Monday, April 11, 2011

Last Call

No more of this classy "We're trying to be a little more upscale" stuff for America's retail behemoth.  We're back to low prices at Wal-Mart, because that's all America's middle class can afford.

Last year, Wal-Mart had strayed from its "everyday low prices," the bedrock philosophy of founder and namesake Sam Walton. Late last year it switched back to emphasizing low prices across the whole store, instead of heavily promoting selected items.

It could take a while to reverse the sales declines. The company predicted in February that revenue at stores open at least a year for its U.S. Walmart stores should be anywhere from down 2 percent to unchanged for the current quarter compared with the same quarter last year.

The campaign is an acknowledgement that Walmart traffic is still weak, Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi said.

"I am concerned that Wal-Mart is taking to the airwaves at the same time it acknowledges it's not where it needs to be with product restoration, therefore risking customer disappointment yet again," he said.

Moreover, he said stores are looking disheveled because new merchandise is coming in faster than Wal-Mart can display and sell it.

"Has customer traffic been so soft in the first quarter that Wal-Mart is willing to go out on a limb and market aggressively despite the store appearance reflecting a sense of disarray?" Sozzi said.

Wal-Mart said it is adding 8,500 items to its inventory, 11 percent more in an average store. In some categories, the selection will be more than before the inventory slashing, McNaughton said.

Time to take off the tuxedo t-shirts, America.  The old craptastic Wal-Mart is back!

Land Of The Rising Core Temperature, Part 25

It keeps getting worse in Japan, folks as the other shoe drops on that evacuation story.  Now the Japanese government is considering raising the official estimate of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster to a Chernobyl-like seven out of seven on the INES scale.

The Nuclear Safety Commission of Japan released a preliminary calculation Monday saying that the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant had been releasing up to 10,000 terabecquerels of radioactive materials per hour at some point after a massive quake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan on March 11.

The disclosure prompted the government to consider raising the accident’s severity level to 7, the worst on an international scale, from the current 5, government sources said. The level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale has only been applied to the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe.

The current provisional evaluation of 5 is at the same level as the Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979.

According to an evaluation by the INES, level 7 accidents correspond with a release into the external environment radioactive materials equal to more than tens of thousands terabecquerels of radioactive iodine 131. One terabecquerel equals 1 trillion becquerels.

Haruki Madarame, chairman of the commission, which is a government panel, said it has estimated that the release of 10,000 terabecquerels of radioactive materials per hour continued for several hours.

The commission says the release has since come down to under 1 terabecquerel per hour and said that it is still examining the total amount of radioactive materials released.

It seems every day we learn something new about how the situation at Fukushima Daiichi is worse that officials thought, and even the Japanese government is ready to admit this catastrophe has now reached Chernobyl level proportions, and let's not forget the humanitarian crisis that the quake and tsunami has caused.  Hundreds of thousands are homeless, and hundreds of thousands more may not be able to return to their homes for a very, very long time.

It's heartbreaking.

Zandar's Thought Of The Day

Most important number out of CNN's post shutdown showdown poll today?


Speaking of approval ratings, 41 percent approve of how current House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio is handling his duties. Forty-four percent of people questioned say they disapprove of how Boehner's doing as Speaker, with a relatively high 15 percent sure. Significantly for Boehner, 66 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Tea Party movement supporters think he is doing a good job as Speaker

Can we put a rest to this false hope that the Tea Party will turn against Orange Julius and primary him?  It's not going to happen, any more than Obama will be primaried.  He's not going anywhere.  It's well the hell past time for us to stop hoping the Tea Party will self-destruct and take the GOP House with them and more of actually doing something to win back the House.

Yes, it's going to depend on the GOP screwing up badly as they always do.  But that can't be the only plank in 2012.

No Dealing On The Debt Ceiling

That's what Obama needs to do this week:  make it clear that Republicans threatening to destroy America's economy overnight and throw us back into another financial crisis is not acceptable, Republicans like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who threatened to do just that on Sunday:

CANTOR: Just as we saw happened this week in Washington, there comes a time leverage moment here, a time in which the White House and the president will actually capitulate to what the American people want right now. They don’t want to raise taxes. They don’t want spending to continue to spiral out of control. Those are the kind of things and mechanisms — whether it’s spending caps, entitlement reforms, budget process reforms — these are the kinds of things that we’re going to have to have to go along with the debt limit increase.

Really? So Rep. Cantor's okay with holding the economy hostage or else?  We're seeing Democrats go on the attack on this, like Sen. Schumer:

"I would urge both sides to take the threat of not renewing the debt ceiling off the table," he said. "It is highly irresponsible... It shows a lack of knowledge as to how our government works."

According to projections by the Treasury, the U.S. government is expected to hit its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by the end of May. If Congress does not approve an increase to the limit, the federal government could default on its bonds for the first time in history, and Social Security and Medicare checks would likely see delays as a result of the government's inability to make payments to agencies.

It would be much worse than that.  Interest rates would skyrocket on a US debt default.  We'd find ourselves in another massive liquidity crisis, just like in 2008.  The banking system would face another meltdown.  But Republicans are confident they can continue to hold the country hostage because of polls like this:

As we mentioned on Friday, the American public doesn’t support it. In our NBC/WSJ poll, only 16% said that Congress should raise the debt ceiling, versus 46% who said it shouldn’t. What's worse for those stuck with trying to sell the need to raise it: When respondents were told that the U.S. would default on its debt payments if the debt ceiling WASN’T raised, that 16% increased to just 32%, while the anti-number jumped a tad higher, to 62%.
Matt Yglesias correctly parses what that poll means and what the Democrats should do about it:

The second prong, important for credibility, is to move to thinking about what happens as we reach the ceiling.

This isn’t a sudden “shutdown.” Nor is is true that we have to default on obligations to our bondholders. Rather, it means that government outlays are now limited by the quantity of inbound tax revenue. But for a while, the people administering the federal government (to wit Barack Obama and Timothy Geithner) will be able to selectively stiff people. So the right strategy is to start stiffing people Republicans care about. When bills to defense contractors come due, don’t pay them. Explain they’ll get 100 percent of what they’re owed when the debt ceiling is raised. Don’t make some farm payments. Stop sending Medicare reimbursements. Make the doctors & hospitals, the farmers and defense contractors, and the currently elderly bear the inconvenient for a few weeks of uncertain payment schedules. And explain to the American people that the circle of people who need to be inconvenienced will necessarily grow week after week until congress gives in. Remind people that the concessions the right is after mean the permanent abolition of Medicare, followed by higher taxes on the middle to finance additional tax cuts for the rich.

Make the American people, and the Republicans, painfully aware of what refusing the raise the debt ceiling means.  Make the Republicans want to take it off the table.  Defuse the hostage crisis long before the Republicans put a gun to the head of our economy.

And the time to start on this is now.

FCC Smackdown Is Bad News

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The House of Representatives voted on Friday to reject Internet "neutrality" rules that were adopted last year to keep big Internet service providers from blocking certain traffic.
House Republicans, in a 240-179 vote, pushed through a measure disapproving the Federal Communications Commission's rules. Tech and telecom giants such as Verizon Communications Inc and Microsoft Corp could be affected.  The outlook for further progress by the Republicans in rolling back the FCC's actions was uncertain, however.

It's enough damage as is.  If Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can influence what services run best on their network or outright control communications, the freedom of the Internet will dry up and privacy will disappear.   The fact that this is even on the table should make consumers take notice and get involved. 

Democratic Representative Anna Eshoo called the Republican push against the FCC's rules "an ideological assault on a federal agency and its ability to provide basic consumer protections."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Monday dismissed challenges to the FCC rules that had been filed by Verizon and MetroPCS Communications Inc, ruling that the challenges were premature.

"In most parts of the country, companies like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast have a virtual monopoly over access to the Internet," Waxman said. "Without regulation, they can choke off innovation by charging for the right to communicate with their customers."

That's a sunny outlook.  So far, nobody else has mentioned the logging of usage and selling out customer's habits in great detail to advertisers.  Controlling which websites we can load, or which games will be "configured" to run better on specific networks.  The death of competition, innovation and consumer choice, or right to privacy or opting out of tracking practices.  Communication companies would get to double-bill for providing a service they can manipulate to their benefit without oversight.  True, the FCC has never controlled the Internet.  But someone should, and they are better prepared than any other entity that comes to mind.  

This Week's WTH

NORFOLK (AP) — A Norfolk school principal has apologized for a classroom activity last week in which a teacher staged a mock auction of black and mixed-race students as part of a Civil War history lesson.
The Virginian-Pilot reports that Sewells Point Elementary School Principal Mary B. Wrushen wrote the students' parents this week to say that while the teacher's actions were well-intended, "the activity presented was inappropriate for the students." She said the activity was not supported by the school or division.

Division spokeswoman Elizabeth Thiel Mather said the teacher separated black and mixed-race fourth-graders from their white classmates and auctioned them. She said the division was taking "appropriate personnel action."

Wrushen declined to comment Friday and the teacher, Jessica Boyle, did not return a call to the school, the newspaper reported.

Protecting Our Precious Corporate Donors

Via James Joyner at OTB comes this WSJ plea to protect corporate donors from the political backlash of backing the wrong horse.

Disclosure makes threats possible, and fears of retribution plausible. Within weeks of a contribution of $200 or more, the contributor’s name appears on the public record. Contributors know this, and they know that supporting the challenger can, should the challenger lose, have consequences in terms of future attention to their interests. Of course no incumbent will admit to issuing threats or seeking retribution, but the perception that both exist is widespread.

Odd, I always thought making a major donation to a political challenger, with full public disclosure, was an open threat by the corporate donor to the incumbent.  Besides, it's not like big donations like that aren't played up by both the recipient and the opponent.  Joyner's analysis is also odd:

There’s no way to simultaneously inform voters about who’s backing a candidate and keep that information secret from other candidate, including the incumbent. And it’s quite plausible, indeed, that victorious incumbents will hold grudges against those who spent money trying to get them ousted.

Is that rational concern enough to justify making political donations secret? After all, the secret ballot–the notion that it’s nobody’s business who you’re voting for–is a cherished part of of political culture and publishing one’s donations pulls the veil off.

If you're a corporation making a major donation to a candidate or an industry group as a publicly-traded company, you owe it to publicly disclose that to your stockholders at the very least.  But you can't have a system where you say "donations are politically protected free speech" and then say that the people cannot be made aware of the "speech" happening.  That's ludicrous, and it exposes the Citizens United decision for what it is:  a benefit to allow more corporate control of our political system.

On the contrary, the fewer limits we put on donations, the more stringent disclosure rules we need.  If you're going to make the business decision as a corporate donor to back Candidate X in a public election, your employees, your customers, your business rivals and Candidate X's opponent all deserve to know.

Of course the real solution is to bar corporate donations completely, since corporations don't vote at all, but that would make too much sense.

To The Shores Of Tripoli, Part 10

News that over the weekend Qaddafi has agreed to a "peace framework" in Libya is portending something positive out of the mess that is Tripoli right now.

Muammar Gaddafi has accepted a roadmap for ending the civil war in Libya, South African President Jacob Zuma said after leading a delegation of African leaders at talks in Tripoli.

Zuma, who with four other African heads of state met Gaddafi for several hours at the Libyan leader's Bab al-Aziziyah compound, also called on NATO to stop air strikes on Libyan government targets to "give ceasefire a chance."

No one at the talks gave details of the roadmap for peace in this oil-producing nation. Rebels have said they will accept nothing less than an end to Gaddafi's four decades in power, but Libyan officials say he will not quit.

"The brother leader delegation has accepted the roadmap as presented by us. We have to give ceasefire a chance," Zuma said, adding that the African delegation would now travel to the eastern city of Benghazi for talks with anti-Gaddafi rebels.

It's possible that this could actually be over soon.  Then again, that's what observes said last week about Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, who still continues to cling to power.

[UPDATE] Reuters is reporting Gbagbo has been captured by French Special Forces.

Land Of The Rising Core Temperature, Part 24

As a new 6.6 magnitude aftershock rocked Japan today, officials are today expanding the evacuation zone around the Fukushima Daiichi plant because of increased radiation.

The government announced earlier that because of accumulated radiation contamination, it would encourage people to leave certain areas beyond its 20 km (12 mile) exclusion zone around the plant.

Children, pregnant women, and hospitalised patients should stay out of some areas 20-30 km from the nuclear complex, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano told reporters.

"These new evacuation plans are meant to ensure safety against risks of living there for half a year or one year," he said. There was no need to evacuate immediately, he added. 

This is clearly the beginning a new medium to long term phase in the Japanese reaction to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  And speaking of medium to long term results, Japanese local elections on Sunday were a devastating blow to the country's ruling party.

Tokyo's outspoken governor Shintaro Ishihara won his fourth term by a landslide Sunday, as the ruling Democratic Party of Japan lost several key gubernatorial elections in the first nationwide elections since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

The opposition Liberal Democratic Party backed Mr. Ishihara, an Independent, who called the disasters "divine punishment" for "egoism" in Japanese society. Mr. Ishihara defeated the DPJ-endorsed business entrepreneur candidate.

Political watchers expected Mr. Ishihara to dominate the race, as people tend to favor incumbents during times of crisis. Of the 12 gubernatorial races that took place Sunday, all nine incumbents kept their seats. The remaining three elections were among newcomers.

The DPJ's general-secretary Katsuya Okada played down the loss, saying the disaster took a toll on newcomers. But his LDP counterpart, Nobuteru Ishihara, said his party's win in the gubernatorial seats will have larger political consequences.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, whose approval ratings already were low, will have to address Sunday's loss while trying to forge a blueprint for Japan's reconstruction. 

Elections in northern Japan continue to be postponed, which given the circumstances is something the ruling DPJ party isn't terribly upset about.  Just wait until the summer blackouts begin...


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