Monday, December 30, 2013

China Says 8 Million Acres Of Farmland Now Too Polluted For Food


An official from the Chinese government announced Monday that approximately 3.33 million hectares, or 8 million acres, of China’s farmland is now too polluted to grow crops, according to a Reuters report from Beijing.
China’s Vice Minister of Land and Resources Wang Shiyuan reportedly told a news conference that current farming on the now-too-contaminated land — roughly the size of Belgium — will be halted and rehabilitated in order to ensure food safety. It was unclear late Monday whether food that had already been grown on that land would be sought out or recalled.
“These areas cannot continue farming,” Wang said, noting that the Ministry of Environmental Protection had deemed all of the 8 million acres as having “moderate to severe pollution.”
The Chinese government has said that the country needs at least 120 million hectares of arable land to ensure it is able to meet the vastly populated country’s food needs. Though China started 2013 with a strong 135 million hectares of arable land, contamination — paired with recent efforts to convert farmland to forests, grasslands and wetlands — has caused the amount of stable cultivated land to drop to 120 million hectares, Wang said. Wang also said the country is committed to spending “tens of billions of yuan” a year for projects aimed at rehabilitating polluted land.
High levels of contamination caused by pollution are nothing new for the people of China, who have been caught in somewhat of a pollution storm in the last year. A major source of the country’s pollution is its 2,300 (and growing) dirty coal plants, which helped Beijing in January experience its worst air pollution on record — levels of particulate matter topped out at 723 micrograms per cubic meter. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers 25 or less micrograms per cubic meter ideal for human health. Above 300 is considered hazardous.
In October, air pollution nearly shut down the entire city of Harbin, and in December, extreme air pollution forced children and the elderly in Shanghai behind closed doors and windows for at least seven days. Later that month, a clinic dedicated to treating victims of China’s notorious smog opened its doors in Sichuan Provence, southwest China.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Tea Party Patriot arrested for swapping child porn using ‘h*rnypastor’ email account


A 46-year-old Michigan member of the group Tea Party Patriots was named Tuesday in a criminal complaint on charges of distributing and receiving illicit photos and video of children. According to The Smoking Gun, Brian Schwanke is accused of using the email account “h*” to send and receive hundreds of provocative images of underage children.
TSG detailed how as recently as last week, Schwanke was ranting on his Facebook page about President Barack Obama’s behavior during a portion of the funeral for South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.
The image of Obama posing for a “selfie” next to the Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt seemed to particularly rile Schwanke.

“What a classy president we have,” he wrote. “His wife has to sit between him to make ‘lil Barry’ behave.”
Schwanke’s profile — which has now been either deleted or made private — proclaimed that the U.S. “WAS founded on a CHRISTIAN foundation, and the progressive, atheist left is running us into the ground to create a Socialist country that will fall like all the others.”
In spite of his straitlaced, conservative public persona, however, Schwanke was posing online as a pastor and youth minister with less-than-holy intentions toward the young girls of his flock.
In the persona of “h*rnypastor,” Schwanke claimed to have been a youth minister for 20 years, telling one correspondent, “with my pool at my house I find lots of chances to ‘counsel’ the girls.”
He was netted by Australian undercover police conducting an online sting. The Australian authorities reported Schwanke to U.S. officials, who raided his home in August.
Schwanke was in possession of a vast trove of illegal images. According to court documents, nearly every email in the “h*rnypastor” account contained images or accounts of child exploitation and abuse.
TSG said that no evidence exists to support Schwanke’s claims of being a pastor. His LinkedIn page identified him as an emergency medical services worker. He is an avid Civil War re-enactor, who, when he isn’t online railing against “feminazis,” enjoys giving “talks to school groups about the American Civil War.”

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ethics investigation against Georgia governor reportedly turns into criminal probe


The investigation into alleged campaign finance violations by Georgia’s Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has deepened into a criminal probe as the outlines of a broad cover-up emerged this week.
Some Georgia Democrats believe that the politician known in the state as “Teflon Deal” for his ability to elude punishment for ethics violations may finally be getting his due.
“We’re past an ethics complaint,” said Bryan Long of Better Georgia to Raw Story. “This is not an ethics investigation. When the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office issue subpoenas, this is a criminal investigation.”
In 2011, shortly after he took office, Gov. Deal was hit with charges that he had personally enriched himself on campaign funds. In 2010, Deal and his family allegedly helped themselves to at least $322,000 in campaign donations, paying generous stipends to companies that they own or have an interest in.
In June, word reached the governor that subpoenas were being prepared by a five-member ethics panel — appointed by the governor himself — charged with investigating the shady deals. Gov. Deal promptly fired one member of the ethics office staff and gutted the salary of another.
He then appointed his own head to the investigation and now claims in interviews that he has been cleared of any wrongdoing.
A grand jury empaneled in Atlanta may disagree with that assessment.
“He keeps saying all of this has been cleared,” Long said. “No one has ever looked at this other than people who he has appointed himself. He’s never been cleared of any of these charges.”
Last week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that at least five current and former members of Georgia’s state ethics committee have been issued subpoenas by the FBI as part of the grand jury investigation. The grand jury will re-convene in January to look at documents which purportedly show the role Deal’s office played in squelching any and all attempts to investigate the governor’s allegedly crooked financial dealings.
Deal’s attorney Randy Evans told the Journal-Constitution that no one in the governor’s office has received a subpoena or even a phone call on the probe. These new subpoenas, he insisted, don’t “involve anything to do with the governor.”
Long pointed out that investigations of cover-ups typically “work from the outside in” and that “the next round of subpoenas could be aimed at the governor’s office.”
“But maybe,” he said sarcastically, “they’re just a bunch of liars working on the state ethics committee and Gov. Deal will be cleared.”
“Let’s remember that we’re talking about computer records,” he continued. “If the FBI is able to turn up any documentation of a crime, there will be an indictment. It’s not a ‘he said-she said’ argument. There was money that changed hands, there were records that were kept. There are emails back and forth.”
“There’s clearly a pattern,” said Long. “There were charges of corruption against him when he was in Congress, there were charges of corruption in his last campaign. There have been constant charges of corruption literally since the day after he was elected.”
DuBose Porter, chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia said in a statement via email, “The same behavior that forced Nathan Deal to resign from Congress has now shown up in the way he conducts his administration as Governor. The issue of federal subpoenas is troubling. Every Georgian should pay close attention so that history does not repeat itself in the ethics commission.”
Nathan Deal resigned from Congress on March 21, 2010 after being accused of using his office to personally enrich himself through a series of business deals.
Democrats in the state hope to successfully challenge Deal in 2014. State Sen. Jason Carter announced earlier this month that he intends to run in the Democratic primary race for the governorship. Carter is the grandson of former Pres. Jimmy Carter.

WestJet Christmas Miracle: real-time giving

Thursday, December 12, 2013

How to stick it to the poor: A congressional strategy

By Samantha Paige Rosen

The 113th Congress has stuck it to the poor at pretty much every opportunity. In fact, if you take all their past and future plans into account, it looks like they have accomplished that rare feat: To close in on enacting an overarching, radical agenda without control of the Senate or the presidency. How did they do it? Probably by escaping scrutiny through a piecemeal approach to legislation, a president who is willing to meet them halfway, and one diabolic word: Sequester.
Let's drill down into each piece:
1. Kick 'em to the curbCongress will basically start kicking poor people out of their homes early next year. The idea is, if you can't pay for your home without government assistance, you don't deserve to live in one. In this spirit, budget cuts due to sequestration will take rental assistance vouchers away from 140,000 low-income families by the beginning of next year, making housing more expensive as agencies raise costs to offset the budget cuts. All in all, about three million disabled seniors and families will be affected. The savings? $2 billion, which is pretty much what the government shutdown cost in back-pay to federal workers.
If you're lucky enough to keep your home, don't expect to heat it. Sequester cuts to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) meant that 300,000 low-income families in 2013 were denied government support for energy costs.
2. Take the food out of their mouths. Literally.The recent reduction in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits has affected more than 47 million Americans and is the largest wholesale cut in the program since Congress passed the first Food Stamps Act in 1964.
The cuts to Food Stamps were implemented on November 1. Yet, Congress won't let the program rest there — House Republicans are pushing to take $39 billion from SNAP over the next decade. If their plan succeeds, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 3.8 million low-income individuals would lose their benefits in 2014 with 2.8 million more getting kicked off the program each year. SNAP is one of the three most effective anti-poverty programs the government has, keeping four million people out of poverty last year alone. So the initial and further cuts make a lot of sense — if you despise the poor.
And don't worry, other cuts to food programs ensure both the oldest and youngest amongst us won't be spared. Cuts to Meals on Wheels will cost poor seniors four to 18 million meals next year. Meanwhile, the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), which provides health care referrals and nutrition to poor pregnant and postpartum women and children up to age five, has grappled with $500 million in cuts this year and faces even deeper ones next. Fair's fair, though.
3. Dim their kids' futureThere's nothing that will make our economic future brighter than under-educating our children, right? That's why, again as a result of sequestration, Head Start literally had to kick preschoolers out of their classrooms this March and removed 57,000 children from the program this September (70,000 kids total are will be affected). If this weren't enough, more than half of public schools have fired personnel due to the ominous cuts — and Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said sequestration "has been one of the good things that has happened." Given that 40 percent of children who don't receive early childhood education are more likely to become a parent as a teenager, 25 percent are more likely to drop out of school, and 70 percent are more likely to be arrested for a violent crime, this is definitely the definition of a "good thing."
4. Erase the roadmap for employmentThe United States has one of the stingiest unemployment programs in the developed world and it is getting even stingier. People who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more — 40 percent of the unemployed — have already begun and will continue to lose a large portion of their benefits between January and March. Eight percent of this year's sequestration cuts are coming from unemployment insurance. The logic here is that the program discourages people from looking for work, so why fund something that just makes the unemployed lazier? The evidence, however, proves that government assistance fuels the job searches of these 4.4 million Americans. Yet by the end of December, about 1.3 million will lose their extended jobless benefits if Congress doesn't renew the program. And cuts to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF, or welfare) means there will be even less of safety net to fall back on.
5. Make 'em work till they dropPresident Obama put Social Security cuts in his budget for fiscal year 2014, and Republicans are thrilled. Switching to a new formula called Chained CPI would lead to benefit cuts of $230 billion dollars in the next ten years. Apparently, it's Social Security that's driving up the debt, as Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said. The irony here, according to The New York Times' Paul Krugman, is that while debt can indirectly make us poor if deficits drive up interest rates and discourage productive investment (they haven't), investment is low because the economy is so weak, partly from cutbacks in public spending and investment — the cuts, such as this one, that supposedly protect Americans from a future of excessive debt. Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa) have been fighting an uphill battle to boost Social Security benefits. But carry on, Congress. What you're doing really makes sense here.
In just a few short decades, we've gone from LBJ's Great Society, where many of these ideas originated, to this Congress' attacks on the poor. According to the Census Bureau, safety net programs keep tens of millions of Americans out of poverty each year. But that's just not the federal government's priority anymore. This Congress' message: It's every man for himself.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Minn. Nat. Guard Member Charged with Stealing IDs for Militia

"I've my AK in my bed. If I hear that door kick, it's going boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. I'm just going to start putting them through the (expletive) wall," he told an undercover FBI employee in July, according to the affidavit unsealed Wednesday.
Novak was charged with committing fraud in connection with identification documents. He was in federal custody Wednesday and unavailable for comment. His father has an unlisted number, and attempts to reach him were unsuccessful. The federal defender's office has the case, but an attorney had not been selected to represent him by Wednesday evening.
According to an FBI affidavit, Novak was an active duty soldier and intelligence analyst with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg from Feb. 26, 2009, to Sept. 3, 2012. He also served in active duty in Iraq in 2010. Novak is currently a human intelligence analyst with the Minnesota National Guard.
In late January, he went to a training camp in Utah and there met two undercover FBI employees who posed as members of a Utah-based militia, according to the affidavit. It also said Novak told the undercover employees that he took classified materials from Fort Bragg and that he would share the materials with them.
The undercover employees met Novak in Minnesota in July, and he gave them an electronic copy of classified documents and taught them how to encrypt files, the affidavit said. He also said that he had a personnel roster — including names, birthdates and Social Security numbers — of a "Battalion's-worth of people" from his former unit.
The undercover employees said they wanted that information and knew someone who could make fake IDs, which Novak said he needed for his militia. On Nov. 4, Novak sent the information for 44 individuals to an undercover FBI employee. On Nov. 25, he accepted $2,000 and said he had additional pages to sell, the affidavit said.
Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, spokesman for the Minnesota National Guard, said the guard is aware of the charges, and is cooperating with the FBI investigation.
Lt. Col. Virginia McCabe, spokeswoman for the 82nd Airborne Division, said the unit will work with the appropriate authorities.
The affidavit also sheds light on some of Novak's militia activities. In September, Novak and members of his militia group conducted a military-style field training exercise in rural Minnesota.
On one occasion, a man went to a storage unit with Novak and saw six "flak vests" that belonged to the 82nd Airborne Division. The affidavit alleged Novak stole the vests when unit members left them unattended. Novak had also previously given 10 flak jackets to members of his militia, the affidavit said.
He told the man with him that he also had camouflage netting and riot gear and intended to start burying caches of equipment.
The complaint and affidavit were initially sealed because Novak had made several statements that suggest he might flee or resort to violence.
In July, he allegedly spoke to an undercover employee about escape routes and said he would barricade himself in his apartment and call "my guys" to come help. He also said that he had "5000 rounds, a thousand of it is in magazines, ready to go," the affidavit said.
Novak also told the undercover employee that he sleeps with guns and was ready to shoot through the wall, the affidavit said, and has weapons hiding throughout the state.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

China state media under fire for arguing benefits of smog

(Reuters) - Commentaries by two of China's most influential news outlets suggesting that the country's air pollution crisis was not without a silver lining drew a withering reaction on Tuesday from internet users and other media.
In online commentaries on Monday, state broadcaster CCTV and the widely read tabloid the Global Times, published by the Communist Party's official People's Daily, both tried to put a positive spin on China's smog problem.
The Global Times said smog could be useful in military situations, as it could hinder the use of guided missiles, while CCTV listed five "unforeseen rewards" for smog, including helping Chinese people's sense of humor.
While both pieces have since been deleted from their websites, Chinese newspapers lost little time in denouncing their point of view, in an unusual case of state media criticizing other state media, showing the scale of the anger.
"Is the smog supposed to lift if we laugh about it?" wrote the Beijing Business Today, published by the city government's official Beijing Daily. "Smog affects our breathing. We hope it does not affect our thinking."
The Dongguan Times, from a heavily industrial city close to the border with Hong Kong, said CCTV's comments were so bizarre people did not know "whether to laugh or cry".
"There's nothing funny about the health dangers of smog," it wrote.
Even the main Xinhua news agency - which had initially picked up CCTV's commentary - weighed in, writing on one of its official microblogs late on Monday that it was "totally inappropriate" to make fun of air pollution.
Air quality in cities is of increasing concern to China's stability-obsessed leaders, anxious to douse potential unrest as a more affluent urban population turns against a growth-at-all-costs economic model that has poisoned much of the country's air, water and soil.
The top U.S. environmental regulator, on a visit to Beijing, said that China was trying to deal with the same sort of problems the United States once faced.
"We have to acknowledge that significant pollution challenges are being faced today in China," Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy told students at Tsinghua University. "The thing is, not too long ago, the U.S. faced similar challenges."
She made no concrete suggestions for sharing technology as her Chinese counterpart, Ministry for Environmental Protection head Zhou Shengxian, had urged on Monday.
Large parts of eastern China, including the country's prosperous and cosmopolitan commercial capital Shanghai, have been covered in a thick pall of smog over the past week or so, though Beijing's normally filthy air has been relatively clear.
Users of Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, also vented their outrage over the CCTV and Global Times' comments.
"The smog crisis covering large parts of China has revealed the failure of the government's development strategy of only going after GDP (growth). CCTV is shameless in trying to cover up for their masters," wrote Wu Bihu, a professor at the elite Peking University.
"The Global Times thinks that pollution will cause missiles to miss their targets ... How shameful! So that's what all this smog has really been about. People had thought it was just bad pollution...," state television in the eastern province of Shandong wrote on one of its microblogs.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard, Huang Yan and Natalie Thomas; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Baker: Reagan Regretted Veto Of Sanctions Against South Africa


"I'm sure he did regret it," Baker said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "In fact I'm certain that he did."
He said that Reagan later worked to end Apartheid in South Africa.
"Once that happened and control of South African policy passed to the Congress, President Reagan was really determined to … meet with the black leaders of South Africa and deal with the problems of Apartheid. And he was able to do so," Baker said.
Baker, who met Nelson Mandela, called the leader an "extraordinarily beautiful human being."
"He had an enduring and endearing presence of dignity that I don't think I've seen on any other person," he said. "How many people forgive their captors when they've been imprisoned for 27 years?"

Friday, December 06, 2013

VEVO Presents: Nine Inch Nails Tension 2013

apartheid = noun (Concise Encyclopedia)

(Afrikaans: “apartness” or “separateness”) Policy of racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-European groups in South Africa. The term was first used as the name of the official policy of the National Party in 1948, though racial segregation, sanctioned by law, was already widely practiced. The Group Areas Act of 1950 established residential and business sectors in urban areas for each “race” and strengthened the existing “pass” laws, which required nonwhites to carry identification papers. 

Other laws forbade most social contacts between those of European descent and others, authorized segregated public facilities, established separate educational standards, restricted each group to certain types of jobs, curtailed nonwhite labour unions, denied nonwhite participation in the national government, and established various black African “homelands,” partly self-governing units that were nevertheless politically and economically dependent on South Africa. These so-called homelands were not recognized by international governments. 

Apartheid was always subject to internal criticism and led to many violent protests, strikes, and acts of sabotage; it also received international censure. In 1990–91 most apartheid legislation was repealed, but segregation continued on a de facto basis. In 1993 a new constitution enfranchised blacks and other racial groups, and all-race national elections in 1994 produced a coalition government with a black majority. These developments marked the end of legislated apartheid, though not of its entrenched social and economic effects. See also African National Congress; racism.

Nelson Mandela, the revered statesman who emerged from prison after 27 years to lead South Africa out of decades of apartheid, has died, South African President Jacob Zuma announced late Thursday.
Mandela was 95.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Warren On Third Way Criticisms: 'Oh Please'


An op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Monday by Third Way leaders that criticized Warren's beliefs about programs like Social Security caused liberals to issue condemning responses to the progressive Wall Street-backed group. Warren wrote to major banks challenging them to disclose their donations to think tanks. And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee has urged multiple Democrats to cut ties to Third Way.
Third Way responded by agreeing that banks should disclose their donations, but co-founder of the group, Matt Bennett, said that the group still considers Warren's stance on Social Security "magical thinking." He added that JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon's Social Security benefits would increase under a Warren-backed plan.
Warren scoffed at this in the interview with the Huffington Post
"Oh please. I'm out there working for Jamie Dimon the same way Dick Cheney is out there trying to save the environment," Warren said.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Congress Got 239 Days Off This Year, Workers Are Guaranteed Zero


Congress has just eight days on the job between now and the start of the next session on January 7, with the House coming back on Monday and adjourning for the year by December 13 and the Senate returning on December 9 only to most likely adjourn for the year on December 20. In total, the House will have had 239 days off this year with even more scheduled for next year.
Certainly members of Congress have work to do when they’re not required to be in D.C., including meetings with constituents, running their other offices, talking to local community leaders, and doing media interviews. Some may also use those days off on other jobs for supplemental income, but most make side money by owning businesses or from investments.
The picture is very different for the rest of Americans, however. The country doesn’t guarantee its citizens any paid vacation or holiday time off, unlike 20 of its developed peers. All European Union countries guarantee workers at least 20 paid days of vacation a year, with France going so far as to lock in 30, the United Kingdom mandating 28, and Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden guaranteeing 25. Thirteen also mandate paid holidays off. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, and Sweden go even further, requiring employers to give workers an extra bonus to cover vacation expenses.
Of course, many American employers still give their workers paid vacation time and holidays off. But that holds true for fewer and fewer workers. Today, 77 percent of workers have access to paid vacation days, compared to 80 percent 20 years ago. The biggest drops have come for those who work part-time — a position more and more find themselves in — or for employers with fewer than 100 workers. And while those who get paid vacation get more days than back then, they get fewer paid holidays, which offsets the increase.
This problem was in stark relief on Thursday as millions of workers had to show up at work for retailers who were open on Thanksgiving Day. While many were compensated with extra pay and perks and the companies claimed their workers were excited to come in that day, some employees claimed that their requests to take the day off were denied.
The U.S. also lags developed peers in other kinds of paid time off. It is the only one out of the top 15 most competitive that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days, which leaves 40 percent of private sector workers out of paid leave. Those who do get paid sick days also get fewer of them than two decades ago. The country is even more lonely when it comes to maternity leave to take care of a new child, joining just three countries out of 178 in failing to guarantee paid time off. Fathers similarly get no guarantee of paid time off when a new child arrives.

In Iceland, When Police Kill a Gunman, They Apologize

By Marc Champion

Icelandic police shot dead a man who refused to stop firing at them with a shotgun in the capital of Reykjavik earlier today -- and then they apologized. It was the first time that anyone in the country was killed by police gunfire.
"The police regret this incident and wishes to extend its condolences to the man's family," said national police chief Haraldur Johannessen.
Details of the event have yet to emerge, but this much is clear: Iceland is a weird place. The population of the island is 325,000, while the number of registered firearms is 90,000, which when you consider that Iceland also has children, suggests that more than a third of the population is armed. So why don't Iceland's police have to shoot people?
St. Louis happens to have about the same population as Iceland. Last year, the city's police chief ordered a study of incidents in which officers shot at suspects. As reported by the St. Louis Post Dispatch, that happened 98 times in the 2008-2011 period, and 12 of the people shot at died.
I don't think you can say the difference is because a lot of Iceland is rural -- all but about 25,000 of the population are urban dwellers. And the National Rifle Association will be pleased to hear that it can't all be accounted for by gun ownership: True, the U.S. has almost 90 guns per 100 people, compared with 30 per 100 in Iceland, but if gun ownership were the key difference you would expect a much narrower differential in police shootings.
One factor may be that only SWAT teams of the kind called in for in today's shooting are allowed to carry guns; the rest of the police don't. So the average officer -- let alone a neighborhood watch character such as Florida's George Zimmerman -- can't shoot anyone because they aren't armed. And one reason they don't need to be armed is that the homicide rate in Iceland is so low -- on average, fewer than 0.3 per 100,000 of population, compared with 5 per 100,000 in the U.S. In 2009, according to the Global Study on Homicide, just one person was murdered in Iceland.
In an article for the BBC, Andrew Clark, a law student from Suffolk University Law School in Boston, described his decision to write his thesis on Iceland's low violent crime rate after visiting the country's capital in 2012. He found that Icelanders happily pick up strangers in their cars and leave their babies unattended in the street. To a Londoner, New Yorker or Bostonian, that's unheard of. He concluded that the biggest reason for Iceland's low violent-crime rate was social equality. Rich and poor go to the same schools, while 1.1 percent say they are upper class, 1.5 percent lower class -- and the rest in between. So there's less resentment and anger.
Another point might be that although there are a lot of guns in Iceland (Icelanders like to hunt), buying one requires stringent checks, including a medical exam and a written test. That may prevent people from buying and using guns in a fit of anger. It might also explain why very few of Iceland's very few homicides involve firearms.
There are other possible factors, of course. For example, Icelanders have very low rates of drug abuse. It isn't clear why, but as soon as there was a sniff of a problem in 1973, the government established special police units and courts to tackle it. I'm guessing they had very little else to do.

(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Wall Street Taught Me How to Cheat

A new report finds 53% of financial services executives say ethical standards inhibit career progression.

My first year on Wall Street, 1993, I was paid 14 times more than I earned the prior year and three times more than my father's best year. For that money, I helped my company create financial products that were disguised to look simple, but which required complex math to properly understand. That first year I was roundly applauded by my bosses, who told me I was clever, and to my surprise they gave me $20,000 bonus beyond my salary.
The products were sold to many investors, many who didn’t fully understand what they were buying, most of them what we called “clueless Japanese.” The profits to my company were huge – hundreds of millions of dollars huge. The main product that made my firm great money for close to five years was was called, in typically dense finance jargon, a YIF, or a Yield Indexed Forward.
Eventually, investors got wise, realizing what they had bought was complex, loaded with hidden leverage, and became most dangerous during moments of distress.
I never did meet the buyers; that was someone else's job. I stayed behind the spreadsheets. My job was to try to extract as much value as possible through math and clever trading. Japan would send us faxes of documents from our competitors. Many were selling far weirder products and doing it in far larger volume than we were. The conversation with our Japanese customers would end with them urging us on: “We can’t fall behind.”
When I did ask, rather naively, if this was all kosher, I would be assured multiple times that multiple lawyers and multiple managers had approved the sales.
One senior trader, consoling me late at night, reminded me, “You are playing in the big leagues now. If a customer wants a red suit, you sell them a red suit. If that customer is Japanese, you charge him twice what it costs.”
I rationalized that our group was careful by Wall Street standards, trying to stay close to the letter of the law. We tried to abide by an unwritten "five-point rule": never intentionally make more than five percentage points of profit from a customer.
Some competitors didn’t care about the rule. They were making 7% or 10% profit per trade from clients, selling exotic products loaded with hidden traps. I assumed they would eventually face legal charges, or at least public embarrassment, for pushing so clearly away from the spirit of the law.
They didn’t. Rather, they got paid better, were lauded as true risk takers, and offered big pay packages to manage similar businesses.
Being paid very well also helped ease any of my concerns. Feeling guilty, kid? Here take a big check. I was, for the first time in my life, feeling valued for my math skills – the ones I had to hide throughout my childhood, so as not be labeled a nerd or egghead. Ego and money are nice salves for any potential feeling of guilt.
After a few years on Wall Street it was clear to me: you could make money by gaming anyone and everything. The more clever you were, the more ingenious your ability to exploit a flaw in a law or regulation, the more lauded and celebrated you became.
Nobody seemed to be getting called out. No move was too audacious. It was like driving past the speed limit at 79 MPH, and watching others pass by at 100, or 110, and never seeing anyone pulled over.
Wall Street did nod and wave politely to regulators’ attempts to slow things down. Every employee had to complete a yearly compliance training, where he was updated on things like money laundering, collusion, insider trading, and selling our customers only financial products that were suitable to them.
By the early 2000s that compliance training had descended into a once-a-year farce, designed to literally just check a box. It became a one-hour lecture held in a massive hall. Everyone had to go once, listen to the rushed presentation, and then sign a form. You could look down at the audience and see row after row of blue buttoned shirts playing on their Blackberries. I reached new highs on Brick Breaker one year during compliance training. My compliance education that year was still complete.
By 2007 the idea of ethics education fell even further. You didn't even need to show up to a lecture hall; you just had to log on to an online course. It was one hour of slides that you worked through, blindly pushing the “forward” button while your attention was somewhere else. Some managers, too busy for such nonsense, even paid younger employees to sit at their computers and do it for them.
As Wall Street grew, fueled by that unchecked culture of risk taking, traders got more and more audacious, and corruption became more and more diffused through the system. By 2006 you could open up almost any major business, look at its inside workings, and find some wrongdoing.
After the crash of 2008, regulators finally did exactly that. What has resulted is a wave of scandals with odd names; LIBOR fixing, FX collusion, ISDA Fix.
To outsiders they sound like complex acronyms that occupy the darkest corners of Wall Street, easily dismissed as anomalies. They are not. LIBOR, FX, ISDA Fix are at the very center of finance, part of the daily flow of trillions of dollars. The scandals are scarily close to what some on Wall Street believe is standard business practice, a matter of shades of grey.
I imagine the people who are named in the scandals are genuinely confused as to why they are being singled out. They were just doing what almost everyone else was, maybe just more aggressive, more reckless. They were doing what they had been trained to do: bending the rules, pushing as far as they could to beat competitors. They had been applauded in the past for their aggressive risk taking, no doubt. Now they are just whipping boys.
That's the paradox at the core of the settlements we're seeing: where is the real responsibility? Others were doing it, yes. Banks should be fined, yes. But somebody should be charged. Yet the people who really should be held accountable have not. They are the bosses, the managers and CEOs of the businesses. They set the standard, they shaped the culture. The Chuck Princes, Dick Fulds, and Fred Goodwins of the world. They happily shepherded and profited from a Wall Street that spun out of control.
A precedent needs to be set, to slow down Wall Street’s wild behavior. A reminder that rules are there to be followed, not exploited. The managers knew what was going on. Ask anyone who works at a bank and they will tell you that.
The excuse we have long accepted is ignorance: that these leaders couldn't have known what was happening. That doesn't suffice. If they didn't know, it's an even larger sin.

Cayman Islands and Costa Rica agree to share bank account details with US

 The alleged tax havens have signed agreements with the United States to tell the IRS about funds held offshore by Americans The United States has signed agreements with the Cayman Islands and Costa Rica to help those countries' banks comply with an anti-tax evasion law starting next year, the Treasury Department said on Friday. The deals are part of the US effort to enforce the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which was enacted in 2010 and is set to take effect in July 2014. FATCA requires foreign financial institutions to tell the US Internal Revenue Service about Americans' offshore accounts worth more than $50,000. It was enacted after a Swiss banking scandal showed that 17,000 US taxpayers had hidden substantial fortunes overseas. On Thursday a former UBS banker, Raoul Weil, agreed to be extradited to the US to face charges arising from that scandal. With these two deals, both signed this week, the Treasury has now finished 12 FATCA "intergovernmental agreements" (IGAs), which help countries' financial institutions comply with the law. The FATCA agreement with the Cayman Islands was initially agreed to in August. The island territory of 53,000 people has no income tax and is frequently labelled as a tax haven by critics. It is one of the world's most popular destinations for investment funds to organise for tax purposes..................

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

McDonald’s Advice To Underpaid Employees: Sell Your Christmas Presents For Cash


Tis the season for holiday spirit: Yule logs, egg nog, festive lights and exchanging gifts with loved ones. If you work for McDonald’s, though, be sure to save those receipts.
McDonald’s McResource Line, a dedicated website run by the world’s largest fast-food chain to provide its 1.8 million employees with financial and health-related tips, offers a full page of advice for “Digging Out From Holiday Debt.” Among their helpful holiday tips: “Selling some of your unwanted possessions on eBay or Craigslist could bring in some quick cash.”
Elsewhere on the site, McDonald’s encourages its employees to break apart food when they eat meals, as “breaking food into pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full.” And if they are struggling to stock their shelves with food in the first place, the company offers assistance for workers applying for food stamps.
McDonald’s corporate officers have a history of offering questionable advice to their low-wage workers. Four months ago, the company partnered with Visa to distribute a sample “budget.” In it, the chain suggested that workers needn’t pay for such frivolous expenses like their heating bills, and factored in a monthly rent of $600. To workers living in New York City (home of 350+ stores) and other expensive metropolises, that number is almost comical.
McDonald’s employees are some of the most underpaid workers in the country. The company’s cashiers and “team members” earn, on average, $7.75 an hour, just 50 cents higher than the federal minimum wage. Responding to rising living costs, many stores have staged walk-outs, strikes and protests, demanding a living wage. In Europe, where the minimum wage for employees is $12, customers pay just pennies more than their American counterparts for the same menu items, while the stores themselves typically bring in higher profit margins than ones in the United States.
Of course, McDonalds has shown little willingness to negotiate higher salaries for their poorest workers even as labor rights groups up the pressure. Instead, their website has another piece of advice for people who are stressed about their meager paychecks: “Quit complaining,” the site suggests. “Stress hormones levels rise by 15% after 10 minutes of complaining.”

Oklahoma Drops National Guard Benefits For All Couples To Avoid Serving Same-Sex Couples


Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) announced earlier this month that state-owned National Guard facilities will no longer allow any married couples to apply for spousal benefits, regardless of whether they are same-sex or different-sex. The Supreme Court’s decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act means that servicemembers with same-sex spouses are now eligible for federal benefits. Fallin’s unusual tactic is designed to avoid having to recognize those couples, which she asserts would violate Oklahoma’s constitutional amendment limiting marriage to one man and one woman:
FALLIN: Oklahoma law is clear. The state of Oklahoma does not recognize same-sex marriages, nor does it confer marriage benefits to same-sex couples. The decision reached today allows the National Guard to obey Oklahoma law without violating federal rules or policies. It protects the integrity of our state constitution and sends a message to the federal government that they cannot simply ignore our laws or the will of the people.
This decision directly contradicts an order from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordering states to provide same-sex couples with the federal benefits they deserve under the law. All married couples will now have to travel to one of the five federal facilities in Oklahoma to apply for benefits. Incidentally, the state’s facilities were built almost entirely with federal funds and 90 percent of the Oklahoma Military Department — which includes the National Guard — is funded by the federal government.
Fallin’s tactic mirrors other attempts to punish an entire group to avoid serving the gay community. When marriage equality came to the District of Columbia, Catholic Charities decided to stop offering partner benefits to all employees to avoid having to provide them to any employee’s same-sex spouse. In various states, Catholic Charities has also abandoned all adoption services to avoid having to provide them to same-sex couples.
Schools have also employed this strategy to try to block gay-straight alliances from forming. In 2011, for example, Flour Bluff Independent School District in Corpus Christi, Texas considered banning all extracurricular clubs to avoid allowing a GSA to form.
Oklahoma is not alone in defying Hagel’s orders. The Texas Military Force acknowledged this week that it will not allow same-sex couples to apply for a housing allowance at state-run National Guard facilities, having already turned away at least one couple. Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia have also refused to comply, but some states that previously had balked have begun complying, like West Virginia. A total of 29 states have constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, but most are complying with the federal recognition for purposes of the National Guard.
Some states are also struggling in other ways with how to handle the federal government’s recognition of same-sex couples in the wake of DOMA. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) announced last week that same-sex couples could file their state taxes jointly, even though they won’t be eligible for state tax benefits. This has prompted one Missouri state lawmaker, Rep. Nick Marshall (R), to pursue impeachment proceedings for Nixon. Meanwhile, Virginia is among the states that have ordered same-sex couples to file their taxes separately.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Fox News’ Hasselbeck: Obamacare is hurting ‘many’ elderly pregnant women


Fox News host Elisabeth Hasselbeck suggested on Monday that pregnant women 65-years-old and older were losing their doctors because of President Barack Obama health care reform law.
In a segment titled “Who’s Ruining the Economy Now?” Fox Business host Stuart Varney announced that the president was not going to be able to keep the promise that people could keep their doctors because “United Healthcare has just dropped — we don’t know exactly how many — but thousands of doctors have been dropped from United Heathcare’s Medicare Advantage program.”
Conservative media outlets like The Washington Times have blamed United Healthcare’s decision on the Affordable Care Act.
“That leaves hundreds of thousands of patients without the doctor that they’ve had for many many years,” Varney added. “We don’t know how many thousands have been dropped, but thousands have been dropped. What about their patients? What about the people who used to have this doctor who now no longer have this doctor? Broken promise.”
“And many of those people are women who are expecting babies and who may just have a real relationship with their physician and want to see the same doctor deliver possibly their second child,” Hasselbeck opined. “And they are now left in the dark in a time that they feeling quite vulnerable.”
“Most of them are elderly,” Varney pointed out.
Medicare Advantage is a type of Medicare offered by private companies to people over 65 years of age. Medicare Advantage covers traditional Medicare plus additional services, but customers must pay a premium.
It’s not clear how many women over the age of 65 are pregnant, but United Healthcare does offer maternity coverage to Medicare Advantage customers...................

The Allman Brothers Band - Statesboro Blues

B.B. King - Why I Sing the Blues

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Qatar stadium design critics: it ‘looks like a vagina’


Al Wakrah stadium design in Qatar

AECOM Technology Corporation posted a short video animation of the design for Qatar’s new Al Wakrah sports stadium Saturday, which under almost immediate criticism for its resemblance to female genitalia.
Buzzfeed’s Matt Kiebus noted that the $120 billion project bears little resemblance to an ancient dhow boat “that Qataris traditionally used for pearl diving.”
Qatar is building the 45,000-capacity stadium to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The climate-controlled stadium will be about 12 miles south of Doha, in “one of the oldest inhabited areas in Qatar, with a rich cultural heritage evidenced by its traditional Islamic architecture, historical buildings, distinctive mosques and archaeological sites,” according to AECOM.................

Friday, November 15, 2013

Right wing cyber attacks on website confirmed

Yesterday, the House Homeland Security Committee published a video on their Youtube page highlighting a portion of the committee questioning Roberta Stempfley, acting assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Cyber-security and Communications, who confirmed at least 16 attacks on the Affordable Care Act’s portal website in 2013.
Roberta Stempfley highlighted one successful attack that is designed to deny access to the website called a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. A DDoS attack is designed to make a network unavailable to intended users, generally through a concerted effort to disrupt service such as repeatedly accessing the servers, saturating them with more traffic than the website is designed to handle.
Right wingers have been distributing the link to the necessary tools to perform the attacks on the website through social networking, as pointed out by Information Week, and other websites .
The name of the attack tool is called, "Destroy Obama Care!"
"Destroy Obama Care!", that's the advertised name given to the attack tool by "right wing patriots" who are distributing the DDoS tool through downloads on social networks, which promises to overwhelm the website.
"This program continually displays alternate page of the ObamaCare website. It has no virus, Trojans, worms, or cookies. The purpose is to overload the ObamaCare website, to deny service to users and perhaps overload and crash the system," reads the program's grammar- and spelling-challenged "about" screen. "You can open as many copies of this program as you want. Each copy opens multiple links to the site."
"ObamaCare is an affront to the Constitutional rights of the people," it adds. "We have the right to civil disobedience!"
Marc Eisenbarth, research manager at the DDoS defense firm Arbor Networks says that the DDoS attack tool has been used in the past to attack perceived political wrongs.
"This application continues a trend Arbor is seeing with denial-of-service attacks being used as a means of retaliation against a policy, legal rulings or government actions," said Eisenbarth.
Some online news sites have talked about this attack tool being distributed by right wingers, and Congress held hearings this week and talked about the attacks, but there is not one mainstream news organization that seems to be interested. But they all continue to talk about the website not working as it should, and if it will be ready by the White House's self imposed deadline of December 1, 2013.
And if you watch the attached video of the questioning of Roberta Stempfley, by Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), they both are aware of the attacks, but neither mentions the website attack tool, “Destroy Obama Care!”. The Republican asking the questions obviously has the agenda of attacking the Affordable Care Act as all Republicans do, and it would not be in his best interests to mention that people on his side of the aisle are attacking it. And the DHS did not bring it up for obvious reasons of not wanting to advertise the attack tool.
A link to the attack tool “Destroy Obama Care!” was specifically omitted from this report for the same obvious reasons.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

WaPo: CBS Ran Misleading Story On Security Issues


"CBS News has learned that the project manager in charge of building the federal health care website was apparently kept in the dark about serious failures in the website's security," the CBS report reads. "Those failures could lead to identity theft among buying insurance."
When questioned by Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) Wednesday at a House Oversight and Government Reform committee hearing, it became apparent that the security flaws that the CBS report discussed could not actually lead to identity theft.
According to Chao, the two modules the CBS report referenced are not currently active on the exchange website and that neither module used peronally identifiable information.
Connolly, while questioning Chao on Wednesday, implied that the partial leaked transcript came from Republican committee staff.
“So when CBS Evening News ran its report based on a leak, presumably from the [Republican] staff, but we don't know — of a partial transcript — excerpts from a partial transcript — they said the security issues raised in the document, and I quote, 'could lead to identity theft among buying insurance,' that cannot be true based on what we established in our back and forth. Is that correct?” Connolly asked during the hearing, as quoted by the Washington Post.
Chao responded that Connolly was correct.