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Wall Street's Credibility Problem

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

By Lincoln Mitchell
The Huffington Post

Monday saw a very interesting and telling moment as the newest iteration of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's banking recovery was met on Wall Street by a jump in the Dow Jones of almost 500 points, a gain of fully seven percent. The big gains on Wall Street occurred amidst several days of bad press and attacks on the banking recovery plan, the AIG bonuses and Secretary Geithner in general from across the political and media spectrum. Progressive economists such as Paul Krugman attacked the plan as being insufficient and essentially the same as the original Bush/Paulson "cash for trash" plan, while conservative Congressman Eric Cantor (R-VA) referred to Geithner's plan as a "shell game."

The vastly different reactions to the plan reveal the growing disconnect between the finance sector and the rest of the economy and the ongoing need to focus on the latter when seeking to solve our most pressing economic challenges. While the rally on Wall Street is not bad news, it would be foolish, at this time, to see this as anything more than a one time event that may have been caused by Geithner's plan, but will be extremely unlikely to lead to significant job creation, reduction of mortgage defaults or revitalized industry in the US.

During the eight years of the Bush administration, and to a lesser, but still real extent, the eight years preceding that, we saw rising fortunes on Wall Street obscure, rather than alleviate, real problems in the economy. Now is not the time to repeat that mistake. Reading too much into the rally on Wall Street only strengthens the increasingly flawed, and more importantly decreasingly relevant, notion that what is good for the finance sector is for America. The disconnect in economic, political and psychological terms between Wall Street and Main Street has grown substantially in recent years and may now be close to being beyond repair....(Click for remainder).


Israel Used Phosphorus to Flame Hamas Hideouts: Human Rights Watch

By Noah Schachtman
The Danger Room @

During its war with Hamas, Israeli troops deliberately blasted crowded buildings -- including a school and a hospital -- with incendiary white phosphorus rounds. It was part of a concerted strategy to scorch terror hideouts in and around Gaza City, Human Rights Watch senior military analyst Marc Garlasco tells Danger Room.  

"The attitude was: When in doubt, burn it down," says Garlasco, who spent weeks in Gaza after the fighting, conducting forensic research.

Of all the controversial things the Israeli military did during the conflict, firing off white phosphorus (WP)  may have been the most divisive. When exposed to oxygen, phosphorous catches fire, throwing up thick clouds of smoke -- which makes it for illumination, or for hiding troop or tank movements. But WP can also burn people, quickly and horribly, sticking to the skin as it singes. So firing phosphorus weapons carelessly in a civilian area is problematic, at best -- and possibly illegal.

Amnesty International called the Israeli use of WP in Gaza a "war crime"; the Israeli human rights group B'tselem was only marginally more careful, saying it was "impossible to use in a legal sense." In response, the Israeli Defense Forces defended its WP use as proper -- while launching an internal investigation into potential abuses. On Thursday, Human Rights Watch is set to release the most comprehensive report to date on how the Israeli military (and, to a lesser extent, Hamas) employed phosphrous rounds.

Garlasco says the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) used the munitions in three ways, broadly. First, the troops fired rounds in rural areas -- possibly to set off mines or improvised bombs. Second, the IDF used phosphorus one the edges of cities -- to screen its movements, perhaps.

But third -- and definitely most troubling -- set of cases involved the Israeli military shooting air-burst WP rounds into crowded urban areas. Time and time again, when the IDF found what it felt was a Hamas outpost in a big building, troops blasted phosphorus overhead. A school, a hospital, and a UN building in Gaza City were all hit. To Garlasco, it was part of a deliberate to burn down any sites of resistance. The problem is, many civilians were in the way. Dr. Nafez Abu Shaban, head of the burn unit at Gaza City's Sifa Hospital, says he treated dozens of white phosphorous. Other doctors made similar reports....(Click for remainder).


YouTube Being Blocked in China (Again), Google Says

By Miguel Helft
International Herald Tribune

Google, the Internet company, said Tuesday that its YouTube video sharing Web site was being blocked in China.

The company said it did not know why the YouTube site was being blocked, but on Tuesday, a report in China's official Xinhua News Agency accused supporters of the Dalai Lama of fabricating a video that appears to show Chinese police brutally beating Tibetans following riots last month in Lhasa, according to The Associated Press.

The agency did not identify the video, but based on its description, it appears to match a video, available on YouTube, that was released by the Tibetan government in exile recently. It purports to show police storming a monastery after riots in Lhasa last March, kicking and beating protesters. It includes graphical images of a protester's wounds.

"We don't know the reason for the block," a YouTube spokesman, Scott Rubin, said. "Our government relations people are trying to resolve it."

Rubin said that the company first noticed traffic from China had decreased dramatically late Monday. By early Tuesday, it had dropped to nearly zero, he said.

China routinely filters Internet content and blocks material that is critical of its policies. It also frequently blocks individual videos from YouTube. Access to YouTube had been intermittent earlier in March, on the first anniversary of protests by Tibetans against Chinese rule....(Click for remainder).


Do the Secret Memos Amount to Treason? Top Constitutional Scholar Says Yes

By Naomi Wolf

In early March, more shocking details emerged about George W. Bush legal counsel John Yoo's memos outlining the destruction of the republic.

The memos lay the legal groundwork for the president to send the military to wage war against U.S. citizens; take them from their homes to Navy brigs without trial and keep them forever; close down the First Amendment; and invade whatever country he chooses without regard to any treaty or objection by Congress.

It was as if Milton's Satan had a law degree and was establishing within the borders of the United States the architecture of hell.

I thought this was -- and is -- certainly one of the biggest stories of our lifetime, making the petty burglary of Watergate -- which scandalized the nation -- seem like playground antics. It is newsworthy too with the groundswell of support for prosecutions of Bush/Cheney crimes and recent actions such as Canadian attorneys mobilizing to arrest Bush if he visits their country.

The memos are a confession. The memos could not be clearer: This was the legal groundwork of an attempted coup. I expected massive front page headlines from the revelation that these memos exited. Almost nothing. I was shocked.

As a non-lawyer, was I completely off base in my reading of what this meant, I wondered? Was I hallucinating?

Astonished, I sought a reality check -- and a formal legal read -- from one of the nation's top constitutional scholars (and most steadfast patriots), Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been at the forefront of defending the detainees and our own liberties....(Click for remainder).


Hamsher on Maddow–Pushing Back at ConservaDems

By Gregg Levine

Why is a Democratic Senator with a huge foreclosure problem in his state writing a bill to compete with House legislation designed to cram down mortgages and keep people in their homes? Might it have something to do with, um, money?

Just sayin'. . . .

Jane went on The Rachel Maddow Show tonight to explore why our Democratic president and a large Democratic majority in Congress has to worry more about a few Democratic Senators and their new coalition, led by the aforementioned Senator, one Even Bayh of Indiana.

Why is Bayh bucking his party—and, more importantly, his own state's population—to go to the mat for the banks? Maybe this chart has something to do with it:

That's a list of Bayh's top campaign contributors from 2003 to 2008.

Just sayin'. . . .

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Lessons From Most Successful Schools Abroad

Education trends from other nations are gaining cachet as political and educational leaders strive to bring American schools in line with the demands of the 21st-century global economy.

By Stacy Teicher Khadaroo
The Christian Science Monitor via TruthOut

Jyväskylä, Finland - After each 45-minute class, students at the Vaajakumpu Primary School in Finland suit up in their snow gear, and for 15 minutes, they frolic on ice skates, sleds, and skis.

These breaks provide a clear contrast between Finnish schools and their recess-starved counterparts in the United States. But it's not the contrasts on the surface that have prompted thousands of educators from around the world to visit this Nordic nation. Rather, it's their curiosity about what underlies an education system that boasts some of the highest scores among countries on PISA - a test of reading, math, and science literacy for 15-year-olds.

No single factor can explain the students' strong showing. They grow up in a highly literate, bilingual society (Finnish and Swedish, with most learning English as well). Finns also enjoy strong governmental supports for parental leave, day care, and healthcare (in exchange for high taxes), which means that problems associated with poverty don't show up at the schoolhouse door nearly as often as in the US.

One essential element, though, is the high caliber of Finland's teaching corps, education leaders say. "We trust our teachers," says Reijo Laukkanen, head of international relations at the Finnish National Board of Education in Helsinki. "That is very important, and it's not easy to realize in all countries - the culture of trust we have in Finland."...(Click for remainder).


The Truth About Barack Obama's Irish Teleprompter "Gaffe"

By Toby Harnden
Telegraph UK

Dozens of readers emailed me to ask why I hadn't include the teleprompter mix-up at last week's St Patrick Day event in my top 10 gaffes by Barack Obama and Joe Biden when the president supposedly thanked himself for hosting the event because the wrong speech was loaded onto the machine.

Well, it seemed a bit fishy to me and there was no video. And upon further investigation - Obamaphobes and dittoheads brace yourselves for a big disappointment - I can confirm that there was no gaffe by the president.

This is what happened.

Mr Obama hosted an evening reception for the visiting Irish premier Brian Cowen and other Emerald Isle and Irish-American dignitaries in the State Dining Room of the White House. First up, Vice President Joe Biden. Then, President Obama. So far, so unremarkable. Read a transcript of their comments here.

Then it got a bit murky and open to misinterpretation because Cowen's speech was not transcribed by the White House or Federal News Service and the event was covered by a "print only" pool - meaning there were no media cameras present....(Click for remainder).


Levin Moves to Cut Waste, Fraud and Abuse from Missile Programs

By Joe Cirincione
President of Ploughshares Fund
The Huffington Post

Coauthored by Ploughshares Fund Research Assistant Benjamin Loehrke.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) put the hammer down on the Missile Defense Agency this week -- at a conference designed to boost the agency's $13 billion-a-year program. Diplomatic but forceful, Levin served notice that the lax policies of the Bush administration were over.

Sen. Levin detailed a few of the agency's costly failures, including deployment of systems without realistic testing and without fully developed critical technologies. Citing the billions of dollars lost in these ventures, Levin said:
"This is the high price that we have paid for our failure to impose needed discipline on our overall acquisition system, and for our failure to complete needed system engineering tasks, perform appropriate developmental testing, and build and fully test prototypes."
Levin has set his sights on restoring responsible acquisitions requirements to the renegade Missile Defense Agency. If Levin -- and the Obama administration -- prevail, the agency will have conduct realistic tests, return to responsible budgets, and comply with normal government acquisition rules.

Testing: To force MDA to make a functional product, Levin said, "testing and evaluation must be restored to the central place in MDA programs that it occupies with other major weapon systems." Such tests will have to demonstrate that the systems are "operationally effective, suitable, and survivable" to provide confidence in the system....(Click for remainder).


No Time to Wait for Justice

By John Kerry
U.S. Senator from Massachusetts
The Huffington Post

Justice may be blind, but it sure ain't always swift.

That's why I have asked the Obama administration to help me speed up reuniting two of my Massachusetts constituents, Tim Coco and his husband Genesio "Junior" Oliveira, who have been separated through no fault of their own.

The case of Tim and Junior has attracted a lot of public attention - and rightly so. Their dilemma illustrates just how important it is to inject some justice and compassion into our immigration system and how important it is to overturn wrongheaded laws like the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and pass legislation that guarantees gay couples the same legal protections heterosexual couples are afforded. But in the meantime, I'm asking Attorney General Eric Holder to lend a hand to get Junior back home with Tim in Massachusetts as quickly as possible.

Tim and Junior were married in Massachusetts in March 2005. Two years later, Junior was forced to return to his native Brazil because of his expired immigration status. Immigration laws allow spouses of American citizens to obtain legal permanent residency. But even though Tim and Junior were legally married under Massachusetts law, federal law does not recognize their marriage.

But there are even more immediate humanitarian issues looming in Junior's case. He was forced back to Brazil under orders from the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals, which had denied his application for asylum status. Junior had applied for asylum in 2002 based on a brutal rape and attack he suffered at the hands of government officials in Brazil....(Click for remainder).


President Obama Confronts the Filter, Round Two

By Jed Lewison
Daily Kos

Behold, President Obama's collapsing sturdy poll numbers, which provide the political backdrop for tonight's press conference (update 2: watch full video of the press conference at DKTV.):

That's right: Net of +6 in the CBS poll and +1 in the Gallup poll over the last week, which everybody seemed to think has been the toughest of his Presidency.

I'm sure the right-wing critics of Daily Kos will be surprised to learn that one of the few (and perhaps, the only) polls showing President Obama losing ground was our own R2000 survey, showing a 2 point drop in net favorables -- all the way down to 67 favorable, 28 unfavorable....(Click for remainder).


President Obama’s Second Prime Time Press Conference


President Obama owns Ed Henry: “It took us a couple of days because I like to know what I’m talking about before I speak.”


The 'Populists' Are Right About Wall Street

By Thomas Frank
The Wall Street Journal

How has a popular Democratic president with a convincing electoral mandate failed to translate the opportunities of recent events into the "change" for which voters clamored? What kind of miscalculation allowed his administration to stir up such a wave of populist fury in such a short time?

The short answer, of course, is AIG. Why did the Treasury Department allow the payout of many millions in bonuses to executives of the unit that sank the company? Every answer the president's brain trust offered made them look more feckless, at the very moment they were rolling out a bank plan designed to spare stakeholders of our troubled financial institutions the haircut they so richly deserve.

This lapse of common sense arises from a deeper problem: the reflexive contempt for populism that is felt by the dominant faction of the Democratic Party -- the faction that regards itself as the responsible guardian of financial civilization, and that thinks of populism as crackpot economics and senseless proletarian rage.

I was reminded of the party's long-simmering debate over populism a little while ago when I read an essay by Al From, the founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), announcing his retirement as that group's "CEO" and recounting his many successes over the years in building a "political brand." A short while later I read in Roll Call an account of Mr. From's career as "one of the 20th century's most successful political entrepreneurs," a man whose adventures in shifting the Democratic Party to the right formed a neat analogy to Mr. From's father's accomplishments in the suburban garage-building biz....(Click for remainder).



By Matthew Yglesias
Think Progress

Apparently Chuck Todd asked President Obama why he isn’t asking people to “sacrifice” more amidst the recession.

The standard progressive answer to this starts by observing that the hundreds of thousands of people who are losing their jobs each week are, presumably, sacrificing. I take it that their spouses and kids are also sacrificing. And though they don’t count in the job loss tallies, I also spare some thoughts for the young people leaving school and coming into the workforce at a time when nobody’s hiring anyone. This all seems like a lot of sacrifice.

But there’s also some more fundamental misconceptions going on here. A lot of people in the press seem obsessed with the idea that it would be noble for politicians to ask people to sacrifice. But in general, the whole idea in public policy is to make things better, not worse, so the logic here is a bit hard to understand. It’s true that Charles Murray seems to think that suffering promotes virtue but this doesn’t really make sense.

Alternatively, underlying this is the idea that if some of us sacrificed that would make things better for other people. This is true in a certain narrow sense. If Vikram Pandit sacrificed some of the money he has and mailed it to some unemployed former manufacturing workers in the rust belt, they’d be in somewhat better shape. But if Americans were to collectively sacrifice—everyone agree to eat only potatoes on Wednesdays or something—that wouldn’t help anyone except the potato farmers. Consumption in a market economically is almost always a positive-sum exchange; economic growth, and therefore prosperity, requires more economic activity, not more sacrifice. If the big national problem were a giant war, things might be different—we could all conserve gasoline and save it to fuel the tanks. But it’s hard to see how sacrifice could solve the problem of rapidly rising unemployment.

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Thousands of Immigrants Held in Violation of International Law

By Daphne Eviatar
The Washington Independent

A comprehensive report issued by Amnesty International USA Wednesday finds that tens of thousands of immigrants are being held in detention in the United States – many in violation of international law.

Conducted by Amnesty researchers based on interviews over the course of a year with immigration lawyers and judges, asylum seekers, government officials and non-governmental organizations, the report finds that U.S. immigration policy has increasingly detained immigrants – including lawful residents and even some U.S. citizens – without a meaningful ability to challenge their detentions in an objective judicial proceeding, without access to a lawyer to help them determine their legal status, and often in inhumane conditions, commingled with criminals and denied access to minimal health care.

“America should be outraged by the scale of human rights abuses occurring within its own borders,” said Larry Cox, executive director of AIUSA, in a statement released with the report. “Officials are locking up thousands of human beings without due process and holding them in a system that is impossible to navigate. . . . The U.S. government must ensure that every person in immigration detention has a hearing to determine whether that detention is necessary.”

Such arbitrary detentions violate international standards such as the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, says Amnesty. The group calls on Congress to amend the immigration laws to eliminate arbitrary detention, use alternatives to detention where possible and improve detention conditions.

“Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person,” reads Article 9 of the U.N. Covenant. “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention” or deprived of liberty, the Covenant continues, except “in accordance with such procedures as are established by law.”

“For people who are in mandatory detention, where they’re automatically detained without an individualized review, that’s arbitrary detention,” said said Sarnata Reynolds, policy director for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty USA. “That’s a violation of international law.”

For many immigrants, such individualized review is not happening....(Click for remainder).


Obama's Presser: A Persistent Progressive, But No Populist

By David Corn
Mother Jones

At the second press conference of his two-month-old presidency, Barack Obama sent a clear signal: I'm an establishment progressive, not an angry populist.

Before taking questions from reporters, Obama read a statement—a sort of mini-speech—off a teleprompter and recounted all the economic measures he has put into play: the stimulus package, a mortgage crisis plan, various plans to unclog credit within the financial system (including the toxic assets buy-back program), and his proposed budget. Only after he explained how all this will help the economy recover did he note that was "as angry as anyone" about the bonuses paid to executives of AIG, the bailed-out insurance giant. Obama noted that the bonuses were another "symptom" of the culture of greed that allowed Wall Streeters to bring down the rest of the economy. Corporate executives, he warned, must realize that they cannot enrich "themselves on taxpayer's dime" and engage in "reckless speculation that puts us all at risk." But, he added, the "rest of us can't afford to demonize every investor and entrepreneur."

That seemed a well-crafted mix. But Obama certainly put more energy into explaining—or defending—his economic plans than in bashing the culprits of capitalism. Throughout the press conference, he concentrated on selling his overall economic message: that the country must invest in education, health care, and alternative energy, even as it is overwhelmed by the current mess and faces large deficits and an increasing amount of debt. When CNN's Ed Henry asked Obama why he hadn't displayed more anger about the AIG bonuses and done so sooner, Obama took the occasion to explain why he believes it is now necessary to spend money on health care, energy, and education to prevent further structural problems with the economy. Moments earlier, answering a question from CBS News' Chip Reid about the large projected increases in debt that could result from his proposed budget, the president had said that if the nation does not tackle its challenges on these three particular fronts, "we won't grow 2.6 percent, we won't grow 2.2 percent, we won't grow."...(Click for remainder).


The Trillion Dollar Question

As Obama proposes a $1,000,000,000,000 rescue plan, Marcus du Sautoy offers a handy guide to the mind-bogglingly big numbers being bandied about

By Marcus du Sautoy
The Guardian UK

The global recession has brought us a slew of numbers so large, with so many noughts attached, that it's getting difficult to put them into any kind of perspective. The Bank of England recently announced it was injecting up to £150 billion of new money into the British economy, an unimaginable amount - yet now we hear Barack Obama is proposing to splash out a further $1trn (one trillion dollars) to rescue Wall Street's floundering institutions. And even that's not as much as Britain's national debt has been recalculated at - £1.5trn - following the classification of Lloyds and the Royal Bank of Scotland as public corporations.

Millions, billions, trillions - names most of us are familiar with, even if we can't specify the number of zeros. In January, Zimbabwe printed a dollar note with a number containing 11 zeros, only to further deflate its currency a month later. And it still doesn't match the Hungarian National Bank in 1946, which came up with the highest denomination banknote ever issued: a 100 quintillion (20 zeros) peng note.

To make any sense of what's going on (and how bad things really are), you need a feeling for quite how big these numbers are. So here's a brief guide, from zero right up to the biggest of them all.

0 or zero

A relative newcomer on the mathematical scene, zero wasn't recognised as a number in its own right until the Indians started exploring its properties in the seventh century AD (they are also responsible for the other nine symbols we use for recording numbers, known as the Arabic-Hindu system). Zero was introduced to Europe by the Italian mathematician Fibonacci in the 12th century - and the authorities were so suspicious of it that in 1299 the government of Florence banned its use.

The Indians' invention of the number zero is directly related to their fascination with large numbers. The Sanskrit saga Lalitavistara gives an account of Gautama Buddha, who is asked at one point to name all of the numbers up to those with 421 zeros. A time-consuming task....(Click for remainder).


Senate Approves Locke As Commerce Secretary

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted on Tuesday to approve the nomination of former Washington state Governor Gary Locke to be U.S. commerce secretary, putting a Chinese-American in the job for the first time.

Locke, President Barack Obama's third nominee for the post, has promised to focus on "creating the jobs of the future" and enforcing U.S. laws to counter unfair foreign trade practices.

He takes over a sprawling department responsible for conducting the 2010 census, overseeing the nation's fisheries and managing the U.S. transition to digital television.

Locke has a reputation in Washington state for working across party lines. "I know he will continue in the same bipartisan fashion as secretary of commerce," Washington Senator Maria Cantwell said on the Senate floor.

Obama tapped Locke to head the Commerce Department post four weeks ago. The son and grandson of Chinese immigrants sailed through the confirmation process without any of the tax problems that plagued several other Obama nominees.

He was confirmed by the Senate on a voice vote. His approval filled one of the last slots in Obama's cabinet, with only Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius still awaiting confirmation as secretary of health and human services.

Locke was governor of Washington, often described as the most export-dependent U.S. state, from 1997 through the end of 2004. That capped a career in Washington state politics for the former prosecutor and state legislator....(Click for remainder).


Senate Dems Propose Cutting Obama Budget By Billions

I really think that it's time for these institutional bastards to be kicked out of the House and the Senate.  They have been there for too long.  During that time, they have forgotten what their job is.  They're charged with representing the will and doing the business of the PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA; not the multi-national corporations.  I know it would be a tough challenge to elect a progressive in states like North Dakota and Nebraska; but we'll never know until we try.  Time for the ConservaDems to go the way of the Dodo.

By Ted Barrett

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Hours before President Obama was to hold a prime time news conference -- in part to boost his $3.6 trillion budget plan -- a key Democratic senator Tuesday unveiled a scaled-down budget proposal.

Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota said the Senate Budget Committee, which he chairs, will vote on his version Wednesday.

"We've made hundreds of billions of dollars of changes to make this work to get down to the deficit goal and at the same time maintain the president's priorities -- education and energy and health care," Conrad said as he left a closed meeting in the Capitol, where he briefed Senate Democratic colleagues on his plan.

Conrad and other centrist Democratic senators -- whose support is critical to passing the legislation -- have raised concerns about the long-term impact of the president's spending plan on the deficit.

On Friday, the Congressional Budget Office estimated Obama's plan would cost more than $9 trillion over the next 10 years.

The president will travel to Capitol Hill Wednesday to lobby Democrats in the House and Senate ahead of votes in each chamber this week. A top administration official, speaking not for attribution, said the White House might go along with Conrad's proposal because it maintains the key elements of Obama's plan.

Republicans who blasted the Obama budget proposal for spending, taxing and borrowing too much also criticized Conrad's proposal because some of the items Conrad stripped from the spending blueprint might have to be funded anyway.

For example, Conrad's budget strikes Obama's proposal to set aside $250 billion in case more money is needed for the financial sector rescue, an aide said.

Conrad's budget also curtails Obama's fix of the costly alternative minimum tax and doesn't account for increased payments for doctors who care for Medicare recipients, said Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the top Republican on the Budget Committee....(Click for remainder).


Next Foreign Crisis Could Be Next Door

Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press
Mexican soldiers checked identification during a drugs and weapons search last week in Reynosa, near the United States border.

By Marc Lacey and Ginger Thompson
The New York Times

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s economy is being dragged down by the recession to the north. American addicts have turned Mexico into a drug superhighway, and its police and soldiers are under assault from American guns. Nafta [sic] promised 15 years ago that Mexican trucks would be allowed on American roads, but Congress said they were unsafe.

United States-Mexican relations are in the midst of what can be described as a neighborly feud, one that stretches along a lengthy shared fence. That border fence, which has become a wall in some places, is another irritant.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives in Mexico on Wednesday for what will be the first in a parade of visits by top administration officials, including President Obama himself next month, to try to head off a major foreign policy crisis close to home. They will find a country mired in a deepening slump, miffed by signs of protectionism in its largest trading partner, and torn apart by a drug war for which many in Mexico blame customers in the United States.

There is plenty of angst on the other side as well. Many American communities are worried about drug violence spilling over the border, and about Mexican immigrants taking scarce jobs. That is forcing the Obama administration, already managing two wars and a deep recession, to fashion a new Mexico policy earlier than it might have wished....(Click for remainder).


Obama Regains Traction -- Despite Flawed Format

By Michael Tomasky
The Guardian UK

I wondered, heading into tonight's presidential press conference, why Barack Obama chose this venue over the standard alternative, the scripted speech from the Oval Office desk.

Presidents tend to prefer the speech. And why not? They're in total control of the agenda. No reporters, no questions, no surprises. There are American flags, and usually some handsome pictures of the wife and kids on the credenza behind him. Plus it usually takes 30 minutes, instead of the 60 typically needed for a press conference. And finally, as we know, Obama usually gives a pretty good speech.

I would have thought that on this night – a pretty important night, one on which Obama needed re-seize control of the news agenda – he'd have gone for the speech. He wanted to make, I think, two specific sales tonight. First, he wanted to sell the idea that Tim Geithner's bank-rescue plan is solid and has been well received and just may work. Second, he wanted to sell the notion that his budget priorities (you know them by now: healthcare, energy, education) do not constitute heedless spending in this climate but in fact constitute just the opposite, the kind of investment that's necessary to help prevent the next crisis from happening.

Did he make those sales? Well, yes and no. No, in part, because of the format. Obama made a six-minute opening statement, through which he sped. He then took 13 questions. Surprisingly to me, only six of them were about the economic situation, and only two or three of those six were actually what you'd call reasonably good questions. So he didn't have all that much time to talk about his budget priorities. Instead he answered questions about the brewing social crisis in Mexico, the Pentagon budget, homelessness, the Middle East, race and that daffy Chinese world-currency business. (But nothing about Afghanistan or Iraq.) Worthy topics, for the most part, but off point, I would think, from the perspective of the White House PR shop....(Click for remainder).


Do Dangerous Spiders Lurk in Grocery Store Produce?

I know this has nothing to do with politics, but I had to post this.  I have this really irrational fear of spiders, and this totally freaked me. I don't think I'm ever going to buy produce again.

A potentially lethal spider was recently found in a bunch of bananas at a supermarket. What should consumers should do if confronted with one of the leggy critters?

By Erica Westly
Scientific American

Last week, a store manager at a Whole Foods in Tulsa, Okla., was surprised—to say the least—to find a large brown spider lurking in a bunch of bananas. The spider was initially identified as a Brazilian wandering spider,  a menacing-looking creature with furry fangs and legs as long as five inches (12.5 centimeters) that is considered to be one of the world's most venomous spiders, and one of the few that can kill humans. (Luckily, an anti-venom to the Brazilian’s bite was developed in 1996.)

According to the Tulsa World, two local entomologists in the end determined that the invader was more likely a huntsman spider, which is large and brownish in color like the Brazilian wandering, but is nontoxic to humans.

Each year, there are several news reports of wandering and huntsman spiders, the main "banana spiders," showing up in grocery store bananas as well as poisonous black widows, which find their way into bunches of grapes on store shelves. Both fruits are generally sprayed with pesticides to prevent insect infestation and usually washed before shipment. Still, even with these precautions and visual inspections, some insects manage to survive.

What draws spiders to bananas and grapes—and what should consumers and produce workers who find the potentially deadly critters in their fruit do?

To find out, we spoke with Linda Rayor, a spider expert and senior research associate  in Cornell University's entomology department....(Click for remainder).



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