Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Last Call

I know it's greatly oversimplifying things to portray oil companies like BP as megalomaniacal, cartoonish James Bond villains, but when the somewhat evil patent leather shoe fits...

Plans to exploit Iraq's oil reserves were discussed by government ministers and the world's largest oil companies the year before Britain took a leading role in invading Iraq, government documents show.

The papers, revealed here for the first time, raise new questions over Britain's involvement in the war, which had divided Tony Blair's cabinet and was voted through only after his claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The minutes of a series of meetings between ministers and senior oil executives are at odds with the public denials of self-interest from oil companies and Western governments at the time.

The documents were not offered as evidence in the ongoing Chilcot Inquiry into the UK's involvement in the Iraq war. In March 2003, just before Britain went to war, Shell denounced reports that it had held talks with Downing Street about Iraqi oil as "highly inaccurate". BP denied that it had any "strategic interest" in Iraq, while Tony Blair described "the oil conspiracy theory" as "the most absurd".

But documents from October and November the previous year paint a very different picture.

Five months before the March 2003 invasion, Baroness Symons, then the Trade Minister, told BP that the Government believed British energy firms should be given a share of Iraq's enormous oil and gas reserves as a reward for Tony Blair's military commitment to US plans for regime change.

The papers show that Lady Symons agreed to lobby the Bush administration on BP's behalf because the oil giant feared it was being "locked out" of deals that Washington was quietly striking with US, French and Russian governments and their energy firms.

Minutes of a meeting with BP, Shell and BG (formerly British Gas) on 31 October 2002 read:

"Baroness Symons agreed that it would be difficult to justify British companies losing out in Iraq in that way if the UK had itself been a conspicuous supporter of the US government throughout the crisis."

The minister then promised to "report back to the companies before Christmas" on her lobbying efforts. 

Hey, but Bush was handing out contracts, so the UK agreed to go to war because BP wanted in on the oil too.   It's not that anyone ever believed Iraq wasn't about the oil, but to have it confirmed at least partially is another thing.

Hell of a mess.  And gosh, we're looking forwards, not backwards.  Don't expect anything to happen to the people who pulled the trigger.

Birthers Get A Trump Card, Part 9

Steve M. argues convincingly that Trump has now crossed the line and is effectively done.  Oh no, he can insult the current President all he wants to, but as Steve says, he's committed the unpardonable sin of pointing out Ronald Reagan's feet of clay.

...in his bestselling book, Art of the Deal, published at the conclusion of the Reagan presidency, Trump cited Reagan as an example of someone who could "con people" but couldn't "deliver the goods." Trump said Reagan was "so smooth" that he "won over the American people." But at the conclusion of his presidency, "people are beginning to question whether there is anything beneath that smile," Trump writes. 

That's it, Donald -- thanks for playing. You can be an ex-Democrat, an ex-supporter of a wealth tax, an ex-Obama fan, an ex-pro-choicer ... but you cannot insult the most perfect human being who ever lived and expect to win votes in the Republican Party. This alone will do more to deflate the Trump bubble than anything terrified establishment 'pubs have unearthed so far.

And it was Think Progress that dug this up. Dammit, guys, you should've let him make the party elders squirm for a few more weeks.

Well, Republicans do lie about pretty much everything, including Reagan. He never would have survived today's Republican Party to make it to the White House, in fact he would have been primaried out of California's Governor's mansion if not recalled. But telling the truth about Ronnie to counter that lie, well. That's breaking the final, inviolable law. I'm going to have to go with Steve here without much reservation at all.

Trump's done, folks. Enjoy the veal.

But You'll Never Take Our Freed...Oh Never Mind

I've talked about Michigan's GOP Gov. Rick Snyder and his dictatorship of Michigan here:

So at this point, Gov. Snyder can appoint an "emergency manager" over a local government who has the power to remove any local or county government he wants to, eliminate all local government contracts, close schools and offices, disband state employee unions, layoff any government workers, and do all this with basically no oversight.

The best part?  Governor Snyder can pro-actively appoint an emergency manager "long before a city gets into trouble".  What's the criteria for appointing this manager and throwing out the elected city or country government?

Well, nobody seems to know, actually.  But Snyder can do it starting now.

Meet the first Michigan town to feel the wrath of Rick Snyder's "Appoint-A-Satrap" program:  Benton Harbor's new head, Joe Harris.

[O]ne of the first things that Joseph Harris did was to fire a number of people on both the Planning Commission and the Brownfield Development Commission in Benton Harbor and replace them with people he hand-picked. These two commissions are the ones most intimately involved in decision-making about real estate development in Benton Harbor. They will decide who gets permits, what developments will look like and who gets to pick the ripe plums present in Benton Harbor. And they are now staffed largely by people chosen by the Czar of Benton Harbor.
This is where the rubber meets the pavement. If you are looking for motivations for Snyder and his Republican friends to take over Benton Harbor, watch who gets development rights of the Lake Michigan shoreline. They are already setting things up to ensure that it is not the local residents of Benton Harbor.

Sure glad Snyder's not abusing his power to rid himself of any local officials he wants to or anything.  Welcome to the Banana Republic of the Wolverine.  Oh, it gets worse.  The real target is Detroit.

As if to prove correct those who argued that the Emergency Manager bill would be used to alter or eliminate union contracts, Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Robert Bobb said Thursday that he will use those new powers to do exactly that.

Just poof, all union contracts thrown out, all teachers given potential layoff notices, all opposition to the plan squelched.  And it gets worse.  E.D. Kain explains:

So who is Robert Bobb?

It turns out, he’s a recent graduate of the Broad Foundation’s Superintendent Academy. The Broad Foundation, along with the Kellogg Foundation, pays Bobb $145,000 a year on top of his $280,000 government salary. For those of you not familiar with Broad, it is one of the leading foundations promoting school choice and privatization across the country. One might almost think that paying a public official hundreds of thousands of dollars a year might amount to nothing short of bribery, especially given the very specific agenda of a foundation like the Broad Foundation.

Now, Bobb is proposing to create charter schools for 16,000 students from 41 schools slated for closure. He argues that this will save millions of dollars. I have to wonder, however, at the conflict of interest.

Did I mention it gets even worse?

This is nothing short of a coordinated effort between the billionaire foundations pushing school reform and Tea Party conservatives intent on slashing benefits and ending collective bargaining rights. Public schools are under assault by the forces of privatization, and public school teachers face benefit and salary cuts while the very rich are promised tax cuts. Similar efforts are underway in Florida and Wisconsin.

That's right, Scott Walker and Rick Scott are very, very interested in passing a similar dictatorship law to what Michigan has now.  They are very much intrigued by being able to exterminate any opposition at the local and county level by simply appointing a financial manager to run out whomever they want to.  And with Florida's GOP having a super-majority, I fully expect Rick Scott to absolutely have a law like this in place so he can simply dismiss any local or county elected official he doesn't like in the state.

But keep in mind that's conjecture.  Michigan's Rick Snyder?  He has this power now, and he's already using it to dispose of anyone who gets in his way.

But remember, Democrats are the fascists.  Snyder's a patriot.

No Dealing On The Debt Ceiling, Part 5

Seems GOP Sen. Jim DeMint didn't get the memo from the US Chamber of Commerce on that whole "ixnay" on the debt ceiling thing.

Throwing down the gauntlet, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint threatened Monday to block a vote in Congress on raising the U.S. debt ceiling unless he wins a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

The filibuster threat comes a day after Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner suggested Republican leaders had offered private assurances to the White House that they ultimately would vote to raise the $14.3 trillion ceiling, regardless of whether a deal is reached on long-term spending cuts.

Publicly, Republicans say they will demand spending cuts as a condition for supporting a hike in the debt ceiling. They stood by that claim following Geithner's comments, and DeMint took their demands a step further.

"I will oppose any attempt to vote to raise the limit on our $14 trillion debt until Congress passes the balanced-budget amendment," the South Carolina conservative said. He first made the remarks to McClatchy, which his office confirmed to Fox News.

A balanced-budget amendment would prohibit the U.S. government from running a deficit. Such a provision would take a two-thirds vote in Congress, in addition to ratification by the states. 

So Jim DeMint really is threatening to destroy the economy unless he's allowed to destroy the economy.  Brilliant.  Keep posturing like this, Republicans.  Not even Republicans believe in a balanced budget amendment, let alone two-thirds of Congress, and all this is supposed to happen before the debt ceiling forces a default?

Please.  DeMint is full of DeCrap.  When he fails to deliver on this, will the Tea Party primary him out of Washington?

Advance In Cancer Treatment Given Approval

WASHINGTON – Device maker Novocure said Friday that the Food and Drug Administration approved its first-of-a-kind treatment that fights cancerous brain tumors using electrical energy fields.
The FDA approved the device for patients with aggressive brain tumors that have returned after treatment with chemotherapy and other interventions. Patients with recurring brain cancer usually live only a few months.
Studies showed that people using the device lived about as long as those taking chemotherapy, roughly six months. However, patients using the device had significantly fewer side effects.

Because cancer cells replicate so quickly, this allows the new technology to affect cancer cells while having minimum impact on healthy cells.  While it isn't extending life beyond that of chemotherapy at the moment, it's a baby step in the right direction. The problem all along has been how to target cancer cells rather than healthy cells, and chemotherapy can be brutal.  If it does nothing but improve quality of life for those facing terminal cancer, it's still a help for those who have suffered enough.

A Medical And Ethical Dilemma

I have thought this one over for a few days now.  I don't completely agree or disagree with either side in this story.  I can see the flaws in logic that worry me in many ways, including a parent's right to make medical choices for their children.

In a nutshell, a mother decided to deny her child treatment, and as a result the child died of leukemia.  That the child was autistic, developmentally disabled and nonverbal further complicates the issue.  The mother's explanation was that she could not bear to make her child suffer.  The child would have most likely died a slower and far more painful death, and been completely unable to comprehend or express their suffering.  What some call medical and parental neglect others may call compassion.  A jury recently found her guilty of attempted murder.  Her decision was made without support or guidance, but I do understand that some see extending life while others only see extending suffering.  That is the train of thought I rode around in circles.

"It can be so overwhelming for a single parent to deal with a child who is autistic, nonverbal, and developmentally delayed," said Carney. "It is cruel to add to that burden a diagnosis of cancer and a requirement that the mom administer medicine that will cause the child even more pain."
Is a parent at liberty to forgo treatment? According to the courts, apparently not.
The closest analogy appears to be a 1986 case in which Christian Scientist parents rejected surgery for their son, suffering from a bowel condition, in favor of spiritual treatment. In that situation, Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court ruled that parents, despite their religious beliefs, are obligated to rely on conventional medicine to treat their critically ill children.

The mother's real mistake was in making the decision without a doctor's input.  It's worrisome that the system allowed this to happen without setting of any type of red flags so that someone looked deeper.  I can see why it was good to have traditional medicine treat a bowel disorder, and I can also see why refusing to prolong the suffering of an already devastated patient is worth intense discussion and scrutiny.  What I can't find for myself is the line that separates the two, defined in a way that makes it fair and applicable.  I also wonder how this will be applied, including parents who decline immunization to dangerous diseases.

One thing is for certain.  This poor woman did not see justice in any way, at any time.  That her son isn't suffering is surely a bitter comfort while she faces prison.

It Taxes The Imagination

Mother Jones' Dave Gilson has a thoroughly depressing article on taxes and and the rich.

"We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes," billionaire hotelier Leona Helmsley famously (and allegedly) sniffed. She wasn't entirely correct: The superrich do still pay taxes. The wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers pay 32 percent of all income tax collected by the federal government.

But the superrich don't pay as much as they used to—and thanks to a combination of tax cuts and preferential tax policies, their tax obligations can be less demanding than the so-called little people's. In fact, the very wealthiest Americans' tax burden has been steadily dropping for years, even as they've enjoyed astounding income growth not seen by the vast majority of Americans.

Tax rates for the wealthy have fallen substantially since they peaked in the 1940s. During the past 30 years, they have been cut at a much faster rate than middle- and low-income taxpayers'.

Just how much of a windfall are tax cuts for the wealthy? The extension of the Bush tax cuts passed last year will provide $146,000 in annual tax savings, on average, to each of the wealthiest 0.1% of Americans.

Well, what about the rest of us?  This chart should tell you everything you need to know:

Kind of a bummer, huh?  The Bush tax cuts are saving the vast majority of Americans only a few bucks a year.  But the wealthiest one-tenth of the top one percent?  They get an extra $140,000 or so after their income has skyrocketed.  The last 12 years or so have been very, very good to the wealthy.  But they are "over taxed" and we dare not ask them to pay more in relation to the massive increase in income they've recieved or there will be terrible consequences.

Like, say, a financial crisis and Republicans screaming that we need to end Medicare, maybe?

Still think the problem is spending and not revenue?

Rating The Funny Business Of S&P's Rating

CounterPunch.org economic reporter Dave Lindorff wonders openly if yesterday's negative outlook by Standard & Poors on US debt was the perfectly-timed the next step in the GOP war on the social safety net.

So what’s going on here?

There would seem to be only two possibilities:

Either S&P has been pressured by powerful Republicans and/or Wall Street Bankers to issue this warning, in order to add to national hysteria about the national debt and win more drastic cuts in social programs, or S&P is simply blowing it again.

“Political shenanigans cannot be ruled out,” says Galbraith. “That’s what lawyers would call the ‘rebuttable presumption.’ After all, who benefits? The Republicans and perhaps the banks. But of course the other possibility is that S&P doesn’t know what it’s talking about, and after their disastrous missing of the mortgage bubble, that’s quite possibly what it is.”

The Obama administration, for its part, has reacted with surprising restraint to the S&P bombshell, saying only that the administration expects to reach an agreement with Congress over how to reduce the nation’s debt. Mary Miller, assistant treasury secretary for financial markets, for her part said that S&P "underestimates the ability of America's leaders to come together to address the difficult fiscal challenges facing the nation."

How pathetic is that? How about a call for the SEC, or the Federal Reserve or the Attorney General to investigate whether S&P was improperly pressured to issue its absurd “negative warning”? How about a call in the Senate for hearings to look into any such possible improper political pressure?

I’m not suggesting that there are no consequences for the failure of the US political system to pay for the nation’s trillions of dollars in wars, or for its craven preference over the last 30 years to hand tax cuts to corporations and the rich while continuing to encourage corporations to shift their investments abroad, taking the nation’s jobs with them. There will surely come a reckoning. But it won’t be in the form of default.
So we're back to the main argument in the financial crisis playbook:  are they destroying the economy because they are evil, or are they destroying it because they are just incredibly stupid?   Why not both, they say.  My theory yesterday is that the ratings agencies fired the first shot in revenge against the Obama administration for trying to regulate them more tightly, which would dovetail quite nicely with Lindorff's theory that the GOP controls S&P.

But it's not like the regulation is anything serious or even effective.  The financial reform bill was and still is a complete joke.  Banks are continuing exactly as they have done previously, and it's doubtful that the Consumer Financial Protection Agency created by the law will ever even open its doors.  What's S&P's long game here?  Helping the GOP destroy Medicare and Medicaid (and eventually Social Security) does seem pretty obvious here.

Enough to make you wonder, at least.

Sometimes I Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me...

It sounds like the plot of a movie thriller:  a Chinese exchange student in Toronto is having a webcam chat with the folks back home when the student was attacked live, and the friend in China witnessed what may have been the student's murder.

A 23-year-old exchange student, attacked in her Toronto apartment while a friend in China watched via computer webcam, was found dead there hours later, police say.

Toronto Police on Monday identified the student as Qian (Necole) Liu of Beijing. She was talking early Friday morning to a male friend from home when a man allegedly knocked on her door, asking to use her phone, police said in a news release.

The online witness said he saw Liu and the unknown man struggle for a time before the attacker turned off her laptop, the news release said.

The friend in China then started a desperate bid to find out what happened, CNN-affiliate CTV reported.

Ten hours later, police arrived at the basement apartment to find Liu's body, naked from the waist down. Her laptop was missing.

"It was obvious that she had been dead for some period of time," Detective Sgt. Frank Skubic said in the news release.

The cause of the death is yet to be determined, the news release said. There were no obvious signs of sexual assault or severe physical trauma, and police are awaiting toxicology reports, it said.

Police are unsure whether Liu, an exchange student at York University, knew the man. The attacker was described as white, age 20 to 30, 6 feet tall, weighing 175 to 200 pounds, with a muscular build and medium-length brown hair, and wearing a blue crew-neck T-shirt.

With no suspects and no one in custody, police have been questioning neighbors, CTV reported. A cell phone found in the apartment is also undergoing forensic examination, police said.

A pretty horrifying turn of events, and yet it shows that technology today means that even halfway across the planet, one can be a witness to crime.  I'm not sure what Canada's laws are on witnesses like that, or even US laws, but I would think if anything good comes from this tragic death that it's a solid legal review of webcams and the legal rights of witnesses who may see crimes through them.


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