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Archive for January 3rd, 2010

Starting The New Year Off Right

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments

“Indescribable, amazing, the best feeling ever …”

(h/t to Scarce)


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Midday Open Thread

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments


Saturday hate mail-apalooza

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments

I’m still on that Salvadoran beach, or maybe trekking through Mayan ruins in Honduras. I could be hiking up a Salvadoran volcano, or maybe sticking my nose into Guatemala. Regardless, I’m eating lots of pupusas and trying to keep cool.

I had lots of hate mail the weeks before I left for vacation (while we were voting for the best of 2009), so here’s some more of it, queued up before I left. I’ll be back live next week.


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Outlook for the 2010 Economy (with poll)

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments

Anyone who follows economic statistics knows that reports coming out this month are mostly going to be one heckuva lot better than they were last January.

For instance, in January 2009, the Department of Labor reported a net loss of 741,000 jobs for the previous month. Next Friday, it wouldn’t surprise anybody if the report showed a small net gain for the first time in two years, say 50,000 or so. And there might also be a revision in last month’s figures, turning the previously reported net loss of 11,000 into a small net gain.

The same can be said of gross domestic product numbers. The first estimate for the fourth quarter of 2009 will come out January 29. At a rate of 2.2%, final numbers for the third quarter turned out not to be nearly as strong as the 3.5% they were first said to be, but they nonetheless were in positive territory after four quarters in the negative. The fourth-quarter numbers for 2009 will also no doubt show growth. Whatever the final calculation of GDP proves to be, we can be certain that it will be far better than the plunge of 6.4% in the fourth quarter of 2008.

But, while these statistics – and many others – indicate that the economy is improving, there’s a long, long way to go before it can fairly be called a recovery. While we may be emerging from a record-breaking period of net job loss, more than 15 million Americans are still unemployed. Another 13 million to 15 million are underemployed or so discouraged they have stopped looking for work. Many who are unemployed who have been surviving on unemployment compensation will see their benefits expire in a few months. The Great Recession has been catastrophic for millions of Americans, and for many of them, the worst is yet to come as their savings dwindle, their homes are foreclosed, and their old jobs are permanently done away with.

Thus, while we’re not going to see another 1.8 million layoffs in the coming three months, as we did in the first quarter of 2009, we’re also not going to see very many of those vacant jobs filled. Indeed, the majority of expert observers expect that the unemployment rate will hover between 9% and 10% for all this year. There are contrarians who see it much worse or much better. Views regarding 2010’s growth in GDP – that majorly flawed but widely used calculation – range from 2.3% to as much as 5%.

Calculated Risk ran a poll at the end of the year regarding readers’ expectations on GDP growth and unemployment for 2010. They were quite pessimistic. More than half predicted a double-dip recession. Only 13% or respondents said growth would be above 2%. The vast majority said the unemployment rate would still be in double digits.

We can’t run two polls in the same diary here, so the unemployment rate has been chosen as our measure.  

As most Daily Kos followers of the economic news know, the official “headline” unemployment rate, what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls “U3,” is not really the best measure of who is out of work since it excludes “discouraged workers” and those working part-time because they can’t get full-time work. “U6″ is a much better figure, although even that is viewed as incomplete by some critics. U6 includes the underemployed and a portion of “discouraged” workers.

But, because U3 and U6 do move in tandem with each other,  U3 was chosen for our poll so the results here can be better compared with those at Calculated Risk. Our poll and theirs are, of course, unscientific. The results may or may not have any relationship to how a scientific poll of randomly selected Americans would respond.      
 


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Weekly Address: The Fight Against Al Qaeda

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments

National security is the focus of President Obama’s first weekly address of 2010, with him citing his “responsibility to protect the safety and security of the American people,” while at the same time vowing that the intelligence community will “have the tools and resources they need to keep America safe.”

Speaking of the state of the investigation into the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day and the suspect’s ties to a Yemeni affiliate of al Qaeda, the President says:

This is not the first time this group has targeted us.  In recent years, they have bombed Yemeni government facilities and Western hotels, restaurants and embassies-including our embassy in 2008, killing one American.  So, as President, I’ve made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government-training and equipping their security forces, sharing intelligence and working with them to strike al Qaeda terrorists.

And even before Christmas Day, we had seen the results.  Training camps have been struck; leaders eliminated; plots disrupted.  And all those involved in the attempted act of terrorism on Christmas must know-you too will be held to account.

And in a nice one-two punch at his Republican critics and the former administration (read that: Dick Cheney), the President reminds us of what he said at his inauguration:

On that day I also made it very clear-our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred, and that we will do whatever it takes to defeat them and defend our country, even as we uphold the values that have always distinguished America among nations.

… and the actions he has taken since that day:

And make no mistake, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.  It’s why I refocused the fight-bringing to a responsible end the war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and dramatically increasing our resources in the region where al Qaeda is actually based, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It’s why I’ve set a clear and achievable mission-to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies and prevent their return to either country.

The President finishes with a (too gentle) slap at the ugly politicization that we’ve seen since the near tragedy on Christmas Day:

But as we go forward, let us remember this — our adversaries are those who would attack our country, not our fellow Americans, not each other. Let’s never forget what has always carried us through times of trial, including those attacks eight Septembers ago.

Instead of giving in to fear and cynicism, let’s renew that timeless American spirit of resolve and confidence and optimism.  Instead of succumbing to partisanship and division, let’s summon the unity that this moment demands.  Let’s work together, with a seriousness of purpose, to do what must be done to keep our country safe.

Sadly, that isn’t a resolution that Republicans would even consider, let alone keep.
 

The complete transcript is below the fold.


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This Year in Science

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments

Top scientists share some predictions for the decade to come, one of which included this:

Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin tycoon, is even more enthusiastic about activity in space in 2020. “Space tourism will have taken off,” he says, Nasa will have a “clear plan to get to Mars with a manned mission” and there will be a space station built on the moon.

I agree with some of that and I think I can make a good case for it. But for now we cast our eye back and look at a few of the greatest scientific announcements of 2009.

  • H1N1 could have been a disaster. But thanks to hard work by the CDC and NIH, private and public health facilities, and the efforts of physician bloggers like the Flu Wiki, vaccine was produced and distributed, perhaps limiting the epidemic and saving tens of thousands of lives. Ironically, the 2009 flu pandemic turning into a non story was an impressive achievement of medical science.
  • Ardipithecus, a strong candidate for the earliest ancestor of anatomically modern humans, was found years ago but finally described last year.
  • The case for Martian microbes received another boost in the year that has gone by and some additional evidence suggests microbes may still exist on Mars.
  • The Large Hadron Collider fired up it’s first test runs and began tweaking up its magnets and collision chambers. 2010 may mark the decade when the Higgs Bosonis detected or the time when the Standard Model receives a terminal diagnosis.


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Your Abbreviated Pundit Round-up

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments

Saturday and it’s still 2010. Isn’t it over yet?

WaPo:

Democratic senators rallied around President Obama’s pick to head the Transportation Security Administration on Friday as new details emerged indicating that key lawmakers already knew when they voted in November to advance his nomination that he had mischaracterized a personal incident in his testimony.

Holy crap. They’re not folding. Maybe they actually learned something during the health care debate.

Michael Richman: The Redskins suck.

Bob Herbert: No, it’s the Jets that really suck. They fool you into thiunking they don’t, and then…

Brendan Miniter: Bob McDonnell, the GOP’s great hope.

As for the damaged Republican brand, one message voters sent with Mr. McDonnell’s election is that they don’t want the GOP to repeat its mistakes from the past decade. Mr. McDonnell seems to have received that message, saying that it was important for him to run on fiscal issues, because “we’ve got to hold the line on taxes and we’ve got to cut spending.”

Lindsay Beyerstein (The Nation): What’s next for health care reform?

Donald McNeil:

Although it is too early to write the obituary for swine flu, medical experts, already assessing how the first pandemic in 40 years has been handled, have found that while luck played a part, a series of rapid but conservative decisions by federal officials worked out better than many had dared hope…

For example, in the early days, they ignored advice to close the Mexican border and pre-emptively shut school systems. They released part of the national Tamiflu stockpile, but did not give it to millions of healthy people prophylactically, as Britain did. They ordered vaccine made with a 50-year-old egg technology rather than experimental methods. They bought adjuvants — chemical “boosters” — that could have stretched the first 25 million vaccine doses into 100 million, but did not use them for fear of triggering a backlash among Americans made nervous by the messages of the antivaccine movement.

See, it’s just like Y2K. Do a lot of work and it will turn out less than feared (and the work will help with ancillary things, like preparing for the next one, shoring up infection control and hospital surge capacity, and other things that can be used for any disaster.)


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Philip N. Cohen: Recession begets family violence

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments

Evidence of the recession’s effect on family violence is piling up. Here’s a rundown.

The NY Times reports that, in New York’s recession-year court backlog, “Cases involving charges like assault by family members were up 18 percent statewide.” Philadelphia in 2009 saw a 67% increase in domestic homicides:

The increase in domestic violence in Philadelphia is mirrored nationally, and experts say it is linked, in part, to the recession. In fact, data indicate that domestic violence had been falling in the 15 years before the recession took hold last year.

Similar news has come in from Finland and the UK to Danville, VA, Madison, WI and Salt Lake City. Christina Davidson at the Atlantic has a brutal report on accumulating anecdotal evidence, much of it from service providers, that family violence is increasing – even as the economic squeeze makes it harder for women to take the plunge and leave their abusers.


Source: “Local domestic violence shelters seek assistance amid tough times,” San Diego News Network.

Skeptically, some of this could reflect the entrepreneurial spirit among agencies that respond to domestic violence during an economic crisis that has been hard on all public service budgets. But it is corroborated by what violence, court and crime statistics I can find so far. And I haven’t passed over any reports of decreased family violence.

Some sociologists see a silver lining in the recession for families, saying, “many couples appear to be developing a new appreciation for the economic and social support that marriage can provide in tough times.” But that is based on a misinterpreted dip in divorces. (Maybe the recession will end up stalling some divorce filings. But that kind of drop in the divorce rate we don’t need.)

There was also an earlier wave of this reporting last spring. From Associated Press last April:

Across the country, these and other signs point to another troubling effect of the recession: The American home is becoming more violent, and the ailing economy could be at least partially to blame.

Last May the Mary Kay Foundation reported:

Three out of four domestic violence shelters report an increase in women seeking assistance from abuse since September 2008, a major turning point in the U.S. economy. The survey data directly connects a major reason for the increase in domestic violence to the downturn in the economy.

Of course, many families that make it do so by pulling together in good times and bad. But bad times are bad times. Unemployment increases usually lead to higher rates of violence, and downward turbulence has more bad effects than good.

Cross-posted from the Family Inequality blog.

More on Family


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Jeff Stein: CIA KILLINGS REMIND THAT SPY AGENCIES GO TO WAR, TOO

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments

The CIA was formed in 1947 to subvert the Soviet Union using secret means, and the twilight struggle took place as much in black tie at embassy cocktail parties as much as in trench coats in back alleys. But the Dec. 30 killing of seven CIA employees in Afghanistan is a reminder that in time of war, the spy agency puts down its martinis and goes where the action is, as it has in places like Korea and Vietnam, since 1950. On New Year’s Eve I discussed CIA operations in Afghanistan with PBS WorldFocus host Martin Savidge. Watch it here.

More on Afghanistan


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Iris Erlingsdottir: IceSave Agreement: Just Sign It!

January 3rd, 2010 admin No comments

At long last, Iceland’s parliament–the Alþingi–has passed a bill settling Iceland’s dispute with the United Kingdom and Holland regarding the government’s responsibility for losses suffered by British and Dutch depositors when one of Iceland’s three major banks–Landsbanki–went into receivership in October 2008. Unfortunately, Iceland’s President, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, has not yet signed the bill and has indicated that he may instead call for a national referendum. If a recent poll is accurate, the agreement would be rejected by a large majority of Icelanders.

Tens of thousands of investors–individuals, municipalities, and charities–took advantage of the exceptionally high rates offered on Landbanki’s IceSave savings accounts, only to discover that these accounts were not formally backed by any government. Landsbanki officials had inexplicably failed to register as a domestic bank in either country, and thus were not backed by government deposit insurance. When Landsbanki went into receivership on October 7th, British authorities invoked anti-terror legislation on October 8th to freeze Landsbanki’s assets there.

When Davíð Oddsson, the head of Iceland’s Central Bank, and Icelandic finance minister Árni Mathiesen indicated–Davíð on TV: “We will not pay the foreign debts of irresponsible mess makers; we’d be saddling our children with such debt, it would be slavery…”- that Iceland would guarantee losses suffered by Icelandic depositors, but not foreign depositors, Gordon Brown noted that Iceland was in violation of the European Economic Area’s (EEA) anti-discrimination laws and insisted that the Icelandic government reimburse all depositors. Although the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to assist Iceland, it has refused to release additional funds until the IceSave matter is resolved.

The first attempt to resolve this matter resulted in a blatantly unfair agreement, which Iceland rejected. After further negotiations, a more palatable accord was hammered out and approved by a narrow majority in the Alþingi on December 30, 2009. Fitch lessened its downgrade on Iceland in anticipation of the bill’s passage, and Iceland received the first tranche of a loan from the Nordic countries.
2010-01-03-icesavehalldorjohannasteingrimur.jpg
Almost there: PM Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and Finance Minister Steingrímur Sigfússon, viewed through the lens of extraordinarily talented political cartoonist Halldór Sigurðsson. mbl.is

The group InDefence has presented Ólafur Ragnar a petition purportedly containing over 60,000 signatures calling for him to veto the bill, and over 500 people are currently camped out in front of his official residence, Bessastaðir.

It would indeed feel satisfying to tell the Brits to cram it. The invocation of anti-terror legislation against a NATO ally in a matter that obviously did not involve any physical danger to the British public was insulting and irresponsible. The bullying tactics employed against a much smaller country that was in obvious distress demonstrated a complete lack of tact or compassion.

Nevertheless, Ólafur Ragnar should sign the bill because it’s the right thing to do, and because the consequences of rejection would be disastrous.

It’s the right thing to do because the foreign depositors relied on the integrity of the Icelandic banking regime when they placed their funds in Landsbanki’s hands. These depositors suffered as much as the Icelandic depositors because of the incompetence (and worse) of the Landsbanki executives and the Icelandic regulators. It was not unreasonable for the depositors to rely on statements by the bank and Icelandic regulators strongly denying rumors of problems with the bank’s business model. If the Icelandic regulators had been doing their jobs and warned the public, it’s likely the pension funds and charities wiped out by Landsbanki’s default would have parked their money elsewhere.

As for the consequences, it’s clear that the ratings agencies would place Iceland below investment grade, which would greatly increase the rate at which the country would be able to borrow. It’s possible (if not likely) that the IMF would refuse to release any further funds.

The current government would almost certainly fall, and any chance at reasonable reform would die. The conservative Independence Party that ran Iceland until the collapse would retake power and restart the party. The businessmen whose reckless actions placed the county in danger would return with the illicit funds they’ve placed in off-shore accounts and buy Iceland’s resources for a song.

Most importantly, the new government would take whatever steps necessary to ensure that these culprits never see the inside of a jail cell. The investigation of the misdeeds that led to Iceland’s collapse has proceeded very methodically, and the special prosecutor now appears on the cusp of indicting some of the Independence Party’s biggest supporters. If the investigators are allowed to continue, we’ll see whether the rumors of money laundering for the Russian mafia are true, whether vast amounts of money are indeed sitting in Tortola, whether bank employees exploited pension funds with same glee that Enron employees exhibited while ripping off California consumers, and whether our politicians and regulators were bribable.

Until these questions are answered and the culprits are punished, we will never have a functional democracy in Iceland. The current government has been given the unenviable task of placing the country’s finances on a reasonable and sustainable basis after years of irresponsible overspending by the Independence Party, and much of the belt-tightening has adversely affected individuals who had nothing to do with the banks’ pyramid schemes. All of the Icelandic people are rightfully upset by Gordon Brown’s handling of the matter, and are galled at the prospect of sending needed funds to him.

We’re also impatient with the pace of the special prosecutor’s investigation–how can the United States place Bernie Madoff behind bars within weeks of discovering his fraud, while we’re still waiting for the first indictment of any of the bankers?

So, we’re damned if we sign the IceSave agreement, and damned if we don’t. We need every krona we can get to rebuild our damaged economy, and it hurts to see these funds shipped off-shore. By not signing the agreement, though, we would ensure that our history is rewritten by the very persons who have placed our country at peril and who are just waiting for the chance to plunder it again. We would also be flipping a very large middle finger to the international community at a time when we need its assistance the most.

By signing it, Ólafur Ragnar would ensure that the new government would be able to finish what it has started–a thorough investigation into the events that led to our fall. Unless Eva Joly and Ólafur Þór Hauksson are permitted to complete their task, not only will the wrongdoers escape justice, but we will show them that there are no adverse consequences for their incompetence and malfeasance.

More on Iceland


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