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« Reply #5430 on: Mar 31, 2013, 06:46 AM »

Maasai fury as plan to lure Arabian Gulf tourists threatens their ancestral land

Tribal leaders vow to resign official posts in protest after nomads are denied access to their pastures in Serengeti 'wildlife corridor' to make way for Dubai-based luxury safari company

Jason Patinkin in Nairobi
The Observer, Saturday 30 March 2013 14.00 GMT   

A battle has erupted in Tanzania over the future of 30,000 Maasai people who claim the expansion of a big-game hunting reserve for foreigners will lead to their eviction from ancestral lands.

Tanzania's ministry of tourism announced this week that it will set aside 1,500 square kilometres bordering the Serengeti national park for a "wildlife corridor". The Maasai will as a result be prevented from getting to their pasture land in the corridor, destroying their traditional nomadic cattle-herding lifestyle. Access will however be granted to a Dubai-based luxury hunting and safari company.

Daniel Ngoitiko, a Maasai politician representing part of the corridor, said the announcement amounted to an existential threat for thousands of Maasai tribespeople. "My people's livelihood depends on livestock totally," he said. "We will die if we don't have land to graze."

NGOs say nearly all of the Maasai living in Loliondo district, where the proposed corridor will be, rely on cattle herding for food and to raise money for expenses such as school fees.

Fifty-five Maasai leaders have petitioned the government against the corridor, which would place out of bounds savannah that is lush and grassy in the wet season and dusty scrubland in the dry. They have vowed to resign their posts as local administrators at a mass rally and protest in the Loliondo town of Wasso on Tuesday. Ngoitiko, who wraps himself in the traditional bright red cloth of the Maasai, will march 20km with his constituents to the demonstration.

Ngoitiko said violence could not be ruled out if the government were to proceed. "We will fight against it until the last person is gone," he said.

Despite the passionate resistance to the proposals, the Tanzanian government appears determined to push ahead with the proposed corridor. The minister for natural resources and tourism, Khamis Kagasheki, told one newspaper this week: "If the civic leaders want to resign, they can go ahead. There is no government in the world that can just let an area so important to conservation to be wasted away by overgrazing."

Samwel Nangiria, government programme manager for a group of local NGOs, told the Observer that the Maasai lifestyle, which forbids eating wild game, is harmonious with nature. "The government does not appreciate the way that the Maasai are living with wildlife," he said. "They've been using it for centuries, living with wildlife all over."

The Maasai have followed seasonal rains with their cattle across what is now northern Tanzania and southern Kenya since pre-colonial times. But they have been gradually squeezed out of their territory. The process began in 1959 when the colonial British evicted the tribe from the Serengeti.

"My grandfather was born in the Serengeti where the national park is," Ngoitiko said, arguing that the idea of further relocation was unacceptable. "The land we are claiming is ours because we inherited it from our parents."

Today, of the million-plus Tanzanian Maasai population, at least 66,000 live in the 4,000sq km Loliondo district. The proposed corridor will reduce their land by nearly 40%. The Loliondo highlands are nestled between two jewels of Tanzania's tourist industry – the Serengeti national park to the west and the Ngorongoro conservation area (NCA) to the south. To the east lie the salt flats of Lake Natron, while to the north is the Kenyan border.

Crucially, the reduction in land access would come at a time when climate change is already placing the tribe's lifestyle under pres sure. Jill Nicholson, programme director for local NGO the Women's Pastoralist Council, said: "The rainy seasons are coming later and that's putting stress on water sources."

The highlands are crucial for the June to November dry season.

"The area which is being established in the corridor is used in the dry season grazing," said Nangiria.

"This is the time they need it most so they can have a fallback. Another reason is the wildebeest are coming to calve in Loliondo, so the Maasai have to have access to the highland to keep their cattle away from possible diseases brought by the migrating wildebeest."

The principal hunting outfit which will be able to exploit the corridor is the Ortello Business Corporation of United Arab Emirates. The OBC has operated in Loliondo for 20 years, flying over high-profile clients such as Prince Andrew and the United Arab Emirates royal family on 747s which land on a private airstrip. But their clients' wealth has not filtered down to the Maasai.

Ngoitiko said the hunting lodges did not employ local people, and skirmishes had broken out between herders and OBC security.

In 2009, Maasai and national police clashed after the government tried to force evictions, allegedly to allow the OBC to hunt. Ngoitiko's younger brother Paul said he lost 50 cattle because they could not reach pasture. Paul remembers how losing livestock, a source of identity for Maasai men, broke his father's will. "During the morning he would ask, 'how many livestock have died today?' When you mentioned the number he didn't even speak."

Paul also claims that police burnt down his family's bomas – homes made of mud, thatch, and cow dung. After protests, the government has allowed the people to return, but a court case is still in progress to decide their future.

The government tried to evict Maasai from Loliondo again last year, but backed down after an outcry led by international advocacy group Avaaz. According to campaign director Ian Bassin "nearly a million people called on [Tanzanian president Jakaya] Kikwete to stop the evictions of the Maasai. The government is responsiveto global opinion."

Kikwete has a record of dismissing the Maasai lifestyle. This month, he told a group of pastoralists that "living a nomadic life is not productive".

Paul Ngoitiko disagrees, and on Tuesday he will march with his people in protest. "We have our way of living," he said. "Without land we cannot keep livestock, and without livestock it is a kind of death."

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« Reply #5431 on: Mar 31, 2013, 06:48 AM »

March 30, 2013

Kenyan Court Upholds Election of Candidate Facing Charges in The Hague


NAIROBI, Kenya — Kenya’s Supreme Court on Saturday unanimously upheld the election victory of Uhuru Kenyatta as the country’s president, dismissing allegations that the vote had been rigged.

But almost immediately, protests erupted in some opposition strongholds, with stone-throwing mobs squaring off against Kalashnikov-toting police officers. And Mr. Kenyatta’s legal battles are hardly over.

As Kenya’s next president, Mr. Kenyatta will soon be summoned to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to stand trial on charges of crimes against humanity, accused of using his vast family fortune to bankroll death squads during the chaos that exploded after Kenya’s last disputed election in 2007. He says that he is innocent and that the charges are based on gossip. But many Western officials believe otherwise, and already the Obama administration has gotten off on the wrong foot, sending the signal that it hoped Mr. Kenyatta would lose.

The United States now may have little choice but to work with Mr. Kenyatta because Kenya is one of its closest allies in Africa, serving as a base for everything from running billion-dollar health programs to spying on agents of Al Qaeda. When it comes down to it, several analysts have said, the United States actually needs Kenya more than Kenya needs the United States.

On Saturday afternoon, in front of a hushed courtroom, Kenya’s chief justice, Willy Mutunga, read out the verdict upholding Mr. Kenyatta’s victory, saying that the election, held nearly four weeks ago, had been conducted “in compliance with the Constitution and the law.”

The second-place finisher, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, seemed to finally swallow his defeat. Mr. Odinga had accused Kenya’s election commission of conspiring with Mr. Kenyatta to steal the vote. In the past week, in heated hearings in front of the Supreme Court, Mr. Odinga’s lawyers presented evidence of questionable vote tallying.

The Supreme Court itself concluded that there had been dozens of errors, though it appears the justices did not feel those errors would have changed the outcome — or they were wary of dragging out what had already become a long and tortuous election period.

On Saturday evening, in a room full of his supporters, Mr. Odinga mopped his face with a handkerchief and said, somewhat mournfully, “The court has now spoken.”

He said he would abide by its decision, and he wished Mr. Kenyatta well.

A few hours later, Mr. Kenyatta spoke to the nation, saying, “I urge you to accept the election is over.” And he called for Kenyans to come together “above the partisanship.”

Mr. Kenyatta, a son of Kenya’s first president and one of the country’s richest men, is expected to be sworn in on April 9. His running mate, William Ruto, soon to be deputy president, has also been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity, accused of organizing young men to kill villagers during the last election.

The long-awaited verdict caps weeks, if not months, of distraction, anxiety, hope and dread. In 2007 and early 2008, Kenya cracked open in riots and clashes after Mr. Odinga lost the presidential race amid evidence of vote rigging, leaving more than 1,000 dead. The horrific memories from that time have been fresh in the minds of many Kenyans, like little shards of glass painfully embedded just below the surface. Many have feared that another contested election could set off the same type of violence.

On March 4, Kenyans streamed into polling places. The turnout was tremendous, around 86 percent. Some people waited 10 hours on their feet, without any food or drink, to get to the ballot box.

But problems started almost immediately. A new biometric voter identification system failed, and then, after the polls closed, the electronic system to transmit results directly from the polling places to election headquarters crashed. Mr. Odinga’s side said it was a conspiracy. The election commission said it was an accident. Election officials then had to tally the results manually, which took days and opened up more possibilities for fraud.

Kenya remained peaceful — but anxious — while all this was being sorted out. Mr. Odinga, Mr. Kenyatta and other leaders of all stripes urged their followers not to riot or protest. Television stations played peace messages around the clock.

On March 9, the election commission declared Mr. Kenyatta the winner, saying he had squeaked past the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff by less than one-tenth of 1 percent. Mr. Odinga, who won about 43 percent, then filed his lawsuit.

On Saturday night, after the Supreme Court upheld Mr. Kenyatta’s victory, protests broke out in several slum areas of Nairobi, the capital, and in Kisumu, Mr. Odinga’s ethnic stronghold. His supporters tried to barricade roads with burning tires, but police officers shot in the air and chased them away.

“It’s such a sad moment,” said Christine Ololo Atieno, a shoe-seller in Kisumu. “We saw evidence that the election wasn’t free or fair. Now we feel our rights have been sacrificed for the happiness of others.”

Both the British and American governments, which had not congratulated Mr. Kenyatta when he was declared the winner in early March, issued statements on Saturday night congratulating him.

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« Reply #5432 on: Mar 31, 2013, 06:51 AM »

March 30, 2013

Short of Money, Egypt Sees Crisis on Fuel and Food


QALYUBEYA, Egypt — A fuel shortage has helped send food prices soaring. Electricity is blacking out even before the summer. And gas-line gunfights have killed at least five people and wounded dozens over the past two weeks.

The root of the crisis, economists say, is that Egypt is running out of the hard currency it needs for fuel imports. The shortage is raising questions about Egypt’s ability to keep importing wheat that is essential to subsidized bread supplies, stirring fears of an economic catastrophe at a time when the government is already struggling to quell violent protests by its political rivals.

Farmers already lack fuel for the pumps that irrigate their fields, and they say they fear they will not have enough for the tractors to reap their wheat next month before it rots in the fields.

United States officials warn of disaster unless Egypt soon carries out a package of tax increases and subsidy cuts tied to a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. That would persuade other lenders that Egypt was creditworthy enough to obtain billions more in additional loans needed to meet its yawning deficit. But fearful of a public reaction at a time when the streets are already near boiling, the government of President Mohamed Morsi has so far resisted an I.M.F. deal, insisting that Egypt can wait.

Those who say Egypt cannot afford enough fuel are “trying to make problems for Dr. Morsi and his party,” said Naser el-Farash, the spokesman for the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade and a fellow member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm.

Mr. Farash placed blame for the shortage of fuel on corruption left over from the government of Hosni Mubarak, combined with hoarding inspired by fear-mongering in the private news media. “They are against the revolution,” he said.

Independent analysts say that the growing shortage of fuel and the fear about wheat imports now pose the gravest threats to Egypt’s fragile stability. “It has the potential to make things very, very bad,” said Yasser el-Shimy, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Egypt has held two years of unsuccessful talks with the I.M.F., and the current government is still balking at the politically painful package of overhauls — even as rising prices and unemployment make those measures more difficult with each passing day.

“They are operating on the notion that Egypt is too big to be allowed to fail, that the U.S. and the West will step in,” Mr. Shimy said. “They think Egypt has a right to get the loan, and I think they will probably keep pushing all the way.”

Officials of the Morsi government have indicated that they prefer to wait until the election of a new Parliament, which might demonstrate broader public agreement on the need for changes. But a court decision striking down the election law has postponed the vote until at least the fall, and many economists say Egypt cannot endure the delay.

“The situation is pretty urgent, because the deterioration accelerates,” a Western diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocols. Shortages, the diplomat said, are already leading to layoffs.

Energy subsidies make up as much as 30 percent of Egypt’s government spending, said Ragui Assaad, of the Economic Research Forum here. The country imports much of its fuel, and for the first time last year it was forced to import some of the natural gas used to generate electricity — the reason for the recent blackouts. Egypt also imports about 75 percent of its wheat, mixing the superior foreign wheat with lower-quality domestic supplies to improve its subsidized bread.

But the two years of mayhem in the streets since the ouster of Mr. Mubarak have decimated tourism and foreign investment, crippling the economy. The government’s reserve of hard currency has fallen to about $13 billion from $36 billion two years ago.

About half of its currency reserves are in illiquid forms like gold, economists say, while billions more are owed to the foreign companies that operate Egypt’s oil and gas fields. And as a result of the outflows of hard currency, the value of the Egyptian pound has also been falling.

Diesel fuel is the crux of the crisis, in part because Egypt has a very limited capacity to refine it. Diesel is also essential to much of the economy. Not only do farmers use it to power machinery for irrigation and harvesting, diesel truck fuel contributes to the price of almost everything shipped.

Mr. Farash, of the supply ministry, insisted that Egypt was still importing just as much fuel as it did three years ago before the revolution, and he blamed the leaky distribution system for the perception of a crisis. Tanker trucks sell diesel on the black market before reaching gas stations, he said, and thieves run phantom gas stations that exist only on official maps.

“Did you hear about the donkey who drank diesel and died?” Mr. Farash asked, suggesting that anxious farmers had filled barns with fuel. “There is enough,” he said, “but people are behaving like there will not be enough, and a large part of the problem is the behavior of the people.”

He said the Morsi government was installing a “smart card” system for tanker trucks, to track the supply of fuel and ensure that full shipments reached their destination. “In one week or two weeks the problem will be solved,” he said.

As for wheat — used for subsidized bread that the government says sustains 16 million families — Mr. Farash said Egypt had enough on hand to last through the end of the fiscal year in June. Contrary to news reports here, he said, the government sees no need to ration it.

But he said the government was cracking down on corruption at the bakeries, too. Instead of subsidizing flour, he said, the supply ministry is testing another system of smart cards to pay bakers based on the number of discounted loaves they sell, to prevent them from reselling deeply discounted flour. Hundreds of angry bakers protesting in Cairo have already closed streets downtown.

“Some of the bakers want to continue the old system because it is better for them,” Mr. Farash said, “but it is illegal.”

At diesel lines in Cairo, though, truck and bus drivers say that cracking down on corruption offers little consolation.

“How can we make enough money to feed our families?” asked Ibrahim Hussein Ibrahim, 31, who had waited in line in his bulldozer for more than four hours on Thursday morning. He said he usually earned the equivalent of about $10 a day in construction, but employers were telling him they could pay him only half as much because he spent half the day waiting for fuel.

Diesel now sells on the thriving black market for more than twice the official subsidized price — though the black market price is still less than $2 a gallon, less than half the price in the United States, reflecting Egypt’s heavy subsidies.

Here in the Nile Delta, Ali Mehrous al-Dairy, the patriarch of a farming family, said that even though his four sons waited in line at four different gas stations overnight to fill jerrycans, in the past two weeks they had more frequently all come home empty. Fuel is now hard to come by even on the black market, he said, and black market fuel is often so diluted with water it damages engines.

“By God, I don’t know what we are going to do,” he said, looking over motionless irrigation pumps empty of fuel.

If diesel is still scarce next month when the harvest begins, “There will be a revolution of the hungry,” said Adbel Moneim Abdel Hady, 40, another wheat farmer.

At the empty Mobil gas station in town, attendants said profiteers, hoarders and desperate farmers were already threatening them with knives, clubs and shotguns. At harvest time, “People are going to kill each other,” said Hamdy Hassan, 37, a truck driver hanging out at the shuttered station.

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

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« Reply #5433 on: Mar 31, 2013, 06:55 AM »

Egypt's top prosecutor orders arrest of hit TV satirist

Critics damn move against Bassem Youssef, Egypt's Jon Stewart, whose show, al-Bernameg, gets over 30 million viewers

Patrick Kingsley in Cairo, Sunday 31 March 2013 11.21 BST   

Egypt's top prosecutor has ordered the arrest of the Middle East's most popular TV satirist for allegedly insulting both Islam and the Egyptian president.

The case has heightened concerns about the future of free speech in Egypt, as it comes only a day after nine opposition activists and four lawyers were arrested in Alexandria – and less than a week after five prominent activists were cited for encouraging protests against the Muslim Brotherhood, whose affiliates lead Egypt's government.

Bassem Youssef, who is known as Egypt's Jon Stewart, rose to prominence following the country's 2011 uprising. His show attracts over 30 million viewers across the Middle East, has previously been sued several times by private individuals. But this is the first time that the prosecutor general, Talaat Abdallah, has followed up one of their complaints with legal action – a deeply symbolic gesture that suggests the Islamist-led regime of Mohamed Morsi is now prepared to take a more authoritarian stance against its critics.

Youssef's show, al-Bernameg, critiques both fundamentalist clerics and Morsi – whose face Youssef once controversially projected on to a pillow – and is seen as a triumph for free speech in the post-Mubarak era.

But that rosy view has been rocked by the prosecutor's intervention, the significance of which was forewarned earlier this month in an interview with the Guardian, when Youssef ominously said: "You can't prevent people from suing us. The tipping point would be if these law suits are activated by the attorney general."

This weekend that tipping point arrived, and it was received furiously by the government's opponents.

"Pathetic efforts to smother dissent and intimidate media is a sign of a shaky regime and a bunker mentality," tweeted Mohamed ElBaradei, the leader of Egypt's main opposition coalition.

Youssef's arrest is doubly concerning for Egypt's disparate opposition because it comes so soon after Abdallah also accused five anti-Brotherhood activists of using social media to incite violence against the Muslim Brotherhood. But in their most recent tweets, some of the activists were actively critical of violence. This has prompted fears that their arrest was a politically motivated ruse to crack down on prominent critics of the government.

Abdallah's actions also renewed concerns about Egypt's "Brotherhoodisation", a term used by critics of the regime to imply that the Muslim Brotherhood has used its influence to appoint its allies to administrative positions whose roles are meant to be politically neutral. Abdallah himself has long been considered such a politicised appointment, after Morsi controversially circumvented constitutional protocol to promote him in November. Abdallah's decision to arrest the activists and Youssef adds to this impression, particularly as it immediately followed a promise by Morsi to punish those who had incited violence against the Brotherhood. To add to the mess, a judge this week ruled that Abdallah's appointment was illegal – but Abdallah himself refused to stand down.

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« Reply #5434 on: Mar 31, 2013, 06:57 AM »

March 30, 2013

A Wary Easter Weekend for Christians in Syria


DAMASCUS, Syria — Torches flickered outside the church. Little girls wore their sparkly Easter best. Children bearing lanterns filed out through the heavy gilt doors, as worshipers carried an icon of Jesus and a cross covered with carnations.

But the Good Friday procession at St. Kyrillos Church here in Syria’s capital did not follow the route it had taken for generations. No drums or trumpets announced its presence. The marchers made a tight circle inside the iron-gated courtyard, then headed back into the church, a hedge against the mortar shells like the one that hit a hospital across the street recently. At pauses in their singing, gunfire rattled, not more than a few blocks away.

Easter weekend is usually the year’s most festive for Syria’s Christians, but this year, it is infused with grave uncertainty. Christians here say they primarily fear the general chaos enveloping the country as the war enters its third year. But like members of Syria’s other religious minorities, many Christians also fear what they see as the rise of extremists among the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

As they gathered in small knots in the church courtyard — which on a normal Good Friday would have been packed — many parishioners wondered aloud where they would be next Easter.

“Either everything will be O.K. in one year, or there will be no Christians here,” said Ilias, 20, a man who, like some other Christians quoted in this article, was willing to give only a first name.

At the church on Friday night, many parishioners said the coexistence of Christians and Muslims was deeply ingrained in Syrian society, and they did not believe that the rebels were targeting them because of their religion. Their main fear was that Christians, perceived as wealthy, were targets for financially motivated kidnappers.

But they worried that the equilibrium had changed. They have heard stories of churches being burned. They are hosting Christians who have fled Damascus suburbs as fighting encroached, some of them saying they were pushed out by hostile Sunni fighters.

Although the nominal rebel leadership outside the country has vowed that all sects will be treated equally if Mr. Assad falls, some rebel groups inside Syria have called for an Islamic state. That means different things to different people, but some fighters have alarmed Christians by calling for archaic practices from the days of the caliphates, like taxing religious minorities.

“There are strangers who are against the way we used to live together,” said Nancy, 16, who was heading home for her family’s usual Easter feast, a classically Syrian meal of kibbe — bulgur wheat stuffed with meat — and tabbouleh.

“The only way to split Syria was through sectarianism,” she said. “They want to split the Christians from the other sects.”

The government and rebels blame each other for introducing sectarianism into the conflict. The government has long portrayed the uprising, which began as a peaceful protest movement, as fueled by foreign-driven Muslim extremism. The rebels say the government, dominated by Mr. Assad’s Shiite Alawite sect, stoked fear among minorities to keep them loyal. There are some Christians among the opposition, but not a critical mass.

Syria has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and one of the largest in the Middle East — about 10 percent of the population. (Most Syrian Christians are Eastern Orthodox and will celebrate Easter on May 5.) Christians have long been prominent among the country’s elite, and before the Baath Party coup that led to Assad family rule, a Christian, Fares al-Khoury, served as prime minister.

“The Christians in Syria are the only ones left in the region,” said Bashar Ilias, a theological student and social worker who distributes church donations to people displaced by the fighting. “If they leave, Christianity will lose its roots.”

Unlike some Christian factions in Lebanon, which claim to be descended from the ancient Phoenicians, Syria’s Christians generally pride themselves on their Arab heritage and see themselves an integral part of the region.

Most church services are in Arabic; Arabic inscriptions are carved on the marble walls of ornate churches. At St. Kyrillos Church in the Qassaa neighborhood on Friday, a haunting melody seemed to meld with the sweet, waxy smell of votive candles: the song “Ya Habibi,” Mary’s lament for Jesus, beloved throughout the Arab world as a classic in the repertory of the Lebanese diva Fairouz.

Most Christians interviewed emphasized that Syrian Muslims were largely tolerant, and blamed the influence of Saudi Arabia and foreign fighters for sectarianism.

But amid the atmosphere of fear, many have begun to speak of the conflict in religious terms.

“The Christians in Syria are being crucified in Syria for the church,” Mr. Ilias said as he visited an elderly friend, Janette Shaheen, after services.

“Jesus was oppressed once, but we are being oppressed every day,” added Mrs. Shaheen, who lives near a church that has been shelled several times.

Mr. Ilias added: “If someone is born a Muslim, I can’t say he’s the devil. His action is an evil action, but he’s human.” But Syrian Muslims, he said, “acknowledge the existence of others.”

The thud of a distant mortar shell could be felt faintly through the floor. Just a few blocks to the east is Jobar, a rebel-held neighborhood.

Mrs. Shaheen served coffee to Fouad Anouf, 51, who fled Jobar recently. He and his wife and three small children were the only Christians in their apartment building, but they stayed there for nearly a year after rebels entered the neighborhood.

The rebels were Syrians, he said, and did not threaten him, even after a new wave of Islamist fighters arrived. They let him cross the battle lines every day to get to work. He left, he said, when his building became a battleground between government tanks and rebel snipers. Now it has been burned, leaving him penniless.

“Both sides are using the same methods to destroy the country,” he said.

Christians are far from unanimous on the conflict. Mr. Ilias, the social worker, said Mr. Assad — “May God prolong his life” — was the protector of minorities.

Yet Mr. Anouf assigned equal blame for the conflict to Russia and Iran, which back the government, and the United States and its allies, which back the opposition. He referred to the fighters not as terrorists, as the government does, but as “the free army,” which he distinguished from “the regular army.”

Another displaced Christian, Marzouk, said he had fled the suburb of Harasta after Saudi fighters arrived and his Sunni neighbors told him that he was not safe. “The compromise should be crushing those people with the military boot,” he said. “The government should have no mercy upon them.”

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« Reply #5435 on: Mar 31, 2013, 07:01 AM »

Aleppo button’ disease afflicts war-torn city

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, March 30, 2013 10:15 EDT

The latest affliction to hit weary residents of Aleppo is written on their faces. Some call it the “Aleppo button”, a welt caused by leishmaniasis, an illness that is sweeping the Syrian city.

Transmitted by flies, the parasitic disease arrived along with the thousands of Syrians displaced from their homes by fighting.

Mohamed, 11, first saw the unsightly welts caused by the disease appear on his face three months ago, and they keep growing.

“It’s a fly that comes from pomegranates, it bites you and you catch the Aleppo button,” he says.

The welts cover his nose and have cropped up around his mouth. While painless, they could leave scars that last for life. His mother, sister and cousins have also contracted the same infection.

The disease, which is not fatal but weakens the immune system, was largely confined to the countryside of Aleppo province until the civil war.

But as the conflict forces people from their homes and into the city, once Syria’s economic hub, the disease has taken hold in Aleppo like never before.

“Between 200 and 250 people with leishmaniasis come for treatment” each day, according to 23-year-old Ali, a medical volunteer at a makeshift clinic in the city.

In the hallway where he receives the latest patients, a dozen men, women and children offer up their faces and arms, covered with the welts.

In the neighbouring room, under a sheet, a man pours the antiseptic Betadine over his leg. The disease has devoured all the skin on his calf.

But most of those affected are children, with Ali saying they represent around 50 percent of those with leishmaniasis in Aleppo.

“The children spend most of the time outside of the house and they play in the street, among the rubbish,” says Aisha, a 16-year-old student who has worked as a nurse since the revolution began.

To be protected from the disease, people should at the very least be sleeping under mosquito nets, Ali says.

“But at 1,000 Syrian pounds ($10), how can a family with several children buy one for each of them?”

With summer approaching and the number of flies expected to multiply, one former physics student has decided to take matters into his own hands.

Rabie, 30, working with his cousin and a friend, tours the Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood armed with a strange machine that spits out white smoke.

“It’s petrol mixed with insecticide,” he said, a thin surgical mask on his face.

“We decided to organise ourselves now that summer is coming, to kill the flies responsible for the transmission of the disease to humans before they begin biting people,” he said.

Before fighting began in Aleppo nine months ago, local authorities carried out an insect eradication campaign each year.

But this year, in areas of the city held by rebels, Rabie and his friends are carrying out their work from a small pick-up truck, with funds collected from rebel brigades and opposition groups.

The machine was purchased in neighbouring Turkey for $1,500 and is able to cover the dozen or so streets of each district in around an hour.

Faced with the mountains of rubbish that cover every corner of this former economic powerhouse, he knows his efforts are unlikely to make serious inroads.

But he persists nonetheless, because at the clinic, they have already opened the last box of Glucantime, a French drug used for treating leishmaniasis that is virtually impossible to come by in Syria.

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« Reply #5436 on: Mar 31, 2013, 07:11 AM »

The Christian Science Monitor

In the Holy Land's columns, frescoes, and desert palaces, Herod the Great lives on

By Christa Case Bryant, Staff writer / March 30, 2013 at 9:00 am EDT

Herod the Great may be best known among Christians as the cruel ruler who sought to kill Jesus as an infant, and whose son book-ended Jesus’ earthly travails, mocking him en route to his crucifixion.

But this shrewd politician, appointed by Rome, left a far broader imprint on history.

From Corinthian columns to lavish frescoes, Herod etched the latest fashions of the Roman world into the Holy Land in rare and costly colors such as cinnabar. Even rabbinic literature of his day recognized Herod as the greatest builder of the land, though he was controversial among some Jewish subjects who doubted his Judaism and saw him as a puppet of Rome.

Among the monuments to Herod’s terrific construction are the imposing mountain fortress of Masada, perched on a desert plateau with cliffs on all sides; Caesarea, the largest artificial port of its day, complete with an amphitheater for 10,000 spectators of chariot races; and Herodian, an artificial mountain that punctuates the skyline just south of Jerusalem, a palatial complex which he is believed to have built as his final resting place.

After decades of excavation at these sites by the late Israeli archeologist Ehud Netzer, The Israel Museum in Jerusalem recently launched a nine-month exhibit, “Herod the Great: The King’s Last Journey.” The exhibit includes more than 30 tons of material, a massive undertaking that required the museum to shore up its foundations and heighten its ceilings.

While packed with eager visitors during the Passover holiday this week, the Herod exhibit has also received a fair amount of negative attention. Much of the material for the exhibit was taken from Herodian, which is located in an Israeli-controlled part of the West Bank, drawing Palestinian accusations that Israel is using archeology to expand its occupation.

And Prof. Netzer's excavations and subsequent conclusions are not universally accepted; Herod's presumed sarcophagus, for example, has no inscription proving it was indeed his. Many details of the exhibit have been pieced together based on the writings of 1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

It is perhaps noteworthy that the exhibit is not controversial among Israelis themselves. But why would the Jewish people seek to honor such a leader, who murdered his own wife and children and was seen by more than a few Jews as a Roman sellout?

“He was the last great Jewish king here,” responds Ilya Burda, an employee at Herodian.

As for his more savage exploits, well, that was par for the course in his day, Mr. Burda suggests.

“He was a great builder, a great administrator, and a great killer, and all these things came together,” he says, taking a break from the busy cash register where crowds of Israelis are waiting for a ticket. “In the ancient world, you could not be the great something without killing someone.”

Striving to be a son of Rome

Herod, who also built a magnificent theater at Herodian before changing his mind and filling it all in, was a key figure in the drama of Roman rule in ancient Israel.

The son of a Nabatean mother and a father from an influential Idumean family who had converted to Judaism, he was born in 73 BC and was appointed by the Roman senate in 40 BC to be “king of the Jews.” His original patron was Marc Antony, who ruled Syria, Egypt, and Judea, with Herod as his man. But after Antony’s demise with his Egyptian lover Cleopatra, Herod deftly switched his alliance to the victorious Octavian.

Octavian, later known as Augustus Caesar, accepted Herod’s continued rule and even expanded the borders of his kingdom, which eventually stretched from Gaza up the coast to Caesarea, which Herod named after his new patron. Herod also showed his strong connection to Rome in other ways, such as sending two sons to be educated in Rome.

Ever conscious of the importance of banquets to forge social and political ties, he sought to reveal to his high-ranking Roman guests “not only his fondness for Roman culture but also that he had good taste and was ‘one of them,’” explains one plaque at The Israel Museum exhibit.

But there were clear tensions between Herod’s loyalty to Rome and his Jewish subjects, perhaps seen most clearly after 10,000 laborers and 1,000 priests completed Herod’s rebuilding of the Second Temple – a huge feat of ancient stonework, with one stone weighing more than 500 tons.

“Torn between his desire to show respect for Jewish tradition and an equally compelling desire to please his Roman overlords, he dedicated [the temple] to the God of the Jews but later placed a golden eagle, a symbol of the might of Rome, above the temple gate,” according to the exhibit.
A lasting impression

While the temple was considered the pinnacle of Herod’s architectural achievement, Herodian was the largest and most lavish of his palaces. Set atop a cone-like mountain with the top shaved off, it commands a 360-degree view of Jerusalem and the Judean hills.

Herod is believed to have created the complex, complete with a large pool with boats and a mausoleum for his burial, as a memorial to himself.

Today the small peak is surrounded by Palestinian villages and the Israeli settlements of Tekoa and Nokdim, home to former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Local Palestinians say they used to frequent the site before the second intifada broke out in 2000, but today there is heightened security.

“People from [surrounding] neighborhoods could go and sell ice cream and chocolate,” says Eyad Ali, a local whose father and grandfather worked on the archeological excavations. “It’s become more difficult for them to go there now…. It’s like a military zone, because it protects the settlements.”

The site lies within Area C, which covers 62 percent of the West Bank and has remained under full Israeli control according to the 1993 Oslo Accords. Meant to be merely an interim division of land, the accords are but the latest in a long history of shifting political boundaries in this ancient land.

After Herod’s death, his kingdom was divided between four of his children. Herod Antipas, who conferred with Roman prefect Pontius Pilate ahead of Jesus’ crucifixion, reigned the longest, until 39 AD. But by then the Herodian kingdom had been overtaken by direct Roman rulers, who destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD, though much of Herod's stamp on the land can still be seen today.

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« Reply #5437 on: Mar 31, 2013, 07:13 AM »

March 28, 2013

Easter Gets an Exemption From Spanish Austerity


ALBAIDA DEL ALJARAFE, SPAIN — Dolorés Gelo Suárez, a 70-year-old retired cleaner, lives alone in a home filled with religious decorations and relies on a state pension worth “a few hundred” euros a month.

Still, she recently donated €14,000, or almost $18,000, to make a gold-laced tunic that will be worn by a statue of the Virgin Mary and then carried on Sunday by members of her religious brotherhood during one of Andalusia’s traditional Easter processions.

Meanwhile in Olivares, a neighboring town of 9,500, another brotherhood was also preparing a Virgin statue for its Easter procession, this one adorned with a gold crown. The crown was made after melting down necklaces, rings, ancient coins and other gold objects worth tens of thousands of euros, after they were donated last year by 300 members of the brotherhood.

Such fund-raising underlines the clout of the Roman Catholic Church, whose importance in Spain as a charitable institution has also been considerably enhanced by the country’s economic crisis and government spending cuts on social services. The newly elected Pope Francis has suggested the poor will be at the heart of his mission.

But the crisis has also put strains on the church. Its fiscal privileges have been put under the spotlight. And the splendor of the Easter celebrations is viewed by some as out of sync with the dire economic conditions of the time.

“There is a debate about introducing more austerity in the Easter celebrations, probably fueled both by our economic crisis and the message of our new Pope,” said María Roca, professor of religious law at the Complutense University in Madrid, as well as a legal adviser to the Spanish church.

In fact, Miguel Luna, the secretary of the Olivares brotherhood that collected gold for the Virgin’s crown, said his organization found itself in “an uncomfortable situation.” On the one hand, it is deeply attached to its long held traditions — it celebrated its 300th anniversary last year. But it is also concerned about appearing ostentatious. Some members of the brotherhood opposed investing in the crown.

Still, the crown should be understood as “a very emotional transfer that people want to make to the Virgin,” Mr. Luna said. “It’s certainly not about trying to exhibit splendor and wealth at a time when the focus is on charity and austerity.”

The resilience of the donation-based financing model of the religious brotherhoods contrasts with the difficulties faced by many town halls, which have been buried in debt since the Spanish property bubble burst in 2008.

“The crisis hurts everybody, but a brotherhood is self-financed, has never depended on subsidies and simply spends what it can collect,” said Gerardo Díaz, a member of another brotherhood, who also handles public finances as treasurer of the Olivares town hall.

This Easter, for instance, Mr. Díaz’s brotherhood is assuming the cost of a tow truck to ensure that badly parked cars will not block the processions. The town normally pays that bill.

In a country with a record jobless rate of 26 percent, the church has aggressively trumpeted its virtues as an employer. Last year, it began a recruitment drive for priests, with its television ad campaign arguing that joining the priesthood was a guarantee of “a permanent job.”

For the brotherhoods, soaring joblessness has helped persuade more idle house painters, ceramic workers and other craftsmen to lend a hand in the time leading up to Easter celebrations.

“People have far less regular work, so that at least means more spare time to devote to our brotherhood,” said Genoveva Rodríguez Sánchez, a seamstress who has made several embroideries for her brotherhood and has been setting aside one day a week to help prepare the Easter festivities.

“I think religious fervor has in any case been rising here every year, but this is also helping to maintain a long tradition of artistry that would otherwise go to waste during this crisis,” she added. Among the 3,000 inhabitants of Albaida del Aljarafe, 509 people are registered as unemployed.

Still, while 73 percent of Spaniards call themselves Catholics, the proportion who identify themselves as practicing the religion has declined steadily, down last year to 18 percent, according to Metroscopia, a polling agency. That compared with 31 percent in 1988 and 48 percent in 1976, the year after the dictator Francisco Franco died.

Meanwhile, the crisis has also brought more attention to the economic advantages of the church, particularly its exemption from most property tax under a 1979 agreement signed between Spain and the Vatican.

The church also benefited from a 1998 legislative act that allowed dioceses to register as their property churches and other buildings that they had long used but not officially owned.

At a time when many Spaniards have taken to the streets to protest the government’s recent tax increases, 80 percent of them want the church to contribute to the austerity effort by paying higher property taxes, according to Metroscopia’s polling.

Last May, the main opposition Socialist Party demanded a property census to identify church assets that could be subject to taxation. The push for stiffer church taxation was also backed by some conservative mayors, who were desperate to replenish municipal coffers.

But Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose conservative Popular Party won a parliamentary majority in November 2011, has poured cold water on any attempt to erode the church’s fiscal advantages. Instead, Mr. Rajoy warned against making the church a scapegoat for Spain’s economic downturn. “In the situation in which Spain finds itself, we must remain serious and not search for topics that divide people,” Mr. Rajoy said last May.

The church has also been defending its finances. Fernando Giménez Barriocanal, who handles the Spanish church’s economic affairs, estimated that his “army of God” provided services to Spain’s needy worth €2.35 for every euro that the church received in state subsidies. “You could not imagine now Spanish society without the activity of the church,” he said last year.

The brotherhoods, some of which date from the 14th century, have a religious purpose, as associations of Catholic lay people who come together to perform religious acts. In addition, the brotherhoods provide yearlong social services for the destitute and other vulnerable members of society. Still, Easter is the highlight of their calendar, as hooded penitents hold giant candles and walk along richly decorated floats on which the religious statues are placed.

For devout donors like Ms. Gelo Suárez, the former cleaner, there is just no room for any financial debate. “Making this kind of sacrifice is not about money, but only about how much faith you have,” she said, when asked to explain why she was spending all her savings on embellishing the statue. “I consider the Virgin to be like my mother.”

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« Reply #5438 on: Mar 31, 2013, 07:15 AM »

March 30, 2013

Italian President Enlists Special Help on Political Deadlock


ROME — Italy’s president said Saturday that he would turn to a group of outside advisers to help him end the country’s political deadlock, after weeks of inconclusive consultations with political leaders failed to overcome ingrained divisions.

At the same time, President Giorgio Napolitano reassured Italians and international observers that despite the political uncertainty that has left the country without a government for more than a month after national elections, the caretaker government of Prime Minister Mario Monti was still solidly in charge.

“Its productivity” is an “element of concrete certainty” in the current situation, Mr. Napolitano said.

Two groups of advisers will be asked to come up with precise proposals of “an institutional and economic-social character” that can form the basis for a constructive discussion among Italy’s fractured political parties, and help to resolve the existing stalemate, Mr. Napolitano told reporters on Saturday.

National elections five weeks ago delivered a Parliament effectively split among three hostile blocks. The center-left coalition has a majority in the lower house but not in the senate, and attempts last week by the center-left leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, to find allies for his government fell flat.

Mr. Napolitano has also been unable to overcome a series of intricate vetoes between the political parties that have scuppered possible alliances. His options are limited because he is in the last weeks of his seven-year mandate, which means that by law he cannot dissolve Parliament and call new elections.

But on Saturday he pledged to do what he could to create the conditions to “unblock” a political standoff “frozen between irreconcilable positions,” he said.

The two groups of advisers would draft concrete proposals that would establish the priorities of the future government, Mr. Napolitano said.

The four members of an institutional commission include a constitutional judge, a member of the European Parliament, and lawmakers from the Democratic Party and the People of Liberty party. The economic-social commission includes the president of the National Statistics Agency; the president of Italy’s antitrust authority; a board member of the Bank of Italy; a minister in the caretaker government responsible for European issues; and two lawmakers, one from the lower house, one from the senate, who will act as liaisons between the Parliament and the government.

“This is a tool for gaining time,” said Sergio Fabbrini, director of the school of government at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome. And it is a way to broaden consensus for a possible candidate to lead a government put forward by Mr. Napolitano. “We are in a period where a clash is emerging between the ruling elite and the political elite, and it requires a candidate to mediate between the two,” Mr. Fabbrini said.

Mr. Napolitano has been under pressure to act quickly as Italy struggles through one of its most difficult economic crises since World War II. Unemployment is at record highs, especially among the country’s youth, economic growth has stalled and the ratio between the public debt and G.D.P. is quickly moving toward 130 percent.

Italian lawmakers mostly expressed approval of Mr. Napolitano’s plan.

The secretary of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, Angelino Alfano, said his party appreciated the president’s efforts to find common ground between the parties. But he said his party only saw two possible solutions: a political government involving “all the major political forces” or “a return to the polls.”

Even the Five Star Movement, the anti-establishment party that won a quarter of the national vote and has pledged not to support a political government of any stripe, said Mr. Napolitano was going in the right direction. “The chosen path is the one that comes closest to a solution in such a difficult moment,” said Claudio Messora, the party spokesman.

Mr. Napolitano did not give a time frame for when the commissions would have to present their findings, suggesting that he might leave the task of forming a government to his successor, who will be chosen by Parliament within the next six weeks. Were the stalemate to continue, his successor could dissolve Parliament and call new elections, as early as June.

“That is the key decision, the selection of the new president, and elections will be closer or further away depending on who is chosen,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Luiss Guido Carli University.

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« Reply #5439 on: Mar 31, 2013, 07:17 AM »

March 31, 2013

Churches Slam British Government's Welfare Reforms


LONDON (AP) — Government welfare reforms that include a contentious cut dubbed the "bedroom tax" will cause upheaval for some of Britain's most vulnerable people, religious leaders and anti-poverty activists claim.

The measure, which takes effect Monday, will reduce rent subsidies to social housing tenants if they have a spare bedroom.

The government — which prefers the term "under-occupancy penalty" — says it is one of a series of changes that will make the country's unwieldy welfare system simpler, cheaper and fairer.

But thousands of trade unionists, advocates for the disabled and anti-poverty campaigners held protest marches against the change on Saturday, and on Sunday four churches released a joint criticism of the reforms. The Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist and United Reform churches and the Church of Scotland argued that "the cuts are unjust and that the most vulnerable will pay a disproportionate price."

"Our feeling is that these benefit changes are a symptom of an understanding of people in poverty in the United Kingdom that is just wrong," Methodist spokesman Paul Morrison told the BBC. "It is an understanding of people that they somehow deserve their poverty, that they are somehow 'lesser', that they are not valued."

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the Anglican church, has also criticized the welfare reforms.

The British government is trying to reduce public spending by 50 billion pounds ($76 billion) by 2015 in a bid to deflate Britain's ballooning deficit and kick-start its spluttering economy. It says its welfare reforms will save 4.5 billion pounds by 2014-15.

The measures include changes to disability benefits, below-inflation increases and, eventually, the replacement of a patchwork of housing, unemployment and parental benefits with one payment called the Universal Credit.

The Department for Work and Pensions says the spare-bedroom levy — a cut of 14 percent to households with one extra room and 25 percent for two — will save taxpayers money and will help free up social housing for families because people with too many rooms will downsize.

"It is wrong to leave people out in the cold with effectively no roof over their heads because the taxpayer is paying for rooms which aren't in use," Conservative lawmaker Grant Shapps told Sky News.

Officials say the new rules won't apply to retirees, or to those who really need extra space, such as parents of severely disabled children.

But campaigners say the "bedroom tax" has already produced injustices. Parents whose children are not considered disabled enough by local officials have been told they must pay. So has a bereaved couple who couldn't bear to change the bedroom of their 7-year-old daughter after she died of brain cancer.

To its opponents, the "bedroom tax" is an indignity on a par with the "poll tax," a levy on every adult that sparked violent protests and helped bring down Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Her successor, John Major, scrapped it.

The government says its welfare reforms are modest measures that will encourage people to get off welfare and find jobs. In tough times, officials say, everyone must make sacrifices.

Opponents ask why the government can't tax mansions or second homes, rather than the poor. And they allege the cuts will force impoverished residents to move from homes and neighborhoods where they have lived for years.

Frank Field, a minister in the previous Labour administration and now a government adviser on fighting poverty, told The Guardian newspaper that "the government is introducing social and physical engineering that Stalin would have been proud of."
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« Reply #5440 on: Mar 31, 2013, 07:19 AM »

Bank of Cyprus savers could lose up to 60%

By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, March 30, 2013 15:27 EDT

Big savers in Cyprus’s largest bank face losses of up to 60 percent, far greater than originally feared under the island’s controversial EU-led bailout plan, officials said on Saturday.

Cyprus meanwhile launched an investigation into a list published in Greek newspapers of Cypriot politicians who allegedly had loans written off by two banks at the heart of the financial meltdown.

Officials said Bank of Cyprus savers will see at least 37.5 percent of funds over 100,000 euros ($128,000) turned into shares, but a further 22.5 percent will be held until authorities know they can satisfy the terms of the bailout.

Under the first eurozone rescue package to punish savers with a so-called “haircut” of their money, Cyprus can only qualify for the 10-billion-euro ($13-billion) loan by finding 5.8 billion euros of its own.

“There will be a 37.5 percent haircut on deposits over 100,000 euros that will be converted into shares,” said Marios Mavrides, a lawmaker from the conservative Disy party of President Nicos Anastasiades.

“Then 22.5 percent will be held from the account for about two or three months, but this sum might be lower if a bigger haircut is needed,” Mavrides said.

The remaining 40 percent would be held for six months to prevent the east Mediterranean island’s banks being drained.

Senior Bank of Cyprus official Mario Skandalis confirmed the figures, although he said they had not been finalised and a final announcement was expected by Monday.

Asked whether the loss rate could be as high as 60 percent he told AFP: “It could be a possibility but I would say it is a remote possibility.”

The size of the levies will be a further blow to both Cypriots and foreign investors — particularly Russians — with large sums in the island’s bloated offshore banking sector.

It will also alarm other struggling eurozone members who fear the “troika” of the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund could demand similar terms for future bailouts.

Bank of Cyprus is set to absorb what is salvaged from the island’s second largest lender Laiki under the deal, while the rest of it will be wound up with the loss of thousands of jobs.

A panel appointed by Anastasiades will investigate a list published by Greek media of Cypriot politicians who allegedly had loans forgiven during the meltdown, Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou said.

The president will swear in the commission of three supreme court judges on Tuesday with a deadline of three months to report back, said Nicolaou, while a committee of lawmakers will also look at the claims.

Bank of Cyprus, Laiki and third largest lender Hellenic Bank reportedly forgave millions of euros in loans over the past five years to lawmakers, companies and local authorities, newspapers in Greece said.

Cypriots are meanwhile hoping authorities further ease capital controls — the first in the eurozone’s history — which were imposed to stop a run on banks when they reopened on Thursday after a 12-day shutdown.

The reopening went smoothly, and the central bank on Friday lifted all limits on domestic card payments while saying it would make daily efforts to “refine or relax” the curbs.

Draconian controls remain in place, including a daily withdrawal limit of 300 euros and a ban on taking more than 1,000 euros in cash out of the country.

Monday will be the third public holiday in a row as Greek Cypriots mark the anniversary of the launch of an armed uprising against British colonial rule in 1955.

But the sense of solidarity as Cyprus faces its greatest crisis since Turkish troops occupied the north of the island in 1974 remains strong.

Around 50 performers will take part in a “concert of solidarity and hope” in Nicosia on Saturday night.

The phone company Cyta meanwhile announced that calls from fixed lines would be free in April while the government has said it is looking for a way to lower the island’s high electricity costs.


Germans greet Cyprus deal with a mixture of relief and fear

Angela Merkel is beset by anger abroad and mistrust at home – and there's an election looming

Kate Connolly in Berlin
The Observer, Sunday 31 March 2013   

Angela Merkel referred to it as "successful", not least because it had, she said, "managed a fair distribution of the burden" on both creditors and depositors.

But while the deal to secure a financial lifeline to Cyprus after months of tortuous negotiations between Nicosia and the eurozone was met with relief, comfort and not a small amount of praise from both left and right in Berlin, there was also a considerable amount of scepticism. From the straight-thinking German point of view it had been a small victory in the battle to keep profligate southern Europe in check, and German voters on board.

As finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble put it: "Germany has managed to have its concerns met, both in the interests of Europe and the German taxpayer."

But the terms of the bailout also sent shivers down plenty of spines, including those of many voters who still fear that, despite the strength of the German economy, the euro crisis could still land on their doorsteps.

"If everybody starts to think their money is unsafe, we'll get a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the banks will go under," said Thomas Schuster from the Cologne Institute for Economic Research. "So trust is paramount."

Architects of the deal have been quick to point out that the Cyprus bailout – or bail-in, as many are calling it – will not and cannot become the template for other troubled eurozone nations.

But economics commentator Philip Faigle, writing in Die Zeit, disagreed: "The taboo has been broken. For the first time in the euro crisis, savers have been expropriated."

But as the blame for draconian economic reforms in Dublin, Madrid, Athens, Lisbon and Nicosia is increasingly heaped at Merkel's door, the German government's reaction has been not to relax its stance, but to tighten it. It has been especially keen to show that it is practising what it preaches at home. A case of "do as we say and do as we do," as one television commentator put it.

Just two days before EU leaders gathered in Brussels earlier this month to argue exactly how much economic reform the south should be forced to swallow, the German cabinet approved key figures in its own federal budget. As if to underline the German government's tough attitude to countries living beyond their means, it foresaw some rigorous fiscal belt-tightening, including public sector wage freezes and the lowest new borrowing levels for 40 years.

Such moves enable Merkel to go to Brussels and say: "You, too, can save." It also wins her plaudits at home among credit-shy consumers, who have so far welcomed her austerity drives. Such domestic support is particularly welcome to Merkel with an election looming.

But the political mood in Germany post-Cyprus is noticeably more defensive. Deeply angered by the portrayals in Nicosia of Merkel as an SS guard, or sporting a Hitler moustache, and by an article in Spain's El Pais comparing her to Hitler, leading German politicians began to speak out last week about the unfair treatment they feel they have been receiving from fellow EU partners.

"Germany is showing solidarity," said the justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who went on to urge fellow EU leaders to take their fair share of the responsibility for the unpopular bailout conditions – blame, she said, Germany had so far largely had to shoulder alone.

It is often said that Germany can appear a little gauche and inexperienced on the diplomatic front. There have also been widespread accusations that the German government has failed to communicate its crisis strategy properly either at home or abroad.

This may be why Merkel took the unusual step last week of dispatching a goodwill ambassador to Greece in order to restore her dilapidated image. Otto Rehhagel, the German football coach seen as a hero in Greece after he led its national side to victory in the 2004 European Championships, is on a charm offensive in the region.

"We have to help countries which are down on their luck," the 74-year-old said in an interview. "But it wasn't my chancellor who created this crisis."

Although her popularity rating in Germany is still an impressive 68%, Merkel may also be forced into a reassurance offensive closer to home after 54% of Germans said last week that they did not believe her assurance, post-Cyprus, that savings were safe. One in three said their trust in the common currency had been shattered and that they would like to see the return of the deutschmark.

There is anecdotal evidence that some Germans have begun removing their savings from banks, and that others have opened new accounts to spread their savings around and avoid getting caught like Cypriot depositors with more than €100,000. Financial daily Börsen Zeitung commented that while Germans – still collectively haunted by the currency collapses experienced by their forefathers – were not necessarily planning a run on the bank with their feet, "they are already doing it in their heads".

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« Reply #5441 on: Mar 31, 2013, 07:22 AM »

Woman discovers after aunt’s death that she was a British spy tortured by Nazis in France

By Joanna Moorhead, The Guardian
Saturday, March 30, 2013 18:15 EDT

Odile Nearne knew her aunts had played a part in the second world war, but only after their deaths did she discover their true bravery

One day in September 2010, Odile Nearne, a British woman living in Verona, Italy, answered the phone to some devastating news. Her 89-year-old aunt Eileen – known as Didi – had been found dead in her Devon flat.

The two women were close, but there was an additional reason why Odile was so distraught. Just weeks earlier, she had discovered how extensive a role Didi and Didi’s sister Jacqueline had played as British secret agents during the second world war. It was a tale of unwavering patriotism, extraordinary bravery and terrible risk, played out against a backdrop that stretched from rural France through the Parisian torture chambers of the Gestapo and the horrors of Ravensbrück concentration camp, to the privations of postwar London and the glamour of 1960s New York. Through it all ran a thread of fierce family loyalty and buried secrets: and it all ended at Didi’s small flat in a Victorian building in Torquay.

No one in Torquay had any inkling about Didi’s wartime adventures: she had once told Odile that if she ever mentioned her life as a spy, she would simply disappear. The truth was that Odile knew virtually nothing about it: when she was a child, her father had instructed her never to ask either of his sisters about the war. “I knew they had played a role, and I knew there had been suffering,” she says. “But it was never mentioned or spoken about. On one occasion, after I’d visited the battlegrounds and war graves in Normandy, I tried to raise the subject with Didi – but I could tell from her eyes that it was just too painful, that it brought up emotions she didn’t want to remember. So I changed the subject.”

Odile had married an Italian man, Enore, and moved to Verona where she raised three sons: and it was during the summer of 2010 that the youngest of these, Silvio, became intrigued by the stories around his great aunts and Googled them. “And looking at the information about them online, I realised for the first time how important their war work had been,” says Odile, 58. “Didi had served in France as a radio operator until she was arrested by the Nazis in 1944. Jacqueline had been parachuted into central France and worked there for 15 months, carrying vital spare parts for radio transmitters inside her makeup bag. Both had faced great danger on a daily basis – and their lives had clearly been changed for ever by the events. I knew I had to have one more attempt to persuade Didi to talk about it, because it was so much a part of our family history.” But now, before she had been able to make another trip to Devon, Didi was dead – and Jacqueline had died in 1982.

It seemed the sisters had taken their secrets to their graves: but when Odile arrived in Torquay to organise her aunt’s funeral, she made a stunning discovery. Didi’s flat, which her aunt had always conspired to ensure she never entered (as it was too small for Odile and Enore to stay in, they tended to holiday elsewhere in the UK), was packed with documents, medals and clothes through which the sisters’ story could be told. “I now think Didi had kept everything so that, one day, I could find out what had happened,” says Odile. “I’m the only member of the family of my generation. My aunts didn’t want to talk about what they’d experienced, but I don’t believe they wanted it to die with them either.”

We are in Odile and Enore’s home on the edge of Lake Garda, where one room is now packed with possessions from Didi’s flat. “Here are their medals,” says Odile proudly, showing me the sisters’ MBEs and croix de guerre. There is, though, a hint of sadness in her tone: because her aunts chose to keep their war work secret, Odile feels they lost out on the wider recognition given to some of the more vociferous former members of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). “Many of the wartime spies stopped being secret agents when the war was over, and they opened up about what they’d done. But the way I see it, my aunts kept their secrets all their lives. It’s only now that their stories can be told.”

It is a tale that has its roots, like so many wartime spy stories, in a family with Anglo-French origins. “My grandfather, John Nearne, was British, and my grandmother Mariquita Carmen de Plazaola was born in France to a French mother and a Spanish father. They lived for a while in England and had four children: a son called Francis, another called Frederick, who was my father, and two daughters, Jacqueline and Didi. And in 1923, the family moved back to France, where the children soon learned to speak excellent French.”

But the outbreak of war in 1939, and the subsequent arrival of the Nazis, reminded the Nearnes of their English connections. Because of these links, they were told by the authorities that they had to leave their home in Nice and resettle in Grenoble, where they would be monitored by the police. None of the Nearne children felt especially English, but as they realised their association with the country of their father’s birth was going to increasingly define them in war-torn France, their thoughts turned to joining the Allied forces. In late 1940 Frederick set out for Britain to volunteer for active service. Just over a year later, his sisters made the momentous decision to follow him.

They expected to find it easy, in the middle of a European war, to get work as translators; but the War Office, unsurprisingly given their background, had other ideas. Jacqueline was recruited into the SOE under the cover of being a member of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. Though forbidden to disclose her real work to anyone, she couldn’t keep it a secret from Didi – who immediately launched a successful bid to get herself accepted into the secret service. Jacqueline, though willing to risk her own life, was completely against allowing her little sister to do the same, and when she was flown to France to work as a courier, she made her SOE bosses promise to keep Didi, then in her early 20s, safely in Britain.

It was a promise they didn’t keep. When Jacqueline returned from France 15 months later, she was horrified to discover that Didi – codenamed Rose – had been smuggled in behind her. And while Jacqueline had evaded capture and returned to Britain unscathed, Didi would not be as lucky. In July 1944, while transmitting an urgent message from a location she feared was not entirely safe, she was captured by the Gestapo, and tortured at its Rue des Saussaies headquarters in Paris. “She was held underwater until her lungs were bursting, but she refused to disclose any information,” says Odile proudly. “She was made of strong stuff – they both were.” The Nazis gave up the idea of prising any secrets out of her, and had her transported to Ravensbruck, where she had her head shaved, and was threatened with execution when she refused to do prison work. She was later transferred to a forced labour camp in Silesia but escaped while being marched through a forest. Eventually (though not before coming under suspicion, in the chaotic aftermath of war, of being a Nazi spy and imprisoned), she was liberated.

But it was a very different Didi who returned to Britain; when Jacqueline was reunited with her in London in 1945 she could hardly believe the toll that imprisonment had taken on her sister’s health. Long months of recuperation followed, with Jacqueline devoted to her sister’s care; but, says Odile, for both sisters – and especially Didi – life had changed for ever.

“Both Didi and Jacqueline had lived under enormous stress for long periods of time, and as a prisoner Didi had experienced appalling suffering,” she says. Neither of her aunts ever married or had children; while Jacqueline went on to a high-flying role with the United Nations in New York, Didi struggled to find work, eventually becoming a carer in a home for the elderly. “She was a very warm and loving person, and she would have loved to have had her own family,” says Odile. “In many ways she was like a second mother to me – because she was the one who lived in Britain, and because Jacqueline died relatively young, Didi was the aunt I knew best.

“Both my aunts sacrificed such a lot. They truly believed in service, and in the importance of risking all to rid Europe of the Nazis. But they paid a high price for it: the years when they might have been finding partners, settling down and having children were spent instead in training, in being in the field, and later in recovering, and in Jacqueline’s case helping Didi to recover from the horrors she in particular had survived.”

Having pieced their story together, Odile says she can finally understand why her aunts, and Didi especially, didn’t want to talk about the past. “She was a humble and modest person, and she didn’t want the spotlight on her. But I also think that she had been so traumatised that reliving it would have stopped her from having a normal life, and she wanted to go on as best she could.”

Despite her reticence to be noticed, Didi was persuaded to take part in a television documentary in 1997, but she wore a wig and spoke in French. “When someone in Torquay asked if it was her, Didi just dismissed the idea and said, ‘No, you’re mistaken’,” says Odile. “She really had no need of wider recognition.”

But now that she is dead, says Odile, the time has come for Didi’s and Jacqueline’s stories to be more widely known. “I think they did so much, and from such a selfless point of view, that they deserve to have it recognised,” she says. “They didn’t care that they didn’t get as many medals as some of their comrades, but I don’t think their sacrifices should be lost for ever.”

After Didi’s death, news of her wartime past leaked out in the press, and Odile was pleased that crowds lined the streets for her funeral.

“In her last few years she was known in Torquay as a bit of an eccentric, an elderly woman who didn’t have a lot to do with other people and who was besotted with her cats. But I think her story, and that of Jacqueline, has something to teach us all: we shouldn’t just do things for the glory of it, we should do things because we believe they’re right.

“I’d do anything to have my aunts back, even for just an hour, so I could tell them how incredibly proud I am of them, and how inspiring I find what they did.”

Instead, Odile says she is committed to raising their profile. After Didi’s death, she campaigned for a blue plaque, which now adorns the outside of her aunt’s Torquay flat; it calls her a ”war heroine” and describes her “courageous work”. And now, Odile hopes to get a similar plaque placed on the house where Jacqueline lived in London.

“I’d like more people to know about them,” she says. “When they were alive I did as they requested, and I didn’t ask them about the war. But now they’re dead, I think everyone could learn something from their story.

“I feel that, as the last relative who remembers them, I owe it to their memory to do this for them.” © Guardian News and Media 2013

[Image from the book "Sisters, Secrets and Sacrifice" by Susan Ottaway]

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« Reply #5442 on: Mar 31, 2013, 07:31 AM »

Poison claim in mysterious Surrey death of Russian supergrass

Alexander Perepilichnyy's friends question three-week delay in toxicology tests and say he may have been poisoned in Paris

Mark Townsend   
The Observer, Saturday 30 March 2013 20.00 GMT   

A Russian supergrass who died in mysterious circumstances outside his Surrey home may have been poisoned in Paris before travelling to England, his associates have claimed.

Alexander Perepilichnyy, a wealthy businessman who sought refuge in Britain after supplying evidence against an alleged crime syndicate in Russia, collapsed while jogging outside his Weybridge home almost five months ago. Toxicology tests on the 44-year-old's body have failed to reveal a cause of death, although murder squad detectives are investigating whether he was poisoned.

It has now emerged that British police have been working with their French counterparts after establishing that on the day he died, 10 November 2012, Perepilichnyy travelled by Eurostar to London after spending three days in Paris. During his stay, the Russian booked and paid for a room at the Four Seasons Hotel George V, off the Champs-Elysées, where suites can cost more than £4,500 a night, but he did not stay there. Instead, Perepilichnyy chose to stay at a more modest three-star, £145-a-night hotel across the city.

Associates of Perepilichnyy believe it is "highly possible" he met his alleged poisoners in Paris before catching a morning train back to London and from there to Weybridge, where he rented a mansion in the gated St George's Hill estate. Just after 5pm, the apparently healthy Russian was found dead in the street.

In 2006 Russian exile Alexander Litvinenko was fatally poisoned after meeting two KGB officers who are accused of serving him a cup of tea laced with radioactive polonium at the four-star Millennium hotel in London's Grosvenor Square.

A spokesperson for Surrey police said that no officers or forensics experts had travelled to Paris, but that they were receiving "advice and support from other agencies".

Perepilichnyy's life was considered at risk after he supplied documents to Swiss prosecutors implicating corrupt Russian state officials. His evidence tracked the proceeds of a £144m tax fraud against London-based Hermitage Capital that was uncovered by lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who, after notifying the Russian authorities of the crime, was arrested, tortured and died in police custody.

The latest developments follow the death of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, whose body was found last Saturday on the bathroom floor of his Surrey mansion with a ligature around his neck. Police say there are no signs that any other person was involved in the death of the 67-year-old, but refused to rule anything out.

A growing number of people, including Berezovsky's girlfriend, 23-year-old Annika Ancverina, are expressing doubts that the Kremlin critic took his own life. The results of toxicology and histology tests are not expected for several weeks. Surrey police sources expect the results of fresh tests on Perepilichnyy to be complete within the same time frame, although the failure to find a substance that might explain his death is said to have exasperated officers.

The absence of an explanation has raised fresh questions over the delayed reaction of Surrey police to Perepilichnyy's death, in particular the fact that toxicology tests were not commissioned until three weeks later. "The toxicology reports, as I understand, are not showing anything positive. There is a possibility that they may come up with sudden death syndrome, which is very rare, but that would derive from a process of deduction," said one source with knowledge of the investigation.

Dominic Raab, the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton, said: "The time lapse in commissioning the toxicology reports may mean we never definitively establish the cause of death. But there is a groundswell of suspicion deriving from Perepilichnyy's good health, coupled with concerns he may have been at risk for giving evidence against Russian suspects in a Swiss money-laundering case."

Dr Graham Mould, a consultant pharmaceutical toxicologist, said the delay could have made deciphering the cause of death more problematic. "After death, drugs sort of redistribute throughout the body. Stuff in the gut might then leach into the blood and so on. For example, you get fermentation of the blood that might generate alcohol when a person hadn't taken alcohol. It would be very difficult to find out whether he did die of a particular poison."

Former KGB agents have described how Russian spies are adept at using sodium fluoride, an odourless substance that can be lethal in certain doses and, as Mould points out, is complicated by the fact that fluoride is found in drinking water. Russian agents have also been known to administer poisons that can induce heart attacks but do not show up in postmortem examinations.

Toxicologist Dr Paul Illing said: "It falls in the same category as looking for doped athletes – it's much easier if you know what you are looking for. If you are having to do a general screen, then there is always a problem of detection because you are trying to identify anything that is unusual; you can't be as sensitive as possible to one specific substance."

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« Reply #5443 on: Mar 31, 2013, 07:38 AM »

Pope Francis uses Easter address to denounce 'greed looking for easy gain'

Pope appears to put uncaring capitalism on a par with the armed conflicts traditionally deplored in the annual Urbi et Orbi address

John Hooper in Rome
The Guardian, Sunday 31 March 2013 13.56 BST   

Pope Francis gave an unexpected twist to the annual pontifical appeal for peace on Sunday when he used it to denounce "greed looking for easy gain".

In his Urbi et Orbi address, which translates as "to the city [of Rome] and to the world", the pope - who has sought to make himself the tribune of the poor, disabled and disadvantaged - appeared to put uncaring capitalism in the same category as the armed conflicts his predecessors have traditionally, and forlornly, deplored on Easter Sunday.

Since being elected pope on 13 March, Francis has repeatedly stressed concern for the poor and others on the margins of society, and he returned to what is clearly emerging as the central theme of his papacy on Sunday. He said he wanted his Easter message of hope and resurrection "to go out to every house and every family, especially where the suffering is greatest, in hospitals [and] in prisons."

Last week, the pope visited a youth detention centre in Rome where he washed the feet of 12 inmates as part of the traditional rite representing Jesus's final act of humility to his disciples.

Francis's denunciation of greed came after he had made a tour of the crowd in St Peter's Square in which he kissed several babies and children, held a severely disabled young man in his arms and accepted the gift of a football shirt of his favourite team, Argentina's Saints of San Lorenzo. His longest stop was reserved for a disabled child who was lifted up into the popemobile and whom he hugged and kissed repeatedly.

According to the Vatican's estimate, some 250,000 people crammed into the square and the broad avenue that stretches away from the Vatican to the river Tiber for the pope's first Easter Sunday mass. By the time Francis, wearing cream-coloured vestments, climbed aboard the open and unprotected Mercedes pontiff-carrier, the square in front of Michelangelo's basilica was a sea of colour.

In addition to the spring flowers on either side of the shallow steps down which the popemobile bumped into the square, there were the flags of countries from Albania to Zambia. The light blue, white and gold of Argentina's flag was well represented and the pope's face lit up in recognition every time he identified a group of his compatriots in the jubilant crowd of tourists, pilgrims and Romans.

In the final event in the gruelling timetable that Easter sets for the leaders of the Roman Catholic church, the 76-year-old Francis's voice occasionally sounded weak. He was, however, visibly energised by his tour of the square and his delivery of the Urbi et Orbi address was forceful and at times impassioned.

He appealed for peace in the Middle East, saying that the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians had "lasted all too long" and called for an end to violence in Iraq and "dear Syria", the birthplace of Gregory III, the last pope from a non-European country. Francis also urged peace in Africa, specifically citing Mali, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Nigeria. He also made a special call for an end to the standoff on the Korean peninsula.

He ended his address by calling, with growing intensity, for "peace in the whole world, still divided by greed looking for easy gain, wounded by the selfishness which threatens human life and the family, selfishness that continues in human trafficking, the most extensive form of slavery in this 21st century. Peace to the whole world, torn apart by violence linked to drug trafficking and by the iniquitous exploitation of natural resources".

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« Reply #5444 on: Mar 31, 2013, 08:07 AM »

In the USA...

March 30, 2013

State-Wrecked: The Corruption of Capitalism in America



The Dow Jones and Standard & Poor’s 500 indexes reached record highs on Thursday, having completely erased the losses since the stock market’s last peak, in 2007. But instead of cheering, we should be very afraid.

Over the last 13 years, the stock market has twice crashed and touched off a recession: American households lost $5 trillion in the 2000 dot-com bust and more than $7 trillion in the 2007 housing crash. Sooner or later — within a few years, I predict — this latest Wall Street bubble, inflated by an egregious flood of phony money from the Federal Reserve rather than real economic gains, will explode, too.

Since the S.&P. 500 first reached its current level, in March 2000, the mad money printers at the Federal Reserve have expanded their balance sheet sixfold (to $3.2 trillion from $500 billion). Yet during that stretch, economic output has grown by an average of 1.7 percent a year (the slowest since the Civil War); real business investment has crawled forward at only 0.8 percent per year; and the payroll job count has crept up at a negligible 0.1 percent annually. Real median family income growth has dropped 8 percent, and the number of full-time middle class jobs, 6 percent. The real net worth of the “bottom” 90 percent has dropped by one-fourth. The number of food stamp and disability aid recipients has more than doubled, to 59 million, about one in five Americans.

So the Main Street economy is failing while Washington is piling a soaring debt burden on our descendants, unable to rein in either the warfare state or the welfare state or raise the taxes needed to pay the nation’s bills. By default, the Fed has resorted to a radical, uncharted spree of money printing. But the flood of liquidity, instead of spurring banks to lend and corporations to spend, has stayed trapped in the canyons of Wall Street, where it is inflating yet another unsustainable bubble.

When it bursts, there will be no new round of bailouts like the ones the banks got in 2008. Instead, America will descend into an era of zero-sum austerity and virulent political conflict, extinguishing even today’s feeble remnants of economic growth.

THIS dyspeptic prospect results from the fact that we are now state-wrecked. With only brief interruptions, we’ve had eight decades of increasingly frenetic fiscal and monetary policy activism intended to counter the cyclical bumps and grinds of the free market and its purported tendency to underproduce jobs and economic output. The toll has been heavy.

As the federal government and its central-bank sidekick, the Fed, have groped for one goal after another — smoothing out the business cycle, minimizing inflation and unemployment at the same time, rolling out a giant social insurance blanket, promoting homeownership, subsidizing medical care, propping up old industries (agriculture, automobiles) and fostering new ones (“clean” energy, biotechnology) and, above all, bailing out Wall Street — they have now succumbed to overload, overreach and outside capture by powerful interests. The modern Keynesian state is broke, paralyzed and mired in empty ritual incantations about stimulating “demand,” even as it fosters a mutant crony capitalism that periodically lavishes the top 1 percent with speculative windfalls.

The culprits are bipartisan, though you’d never guess that from the blather that passes for political discourse these days. The state-wreck originated in 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt opted for fiat money (currency not fundamentally backed by gold), economic nationalism and capitalist cartels in agriculture and industry.

Under the exigencies of World War II (which did far more to end the Depression than the New Deal did), the state got hugely bloated, but remarkably, the bloat was put into brief remission during a midcentury golden era of sound money and fiscal rectitude with Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House and William McChesney Martin Jr. at the Fed.

Then came Lyndon B. Johnson’s “guns and butter” excesses, which were intensified over one perfidious weekend at Camp David, Md., in 1971, when Richard M. Nixon essentially defaulted on the nation’s debt obligations by finally ending the convertibility of gold to the dollar. That one act — arguably a sin graver than Watergate — meant the end of national financial discipline and the start of a four-decade spree during which we have lived high on the hog, running a cumulative $8 trillion current-account deficit. In effect, America underwent an internal leveraged buyout, raising our ratio of total debt (public and private) to economic output to about 3.6 from its historic level of about 1.6. Hence the $30 trillion in excess debt (more than half the total debt, $56 trillion) that hangs over the American economy today.

This explosion of borrowing was the stepchild of the floating-money contraption deposited in the Nixon White House by Milton Friedman, the supposed hero of free-market economics who in fact sowed the seed for a never-ending expansion of the money supply. The Fed, which celebrates its centenary this year, fueled a roaring inflation in goods and commodities during the 1970s that was brought under control only by the iron resolve of Paul A. Volcker, its chairman from 1979 to 1987.

Under his successor, the lapsed hero Alan Greenspan, the Fed dropped Friedman’s penurious rules for monetary expansion, keeping interest rates too low for too long and flooding Wall Street with freshly minted cash. What became known as the “Greenspan put” — the implicit assumption that the Fed would step in if asset prices dropped, as they did after the 1987 stock-market crash — was reinforced by the Fed’s unforgivable 1998 bailout of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management.

That Mr. Greenspan’s loose monetary policies didn’t set off inflation was only because domestic prices for goods and labor were crushed by the huge flow of imports from the factories of Asia. By offshoring America’s tradable-goods sector, the Fed kept the Consumer Price Index contained, but also permitted the excess liquidity to foster a roaring inflation in financial assets. Mr. Greenspan’s pandering incited the greatest equity boom in history, with the stock market rising fivefold between the 1987 crash and the 2000 dot-com bust.

Soon Americans stopped saving and consumed everything they earned and all they could borrow. The Asians, burned by their own 1997 financial crisis, were happy to oblige us. They — China and Japan above all — accumulated huge dollar reserves, transforming their central banks into a string of monetary roach motels where sovereign debt goes in but never comes out. We’ve been living on borrowed time — and spending Asians’ borrowed dimes.

This dynamic reinforced the Reaganite shibboleth that “deficits don’t matter” and the fact that nearly $5 trillion of the nation’s $12 trillion in “publicly held” debt is actually sequestered in the vaults of central banks. The destruction of fiscal rectitude under Ronald Reagan — one reason I resigned as his budget chief in 1985 — was the greatest of his many dramatic acts. It created a template for the Republicans’ utter abandonment of the balanced-budget policies of Calvin Coolidge and allowed George W. Bush to dive into the deep end, bankrupting the nation through two misbegotten and unfinanced wars, a giant expansion of Medicare and a tax-cutting spree for the wealthy that turned K Street lobbyists into the de facto office of national tax policy. In effect, the G.O.P. embraced Keynesianism — for the wealthy.

The explosion of the housing market, abetted by phony credit ratings, securitization shenanigans and willful malpractice by mortgage lenders, originators and brokers, has been well documented. Less known is the balance-sheet explosion among the top 10 Wall Street banks during the eight years ending in 2008. Though their tiny sliver of equity capital hardly grew, their dependence on unstable “hot money” soared as the regulatory harness the Glass-Steagall Act had wisely imposed during the Depression was totally dismantled.

Within weeks of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in September 2008, Washington, with Wall Street’s gun to its head, propped up the remnants of this financial mess in a panic-stricken melee of bailouts and money-printing that is the single most shameful chapter in American financial history.

There was never a remote threat of a Great Depression 2.0 or of a financial nuclear winter, contrary to the dire warnings of Ben S. Bernanke, the Fed chairman since 2006. The Great Fear — manifested by the stock market plunge when the House voted down the TARP bailout before caving and passing it — was purely another Wall Street concoction. Had President Bush and his Goldman Sachs adviser (a k a Treasury Secretary) Henry M. Paulson Jr. stood firm, the crisis would have burned out on its own and meted out to speculators the losses they so richly deserved. The Main Street banking system was never in serious jeopardy, ATMs were not going dark and the money market industry was not imploding.

Instead, the White House, Congress and the Fed, under Mr. Bush and then President Obama, made a series of desperate, reckless maneuvers that were not only unnecessary but ruinous. The auto bailouts, for example, simply shifted jobs around — particularly to the aging, electorally vital Rust Belt — rather than saving them. The “green energy” component of Mr. Obama’s stimulus was mainly a nearly $1 billion giveaway to crony capitalists, like the venture capitalist John Doerr and the self-proclaimed outer-space visionary Elon Musk, to make new toys for the affluent.

Less than 5 percent of the $800 billion Obama stimulus went to the truly needy for food stamps, earned-income tax credits and other forms of poverty relief. The preponderant share ended up in money dumps to state and local governments, pork-barrel infrastructure projects, business tax loopholes and indiscriminate middle-class tax cuts. The Democratic Keynesians, as intellectually bankrupt as their Republican counterparts (though less hypocritical), had no solution beyond handing out borrowed money to consumers, hoping they would buy a lawn mower, a flat-screen TV or, at least, dinner at Red Lobster.

But even Mr. Obama’s hopelessly glib policies could not match the audacity of the Fed, which dropped interest rates to zero and then digitally printed new money at the astounding rate of $600 million per hour. Fast-money speculators have been “purchasing” giant piles of Treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities, almost entirely by using short-term overnight money borrowed at essentially zero cost, thanks to the Fed. Uncle Ben has lined their pockets.

If and when the Fed — which now promises to get unemployment below 6.5 percent as long as inflation doesn’t exceed 2.5 percent — even hints at shrinking its balance sheet, it will elicit a tidal wave of sell orders, because even a modest drop in bond prices would destroy the arbitrageurs’ profits. Notwithstanding Mr. Bernanke’s assurances about eventually, gradually making a smooth exit, the Fed is domiciled in a monetary prison of its own making.

While the Fed fiddles, Congress burns. Self-titled fiscal hawks like Paul D. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, are terrified of telling the truth: that the 10-year deficit is actually $15 trillion to $20 trillion, far larger than the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of $7 trillion. Its latest forecast, which imagines 16.4 million new jobs in the next decade, compared with only 2.5 million in the last 10 years, is only one of the more extreme examples of Washington’s delusions.

Even a supposedly “bold” measure — linking the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security payments to a different kind of inflation index — would save just $200 billion over a decade, amounting to hardly 1 percent of the problem. Mr. Ryan’s latest budget shamelessly gives Social Security and Medicare a 10-year pass, notwithstanding that a fair portion of their nearly $19 trillion cost over that decade would go to the affluent elderly. At the same time, his proposal for draconian 30 percent cuts over a decade on the $7 trillion safety net — Medicaid, food stamps and the earned-income tax credit — is another front in the G.O.P.’s war against the 99 percent.

Without any changes, over the next decade or so, the gross federal debt, now nearly $17 trillion, will hurtle toward $30 trillion and soar to 150 percent of gross domestic product from around 105 percent today. Since our constitutional stasis rules out any prospect of a “grand bargain,” the nation’s fiscal collapse will play out incrementally, like a Greek/Cypriot tragedy, in carefully choreographed crises over debt ceilings, continuing resolutions and temporary budgetary patches.

The future is bleak. The greatest construction boom in recorded history — China’s money dump on infrastructure over the last 15 years — is slowing. Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey, South Africa and all the other growing middle-income nations cannot make up for the shortfall in demand. The American machinery of monetary and fiscal stimulus has reached its limits. Japan is sinking into old-age bankruptcy and Europe into welfare-state senescence. The new rulers enthroned in Beijing last year know that after two decades of wild lending, speculation and building, even they will face a day of reckoning, too.

THE state-wreck ahead is a far cry from the “Great Moderation” proclaimed in 2004 by Mr. Bernanke, who predicted that prosperity would be everlasting because the Fed had tamed the business cycle and, as late as March 2007, testified that the impact of the subprime meltdown “seems likely to be contained.” Instead of moderation, what’s at hand is a Great Deformation, arising from a rogue central bank that has abetted the Wall Street casino, crucified savers on a cross of zero interest rates and fueled a global commodity bubble that erodes Main Street living standards through rising food and energy prices — a form of inflation that the Fed fecklessly disregards in calculating inflation.

These policies have brought America to an end-stage metastasis. The way out would be so radical it can’t happen. It would necessitate a sweeping divorce of the state and the market economy. It would require a renunciation of crony capitalism and its first cousin: Keynesian economics in all its forms. The state would need to get out of the business of imperial hubris, economic uplift and social insurance and shift its focus to managing and financing an effective, affordable, means-tested safety net.

All this would require drastic deflation of the realm of politics and the abolition of incumbency itself, because the machinery of the state and the machinery of re-election have become conterminous. Prying them apart would entail sweeping constitutional surgery: amendments to give the president and members of Congress a single six-year term, with no re-election; providing 100 percent public financing for candidates; strictly limiting the duration of campaigns (say, to eight weeks); and prohibiting, for life, lobbying by anyone who has been on a legislative or executive payroll. It would also require overturning Citizens United and mandating that Congress pass a balanced budget, or face an automatic sequester of spending.

It would also require purging the corrosive financialization that has turned the economy into a giant casino since the 1970s. This would mean putting the great Wall Street banks out in the cold to compete as at-risk free enterprises, without access to cheap Fed loans or deposit insurance. Banks would be able to take deposits and make commercial loans, but be banned from trading, underwriting and money management in all its forms.

It would require, finally, benching the Fed’s central planners, and restoring the central bank’s original mission: to provide liquidity in times of crisis but never to buy government debt or try to micromanage the economy. Getting the Fed out of the financial markets is the only way to put free markets and genuine wealth creation back into capitalism.

That, of course, will never happen because there are trillions of dollars of assets, from Shanghai skyscrapers to Fortune 1000 stocks to the latest housing market “recovery,” artificially propped up by the Fed’s interest-rate repression. The United States is broke — fiscally, morally, intellectually — and the Fed has incited a global currency war (Japan just signed up, the Brazilians and Chinese are angry, and the German-dominated euro zone is crumbling) that will soon overwhelm it. When the latest bubble pops, there will be nothing to stop the collapse. If this sounds like advice to get out of the markets and hide out in cash, it is.

David A. Stockman is a former Republican congressman from Michigan, President Ronald Reagan’s budget director from 1981 to 1985 and the author, most recently, of “The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America.”


EPA announces new rules for auto emissions, sulfur in gasoline

By Agence France-Presse
Friday, March 29, 2013 18:52 EDT

US regulators announced on Friday stricter rules on vehicle emissions and a requirement for low-sulfur gasoline as part of President Barack Obama’s efforts to reduce pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal would require a 60 percent reduction in sulfur in gasoline as well as stricter tailpipe emissions standards for cars and light trucks.

“Today’s proposal will enable the greatest pollution reductions at the lowest cost,” the EPA said in a statement.

The proposed standards will reduce gasoline sulfur levels by more than 60 percent — down to 10 parts per million (ppm) in 2017, the EPA said.

The Obama administration has said the proposal would result in a one cent per gallon cost increase at the gas pump and would cost about $130 per car in 2025.

But critics say the price to fuel vehicles will be higher, with industry estimates ranging from six to nine cents more per gallon.

“With $4 dollar a gallon gas the norm in many parts of the country, we cannot afford policies that knowingly raise gas prices,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan.

High sulfur content in gasoline creates more pollutants and adds to smog and soot in the air.

Supporters of the new rules hailed the move as a crucial step in Obama’s second term as president, and the equivalent of taking more than 33 million cars off US roads.

“We know of no other air pollution control strategy that can achieve such substantial, cost-effective and immediate emission reductions,” said S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.

Lawmakers who opposed the release of the proposal, known as Tier 3, said it would raise costs for consumers in an already struggling US economy.

“The EPA continues to disregard the facts and potential economic costs of Tier 3, when consumers and our economy can’t afford gas prices going up even further,” said Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter.

“This move signals a frightening flood of new rules.”

The proposal now faces a period of public comment before it can be finalized.


March 30, 2013

An American Quilt of Privacy Laws, Incomplete


WE don’t need a new platform. We just need to rebrand.

That was the message of a report from the Republican Party a few weeks ago on how to win future presidential elections.

It’s also the strategy that Peter Fleischer, the global privacy counsel at Google, recently proposed for the United States to win converts abroad to its legal model of data privacy protection. In a post on his personal blog, titled “We Need a Better, Simpler Narrative of U.S. Privacy Laws,” he describes the divergent legal frameworks in the United States and Europe.

The American system involves a patchwork of federal and state privacy laws that separately govern the use of personal details in spheres like patient billing, motor vehicle records, education and video rental records. The European Union, on the other hand, has one blanket data protection directive that lays out principles for how information about its citizens may be collected and used, no matter the industry.

Mr. Fleischer — whose blog notes that it reflects his personal views, not his employer’s — is a proponent of the patchwork system because, he writes, it offers multilayered protection for Americans. The problem with it, he argues, is that it doesn’t lend itself to simple storytelling.

“Europe’s privacy narrative is simple and appealing,” Mr. Fleischer wrote in mid-March. If the United States wants to foster trust in American companies operating abroad, he added, it “has to figure out how to explain its privacy laws on a global stage."

Other technology experts, however, view the patchwork quilt of American privacy laws as more of a macramé arrangement — with serious gaps in consumer protection, particularly when it comes to data collection online. Congress should enact a baseline consumer privacy law, says Leslie Harris, the president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a public policy group that promotes Internet freedom.

"I don’t think this fight is about branding," Ms. Harris says. “We’ve been trying to get a comprehensive privacy law for over a decade, a law that would work for today and for technologies that we have not yet envisioned."

Many Americans are aware that stores, Web sites, apps, ad networks, loyalty card programs and so on collect and analyze details about their purchases, activities and interests — online and off. Last year, both the United States and the European Union proposed to give their citizens greater control over such commercial data-mining.

If the American side now appears to be losing the public relations battle, as Mr. Fleischer suggested, it may be because Europe has forged ahead with its project to modernize data protection. When officials of the United States and the European Union start work on a free trade agreement in the coming months, the trans-Atlantic privacy regulation divide is likely to be one of the sticking points, analysts say.

“We really are an outlier,” says Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for privacy-related issues at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.

For the moment, officials on either side of the Atlantic seem to be operating at different speeds.

In January 2012, the European Commission proposed a new regulation that could give citizens in the E.U.’s 27 member states some legal powers that Americans now lack. These include the right to transfer text, photo and video files in usable formats from one online service provider to another. American consumers do not have such a national right to data portability, and have to depend on the largesse of companies like Google, which permits them to download their own YouTube videos or Picasa photo albums.

A month after Europe proposed to update its data protections, the Obama administration called on Congress to enact a “consumer privacy bill of rights” that would apply to industries not already covered by sectoral privacy laws. These could include data brokers, companies that collect details on an individual’s likes, leisure pursuits, shopping habits, financial status, health interests and more.

The White House’s blueprint for legislation, for example, would give Americans the right to some control over how their personal data is used, as well as the right to see and correct records that companies hold about them. The White House initiative broadened the historical American view of privacy as “the right to be let alone” — a definition put forward by Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren in 1890 — to a more modern concept of privacy as the right to commercial data control.

"We can’t wait," a post on the White House blog effused at the time.

A year later, the data protection regulation proposed by the European Commission has been vetted by a number of regulators and committees of the European Parliament. The document now has several thousand amendments, some developed in response to American trade groups that had complained that certain provisions could hinder innovation and impede digital free trade. Peter Hustinx, the European data protection supervisor, said last Wednesday that European officials hoped to enact the law by next spring.

In the United States, by contrast, a year after the Obama administration introduced the notion of a consumer privacy bill of rights, a draft has yet to be completed, let alone made public.

Cameron F. Kerry, the general counsel of the Commerce Department and the official overseeing the privacy effort, was not available to comment last week. In a phone interview in January, however, Mr. Kerry said that the agency was working on legislative language to carry out the White House’s plan.

“The idea is to have baseline privacy protections for those areas not covered today by sectoral regimes,” Mr. Kerry said. He added: “We think it is important to do it in a way that allows for flexibility, that allows for innovation, and is not overly prescriptive.”

Chris Gaither, a Google spokesman, said his company was “engaging on important issues” like security breach notification and declined to comment on consumer privacy legislation. But at least some American technology companies suggest that a baseline privacy law could benefit both consumers and companies. In a statement last year, Microsoft said national privacy legislation could help ensure “that all businesses are using, storing and sharing data in responsible ways.”

With stronger European data rights and trade negotiations pending, Ms. Harris, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, says Congress may feel pressure to pass privacy legislation. That would represent a big change for American consumers as well as a better privacy sound bite abroad.

“We either have to enact our own law or we are going to have to comply with other countries’ laws,” Ms. Harris says. “But doing nothing may no longer be the answer.”



March 30, 2013

Letting Down Our Guard With Web Privacy


SAY you’ve come across a discount online retailer promising a steal on hand-stitched espadrilles for spring. You start setting up an account by offering your e-mail address — but before you can finish, there’s a ping on your phone. A text message. You read it and respond, then return to the Web site, enter your birth date, click “F” for female, agree to the company’s terms of service and carry on browsing.

But wait: What did you just agree to? Did you mean to reveal information as vital as your date of birth and e-mail address?

Most of us face such decisions daily. We are hurried and distracted and don’t pay close attention to what we are doing. Often, we turn over our data in exchange for a deal we can’t refuse.

Alessandro Acquisti, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, studies how we make these choices. In a series of provocative experiments, he has shown that despite how much we say we value our privacy — and we do, again and again — we tend to act inconsistently.

Mr. Acquisti is something of a pioneer in this emerging field of research. His experiments can take time. The last one, revealing how Facebook users had tightened their privacy settings, took seven years. They can also be imaginative: he has been known to dispatch graduate students to a suburban mall in the name of science. And they are often unsettling: A 2011 study showed that it was possible to deduce portions of a person’s Social Security number from nothing but a photograph posted online. He is now studying how online social networks can enable employers to illegally discriminate in hiring.

Mr. Acquisti, 40, sees himself not as a nag, but as an observer holding up a mirror to the flaws we cannot always see ourselves. “Should people be worried? I don’t know,” he said with a shrug in his office at Carnegie Mellon. “My role is not telling people what to do. My role is showing why we do certain things and what may be certain consequences. Everyone will have to decide for themselves.”

Those who follow his work say it has important policy implications as regulators in Washington, Brussels and elsewhere scrutinize the ways that companies leverage the personal data they collect from users. The Federal Trade Commission last year settled with Facebook, resolving charges that it had deceived users with changes to its privacy settings. State regulators recently fined Google for harvesting e-mails and passwords of unsuspecting users during its Street View mapping project. Last year, the White House proposed a privacy bill of rights to give consumers greater control over how their personal data is used.

Mr. Acquisti has been at the forefront, testifying in Congress and conferring with the F.T.C. David C. Vladeck, who until recently headed the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said Mr. Acquisti’s research on facial recognition spurred the commission to issue a report on the subject last year. “No question it’s been influential,” Mr. Vladeck said of Mr. Acquisti’s work.

Companies, too, are interested; Microsoft Research and Google have offered Mr. Acquisti research fellowships. Over all, his research argues that when it comes to privacy, policy makers should carefully consider how people actually behave. We don’t always act in our own best interest, his research suggests. We can be easily manipulated by how we are asked for information. Even something as simple as a playfully designed site can nudge us to reveal more of ourselves than a serious-looking one.

“His work has gone a long way in trying to help us figure out how irrational we are in privacy related decisions,” says Woodrow Hartzog, an assistant professor of law who studies digital privacy at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. “We have too much confidence in our ability to make decisions.”

This is perhaps Mr. Acquisti’s most salient contribution to the discussion. Solutions to our leaky privacy system tend to focus on transparency and control — that our best hope is knowing what our data is being used for and choosing whether to participate. But a challenge to that conventional wisdom emerges in his research. Giving users control may be an essential step, but it may also be a bit of an illusion.

IF iron ore was the raw material that enriched the steel baron Andrew Carnegie in the Industrial Age, personal data is what fuels the barons of the Internet age. Mr. Acquisti investigates the trade-offs that users make when they give up that data, and who gains and loses in those transactions. Often there are immediate rewards (cheap sandals) and sometimes intangible risks downstream (identity theft). “Privacy is delayed gratification,” he warned.

Mr. Acquisti, lean and loquacious, grew up in Italy. His father, Giancarlo, was a banker by profession and a pianist on the side. Mr. Acquisti inherited his father’s passion for music; last year he helped him write an opera about Margherita Luti, the woman believed to be the painter Raphael’s lover and muse. Mr. Acquisti’s other passion is motorcycle racing — he rides a red Ducati — though the pursuit of tenure, which he acquired last year, has lately kept him off the racing circuit.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in Rome and master’s degrees in the subject from Trinity College in Dublin and the London School of Economics, and he became interested in the economics of privacy while studying for a doctorate in the interdisciplinary School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.

He describes himself as an early adopter of technology. He dabbled in programming in his youth and was an early and avid user of Friendster and Second Life. He had planned to study the economics of artificial intelligence.

But as the Web matured and became more commercialized, he grew increasingly concerned about Web services that demanded real names. He questioned why companies should track the online behavior of users in order to tailor their ads.

These concerns led him to his one and only foray into a business enterprise. In 2002, with a pair of fellow graduate students at Berkeley, he made a cryptographic tool that would allow people to make purchases anonymously from e-commerce sites. He quickly realized, however, that even though consumers claimed to want privacy, they didn’t want to pay for it. The start-up failed. His interest in privacy economics deepened.

To think about privacy more clearly, he argues, technologists need to understand human behavior better. With that end in mind, he will teach next fall in a new, interdisciplinary one-year master’s program at Carnegie Mellon called privacy engineering.

“The technologist in me loves the amazing things the Internet is allowing us to do,” he said. “The individual who cares about freedom is concerned about the technology being hijacked, from a technology of freedom into a technology of surveillance.”

EARLY in his sojourn in this country, Mr. Acquisti asked himself a question that would become the guiding force of his career: Do Americans value their privacy?

At Carnegie Mellon, where he landed in 2003, he investigated the question with Facebook users. He started tracking a cohort of more than 5,000 people, most of them undergraduates at the time. He noticed that although people revealed more and more of their personal history — responding to Facebook’s prompts about whether, say, they had just had a baby or had voted — they were also restricting who could see it. Over time, they were, on the whole, less likely to let “everyone” see their date of birth, for instance, and what high school they had attended.

Experiments like this have their limits and are open to different interpretations. This study, for instance, focused largely on college undergraduates who may have become cautious about who could see information about them as they approached graduation and prepared to enter the job market. But the Facebook study suggested at least that some people valued their privacy enough to seek out the social network’s evolving settings and to block strangers from seeing what they had posted.

Aiming to learn how consumers determine the value of their privacy, Mr. Acquisti dispatched a set of graduate students to a suburban mall on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. To some shoppers, the students offered a $10 discount card, plus an extra $2 discount in exchange for their shopping data. Half declined the extra offer — apparently, they weren’t willing to reveal the contents of their shopping cart for a mere $2.

To other shoppers, however, the students offered a different choice: a $12 discount card and the option of trading it in for $10 if they wished to keep their shopping record private. Curiously, this time, 90 percent of shoppers chose to keep the higher-value coupon — even if it meant giving away the information about what they had bought.

Why such contradictory responses?

To Mr. Acquisti, the results offered a window into the tricks our minds can play. If we have something — in this case, ownership of our purchase data — we are more likely to value it. If we don’t have it at the outset, we aren’t likely to pay extra to acquire it. Context matters.

It also matters how we define privacy. Conventional wisdom around Web privacy policies rests on the notion that consumers will make intelligent choices. At a recent industry conference in San Francisco, Erin Egan, the chief privacy officer for Facebook, defined privacy as “understanding what happens to your data and having the ability to control it.”

Mr. Acquisti, however, suggests that control can be false comfort. In one of his most intriguing experiments, he summoned student volunteers to take an anonymous survey on vice.

The participants were asked whether they had ever stolen anything, lied or taken drugs. Some were told that their answers would be published in a research bulletin, others were asked for explicit permission to publish those answers, and still others were asked for permission to publish the answers as well as their age, sex and country of birth.

The results revealed the imperfection of human reasoning. Those who were offered the least control over who would see their answers seemed most reluctant to reveal themselves: among them, only 15 percent answered all 10 questions. Those who were asked for consent were nearly twice as likely to answer all questions. And among those who were asked for demographic information, every single person gave permission to disclose the data, even though those details could have allowed a complete stranger a greater chance of identifying the participant.

Mr. Acquisti took note of the paradox: fine-grained controls had led people to “share more sensitive information with larger, and possibly riskier, audiences.” He titled the paper, which he wrote with his colleagues Laura Brandimarte and George Loewenstein, “Misplaced Confidences: Privacy and the Control Paradox.”

“What worries me,” he said, “is that transparency and control are empty words that are used to push responsibility to the user for problems that are being created by others.”

That sense of control can be undermined in other ways, too, principally by distractions: they apparently play the most powerful tricks of all.

In a study called “Sleights of Privacy,” Mr. Acquisti’s subjects — students at Carnegie Mellon — were divided into two sets of two groups. Each group was asked to evaluate professors and were given additional questions about cheating. In the first set, half were told that only other students could see their answers; the others were told that faculty members, as well as students, could see the responses. As one might expect, the group with student-only viewers was more forthcoming than the group with student and faculty viewers. The participants seemed concerned about who could see their evaluations.

With the other set of students, Mr. Acquisti offered the same questionnaire — but played a little trick. After again explaining the response rules and procedures, he asked an unrelated question: Would they like to sign up to receive information from a college network? That little distraction had an impact: This time, the two subgroups were almost equally forthcoming in their answers.

Had the distraction made them forget? No. In exit interviews, they remembered the rules, but they behaved as though they didn’t. “You remember somewhere in your brain,” is how Mr. Acquisti put it, “but you kind of pay less attention to it.”

We are constantly asked to make decisions about personal data amid a host of distractions, like an e-mail, a Twitter notification or a text message. If Mr. Acquisti is correct, those distractions may hinder our sense of self-protection when it comes to privacy.

Mr. Acquisti acknowledges being as easily distracted as the rest of us. He loses focus, darts from one task to the other and finds himself working all the time. His latest weapon against distraction is an iPad application, which lets him create a to-do list every morning and set timers for each task: 30 minutes for e-mail, 60 minutes to grade student papers, and so on.

Given his work, it is not surprising that he is cautious in revealing himself online. He says he doesn’t feel compelled to post a picture of his meals on Instagram. He uses different browsers for different activities. He sometimes uses tools that show which ad networks are tracking him. But he knows he cannot hide entirely, which is why some people, he says, follow a policy of “rational ignorance.” He has a professional page on the Carnegie Mellon Web site — if he didn’t, how would he attract students or signal his academic legitimacy? — that describes his research and includes a photograph. And it contains an intriguing bit of information: his interest in Nutella.

OUR browsing habits, search terms, e-mail communication — even our offering of our ZIP codes at the supermarket checkout — reveal bits of information that can be assembled by data companies, usually for the purpose of knowing what sorts of products we’re most likely to buy. The online advertising industry insists that the data is scrambled to make it impossible to identify individuals.

Mr. Acquisti offers a sobering counterpoint. In 2011, he took snapshots with a webcam of nearly 100 students on campus. Within minutes, he had identified about one-third of them using facial recognition software. In addition, for about a fourth of the subjects whom he could identify, he found out enough about them on Facebook to guess at least a portion of their Social Security numbers.

The point of the experiment was to show how easy it is to identify people from the rich trail of data they scatter around the Web, including seemingly harmless pictures. Facebook can be especially valuable for identity thieves, particularly when a user’s birth date is visible to the public.

Does that mean Facebook users should lie about their birthdays (and break Facebook’s terms of service)? Mr. Acquisti demurred. He would say only that there are “complex trade-offs” to be made.

“I reveal my date of birth and hometown on my Facebook profile and an identity thief can reconstruct my Social Security number and steal my identity,” he said, “or someone can send me ‘happy birthday’ messages on the day of my birthday, which makes me feel very good.”

Facebook, for its part, has said that users can control who sees their information on the network.

Mr. Acquisti is on Facebook. He is photographed wearing a motorcycle helmet, which makes him a bit harder to identify.


March 30, 2013

Labor and Business Reach Deal on Immigration Issue


WASHINGTON — The nation’s top business and labor groups have reached an agreement on a guest worker program for low-skilled immigrants, a person with knowledge of the negotiations said on Saturday. The deal clears the path for broad immigration legislation to be introduced when Congress returns from its two-week recess in mid-April.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, convened a conference call on Friday night with Thomas J. Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Richard L. Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the nation’s main federation of labor unions, in which they agreed in principle on a guest worker program for low-skilled, year-round temporary workers. Mr. Schumer is one of eight senators from both parties who have been negotiating an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.

Pay for guest workers was the last major sticking point on a broad immigration package, and one that had stalled the eight senators just before the break. The eight senators still need to sign off on the agreement between the business and labor groups, the person with knowledge of the talks said.

“This issue has always been the deal breaker on immigration reform, but not this time,” Mr. Schumer said.

The accord between the influential business and labor groups all but assured that the bipartisan group of senators would introduce their broad immigration legislation in the next few weeks. Their bill, which they have been meeting about several times a week since the November election, would provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. It would also take steps to secure the nation’s borders.

A similar bipartisan group in the House has been meeting on and off for nearly four years, and hopes to unveil its own immigration legislation shortly.

The agreement resolved what the pay level should be for low-skilled immigrants — often employed at hotels and restaurants or on construction projects — who could be brought in during labor shortages.

Labor groups wanted to ensure that guest workers would not be paid less than the median wage in their respective industries, and the two sides compromised by agreeing that guest workers would be paid the higher of the prevailing industry wage as determined by the Labor Department or the actual employer wage.

Under the deal, guest workers would be allowed to pursue a path to citizenship and to change jobs after they arrived in the United States.

Another sticking point, involving the specific type of jobs that would be included in the guest worker program, was also resolved. Though low-skilled construction workers will be included in the visa program, construction unions persuaded the negotiators to exclude certain types of more skilled jobs — like crane operators and electricians — from the program, officials involved in the talks said.

According to officials with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the program would start at 20,000 visas, rising to 35,000 visas in the second year, 55,000 in the third and 75,000 in the fourth. In the fifth year, the program would expand or shrink based on the unemployment rate, the ratio of job openings to unemployed workers and various other factors. The agreement calls for a maximum of 200,000 guest visas granted each year.

One third of all visas available in any given year would go to businesses with fewer than 25 employees. No more than 15,000 visas per year would go to construction occupations.

Business groups, which had long been pushing to allow in 400,000 such guest workers each year, will get what they regard as an adequate number to meet the needs of employers.

Mr. Schumer also spoke on Saturday with Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, to update him on the agreement. President Obama is eager for an overhaul of the immigration system and has threatened to step in with his own plan if Congress does not move quickly with legislation of its own.

“The president continues to be encouraged by progress being made by the bipartisan group of senators,” said Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman. “We look forward to seeing language once it is introduced, and expect legislation to move forward as soon as possible.”

But Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and a member of the bipartisan group, sent a letter Saturday to Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging against “excessive haste” in considering the soon-to-be-introduced legislation. The support of voters will be crucial for passing any immigration law, Mr. Rubio said in the letter, and “that support can only be earned through full and careful consideration of legislative language and an open process of amendments.”

Shortly before the conference call on Friday night between Mr. Schumer, Mr. Donohue and Mr. Trumka ended, one of the men suggested that the three of them get together soon for dinner; it had been, they all agreed, a long few weeks.


March 30, 2013

As OSHA Emphasizes Safety, Long-Term Health Risks Fester


TAYLORSVILLE, N.C. — Sheri Farley walks with a limp. The only job she could hold would be one where she does not have to stand or sit longer than 20 minutes, otherwise pain screams down her spine and up her legs.

“Damaged goods,” Ms. Farley describes herself, recalling how she recently overheard a child whispering to her mother about whether the “crippled lady” was a meth addict.

For about five years, Ms. Farley, 45, stood alongside about a dozen other workers, spray gun in hand, gluing together foam cushions for chairs and couches sold under brand names like Broyhill, Ralph Lauren and Thomasville. Fumes from the glue formed a yellowish fog inside the plant, and Ms. Farley’s doctors say that breathing them in eventually ate away at her nerve endings, resulting in what she and her co-workers call “dead foot.”

A chemical she handled — known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB — is also used by tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation. Medical researchers, government officials and even chemical companies that once manufactured nPB have warned for over a decade that it causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods, but its use has grown 15-fold in the past six years.

Such hazards demonstrate the difficulty, despite decades of effort, of ensuring that Americans can breathe clean air on the job. Even as worker after worker fell ill, records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that managers at Royale Comfort Seating, where Ms. Farley was employed, repeatedly exposed gluers to nPB levels that exceeded levels federal officials considered safe, failed to provide respirators and turned off fans meant to vent fumes.

But the story of the rise of nPB and the decline of Ms. Farley’s health is much more than the tale of one company, or another chapter in the national debate over the need for more, or fewer, government regulations. Instead, it is a parable about the law of unintended consequences.

It shows how an Environmental Protection Agency program meant to prevent the use of harmful chemicals fostered the proliferation of one, and how a hard-fought victory by OSHA in controlling one source of deadly fumes led workers to be exposed to something worse — a phenomenon familiar enough to be lamented in government parlance as “regrettable substitution.”

It demonstrates how businesses at once both suffer from and exploit the fitful and disjointed way that the government tries to protect workers, and why occupational illnesses have proved so hard to prevent.

And it highlights a startling fact: OSHA, the watchdog agency that many Americans love to hate and industry often faults as overzealous, has largely ignored long-term threats. Partly out of pragmatism, the agency created by President Richard M. Nixon to give greater attention to health issues has largely done the opposite.

OSHA devotes most of its budget and attention to responding to here-and-now dangers rather than preventing the silent, slow killers that, in the end, take far more lives. Over the past four decades, the agency has written new standards with exposure limits for 16 of the most deadly workplace hazards, including lead, asbestos and arsenic. But for the tens of thousands of other dangerous substances American workers handle each day, employers are largely left to decide what exposure level is safe.

By contrast, OSHA has two dozen pages of regulations just on ladders and stairs.

“I’m the first to admit this is broken,” said David Michaels, the OSHA director, referring to the agency’s record on dealing with workplace health threats. “Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people end up on the gurney.”

Royale Comfort Seating disputes that Ms. Farley’s health problems and those of some other workers were linked to their jobs. Company officials also say that while they have sought to safeguard their workers, they have also feared losing jobs to foreign competitors, as many of their industry counterparts in North Carolina have.

Royale has not switched away from the nPB glues, managers said, because alternatives did not work well, were sometimes more dangerous and were almost always more expensive.

“We, as a company, are also in a tight spot,” said William Lee Isenhour, Royale’s director of personnel and safety.

Chronic ailments caused by toxic workplace air — black lung, stonecutter’s disease, asbestosis, grinder’s rot, pneumoconiosis — incapacitate more than 200,000 workers in the United States annually. More than 40,000 Americans die prematurely each year from exposure to toxic substances at work — 10 times as many as those who die from the refinery explosions, mine collapses and other accidents that grab most of the news media attention.

Occupational illnesses and injuries like Ms. Farley’s cost the American economy roughly $250 billion per year because of medical expenses and lost productivity, according to government data analyzed by J. Paul Leigh, an economist at the University of California, Davis, more than the cost of diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Roughly 40 percent of medical expenses from workplace hazards, or about $27 billion a year, is paid by public programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

And yet the full price of this epidemic is measured not just in hospital bills and wages lost, but also in the ways, large and small, that life has changed for Ms. Farley and other sickened workers. Glue fumes robbed her of dignity and the joy of small comforts. Her favorite high heels stay in her closet because her feet no longer cooperate. She barks at her 8-year-old daughter, Allie, for hopping around their double-wide trailer because the floor’s vibrations cause intense stinging.

“I did the work,” Ms. Farley said about her years putting together furniture for America’s households. “This doesn’t seem a fair price to pay.”

Foam Country

Two industries converge in North Carolina along the nine-mile stretch of Interstate 40 between Hickory and Claremont. Foam meets furniture here. Cushions find seats.

For nearly a century, towns in these western foothills have been famous for their fine home furnishings, producing roughly half the chairs and tables sold nationwide at the industry’s peak in the 1980s. Every year, several million pounds of a flexible polyurethane foam known as slabstock arrives. It becomes the spongy filling in most of the mattresses, chairs and couches produced in the United States.

Delivered as huge yellow or pink loaves, often about four feet high and the length of a tractor-trailer, the slabstock is cut into pieces and glued into shapes by rows of workers standing in booths. They sometimes attach upholstery or add a top layer of polyester fiber to give the cushions a softer feel.

North Carolina has been especially affected by globalization and federal regulations. Shifting cultural mores and rising cigarette taxes have cleared hundreds of tobacco farms. Foreign competition has closed most of the textile mills. More than half of the furniture jobs once based here are now gone, according to federal labor data.

Still, about a thousand people spread across several dozen plants in the state work in this locally vital industry. For Ms. Farley, the job at Royale making cushions represented something rare: a chance for someone with little more than a high school diploma and an ability to stand on her feet all day to make more than $9 an hour.

Day 1 at the job brought ominous advice. Don’t dally, co-workers counseled her; managers keep track of your cushions per hour. Bring a hair dryer; it helps in warming brittle hands in winter when the plant gets frigid. Stock up on aspirin and tissues: the first to survive the headaches from the glue’s gasoline-like fumes; the second because the fumes clear the sinuses.

Asked about the conditions, Royale officials said their three plants, two here in Taylorsville and one about 15 miles away in Conover, were no worse than others in the business.

But no one denied it was dirty, bone-tiring work. During 10-hour shifts, the gluers held spray guns attached to hoses that ran to a humming compressor and 55-gallon drums filled with the glue. Once sprayed, the glue coated everything — the lights, fans, floors and electrical outlets — and hung over the workers’ cubicles like a shroud.

“It puts the fog in your head,” Ms. Farley said. By the end of a shift, the glue left some workers so dizzy that they walked as if they were drunk. At times, they did not remember driving home.

A Chemical’s Use Grows

Cushion-making companies had every reason to like nPB glues. First marketed in the late 1990s, they were inexpensive, strong, fast-drying and, best of all, unregulated.

“It’s so safe you can eat it,” glue salesmen in North Carolina told customers, according to federal researchers. Plant operators joked, “At worst, it’s a cheap high,” an official from an industry trade association recalled. Water-based glues, though safer, dried slower. And retooling a plant to use them could cost anywhere from several thousand dollars to more than $1 million, in some cases doubling a company’s gluing costs.

Finding a glue that complied with federal rules was a continuing struggle. In the early 1980s, many companies used glue with a chemical called 1,1,1-trichloroethane, or TCA. But the United States and other countries then banned it because it damages the ozone layer, and businesses switched to methylene chloride.

Nicknamed by cushion makers “methyl ethyl bad stuff,” it killed more than 30 workers a year and sickened thousands more across all industries. OSHA tightened safety limits on the chemical, so companies sought a new option. Before long, roughly a third of the cushion-making industry had switched to nPB-based glues.

For the most part, American employers are left on their own to find substitutes when federal agencies impose new rules on chemicals. But when the government forces the phasing out of one hazardous chemical, it is often replaced by another equally or more dangerous one.

From the start, government officials worried about the safety of nPB, which is also sometimes called 1-bromopropane or 1-BP.

In 1999, Adam Finkel, OSHA’s top health officer who had led the agency’s drive to phase out methylene chloride, wrote a letter warning that nPB was being used as a replacement at levels 10 to 200 times what chemical companies said was safe. Something needed to be done, he said, before the number of people exposed to the new chemical “grows from the hundreds to the tens of thousands or more.”

Some companies pulled back. Protonique SA, a Swiss circuit-board maker, banned it for its workers, who used a form of the chemical that was less toxic than that inhaled by Royale workers. “There is a weight of evidence that should sound warning bells to any thinking person,” the company said in 1999. By 2003, Atofina and Great Lakes, two large chemical companies, had decided they would no longer sell nPB.

In the six years after Mr. Finkel wrote his warning letter, federal authorities learned that more than 140 cushion workers nationwide, mostly from plants in Utah, Mississippi and North Carolina, including Royale, had been exposed to dangerous levels of the chemical, many of them sickened and unable to walk.

Cushion makers in the 30,000-employee foam industry were among the most vulnerable of all workers using nPB because they breathed it in aerosol doses. Those employed in other businesses mostly used it in other forms, which pose lower risks, according to scientists, who are finding mounting evidence that nPB is also a carcinogen.

Pinpointing the cause of a worker’s ailment is an inexact science because it is so difficult to rule out the role played by personal habits, toxins in the environment or other factors. But for nearly two decades, most chemical safety scientists have concluded that nPB can cause severe nerve damage when inhaled even at low levels.

Ms. Farley sued Royale for workers’ compensation payments. Her case, along with several other lawsuits related to glue fumes brought by other workers, has been settled.

When news of exposure problems at Royale reached officials at Mid South Adhesives, the maker of the glue that Royale used, they sent an inspector who found that Royale’s Conover plant showed levels at least 10 times what Mid South deemed safe. Mid South officials wrote to Royale to say they could “not stress enough” the need to provide better protections or to stop using their glue.

Royale officials, though, responded that even though they had added fans, had trained workers handling toxic chemicals and planned to put in a new ventilation system, problems persisted.

“We tried to use a water-base adhesive, which did not work for us,” a Royale official wrote, adding that the company saw no alternative but to stick with nPB glue.

Other companies were also reluctant to switch from nPB glues. Officials of the Franklin Corporation, a cushion plant in Houston, Miss., explained in court documents that safety was important but that nPB glues were attractive because they dried so fast that the cushions could be produced in a third of the time.

“There are people lined up out there for jobs,” said John Lyles, a vice president at Franklin, according to testimony by a plant manager in a successful lawsuit in Mississippi brought by four cushion workers who suffered severe nerve damage from the glue. “If they start dropping like flies, or something in that order, we can replace them today.”

Businesses found nPB appealing partly because the E.P.A. had given it an endorsement of sorts by adding it to a list of chemicals that do not harm the ozone layer. But an unintended effect of that action was to allow sellers of the chemical to market it as federally approved, “nonhazardous,” green and worker-friendly.

As the chemical’s popularity grew, E.P.A. officials worried about its use in spray glues, especially in cushion-making factories where the agency had determined that even with “state of the art” ventilation, “nPB-based adhesives cannot be reliably used in a manner that protects human health.”

Environmental officials figured that OSHA, pressured by the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers to be more business-friendly, would not be capable of policing the growing threat. “OSHA is tough,” E.P.A. officials said, according to notes from a November 2006 meeting on concerns about nPB. “But their budget is small, and they are not going to crack down on small businesses.”

OSHA has never set a standard establishing safety limits on workers’ exposure to nPB. The E.P.A. recommended such a limit and considered banning the nPB glues, but it has yet to finalize the plan. It determined that most cushion companies using the glue had fewer than 100 employees, which meant they were less able to absorb the cost of another regulation.

“There just wasn’t the political will,” an E.P.A. official who was part of the decision-making said on the condition of anonymity.

Improvised Remedies

A single tattered page from a 2005 workers’ compensation log summed up the emerging situation at Royale. Beneath a column headed “Injury or Illness” stretched a dozen rows, each reading “All
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