Thursday, August 31, 2006

400+% interest on widespread predatory loans to military families

Front Paged at Booman Tribune and ePluribus Media

You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me.


As if being sent halfway around the world to fight for a lie and greed of the neocon war criminals without proper armor or equipment, severe cuts in veterans benefits including treatment for PTSD as well as multiple extensions of tour duty to "stay a course" that no one can even define, there is this kick in the teeth to military families who are cash strapped.


A 90+ page Pentagon report released a few weeks ago (with surprise, surprise, little to no press) titled Report on Predatory Lending Practices Directed at Members of the Armed Forces and Their Dependents shines a truly ugly light on this wonderful capitalistic society we live in where, for the glory of a buck you can screw over our military in their greatest time of need.


The report contains numerous examples of these practices, and makes some recommendations as to how to address this disgusting situation. Additionally, it contains letters from the American Bar Association and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society urging action in this area.


According to the USA Today article (linked above), this is a widespread problem, as this predatory lending institutions have popped up near military bases all around the country (the report has maps of six different regions where there are a large number of these institutions.

As many as one in five members of the armed services are being preyed on by loan centers set up near military bases that can charge cash-strapped military families interest of 400% or more, a new Pentagon report has found.


---snip---


The report says "payday loan" stores (so named because their loans are often due on a borrower's next payday) have sprung up by the thousands around military bases and elsewhere in the past decade.


OK - so there are debt problems that would otherwise preclude people from joining the military and serving overseas. Of course, I can think of a large number of lies reasons why people wouldn't want to serve, but let's at least assume that debt is one of them. So instead of the Pentagon or military helping people pay down their debts or working out some arrangement with potential recruits (which may or may not even be feasible to begin with), we have people who are more than willing to step in.


For a huge fee. At a time in these people's lives when there are likely few other options.


Lenders typically charge $15 to $25 per $100 loan for two weeks, and most loans are extended for several weeks. The report says the average loan is $350 and has an annual interest rate of 390% to 780%. The average borrower, it says, pays back $834 for a $339 loan.


The report cites estimates 13% to 19% of servicemembers -- at least 175,000 people -- took out high-interest, short-term loans last year. It said nine out of 10 loans go to borrowers who take out five or more over a year.


And who are these people that are being targeted? Well, other than "just the military and military families", the report goes on to indicate the following:

Predatory lenders seek out young and financially inexperienced borrowers who have bank accounts and steady jobs, but also have little in savings, flawed credit or have hit their credit limit. These borrowers are less likely to weigh the predatory loan against other opportunities and are less likely to be concerned about the consequences of taking the loan.


Predatory lenders make loans based on access to assets (through checks, bank accounts, car titles, tax refunds, etc.) and guaranteed continued income, but not on the ability of the borrower to repay the loan without experiencing further financial problems.


Predatory lenders market to the military through their ubiquitous presence around military installations and/or through the use of terms to affiliate themselves with the military. Increasingly the Internet is used to promote loans to Service members.


Predatory products feature high fees/interest rates, with some requiring balloon payments, while others pack excessive charges into the product. The result of their efforts is to obfuscate the comparative cost of their product with other options available to the borrower.


Most of the predatory business models take advantage of borrower's inability to pay the loan in full when due and encourage extensions through refinancing and loan flipping. These refinances often include additional high fees and little or no payment of principal.


Predatory lenders attempt to work outside of established usury limits, either by attempting to obtain exemptions from federal and state statutes or by developing schemes designed to circumvent existing laws.


I am just speechless. But I guess when you have a "Commander in Chief" (and I put that in quotes since you can't seriously call Bush a commander or a chief) who is a military deserter, a Vice President who bravely had 5 deferments, and a slew of neocon "leaders" who care as much about the military as they do about the rest of We the People, then this shouldn't be surprising.


But it doesn't make it any less disgusting.


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

New Report: Global Warming Huge Threat to Int'l Economy

Front paged at Booman Tribune and ePluribus Media

Of course, my initial reaction to reading the press release by the World Bank regarding a new report about the threat global warming poses to its international projects, especially in third world countries, was "well, Duh!!!".


But then after reading through the details of the press release (unfortunately, the report is not yet available), I was even more astounded than I was after watching An Inconvenient Truth. According to the World Bank, the impact on the GDP of developing countries as well as the additional health, ecological and general economic impact could be staggering. The report even goes so far as to indicate that the economic impacts of global warming are already being felt, and could get much worse very quickly.


But there is still a question as to whether global warming even exists, right?


The report, titled Managing Climate Risk-Integrating Adaptation into World Bank Group Operations, was released to coincide with the Third Global Environment Facility Assembly these past few days in Cape Town, South Africa. And while the impact could be up to $400 million per year for World Bank projects and $1 billion overall, the impact on poor countries' ability to fight poverty and disease, increase biodiversity and make economic strides is even larger:

The report says that the consequences of such changes include decreased water availability and water quality in many arid and semiarid regions; an increased risk of floods and droughts in many regions; reduction in water regulation by snow and glaciers in mountain habitats; decreases in reliability of hydropower and biomass production in some regions; increased incidence of vector- and waterborne diseases such as malaria, dengue, and cholera; increased heat stress mortality; increased damages and deaths caused by extreme weather events; decreased agricultural productivity with almost any warming in the tropics and subtropics; adverse impacts on fisheries; and adverse effects on many ecological systems. Although climate change will bring some benefits to temperate and cold climates, losses will predominate in the developing world.


But of course, we know how much of a priority it really is for the US to help the poor in their time of need. Further, as a Reuters article quotes from the report:

Global warming is forecast to have a devastating effect on some developing countries as rising sea levels wreak havoc on small island states and more frequent and more severe droughts destroy crops on marginal agricultural land.


Poorer nations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where agriculture accounts for about 70 percent of employment, would be the hardest hit.


The World Bank said costs associated with global warming would eat into development aid and projects, forcing donors to reassess spending and infrastructure needed to help cut poverty.


"Several studies have suggested that in the absence of adaptation, the annual costs of climate change impacts in exposed developing countries could range from several percent to tens of percent of gross domestic product (GDP)," the bank said.


"Much of this damage would come not gradually and incrementally through the years but in the form of severe economic shocks," it added.


Several percent to tens of percent of GDP. And not in a slow and incremental manner. Considering that the US GDP is running an estimated increase in excess of $200 billion EACH QUARTER and considering how well the economy here is humming along (HA!!), imagine a quick and sharp drop of, oh say $100 billion to $300 billion EACH QUARTER and the impact it would have on our already "robust" economy. Now consider that much of the GDP increase here (per the report) is due to huge increases in corporate profits (increase in gross profits from production was over $225 billion for the first 2 quarters of 2006).


Not a pretty picture, if you ask me.


Two high level individuals at the Global Environmental Facility had some striking comments about the report, as well as the urgent need to do something now: First, Monique Barbut, Chief Executive Officer of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) had the following to say:

"Funding for adaptation to climate change is absolutely critical for developing countries. The best form of adaptation is mitigation, but we must also deal with the climate change that the planet is already signed up to. I'm delighted that this Assembly has provided the opportunity to bring financing for adaptation forward in the global environmental agenda, and towards the next climate change Conference of the Parties in Nairobi in November."


Additionally, Warren Evans, Environment Director at the World Bank had the following to say:

"Adaptation to climate risks needs to be treated as a major economic and social risk to national economies, not just as a long-term environment problem. By enhancing climate risk management, development institutions and their partner countries will be able to better address the growing risks from climate change and, at the same time, make current development investments more resilient to climate variability and extreme weather events,"


I hope you didn't think that the President of the World Bank would actually have anything to say about this. But we should know better, since he is probably busy with his PNAC buddies trying to drum up reasons for bombing Iran, which we know would take time away from actually helping countries help develop.


Not that this report contains anything that we haven't already thought to be true, but the figures and the wide-ranging impact of global warming around the, you know, globe, is even more staggering than many can wrap their heads around. And when international organizations which are charged with helping third world countries make economic strides have their projects at risk, it is even longer past the time where drastic actions need to be taken.


It is either than or write off entire segments of the world and countries - which is even more disgusting than ignoring the problems and impact in the first place.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

While the pressholes overreacted to the latest non-story...

Front paged at Booman Tribune and ePluribus Media

Over the past two weeks or so, as the 24/7 "press" made sure to cover every second of the latest non story, including around 10,000,000 articles on the subject (just like the runaway bride, or any of the missing pretty white women stories), actual, you know, news happened that was more than worth reporting and letting the public know what may actually have an impact on their lives.


And since we have been subjected to every movement, every meal, every talking meatstick's opinion - all of which have amounted to absolutely nothing and an utter waste of the past 10-14 days, there certainly has been a lot of newsworthy events (and I don't mean more staged managed events meant to cover up the true mess that is still the Gulf Coast one year later.)


For example, on August 15 (around the same time that this latest clusterfuck of a news story surfaced), it was reported that Iraqi civilian deaths hit 3,400 in the first half of July alone. This made July the worst month on record, with an average of 110 civilians killed per day. And just yesterday, a car bomb and "sectarian violence" claimed the lives of at least 50 people, including 8 US soldiers. And that doesn't include several more "incidents" which left many more people dead and wounded.


Also in Iraq news, it was barely reported that Iraq has a major fuel crisis and has to double its funding for IMPORTING fuel, as a result of record oil and gasoline shortages.


But why stop there? We also had the tenuous ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon announced right before "all-Karr-all-the-time", and a renewed war of words between Israel, Syria and even the UN and Lebanon.


Remember Afghanistan? Well, things aren't going so swimmingly over there, not that you would know from the less than 62,000 overall articles on Google News. But alas, there were a few suicide bombers targeting NATO troops over there recently, including one earlier in the month which killed 21 civilians in addition to another one targeting NATO troops just yesterday.


How about that other country whose first three letters are "I, R, A"? Well, there has been some activity on their part in the area of nuclear capability. And while we are now hearing that Israel has appointed a top general to oversee a war with Iran, a House report released last week contained some eerily similar and vague language regarding Iran as similar reports did a few years earlier with respect to Iraq.


I know, I know. We only like to see deaths and destruction when it is in a movie or in a video game. We don't want to waste our beautiful minds on this type of stuff.


So fine, forget those pesky wars with the icky deaths that have all but disappeared from the news (well, never forget them, but let's move on...)


What about the huge ruling that declared Bush's NSA spying program unconstitutional? Well, instead of focusing on the fact that the actual spying program is not effective and is in fact, you know illegal and unconstitutional, we get the major focus by the "media" on the supposed "conflict of interest" of the Judge who ruled on the case.


We have news that the median hourly wage DROPPED a full 2% since 2003. The same article declared that:

As a result, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation's gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960's.


As the first of the potentially major hurricanes is about to hit the southern part of the US, we are hearing how the levees in New Orleans as "as strong as they were pre-Katrina" aren't we forgetting that the levees weren't strong enough pre-Katrina either? But that isn't good enough for the pressititutes - we are seeing everyone report "live from New Orleans for the anniversary of Katrina". We are seeing too much reporting of staged managed and scripted events in the Gulf Coast, with nary a peep about how little progress has actually been made over the past year in the Gulf Coast region.


So now the press has a gaping hole to fill - no mindless story of a kidnapped white teen, a story about a "killer" that had so many holes from the beginning that it made swiss cheese envious. How about taking the opportunity to actually do the job of actually reporting on important things that are going on in the country and the world. You know, things that effect us on a day to day basis. Things that impact our future. Things that effect our children and our livelihoods.


Wait, what's that? Fugitive polygamist Warren Jeffs was just arrested in Las Vegas? YES!!!! Finally something to fill the great news reporting void.


It should be a good next couple of weeks as this non-story gets beaten to death. I wonder how many more laws Bush will break over that time. How many deaths to Iraqi civilians or US troops will occur over that time. What other bad economic news will come out during that time.


Ah, who cares, right? We have our latest story to run 24/7. All is good again in presshole land.....

Monday, August 28, 2006

You're Right, Rummy - You Certainly Are NOT Santa Claus

Front paged at Booman Tribune. Recommended at My Left Wing

Even when you read his comments in print, the arrogance and smugness that makes you want to smack the taste out of his mouth oozes through.


And the latest comments from Herr Rumsfeld are just the latest straw on what is most certainly the strongest back in the history of camels. When talking about the most recent unplanned extension of duty for an Army brigade which was on the brink of returning home, he blurted out this gem:

"I'd love to be Santa Claus. I'm not," he said in an interview with reporters during a flight to Fairbanks.


If it turned out that by December, U.S. commanders in Iraq felt they needed an unscheduled infusion of troops, "our first choice obviously would be to have them be someone other than the people we just extended," Rumsfeld said. "But I'm not going to get into the promises business. That isn't my style."


Santa Claus? More like the Grim Reaper...


This, coming from a man who has the unmitigated gall to tell the troops to their face when confronted about the, you know, lack of basic and necessary armor or equipment told them that "You go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."


This is a man, who when authorizing torture of detainees who have not been charged with anything (and probably won't) said "I stand for 8-10 hours a day," Rummy scrawled. "Why is standing limited to four hours?"


This is a man who, when confronted about the lack of WMD in Iraq said, People say, 'Well, where's the smoking gun?' Well, we don't want to see a smoking gun from a weapon of mass destruction."


Oh, but Rummy had a few new gems this past Saturday as well, which are just sickening. Take the following quote, which came from an exchange where he said how the soldiers whose tour was just extended or their families shouldn't be angry at him:

"These people are all volunteers. They all signed up. They all are there doing what they're doing because they want to do it. They're proud of what they do. They do it very, very well."


All volunteers. All signed up. No harm, no foul, right. They get what they deserve signed up for, right?


Like these people, who include women well into their 50s, people who have been retired from the military for over 15 years, and even people who are disabled, but were called by the military to return to service back in 2004.


Or the Marines who were recalled after leaving the military. Including, as so eloquently posted by theophilus last week people who are in their early 60's.


The Army you have.....a hechuva job there, Rummy.


Another reason you are spot on, for the first time in oh, EVER about not being Santa Claus is that Santa Claus would give the troops the equipment and the armor they need to fight this fucking illegal war you rammed down the world's throat in the first place. But no, what do you, the Grim Reaper do? Allow the equipment used by the military in Iraq to, you know, actually work the way it is supposed to:

Three years after the invasion of Iraq, strains are beginning to appear in the U.S. Army's equipment arsenal, reducing its capacity to supply its troops with the best warfighting tools available. While the Army has managed to sustain a high level of readiness in Iraq despite equipment strains, readiness for non-deployed units and units outside of Iraq has already been reduced.


In order to sustain the current pace of military operations in Iraq without leaving the nation vulnerable to aggression in other places, the Department of Defense (DoD) must continuously repair, rebuild and replace equipment worn out or destroyed by the war effort, a process known as "reset." However, normal sustainment patterns have been threatened by the war in Iraq due to the high utilization rates and harsh conditions of the Iraqi environment. The Abrams tank, for example, is operating at six times its rate during peacetime, while medium and heavy trucks are operating at 10 times the typical peacetime rate. These equipment strains currently undermine the Army's ability to confront new challenges overseas or cope with disasters at home and threaten to impede operations in Iraq over the long term.


Oh, and one last reason why you are not Santa Claus. Santa Claus isn't real, and unfortunately, the fact that you are (still) Secretary of Defense and in charge of running the world's most powerful military into the ground - not only from a morale standpoint, but also ruining the equipment, not providing proper armor, stretching them too thin, instituting a "back door draft", authorizing torture (and was personally involved in torture cases at Guantanamo), and countless other comments or actions that have made our military less safe, as well as Americans around the world - is all too real.


This man isn't even fit to be a figment of someone's imagination, let alone the nightmare that he actually is for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are serving in the military, let alone millions of other people around the world.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Is Rampant Institutional Insider Trading Back?

Front paged at Booman Tribune and ePluribus Media

Of course, there are some who know way more than I do about the stock markets who will probably make the (correct) point that it never really left. And I don't just mean in a "Martha Stewart" kind of way either.


But after reading a story in today's NY Times entitled Whispers of Mergers Set Off Suspicious Trading, it looks like a similar pattern to what happened back in the 1980's when all of the biggest insider trading scandals came to light.


And if that is the case, then what can we expect in terms of the little trust in the stock market, the quite possibly overinflated stock prices and one of the last economic indicators which aren't yet totally in the toilet?

The article cites a study conducted by a company called Measuredmarkets, Inc. which is an analytical research firm that analyzes trends and suspicious data with respect to companies' stock prices surrounding specific events (the link has a few of their recent case studies).


To make this a readable and not overly technical diary, I'll just keep to some of the information uncovered by Measuredmarkets with respect to mergers whose value was over $1 billion, and was over the most recent 12 month period. For starters, according to Christopher Thomas, President of Measuredmarkets:

The firm analyzed the price, the total number of shares traded and the number of individual trades in each stock during the weeks leading up to the announcement and looked for large deviations from trading patterns going back as far as four years.


Although any number of factors can lead to spikes in trading, deviations of the kind observed by Measuredmarkets are among the data used by regulators to spot insider trading. Of the 90 big mergers in the period, shares of 37 target companies exhibited abnormal trading in the days and weeks before the deals were disclosed.


Christopher K. Thomas, a former analyst and stockbroker who founded Measuredmarkets in 1997, said that his company's analysis led to the conclusion that the aberrant activities most likely involved insider trading.


---snip---


It is always possible that a company's stock moves because of developments in a particular industry or business sector, or because a prominent newsletter, columnist or blogger has written something that could prompt investors to take action. But in the companies that were analyzed, no such influences seemed to be at work.


---snip---


[I]n a handful of the mergers, significant progress toward a deal was being made on the days unusual trading occurred. For example, the day that four bidders were putting together buyout offers for Amegy Bancorp, a Houston bank company, trading in its stock quadrupled.


One of the biggest problems with insider trading cases is that, while it isn't as difficult to spot the suspicious trading activity, it is much more difficult to prove that insider trading has occurred. Witness Martha Stewart, who wasn't actually convicted of insider trading, as one of the latest and more high profile examples. Additionally, while the SEC isn't exactly turning a blind eye to this activity, it is focusing more on individual cases as opposed to "institutional cases" (of course, this also fits in line with the IRS focusing more on lower income level cases while allowing the ultra wealthy cheat the IRS out of $70 billion per year.


However, there is one case that is going on now, where Congress (even the Republicans) is a bit perturbed at the SEC for the perceived dragging of its feet in a recent case:

Grassley, R-Iowa, said that the SEC hasn't responded quickly enough to requests for documents and interviews and complained about the agency's practice of prohibiting employees from disclosing information about ongoing investigations, according to a copy of a letter he sent to SEC Chairman Christopher Cox. The letter was distributed to news organizations.


Gary Aguirre, a former SEC investigator, told a Congressional committee earlier this year that he was fired when he tried to interview John Mack, the current chief executive of Morgan, as part of a probe he was conducting into Pequot.


Aguirre alleged that Mack may have tipped Pequot to a pending deal and claimed that the SEC quashed his inquiry because the Morgan Stanley banker is politically well connected.


Now, to digress just a bit here - as a former Andersen guy, I have said for years now that the large brokerage houses and financial institutions have way more information and pull over the stock prices than an accounting firm ever could, certainly had the ability to artificially pump up prices and has access to more inside information than pretty much anyone. However, the recent investigations by Elliot Spitzer only serve to reinforce that this issue is not going away and seems to be getting worse.


And we do get the typical "stock answer" from the SEC here, which seems to be more of the "move along, nothing to see here" response:

The S.E.C. would not comment on the study but said that it had looked at Measuredmarkets' system and concluded that surveillance techniques of self-regulatory organizations like the New York Stock Exchange were more sophisticated.


Securities regulators, traders and academics agree that merger waves lead to more illicit trading on nonpublic information. In Britain, regulators have made insider trading a primary focus and have shifted their scrutiny to brokerage firms and institutional investors, rather than individuals, involved in mergers.


Like Measuredmarkets, the Financial Services Authority in British has found a pattern of stock trading ahead of mergers.
In 2004, 29 percent of companies involved in mergers experienced abnormal trading before public announcements, according to a March 2006 study of large British companies subject to takeovers. In 2001, the comparable figure was 21 percent.


And even still, the article states that the regulators at the New York Stock Exchange have made more referrals to the SEC this year than last year, and last year there were more referrals than the prior year. While the article cites a number of cases and some detail regarding some specific recent cases, including Koch Insustries (bottom of page 3 and top of page 4), I'll leave you with a few choice blurbs:

Officials from the nation's top securities regulators met on Aug. 18 to discuss emerging trends in insider trading, said Joseph J. Cella, chief of the office of market surveillance at the S.E.C. "We are certainly cognizant of the uptick in merger-and-acquisition activity," he said.


The companies identified by Measuredmarkets represented many industries and received bids not only from corporate rivals, but also from private investor groups and management-led buyout teams.


---snip---


In each of the five cases, the abnormal trading occurred during periods of significant behind-the-scenes progress in the mergers, as outlined by the companies themselves in regulatory filings long after the deals were struck.


---snip---


In a July 7 speech, Hector Sants, managing director of wholesale and institutional markets at the F.S.A., described why his focus was shifting to institutions. "Our spotlight will shine in particular on relationships between investment banks and their clients," he said, "because we believe the risk of market abuse is highest where a client can be made an insider on a forthcoming deal."


The fast and furious pace of deals this year is increasing the opportunities for mischief. In each of the last three months, according to Thomson Financial, the value of announced mergers has exceeded $100 billion -- the longest stretch of such volume since 2000.


I couldn't help but notice the contrast in how the UK (witness the comments by Hector Sants) is looking at this as opposed to how the US is looking at this. Seems like one country is serious about doing something to counter the potential for illegalities, while the other is "aware of the situation".


But not enough to get serious about punishing the corporate and institutional wrongdoing. Because, you know, that would be harmful to the economy, while it is much easier to just go after the individuals. And we know how the "powers that be" here in the US feel about We the People vs. "We Your Corporate Overlords".


Hopefully, this won't lead to a repeat of 1987.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Preamble? What Preamble? It Doesn't Apply Anymore.

Front paged at Booman Tribune and ePluribus Media. Recommended at Daily Kos and My Left Wing

We are a few short weeks away from the anniversary of the US Consitution and you can bet that there will be much flag-waving hoopla and ironically, for the past few years has been "officially led" by Lynne Cheney who happens to be married to the one man who can boast that he violated two Articles of the Constitution at the same time.


Lately, I have been thinking a bit about the Constitution, and more specifically the preamble (thanks to the good folks at Schoolhouse Rock. And for those who know the words to the Preamble, you probably can share in my sadness of how every single word of the Preamble to one of the most important documents ever drafted has been repeatedly violated in every conceivable way by the war criminals and thieves that have run roughshod all over this once (and hopefully future) great country of ours.


For those who haven't clicked on the link above, or for those who don't know the powerful words of the Preamble, I have copied them below:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.


Back in 1987, I was in the 11th grade. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Constitution, my high school offered an elective class that a few of my friends and I took. It was part history, part journalism and part, well, fun. Not only did I get 3 credits for taking the class, but we also got to hang out with some of the cuter freshman and sophomore girls whose lockers were near the classroom. The end result of this class was to create a video where 5 of my friends and I were "journalists", each representing a part of the Preamble (mine was "promote justice"), where we got to "interview" some of the founders through a time travel link and talk about how each of our parts of the Preamble have held up over the years. There was video inserted with our voice over, as well as commentary and interviews.


Looking back, it was much cooler than we thought it was at the time....And reading the Preamble today, I think - what a great sentence, even if it may be a bit of a run-on sentence (that was for you grammarians out there). Powerful. Simple. All encompassing. And it held up pretty nicely for just under 215 of the close to 220 years since it was written.


Until now.


Since this could be the longest diary ever written if I give more than one or two examples for each of the seven parts of the Preamble, I'll try to be brief.


We the People of the United States


A recent poll from pollingreport.com goes into detail about how little We the People are being represented by this Congress. Take the following:



"Do you feel Congress is currently working on issues that are important to most Americans?"


Yes: 40%, No:53%, Unsure:7%


"Compared to recent Congresses, would you say THIS Congress has accomplished more, accomplished less, or accomplished about the same amount?"


More 7%, Less 41%, Same 47%, Unsure 5%


Asked of those who answered "Less": "Who do you think is most to blame for this: Republican leaders in Congress or Democratic leaders in Congress?"


Republican 58%, Democrat 13%, Both/neither/other 24%, Unsure 5%


Hell, a recent study by People for the American Way confirms what we already know about how voter suppression is still strong.


In Order to form a more perfect Union


A SUSA survey from last year indicates that more respondents in every single state polled think that this country is headed in the wrong direction. The weighted average was 66% felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. Those numbers are pretty constant for the past few years.


Household debt is increasing to record levels. The housing market bubble is about to pop in a number of regions. People have to work multiple jobs just to put food on the table.


Establish Justice


Well, for starters, we have a Justice Department that is led by someone whose own words rendered the Geneva Conventions as "quaint". We have a Justice Department that not only thinks it is ok to spy on Americans in the US without a warrant but scoffs at judicial decisions which render the illegal spying as, well, illegal. We have a Supreme Court who, for the first time in generations, wants to roll back the rights of individuals and have Justices who have ruled in favor of unauthorized strip searches of 10 year old girls. We have a Justice Department who thinks it is ok to hold US citizens indefinitely without charging them with a crime.


Promote Domestic Tranquility


Due to the warmongering and polarization of this administration and rubber stamp greedy Republican Congress, the past 6 years or so have been the most divisive years since quite possibly the Civil War - certainly since the Vietnam era. There are protests everywhere that Bush goes. There was a HUGE peace rally in NYC which I attended back in April. There are literally hundreds more every year. There is the "vilification" by the people on the right of anyone who dares to exercise their right of disagreement with the neocon warmongering policies. There is a movement to Constitutionalize the discrimination of gay marriage. The religious right (which certainly is neither) preaches hate, not tolerance. There is absolutely no dialogue in this country. Families and friendships are torn apart due to political beliefs, as some of us here have even experienced firsthand.


Provide for the common Defense


In this "all terror threat all the time" world that is being rammed down our throats, you would think that this would be the one area where things aren't a complete disaster. However, this may be one of the worst. According to a recent interview by Harpers of Michael Scheuer who just happens to be the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit at the Counterterrorist Center, that isn't the case at all:

In the long run, we're not safer because we're still operating on the assumption that we're hated because of our freedoms, when in fact we're hated because of our actions in the Islamic world.


---snip---


From the standpoint of democracy, Saudi Arabia looks much worse than Iran. We use the term "Islamofascism"--but we're supporting it in Saudi Arabia, with Mubarak in Egypt, and even Jordan is a police state. We don't have a strategy because we don't have a clue about what motivates our enemies.


Promote the General Welfare


I have written many a diary about how this administration and rubber stamp Republican Congress have screwed over We the People in so many different ways, whether it be how lower income families pay more for basic services, or how the middle class is shrinking in many cities around the country, or how the ultra wealthy are cheating the IRS out of over $70 billion per year. I've written about numerous tax cuts for the wealthy and for cronies. The wage gap is increasing to obscene levels.


Secure the blessings of Liberty


Liberty is roughly defined as the ability to have personal freedom from oppression, or to have freedom of choice. However, we are in an era of "free speech zones", an era where politically motivated reasons are cited for blocking peaceful protests at the 2004 Republican Convention, and where people are getting kicked out of "staged events" because of the t-shirt they wear.


Need I mention the "liberty" that the people whose lives were ruined by Katrina or the illegal and immoral war in Iraq are being blessed with?


********


In a time where staged events are more important than actual reality, where photo ops get more press than the underlying events, where missing white girls or celebrity gossip gets way more airtime than death and destruction being wreaked on the world by the neocon war criminals, where the President can admit to impeachable offenses and not be called on it, it is long past the time to look back at the ideals that this country was founded on, and how far we have strayed from those ideals in recent years.


All of the flag waving and feel good photo ops won't undo the crimes perpetuated on this country and the world by those who are in charge. It won't bring back any of those who have died as a result of lies, neglect and greed. It won't help raise people out of the poverty level. But maybe, just maybe if we actually scratch below the shiny fa├žade we can see how rotten the underlying foundation has become.


And maybe then, enough people will realize that we have to start rebuilding from the ground up.

Friday, August 25, 2006

More Bad News Regarding Katrina and the Gulf Coast

Front paged at Booman Tribune, ePluribus Media and My Left Wing. Recommended at Daily Kos

Waste. Fraud. Billions in no-bid deals. Promises for an open bid process reneged on. Businesses struggling to stay open or reopen.


These are just the latest (meaning released within the last day or so) bits of news that have been released, of course with little to no fanfare, as we approach the one-year "anniversary" of one of the worst things that this reverse-Midas administration has done. And we all know there is a list that is probably too long to measure all of the absolute disastrous, incompetent and dangerous decisions and actions that have been taken since the Supreme Court installed Dear Leader as our dictator, I mean, President.


And you can bet that none of this will even get a mention as compared to Bush's once-again staged photo op earlier this week with a lifelong Republican or the upcoming PR blitz that will no doubt exploit more of the people who have suffered because of Bush's dangerous incompetence.


For starters, an article in today's NY Times outlines a new Louisiana State University study with respect to the struggling businesses in New Orleans. According to the article, 60% of the businesses have yet to reopen, and those that have reopened are struggling mightily.

Even before the storm, New Orleans's economic ship was powered not by a couple of whales, but by a school of minnows. The city estimates that 95 percent of the 22,000 businesses here before Hurricane Katrina employed fewer than 100 workers (fewer than 25, in most cases). These included not just shops, but also the artists and manufacturers and wholesalers that supplied them, and the accountants and lawyers and cleaning companies that served them.


About 60 percent of the businesses within the city limits have probably not reopened, according to a recent study by Louisiana State University, which tried to call about 8,500 of the 10,000 businesses registered with the state. At about 5,000 of the businesses, the phone had been disconnected or was not answered after five calls.


The article has some heartwrenching stories about people who cannot afford the insurance, are struggling with sales and cannot count on a steady flow of electricity, water pressure or even safety. It talks about how, even if there is to be a return of business activity, that it will likely not be even close to the types of businesses which have thrived in the City for decades and made New Orleans the cultural mecca that it was.

Long term, more than 40 percent of those businesses are likely to disappear, said Timothy P. Ryan, an economist who is chancellor of the University of New Orleans. As residents return and the city rebuilds, new businesses will eventually open, but Dr. Ryan predicted that they would not be the same kind of businesses as their predecessors. "Many of them may be in Sheetrocking," he said.


So the fallout will be cultural as well as economic. Or as Dr. Ryan put it, if the city loses the quirky shops and the independent restaurants, "we'll lose part of the character and charm and culture of the city."


With respect to waste, fraud, cronyism and abuse in contracts given out by the Government, we have a report released yesterday by Rep. Henry Waxman and the Democrats on the House Committee on Government Reform, titled Waste, Fraud, and Abuse in Hurricane Katrina Contracts. This panel of six Democrats put this report together because (you guessed it), the rubber-stamp Republican Congress had resisted the investigation of such contracts, waste and fraud. The audit consisted of a review of nearly 500 reports which were prepared by the Defense Contract Audit Agency, the Government Accountability Office, numerous agency inspectors general as well as interviews with outside experts and investigative reporters.


In the 22 page report, there are a number of areas cited which will make your stomach turn. They include the following:

Full and Open Competition is the Exception, Not the Rule. As of June 30, 2006, over $10.6 billion has been awarded to private contractors for Gulf Coast recovery and reconstruction. Nearly all of this amount ($10.1 billion) was awarded in 1,237 contracts valued at $500,000 or more. Only 30% of these contracts were awarded with full and open competition.


Contract Mismanagement Is Widespread. Hurricane Katrina contracts have been accompanied by pervasive mismanagement. Mistakes were made in virtually every step of the contracting process: from pre-contract planning through contract award and oversight. Compounding this problem, there were not enough trained contract officials to oversee contract spending in the Gulf Coast.


The Costs to the Taxpayer Are Enormous. This report identifies 19 Katrina contracts collectively worth $8.75 billion that have been plagued by waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement. In the case of each of these 19 contracts, reports from the Government Accountability Office, Pentagon auditors, agency inspectors general, or other government investigators have linked the contracts to major problems in administration or performance.


Some of the waste and abuses include excessive charging for miles, double billings, payments for removal of ineligible debris, lack of oversight of subcontractors, overpayments for removal of partial loads, nearly 1,400 cases of reported criminal activity, including fraud and abuse which are currently under investigation and discuss the FEMA trailer fiasco, the Carnival Cruise debacle, temporary housing waste and a number of other areas.


The report also has an Appendix which highlights a number of contracts that are identified as "problem contracts". Much of these 19 contracts were no-bid contracts that totaled nearly $9 Billion, and not surprisingly have strong links or ties to Bu$hCo or other government links:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has broken its promise to reopen four multimillion-dollar no-bid contracts for Hurricane Katrina work, including three that federal auditors say wasted significant amounts of money.


---snip---


R. David Paulison, acting FEMA director, pledged last fall to rebid the contracts, which were awarded to Shaw Group Inc., Bechtel Corp., CH2M Hill Inc., and Fluor Corp.


---snip---


Shaw Group's lobbyist, Joe Allbaugh, is a former FEMA director and a friend of President Bush. Riley Bechtel, Bechtel CEO, served on Bush's Export Council from 2003 to 2004, and CH2M Hill Inc. and Fluor Corp. have done extensive work for the government in the past.


And just to give another reminder of what the government and this administration's greedy grubby paws are playing politics with, below are some pictures that were taken by my friend who visited the Ninth Ward a few months ago:







Notice the sign "Thanks American but show us the money"...


"Youth opportunities" - pretty ironic...

Thursday, August 24, 2006

House Report on Iran: Reading Between the Lines

Front paged at Booman Tribune and ePluribus Media

Second verse, same as the first, just with an "N" instead of a "Q"?


Both mini mum and abw have done diaries on the House report, titled Recognizing Iran as a Strategic Threat: An Intelligence Challenge for the United States.


However, while their diaries (both of which I recommended and should be read) talk about the potentially dubious (and certainly lacking anything approaching certainty) claims regarding Iran's nuclear program, I want to talk about some of the other things that are buried within the report.


And that is, despite the fact that this is your typical Republican Congress "let's go git `em now" report, there are some glaring comment about the major shortfalls in US intelligence that, among other things, puts the US in a horrible bargaining position.


The purpose of my diary is not to assess whether Iran has nuclear weapon ambitions or whether it is an imminent threat, or whether we are going to bomb Iran - rather I think that this House report has some very important items that must not be overlooked.


Thankfully, both the UK Guardian and the Washington Post picked up on the very things that I immediately noticed when reading through the report.


Again, I'll leave the "evidence" of the Iran nuclear weapons program and the information on Fred Fleitz (former Chief of Staff for John Bolton) for the other diaries, as I want to focus on how bad of a position the US has put itself in with respect to actually knowing what is going on with Iran that it seems like 2002 all over again.


For starters, the report (as well as the 2 articles linked above) indicates how poor the US intelligence program is:

Accurate and comprehensive intelligence is critical for the development of good policy. There is a great deal about Iran that we do not know. It would be irresponsible to list the specific intelligence gaps in an unclassified paper, as identifying our specific shortcomings would provide critical insights to the Iranian government. Suffice it to say, however, that the United States lacks critical information needed for analysts to make many of their judgments with confidence about Iran and there are many significant information gaps. A special concern is major gaps in our knowledge of Iranian nuclear, biological, and chemical programs. US policymakers and intelligence officials believe, without exception, that the United States must collect more and better intelligence on a wide range of Iranian issues -its political dynamics, economic health, support for terrorism, the nature of its involvement in Iraq, the status of its nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons efforts, and many more topics of interest. The national security community must dedicate the personnel and resources necessary to better assess Iran's plans, capabilities and intentions, and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) must identify, establish, and report on intelligence goals and performance metrics to measure progress on critical fronts.


Wow. Of course, this is buried after page and page of conjecture about what Iran "probably" or "likely" has. But, regardless of whether they do, which is dangerous enough, it is tough to not point the finger squarely back at the US for dropping the ball on so many occasions.


In talking about Iran's capacity to develop a nuclear weapon, the report has one sentence which is buried in pages of background and other scary-talk:

The U.S. Intelligence Community believes Iran could have a nuclear weapon sometime in the

beginning to the middle of the next decade.


While the report does go on to indicate that a number of factors could speed up this process, the factors which are cited include such definitive terms as "theoretically" and "could". Additionally, there is this money quote as well:

Although it is likely that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, there is the possibility that Iran could be engaged in a denial and deception campaign to exaggerate progress on its nuclear program such as Saddam Hussein apparently did concerning his WMD programs. U.S. leaders need more definitive intelligence to judge the status of the Iranian nuclear program and whether there have been any related deception efforts.


Can anyone say "slam dunk"?


Similarly, for biological and chemical weapons, we have the following statements:

Intelligence regarding potential Iranian chemical weapons (CW) and biological weapons (BW) programs is neither voluminous nor conclusive. Nevertheless, U.S. intelligence agencies have determined based on the evidence available that Iran likely is pursuing CW and BW weapons.


---snip---


Although it does not have unequivocal evidence, the U.S. Intelligence Community believes Iran has an offensive chemical weapons research and development capability.


---snip---


The U.S. Intelligence Community believes Iran probably has an offensive biological weapons program but lacks clear intelligence proving that this is the case.


Can anyone say "stockpiles"?


According to the UK Guardian article, this has obviously left Iran in a better negotiating position, and has some other interesting information about the "War on terrorTM":

Analysis published yesterday by the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House said there was "little doubt that Iran has been the chief beneficiary of the war on terror in the Middle East".


The report said Iran had gained from the defeat of two of its most immediate regional rivals, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.


"The US-driven agenda for confronting Iran is severely compromised by the confident ease with which Iran sits in its region," it said. "Iran views Iraq as its own backyard and has now superseded the US as the most influential power there."


The month-long war between Hizbullah and Israel has strengthened Iran's regional influence further, because the Arab world perceived the US as uncritically backing Israel. Hizbullah, backed by Iran, saw its status soar in Arab public opinion for its ability to survive Israeli attacks.


Now, let's take a trip down memory lane. Back in June, I did a diary based on an article that I read in the American Prospect, titled Iran: It almost (and should have) turned out like this.


In that diary, I stated the following:

It was recently reported that Iran made a substantial offer to the US back in 2003 with respect to its nuclear program which was rebuffed by Bu$hCo. But that incredibly stupid move by Bush was only one of a large number of purposeful and calculated acts of stubbornness and arrogance taken by him (many at the urging of Cheney and Rumsfeld) with respect to Iran.


But, what if you knew that Iran made serious overtures to the US right after 9/11 with respect to its nuclear program, where to bomb in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda members were likely to be hiding, and offering intelligence.


And what if you also knew that Iran offered, at least once, if not more, to (and had already) crack down on Al Qaeda members it knew were in Iran? Or that the proposals offered changes to Iran's official position with respect to Israel? Or that Iran would agree to far stricter nuclear inspections and monitoring? Or that they would not intervene in Iraq after the US invaded?


Well, it all could have turned out that way.


Not only that, but back in April, I did a diary titled, Let's not forget that Plame was tracking IRAN and nukes, which outlined the work that Valerie Plame was doing with respect to Iran's nuclear program and included the following blurb from the "counter intelligence assessment to agency operations":

According to current and former intelligence officials, Plame Wilson, who worked on the clandestine side of the CIA in the Directorate of Operations as a non-official cover (NOC) officer, was part of an operation tracking distribution and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction technology to and from Iran.


Speaking under strict confidentiality, intelligence officials revealed heretofore unreported elements of Plame's work. Their accounts suggest that Plame's outing was more serious than has previously been reported and carries grave implications for U.S. national security and its ability to monitor Iran's burgeoning nuclear program.


While many have speculated that Plame was involved in monitoring the nuclear proliferation black market, specifically the proliferation activities of Pakistan's nuclear "father," A.Q. Khan, intelligence sources say that her team provided only minimal support in that area, focusing almost entirely on Iran.


So what does this all mean? Well, it doesn't really change what Iran is doing or what its ambitions may be. Or it may.


Either way, it is clear that due to this administration, the neocon war criminals, the rubber-stamp Republican Congress and flag waving `Murkins who were so eager to get their pound of flesh in Iraq that they never even considered the immense damage that was being done in our relations with and intelligence program with respect to Iran and its WMD ambitions.


And if there were those who did know (which I suspect but have just as much proof as the US did about Iraq or seems to about Iran), well, then those responsible should be reserved a special place in hell.


As for the rest of the American public, as well as the world, the situation in Iran is a potentially dangerous one. But we need facts, intelligence and the truth - none of which it appears that we currently have. And the fault lies squarely with those who lied their way into Iraq in the first place.


So, "fool me once, shame on -- shame on you. Fool me -- you can't get fooled again."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Freedom's Just Another Word For...

Front paged at Booman Tribune and ePluribus Media

Nothing left to lose... Janis Joplin, 1969.


The Lebanese people have made it clear they want to live in freedom.


And if we ever give up the desire to help people who live in freedom, we will have lost our soul as a nation, as far as I'm concerned.


The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East.


George W. Bush, August 21, 2006


We know how much Dear Leader likes to throw that word around. "Spreading freedom". "The (Iraqis/Lebanese/Afghanis) want freedom". "We have made the choice to bring freedom to the Middle East".


You know what, just shut the fuck up already.


Cuz, the great Janis Joplin is right - when its all been stripped away, then you have nothing left. And when you have nothing left, there is nothing left to lose.


So when Bush talks about the Lebanese people and "freedom", does he mean this:


Qana makes grim history again:

Ten years later, the town is again in the headlines, this time because of a single massive bomb dropped by an Israeli aircraft, causing a building to collapse on top of dozens of civilians - many of them children - taking cover in the basement.


Or maybe he means this:


Lebanon: Refugees Pour Into Beirut

Refugees from southern Lebanon continued to pour in to Beirut on July 22. Sources in the city said more than 100,000 people have entered the Lebanese capital since July 12, and Lebanese army units are patrolling the renovated city center to prevent refugees from squatting there. In the district of Baabda, Shiite officers from the Lebanese army reportedly tried to confiscate vacant apartments owned by Maronite Christians to house Shiite refugees, but stopped when the mayor complained.


What about the spreading of freedom in Iraq? Does Bush mean this:


Growing Pessimism on Iraq



People at the CIA "are mad at the policy in Iraq because it's a disaster, and they're digging the hole deeper and deeper and deeper," said one former intelligence officer who maintains contact with CIA officials. "There's no obvious way to fix it. The best we can hope for is a semi-failed state hobbling along with terrorists and a succession of weak governments."


"Things are definitely not improving," said one U.S. government official who reads the intelligence analyses on Iraq.


"It is getting worse," agreed an Army staff officer who served in Iraq and stays in touch with comrades in Baghdad through e-mail.


Mind you, that is from September 2004 - nearly two years ago.


Maybe he means this: 40,000 - 45,000 Iraqi civilians dead since the invasion.


Or maybe it is this:Study Finds Nation-Building Efforts In Iraq and Afghanistan Hampered by Failures to Address Health Problems

An estimated 40 percent of the water and sanitation network in Baghdad has been damaged during the conflict. Efforts to rebuild the system -- aging and in frail condition before fighting began - have moved slowly, hampered by the nation's widespread security problems and looting.


A year after the major combat phase of the war in Iraq ended, Baghdad's three sewage treatment plants were still inoperable, forcing sewage to be dumped in the Tigris River and putting the nation's population at risk of communicable disease outbreaks. The sewage plants ultimately were repaired, but surveys of Iraqi citizens show that most have been unhappy with the quality of sanitation services -- a sign that an opportunity to foster goodwill was lost.


Lest we forget the "freedom" that we gave to those at Abu Ghraib as well as in Afghanistan prisons.


Well, enough about "freedom" over in the Middle East. What about right here in the "freest country in the world"?


"There's a man with a gun over there....telling me I got to beware" Buffalo Springfield, 1966


Videos Challenge Accounts of Convention Unrest - 2004


A sprawling body of visual evidence, made possible by inexpensive, lightweight cameras in the hands of private citizens, volunteer observers and the police themselves, has shifted the debate over precisely what happened on the streets during the week of the convention.


For Mr. Kyne and 400 others arrested that week, video recordings provided evidence that they had not committed a crime or that the charges against them could not be proved, according to defense lawyers and prosecutors.


Among them was Alexander Dunlop, who said he was arrested while going to pick up sushi.


Last week, he discovered that there were two versions of the same police tape: the one that was to be used as evidence in his trial had been edited at two spots, removing images that showed Mr. Dunlop behaving peacefully. When a volunteer film archivist found a more complete version of the tape and gave it to Mr. Dunlop's lawyer, prosecutors immediately dropped the charges and said that a technician had cut the material by mistake.


Seven months after the convention at Madison Square Garden, criminal charges have fallen against all but a handful of people arrested that week. Of the 1,670 cases that have run their full course, 91 percent ended with the charges dismissed or with a verdict of not guilty after trial. Many were dropped without any finding of wrongdoing, but also without any serious inquiry into the circumstances of the arrests, with the Manhattan district attorney's office agreeing that the cases should be "adjourned in contemplation of dismissal."


False arrests. Doctored evidence. People held for 48 hours in a greasy oily unsanitary makeshift holding pen without due process. Nearly all charges ultimately dropped. Lawsuits against NYC.


Can't you feel the freedom oozing from your pores?


Screening Tactics at Bush Events Questioned

The unceremonious ouster of three people from a recent White House Social Security event in Colorado has critics wondering how far President Bush will go to ensure friendly, sympathetic audiences at his town hall-style forums and rallies.


How the Secret Service Protects Bush from Free Speech

When Bush went to the Pittsburgh area on Labor Day 2002, 65-year-old retired steel worker Bill Neel was there to greet him with a sign proclaiming, "The Bush family must surely love the poor, they made so many of us."


The local police, at the Secret Service's behest, set up a "designated free-speech zone" on a baseball field surrounded by a chain-link fence a third of a mile from the location of Bush's speech.


The police cleared the path of the motorcade of all critical signs, but folks with pro-Bush signs were permitted to line the president's path. Neel refused to go to the designated area and was arrested for disorderly conduct; the police also confiscated his sign.


"I always feel like somebody's watching me"Rockwell, 1984 (sorry for not having a better one, but I have a soft spot for 80's cheesy music).


Chertoff Seeks Support on Real ID

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called on state legislators Thursday to embrace new federal driver's license requirements to strengthen security, but state lawmakers later demanded that Congress either fund the program or drop it.


In a speech at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Chertoff sought to allay privacy concerns about the federal Real ID Act, saying there are no plans to create a federal database of drivers' personal information.


Yeah, because there have never been an issue with privacy concerns in recent years.


The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America Today

In every national American election since Reconstruction, every election since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, voters - particularly African American voters and other minorities - have faced calculated and determined efforts at intimidation and suppression.


"Freedom". Somehow, it just doesn't seem like there is enough of it anymore. Anywhere. And we are left with Janis Joplin's words - just another word for "nothing left to lose". Because when all of your freedoms are being taken away, you ain't got nothing.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

If you want to get serious about fixing Medicare...

Front paged at Booman Tribune and ePluribus Media

Despite the fact that Bush has been trying to hoodwink We the People into thinking that Social Security is in dire straits and must be destroyed in order to "fix it", there is a much bigger problem - Medicare. And I don't just mean the Medicare Part D mess that was a boon to the drug companies at the expense of many of our senior citizens.


A new study released yesterday on the journal Health Affairs' website has some startling conclusions. For starters, overall spending on Medicare is anticipated to jump from its current level of 3% of GDP in 2006 to a whopping 8.8% of GDP in just over 20 years. But the real issue here is the underlying reasons why Medicare spending is projected to increase by nearly threefold.


And the reasons, while painting a pretty depressing but accurate picture of `Murka, leads to a basic answer as to what can be done to (somewhat) manage the huge projected spending increase, as well as the huge current spending on Medicare - the way Americans treat (or more accurately, mistreat) their bodies.


The underlying reason for much of the spending? A vast increase in obesity in America over the past 25 years. The results of this? Well, health issues, of course - increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other similar ailments. According to a brief synopsis in USA Today, the numbers are staggering:

The rate of obesity among Medicare patients doubled from 1987 to 2002, and spending on those individuals more than doubled, according to economists Kenneth Thorpe and David Howard.


---snip---


In 1987, 11.7% of the Medicare population was considered obese. That number grew to 22.5% of Medicare enrollees by 2002.


Spending on medical care for obese Medicare patients was 9.4% of the federal government program's budget in 1987 but jumped to 24.8% by 2002, according to the analysis.


These numbers don't even consider what will happen over the next 5 years when the baby boomers start to retire in greater numbers and will rely on Medicare after the explosion of the sugar cereal/preservatives/bleached flour/chemical laden snacks and soda industry of the past 35 or so years, coupled with a decline in physical activities (thank you video games...). And with that will no doubt come a greater number of people who are obese or who have major health problems.


In fact, according to the study and as you can see from the following chart, over the 15 year period from 1987 through 2002, over 16% of the total increase in Medicare spending was on the "top 10" conditions, which include heart disease, diabetes, cancer and hypertension.



This is not the only disturbing trend. As far as how many conditions treated per individual goes, there is a sharp increase in the number of individuals who have had multiple conditions:

he number of medical conditions treated per Medicare beneficiary has risen sharply over time. In 1987, 31 percent of Medicare beneficiaries received treatment for five or more conditions. This group accounted for about half of total spending. Ten years later, nearly 40 percent of beneficiaries were treated for five or more conditions, accounting for 65 percent of overall spending. And just five years later, more than half of all Medicare beneficiaries were treated for five or more conditions, accounting for three-fourths of total spending. Virtually all of the spending growth since 1987 can be traced to patients treated for five or more conditions. And in 2002, 92.9 percent of health care spending was incurred by beneficiaries with three or more conditions during the year.


Now there are a number of factors at play here, but the most obvious one noted in the study is that of obesity. As you can see from the following chart, the level of obesity in Medicare beneficiaries has doubled since 1987. However, the amount of Medicare spending on these beneficiaries has nearly tripled. Compare that to the slighter increase in overall Medicare spending on that part of the population who is NOT obese.



Overall, the prevalence of obesity among Medicare beneficiaries has doubled since 1987, but the share of spending incurred by obese beneficiaries has almost tripled--from 9.4 percent to nearly 25 percent of total spending. Thus, a rise in the share of obese Medicare beneficiaries combined with a higher share treated for five or more conditions over time accounts for about fifteen percentage points of the rise in spending.


The share of normal-weight beneficiaries (as defined by body mass index, or BMI) treated for five or more conditions increased from 11.5 percent of all beneficiaries in 1987 to 16 percent in 2002, even as the overall share of the normal-weight group declined. The overall share of spending associated with this group (normal weight treated for five or more conditions) increased from 19.6 percent in 1987 to 24.1 percent in 2002. Treatment for hyperlipidemia, mental disorders, and osteoporosis and other bone disorders accounted for the largest increment in treated prevalence among normal-weight beneficiaries treated for five or more conditions (tabulations not shown). Similar trends were observed among overweight beneficiaries.


So, to bring this all back together with a pretty bow on top, what is the answer? Well, clearly there is a problem here in America with rising obesity. Somebody did an excellent diary on this a few weeks back, but sadly I can't seem to find the link.


The answer is a major lifestyle change on the part of America - and as we all know, this is no small feat. Children are being bombarded with TV ads for the latest sugary snacks with catchy jingles and cool cartoon shapes or packaging. A lessening of the focus on physical activities for children (not to mention after school sports programs or community youth activities being cut all across the country) create a more sedentary life for children. The rise of totally cool looking video games make it easier for someone to pretend he is LeBron James or Peyton Manning instead of picking up a basketball or football and throwing it around.


Many parents are either working multiple jobs, or are not taking as much of an interest in raising their children (just my observation). Fast food and 5 minute dinners which are laden with chemicals and other crap have become so easy and inexpensive. The federal government, whether it be the USDA or lobbyist groups have more of a vested interest in lining their pockets or avoiding the "hard decisions" in order to promote a healthier lifestyle for children as well as teens. Many people in lower income neighborhoods don't have the means or the access to healthier options, when it comes to food.


But all of these things are really just excuses now, and will result in MAJOR health problems later - not to mention the increased strain on Medicare costs. The data is there. The choices are simple to make, yet complex to implement unless there is a major push on all fronts.


I remember when I was a kid in grade school, how much of a focus there was on physical education. There were programs in the school systems. There was the "Presidential Fitness Awards" (or something like that). Unless there is a major shift (which may not even involve too much other than a shifting of priorities all around as well as some strength of conviction), things will continue to get worse. Obesity will continue to spiral out of control. Medicare costs will continue to skyrocket. The overall health of Americans will continue to decline, despite having the most amount of spending on healthcare overall.


But it doesn't have to be that way. It just takes courage and some common sense all around. Even small changes can go a long way and make a big difference in lifestyles, health, and Medicare costs.


Monday, August 21, 2006

With news like this, why bother flying ever again?

Front paged at Booman Tribune and ePluribus Media

Ok, so outside of the fact that it is necessary to fly sometimes - whether it is for business travel or for those instances where you can't drive (of course with gas prices being as high as they are, even that isn't all that feasible), I am coming to the conclusion that flying is just not worth the hassle or the headache, not to mention the safety issues - but not necessarily what you think.


Now, my wife HATES to fly - also not for "terrorist threat" reasons, but because she just doesn't feel all that safe when she is thousands of feet off the ground, locked in a tube that she has no control over. And I generally was able to let her know that planes are safer than driving, and that she really doesn't have much to worry about.


And then I read this and this.


In all honesty, even with all of the news about DHS (which I will get into in a bit), the first bit of news is more scary to me, and leads me to wonder about what type of liability for negligence Boeing could be on the hook for.


Boeing may have knowingly accepted and installed defective parts for its 737s and other jets.


That is not a misprint. According to two former auditors of Boeing:

Former auditors Taylor Smith and Jeannine Prewitt told Sky that Boeing accepted defective parts for 737s and other jets from Ducommun, a Californian supplier, and installed them even though they knew them to be faulty and potentially dangerous.


The components - which are crucial to the safety of an aircraft's fuselages - are alleged to have had incorrectly drilled holes and other physical defects that make them more likely to fail.


Ms Prewitt said safety was compromised by "so many manufacturing and quality discrepancies", building the planes should have stopped immediately but did not.


Of course, Boeing's response was along the lines of "nothing to see here, please move along". And why should they have any other response when its stock price has nearly tripled over the past three years, despite a lagging economy all around?


So there is a potential for countless numbers of planes (as the ones at issue were manufactured over an eight year period, beginning in 1994 to be flying around at risk of major damage and defect. Now, I am certainly no expert in the field of aircraft safety, but this doesn't sound good at all, especially since the Boeing 737 is the world's most popular aircraft.


Oh, but wait, there is more. With the new rules on what can and can't be carried onto an airplane (and no doubt a boon to the toothpaste and shaving cream industries) and despite the fact that security in UK airports (you know the country that actually had the terror threat in its airports) will be eased in the coming days, airport news here in fascist `Murka just keeps on getting worse.


We can look forward to more racial profiling in airports if Rep. Peter King gets his way:

The chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security Rep. Peter King , R-N.Y., said additional layers of security at U.S. airports are needed and more emphasis must be placed on training security screeners to spot suspicious people, even if that means looking at their race and nationality.


"The fact is the overwhelming odds are that it is going to be someone of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent and of the Muslim faith. And I think a screener should be allowed to factor that in as one of many factors. Like if we were told that the Ku Klux Klan was going to attack Harlem or Bedford Stuyvesant, I think we'd spend more time looking more closely at whites than we would at African-Americans," King told 'FOX News Sunday.'


Of course, we still can't bring dangerous items such as water, deodorant or mouthwash on planes, even though it wasn't the US airports that were targeted.


But now, we hear just how much of a mess things are at DHS with respect to airport security. Last week, in a diary I wrote about DHS, I mentioned that there is no checking of cargo that is being shipped in the belly of the aircraft, nor is there any way to verify that the driver's license that you need to provide at the security line is actually a real driver's license. And now, we have top Congressional officials, scientists and DHS officials calling the Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate "a rudderless ship". To make matters worse, things are so bad at the Directorate that Congress is about to cut its funding in half.


"So what?", you may say. Well, this is only the very agency that is in charge of countering threats such as liquid explosives. And according to resident xenophobic Congresscritter Peter King:

The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee said yesterday that the United States is at least a year from being able to detect explosives in liquids carried by airline passengers. ``The technology is being pursued,"


"The technology is being pursued." Only five years since 9/11. But that isn't even the punchline - guess why the Directorate is in such bad shape:

the Bush administration's overriding focus on nuclear and biological threats has delayed research on weapons aimed at aviation, a controversial choice that was questioned anew after a plot to blow up US-bound airliners from London was made public Aug. 10.


---snip---


Disputes over money delayed by two years the testing of walkthrough ``puffer" machines designed to detect explosive residue at checkpoints, said Tony Fainberg, a private consultant who oversaw explosives and radiation detection at the Homeland Security Department in 2003. Ninety of the devices were finally installed at US airports over the past year.


The department also delayed consideration of a proposal to deploy breadbox-sized chemical trace explosive detectors at overseas airports, Fainberg said, even though about 8,000 are now in the United States.


Despite spending billions of dollars to defend against everything from dirty bombs to anthrax, the administration has not delivered a coherent long-term strategy to underpin its rhetoric, said Albert Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


---snip---


But with Homeland Security's well-documented start-up problems, the S&T Directorate has been thinly staffed and deprived of money. Its reorganization was put on the back burner by Secretary Michael Chertoff, who took over in March 2005. Meanwhile, its management problems sapped the confidence of administration and congressional budget officials, analysts said.


Yup - it goes right to the top. The very people who talk about how much their job is to keep `Murka safer. And while that is no shock, it certainly makes me want to fly less and less.


Can you really blame me or think otherwise?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Say it with me: 'Civil. War'. Not 'sectarian violence'.

Front paged at Booman Tribune. Recommended at Daily Kos

Seriously, at what point can we stop dispensing the euphemisms? Have we as a country gotten so weak and feeble that our fragile minds can't wrap themselves around the fact that our not-quite-duly-elected "leaders" led us into a war based on lies, and the execution (no pun intended) was so poor that, despite many warnings, a full blown civil war is raging in Iraq?


Hell, it was nearly two months ago that I posted a diary titled "None dare call it a civil war" which started with this wikipedia definition of the term "civil war":

Civil War (wikipedia): A civil war is a war in which parties within the same culture, society or nationality fight for political power or control of an area. An insurgency, whether successful or not, is likely to be classified as a civil war by some historians if, and only if, organized armies fight conventional battles. Other historians state the criteria for a civil war is that there must be prolonged violence between organized factions or defined regions of a country (conventionally fought or not).

Yet, even as things have gotten progressively worse since much of `Murka was waving flags, swilling down cheap beer and eating hot dogs to celebrate Independence Day, there are still a precious few people who are taking a high profile position about the reality of the raging civil war in Iraq. Sadly for the Democrats (but good for the truth), one of the most prominent of these truth-tellers is one Senator Chuck Hagel, who followed up his comment that Iraq was a "hopeless and winless situation" with a comment today that said Iraq is in a "very defined civil war".


Good for Senator Hagel. Now more people should get on this bandwagon so we can get our troops out of Iraq and either redeployed to where they are really needed or home altogether.


Even today we see how futile it is to try and call it anything else. Despite a two day ban on vans and certain other vehicles in Baghdad because of the pilgrimage to the shrine of an eighth century imam, Musa al-Kadhim, to commemorate his death, we have this bit of news today:

Gunmen opened fire on crowds of Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad Sunday, killing at least 20 and wounding more than 300 others, according to police and health ministry officials.


---snip---


Gunmen on the streets and snipers from the rooftops opened fire on the crowds in six Baghdad neighborhoods, police said.


Aware that this weekend's pilgrimage would be an opportunity for sectarian attacks, Iraqi authorities instituted a vehicle and cycle ban from late Friday to early Monday to try to prevent car bombings and drive-by shootings in a city where Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife has killed thousands.


Last week saw the following piece of news that barely registered a blip:

Leaders of Iraq's powerful Shiite Muslim political bloc have begun aggressively promoting a radical plan to partition the country as a way of separating the warring sects. Some Iraqis are even talking about dividing the capital, with the Tigris River as a kind of Berlin Wall.


Unfortunately, that is just one of many horrific confirmations of the bloody mess that is daily life in Iraq. A recent UN report indicated that over 14,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed so far this year. That same report also indicated how much that number has increased from one month to the next, and come in all different shapes and sizes:

Killings of civilians are on "an upward trend," with more than 5,800 deaths and more than 5,700 injuries reported in May and June alone.


---snip---


The report lists examples of bloody suicide bombs aimed at mosques, attacks on laborers, the recovery of slain bodies, the assassinations of judges, the killings of prisoners, the targeting of clergy.


And it was nearly a month ago to the day when there was the following "incident", which has become all too common:

At least 45 people were killed and 60 others wounded Tuesday morning when a suicide car bomber detonated in a busy Kufa marketplace where day laborers gather.


As noted above, the number of deaths has increased from month to month, and July was no exception As reported last month by Robert Dreyfuss, who has some pretty good credentials (other than his work with LaRouche...), the violence isn't just massive, but it is also widespread:

The violence is not only engulfing Baghdad--home to approximately one-fifth of Iraq's population--but Basra, Iraq's second city and its only port. In the north, there is violence in Kirkuk, in what has been, until now, the relatively unscathed heartland of the Shiite south, as well.


Back in early July there was the discovery of 20 bodies, abducted for no apparent reason, and another nine people were killed:

Twenty people were found dead Wednesday northeast of Baghdad after gunmen kidnapped 24 civilians, an Iraqi official said.


The abductions occurred Wednesday morning at a bus station in Muqtadya, a city northeast of the Diyala provincial capital of Baquba.


The victims were civilians and bus drivers, said the official from the Diyala Joint Coordination Center.


In other violence Wednesday, nine Iraqis died in the capital: Seven were killed and 20 wounded in a suicide bombing at a southern Baghdad restaurant; and two civilians were killed and two others wounded in a car bombing in central Baghdad, police said.


Just days later, over 40 people were killed and 60 more injured when gunmen open fired in a crowded marketplace.


And just last week, a dozen bodies were found trapped in a grate by the Tigris River, while 50 violent deaths were reported in Iraq IN JUST ONE DAY.


This isn't even a small list of the violence and deaths which are a daily occurrence in Iraq. In pretty much all of these instances, the violence was by "parties within the same nationality who were fighting for political power or control of an area." Certainly, this has been going on for well over a year now, which seems to fit the definition of "prolonged violence between organized factions or defined regions of a country".


Both of which describe a textbook civil war.


Now if we can be spared the babying and euphemisms so that this country's fragile and "beautiful minds" can actually begin to process the truth and we can then FINALLY do something to constructively deal with what Bush and the neocon war criminals created in Iraq.


But the first step is to actually call the civil war that has been raging a "civil war" and not some watered down abstract term which is designed to hide the truth, further the greed and war crimes of our so-called "leaders" and turn our troops into referees and sitting ducks for something that they have no business being a part of.