Politics trumps hunger, again
One might expect that food riots in Egypt and Haiti would convince the world's wealthy nations of the need to do more to feed the world's poorest. Or maybe the threat of 100 million more people falling into poverty due to soaring food prices would spur them to help. Yet at last week's UN food summit, the world's more-developed nations proved, once again, that domestic politics trumps both humanitarian concerns and strategic calculations.
Over the past year, the prices of grains and vegetable oils have nearly doubled. Rice has jumped by about half. The causes include soaring energy costs, drought in big agricultural producers, like Australia, and rising demand by a burgeoning middle class in China and India. But misguided mandates and subsidies in the United States and Europe to produce energy from crops are also playing an important role.
The International Monetary Fund estimated that biofuels - mainly American corn ethanol - accounted for almost half the growth in worldwide demand for major food crops last year. Yet at the summit meeting in Rome, the Bush administration insisted that ethanol is playing a very small role in rising food prices.
Brazil, which has an enormous sugar-based ethanol industry, also rejected demands to curb biofuel production. Argentina objected to calls to end export taxes that it and other countries have erected to slow food exports. The U.S. and Europe also rejected suggestions that their farm subsidies should be blamed for depressing agricultural investment in poor countries.
Today, Africa has less large-scale commercial agriculture than it had 50 years ago. Productivity has slowed to a crawl in India, Indonesia and China. Several countries have pledged more aid in response to the crisis, but not nearly enough. The Bush administration wants to increase food assistance to $5 billion over two years.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, there are 37 countries in critical need of food assistance. Many need not only food, but also seed and fertilizer to plant this season.
According to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, world food production must rise 50 percent by 2030. This will require investments exceeding $15 billion to $20 billion a year in the farm economies of poor countries, including research into robust, high-yielding crops suited to poor regions like sub-Saharan Africa.
After Sept. 11, the world's richest nations saw the link between hunger, alienation and terrorism. They offered a trade deal to eliminate the agricultural subsidies and tariffs that were pushing farmers in developing countries out of the market and further into poverty. Seven years later the tariffs and subsidies are still there.
One of the most useful things industrialized countries could do would be to deliver on their promise and end the fat subsidies they provide their farmers no matter how high prices go. These subsidies depressed food prices for years and discouraged investment in agriculture across much of the developing world.
In a world of growing demand and far too much hunger, they have no justification at all.
Gasoline prices take bigger bite in rural U.S.
TCHULA, Mississippi: Gasoline prices reached a national average of $4 a gallon for the first time over the weekend in the United States, adding more strain to motorists across the country.
But the pain is not being felt uniformly. Across broad swaths of the South, Southwest and the upper Great Plains, the cruel combination of low incomes, high gasoline prices and heavy dependence on pickup trucks and vans is putting an even tighter squeeze on family budgets.
Here in the Mississippi Delta, some farm workers are borrowing money from their bosses so they can fill up their tanks and get to work. Some are switching jobs, when they can, for shorter commutes.
People are giving up meat so they can buy fuel. Gasoline theft is rising. And drivers are running out of gas more often, leaving their cars by the side of the road until they can scrape together gasoline money.
The disparity between rural America and the rest of the country is a matter of simple home economics. Nationwide, Americans now spend about 4 percent of their take-home income on gasoline. By contrast, in some counties in the Mississippi River Delta, that figure has surpassed 13 percent.
As a result, gasoline expenses are rivaling what families spend on food and housing.
"This crisis really impacts those who are at the economic margins of society, mostly in the rural areas and particularly parts of the Southeast," said Fred Rozell, retail pricing director at the Oil Price Information Service, a fuel analysis firm. "These are people who have to decide between food and transportation."
A survey by Rozell's firm late last month found that the gasoline crisis is taking the highest toll, as a percentage of income, on people in rural areas of the South, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and North and South Dakota. With the exception of rural Maine, the Northeast appears least affected by gasoline prices, because people there make more money and drive shorter distances, or they take a bus or a train to work.
But across Mississippi and the rural South, little public transit is available, and people have no choice but to drive to work. Since jobs are scarce, commutes are frequently 20 miles, or 32 kilometers, or more. Many of the vehicles on the roads here are old, rundown trucks, some that get 10 or fewer miles to the gallon, or 23.5 liters per 100 kilometers. The survey showed that of the 13 counties where people spent 13 percent or more of their family income on gasoline, five were located in Mississippi, four were in Alabama, three were in Kentucky, and one was in West Virginia. While people here in Holmes County spent an average of 15.6 percent of their income on gasoline, people in Nassau County, New York, spent barely more than 2 percent, according to the survey.
Economists say that despite widespread concern about gasoline prices, the nationwide impact of the oil crisis has so far been gentler than during the oil crises of the 1970s and 1980s, when shortages caused long lines at the pump, set off inflation and drove the economy into recession.
Americans spending about 4 percent of their after-tax income on transportation fuels compares with 4.5 percent in early 1981, the highest point since World War II, according to Brian Bethune, an economist at Global Insight, a forecasting firm. At its lowest point, in 1998, that share dropped to 1.9 percent.
Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University, said, "Gas prices have doubled over the last year, but the economy has not fallen off the cliff." He added, "But for the rural lower-income people, as a proportion of their income the rise of gas prices is very high."
While people everywhere are talking about gasoline prices these days, some folks in Tchula (the T is silent) have gone beyond talking. Anthony Clark, a farm worker from Tchula, says he prays every night for lower gasoline prices. He recently decided not to fix his 1992 Chevrolet Astro van because he could not afford the gasoline. Now he hires friends and family members to drive him around to buy food and medicine for his diabetic aunt, and his boss sends a van to pick him up for the 10-mile commute to work. A trip from Tchula to the nearest sizable town can cost him $25 round trip - about 10 percent of what he makes in a week.
Taking a break under some cottonwood trees beside a drainage ditch filled with buzzing mosquitoes, Clark and members of his work crew spoke of the big and little changes that higher gas prices have brought. The extra dollars spent at the pump mean electric bills are going unpaid, and macaroni is replacing meat at supper. Donations to church are being put off, and video rentals are unaffordable.
Cleveland Whiteside, who works with Clark and used to commute 30 miles a day, said his Jeep Cherokee was repossessed last month because, "I paid so much for gas to get to work I couldn't pay my payments anymore." His employer, Larry Clanton, has lent him a pickup truck so he can get to work.
Signs of pain and adaptation because of the cost of gas are everywhere. Local fried chicken restaurants are closing because people are eating out less.
Sociologists and economists who study rural poverty say the mounting gasoline crisis in the rural South, if it persists, could accelerate population loss and decrease the tax base in some areas as more people move closer to urban manufacturing jobs. They warn that the high cost of driving makes low-wage labor even less attractive to workers, especially those who also have to pay for child care and can live off welfare and food stamps.
"As gas prices rise, working less could be the economically rational choice," said Tim Slack, a sociologist at Louisiana State University who studies rural poverty. "That would mean lower incomes for the poor and greater distance from the mainstream."
At the local hardware store here, sales have plummeted to $30 a day from $250 a day a month ago.
"Money goes to gasoline - I know mine does," said the hardware store's manager, Pam Williams, who tries to attract customers by putting out choice crickets for fishing bait beside the front door.
Local governments are leaving grass high along the roads and doing fewer road repairs to save on fuel costs. The Holmes County government has cut the work week to four days to give workers gasoline relief, and politicians are even considering replacing sanitation workers with prison inmates on some shifts to conserve money for fuel.
The local price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline was roughly $3.85 last week, slightly below the national average, but the median family income in Holmes County is about $18,500.
Across the United States, regular unleaded gasoline reached an average of $4.005 a gallon, or $1.06 a liter, Sunday morning, according to the American Automobile Association. That is the highest price ever and about a dollar higher than at the start of the year.
Dick Stevens, president of Consolidated Catfish Producers, which operates a fish processing plant in nearby Isola, Mississippi, said that 10 workers walked into his office last week and volunteered to take a buyout rather than continue commuting from Charleston, Mississippi, 65 miles away. "The gas ate them alive," he said.
Workers at the plant are trying to find ways to cope. Josephine Cage, who fillets fish, said her 30-mile commute from Tchula to Isola in her 1998 Ford Escort four days a week is costing her $200 a month, or nearly 20 percent of her pay.
"I make it by the grace of God," she said, and also by replacing meat at supper with soups and green beans and broccoli. She fills her car a little bit everyday, because, "I can't afford to fill it up. Whatever money I have, I put it in."
Scorching heat blankets East Coast
Scorching heat and stifling humidity gripped much of the East Coast on Monday, with the National Weather Service issuing heat advisories as temperatures approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) in many areas.
The heat wave was expected to last into Tuesday and prompted officials in Philadelphia and Connecticut to send students in public and parochial schools home early both days and cancel evening programs, The Associated Press reported. The heat caused power failures that interrupted some subway service in New York.
The New York City Office of Emergency Management said it was opening cooling centers for people who did not have air conditioning, and other cities were making similar arrangements. Officials urged relatives and neighbors to check in on elderly, housebound people, who are most in danger during hot spells.
The hot weather extended from New England down through the Middle Atlantic states into the Carolinas.
Weather officials said heat waves are not just uncomfortable, they are dangerous. "Heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer," the weather service said. "On average, more than 1,500 people in the U.S. die each year from excessive heat."
The high temperature Sunday in Central Park was 93 degrees, just shy of the 95-degree record for the date.
As the East steamed, large areas of the Midwest were struggling with flooding and bracing for more rain. Heavy weekend downpours sent river out of their banks, covering roadways and flooding newly planted farm fields.
Indiana was particularly hard hit, with President George W. Bush declaring a major disaster in 29 of its counties late Sunday night. The National Weather Service predicted that 1 to 3 inches, or 2.5 to 7.5 centimeters, of rain was likely to fall Monday in addition to the 11 inches that fell on Saturday.
Elsewhere, Governor Jim Doyle of Wisconsin declared an emergency in 29 counties and Governor Chet Culver of Iowa sought U.S. assistance to cope with problems in nearly a third of the state's 99 counties.
As fuel costs rise, European carriers press advantage
Other airlines, like British Airways, which is profitable but highly geared towards trans-Atlantic travel, are moving quickly to limit risk and damage. "We are looking at the cash contribution of every flight, on a flight-by-flight basis, not just routes," the British Airways chief executive, Willie Walsh, said last week. "We are going to take flights out where it makes no sense, with oil at $130 a barrel, to continue them."
PARIS: The president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, on Monday called on oil producers and consumers to learn from past mistakes if Western economies were to avoid a repeat of the high inflation and unemployment that followed the first global oil shock in 1973.
No one, whether Western consumers or oil suppliers, should want to repeat that history, Trichet said. "There is a joint interest in behaving as properly as possible," he said.
Spanish truckers block border with France to demand fuel relief
In the latest show of distress, Spanish truckers Monday began a blockade of their country's border with France, lining up their rigs and slowing them to a crawl to protest the cost of fuel. The strike blocked the highway in both directions in southwestern France. The protest turned ugly when would-be strike-breakers in Spain found their windshields and headlights smashed and their tires slashed.
But the Spanish drivers were not the only ones feeling the pinch. French drivers slowed traffic near Bordeaux to demand lower fuel prices, offering a foretaste of a planned national strike by truckers next Monday. Portuguese drivers blocked roads, and in Belgium thousands of labor union members demonstrated in Liège to protest the rising cost of living as a result of fuel costs.
"We are the ones who move the merchandise that this country needs to function," Julio Villascusa, a truckers' representative, told the Cadena Ser radio station on the eve of the strike. "If we don't have the money to keep buying fuel to offer this public service, well, then this country comes to a halt."
Price protests in India
The police used water cannons and batons in Indian Kashmir on Monday to disperse hundreds of government workers protesting fuel prices, while a general strike shut down the northeastern Indian of Assam, Reuters reported.
Demonstrations and strikes have already forced India, Malaysia and Indonesia to raise fuel subsidies.
Fuel prices halt 3 French naval missions
PARIS: The French navy canceled three summer missions Monday because of soaring fuel prices — including a counternarcotics exercise off the United States.
"All of our missions are important, but we had to cut those that were least crucial," said navy spokesman Pascal Subtil.
The most significant of the canceled missions involves a training exercise off the east coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. The French ship De Grasse was slated to sail alongside U.S. vessels in an exercise to train for preventing drug-trafficking.
Subtil and others said that to their best knowledge, this was the first time that French navy missions had been called off due to the price of fuel.
Lee Child and his hero are still going strong
Child did not set out to become a novelist. He wanted to be an entertainer, a singer or an actor, but discovered he had no talent for it. So instead he went into the television business and worked for 18 years as a director and producer for Granada Television in Manchester. "Television taught me two things that are sort of contradictory," he said. "One is do it once and do it right. The other is don't get it right, just get it written. It also taught me about the importance of the audience. First, second and third, it's all about satisfying the audience."
By the end of the '80s, though, Child could sense that changes were coming to the British television industry, and he remembers saying to a colleague on New Year's Eve in 1989, "When this is all over, I'm going to write books." Five years later, when Granada laid him off, Child said to himself: "This is put up or shut up. If you mean it, you should do it," and he wrote, in longhand, "Killing Floor," the first in what he already imagined would be a series. The book was an instant hit.
A model was John D. MacDonald's Florida novels about the Korean War vet and beach bum Travis McGee. Another source of inspiration was the manufacturing tradition of Birmingham, where he grew up. "It's all about practicality - making useful things and making them well and with pride," he said.
He learned, he said, that there were four reasons women liked Jack Reacher: "First, even in the 21st century women find it hard to express anger or disapproval, and so they get tremendous vicarious satisfaction from watching Jack knock some heads off. Second, women, much more than men, are concerned about basic injustice, and they like that Reacher puts things right. They also like that the female characters in the books are all genuine, fully fledged, capable women, not decorative bimbos, and Reacher treats them well. He's kind of a post-feminist.
"And finally, reason No. 4, what makes Jack so attractive is the absolute impossibility of his sticking around. Affairs in the real world are messy - you get found out, you get divorced, you lose your house. But what if you could absolutely guarantee that the guy would stick around for two or three days and then he'd disappear? He'll never phone, he'll never write, and you'll never see him again. That makes him the irresistible boyfriend."
Fashion fantasy still a star in 'Sex and the City' movie
In the new film version of "Sex and the City," which is being released worldwide through August, the fashion is jaw-droppingly fantastic. In two recent screenings in New York, the audience reacted most vocally - there literally was moaning - when Carrie, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, discovers that Mr. Big, her noncommittal boyfriend, played by Chris Noth, has built her a walk-in closet with carpeting and flattering lighting. She hangs a single pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes there as a dog would mark its territory.
It's easy to bash all this over-the-top materialism, but "Sex and the City" has never bothered to rationalize it, no matter how absurd or overpriced an item may be. (Nor has it explained how a freelance writer could afford all those clothes.) It simply accepts that fashion is good and assumes the audience, just like Carrie, so badly wants to be a part of Vogue.
Local authorities take new tack in immigration battle
MILTON, Florida: Three months after the local police inspected more than a dozen businesses searching for illegal immigrants using stolen Social Security numbers, this community in the Florida Panhandle has become more law-abiding, emptier and whiter.
Sheriff Wendell Hall of Santa Rosa County, who led the effort, said the arrests were for violations of state identity theft laws. But he also seemed proud to have found a way around rules allowing only the federal government to enforce immigration laws. In his office, the sheriff displayed a framed editorial cartoon that showed the famed frontiersman Daniel Boone admiring his arrest of at least 27 illegal workers.
His approach is increasingly common. Last month in Iowa, 260 illegal immigrants were sentenced to five months in prison for violations of federal identity theft laws. At the same time, in the past year, local police departments from coast to coast have rounded up hundreds of immigrants for nonviolent, often minor, crimes, like fishing without a license in Georgia, with the end result being deportation.
State lawmakers, in response to congressional inaction on immigration law, are giving the local authorities a wider berth. In 2007, 1,562 bills related to illegal immigration were introduced nationwide and 240 were enacted in 46 states, triple the number that passed in 2006, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A new law in Mississippi makes it a felony for an illegal immigrant to hold a job. In Oklahoma, sheltering or transporting illegal immigrants is a felony.
Donna Tucker, executive director of the Santa Rosa County Chamber of Commerce, said illegal immigration "creates havoc within the system" because businesses that used illegal labor often did not pay into workers' compensation funds and paid workers less per hour.
Some of the frustrations also veered into prejudice. George Collins, an inspector in charge of the illegal trafficking task force in Okaloosa County, said many people wanted to know "why we weren't going to Wal-Mart and rounding up the Mexicans" - a comment Collins described as racist and offensive.
Usually though, the complaints were cultural and legal. Interviews with more than 25 residents and police officers suggest that the views of Harry Buckles, 68, a retired navy corpsman, are common. Outside his home in Gulf Breeze, Buckles said the main problem with today's Hispanic immigrants was that they did not assimilate.
Even after hundreds flowed in to rebuild Santa Rosa County, Buckles said: "They didn't become part of the community. They didn't speak the language."
Family identifies son in Russian beheading video
Attacks against nonwhites in Russia have steadily increased over the last several years, as more and more immigrants from abroad or from Russia's poorer ethnic enclaves move into large urban centers in search of work.
Odamanov was among them. He left his home village, Sultanyangiyurt in Dagestan, about two years ago and moved to Moscow to look for a job "and possibly a bride," his father said.
In his regular calls home, he frequently complained about run-ins with skinheads, who stalk their dark-skinned victims in the low-income residential areas around Moscow.
In late March 2007, Odamanov called "to wish me a happy birthday," his father said. "That was the last time I heard from him." The next time he saw his son was in the video. He was tied up, kneeling next to another man and wearing the black Adidas jacket and shirt given to him by his brother, Artur, Umakhan Odamanov said.
Set against a soundtrack of heavy metal music, the video opens with the title "Operation of the National-Socialist Party of Russia to Arrest and Execute Two Colonists From Dagestan and Tajikistan." There are shots of the countryside that investigators believe is somewhere in the Kaluzhskaya region, about 75 kilometers, or 120 miles, southwest of Moscow.
"We were arrested by National-Socialists," the two bound men mumble through their gags.
In the next scene, one of the captors, wearing camouflage and heavy black gloves, yells, "Glory to Russia!" then plunges what looks like a large knife into the neck of the man thought to be Odamanov. He is decapitated in seconds.
Then the second man, whom the police have not identified, is shot in the head and crumples face-first into a shallow grave. In the final scene, two men in camouflage, wearing black masks, give Nazi salutes.
There were about 600 reported racist attacks and about 80 murders recorded in Russia in 2007, according to the Sova Center, an organization that monitors hate crimes in Russia. The number of attacks this year reached 232 as of June 1, 57 of which were murders.
In preliminary figures for crimes reported to police, the bureau said the number of violent crimes declined by 1.4 percent from 2006, reversing two years of rising violent crime numbers. Violent crime had climbed 1.9 percent in 2006 and 2.3 percent in 2005, alarming federal and local officials.
Property crimes were down 2.1 percent last year, the largest drop in the last four years.
The largest declines were in vehicle theft, down 8.9 percent and in rape, down 4.3 percent and murder, down 2.7 percent.
The crime trends were not uniform. Murders, for instance, were down in cities of more than 250,000, including an enormous 9.8 percent drop in cities of more than a million residents. But murders rose in some small cities — up 3.7 percent in cities of 50,000 to 100,000, up 1.9 percent in cities of 100,000 to 250,000, and up 1.8 percent in cities under 10,000. Historically, national murder trends have begun in the largest cities and moved over several years to smaller ones.
But a chance meeting with the director Alberto Lattuada led to a job as an assistant on the historical drama "Piccolo Mondo Antico" (1941) and Risi had a new vocation.