As America voted I spend the afternoon asleep, wiped out with exhaustion. A morning in my office battling with a computer virus, then a siesta as E. slept, turned into me being woken at 17.45 hrs by the boys, who had been up to God knows what while I had slept like the dead.
I couldn't move, my arms and muscles were like jelly. I struggled to be woken by the boys.
I realized something wasn't right and called Ag., who was round in minutes, swept up the boys, fed and bed them. I fell straight back to sleep and woke later to a silent house at 2200hrs, before taking my meds and falling directly back asleep.
We all have slight colds, I hope it's nothing more than that, but I for one was running on fumes and it caught up with me. Or perhaps it's 8 years of Bush and I fell at the final hurdle.
Amelie took the boys for a walk in the morning; most of the photos are hers. She has a good eye and her own style of photography which I like.
The picture below is from our bedroom window, which, after the storm and the fallen trees, is now unobscured to Big Leo's house on the Col.
The challenges of eating right on a limited budget
By Tara Parker-Pope
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
How much does it really cost to eat a healthy diet? Economists, health researchers and consumers are struggling to answer that question as food prices rise and the economy slumps. The World Bank says nearly a billion people around the world live on a dollar a day, or even less; in the United States, the daily food-stamp allowance is typically just a few dollars per person, while the average American eats $7 worth of food per day.
Even middle-class people struggle to put healthful food on the table. Studies show that junk foods tend to cost less than fruits, vegetables and other healthful foods, whose prices continue to rise.
This fall a couple in Encinitas, California, conducted their own experiment to find out what it was like to live for a month on just a dollar a day for food. Overnight, their diets changed significantly.
The budget forced them to give up many store-bought foods and dinners out. Even bread and canned refried beans were too expensive.
Instead, the couple - Christopher Greenslate, 28, and Kerri Leonard, 29, both high school social studies teachers - bought raw beans, rice, cornmeal and oatmeal in bulk, and made their own bread and tortillas. Fresh fruits and vegetables weren't an option.
Leonard's mother was so worried about scurvy, a result of vitamin C deficiency, that they made room in their budget for Tang orange drink mix. (They don't eat meat - not that they could have afforded it.)
Breakfast consisted of oatmeal; lunch was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Dinner often consisted of beans, rice and homemade tortillas. Homemade pancakes were affordable, but syrup was not; a local restaurant gave them a few free syrup packets.
One of the biggest changes was the time they had to spend in meal preparation.
"If you're buying raw materials, you're spending more time preparing things," Greenslate said. "We'd come home after working 10 to 11 hours and have to roll out tortillas. If you're already really hungry at that point, it's tough."
While he lost weight on the budget diet, Greenslate said, the larger issue was his lack of energy. During the experiment he was no longer able to work out at the gym.
A few times they found a bag of carrots or lettuce that was within their budget, but produce was usually too expensive. They foraged for lemons on the trees in their neighborhood to squeeze juice into their water.
Leonard said that after the 30-day experiment, one of the first foods she ate was a strawberry. "I almost cried," she said.
The couple acknowledged that the experiment was something of a luxury, given that many people have no choice about how much to spend on food.
"If we were actually living in this situation, I would not be taking the time to be concerned about what I could and could not have; I'd be worried about survival," Leonard said.
Researchers say the experiment reflects many of the challenges that poor people actually face. When food stamps and income checks run low, they often do scrape by on a dollar a day or less. But many people don't know how to prepare foods from scratch, or lack the time.
"Many people don't have the knowledge or the time if they're working two jobs," said Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington.
Last year, Drewnowski led a study, published in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, comparing the prices of 370 foods sold at supermarkets in the Seattle area. The study showed that "energy dense" junk foods, which pack the most calories and fewest nutrients per gram, were far less expensive than nutrient-rich, lower-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables. The prices of the most healthful foods surged 19.5 percent over the two-year study period, while the junk food prices dropped 1.8 percent.
Leonard and Greenslate, who chronicled their dollar-a-day experience on their blog, onedollardietproject.wordpress.com, say they are looking at other ways to explore how difficult it is for people with limited income to eat a healthful diet.
"I challenge anyone to try to live on a dollar a day and eat fresh food in this country," Greenslate said. "I would love to be proven wrong."
The war on dengue fever
By Thomas Fuller
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
BANGKOK: There was little that doctors could do for a 3-year-old boy brought to Bangkok's main children's hospital two weeks ago with dengue fever. Like thousands before him, he had reached the most dangerous phase of the disease, dengue shock syndrome, and he died of internal bleeding and organ failure three days after being admitted.
Directly across the street, in the United States Army's largest overseas medical research laboratory, military scientists are offering hope for future generations: a vaccine. Developed after decades of trying, it is one of two experimental vaccines that experts believe may be commercially available by the middle of the next decade.
Dengue (pronounced DENG-ee), a mosquito-borne illness once known as breakbone fever for its intense joint and muscle pain and crushing headaches, has a relatively low death rate — about 2.5 percent of hospitalized patients, the World Health Organization reports.
But because patients can require constant, careful monitoring, it is one of the costliest diseases in tropical countries. Each year, it leads to about 500,000 hospitalizations around the world.
Dengue is seldom seen in the United States or Europe, though it is the second-most common cause (after malaria) of feverish symptoms for Western tourists returning from developing countries.
But it is important to the Army: American soldiers have contracted dengue as recently as the 1990s, on missions in Haiti and Somalia. So it is one of the tropical diseases that are the focus of research here at the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences, which the army has operated with the Royal Thai Army for five decades.
The research facility, which employs several hundred people, is housed in an unremarkable 1960s building alongside a greasy alley where food vendors hawk fried grasshoppers and freshly mashed papaya salad.
"There's no dengue in Kansas," said Colonel James Boles, the commander at the laboratory. "No malaria, either. That's why we are here."
In wars past, disease has often proved a greater foe than opposing armies. During the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa in the late 19th century, more soldiers died of typhoid than in battle. Thousands of cases of hepatitis during the Vietnam war among soldiers spurred army researchers to help develop two of the vaccines now in use to prevent hepatitis A and B.
"All we care about is that we get a vaccine that protects soldiers," said Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Thomas, a medical doctor who is director of dengue vaccine development in the Bangkok laboratory. "Fortunately a lot of our concerns are also global health concerns."
For many years, the leading drugs used to treat malaria were developed by the army. Today research on tropical diseases is spread across a broader constellation; in the hunt for a dengue vaccine, money and research have come from the Thai government, nonprofit organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and drug companies like GlaxoSmithKline, which is working with the army.
The other vaccine at an advanced stage of development is being jointly developed by the French drug company Sanofi-Aventis and a Thai university on the same Bangkok street as the army lab.
"We're further along with the dengue vaccine than we've ever been," said Duane Gubler, director of the emerging infectious diseases department of the Duke-N.U.S. Graduate Medical School in Singapore. "There's a good possibility that we'll have a vaccine in five to seven years."
The dengue virus is transmitted mainly by a mosquito called Aedes aegypti, which survives on human blood. Aedes rarely travels more than about 100 yards from its birthplace and thrives in populated areas.
The mosquito can breed in something as small as a soda bottle, but its ideal breeding conditions are large containers common in many parts of Southeast Asia to store drinking water. (Unlike other mosquitoes, Aedes aegypti prefers clean water, according to Thomas Scott, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who is a leading expert on the species.)
The mosquito cannot survive freezing weather, and though it is endemic to some parts of the United States, mainly the South, experts say good sanitation practices have kept it from spreading the dengue virus. It commonly lives inside people's homes, lingering in closets or curtains.
The World Health Organization estimates that 50 million people are infected every year. But most of those infected, perhaps as many as 90 percent, experience only minor flulike symptoms or none at all.
In more serious cases, like that of the boy who died here last month, symptoms include severe headaches, rapid onset of a high fever, debilitating joint and muscle pain, nausea, vomiting and internal bleeding. Generally, though, dengue is considered treatable as long as patients are brought to the hospital on time and the disease is properly diagnosed.
Scientists believe the disease has existed for centuries — an outbreak appears to have occurred in Philadelphia in 1780 — but dengue has become more common and more virulent over the past half-century.
In 1970, only nine countries were known to have had epidemics of the most serious form of the disease, dengue hemorrhagic fever. By the mid-1990s that number had quadrupled, and experts say a quirk makes the disease particularly well adapted to an age of air travel and international trade.
There are four types of dengue virus. Patients who have been infected with one of them are believed to develop immunity to that type only — and, paradoxically, are more vulnerable to dengue hemorrhagic fever if they are exposed to a second type.
The four types have intermixed as people carried them on airplanes to far-flung places; outbreaks of the hemorrhagic fever have been traced to specific flight paths and trade routes.
"What we've done is provided the ideal mechanism for these viruses to move around the world," said Gubler, who has researched dengue for nearly four decades.
It was probably soldiers who caused the original spread of dengue hemorrhagic fever around Southeast Asia, during World War II.
"You had a movement of soldiers from England, the U.S., Australia and Japan," said Dr. Suchitra Nimmannitya, a pioneer in dengue research who developed a handbook on how to treat the disease. "Soldiers flew from city to city."
A Japanese scientist first isolated the virus during the war, and a United States army physician, Albert Sabin, made the discovery that there were distinct virus types. ( Sabin went on to help develop the polio vaccine.)
"Dengue is very unique," said Harold Margolis, formerly of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now director of the Pediatric Dengue Vaccine Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in South Korea. "I've done a lot of infectious-disease work over the years, and dengue is probably one of the most complicated."
The development of a vaccine is especially difficult because it will need to counter all four types of virus.
"If dengue was a single virus we would have had a vaccine already, for sure," said Jean Lang, director of research and development at Sanofi's emerging vaccine program.
Sanofi's dengue vaccine, which will undergo trials in 4,000 children in Thailand in a few months, is one of the first vaccines to be produced using genetic engineering.
The army's vaccine, which is at a similar stage of development and has been tested on volunteers in the United States, Puerto Rico and Thailand, was produced using live attenuated viruses, a more traditional technique. The two or three doses, spaced months apart, are administered by injection.
Experts say the wide array of researchers involved — some with profit motives and others without — increases the chances of success and could help make the vaccine affordable to people in developing countries.
"We have always tried to broaden the R.&D. base," said Joachim Hombach, who coordinates vaccine research at the World Health Organization in Geneva. "At the end of the day, what drives down the price of the product is competition."
Saving wild salmon, in hopes of saving the orca
By Cornelia Dean
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
ECHO BAY, British Columbia: Growing up in Connecticut, Alexandra Hubbard did not want to be Joan of Arc. She wanted to be Jane Goodall. But instead of chimpanzees, her animals would turn out to be killer whales.
In 1984, 26 years old and armed only with a bachelor's degree and enthusiasm for her task, she moved to the Broughton Archipelago, in the Queen Charlotte Strait of British Columbia, where the whales, or orcas, were abundant. She and her husband, Robin Morton, a Canadian filmmaker, lived on a 65-foot sailboat and followed the orcas in an inflatable boat with a shelter in the back, stocked with Legos and books for their son, Jarret.
She came to know the archipelago's long-lived orca clans and the matriarchs who led them. She knew she would find them in Fife Sound at the ebb tide, or moving up Johnson Strait with the incoming tide. Using a hydrophone, an underwater microphone she hung from the boat, she recorded their vocalizations and began to recognize what she called the dialects of the clans.
Her husband drowned in 1986, when Jarret was 4, but Morton stayed on, supporting her work by writing articles and books, designing T-shirts and working as a deckhand on a fishing boat.
Today, she hardly uses her hydrophone. There's no point, she says, "since my subject is so rare now." These days, when Morton noses her workboat away from her dock here, she is on a crusade, seeking not orcas, but evidence against the salmon farms she believes drove most of the killer whales away, in part by infecting the wild salmon the whales eat with parasites called sea lice. Her work is a challenge to the salmon farm industry and to the Canadian and British Columbia officials who regulate it.
Once dismissed as an outsider and amateur, Morton has gradually gained the respect of fisheries experts like Ray Hilborn, a researcher at the University of Washington. "She doesn't come from a science background but she has had a lot of influence in highlighting the issue," he said. Daniel Pauly, director of the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia, calls her "a spunky hero."
That may be because she takes the issue personally. The disappearance of the orcas in the Broughton "ruined my life, absolutely," Morton said one day recently as she headed off to net baby salmon and check them for sea lice. "A lot of people have lost stuff they set out to do but, yeah, it ruined my whole plan."
According to the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association, salmon farms produce $450 million worth of Atlantic salmon a year in British Columbia. At any given time, 70 to 80 farm sites operate in provincial waters, perhaps 15 or so in the Broughton, a hardly inhabited area across Queen Charlotte Strait from the north end of Vancouver Island. Typically, each installation has a collection of net pens, usually crossed by metal walkways, floating in a cove or bay. Individual sites typically contain 500,000 to 750,000 penned fish.
As tiny young wild salmon, smolts, pass by these pens on their way to sea, they can pick up so many lice they die, Morton and other researchers have reported.
Farm operators like Marine Harvest, a Norwegian concern that is a major presence in salmon farming here, concede that penned fish are vulnerable to microbes and parasites but say drugs and pesticides minimize the problem, virtually eliminating the risk to wild fish stocks.
For example, Kelly Osborne, who manages farm sites in the Broughton for Marine Harvest, said penned fish were treated with an antilouse drug called Slice as smolts began their migration to the ocean. The drug is so effective, he said, that perhaps only 1 in 10 penned fish would have a live louse.
Government officials say it would be premature to blame the farms for declines in salmon runs seen here recently, because those numbers fluctuate naturally.
But Morton and researchers like Martin Krkosek of the University of Alberta and John Volpe of the University of Victoria predict that some local salmon runs will disappear unless the farms are altered or removed. And because salmon loom large in the diets of orcas, bears, eagles and other animals, their disappearance would unravel the region's web of life.
"A lot of wild salmon populations have been on the edge for quite a long time," threatened by logging, dams and "plain old overfishing," said Ellen Pikitch, a fisheries biologist who heads the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University in New York. "The sea lice problem could be the nail in the coffin for some of these fish."
( Pikitch also pointed out what some scientists say is an even bigger problem with salmon farms. It takes more than one pound of fish, processed into pellets, to produce one pound of salmon. Even though farms are working to bring the ration down — some say they have achieved a one-to-one ratio — Pikitch said the growing need to feed farmed salmon had greatly increased the demand for anchovies, herring and other fish, and "aquaculture is indirectly pulling the rug out from under the ocean ecosystem.")
When Morton arrived at the Broughton, she was a graceful young woman with dark hair that flowed halfway down her back. "I thought she was another crazy hippie," Billy Proctor, locally acknowledged as the Broughton's master fisherman, said in an interview.
She still moves gracefully but her flowing hair is gray now. And she long ago won Proctor's admiration for her devotion to the Broughton and its wildlife. When her husband died, Proctor took Morton on as a deckhand. They collaborated on a book, "Heart of the Raincoast" (Touchwood Editions, 1998), an account of his life and changing times.
Today, when Proctor and other fishermen find escaped Atlantic salmon in their nets, they often bring them to her. She cuts them open and records, among other things, whether they have been fed the chemicals that farms add to feed to color their grayish flesh a more appealing pink. Then she disposes of the bodies, usually by dumping them in the water for crabs and other scavengers to eat.
Meanwhile, in what she calls "partnered science," she works regularly with experts from several universities. Typically, they design a research plan and Morton organizes the collection of field samples and other data to help carry it out.
At first, Morton reported her observations "naively," Pauly recalled. "It was simply 'Hey, look at this, wild salmon are riddled with parasites.' " Her opponents attacked her as inadequately credentialed, he said. In the years since, papers Morton has helped write have appeared in major scientific journals like Science, which in December published a study in which she and her coauthors link fish farms to precipitous declines of pink salmon in the Broughton. Scientists at the University of Alberta, Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria are sending graduate students to the Salmon Coast Research Station she established here at
Echo Bay, a community of a few families that clings to rocky crags that plunge, beachless, straight down into cold, clear water. There is so little flat land that many people live in float houses — cabins built on rafts or "floats" of foot-thick logs lashed to the shore. There are no roads, no cars and no shops except the few shelves of staples in the post office in Simoom Sound, around a wooded promontory from Morton's home, where mail arrives once a week.
The research station occupies a shedlike building on a float. The graduate students and other researchers live in a cluster of houses, their wooden walls untouched by paper or paint, perched on the rock slope inland. One is a former float house that Proctor lived in as a boy and which Morton and her son occupied after Proctor and other neighbors hauled it up onto the rocks, a disaster-filled episode she recounts in her autobiography, "Listening to Whales" (Ballantine Books, 2002). Jarret, who graduated from the University of British Columbia, works as an engineer in Utah now, Morton said.
Another is a house she built with Eric Nelson, whom she met several years after her husband died and who is the father of her 12-year-old daughter, Clio. Still another is a house she built herself, she said, when it was clear the couple would split up.
The station is supported in part by Sarah Haney, a retired nurse and environmental campaigner from Ontario whose philanthropic resources come from the game Trivial Pursuit — her former husband was one of its inventors and she was an early partner in the venture. One of her major interests is whales, Haney said in a telephone interview, so she learned about Morton and her work. When the compound came up for sale, Haney bought it and paid "a lot of money" for improvements including a new dock, and a laboratory building.
This summer, she deeded the whole place over to Morton. "This is one of the most important philanthropic ventures I have ever been involved with," she said.
When Morton first came to British Columbia, she did not have a traditional academic background. She was a prep school dropout (Milton Academy in Massachusetts) who had worked in California for John Lilly, an eccentric researcher who studied dolphin communication. By then, she had taken enough college courses to earn a bachelor's degree, she said. She first encountered orcas at Marineland, an oceanarium in La Jolla, California, and decided she had to see them in the wild. She had thoughts of returning to school for a doctorate. Instead, she said, "I met Robin and just fell so crazy in love with him that before I really thought about it I just totally jumped tracks."
Morton acknowledges that "the three Ws: widow, whales, wilderness" draw a lot of attention to her work. She embraces it. "The problem with this whole issue is if nobody sees it nothing happens," she said one day recently as she motored past one of the farming operations. And because most of the fish farmed here end up in trucks heading down I-5 to California, she said, "it can't just be the Canadian public. It has to be the American public."
So just as Jane Goodall speaks for chimps, Morton said, she wants to tell the world about the troubles afflicting the orcas, not as a crusader, but as "a woman cleaning house."
In September, after decades off the grid, Morton moved to a small town on Malcolm Island, in the Queen Charlotte Strait, where she will stay until Clio finishes high school.
She will live in a house on the water, a fixer-upper, she called it, and she will visit the research station by boat. Because she won't have to chop wood or perform other Echo Bay chores, she'll have time for projects like studying statistics online. And she is looking forward to conversation. In a tiny community like Echo Bay, she said, encountering new people with something new to say is a real treat.
"Billy and I now have a bet," she said, referring to Proctor. "He says nobody ever comes back. But I have a research station here. My life is here."
Meanwhile, she will be putting her hydrophone in the water again, just in case.
Sent: Monday, November 03, 2008 3:54 PM
Subject: FW: Nos enfants nous accuseront
AMIS DU CINEMA ET DE LA CULPABILITÉ, ON PEUT VOIR CE FILM EN MANGEANT DESTORTILLAS DE PATATAS MAIS BIO ET PAS CERTIFICADO...DÉSOLÉ POUR TOUT CEUX qui ont déjà eu ce message mais j'avais un moment latout de suite a rien faire...c'est un film sur les pesticides,l'alimentation et le cancer voilà en résumé
----Bonjour,Le film « Nos enfants nous accuseront » sortira en salle (mais pas dansbeaucoup) la semaine prochaine, le 5 novembre. Le cinéaste et sa maisonde production nous ont transmis un tableau de salles répertoriées commediffusant ce film ces prochaines semaines. Vous trouverez ce tableauci-joint, ainsi qu¹un petit papier de présentation qui paraîtra dans leCampagnes solidaires de novembre parti ce jour à l¹imprimerie..Benoît*Acte d¹accusation*Marqué par l¹épreuve du cancer, s¹interrogeant sur l¹explosion de lamaladie dans la société et ses causes environnementales de plus en plusprouvées, le réalisateur de télévision Jean-Paul Jaud construit undiscours implacable et optimiste.Son film, « Nos enfants nous accuseront », est un argumentaire sévèrecontre l¹usage des pesticides dont il montre que les agriculteursutilisateurs et leurs familles en sont les premières victimes. Mais ledocument se veut aussi optimiste puisqu¹il se construit sur lestémoignages et les pratiques d¹un territoire cévenol au c¦ur duquel unvillage, Barjac, a fait le pari de développer le bio à la cantine, viala cuisine centrale de la commune. Dans leur enthousiasme, le maire etles élus favorisent les réflexions et discussions des habitants et enpremier lieu des paysans sur leur rapport à l¹alimentation et auxpratiques agricoles. Les attitudes évoluent, prises de conscience etactions se conjuguent au quotidien.Cependant, comme beaucoup de films qui souhaitent soumettre à un vastepublic un discours non partisan, « Nos enfants nous accuseront » seheurte aux limites politiques classiques. Ainsi, quand Marc Dufumierpropose d¹affecter les 9,5 milliards d¹euros versés en France par la Pacà la restauration collective dans l¹objectif de pousser à la productionbio à grande échelle, il suppose que la Sodhexo, la firme qui fournitdans le pays le plus grand nombre de cantines, pourrait être le grandbénéficiaire de sa Pac. De même, la taille des fermes ne pose que peu dequestions : si l¹avenir des grosses fermes du pays est bio, sera-ce toutbon ? On imagine aussi que pour les cuisines centrales de la banlieueparisienne, la démarche bio sera bien plus difficile à mettre en placeque pour un petit village agricole cévenolSReste que le film avec quelques longueurs - est un bon document pourlancer les débats d¹après-projection.BD« Nos enfants nous accuseront », un film de Jean-Paul Jaud, 1h47, sortie5 novembre 2008, distribution CTV International : 01.53.40.99.69
On energy, Azeris play Europe and Russia against the middle
By Celestine BohlenBloomberg News
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
BAKU, Azerbaijan: It is boom time in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan: the skyline is dense with cranes and high-rise buildings, and the streets of the port city on the Caspian Sea are clogged with luxury shops and traffic.
Oil revenue has fueled the country's growth, and even as prices have plummeted, Azerbaijan's energy resources remain a valuable prize. Evidence of this is the tug-of-war between Russia and Europe over natural gas from the next phase of a project that's expected to at least double current production when it moves from the planning stage to completion.
The competition is testing the former Soviet republic's ability to maintain its political balance in the months since Russia's invasion of Georgia heightened tensions between East and West.
"As always, Azerbaijan is trying to find common ground with all sides," said Fariz Ismailzade, director of the Advanced Foreign Service Program at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku.
Over the past two months, Russia and the United States, acting with the Europeans, have stepped up their attentions to this mostly Muslim nation of 8.5 million people. In addition to selling its gas, Azerbaijan wants to parlay the international interest into the resolution of its conflict over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, occupied by Armenians since a bloody ethnic war ended in 1994.
It inched toward that goal in a meeting on Nov. 2, where the two sides agreed to resolve the dispute under Russian, U.S. and French mediation, easing tensions in the South Caucasus after two Azerbaijani oil-export routes were disrupted by the Georgian war.
"This is our neighborhood, and everything that happens here worries us," says Novruz Mammadov, head of President Ilham Aliyev's foreign-policy department.
Given its strategic location between the Caspian and Black seas, Azerbaijan is used to being in the middle. Since becoming independent in 1991, it has sought to minimize reliance on Soviet-era pipelines that go through Russia, a major trading partner and home to two million Azeris. At the same time, it has maintained neighborly relations.
"We have a strategic partnership with Russia and with the U.S., and we don't see any contradiction," said Khazar Ibrahim, spokesman for the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry.
Vice President Dick Cheney visited Baku in September, followed a month later by the U.S. deputy secretary of state, John Negroponte. In between, Aliyev, 46, was invited to Moscow for a one-day visit with President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. The European Union's energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, is due in Baku this month.
One topic of discussion is the natural-gas field Shah Deniz II, with reserves estimated to at least equal the nine billion cubic meters, or 318 billion cubic feet, produced by the project's first phase. That gas is now sold at home and to Turkey and Georgia.
Once the second phase is developed, the Moscow-based Gazprom OAO, which holds a monopoly on Russian exports, wants to buy the gas to bolster reserves for future contractual commitments. The United States and the European Union want the new supplies sent directly to Europe through the proposed Nabucco pipeline, an $8 billion venture at the center of the region's efforts to reduce dependence on Russia.
Diversification of sources and routes has been a European priority since January 2006, when Russia, which accounts for 25 percent of EU gas imports, briefly halted shipments over a price dispute with Ukraine, a transit country.
Azerbaijan has yet to decide when it will develop Shah Deniz II and says it is waiting for the Europeans to make an offer. Azerbaijan can bide its time, Mammadov said.
"We have said no to the Russians, for now," he said. "To the Europeans, we have said we are ready to be good partners: for oil, for gas, for transit; but they need this, not us."
In trying to strike a balance between East and West, Aliyev is following in the footsteps of his father, whom he succeeded as president in 2003. Heydar Aliyev, a former KGB general, played a key role in securing one link with Europe that bypasses Russia: a $4 billion pipeline that, by 2005, was carrying Azerbaijani oil from the Caspian region through Georgia to Turkey's Mediterranean coast.
Operated by the London-based BP, Europe's second-largest oil company, the pipeline now exports a million barrels of oil a day on average - roughly 1 percent of the world's supply.
The International Monetary Fund predicts Azerbaijan's gross domestic product will total $53.2 billion this year, compared with $8.6 billion in 2004.
Revenue will probably shrink in 2009 as declining economic growth worldwide slows demand for crude oil. Prices had fallen by 56 percent to about $65 a barrel Nov. 3 from a record $147.27 on July 11.
For now, though, the signs of oil wealth are everywhere in Baku. In its old city, tycoons have rebuilt modern villas on narrow, winding streets in the style of the mansions of their 19th-century predecessors. Oil has always been key to the fortunes of Baku: Marco Polo spotted a gusher here in the 14th century. In the 1800s, it drew European families, including the Rothschilds and the Nobels, who rushed to profit from the region's hydrocarbons.
Still, the dangers to Azerbaijan's thriving energy business from festering conflicts are all too evident. On Aug. 5, the BP pipeline was temporarily closed after an explosion on its Turkish portion, allegedly the work of Kurdish terrorists. That was followed by the closing of two oil-transit routes that cross Georgia because of its five-day war with Russia over the separatist region of South Ossetia.
Azerbaijan has been able to leverage some of the interest in its energy resources to try to end its own "frozen conflict" over Nagorno-Karabakh, which has cost it 20 percent of its territory. Medvedev arranged the Nov. 2 meeting in Moscow at which Aliyev and the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan, agreed to seek a resolution - signaling Russia's willingness to play mediator in this dispute.
"We have to find a way to have a peaceful, stable region," Ibrahim said.
In France, it's the cinema of denial
By Michael Kimmelman
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
PARIS: 'W.," Oliver Stone's biopic about the outgoing American president, has just opened here. So has a French film about Coluche, the country's most popular postwar comedian, Michel Colucci, who became a kind of anarchic candidate for president in 1981, an opponent of anti-immigrant sentiment, a champion of the poor.
The French movie hardly bothers with politics, dwelling on Coluche's love life instead. Cultural gulfs can sometimes reveal themselves in these small details. France, it turns out, remains, even all these years later, not insignificantly caught up in the cinema spawned by the Occupation, offering diversion, self-flattery and escapist fiction about itself.
Serious-minded Americans traditionally love to idealize the French movie industry, but as French cinephiles tend to see it, it's their own filmmakers, unlike those in the United States, who shy away from tackling head-on tough issues like contemporary French politics, scandals and unrest. Contrarians will note "La Haine" (Hate), a much-talked-about movie anticipating the violence that exploded three years ago in some of France's poor immigrant suburbs. But "La Haine" was released in the mid-1990s.
Meanwhile, never mind poor box office results, the United States keeps churning out ambitious pictures with big stars or directors, like "In the Valley of Elah," "Lions for Lambs," "Rendition," "Redacted" and "Body of Lies," questioning U.S. policy in the Middle East or otherwise seizing on the headlines. France hasn't made a significant movie yet about the 2005 riots.
The country has censored politically charged films, including Jean-Luc Godard's "Petit Soldat" (made in 1960 but not released until 1963), a rare French picture about the Algerian war of independence. "The Battle of Algiers," the greatest film about that war, was an Italian-Algerian production, not a French one, directed by an Italian. It was banned for many years after its release in 1966.
The closest thing to a French "Apocalypse Now" or "Platoon" about Algeria is "L'Ennemi intime," made last year, close to half a century after the war ended. As for a French version of "W.," any film skewering a sitting French president "would be nearly impossible to make here," said Caroline Benjo, echoing what other French filmmakers contend.
They cite a mix of politics, stylistic habits perpetuating the national "brand," financing and a collective anxiety about postwar French identity. The problem, you might say, goes back to de Gaulle's selling the country on the idea that it won World War II, along with the culture of denial that that mindset promoted.
Benjo is a producer of "Entre les Murs" ("Within the Walls," marketed in English as "The Class"), which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year. A drama about schoolchildren from a multiethnic neighborhood of Paris, it has so far done well at the French box office. Like the promiscuously awarded "La Graine et le Mulet" (marketed in English as either "Couscous" or "The Secret of the Grain"), directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, which is about a community of immigrants in a seaside town in the south of France, "Entre les Murs" is "l'exception culturelle."
That phrase ordinarily connotes not "exception to the rule" but the exceptional status of culture here. Money for French films comes partly from a percentage of ticket sales for American blockbusters, and from French television networks, which by law must underwrite films.
Public television is government-run, of course, and the country's most popular network, TF1, happens to be owned by Martin Bouygues, a close associate of the president, Nicolas Sarkozy. "Naturally television executives try to influence content," Jean-Michel Frodon, the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, noted.
That said, France likes to boast, for good reason, that with more than 220 films made here a year, the country's movie industry lags behind only those of India and the United States. Among these 220 movies, a modest number of high-quality documentaries or fictional dramas detailing poverty or immigrant life here are released, but they're generally "small films made in the shadows," Frodon said.
The most popular film ever made in France was released this year, "Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis" (Welcome to the Land of the Sh'tis), a harmless comedy about a postal employee from the South forced to work in the North. The two main stars of the movie, imitating regional clichés, both happened to be Frenchmen of North African descent.
On the other hand, newspapers were full of stories the other week about the burning of cars belonging to Luc Besson's film crew. In Montfermeil, a poor town outside Paris, Besson has been shooting a big-budget American-style thriller with John Travolta. But it's not about the riots in that neighborhood in 2005.
For that, French people these days must turn to programs like "La Commune," a dark television drama that ran this year on Canal Plus. Its inspiration was not French cinema but U.S. cable series like "The Wire" on HBO. "La Commune," glowingly received by French critics, was canceled when the network decided its audience wasn't large enough.
Abdel Raouf Dafri, the show's writer, shook his head in disgust. "The real-life characters in the series were blacks and Arabs, traditional conservative Muslims, leaders after the white policeman in the neighborhood had given up," he said, "and France doesn't like to look in the mirror except to see itself as the most beautiful nation."
Dafri lately wrote the screenplay for "L'Instinct de mort" ("Killer Instinct," to be marketed in English as "Public Enemy Number One") which just opened to good reviews. About a real-life gangster of the 1960s and '70s, Jacques Mesrine, a kind of populist outlaw, the movie has a definite political undercurrent. Dafri said he looked to Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, to "Prison Break," "24" and "The Sopranos."
Back at the offices of Haut et Court, the production company for "Entre les Murs," Carole Scotta, another of the film's producers, said: "Look at the French films that sell on the international market, and you'll also see they aren't always the best ones, but they're the ones that fit the expectations of French cinema." She added: "We're prisoners of these expectations."
"It took a long time for politicians here to admit France bore responsibility for the years of collaboration during World War II, and still Sarkozy likes to say we were a nation of resistance. The most successful films in this country reflect our collective projection of France as we wish it to be. We prefer to live in a dream."
U.S. civilian kills Afghan after fire attack
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
KABUL: A U.S. civilian shot dead an Afghan civilian who tried to set fire to another American on Tuesday, the U.S. military said.
At least 4,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan this year, some 1,000 of them civilians. It is still rare though for foreign civilians to be directly engaged in the conflict.
The shooting occurred after an altercation, a U.S. military statement said.
"Reports indicate the local national was shot after pouring and igniting a flammable liquid on another U.S. civilian. The civilian sustained serious burns and was transported to the nearest coalition forces medical facility for treatment," it said.
Taliban insurgents said children had poured petrol on a female foreign soldier and set fire to her while she was searching homes in the town of Maiwand in the southern province of Kandahar.
"The soldier caught fire immediately after petrol was poured on her and then explosions were set off because of the ammunition on her," the Taliban said on their Web site.
"As a result the female soldier was killed instantly and a large number of other foreign soldiers were wounded," it said.
It was not possible to verify the conflicting reports, but the Taliban frequently exaggerate foreign troop casualties.
Afghan officials aided July attack on U.S. soldiers
By Eric Schmitt
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
WASHINGTON: An internal review by the American military has found that a local Afghan police chief and another district leader helped Taliban militants carry out an attack on July 13 in which nine United States soldiers were killed and a remote American outpost in eastern Afghanistan was nearly overrun.
Afghan and American forces had started building the makeshift base just five days before the attack, and villagers repeatedly warned the American troops in that time that militants were plotting a strike, the report found. It said that the warnings did not include details, and that troops never anticipated such a large and well-coordinated attack.
The assault involved some 200 fighters, nearly three times the number of Americans and Afghans defending the site.
As evidence of collusion between the district police chief and the Taliban, the report cited large stocks of weapons and ammunition that were found in the police barracks in the adjacent village of Wanat after the attackers were repelled. The stocks were more than the local 20-officer force would be likely to need, and many of the weapons were dirty and appeared to have been used recently. The police officers were found dressed in "crisp, clean new uniforms," the report said, and were acting "as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred."
The attackers were driven back after a pitched four-hour battle, in which American artillery, warplanes and attack helicopters were ultimately called in. Still, the militants fought in ways that showed imaginative military training, if not sophisticated weapons.
In the midst of the battle, American soldiers were at times flushed out into the open when they fled what they thought were grenades, but were in fact rocks thrown by Taliban attackers, the report said. The day before the attack, the militants began flowing water through an irrigation ditch feeding an unused field, creating background noise that masked the sounds of the advancing fighters.
The base and a nearby observation post were held by just 48 American troops and 24 Afghan soldiers. Nine Americans died and 27 were injured, most in the first 20 minutes of the fight. Four Afghan soldiers were also wounded.
The intensity of the attack was so fierce, the report said, that American soldiers shot at insurgents as close as about 15 yards away, often until their weapons jammed, and at militants who shinnied up trees overhanging their positions to shoot at the Americans.
The attack on the outpost, near Wanat, caused the worst single loss for the American military in Afghanistan since June 2005, and one of the worst over all since the invasion in late 2001. It underscored the vulnerability of American forces in Afghanistan, as well as the continuing problem posed by uncertainties over the loyalties of their Afghan allies, especially the Afghan police.
The military investigating officer, an army colonel whose identity was not disclosed in a redacted copy of the report provided to The New York Times, recommended that the police chief and the district governor be replaced, if not arrested.
But the senior American commander in eastern Afghanistan, Major General Jeffrey Schloesser, decided after conferring with American forces that relieved the unit, that the district governor had probably been acting under duress and had been cooperative with American troops, according to the general's spokeswoman, Lieutenant Colonel Rumi Nielson-Green.
Nielson-Green said in a telephone interview on Monday that while the governor had been absolved, it was unclear whether the police chief in Wanat was complicit.
A spokesman for Afghan Defense Ministry officials said the Americans had never discussed these complaints with them.
Hajji Abdul Halim, deputy governor at the time of the Wanat attack, and now the acting governor of nearby Nuristan Province, said Monday that both officials had been detained briefly and then released.
"We suspected them after the incident, but the American forces released the district governor after two days of custody," he said in a telephone interview.
The report, which was completed on Aug. 13 and declassified in recent days to allow military officials to brief family members of those who were killed, did not assign blame to any commanders of the unit involved — the Second Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team — a unit that was in the final days of a 15-month deployment when the attack took place.
"The actions by leaders at all levels were based upon sound military analysis, proper risk mitigation and for the right reasons," the report said.
It concluded that despite reports earlier in July that 200 to 300 militants had been massing to attack another remote outpost in the vicinity, the commanders at Wanat had no reason to expect such a large frontal assault.
"The enemy normally conducts probing attacks prior to conducting an all-out, large-scale attack," the report said, quoting the investigating officer as concluding that it "was logical" to think that an initial probing attack would involve only about 20 militants seeking to gauge defenses and the reaction of American and Afghan forces.
However, the report criticized the "incredible amount of time" — 10 months — it took the NATO military authorities to negotiate arrangements over the site of the outpost, giving adversaries plenty of time "to plan coordinated and complex attacks."
Some details of the attack have been described in recent months by publications including The New York Times, The Army Times and Vanity Fair. But the 44-page report offers the most extensive account so far.
At the time of the attack, American and Afghan forces were still building fortifications of sandbags and earthen barriers around the main outpost and a small observation post about 100 yards away. In some places, those troops were protected only by strands of concertina wire and a ring of gun-mounted, armored Humvees, the report said.
The militants apparently detected the vulnerability and moved to exploit it. On the evening of July 12, the militants slipped into the village, undetected by the Americans, ordered the villagers to leave and set up firing positions inside houses and a mosque.
At 4:20 a.m. on July 13, the militants struck with a fusillade of heavy machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades, destroying the Americans' most potent weapons: 120-millimeter mortars and a TOW missile launcher.
At the same time, the militants blasted the observation post with rifle fire and more grenades. Within 20 minutes, all nine Americans inside the observation post were dead or wounded.
Three times, teams of soldiers from the main base ran a gantlet of hostile fire to resupply the observation post and carry back the dead and wounded. Within 30 minutes, American fighter-bombers were blasting the militant positions, followed by Apache helicopter gunships.
Just days after the attack, American forces abandoned the outpost at Wanat, but Nielson-Green said the military continued to patrol in the region from a larger base four miles away.
"This was a complex attack carried out by militants who clearly knew the terrain and maintained radio silence," she said.
French aid worker abducted in Kabul
By Carlotta Gall
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan: Gunmen kidnapped a French aid worker in central Kabul Monday morning and shot dead an Afghan bystander who tried to thwart the abduction, police and witnesses said.
The kidnapping was the latest of a series of incidents spreading alarm among foreigners in the capital. It was carried out just after 9 a.m. on a busy street of shops and homes
Last month, a British aid worker with dual South African nationality, Gayle Williams, 34, was killed in Kabul and the Taliban said it had executed her for spreading Christianity. There was no immediate claim for Monday's kidnapping but the Taliban denied involvement.
Two French aid workers were making their way from their residence to their office when three gunmen armed with assault rifles tried to seize them, shopkeepers and bystanders said.
One French citizen from a group known as AFRANE, meaning Amitié Franco-Afghane, or French-Afghan Friendship, escaped when an Afghan working as a driver in the intelligence service tackled one of the kidnappers and grabbed his gun.
The gunmen killed the driver, pushed the other aid worker into a car and drove off, witnesses said.
News reports in Paris said the abducted man was a French citizen and education expert who had been in Kabul for only a week. He had been staying with colleagues from AFRANE, which also specializes in education projects, but worked for a different French nongovernmental organization.
The news reports identified the kidnapped man as Dany Egreteau, 32, but did not specify the organization he worked for.
The slain man was identified only as Malik, 26. His uncle, Ghulam Hazrat, 50, said the kidnappers were dressed as security guards.
"They looked ordinary, they were young, 30 to 35," Hazrat said. "They aimed their Kalashnikovs at me and Malik's father, warning us not to approach."
There has been a string of kidnappings in the capital and neighboring provinces recently involving both foreigners and prominent Afghans. Many of them have been blamed by Afghan officials on criminal gangs seeking ransom.
A relative of the royal family, Homayun Shah, and the son of a prominent banker were kidnapped in recent weeks but were freed by the intelligence service, the National Security Directorate.
The head of the service, Amrullah Saleh, went on national television and complained that the man behind these kidnappings was a known criminal who had been jailed by security forces, only to be released because of failings in the judicial system.
In a separate incident last Thursday, a suspected Taliban suicide bomber shot his way into the Ministry of Information and Culture in central Kabul, then blew himself up, leaving at least two others dead. A few days earlier, a South African and a Briton working at the international courier service DHL were shot dead outside their office in Kabul. The police said the assailant was one of their security guards.
Taliban lift daytime phone ban in Afghan province
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
KABUL: Taliban insurgents have lifted a ban on mobile telephone companies operating their networks during daylight hours in the Afghan province of Ghazni, residents said Tuesday.
The local ban in Ghazni, two hours' drive south of Kabul, was imposed two weeks ago and came on top of a Taliban order to phone operators in February to turn off their networks at night across the country.
"Mobile phones are working again for the past couple of days, it is great," said resident Sherin Agha by phone from Ghazni town.
Taliban insurgents have destroyed several mobile phone towers in the south, causing resentment among residents for whom mobile phones are a vital means of communication. After 30 years of war, there are almost no landlines still working.
The night-time shutdown has been only partially enforced in the south and most networks continue to operate freely in the more peaceful north of the country.
Removed from power in 2001, the resurgent Taliban imposed the restrictions saying signals helped track its fighters. The al Qaeda-backed group also relies on mobile phones for communications.
Five mobile operators, three of them foreign companies, with an estimated investment of several hundred million dollars have set up business in Afghanistan since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban.
NATO and Afghan officials say the Taliban want mobile phone networks shut down to prevent villagers informing the authorities of their presence.
Ghazni was regarded as safe two years ago but Taliban militants have infiltrated into the area and now set up regular road blocks along the main highway, destroying supply trucks and killing or abducting foreigners or government workers.
(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Paul Tait)
Suicide bomb at Pakistani post kills one and injures 9
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
By Zeeshan Haider
A suicide bomber killed a Pakistani soldier and wounded nine Tuesday, highlighting the growing militant threat a day after the top U.S. commander in the region held security talks with Pakistani leaders.
The attack on a paramilitary post in the northwestern town of Doaba was the latest in an intensifying campaign by Islamist militants that has raised fears for Pakistan, a nuclear-armed U.S. ally also facing an economic crisis.
Doaba police official Omar Faraz Khattack said initially the soldiers were wounded: "One of them died on the way to hospital and one is seriously wounded."
Another police officer said a human head, apparently that of the suicide bomber, had been found at the scene.
Violence has intensified in Pakistan, most of it in the northwest, since last year with a series of suicide attacks, most on the police, military and political leaders, in which hundreds of people have been killed.
The military has been battling al Qaeda and Taliban militants in two parts of the northwest since August, and the militants have stepped up their attacks in response.
Warplanes hit militant positions in the Bajaur region on Tuesday but there was no word on casualties, a military official said.
Two rockets landed near the runway at the airport in the northwestern city of Peshawar late Monday but caused no damage.
General David Petraeus arrived in Pakistan Sunday at the beginning of his first foreign tour since taking charge of U.S. Central Command, underscoring U.S. concern about a country seen as crucial to stability in Afghanistan and to defeating al Qaeda.
U.S. analysts say Pakistan is facing a major threat from Islamist militants at a time when its new civilian government is engulfed in economic problems.
The United States says militant sanctuaries in northwest Pakistan are the biggest threat to Afghan security.
"SLAVE OF AMERICA"
The Petraeus visit comes as relations between the United States and Pakistan have been strained by a series of cross-border U.S. strikes, most by missile-firing pilotless drone aircraft, on militant targets in Pakistan.
President Asif Ali Zardari told Petraeus in talks Monday the attacks should stop.
Pakistan says the strikes are a violation of its sovereignty and undermine efforts to isolate the militants and rally public opinion behind the unpopular campaign against militancy, which many people see as America's war.
About 4,000 people protested in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border against the strikes and what some saw as the government's collusion in them.
"The government of Pakistan is a slave of America," cleric Mir Azam Khan told the crowd.
Petraeus told CNN Pakistani leaders had been forthright about the cross-border strikes.
"We got certain messages with each of those we talked to ... and some of those were very clear and we have to take those on board," Petraeus said.
The United States and NATO are losing ground against an escalating Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, despite the presence of 64,000 Western troops, while al Qaeda has regained strength in Pakistan's tribal region.
Frustration over deteriorating Afghan security appears to have led to more aggressive U.S. cross-border action.
Petraeus said Pakistan was aware of the threat it faced and was committed to acting on it.
"All parties recognise the nature of the threat, the significance of the extremist activity and the threat it poses to this country, to Afghanistan and beyond this region," he said.
(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider, Hafiz Wazir and Alamgir Bitani)
(Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Paul Tait)
Spate of Baghdad bombings after a quiet few weeks
By Riyadh Mohammed and Katherine Zoepf
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
BAGHDAD: Fifteen people were killed and dozens wounded by bombings in Baghdad on Tuesday, according to the police and hospital officials, part of an uptick in violence after a relatively quiet few weeks here.
In Mashtal, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad, an improvised explosive device hidden in a fishmonger's stall killed seven and wounded 18 when it exploded early Tuesday afternoon.
A police colonel, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the explosion was caused by a so-called "sticky IED," a small bomb with an adhesive backing that can be unobtrusively attached to the underside of a car, or even a table.
"I warned this fish seller only yesterday that his stand on the side of the street was not safe because anyone passing by could set an IED to blow him up, along with his customers," the police colonel said. "He didn't listen, and the poor guy lost his life in today's blast."
In Qahera, in northeastern Baghdad, another improvised explosive device killed four and injured eight.
Abu Rajaa, a shopkeeper who witnessed the blast, said it was caused by a sticky explosive device attached to a pickup truck parked in front of his shop.
"Suddenly the pickup exploded, and two of the people who were in it were killed immediately," Abu Rajaa said. "Several others were injured, and I took care of one of them until the ambulances arrived."
Another bombing in Baghdad singled out the convoy of Ahmed al-Barak, a Shiite government official who leads a commission on property disputes. Barak was unharmed, but a passer-by was killed and five of his bodyguards and several bystanders were wounded.
Also on Tuesday, the Iraqi customs police in Najaf Province announced the discovery of a large bag full of C4 explosives, wires and detonators — enough materials to make half a dozen suicide vests, organized into individual do-it-yourself kits — near the Saudi border on Sunday night.
Saadon al-Jaberi, a spokesman for the customs police in Iraq's central region, said the bag was found after the customs police received intelligence reports that terrorists were trying to enter Iraq from Saudi Arabia.
"On Sunday night, customs police were conducting patrols in an area called Rahba, near Iraq's border with Saudi Arabia," Jaberi said in a phone interview. "They saw a pickup truck heading toward Iraqi territory. When the police noticed the truck, it departed, leaving a bag."
"It was a large duffel bag with a long zipper," Jaberi said, and it turned out to be full of highly explosive material. "It was unclear whether the men in the pickup intended to actually enter Iraq, or whether they were simply waiting for someone to come so that they could hand the bag off to him."
The American military did not comment, and it was not possible to independently verify the findings of the Najaf customs police.
Stocks rally globally as Americans vote
One way to fix executive pay
By Andrew Ross Sorkin
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
NEW YORK: Whoever was elected president, one hot-button issue from this long campaign will keep hounding Wall Street: executive pay.
Both Barack Obama and John McCain have criticized the six- and seven-figure paychecks that Wall Street's top brass collected in recent years while driving their companies - and the entire financial system - into the ground.
Both candidates have said the heads-we-win, tails-you-lose pay schemes that seem all too common in finance lie at the heart of the crisis that threatens the whole economy. Even some senior executives have confessed to me that they agree.
So many people concur that the pay system is broken. It is clear that rewarding executives for delivering a few quarters of outsize profits or a share price that keeps rising (until it doesn't) only encourages those executives to take risks. And managing risks has not exactly been Wall Street's forte lately.
The question is, how should pay be fixed? Now that American taxpayers are shareholders in the nation's largest banks, a bevy of plans is making the rounds.
Some in Washington want to cap pay, period. Executives can make only so much and no more.
Others argue for "claw-backs." That is, they want executives who got rich while their companies were reporting fat profits to be forced to give some of the money back. After all, much of the industry's profits from the boom have been vaporized in the bust.
And still others have even come up with fancy formulas to rein in pay.
The issue has become such a nail-biter for big banks that some are even considering curbing pay voluntarily. Top executives hope that such a move, coming in a year when pay is already plummeting, might quiet the rhetoric.
While various plans are being bandied about, one in particular deserves attention. It comes from Raghuram Rajan, a professor of finance at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.
Rajan is a longtime critic of executive pay on Wall Street. But he is not a knee-jerk, all-big-bonuses-are-bad critic. Instead, he is a pretty thoughtful, pay-for-performance capitalist who has been studying ways to create the right incentives for the system to work.
He has a multipronged approach that would give banks a choice.
Under the first option, the government would strictly regulate compensation. Under the second, banks could pay their executives whatever they like - provided the banks set aside more capital. In other words, banks that cling to their free-wheeling ways would have to pay some sort of price.
For Rajan, this is an either-or proposition. If banks pursue current compensation policies - what might be described as the "no-responsibility" system, given the trouble we're in - that's fine.
But if that happens, "the government should levy more capital requirements against the bank," he said. Requiring banks to have higher capital requirements would reduce the risk that executives will make stupid decisions that imperil their companies and, possibly, the nation's financial health.
How much extra capital? That depends. If banks spread out executives' pay over, say, four years, giving their executives an incentive to make smart decisions for the long haul, the banks would be allowed to set aside a bit less additional capital.
Ditto if they included claw-back provisions and required executives to reinvest a substantial portion of their income in their companies so they had some skin in the game.
"We need to make people a little more worried about the future," Rajan said. The way things are now, executives are encouraged to take big risks because they get paid on the basis of the immediate fees generated. They have little incentive to worry about what might happen to the balance sheet later.
Rajan said he was unimpressed by efforts to pay executives partly in stock. Owning shares in the entire company doesn't tie bankers' compensation directly to the decisions they make within their own units.
"Stock compensation doesn't do it because it's too broad," he said.
More important, Rajan wants executives to be paid over a four-year period, receiving a fourth of their bonus income every year. If they make a bad bet, they won't get paid the remaining amount.
And Rajan thinks that bonuses should be based strictly on what he calls "accounting performance," rather than stock performance, which he says you can't control. He also wants the benchmark for a chief executive's pay to be the performance of rival companies. If a company's earnings are worse than their rivals', "why should they get a bonus?" he asked.
Despite all the criticism that hedge funds get for their compensation structures - they charge one fee up front and take a big cut of any profits - Rajan likes part of the hedge fund model: the "high-water mark."
When hedge-fund managers lose their investors' money, the managers don't collect any of that fat incentive fee until they make back the loss. The same rule should be applied to bankers who destroy shareholder value.
Ex-chief of risk at Bear Stearns gets job at New York Fed
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
WASHINGTON: The former chief risk officer at the investment bank Bear Stearns, which nearly collapsed in March, is a senior official of the Federal Reserve division that supervises U.S. banks.
Michael Alix, who worked at Bear Stearns for 12 years and was its senior risk manager since 2006, was named a senior vice president in the bank supervision group of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, according to an announcement by the Fed.
The appointment is apt to raise questions because of the key role Alix played at Bear Stearns and given the Federal Reserve's role in Bear Stearns' sale to JPMorgan Chase after its breathtaking slide. In his new job at the central bank, Alix will help oversee the financial safety and soundness of banks, which are inspected by Federal Reserve examiners.
"That's incredible," said James Cox, a Duke University law professor and securities law expert. "This is not reassuring. What is there in this person's experience and skill package" that qualifies him for the Fed position?
Cox and another expert said the selection of Alix might have made sense if he had sounded the alarm over Bear Stearns' deteriorating financial situation.
"We don't know what his role was within" the investment bank, said Charles Elson, a professor and director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. On the face of it, the appointment "may raise an eyebrow," he said.
The spokesman for the New York Fed, Andrew Williams, declined to comment Tuesday.
In March, with Bear Stearns on the brink of bankruptcy, the Federal Reserve and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson - with the involvement of Chairman Ben Bernanke and New York Fed President Timothy Geithner - orchestrated a buyout of Bear Stearns by JPMorgan. The deal was forged with a $29 billion federal backstop from the Fed acting as central bank
Federal prosecutors have been investigating the conduct of Bear Stearns managers before its blowup amid the collapse of the subprime mortgage market. Prosecutors have said they expect to bring additional criminal charges against two former Bear Stearns hedge fund managers who were accused last summer of lying to investors. The eventual implosion of the defendants' hedge funds cost investors $1.8 billion and began a domino effect that pushed Bear Stearns itself to the brink.
Alix, who was appointed by the New York Fed's board, officially assumed the senior vice president position Monday, the announcement said. He will be a senior adviser to William Rutledge, the executive vice president of the bank supervision division.
Before becoming Bear Stearns' chief risk officer in 2006, Alix was the bank's global head of credit risk management from 1996-2006. Before that, he was credit officer and vice president at Merrill Lynch.
In late September, the Securities and Exchange Commission ended a program of voluntary oversight for Wall Street investment banks that the SEC chairman said had not worked. Under the program, the SEC had inspected the five biggest Wall Street banks: Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs Group, Lehman Brothers Holdings, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley.
As the credit crisis deepened this fall, Lehman Brothers buckled under bad mortgage debt and made the biggest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history. Merrill Lynch agreed to sell itself to Bank of America. That left only two independent investment banks standing on Wall Street: Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. And both won approval from the Fed to change their status to bank holding companies to stay in business.
The regulatory shift allowed the two firms to create commercial banks that can take deposits, thereby bolstering their resources.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
By Patrick Markey
Colombia's top army commander resigned on Tuesday as charges rocked the U.S.-backed military that soldiers had killed civilians to present them as combat deaths and inflate their successes in a war against rebels.
The scandal broke at a sensitive time for President Alvaro Uribe, a Washington ally whose multibillion-dollar U.S. aid package and proposed U.S. trade pact likely will come under tougher scrutiny whoever wins the race for the White House.
The top commander, Gen. Mario Montoya, stepped down on Tuesday, days after Uribe purged 27 officers and soldiers from his army and the United Nations urged Colombia to stop security forces from killing civilians to bolster the guerrilla body count in a waning four-decade-old war against insurgents.
"I have spent 39 years in the service of my country and today I can say that journey has come to an end," Montoya told reporters, telling Colombians to wait for results of the investigations before judging soldiers in the killings.
Montoya had been the spearhead of recent strikes against the FARC rebel force, which is at its weakest in decades after the deaths of three commanders this year and the rescue of a group of high-profile hostages, including three Americans.
Uribe announced the recent military purge after a probe linked soldiers to the deaths of at least 11 young men who disappeared from a poor neighbourhood near Bogota and whose bodies were later found in mass graves hundreds of miles away.
Their families say they were offered work by a group of men, but the armed forces initially reported them as armed fighters killed in combat. As many as 19 bodies were found in the graves near the border with Venezuela.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay on Saturday called executions of civilians by soldiers "widespread and systematic" and urged Colombia to carry out more investigations.
The attorney general is investigating the case of the 11 men, but no one has been charged. Uribe has suggested troops could have collaborated with criminal gangs to kill civilians and claim rewards paid to informants who give tips on rebels.
Uribe on Tuesday defended Montoya, calling him one of the country's best generals, but named Gen. Oscar Gonzalez to replace him as national army commander.
"We need efficacy, transparency and efficiency," he said.
A former paramilitary boss this year accused Montoya of arming death squads and the Los Angeles Times cited CIA reports in 2007 saying he collaborated with paramilitary commanders to wipe out rebels. The government dismissed those charges.
Uribe's tough response to the killing of the 11 missing men could help him argue his government is taking rights violations more seriously than any previous government. But the case could fuel opposition in the United States to the contested free trade agreement.
U.S. Democrats have called for Uribe to do more to protect labour union leaders before any trade deal. And some Democrats have already pushed for a reduction in the military portion of Colombia's aid package -- the largest outside the Middle East.
"The horror of this particular case... is so great that it may have an effect on some members of Congress when the time comes again to open the checkbook for more Colombian military aid," said Adam Isacson, who analyzes U.S. ties with Colombia for Washington's Centre for International Policy.
Uribe is hugely popular for his crackdown on guerrillas and outlawed paramilitaries. Violence in cities and on highways has fallen as the rebels from Latin America's oldest-surviving insurgency are driven back into remote jungles and mountains.
But thousands of civilians are displaced each year by conflict in rural areas where government presence is weak and rights groups say executions are on the rise as the armed forces come under pressure to show results in combat.
(Reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota, Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
By Jeff Zeleny
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina: Madelyn Dunham, who watched from afar as her only grandson rapidly ascended the ranks of U.S. politics to the brink of the presidency, did not live to see whether he was elected.
Dunham, 86, Senator Barack Obama's grandmother, died late Sunday evening in Hawaii after battling cancer, which Obama announced upon arriving here Monday for a campaign stop on the eve of Election Day.
"She has gone home," Obama said, his voice tinged with emotion as he briefly spoke of her death at a campaign rally here. "She died peacefully in her sleep with my sister at her side, so there's great joy instead of tears."
Obama learned of his grandmother's death at 8 a.m. Monday, aides said, but appeared at a morning rally in Florida without making an announcement. A written statement was issued around 4:30 p.m., in the name of Obama and his sister, before he spoke at an evening rally in Charlotte. The delay was intended to allow his sister, who was six hours behind in Hawaii, time to take care of a few details before news of the death became public.
Dunham was the final remaining immediate family member who helped raise Obama during his teenage years in Hawaii. He called her Toot, his shorthand for "tutu," a Hawaiian term for grandparent.
Obama broke from the presidential campaign trail in late October to travel to Honolulu to bid his grandmother farewell. He spent part of two days with her, as she lay gravely ill in the small apartment where he lived from age 10 to 18.
While Dunham was too sick to travel to see her grandson on the campaign trail, Obama and other family members said that she closely followed his bid for the presidency through cable television. Yet she became a figure in his campaign, seen through images in television commercials intended to give him a biographical anchor.
Dunham, who grew up near August, Kansas, moved with her husband, Stanley Dunham, to Hawaii. In the early stages of his candidacy, Obama spoke wistfully about his grandparents, whose all-American biography suddenly was critical to establishing his own story.
For Obama, the loss came on the final full day of his presidential campaign. Campaigning in New Mexico, Senator John McCain and his wife, Cindy, offered their condolences Monday, saying: "Our thoughts and prayers go out to them as they remember and celebrate the life of someone who had such a profound impact in their lives."
His grandmother's illness had been weighing on him in recent weeks, friends said, which is why he insisted on interrupting his schedule to visit her last month. While she was gravely ill, aides said, Obama carried on a limited conversation with her. He kept the visit to one day, advisers said, partly out of her own insistence that people not create a fuss.
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
TOKYO: The Japanese Defense Ministry has punished several top officials over an essay written by an air force general who was fired for stating that the country was not an aggressor in World War II, officials said Tuesday.
The defense minister, Yasukazu Hamada, and three other senior officials are taking partial pay cuts, with two bureaucrats admonished over the history essay by the air force chief of staff, General Toshio Tamogami, who was dismissed from that post Friday, the ministry said in a statement.
"It was truly regrettable that an official serving as air force chief of staff caused such a controversy," Hamada said. He promised to ensure that proper education among servicemen to nurture "objective understanding of facts without a distorted view of history." He is returning about ¥169,000, about $1,690, from his November salary.
Japan's wartime aggression remains a sensitive topic that could easily strain its relations with China and South Korea, though both countries have so far reacted calmly to the essay. China on Monday welcomed Tamogami's dismissal.
In the essay, which won a writing competition Friday organized by a hotel and condominium developer, Tamogami wrote: "It is certainly a false accusation to say that our country was an aggressor nation" during World War II. He defended life under Japanese occupation as "very moderate."
Tamogami also claimed that Japan was tricked into attacking Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, by President Franklin Roosevelt.
His views are widely shared among right-wing lawmakers and historians in Japan.
China-Japan relations nose-dived this decade over various Japanese leaders' visits to a Tokyo war shrine that honors its war dead, including convicted war criminals.
Ties have improved markedly over the last two years.
Tamogami, 60, retired completely from the ministry on Monday - with all retirement benefits - but his essay has sparked controversy among Japanese politicians.
It also dealt the latest blow to Japan's military, under fire over a spate of recent scandals including the death of a sailor in an unofficial farewell ritual, a confidential missile data leak, and a deadly collision between a destroyer and tuna trawler.
While opposition leaders criticized Prime Minister Taro Aso's unpopular government over the essay, cabinet ministers quickly denounced Tamogami.
The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan is demanding parliamentary questioning of Tamogami and other top officials.
The essay "was extremely inappropriate," said Ryu Shionoya, the minister of education, adding that Japanese textbooks clearly portray Japan as an aggressor.
Tamogami offered no apology, saying he believed that the essay would "benefit the country and the people."
"I don't think the essay was biased," Tamogami said Monday. "A country where one cannot say anything against the government's view has no democracy - the same as North Korea."
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
CHANDIGARH, India: Forty-six people were killed when a bus plunged down a deep gorge in northern India after the driver lost control while changing the music, officials said Tuesday.
The bus was travelling between two tourist resorts in Himachal Pradesh state when it veered off the road 16 km (10 miles) east of the state capital Shimla, a state government official said.
Forty-six people were killed and four people critically injured, said Joginder Singh Rana, Shimla's deputy commissioner. The army was carrying out rescue operations, he added.
"The bus driver's attention was diverted as he was changing a CD in the music system and the bus was also going at a very high speed," he said, citing witnesses.
Reckless driving and poor road conditions frequently cause accidents with high death tolls in India. In October, at least 23 people died in a bus crash in the northeastern state of Assam.
(Reporting by Geetinder Garewal; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Catherine Bosley)
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
MANILA: At least 39 people, including eight children, were drowned and 10 were missing after a boat capsized in the central Philippines on Tuesday, police said.
Police officials in Manila said the MV Don Dexter Cathleen was carrying 119 passengers and six crew when it was hit by strong winds near the island of Masbate.
The boat capsized and 76 people were rescued, police said.
At least 39 bodies were recovered and rescue efforts were continuing to locate the missing, they said.
Ferries are a cheap and popular mode of transport in the Philippines and are often overcrowded. Accidents are common.
(Reporting by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by David Fox)
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
HANNOVER, Germany: A tour bus caught fire on a highway near the northern German city of Hannover on Tuesday night, killing 20 people, after a passenger reportedly sneaked a cigarette, police said.
Many of the dead were elderly people who apparently could not get out before the bus was engulfed in flames.
Survivors told authorities the fire broke out in the bathroom of the bus as it drove down the A2 Autobahn (highway) after a person smoked a cigarette there, police spokesman Stefan Wittke said.
Still, he said it was too early to rule out a mechanical problem with the bus as the cause of the blaze that also injured at least 13 people. Three of the injured had serious burns, according to one firefighter.
The bus had 39 primarily elderly passengers and the driver aboard, according to the Hannover-based company Mommeyer that owns it. Wittke, however, said 33 people were aboard the bus. It was not possible to immediately reconcile the difference.
A tour group had chartered the bus for a day trip from Hannover to a farm, Uwe Prehn, the husband of the bus company owner, told The Associated Press by telephone.
The bus was on its way back to Hannover when the fire broke out at 8:45 p.m. (1945 GMT, 2:45 p.m. EST).
Bild newspaper posted a picture of the scorched wreckage of the bus, its back window blown out, at the side of the road with firefighters nearby.
The bus apparently pulled off into an emergency lane before it was engulfed in flames, but many people were unable to get off in time, Bild reported on its Web site.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
By Emmanuel Braun
Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda threatened on Tuesday to take his eastern guerrilla war westwards to the capital Kinshasa unless the government agreed to talks on the country's future.
Defiant in the face of international moves to end the conflict in east Democratic Republic of Congo, Nkunda rejected complaints by human rights groups against him, saying he "didn't give a damn" about the International Criminal Court (ICC).
"I've done no wrong to my people ... nobody can reproach me for anything," the slim, bespectacled rebel chief said in an interview at his hilltop headquarters in North Kivu province.
Nkunda, who belongs to and defends Congo's Tutsi minority but also demands a better government for the whole country, last week suspended a major advance towards North Kivu's provincial capital Goma that displaced tens of thousands of civilians.
The United Nations and foreign aid groups are now scrambling to address a humanitarian emergency described as "catastrophic" by relief workers in a country where more than 5 million people have died in a decade from conflict, hunger and disease.
Wearing a green beret and beige camouflage uniform and carrying a cane topped with a silver eagle's head, Nkunda said that if his offer of talks was not accepted by President Joseph Kabila, he would end a cease-fire in North Kivu.
"If they refuse to negotiate, it will mean they will be ready to only fight and we will fight them because we have to fight for our freedom," Nkunda said, surrounded by verdant hills that have earned North Kivu the name "Africa's Switzerland."
The atmosphere there was peaceful, in sharp contrast to the anguish and suffering of refugees packed into camps around Goma, who are clamouring for food and protection from violence.
But 50 km (35 miles) to the northeast at Kiwanja, Nkunda's men fought a gun battle with the Pareco Mai-Mai militia, some of whose fighters backed Kabila during the war but which, like Nkunda, had signed a peace deal for North Kivu in January.
U.N. peacekeepers at a mobile operations base were caught in the crossfire but none were injured, a U.N. spokesman said.
Nkunda, a former army general who commands a 4,000-strong guerrilla force, said his next offensive would not stop at Goma, where U.N. peacekeepers have reinforced positions, but aim for Congo's capital Kinshasa, over 1,500 km (950 miles) to the west.
"Goma is just a place to pass through ... When they force us to come down to Goma we won't stop there," he said.
Congo's government has refused to talk with Nkunda since his latest offensive and accuses neighbouring Rwanda, also a former Belgian colony, of backing him -- a charge denied by Kigali.
"I'm not from Rwanda and I claim nothing for Rwanda," said Nkunda, who led his rebel cabinet in a prayer before a meeting.
U.N. peacekeepers say their 17,000-strong force, the world's largest peace mission, is badly stretched across a country the size of Western Europe, where violent armed groups abound, often profiting from its rich reserves of copper, cobalt and gold.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the Security Council to approve sending more than extra 3,000 soldiers and police to eastern Congo. But there was no sign it would discuss the request any time soon.
International efforts are under way to hold a peace summit between Congo and Rwanda and tackle the humanitarian emergency.
Since 2006 elections that returned Kabila to power, hopes rose that the vast central African nation had finally left behind the 1998-2003 war that left the economy in ruins.
Investor interest in Congo's mineral treasure trove has risen in the last two years. But Central Bank Governor Jean-Claude Masangu said on Tuesday weak demand for metals in the global financial crisis will push economic growth below 10 percent next year and force a scaling back of mining projects.
Masangu listed the humanitarian crisis in the east, and the pressures of military spending, as economic risks.
Rebel chief Nkunda said the negotiations he sought with the government should focus on "good governance and security."
"To become head of state is not my ambition," he said.
Rights groups accuse his men of recruiting child soldiers and the ICC has issued a warrant for one of his commanders. ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said on Tuesday crimes like rape and mass displacements in the Kivus would not go unpunished.
Nkunda backed the idea of a peace summit between Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, but called for an "internal solution" for east Congo's conflict, which nevertheless traces its origins back to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
At a refugee camp near Goma, ragged children with swollen bellies mobbed U.N. mission chief Alan Doss, demanding food.
Doss said the U.N. force had brought in more troops to Goma from other parts of the country. "But we're robbing Peter to pay Paul, MONUC is thinly stretched," he told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Kinhasa and Hez Holland and Yves Boussen in Goma; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood and Angus MacSwan)
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Here's a sobering reminder: As of Wednesday, George W. Bush still has 76 days left in the White House. And he's not wasting a minute.
President Bush's aides have been scrambling to change rules and regulations on the environment, civil liberties and abortion rights among others - few for the good. Most presidents put on a last-minute policy stamp, but in Bush's case it is more like a wrecking ball. We fear it could take months, or years, for the next president to identify and then undo all of the damage.
Here is a look - by no means comprehensive - at some of Bush's recent parting gifts and those we fear are yet to come:
Civil liberties: We don't know all of the ways that the administration has violated Americans' rights in the name of fighting terrorism. Last month, Attorney General Michael Mukasey rushed out new guidelines for the FBI that permit agents to use chillingly intrusive techniques to collect information on Americans even where there is no evidence of wrongdoing.
Agents will be allowed to use informants to infiltrate lawful groups, engage in prolonged physical surveillance and lie about their identity while questioning a subject's neighbors, relatives, co-workers and friends. The changes also give the FBI - which has a long history of spying on civil rights groups and others - expanded latitude to use these techniques on people identified by racial, ethnic and religious background.
The administration showed further disdain for privacy rights and for Congress' power by making clear that it will ignore a provision in the legislation that established the Department of Homeland Security. The law requires the department's privacy officer to account annually for any activity that could affect Americans' privacy and clearly stipulates that the report cannot be edited by any other officials at the department or the White House.
The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel has released a memo asserting that the law "does not prohibit" officials from Homeland Security or the White House from reviewing the report. The memo then argues that since the law allows the officials to review the report, it would be unconstitutional to stop them from changing it. George Orwell couldn't have done better.
The environment: The administration has been especially busy weakening regulations that promote clean air and clean water and protect endangered species.
Bush - or, more to the point, Vice President Dick Cheney - came to office determined to dismantle Bill Clinton's environmental legacy, undo decades of environmental law and keep their friends in industry happy. They have had less success than we feared, but only because of the determined opposition of environmental groups, courageous members of Congress and protests from citizens. But the White House keeps trying.
Bush's secretary of the interior, Dirk Kempthorne, has recently carved out significant exceptions to regulations requiring expert scientific review of any federal project that might harm endangered or threatened species. The department also is rushing to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list - again. The wolves were re-listed after a federal judge ruled the government had not lived up to its own recovery plan.
In coming weeks, we expect the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a final rule that would weaken a program created by the Clean Air Act, which requires utilities to install modern pollution controls when they upgrade their plants to produce more power.
Interior is also awaiting EPA's concurrence on a proposal that would make it easier for mining companies to dump toxic mine wastes in valleys and streams.
And while no rules changes are at issue, the Interior Department also has been rushing to open up millions of acres of pristine federal land to oil-and-gas exploration. We fear that in coming weeks, Kempthorne will open up even more acreage to the commercial development of oil shale, a hugely expensive and environmentally risky process that even the oil companies seem in no hurry to begin.
Abortion rights: Soon after the election, Michael Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services, is expected to issue new regulations aimed at further limiting women's access to abortion, contraceptives and information about their reproductive health care options.
Existing law allows doctors and nurses to refuse to participate in an abortion. These changes would extend the so-called right to refuse to a wide range of health care workers and activities including abortion referrals, unbiased counseling and provision of birth control pills or emergency contraception, even for rape victims.
The administration has taken other disturbing steps in recent weeks. In late September, the IRS restored tax breaks for banks that take big losses on bad loans inherited through acquisitions. Now we learn that JPMorgan Chase and others are planning to use their bailout funds for mergers and acquisitions, transactions that will be greatly enhanced by the new tax subsidy.
One last-minute change Bush won't be making: He apparently has decided not to shut down the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba - the most shameful symbol of this administration's disdain for the rule of law.
Bush has said it should be closed, and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and his secretary of defense, Robert Gates, pushed for it. Proposals were prepared, including a plan for sending the real bad guys to other countries for trial. But Cheney objected, and the president has refused even to review the memos. He will hand this mess off to his successor.
We suppose there is some good news in all of this. While Bush leaves office on Jan. 20, 2009, he has only until Nov. 20 of this year to issue "economically significant" rule changes and until Dec. 20 to issue other changes. Anything after that is merely a draft and can be easily withdrawn by the next president.
Unfortunately, the White House is well aware of those deadlines.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Nov. 4 is a historic day because it marks the end of an economic era, a political era and a generational era all at once.
Economically, it marks the end of the Long Boom, which began in 1983. Politically, it probably marks the end of conservative dominance, which began in 1980. Generationally, it marks the end of baby boomer supremacy, which began in 1968.
For the past 16 years, baby boomers, who were formed by the tumult of the 1960s, occupied the White House. By Wednesday morning, if the polls are to be believed, a member of a new generation will become president-elect.
So today is not only a pivot, but a confluence of pivots.
When historians look back at the era that is now closing, they will see a time of private achievement and public disappointment. In the past two decades, the United States has become a much more interesting place. Companies like Starbucks, Apple, Crate & Barrel, Microsoft and many others enlivened daily life. Private citizens, especially young people, repaired the social fabric, dedicated themselves to community service and lowered drug addiction and teenage pregnancy.
Yet, at the same time, the public sphere has not flourished.
Despite decades of affluence, long-standing issues like health care, education, energy and entitlement debt have not been adequately addressed. The baby boomers, who entered adulthood promising a lifetime of activism, have been a politically undistinguished generation. They produced two presidents, neither of whom lived up to his potential. They remained consumed by the culture war that divided their generation. They pass their political supremacy today having squandered the fat years and the golden opportunities.
Month by month, frustration has mounted. Americans are anxious about their private lives but absolutely disgusted by public leaders.
So change is demanded.
Republicans nominated an old warrior with a record of making hard decisions and absorbing the blows that ensue. Many of us regard him - and always will - as one of the heroes of our time. But the public demand for change was total, and if the polls are right, voters will elect the man who breaks from the recent past in almost every way.
Barack Obama is a child of a child of the 1960s. His mother was born only five years earlier than Hillary Clinton. For people in Obama's generation, the great disruption had already occurred by the time they hit adulthood. Theirs is a generation of consolidation and neo-traditionalism - a generation of sunscreen and bicycle helmets, more anxious about parenthood than anything else.
Obama is not only a member of this temperate generation, but of its most educated segment. He has lived nearly his entire adult life within a few miles of one or another of the country's top 10 universities.
His upscale, educated class post-boomer cohort has rallied behind him with unalloyed fervor. Major college newspapers have endorsed him at a ratio of 63-1. The upscale educated class - from the universities, the media, the law and the financial centers - has financed his $600 million campaign (which relied on big-dollar donations even more heavily than George W. Bush's 2004 effort). This cohort will soon become the ruling class.
And the irony is that they will be confronted by the problem for which they have the least experience and for which they are the least prepared: the problem of scarcity.
Raised in prosperity, favored by genetics, these young meritocrats will have to govern in a period when the demands on the nation's wealth outstrip the supply. They will grapple with the growing burdens of an aging society, rising health care costs and high energy prices.
They will have to make up for the trillion or so dollars the government will spend to avoid a deep recession. They will have to struggle to keep their promises to cut taxes, create an energy revolution, pass an expensive health care plan and all the rest.
As Robert J. Samuelson writes in his forthcoming book, "The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath," "Already, Americans face far more claims on their incomes than can be easily met."
In the next few years, the nation's wealth will either stagnate or shrink. The fiscal squeeze will grow severe. There will be fiercer struggle over scarce resources, starker divisions along factional lines. The challenge for the next president will be to cushion the pain of the current recession while at the same time trying to build a solid fiscal foundation so the country can thrive at some point in the future.
We're probably entering a period, in other words, in which smart young liberals meet a stone-cold scarcity that they do not seem to recognize or have a plan for.
In an age of transition, the children are left with the burdens of their elders.
By H.D.S. Greenway
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
As the world watches
And so it ends. The longest, most expensive, and riveting campaign in living memory is finally over. It has been an international cliff-hanger, with people in Europe, Africa, and Asia following every little twist and turn as avidly as anyone in the United States. For even though they may not have the vote, all the world knows the importance of America's choice.
Seldom has there been such an all-encompassing drama. It seems almost too theatrical remembering now how the Clintons, so full of confidence and entitlement, were brought low by a newcomer of whom most people had never heard five years before. And John McCain, his campaign in tatters and out of money in New Hampshire, prevailing over the deep-pocketed Mitt Romney, whose positions kept shifting with the political winds.
Books and magazines are full of advice on what our new president faces in his first term. Pundits are saying that not since Franklin D. Roosevelt, or perhaps Abraham Lincoln, has the task been so daunting, given the messes that President Bush and Dick Cheney are leaving on the White House floor.
Two unfinished wars, a national debt rising to dangerous levels, an army stretched to the breaking point, and an economy in shambles limit the ability of a new president to carry out anything new.
Given the political establishment's inertia, the lack of maneuver room the new president will have, and the all-but insurmountable difficulties he faces, it may be, as a recent New Yorker cartoon suggested, that real change can only be found in drink during the "change you can believe in hour" at your local bar.
Looking back, the most amazing aspect of the Bush years was not the arrogance and imperial over-reach. It was its sheer incompetence. It was something unexpected when Bush came to power, given his team: Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and, yes, Dick Cheney. I thought at least they could get things done, for better or worse.
But it became clear before their armies reached Baghdad that this was a quick, unplanned dash with no follow-through. How agonizingly slow the administration was to admit even to an insurgency in Iraq. How slow it was to recognize the damage that Hurricane Katrina had inflicted, and how slow it was to realize that pushing Reagan-era deregulation too far was about to beggar us all.
Although Bush has been keeping such a low profile up to now that many could be forgiven for thinking he has already left office, the grim and sobering truth is that he has 76 days left in power, enough time to do a lot of mischief. The administration is now free of any responsibility to the Republican Party or the election.
As for the American people, they were never considered by this administration to be anything more than an entity to be manipulated and lied to in the interest of unrestricted executive power.
The danger of an American attack on Iran has now passed. There would be stiff resistance from the Pentagon, and the neoconservative hawks that held such sway in Bush's first administration are now in eclipse.
Bush and Cheney might give Israel the green light, however. I was told by a source whom I trust that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel sought a promise from Bush that he would bomb Iran before he left office. Such an attack would delay, not stop, Iran from building a bomb, and the results of an attack, the political fallout in the Middle East and around the world, would be the only thing worse than Iran having a bomb.
To bring about real change in the world, the new president will have to rethink and reorganize the entire concept of preventive war and the so-called war on terror.
As the author Thomas Powers wrote recently, what "no country can do for long [is] force strange people in distant places to reshape their politics and society more to our liking. The effort passes as nation-building at the outset, but in the long run counterinsurgency always comes down to the same self-defeating strategy - killing locals until they stop trying to make us go away."
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
America is a house with many rooms. In an image of the writer Philip Slater, our frontier legacy instilled in us the habit of taking possession of one pristine room at a time.
Instead of occupying the whole house at once, we have lived in it room by room, successively. At first, we love the clean feeling of a fresh space, but gradually we litter the room with accumulations, both material and spiritual. Garbage and broken promises clutter the corners, then spill into the center of the room. Waste, excess, and lost innocence pile high.
Finally, unable to stand it, we pack a few special possessions and open the next door, ready for a fresh start, a new room. Because the house is so big, there is always unused space, just waiting for us to claim it. Close the door on the sullied past.
This is what the continental progression from spoiled east to ever-virginal west amounted to, in Slater's metaphor - a nation that never had to reckon with its profligate ways because there was always the next frontier. The great American ideal of freedom was thus founded on freedom from accountability.
Slater's metaphor obviously applies to a long-operative environmental irresponsibility, as polluted cities were left behind for pastoral suburbs, and as sprawl-ruined suburbs are now being left behind for evergreen exurbs.
The metaphor precisely describes the geographic state of American education, with trashed inner-city schools left behind by "No Child Left Behind." But the metaphor applies more abstractly, too - as we see U.S. foreign policy on Iraq, for example, defined, first, by wrecking the room, and then (now), by getting the hell out (let's try Afghanistan.) We solve our problems by leaving them behind. We don't do consequences.
Today, the United States stands at a threshold, marked by the election. As has happened so often before, a new room seems to lie open before us - but this is a room with a view. What is seen from there means that the whole house of America might never look the same. The threshold itself is the transformation. So let's just vote, and, as the admirable but poorly named antiwar organization proposes, move on.
No, let's not. Thinking of the election simply as a fresh start is a temptation to be resisted. There will be no closing the door on what America has been doing, so let's not even try. After voting, instead of lighting out, let's turn back and reckon with what has been befouled.
This is a matter of specific policies: end the Middle East wars, of course, but cooperate in unprecedented international diplomacy to eliminate the causes of war; change the urban-suburban social contract to bring impoverished inner cities back into economic and cultural vitality; recast the underpinnings of the economy, with one eye on demilitarizing it and another on making justice count as much as profit.
But more than policy, a change in American mythology is required. No innocence abroad; none at home. Good intentions aren't enough. The last frontier is long closed. No new frontiers. No moving on. Only one Earth. Love it or lose it. That's the truth, which has consequences.
Everyone is asking what kind of leader our next president will be. But there is a prior question: What kind of people will we be? The transformation that matters tomorrow is the one that occurs in the hearts of citizens. Can we cast our votes as a personal promise to be responsible for where and how we live?
Democracy does not end with the ballot, but begins there. Our ill-treated house, staying with the metaphor, has brought the neighborhood down, even as we and our housemates have not been good to one another. Can we change? Yes.
The convergence of historic U.S. foreign policy failures, an epochal economic collapse, a cultural mutation spawned by information technology, a make-or-break moment for American schools, the global environmental challenge and the arrival of new political leadership - all of this defines the threshold on which we stand.
Not a new room, but the only room there ever was, waiting to be finally ruined - or fully renewed.
By Paul Burka, Robert Draper, Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan, Jacob Weisberg, and Curtis Sittenfeld
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
As the world knows, America is electing a new president on Tuesday. Barring unforeseen electoral circumstances, George W. Bush will no longer have the presidential stage to himself. We asked six writers to reflect on what they have most admired about him.
I feel nostalgic about the person I knew as Governor Bush. I miss that guy. He was the best politician I ever saw. He really was "a uniter, not a divider." He refused to kowtow to the far right. He worked with Democrats to strengthen public education, while Republicans were pushing vouchers. He had four vacancies on the Texas Supreme Court, and he filled them all with centrist judges. The extreme right wing of the Republican Party was his enemy, not his ally. His administration was untainted by scandal. Karl Rove remained an outside consultant rather than a gubernatorial staffer.
But when he reached the White House, Governor Bush vanished, to be replaced by President George W. Bush - a person I didn't recognize. He was never to return.
- PAUL BURKA, the senior executive editor of Texas Monthly
Loyal to a fault
One spring morning last year, I happened to be strolling through the congressional cemetery east of Capitol Hill with the White House press secretary, Dana Perino, as she walked her dog. Perino was candidly describing the challenges of her job, which were only mounting as George W. Bush's approval rating continued to drop. Then she looked directly at me and said, "But it's all worth it, because I so believe in the president."
It would have been easy for me to dismiss Perino as a bright and likable but ultimately Kool-Aid-stricken peddler of talking points, were it not for two things.
First, my interviews with current and former Bush staffers constantly veered off into similar testimonials. Their belief in Bush transcended ideology: As much as anything else, they just loved the guy. They loved how he treated the elevator man with the same courtesy as a foreign leader; how he often picked up the phone to congratulate the bride of a junior staffer; how he never pointed fingers, harbored grudges, snubbed, publicly belittled or boasted.
Above all, they loved how they never had to worry which George W. Bush would show up to the Oval Office. It was fitting that he worked at a desk carved from a British warship, the HMS Resolute - clarity of purpose being the admirable flip side to his at times infuriating certitude.
I saw some of these qualities firsthand during my six interviews with the president between December 2006 and May 2007. When I asked him if he felt betrayed in any way by the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's errors relating to the war in Iraq, Bush refused to assign blame. "No," he said. "See, every decision's mine." During my final interview with him, he told me that he held back his doubts and worries in front of subordinates because "I don't want to burden them with that."
Bush has paid a price for his human decency. Seeking to buck up his Katrina-whipped FEMA director, he delivered the single most damning one-liner of his presidency: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." His sense of loyalty blinded him to the shortcomings of several senior aides - among them Scott McClellan, who rewarded Bush's generosity with a lacerating tell-all book. He kept the press away from his two daughters, when their charm could have been deployed to buoy up his sagging numbers.
When the vault of the 43rd presidency is sealed, it will include, among many things, evidence of Bush's virtue.
- ROBERT DRAPER, a correspondent for GQ and the author of "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush"
A clear view
I'll miss President Bush's moral clarity. The president's critics hated his willingness to label things right or wrong, and the press used to bang me around for it, but history will show how right he was.
Shortly after 9/11, the president gave a speech in which he talked about the fight between good and evil, and that good would win. Afterward, I told him I thought he was being simplistic: "There are a lot of shades of gray in this war. I think it's more nuanced."
He looked at me and said, "If this isn't good versus evil, what is?"
Then he reminded me that when Ronald Reagan went to Berlin, he called on Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" - not to put a gate in it or to remove some bricks. Reagan said to tear it all down.
Bush saw the presidency as the place to call the American people to big challenges - in morally clear terms. As his spokesman, I knew that many people would be uncomfortable with how easily he made such moral judgments. I also knew that many Americans welcomed his tough, direct and unambiguous moral clarity.
I'll miss that direct talk. In the age of terrorism, the one thing we have to fear more than anything is moral relativism.
When Israel was attacked during the Bush years, the president always stated that Israel had a right to defend itself. After 9/11, he never referred to Israel's counterattacks as a "cycle of violence." He understood that when a democracy strikes back against terrorists, it's not a "cycle." It's self-defense.
We haven't been attacked since 9/11, Libya no longer has nuclear weapons, Syria was stopped from acquiring them, Saddam Hussein is gone, and Iraq is on its way to being a nation that fights terrorism - all on President Bush's watch. His job approval may now be low, but he should leave office with his head held high. I hope his successors recognize the strength that moral clarity can provide.
- ARI FLEISCHER, the White House press secretary from 2001 to 2003
In good faith
What I will miss most about George W. Bush as president is his sincere concern for promoting human dignity.
I was at his side when he met with defectors from North Korean forced-labor camps; listened to firsthand accounts of the unconscionable atrocities Saddam Hussein committed; shared the elation of women freed from the injustices of the Taliban; worked to dramatically increase government funding to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in Africa; and pressed other world leaders to stop genocide in Darfur. The compassion Bush showed for the oppressed and suffering in these moments was inspiring.
It also helped obscure his flaws to those of us who worked for him, making it difficult for us to realize that his presidency was veering off course.
While he did not always choose wisely in his efforts to advance human dignity, his motives were genuine. And in those somber moments when he visited wounded troops or families of those who'd made the ultimate sacrifice, I saw - ever so briefly - a glimmer of self-doubt.
Bush bears responsibility for the consequences of the war he chose to wage in Iraq. But alongside his profound flaws and the mistakes he made, I can also see and respect his inner decency. Let's hope the next president will share his passion for human dignity - and also find ways to express it with greater wisdom and judgment.
- SCOTT McCLELLAN, the White House press secretary from 2003 to 2006 and the author of "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception"
I was listening to George W. Bush speak at a rally in New Hampshire, in January 2000, when he came up with what remains my favorite of his miscues: "I know how hard it is to put food on your family." This could be an amusing few months, I remember thinking.
The only slow period for Bushisms was right after Sept. 11, when the president's inadequacies no longer seemed very funny. Then Bush declared that normality was returning: "I am here to make an announcement that this Thursday, ticket counters and airplanes will fly out of Ronald Reagan Airport."
The president's critics see such flubs as proof of his idiocy. His defenders believe that calling attention to them is hostile. But the president's verbal stumbles have only made me like him better. It's hard to despise someone who just wants "to make the pie higher" or who says he won't answer your question, "Neither in French nor in English. Nor in Mexican."
Maybe the greatest expression of his befuddlement was something he said when asked to respond to an article by the writer Gail Sheehy claiming he was an undiagnosed dyslexic. "The woman who knew that I had dyslexia - I never interviewed her," he sputtered.
Bush's battle with English has enriched our political language. It is no longer possible to say a person or a factor has been underestimated. Thanks to him, that word is now misunderestimated. In trade negotiations, tariffs and barriers have become bariffs and terriers. Kosovo is the land of the Kosovians, Greece the ancient homeland of the Grecians, a Reagan-loving people with no gray hair.
There is no strategy, only "strategery," a term coined by the comedian Will Ferrell and adopted inside the administration.
Most politicians don't care about language and abuse it through euphemism, vagueness and cliche. Bush is not so indifferent. When words won't do what he wants, he tries to wrestle them into submission. His memorable coinages - Hispanically, arbo-treeist - express the frustration we all feel at those moments when language won't go our way. In the face of defeat, Bush remains unbowed by grammar. You've got to admire that, kind of.
- JACOB WEISBERG, the editor in chief of the Slate Group and the author of "The Bush Tragedy"
The compassionate conservative
During the last eight years, when I've mentioned to people that I'm completely fascinated by Laura Bush, most think I'm kidding.
They see her as a traditional wife and mother, a gracious and well-mannered conservative. And while this might, depending upon whom you ask, be an admirable description, it doesn't tend to prompt fascination. Oh, I say, but there's so much more to her!
Among my favorite facts: She spent her 20s working at ethnically diverse, low-income schools and was a Democrat until she married George Bush at the age of 31 - after knowing him just 12 weeks. As first lady of Texas, she'd eat at hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants, shop at Wal-Mart and fly Southwest Airlines to visit friends.
In the White House, in addition to organizing literary events that featured writers who have publicly disagreed with her husband's policies, she has been far more politically involved than people realize - traveling to Africa and the Middle East to raise awareness for, respectively, AIDS and breast cancer, and advocating for the opposition leader of Myanmar, who has long been under house arrest.
Of course, what's most intriguing to Democrats like me are the suggestions that Mrs. Bush might still be considerably less conservative than her husband: She has said that she does not think Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Asked in 2004 whether she and the president have gay friends, she told a reporter, "Sure, of course. Everyone does." And earlier this year, Mrs. Bush spoke publicly of her admiration for Hillary Clinton's "grit and strength."
I will miss Mrs. Bush not only for keeping me guessing but also for seeming like an intelligent and compassionate presence in a White House not widely recognized for its intelligence or compassion - for being the one person in there whom I'm pretty sure a lot of us would like even more if only we knew her better.
- CURTIS SITTENFELD, the author of the novel "American Wife"
By James SaftReuters
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
LONDON: It has been a bad few weeks for hedge funds, including perhaps the world's biggest, Britain.
Like so many hedge funds, Britain as a nation sought to maximize its gains in recent years by borrowing short-term money, usually from overseas, and investing at higher risk in hope of greater returns.
Now the funding is gone, and even large-scale government intervention is unlikely to avert a very damaging contraction in credit.
The assets Britain backed, be they property at home or foreign direct investment abroad, are hard to sell to meet margin calls, and unlikely to yield as much as they have in the past.
As detailed last week in a Bank of England report on financial stability, the British banking system has hugely expanded the asset side of its balance sheet in recent years, making loans and holding securities, but without building up capital proportionally.
"I was shocked myself at the scale - the leverage ratio of the banking system at 35 and some of them have 60," said Michael Hart, head of European FX strategy at Citigroup in London. A ratio of 35 to 1 means that banks on average had committed £35 of securities, including loans, for every £1 of capital.
"If that comes back to the norm for commercial banks of 10 times leverage that means an awful lot of adjustment, an awful lot of balance sheet adjustment in the banking system but also a huge adjustment economy-wide."
In 2001 large British banks lent about the same amount to their corporate and consumer clients as they took in deposits, but by the end of June were lending out £740 billion, or $1.16 trillion, more than they had deposits, squaring this circle by borrowing money for short periods, often from abroad.
That short-term funding is now largely gone. Many of the loans that were made and the securities banks put on their balance sheets are looking very suspect.
It is not a coincidence that, while this was happening, the household savings rate in Britain declined from nearly 6 percent to little more than zero.
The British government has offered to inject £50 billion into banks and guarantee new short- and medium-term debt; Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds TSB and HBOS have agreed to accept as much as £37 billion of government money.
This will help, but while banks are trying to cut back gently on lending while increasing deposits, a recession may mean that savings are even harder to attract, as households cut back on consumption yet still find it tough to put money aside.
Banks will have to brake hard on lending, despite pleas from the government.
But the banking system is just part of the story. The current British account deficit doubled in the second quarter to £11 billion, or 3 percent of gross domestic product. And while the net international investment position in Britain is not as bad as that for some other developed open economies, its gross foreign liabilities are 466 percent of GDP, a larger proportion than that of any developed economy except Switzerland.
Britain has used much of this to make foreign direct investments, and done it profitably enough that it has a positive balance of payments.
But basically, it is on an economy-wide carry trade strategy - borrow money short abroad and invest it in things that you hope will earn more than you must pay in interest.
"This is like a hedge fund - a macroeconomic carry trade," said Hart of Citigroup.
The problem now is that on a very broad basis, the funding may not be there and foreign direct assets can be tough to sell if you need cash quickly.
Britain is also very unlikely to continue to be able to make as much from its overseas holdings as it has in the past. A global recession is looming and the risk premiums and profit expectations that held when many of these investments were made now look optimistic.
What does all this mean for the British economy and asset markets?
The credit crunch will be sustained, even with government money to help recapitalize and despite pleas from this new class of investor to keep the taps open.
The pound will also continue to be under pressure. It has fallen 20 percent since this summer against the dollar and has hit record lows against the euro. Interest rates will fall very quickly, with some analysts even predicting the Bank of England may cut by a full percentage point when it meets this week.
Without leverage like that of a hedge fund, Britain will become more like a boring old pension fund, with shabbier offices, lower returns and lower salaries for its managers.
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