, owners would receive monetary compensation and emancipated slaves would be encouraged to find a homeland outside the United States — this last idea known as “colonization.”

Lincoln’s plan sought to win the cooperation of slave holders in ending slavery. As early as November 1861, he proposed it to political leaders in Delaware, one of the four border states (along with Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri) that remained in the Union. Delaware had only 1,800 slaves; the institution was peripheral to the state’s economy. But Lincoln found that even there, slave holders did not wish to surrender their human property. Nonetheless, for most of 1862, he avidly promoted his plan to the border states and any Confederates who might be interested.

Lincoln also took his proposal to black Americans. In August 1862, he met with a group of black leaders from Washington. He seemed to blame the presence of blacks in America for the conflict: “but for your race among us there could not be war.” He issued a powerful indictment of slavery — “the greatest wrong inflicted on any people” — but added that, because of racism, blacks would never achieve equality in America. “It is better for us both, therefore, to be separated,” he said. But most blacks refused to contemplate emigration from the land of their birth.

In the summer of 1862, a combination of events propelled Lincoln in a new direction. Slavery was disintegrating in parts of the South as thousands of slaves ran away to Union lines. With the war a stalemate, more Northerners found themselves agreeing with the abolitionists, who had insisted from the outset that slavery must become a target. Enthusiasm for enlistment was waning in the North. The Army had long refused to accept black volunteers, but the reservoir of black manpower could no longer be ignored. In response, Congress moved ahead of Lincoln, abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, authorizing the president to enroll blacks in the Army and freeing the slaves of pro-Confederate owners in areas under military control. Lincoln signed all these measures that summer.

The hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness was his combination of bedrock principle with open-mindedness and capacity for growth. That summer, with his preferred approach going nowhere, he moved in the direction of immediate emancipation. He first proposed this to his cabinet on July 22, but Secretary of State William H. Seward persuaded him to wait for a military victory, lest it seem an act of desperation.

Soon after the Union victory at Antietam in September, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a warning to the Confederacy that if it did not lay down its arms by Jan. 1, he would declare the slaves “forever free.”

Lincoln did not immediately abandon his earlier plan. His annual message to Congress, released on Dec. 1, 1862, devoted a long passage to gradual, compensated abolition and colonization. But in the same document, without mentioning the impending proclamation, he indicated that a new approach was imperative: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present,” he wrote. “We must disenthrall our selves, and then we shall save our country.” Lincoln included himself in that “we.” On Jan. 1, he proclaimed the freedom of the vast majority of the nation’s slaves.

The Emancipation Proclamation is perhaps the most misunderstood of the documents that have shaped American history. Contrary to legend, Lincoln did not free the nearly four million slaves with a stroke of his pen. It had no bearing on slaves in the four border states, since they were not in rebellion. It also exempted certain parts of the Confederacy occupied by the Union. All told, it left perhaps 750,000 slaves in bondage. But the remaining 3.1 million, it declared, “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

The proclamation did not end slavery in the United States on the day it was issued. Indeed, it could not even be enforced in most of the areas where it applied, which were under Confederate control. But it ensured the eventual death of slavery — assuming the Union won the war. Were the Confederacy to emerge victorious, slavery, in one form or another, would undoubtedly have lasted a long time.

A military order, whose constitutional legitimacy rested on the president’s war powers, the proclamation often disappoints those who read it. It is dull and legalistic; it contains no soaring language enunciating the rights of man. Only at the last minute, at the urging of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, an abolitionist, did Lincoln add a conclusion declaring the proclamation an “act of justice.”

Nonetheless, the proclamation marked a dramatic transformation in the nature of the Civil War and in Lincoln’s own approach to the problem of slavery. No longer did he seek the consent of slave holders. The proclamation was immediate, not gradual, contained no mention of compensation for owners, and made no reference to colonization.

In it, Lincoln addressed blacks directly, not as property subject to the will of others but as men and women whose loyalty the Union must earn. For the first time, he welcomed black soldiers into the Union Army; over the next two years some 200,000 black men would serve in the Army and Navy, playing a critical role in achieving Union victory. And Lincoln urged freed slaves to go to work for “reasonable wages” — in the United States. He never again mentioned colonization in public.

Having made the decision, Lincoln did not look back. In 1864, with casualties mounting, there was talk of a compromise peace. Some urged Lincoln to rescind the proclamation, in which case, they believed, the South could be persuaded to return to the Union. Lincoln refused. Were he to do so, he told one visitor, “I should be damned in time and eternity.”

Wartime emancipation may have settled the fate of slavery, but it opened another vexing question: the role of former slaves in American life. Colonization had allowed its proponents to talk about abolition without having to confront this issue; after all, the black population would be gone. After Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln for the first time began to think seriously of the United States as a biracial society.

While not burdened with the visceral racism of many of his white contemporaries, Lincoln shared some of their prejudices. He had long seen blacks as an alien people who had been unjustly uprooted from their homeland and were entitled to freedom, but were not an intrinsic part of American society. During his Senate campaign in Illinois, in 1858, he had insisted that blacks should enjoy the same natural rights as whites (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), but he opposed granting them legal equality or the right to vote.

By the end of his life, Lincoln’s outlook had changed dramatically. In his last public address, delivered in April 1865, he said that in reconstructing Louisiana, and by implication other Southern states, he would “prefer” that limited black suffrage be implemented. He singled out the “very intelligent” (educated free blacks) and “those who serve our cause as soldiers” as most worthy. Though hardly an unambiguous embrace of equality, this was the first time an American president had endorsed any political rights for blacks.

And then there was his magnificent second inaugural address of March 4, 1865, in which Lincoln ruminated on the deep meaning of the war. He now identified the institution of slavery — not the presence of blacks, as in 1862 — as its fundamental cause. The war, he said, might well be a divine punishment for the evil of slavery. And God might will it to continue until all the wealth the slaves had created had been destroyed, and “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” Lincoln was reminding Americans that violence did not begin with the firing on Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861. What he called “this terrible war” had been preceded by 250 years of the terrible violence of slavery.

In essence, Lincoln asked the nation to confront unblinkingly the legacy of slavery. What were the requirements of justice in the face of this reality? What would be necessary to enable former slaves and their descendants to enjoy fully the pursuit of happiness? Lincoln did not live to provide an answer. A century and a half later, we have yet to do so.

Eric Foner is a professor of history at Columbia and the author, most recently, of “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 1, 2013

An earlier version of this essay misquoted part of Lincoln's second inaugural address. He said the war, possibly divine punishment for slavery, might continue “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword" — not "by the sword."

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India debates naming new law after gang-rape victim

By Jason Burke, The Guardian
Wednesday, January 2, 2013 18:40 EST

A call to name a new law targeting sexual violence in India after an anonymous woman who died last weekend following a gang rape has provoked a fierce debate in the country, where new details of the violent assault continue to provoke shock and outrage.

The suggestion that the 23-year-old physiotherapy student be named – made by Shashi Tharoor, a junior government minister – has found support among many of those who have been campaigning over the last three weeks for tougher police action against those accused of sexual assault and a sustained call to change Indian society’s views on women.

“It would mean her memory would live on,” said Sangeeta Kumar, a 31-year-old teacher who has been protesting in Delhi.

Others said the move, which goes against a supreme court order prohibiting naming a rape victim, placed symbolism above substance.

“It is an unnecessary distraction. We should be focussing on important issues such as sentencing, the economic rehabilitation of families who suffer and so on. We did not protect her dignity and life when she was alive. Who knows if she would have wanted such a thing. It’s an absolute no-no,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research and a member of India’s National Commission for Empowerment of Women.

Indian media reported the victim’s family saying they would be honoured if a package of new legislation was named after her.

Conservative cultural attitudes in India mean rape victims are often stigmatised. Some, particularly in rural communities, are forced to marry their attackers to gain social acceptance.

“It’s not easy to survive social shame in India,” Kumari told the Guardian.

After misjudging popular sentiment in the immediate aftermath of the incident, the Indian government has acted to head off public anger.

A fast-track court was inaugurated in the capital Delhi on Wednesday, as the first of five that will be set up to deal rapidly with rape cases.

The six accused in the gang-rape case will be formally charged , on Thursday but are not expected to appear in court.

India suffers from a lack of judges and cases frequently take years to come to trial.

The country’s supreme court will decide on Thursday on a proposal to suspend Indian lawmakers from office when facing sexual assault charges against women.

Six state-level parliamentarians are facing rape prosecutions and two national parliamentarians are facing other charges of crimes against women, said Jagdeep S Chhokar, from the Association for Democratic Reforms, an independent thinktank that tracks political candidate’s criminal records.

In the past five years, political parties across India nominated 260 candidates awaiting trial on charges of crimes against women, he said.

On Tuesday, the government set up a taskforce to monitor women’s safety in Delhi and review whether police have been properly protecting women.

The first batch of 40 Delhi police officers also started a three-day training course in rape investigation, which includes what advisors call a “gender-sensitisation” component.

More than 18,000 suggestions from the public have been received by the judge heading one of the committees set up to overhaul rape laws. One move currently under consideration is to publish the names, pictures and addresses of convicted sex offenders on police websites.

Police are awaiting findings on a bone test conducted on one of the suspects to confirm whether he is a juvenile or an adult, which could affect the charges against him. He is currently in special secure accommodation, while the five other accused are in Delhi’s high-security Tihar jail.

The Indian Bar Association last week decided against defending the six suspects because of the nature of the crime, although the court is expected to appoint lawyers to defend them.

Indian media have reported that forensic evidence indicates the victim of the attack, who died on Saturday at a hospital in Singapore, struggled violently, repeatedly biting her assailants.

“She was a very, very, very cheerful little girl, and she was peace loving, and she was never embroiled in any controversies like this. I don’t know why this happened to her,” her uncle told the Associated Press.

“If the government can’t punish them, give the rapists to the people. The people will settle the scores with them,” he said. © Guardian News and Media 2013


India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
January 3, 2013, 2:47 am

Charges of Murder and Rape Filed Against Delhi Gang Rape Accused


Update 5:45 p.m. Indian Standard Time

Police filed charges Thursday against five men accused of the gang rape of a woman in Delhi on Dec. 16, which resulted in her death, including murder, robbery and rape in a south Delhi court.

Charges had been expected to be heard in room 207 of the court, where crowds of lawyers and journalists had gathered during the day, but they were actually read in a separate room on the same floor, causing chaos. Lawyers and media ran from one room to the other, banging on the door where the charges were read to be let into the second room.

Five men were named in the case, while a sixth suspect who has been arrested may be tried as a juvenile. Additional charges included attempted murder and destruction of evidence.

Surya Malik Grover, a magistrate who handles charges filed after 5 p.m., said an electronic version of the charge sheet would be available on Saturday.

Update, 5 p.m. Indian Standard Time
A large number of lawyers and journalists are still waiting in the Saket District Court complex for a charge sheet to be filed against the six accused in the New Delhi rape case.

The magistrate, who was expected to receive the charge sheet, left the court room two hours ago and has not been seen since. There has been no official communication about whether the accused will be brought to the court, or even if the charge sheet will be filed, as court officials expected Thursday morning.

The situation is being monitored closely by activists and others in the room who have been agitating for better protection of women and stronger punishment for rapists after a woman was raped in Delhi on Dec. 16 by several men. Several female lawyers wore red ribbon armbands as a form of protest.

"We are here to see if the government is serious about the promises they have made about a speedy trial," said Poonam Kaushik, a lawyer and the general secretary of the Pragatisheel Mahila Sangathan, a women's rights organization. "Where is the charge sheet?" she asked. "We are waiting. The nation is waiting."

Noon, Indian Standard Time, Thursday, Jan. 3

A scrum of television reporters and a handful of protesters gathered outside the District Court complex in Saket, Delhi, Thursday morning, awaiting a glimpse of the six men accused in a gang rape that ended in the death of a 23-year-old woman last month.

Delhi police are expected to file charges against the accused today, including a charge of murder, which could carry the death penalty if the men are convicted. The police charges, in the form of a document expected to be hundreds of pages long, will be reviewed by Delhi High Court before they are submitted to a magistrate in the Saket court, the neighborhood where the woman was picked up by a private bus and raped.

Court officers said they expected the charge sheet to reach the Saket court by about 2 p.m. In ordinary court procedures in India, the accused would be present when charges are filed in court.

Despite widespread national and international interest in the case, there is no press conference planned on the issue Thursday, a Delhi Police spokesman said. The charge sheet itself is not likely to be made public because of confidential details the sheet contains about the case, he said.

Outside the courthouse, television cameramen scrambled to find a vantage point over a locked courthouse gate for a shot of anyone coming in and out of the building. A lack of official information about what was happening meant that rumors flew fast. The men would not actually be brought to court today, several television reporters said with certainty. Others said they would surely be produced.

So far, no defense attorney has been named for the six men, lawyers and court officers in Saket said.


India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
January 3, 2013, 7:03

Women Strip, Beat Politician Accused of Rape in North East India


As India awaits sentencing of the men who gang-raped a young woman in Delhi, a politician was arrested on rape charges in the northeastern state of Assam, then stripped and beaten by a crowd.

Bikram Singh Brahma, a member of the Congress Party in Assam and president of a district Congress committee in the state, was arrested Thursday for the alleged rape of a woman in Chirang, according to police officials.

“A case has been registered against him under I.P.C. 376 by the lady’s husband,” G.P. Singh, the zonal inspector general of police, said in a telephone interview, referring to the section of the Indian penal code that applies to rape.

Sanjit Krishna, the superintendent of police in the area, said in an interview that Mr. Brahma was also beaten and stripped by local women. Local television stations showed footage of several women ripping off Mr. Brahma’s shirt and smacking him on the face and stomach before several men join in to hit him.

Mr. Brahma attacked the woman last night while he was staying at her family’s house, Mr. Singh said on Thursday. “He was staying at their house, and under what circumstances will be the subject matter of the investigation,” he added.


January 2, 2013, 7:31 pm

India’s New Anti-Rape Legislation Could Be Named for Victim of Brutal Attack


A video report from India’s IBN Live featuring an interview with the father of a woman who died last week after a gang rape.

The father of a 23-year-old Indian woman who died last week after a brutal gang rape has endorsed the idea of naming new anti-rape legislation after his daughter. The victim’s name has not been revealed, but in an interview with the Indian news channel IBN Live on Wednesday, her father said:

    It would be a step in the right direction and heartening to name the law after my daughter. A law named after an individual, for whom the entire country came together, will obviously be much more effective. This will also ensure that she will be immortalized forever.

After weeks of public protests in response to the rape, the proposal to honor the woman in the Indian legal code was raised on Tuesday by Shashi Tharoor, a former United Nations official who is now a government minister. Writing on Twitter, Mr. Tharoor suggested that continuing to conceal the victim’s name was a disservice to her memory.

    Wondering what interest is served by continuing anonymity of #DelhGangRape victim. Why not name&honour her as a real person w/own identity?

    — Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) 1 Jan 13

    Unless her parents object,she should be honoured&the revised anti-rape law named after her. She was a human being w/a name,not just a symbol

    — Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) 1 Jan 13

As IBN Live reported, Mr. Tharoor’s proposal was welcomed by some in India and rejected by others, including members of his own party who criticized the minister for floating the idea in public.

A video report from India’s IBN Live on a proposal to name tougher anti-rape legislation after a woman who died last week after a gang rape.

Rashid Alvi, a spokesman for the governing Congress Party, raised a technical objection too. He told The Press Trust of India, “There is no such practice in our country where laws of Indian Penal Code are named after individuals, unlike in the U.S.”

The practice of commemorating crime victims in legislation is common in the United States. The Amber Alert system, for instance, which is used to notify the public about abducted children, was named for Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old who was kidnapped and murdered in Texas in 1996.

In his defense of the proposal on Twitter, Mr. Tharoor noted that concealing the dead woman’s name had already helped false rumors about her identity spread online and could make it easier for the episode to be forgotten. He argued, too, that it was inappropriate for the woman to be remembered not by her name but by the Twitter hashtag Delhi Rape Girl.

    There’s so much disinformation going around now. Purported pix of the victim on social media are apparently of a Kerala engineering student!

    — Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) 1 Jan 13

    (1/2) @harshadkathale the idea was simple: her identity was not only reduced to #DelhiGangRape girl, but was being stolen by fake pix/names;

    — Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) 1 Jan 13

    (2/2) @harshadkathale So I just wanted to restore her personhood, honour her as much more than a victim, &ensure her ordeal is not forgotten

    — Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) 1 Jan 13

Click to watch:

and here:


India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy
January 3, 2013, 2:07 am

‘If the Police Had Done Something, She Would Be Alive Today’


The family of Paramjeet Kaur sat huddled in the dusty courtyard outside their house on Monday afternoon as a stream of senior police officers, politicians and villagers arrived to pay their condolences after Ms. Kaur killed herself on Dec. 26, nearly six weeks after she was raped by two men.

The family kept asking: Where were all these people when their 18-year-old daughter had sought justice from the village council of Badshahpur and the police, only to be humiliated and pressured to strike a deal with her rapists?

"They are all here now, but nobody helped us then," said Charanjit Kaur, 28, Ms. Kaur's sister, as she sat against a whitewashed wall, her knees drawn up to her chin. "If the police had done something, she would be alive today."

As national anger rises over the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi, the Punjab police are being criticized for driving Ms. Kaur, who once dreamed of being a police officer herself, to drink poison and kill herself. Activists have long complained that India's largely male police force is not sensitive in handling sex crimes and fails to investigate them rigorously.

Ms. Kaur's suicide "reinforces everything we have been saying," said Kalpana Viswanath, a women's rights activist based in Delhi. "There is no seriousness by the police when it comes to crimes against women."

The victim in Punjab was drugged and raped repeatedly on Nov. 13 and left unconscious near a gurudwara, a Sikh place of worship, according to a report filed with the police. She reported the rape five days later, but her complaint was not registered until Nov. 27. After that, family members said they and the victim were called to the station day after day, and made to sit from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Ms. Kaur accused two men of raping her and named a third man who she said gave the keys to his shed where the rape took place. The accused lived in neighboring villages. One worked for a middleman involved in the trade of farm produce and the others for local businessmen. They are being held at the local police station where the victim made her first complaint, but as of Monday had not yet been charged.

The family said that the local police humiliated Ms. Kaur, asking her repeatedly to describe the crime in graphic detail. "They asked very dirty questions," said Harvinder Kaur, 28, Ms. Kaur's cousin, who accompanied her to the police station. "They even questioned her character."

She said the police asked Ms. Kaur, "How many times have you had sex before?"

For over a month, the police did not arrest the three men, instead allowing village elders to try to broker a deal among the families. Elders wanted to get Ms. Kaur married to one of the men or pressured the family to settle the matter by accepting money.

During this time, police officers constantly tried to dissuade the family from pursuing the complaint, Harvinder Kaur said. She recalled that they asked, "How long will you keep running to the courts? What will you get from filing this complaint? You are poor; why don't you settle the matter?"

Forcing a rape victim to marry her rapists is a common practice in South Asia. At the prayer service for Ms. Kaur on Monday morning, at least two dozen people said marriage to an attacker is the ideal solution in cases of rape. "In a small place, what will happen if everyone finds out?" asked Raj Singh, the head of the panchayat, or the village's local government. "This way, the girl's honor is saved, the family's honor is saved," he said.

Gurinder Singh, 51, called it "the most socially acceptable solution."

"If the man and the woman can adjust, what's the problem?" he said.

In India, a woman who has been raped inevitably faces discrimination and social stigma. The people of Badshahpur said Ms. Kaur had been stripped of her "respect" and "honor."

The reason she decided to take the matter to the police, Harvinder Kaur said, is that "she had already lost her respect, so why won't she fight till the end?"

For fear of being shamed, Paramjeet Kaur moved to her cousin's house in the neighboring village of Samana, where for weeks, village elders and the men she accused pressured her to drop her complaint in exchange for money.

"She was scared," said Harvinder Kaur. "So much had happened, and the accused were still roaming freely."

Paramjeet Kaur's family of six - her parents, two sisters and a brother - has a monthly income of less than $100. She lived with her parents and one sister in a dilapidated one-room house. A double bed takes up most of the space, and a small cupboard holds their few possessions. Her father, 60, works as a private security guard. After Ms. Kaur's death, the government of Punjab has given her older sister, Charanjit, a job as a peon in the state's revenue department.

Ms. Kaur had to drop out of school after ninth grade because the family could no longer pay for her education. They had mortgaged their house for $4,000 to send their only son to the Indian Army, where he is a junior officer.

Since Ms. Kaur's death, action has been swift, partly because the state administration is keen to avoid protests of the kind that have swept Delhi for two weeks. Two officers were quickly dismissed, one of whom has been charged with abetting the suicide by failing to act on the woman's complaint, and a third officer has been suspended.

"They should have done their duty," said Shashi Prabha Diwedi, an inspector general and a member of a three-member team formed to investigate the case. Their job, she said, was to register the complaint when the victim approached them and to arrest the accused immediately.


In the wake of the Delhi bus rape, what is the future for India?

The gang rape and murder of a young woman last month has sparked furious protests in India – and given voice to an emerging political class. It has also highlighted the urban sprawl and violence that lie behind the country's booming economy.

Jason Burke   
The Guardian, Thursday 3 January 2013           

Mahipalpur is not a place you will find on many tourist guides to India. Once a village, now a cluster of cheap hotels, roadside restaurants and bus stops around a major road junction on the outskirts of Delhi, it is a place many pass by but few seek out.

The huge, new billion-dollar international airport terminal lies a mile or so away, across construction sites, wasteland and rubbish tips, obscured now by a thick winter fog, a mixture of smoke from wood fires and pollution. Concrete pillars of a recently constructed metro link, which worked for a few months but has been out of commission for many more, loom. Tens of thousands of people pass Mahipalpur every day. Few stop.

It was here, in the dirt beside a ramp leading to the flyover carrying an eight-lane highway, at 10.20pm on 16 December, that a bus briefly stopped and a semi-conscious woman and her male companion were dumped, naked and badly injured, on the ground. This being India, a crowd quickly gathered. Passing cars slowed. After 40 minutes, someone called the police, who fetched sheets from one of the nearby hotels to cover the couple and took them to hospital.

Arrive at almost any of the new airports being built across India outside its major cities, and head to the heritage sites or the better, long-established hotels, and you will pass through a Mahipalpur. These are the grey zones around India's rapidly expanding urban centres. Little happens here that makes it into the local newspapers, let alone the western press. Yet India's myriad Mahipalpurs may hold the key to the country's future.

In the three weeks since the gang rape and murder of the as-yet-unnamed 23-year-old woman by six men on a moving bus in south Delhi, there has been a great deal of comment in the western media about the nature of modern India. Many appear surprised to have suddenly discovered something that appears to contradict the "booming India" story. When Boris Johnson visited India last year, he described two sights on his journey into Delhi from the airport that, for him, encapsulated the country. One was a Jaguar car, symbol of India's economic success, overseas clout and potential as a market. The second was an elephant being washed by its mahout, representing traditional, exotic India, unchanged and, happily, unchangeable. This week it is difficult to imagine anyone being quite so blithely inattentive to the complex realities of this vast and varied nation.

One of the first stories I covered on my return to India three years ago was the violence between Maoist guerrillas, Communist party thugs and various other factions in the desperately poor district of West Midnapore, in the vast state of West Bengal. This appeared to be old India at its worst, a combination of grinding poverty and brutal killings. I interviewed a woman whose husband had just been executed by Maoist guerillas who accused him of being a spy for the police. Nearby, other villagers complained of militia, run by the local government, who burned homes down and raped, apparently at will.

Although the catalyst for the wave of violence in West Midnapore was imminent state elections, the killings had started years earlier, when a major steel project was announced in the area. Such a project would have created jobs, wealth – and much opportunity for whoever controlled the area to indulge in immensely profitable racketeering. It was rooted not in the lack of change – but in the coming of change.

A few months later, I reported a particularly egregious "honour killing", one of the hundreds, if not thousands, that take place each year in India. The male teenage relatives of a young woman had killed her and her supposed lover with an unlicensed "country" pistol before fleeing. They lived not in a remote village but in the north-west of Delhi. All of those involved in the murders lived nonetheless on frontiers: between Wazirpur, their working-class neighbourhood, and Ashok Vihar, the adjacent upmarket suburb; between the increasingly cosmopolitan Indian capital and its deeply conservative hinterland; between the crushing poverty of their parents' childhoods and the relative wealth of their own.

In 2011, an investigation into a hitman who bragged of killing a hundred or more people took me to a small village an hour from Delhi, to Ghaziabad, a rough and violent town that is now part of the Indian capital's urban sprawl, and to Gurgaon, another satellite city just a 10-minute drive from Mahipalpur. Jaggu Pehelwan had grown up in the village, was part of a gang based in Ghaziabad and found most of his targets and clients in Gurgaon, among businessman and criminals based among the call centres, multinational corporations, five-star hotels and luxury malls.
Demonstrators in Delhi march in memory of the 23-year-old who was raped and murdered, 2 Jan. Demonstrators in Delhi march in memory of the 23-year-old who was raped and murdered, 2 Jan. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee

It was the opportunity, the wealth, the corruption and the chaos of new India that had made Pehlawan, who otherwise would have been a small-time thug in his village, what he was. Pehlewan existed in a world of Mahipalpurs – cheap hotels, cheap restaurants, parties fuelled by locally made foreign liquor and escorts. He had taken holidays to Goa and Kashmir, the two classic middle-class Indian destinations, and had bought a big four-wheel drive, a classic Indian middle-class acquisition that he drove, for fun, on the new expressways near his village homes. One of these leads to Noida and the new Formula One circuit, a $400m project. Beyond the half-built apartment blocks around the track are the villages of farmers who had once tilled the ground beneath the Tarmac. Many have received huge sums as compensation for their land. Others have not. This too has generated tension.

All these places – Ghaziabad, Gurgaon, Noida, even Mahipalpur – will grow in the coming years. This urban sprawl will not just be limited to Delhi and its environs, where around 17 million people already live. Most experts say that further urbanisation is necessary for India's economic growth to continue; the new middle classes will want apartments and parks and roads and schools. There is a huge youth bulge pushing through. Some 290 million people were living in cities in India in 2001, a figure that rose to 340 million in 2008 and is set to reach 590 million, around 40% of the population, by 2030. By that year, business consultant McKinsey and Co predicts, there will be 68 Indian cities of more than a million people, 13 with more than 4 million and six megacities with populations of 10 million or more. More than 30 million people will live in Mumbai and 26 million in Delhi. By then the dominant feature of modern India may well not be the rural village or the picturesque forts and saris of the tourist brochures but the nondescript, semi-finished, ragged-edged, semi-urban, semi-rural world that is simultaneously neither and both of them.

The six suspected rapists certainly inhabited this "inbetween" world. All grew up in poor, socially conservative rural communities in some of the most backward, violent parts of the country and frequently returned to their villages. Ram Singh, the 35-year-old bus driver who is alleged to be the ringleader, and his younger brother Mukesh, came from Karauli in Rajasthan. The district may be only a few hours drive from the Taj Mahal but honour killings, banditry and violence between castes, the tenacious millennia-old social hierarchy, are endemic there. Another of the suspects came from southern Bihar, as poor and lawless a spot as anywhere in India. A fourth was from Basti, a small town near the border with Nepal, a bad place in a state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), that has socio-economic indicators worse than many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Bihar and UP, along with the more prosperous Haryana and Punjab, are states in which the killing of female foetuses and girls is common practice.

But all were living in Delhi, in an unregistered semi-legal squatters' "colony" or "camp" in the south of the city that itself is a halfway house between village and urban life. In Ravi Dass colony, named after a 15th-century saint, children return from classes in fashion design or medicine at local colleges to mothers cooking on open wood-fired clay stoves. It too is a zone of transition, barely policed, where, as they would do in a village, neighbours enforce order and the authorities are rarely seen. "We are good people," one inhabitant said this weekend. There was little "eve-teasing" – as sexual harrassment is often euphemistically called in India – because fathers would unite to ensure anyone troubling their daughters stopped. But beyond the colony, there were no such constraints. Out on the streets of Delhi, there were no neighbours, no angry fathers a few yards away, and, as with most Indian cities, only rare, inefficient and often corrupt police.

The victim too lived on the fringes of Delhi: in Dwarka, a sprawl of flats and construction sites developed in phases since the mid-1960s to the south-west of the city. It too is a place of constant change as it expands into the semi-rural hinterland. Her father, from a small provincial town, had got a job as a loader at Delhi airport. His daughter's recent qualification as a physiotherapist meant her family was thus well on the way to fulfilling its aspirations of respectability, relative economic comfort and broader opportunity for the next generation. On the evening of the assault, she and her friend were returning from a cinema in Saket, one of two multiplexes at a well-known and extremely popular modern shopping mall. The moment they climbed into the unlicensed private bus driven by their attackers the good and the bad elements of India's ongoing transformation collided.

In India this week the protests are now beginning to die away and the media coverage is diminishing. The charge sheet against the six accused – 1,000 pages long – will be entered formally in court tomorrow. Police have said they will seek a death sentence. Some legislation will be passed. There will be fast-track courts set up, harsher penalties for rape introduced and a few other measures. The issue will not be forgotten but the rapes that currently appear on the front of local newspapers will slide inexorably towards less-prominent pages.
Three demonstrators call for calm in Delhi. Three demonstrators call for calm in Delhi. Photograph: Adnan Abidi

The deeper question is which part of India's transition wins in the long run; is Mahipalpur a zone of chaos and lawlessness where the badly injured are dumped, or something better?

If there is hope it is because, beyond the scale of violence to women in India and a myriad other social problems, something else has been revealed: a vast gulf between many in this huge country and the people who rule them, at least at a national level. And importantly, recent weeks have seen the mobilisation of a new political force.

For decades, politics in India has involved deference, hierarchy and handouts, or archaic ideologies unchanged since the cold war. It is likely that elderly men dependent on hundreds of thousands of carefully marshalled votes in conservative rural areas will hold on to power for some time to come. But the largely unplanned, spontaneous protests, and the media attention they have commanded, have demonstrated something new: the existence of large numbers of young, educated, urban potential voters who will no longer tolerate a largely unaccountable, unresponsive political elite and bureaucracy incapable of performing the most fundamental tasks. As the cities grow so, one can reasonably hope that such voices will grow more numerous. Brinda Karat, a Communist member of parliament, said last week that "a turning point had been reached" now that young women had "sensed and seen" the power that they could have when united. This may be premature but yesterday protesters at the dwindling demonstrations across Delhi were adamant that change would indeed come.

Ayesha Bhatt, a 22-year-old student who had travelled to Delhi from the city of Moradabad, five hours to the north, to light a candle at the site where the victims of the attack mounted the bus, said it was "impossible to imagine that the country will sit back and say chalta hai [all is going to be fine]."

"We are not a chalta hai generation," she said.

But down at Mahipalpur in the winter fog, snarling, honking traffic crawled past the roadside wasteland where the victim and her friend had been dumped. Commuters queued for crowded, unlicenced buses. A beggar tapped on the window of a stationary Mercedes. A plane roared overhead. Two women argued over a spilled basket of bruised and blackened bananas. A weak string of streetlights flickered into life, sent a brief wavering light into the gloom and then went out.

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« Last Edit: Jan 03, 2013, 09:29 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #3822 on: Jan 03, 2013, 08:18 AM »

Supreme Court: Drug trials in India ‘causing havoc to human life’

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, January 3, 2013 7:15 EST

India’s Supreme Court said on Thursday that unregulated clinical trials of new drugs were causing “havoc” in the country as it ordered the health ministry to monitor any new applications for tests.

The comments were made during a hearing on a petition detailing deaths and health problems caused by clinical trials carried out on Indians, often without their knowledge or consent.

“Uncontrolled clinical trials are causing havoc to human life,” Justice R.M. Lodha observed.

“There are so many legal and ethical issues involved with clinical trials and the government has not done anything so far.”

The judge, who has previously stated that Indians are being used like “guinea pigs”, ordered the health secretary to monitor all new applications for trials from pharmaceutical companies.

Low costs, weak laws and inadequate enforcement and penalties have made India an attractive destination for the tests, activists say.

The petitioners in the public interest litigation case — a group of doctors and a voluntary organisation — claim several patients seeking medical help in the central state of Madhya Pradesh were used in drug tests.

The groups say they have compiled and submitted a report on more than 200 cases in which patients were subjected to trials to check the efficacy of various new treatments without their permission.

Drug trials are an essential step for pharmaceutical companies in order to win regulatory approval to bring new drugs to market.

Earlier this year, 12 doctors were accused of conducting secret trials on children and patients with learning disabilities. They paid fines of less than $100 each.

Faced with mounting criticism, the Indian Council of Medical Research in 2011 sought proposals from doctors and health activists on new draft guidelines for compensation for people used in drug trials.
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« Reply #3823 on: Jan 03, 2013, 08:29 AM »

Czech Republic: The hospital from where you don’t return

3 January 2013
Mladá Fronta DNES Prague
A researcher in a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) protection suit collects samples for a biological laboratory probe in Těchonín.

A researcher in a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) protection suit collects samples for a biological laboratory probe in Těchonín.
Jan Kouba

In the mountains of Bohemia, near the Polish border, lies a small hospital – the only one of its kind in Europe: The Biological Defence Centre in Těchonín is designed to treat the poor unfortunates who contract the world's most dangerous viruses or fall victim to a biological terrorist attack.
Lenka Petrášová

There once was a young Czech solder – let’s call him Jiří – who spent a year in the Congo on a tour of duty. In the town where he was serving, there was an outbreak of Ebola. The likelihood that he would contract this almost invariably deadly disease, which causes a person to bleed to death from inside, was very high.

So when he got a nosebleed one day he was certainly scared. However, he knew that he must not endanger his family or anyone else. When he returned to the Czech Republic, the army’s medical unit immediately sent him into quarantine at the Biological Defence Centre in Těchonín.

This is a hospital from where really sick patients almost never return. It’s a military hospital, hidden away in the Orlické Mountains. It is the only facility of its kind in Europe. And it’s the only hospital in the Czech Republic whose priority is less treating patients as much as protecting the population who live beyond the barbed wire.

As the number of BIOHAZARD! warning signs reveal, it’s a hospital for isolating patients with highly contagious diseases and also serves as a kind of back-up hospital in the event of terrorist attacks using biological weapons such as anthrax or SARS.
Empty beds

There is something else exceptional about it: it has almost no patients. Jiří was its only patient, not counting soldiers returning from foreign missions who always have to spend 24 hours in quarantine here. Every year there are around 1,000 of them.

Why do almost all the civilians returning from areas where dengue fever is raging or Ebola not head here? Because no one in the Czech Republic has looked into this kind of protection for civilian employees. Neither does our own army know what to do with this exceptional hospital.

Jiří was lucky. Despite fears he had contracted Ebola, a two-week quarantine showed that there was no infection and he was allowed to go home. Jiří is one of the few people who know what it’s like inside a state-of-the-art facility.

Almost everything here is made of stainless steel, and patients are examined by doctors wearing suits with their own air supply. Doors open with soft clicks, as all the rooms are at less than atmospheric pressure.

Even though patients are close by, behind triple-glazed glass, it takes a few minutes for any of the doctors to reach them. There are no doors directly connecting doctor with patient. That’s intentional.
Security buffers

Even if the patient is choking, the staff must first change into the spacesuits and pass through the security zone. It takes about three minutes to reach a patient. Ward rounds are done here using microphones inside the spacesuits – what the doctor says is entered into a computer by his colleague standing on the other side of the triple-glazed windows. Almost all the devices are disposable, including the expensive monitors. To disinfect them after contact with a patient that really did have Ebola would be unrealistic.

Anyone who arrives here as a patient lives in a kind of aquarium with its own air and water and a closed waste-handling system. Unlike other hospitals, this one is unlikely to operate on patients, even if it does have an operating hall. Provisions for autopsies, though, have certainly been made. The post-mortem room with its laboratory is right next to the patients’ ward.

The spread of deadly infectious diseases is often swift and it’s important to identify the type of contagion as soon as possible in order to protect others.

The hospital has its own petrol station, heliport, a mobile hospital for infectious diseases with its own laboratory, and sewage treatment including a fishpond into which the cleaned water is drained and where fish sensitive to contamination are monitored to ensure the water truly is safe.

One of the hospital’s rooms is full of mice. Here, in collaboration with a team formed under the late Professor Antonín Holý, research is carried out on some viruses, such as the E. coli virus that sparked a diarrhoea epidemic across Europe last summer that left dozens of people dead.

Research is a tradition here, after all: it was in Těchonín that a unique bank of viruses was kept until 1992, and was later destroyed by order of the Minister of Defence. Today microbiologists have to buy these expensive microbes, such as the diarrhoeal E. coli, from abroad.

The Centre for Biological Control has three tasks: the first is isolation and quarantine, for just such cases like Jiří. The second is research, and the third is educational.
Crisis training

The hospital functions as a training site where doctors and lab workers carry out tests under biological hazard conditions. They learn what to watch out for and how, for example, to transport patients in body isolation units without endangering themselves or their surroundings.

“We work with the civilian system. Doctors from infectious disease clinics, emergency medicine specialists, and even medical students come here,” says Petr Navrátil, the Czech Army’s chief public health officer. And of course, soldiers themselves train here in what to do in the event of a biological threat to the population. It’s called disaster medicine.

The danger of bioterrorism remains: biological weapons are cheap to develop, and they are effective. However, the future of the Centre for Biological Protection in Těchonín is unclear, and everything points to its closure. “The decision has not been made, but in view of the cuts to the Defence Ministry budget, how to keep it running is a very difficult question,” says Defence Ministry spokesman Jan Pejšek. At a time when the Army is looking intently at every crown spent, to make sure there is enough for uniforms and petrol, it is hard to justify pouring money into the Centre.

In short, we have a unique facility, which cost an awful lot of money, but which can essentially only be used when some nightmarish infectious disease breaks out. Closing it would mean that we have thrown away 2bn crowns (€80m). If we keep it, it will cost a minimum of 100m crowns (4m) a year just to keep the hospital running.

Preserving the whole facility is impossible; which ultimately means it is doomed, as aging equipment will not be replaced – and certainly not in the middle of an emergency, just when we need it. What about selling it? There’s no buyer. The army has approached the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Health and the Interior, and has highlighted the importance of Těchonín for the security system of the state to the State Office for Nuclear Safety and the Academy of Sciences and all the other institutions – but none want to contribute to the cost of running it. The search has also spread beyond the Czech Republic’s borders.

“Negotiations have been held with the World Health Organisation, the EU Council, the European Commission, the European External Action Service, and bilateral talks have been held with several countries within NATO (e.g. the UK) and even outside it (Serbia). No agreement has been reached, though,” shrugs the spokesman.
Revenue, or security?

Těchonín, though, might earn its own way, if just the upper echelons of the Czech Army would

try harder. The courses that are held there, for example, could invite in paying participants from abroad – both NATO troops and civilian medical professionals. The local labs could be used commercially or could carry out research that pays for itself thanks to grants and patents.

And, finally, the centre could offer its locations, when they are not being heavily used, to filmmakers. The box-office hit Outbreak, with Dustin Hoffman, was filmed in a similar

American bio-centre. Still, all the same, must the Centre really pay its own way?

Such a property always plays an important role in the strategic protection of the nation’s population. The Army has distanced itself from the decision over what to do with Těchonín. The fate of the complex is to be decided by the National Security Council. Perhaps in February.

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« Reply #3824 on: Jan 03, 2013, 08:33 AM »

Ireland: What is the point of the EU presidency?

2 January 2013
La Tribune Paris

On January 1, the Dublin government took over the rotating presidency of the European Union. However, French daily La Tribune argues that economic crisis and a shift in the balance of power in the EU have turned this institution into an empty shell.
Romaric Godin

Every six months, it is time for another round of musical chairs. One member state gives up the Presidency of the European Council, while another takes over. The outgoing country announces that it is pleased with its excellent work as “president” while the new incumbent pledges that it will break new ground in the drive for European integration. The handover that occurred at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 was no exception.

At a press conference to present a synopsis of the main results of the six-month Cypriot presidency, the country’s Deputy Minister for European Affairs, Andreas Mavroyannis, remarked that "our aspiration was to move even a small step further towards European integration. And, I think that the important results of our Presidency reflect that we succeeded in this.” For its part, the Irish government declared that its term at the helm of the EU, which began on January 1, would be devoted to "the promotion of growth and jobs”.

Once again Europe has demonstrated its mastery of well-worn propaganda and waffle. However, the reality of its current situation is a far cry from such cosy sentiments. First and foremost, the “important results” achieved by the Cypriot presidency should be viewed in the context of the major rift between member states which emerged in the course of talks on the European budget, the United Kingdom’s threat that it would leave the Union, the latest quick-fix solution that will do nothing to resolve the eurozone crisis, and a banking union that remains in limbo. And even then, with regard to the EU presidency, all of this amounts to little more than a side issue. The real problem is that the Cypriot presidency cannot be held responsible for the above summary of “results”.
Limited presidential powers

Nicosia is no more to blame than Copenhagen or Warsaw, the two previous incumbents of the EU presidency. How could Cyprus, a small country of 800,000 people which took over the EU presidency at a time when it was negotiating the conditions of its own bailout, be expected to take the initiative? By the same token, how could we expect Poland or Denmark, two countries that are not in the euro, to "provide the impetus” to cure the EU’s eurozone malaise? And how can Ireland, which is currently negotiating a €60bn reduction to the debt owing to the EU and the ECB in the wake of its banking meltdown, be expected to impose its views on the other 26 EU member states?

There is no end to such questions in an EU caught in a eurozone crisis, which has dealt all of the trump cards to the country that is its main payer, that is to say Germany. Much of European policy is now being decided in Berlin, quite simply because nothing can be accomplished without the agreement of the federal republic. Only major countries and institutions like the Commission or the ECB can still expect — and even then, only under certain conditions — to act as a counterweight.

France and Spain succeeded in forcing Berlin to accept a banking union, but only when they acquiesced to German conditions on its implementation and the size of the banks concerned. Notwithstanding its attempt to coerce Berlin by threatening to leave the EU, the United Kingdom’s ability to oppose German hegemony remains very limited. At the same time, the Commission’s plan for a reinforcement of its budget to combat the crisis as well as French efforts to impose "an agenda for growth” have both been abandoned following objections from Germany.

Given this state of affairs, it is clear that neither Nicosia or Dublin can be expected to impose a vision for Europe on the German taxpayer, or even to obtain concessions from the German government. European policy is now decided by Berlin and Brussels. Of course, you may say that the rotating presidency was never designed to actually run the union but rather to generate momentum, prepare initiatives, and promote compromise. But even viewed in these terms, the rotating presidency is increasingly a formality.
VIP spectators

The 2009 coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty led to the inauguration of a European Council President — a post currently occupied by Belgium’s haiku-writing Herman van Rompuy — with a brief that is very similar to the one granted to the rotating presidency. The main difference is that the permanent Council President is better placed to ensure continuity and coherence in the preparation of European initiatives. At the same time, he is also the one who rules over the secretariat tasked with the organisation of European summits.

It follows that the action of the European Council is largely determined in Brussels, and only on rare occasions by the country charged with the rotating presidency. With this in mind, it is significant that since 2004, European summits have taken place in Brussels rather than, as they did in the past, in the member state charged with the European presidency.

The representatives of the rotating presidency have thus assumed the role of VIP spectators. They bear the privilege of a presidential label, but, like certain dignitaries at the Byzantine court, they are guaranteed respect even though they do not wield any real power. Council press releases that continue to wax lyrical about the efforts and achievements of the countries presiding the EU are merely an exercise in form and devoid of any real substance.

As it stands, the rotating presidency has become a showcase that enables countries to become better known — an opportunity to present well-designed Internet sites vaunting the merits of the nation (the Irish Presidency website even offers a comprehensive selection of recipes for national dishes) or a country’s tourist attractions (as did the Cyprus website). Of course, there is nothing wrong with these efforts to draw in tourists.

However, there are other schemes, like the "European Capital of Culture” programme, that are designed to fulfill this role. With this in mind, and in view of the current austerity, should we not consider doing away with this superfluous institution?   

View from Ireland: Presidential powerplay

For Suzanne Lynch, the European Correspondent at the Irish Times, the beginning of Ireland’s new role heralded the start of “six months of intensive EU activity in Dublin”. Noting that this is Ireland’s seventh time holding the presidency, she says the optimistic mood that has typified previous periods in the EU’s history is in contrast to the prevailing gloom. She adds –

    Today Europe finds itself racked by dissent and disquiet, as it desperately tries to find a response to the financial crisis. Despite the government’s stated agenda of delivering ‘stability, jobs and growth’ during this presidency, in reality it is likely to be dominated by the question of debt relief, particularly the bid to recast the terms of the Anglo Irish Bank promissory note, as it seeks to return fully to the bond markets and exit the IMF-EU rescue programme.

The government’s main task during the six months will be to shepherd legislation through the ministerial councils, particularly reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. She continues –

    How the State balances its domestic agenda with its responsibility to the greater European good demanded by the role may turn out to be the defining feature of this presidency.

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