Daily Archive: 09/25/2013

Sep 25 2013

Iran: Giant Steps and Baby Steps

Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani addressed the UN General Assembly taking a far more moderate and diplomatic course than his firebrand predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Propelled into office by a broad coalition of support from elites to students to former political prisoners, Mr. Rouhani has taken the West aback with his moderate and conciliatory approach to solving Iran’s problem’s with them and moving to resolve the differences over Iran’s nuclear energy program that resulted in crippling economic sanctions.

While the much anticipated meeting with US President Barack Obama did not take place, talks are scheduled for Thursday with Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State, John Kerry, the first ministerial talks between Tehran and Washington since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Despite the softening of the rhetoric by Iran and the outreach to repair the damage done by Ahmadinejad, there were still those who are not just wary but completely unconvinced with their own agenda. In any case, Pres. Rouhani was well received and has continued on his mission to repair Iran’s image. It is quite understandable that both sides are easing into this new relationship, one giant step, lots of baby steps towards better cooperation.



The full transcript can be read here (pdf)

Iran’s new president treads middle ground in United Nations address

Breaking from his predecessor’s combative rhetoric, Hassan Rouhani spoke to concerns of both conservatives and liberals

With expectations so high, Hassan Rouhani’s speech to the general assembly was never going to be an easy one. In Iran, radicals will have listened intently to their new president, keen to ensure he wouldn’t be too soft on the west, especially the United States, Tehran’s sworn enemy since the 1979 Islamic revolution. After all, 34 years on, faithfuls still chant “death to America” every Friday after performing their weekly prayers.

Reformists, too, had pinned their hopes on Rouhani, expecting him to impress the world with a moderate voice, and to globally revamp Iran’s image, so badly hurt under eight years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Being a moderate, an ultimate insider who has tried to bridge the gap between major factions of the Islamic republic, Rouhani succeeded in being just moderate enough – albeit judged by Iranian standards. He didn’t impress either group, nor did he particularly disappoint them. It was a speech that both sides seemed to agree was worth listening to.

 

Sep 25 2013

Punting the Pundits

“Punting the Pundits” is an Open Thread. It is a selection of editorials and opinions from around the news medium and the internet blogs. The intent is to provide a forum for your reactions and opinions, not just to the opinions presented, but to what ever you find important.

Thanks to ek hornbeck, click on the link and you can access all the past “Punting the Pundits”.

Wednesday is Ladies’ Day.

Follow us on Twitter @StarsHollowGzt

Katrina vanden Heuvel: [The case for gun liability laws The case for gun liability laws]

Knives. Automobiles. Cold medicine. Alcohol. Cigarettes. Coffee.

What do these items have in common?

They’re all held to a higher safety standard than firearms.

Because of product-liability law, manufacturers must equip them with proper warnings, limitations and built-in designs that enhance their safety.  [..]

When the government is worried that you might use that second bottle of NyQuil to cook meth, it’s not unreasonable to ask why someone needs to buy 15 assault rifles in one sitting.

Ana Marie Cox: Choice, for women, is not about biology. It’s about basic equality

The battle over abortion rights is simply a flashpoint in women’s pervasive experience of being deprived of control of our destinies

One of the most frustrating things about being “pro-choice” is the assumption that the only choice we care about has to do with our bodies. Really, the choices we’re talking about have to do with preserving, or expanding, all of the choices available to women. The choices we make about our bodies, yes, but also choices about our time, our minds, our emotions, our money, our thoughts, our votes and our voices.

There is not a woman reading this right now that hasn’t experienced a reminder, probably quite recently, maybe even today, that her choices are more limited than a man’s. This week, I asked the Twitter universe for examples of this – examples of how women don’t have the options that men do in all kinds of situations. Some of the answers were funny, a lot were serious, all of them meant something.

Zoë Carpenter : Congress Renews Efforts to Curb NSA Surveillance

These days it’s difficult to imagine Congress’s return to the business of governance. Still, several lawmakers have refocused their attention on the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices, suggesting that the resolve to reform did not die down during the August recess or the crises that followed. At least a dozen bills aimed at the NSA’s spying powers are pending in Congress, and key committees will hold hearings in the next two weeks. [..]

One of the greatest lessons to be drawn from the Church Committee is of the significant role Congress can play in investigating and challenging abuses of civil liberties by the government. While the committee’s tangible legacy was the laws that, for a while at least, curtailed domestic spying, it was the information made public through exhaustive hearings that made legislative action possible. These revelations were not about only domestic spying but also the assassination of foreign leaders and other shocking examples of executive overreach. Whether Congress will crack down on the intelligence community is one question; whether it will make room for a broader debate about the power of America’s surveillance state is another matter entirely.

Sadhbh Walshe: Michael Douglas blasts the US penal system at the Emmys. He’s exactly right

Cameron Douglas epitomises how the war on drugs caused US prisons to explode while doing almost nothing to thwart drug use

Michael Douglas caused a few ripples on Sunday night when he picked up an Emmy award for his performance as Liberace in the film, Behind the Candelabra. Aside from gently ribbing his co-star Matt Damon and thanking his estranged wife Catherine Zeta Jones, Douglas gave a shout out to his eldest son, Cameron, who is in currently being held in solitary confinement in a federal penitentiary.

“I’m hoping I’ll be able and they’ll allow me to see him soon,” Douglas told the audience before explaining to reporters backstage that he has begun to question the system that is preventing him from even visiting his incarcerated son. You can hardly blame the veteran actor for his disenchantment with America’s penal system as his son’s case pretty much epitomizes the futility of sending a person who is addicted to drugs into a bleak and lonely institution where drugs are readily available and treatment is not.

Elizabeth Drew: The Stranglehold On Our Politics

Most of the electorate can’t be bothered with midterm elections, and this has had large consequences–none of them good–for our political system and our country. Voting for a president might be exciting or dutiful, worth troubling ourselves for. But the midterms, in which a varying number of governorships are up for election, as well as the entire House of Representatives and one third of the Senate, just don’t seem worth as much effort. Such inaction is a political act in itself, with major effects. [,,]

The citizens of a state have it within their power to press for such changes in the nature of their state governments and the consequent effects on their immediate lives as well as the functioning of the nation’s political system. By rousing themselves to vote, they could have a stronger voice in filling state offices that may not seem so exciting but are highly consequential. Is it possible that the off-year elections could be taken almost as seriously as the presidential ones? The radicalism of the right has become so extreme that it may have unintentionally provided an impetus in that direction.

In the end only the members of the electorate can restore the institutions and procedures that make our democratic system work, starting with the next chance they get.

Donna Smith: Weaponized Profits: The US Health Care System

Many people who advocate for an improved and expanded Medicare for all for life health system in the US tend to vilify the for-profit, private insurance industry and big Pharma but ignore the atrocities committed by almost every other segment of the system. If we are to fix what ails the US health care system, we will have to get a whole lot more honest about all of the factions that lift profit-making above all else when engaging in the delivery of health care services.

And no matter what Congress does or does not do with the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, until those of us being most grossly effected by our dysfunctional, profit-first health care system get honest about all the players and their roles in that dysfunction, we will continue to tinker around the edges and watch the numbers of health care dead and broke climb ever higher.

Sep 25 2013

The Grand Bargain Circus Is Back In Town

Under The Big Top

The Circus Is Open

Hey looky, the circus is back in town – and here come the two lead clowns, one red clown and one blue clown – specially chosen by the Ringmaster:

Like harbingers of a hard winter, anti-entitlement spokesmen Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles have returned to the nation’s capital. These constituentless advocates for a widely disliked set of policies were given their usual unwarranted level of press coverage. Somewhat messianically, Simpson told Politico that “we have to be in reserve” in case politicians “put their country at risk” – by failing to impose the destructive austerity policies favored by Bowles and Simpson’s backers.

“But don’t use our names,” adds Simpson, “because that might be too volatile. We’re both on the witness protection program now.” …

It’s all part of a wider Washington offensive. As another recent Politico news item reported, “Fix the Debt is ramping back up its lobbying efforts as government funding fights become the topic du jour on Capitol Hill.” Politico listed a group of Republican and Democratic politicians who “met Monday with Maya MacGuineas, head of the campaign, and members of the group’s CEO council and small business members.”

The Ringmaster is busy as hell trying to pack all of the clowns into the car.  The red clowns and the blue clowns keep complaining about each others flatulence while in the car and continuously stream in and out of it.  The clowns all agree that they want to get into the car and get on with the show, but the Ringmaster needs to come up with the correct enticement.  The Ringmaster proposes to rob the audience and distribute the proceeds amongst the clowns and their cronies; the clowns don’t trust the Ringmaster to take enough from the audience to make it worth their while.

GOP-White House ‘Grand Bargain’ Talks Collapse

Senior Republican US senators say talks with the White House about a sequester-addressing fiscal deal have broken down, and they say any future talks must include Democratic members.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was the first among a group of GOP senators with whom senior White House officials had been talking all summer about a “grand bargain” fiscal deal to reveal those talks had stalled. Corker told reporters the White House has lost credibility with Republican senators on several issues, including pursuit of a big fiscal deal. …

Several participants confirmed efforts with the White House to strike a deal that lessens or voids sequestration have been scuttled, and signs of hope for a Pentagon and defense sector eager to avoid more cuts to planned military spending began to recede. …

Democrats from states with a large defense-sector presence are eager to find a way to turn off the next round of cuts to planned defense spending.

The clowns all agree that the audience hasn’t brought enough stuff with them into the tent to make it worth their while.  The Ringmaster has proposed to steal their retirement securities.  Will he now agree to drop his demand for taxes on the clowns and their cronies to sweeten the deal?  Stay tuned…

“All the cuts they need are there to avoid a possible shutdown”

It’s impossible to know what will happen in a fluid situation like this, of course. But it pays to be a bit paranoid. When you find yourself in a position of counting on your enemies to be so stupid as to keep saving you from your friends, you are in a precarious position. …

[I]t’s important to remember that the earlier deals didn’t fail to materialize because the two sides disagreed on cutting Social Security. They didn’t. It failed because the president refused to give up on some sort of tax hike in exchange. … Republicans have added another demand: defund Obamacare. If they want to come up with some sort of agreement in which the GOP saves face, to me the logical way to do that would be for the Democrats to agree to drop their demand for tax hikes if the Republicans drop their demand for defunding Obamacare. What’s left of the deal? You guessed it.

Special Bonus – What Happened Last Time The Circus Was In Town

Remember the last time the circus was here?  Yes, that’s right, you got fleeced by a bunch of carnies!  One of the big clowns, Pete Peterson, paid a couple of academic con-persons to shill for austerity and the Ringmaster got away with the con.  Take a look at what it cost you last time.  Are you ready to let the Ringmaster do it again?

Once again, the Beltway fell for cherry-picked data-and you paid the price.

So what has austerity cost us in the United States? The full price is hard to calculate, but the Congressional Budget Office figures that sequestration alone has cut GDP growth by about 0.8 percentage points. Since sequestration accounts for less than half of total belt-tightening over the past couple of years, a rough guess suggests that our austerity binge has cut economic growth by something like 2 percentage points-about half the total growth we might normally expect following a recession. Ironically, this means that we have indeed suffered the halving of economic growth that Reinhart and Rogoff estimated we’d get from running up the national debt above 90 percent. But we got it from not running up the debt. …

The obvious question at this point is: Why? It’s not as if we needed the skills of Nostradamus to predict the consequences of austerity. It’s pretty much textbook economics.  … Reinhart and Rogoff were pushing on an open door. There were lots of powerful actors-Pete Peterson, Grover Norquist, the Washington Post editorial page-ready to leap at the chance to pretend that their pursuit of austerity was motivated not by politics or self-interest, but merely by a virtuous desire for economic growth. The 90 percent paper provided them that cover.

So have we learned our lesson from all this? Of course not. No further stimulus is even remotely on the table, either in the United States or in Europe, and Republicans are already promising another debt ceiling crisis unless Obama agrees to yet more spending cuts. The inmates took over the asylum three years ago, and they show no sign of leaving.

Austerity is working out fine for the 1 percent: Their jobs are safe, their investments are growing, and their taxes are low. But the rest of us are paying a high price in the form of slow growth, high unemployment, and stagnant wages for years to come. All things considered, we’ve been remarkably tolerant of our fate. The folks who run the world might do well to ponder how long that’s going to last.

Sep 25 2013

On This Day In History September 25

This is your morning Open Thread. Pour your favorite beverage and review the past and comment on the future.

Find the past “On This Day in History” here.

September 25 is the 268th day of the year (269th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 97 days remaining until the end of the year.

On this day in 1789, the Bill of Rights passes Congress.

The first Congress of the United States approves 12 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and sends them to the states for ratification. The amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were designed to protect the basic rights of U.S. citizens, guaranteeing the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and exercise of religion; the right to fair legal procedure and to bear arms; and that powers not delegated to the federal government were reserved for the states and the people.

The Bill of Rights is the name by which the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution are known. They were introduced by James Madison to the First United States Congress in 1789 as a series of articles, and came into effect on December 15, 1791, when they had been ratified by three-fourths of the States. An agreement to create the Bill of Rights helped to secure ratification of the Constitution itself. Thomas Jefferson was a supporter of the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights prohibits Congress from making any law respecting any establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, guarantees free speech, free press, free assembly and association and the right to petition government for redress, forbids infringement of “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms…”, and prohibits the federal government from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. In federal criminal cases, it requires indictment by a grand jury for any capital or “infamous crime”, guarantees a speedy, public trial with an impartial jury composed of members of the state or judicial district in which the crime occurred, and prohibits double jeopardy. In addition, the Bill of Rights states that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and reserves all powers not specifically granted to the federal government to the people or the States. Most of these restrictions were later applied to the states by a series of decisions applying the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868, after the American Civil War.

The question of including a Bill of Rights in the body of the Constitution was discussed at the Philadelphia Convention on September 12, 1787. George Mason “wished the plan [the Constitution] had been prefaced with a Bill of Rights.” Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts “concurred in the idea & moved for a Committee to prepare a Bill of Rights.” Mr Sherman argued against a Bill of Rights stating that the “State Declarations of Rights are not repealed by this Constitution.” Mason then stated “The Laws of the U. S. are to be paramount to State Bills of Rights.” The motion was defeated with 10-Nays, 1-Absent, and No-Yeas.

Madison proposed the Bill of Rights while ideological conflict between Federalists and anti-Federalists, dating from the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, threatened the final ratification of the new national Constitution. It largely responded to the Constitution’s influential opponents, including prominent Founding Fathers, who argued that the Constitution should not be ratified because it failed to protect the fundamental principles of human liberty. The Bill was influenced by George Mason’s 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, the 1689 English Bill of Rights, works of the Age of Enlightenment pertaining to natural rights, and earlier English political documents such as Magna Carta (1215).

Two other articles were proposed to the States; only the last ten articles were ratified contemporaneously. They correspond to the First through Tenth Amendments to the Constitution. The proposed first Article, dealing with the number and apportionment of U.S. Representatives, never became part of the Constitution. The second Article, limiting the power of Congress to increase the salaries of its members, was ratified two centuries later as the 27th Amendment. Though they are incorporated into Madison’s document known as the “Bill of Rights”, neither article established protection of a right. For that reason, and also because the term had been applied to the first ten amendments long before the 27th Amendment was ratified, the term “Bill of Rights” in modern U.S. usage means only the ten amendments ratified in 1791.

The Bill of Rights plays a key role in American law and government, and remains a vital symbol of the freedoms and culture of the nation. One of the first fourteen copies of the Bill of Rights is on public display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Sep 25 2013

Rania Masri on Syria and the Middle East

Transcript

Transcript

Sep 25 2013

Doing God’s Work

Forbes Calls Goldman CEO Holier Than Mother Teresa

By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

POSTED: September 20, 2:55 PM ET

It reads like an Onion piece, just hilarious stuff. I mean, Jesus, even Lloyd Blankfein himself didn’t go so far as to take the “God’s work” thing 100% seriously, and here’s this jackass saying, without irony, that the Goldman CEO literally out-God-slaps Mother Teresa.

The thing is, for all its excesses, Mr. Catyanker’s piece does reflect an attitude you see pretty often among Rand devotees and Road To Serfdom acolytes. Five whole years have passed since the crash, and there are still huge pockets of these Fountainhead junkies who genuinely believe that the Blankfeins of the world are reviled because they’re bankers and they’re rich, and not because they’re the heads of unprosecutable organized crime syndicates who make their money through mass fraud, manipulation and the shameless burgling of public treasure. In this case you have a guy who writes for Forbes, a business publication,and apparently he isn’t acquainted even casually with any of the roughly 10,000 corruption cases involving Blankfein’s bank.



Just for yuks, let’s fill Binswanger in on some of the ways Goldman has made its money over the years. This is just the stuff they’ve been caught for, by the way.

  • Way back in 1999, several eras of corruption ago, Goldman serially engaged in manipulation of the IPO markets, including illegal tactics like “spinning” and “laddering,” where insiders and top bank clients would be allowed to buy shares in new companies at severely discounted prices, sometimes in return for investment banking business or for promises that those insiders would jump back into the bidding later to jack up the price artificially. In a famous case involving eToys, Goldman paid a $7.5 million settlement for allowing insiders to buy shares at $20, far below the $75 shares the company traded on opening day. The secret discounts might have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars. The firm went bankrupt in short order, by the way.
  • In the infamous “Abacus” case, Goldman teamed up with a hedge-fund billionaire named John Paulson to create a born-to-lose portfolio of mortgage derviatives, which were then marketed by Goldman to a pair of sucker European banks, IKB and ABN-Amro. When the instruments crashed, Paulson made bank on bets he made against his own loser portfolio. Goldman’s peculiar role was in “renting the platform,” i.e. allowing IKB and ABN-Amro to think that neutral Goldman, not a hedge funder like Paulson massively betting against the product, had created the portfolio. Goldman only made $15 million in the deal that ended up causing over a billion in losses, meaning this wasn’t even just about money – they were just trying to curry favor with a hedge fund client out to screw a bunch of Euros.  They were fined $550 million.
  • In the even more absurd Hudson deal, Goldman unloaded a billion-plus sized chunk of toxic mortgage-backed crap on Morgan Stanley during a time when Lloyd “Mother Teresa” Blankfein was telling his minions to unload as much of the firm’s ‘cats and dogs’ as possible, ie. its soon-to-explode subprime holdings. In its marketing materials, Goldman represented to Morgan Stanley that its interests were aligned with Morgan, because Goldman owned a $6 million slice of the Hudson deal. It didn’t disclose that it had a $2 billion bet against it. Morgan Stanley, which was subsequently bailed out by taxpayers like Harry Binswanger, lost $960 million.
  • Goldman paid a fine to the SEC in 2010 after it was caught breaking rules governing short-selling on at least 385 occasions – it is currently embroiled in numerous lawsuits that similarly allege that Goldman has engaged in widespread “naked” short selling, a kind of stock counterfeiting that artificially depresses the prices of companies by flooding the market with phantom shares.
  • Earlier this year, Goldman and Chase agreed to pay a combined $557 million to settle government claims that the banks and/or their mortgage servicing arms engaged in wholesale abuses in the real estate markets, including (but not limited to) robosigning, the practice of mass-producing fictitious, perjured affidavits for the courts for the purposes of foreclosing on homeowners.
  • In what one former SEC official described to me as “an open-and-shut case of anticompetitive behavior,” Goldman took a $3 million payment from J.P. Morgan Chase to bow out of the bidding for a toxic interest rate swap deal Chase wanted to stick to the citizens of Jefferson County, Alabama. Goldman got the payment, a Chase banker joked, “for taking no risk.” Chase ended up funneling money to the County Commissioner, who signed off on a deadly deal that put the citizens of the Birmingham, Alabama area into billions of debt (and ultimately bankruptcy), in what is still considered the largest regional financial disaster in American history.
  • In 2009, a Goldman programmer named Sergey Aleynikov left his office in possession of a code that contained Goldman’s high-frequency trading algorithms. Goldman promptly called the FBI – which up until that point had done exactly zero to prevent crime on Wall Street – to help Mother Teresa’s bank recapture its valuable trading code. In court, a federal prosecutor admitted that the code Aleynikov had in his possession could, “in the wrong hands,” be used to manipulate markets. Aleynikov just pulled an eight-year sentence. Goldman, incidentally, has gone entire quarters without posting a single day of trading loss – in Q1 2010, the bank made at least $25 million every single day, somehow never once betting wrong in 63 trading days. Imagine that! What foresight! What skill! One can see how Mr. Binswanger could believe that the bank’s CEO should be exempt from income taxes.

I could go on – Goldman has been wrapped up in virtually every kind of scandal known to investment banking (and even more that they invented) and was recently at the center of a mysterious and near-catastrophic computer-trading disaster that could have caused massive social damage (more on that in a column coming soon).

The bank is also a truly courageous pioneer in the area of securing completely underserved public bailouts, including the collection of nearly $17 billion in public money for speculative trades with bailed-out AIG and the outrageous receipt of a Commercial Bank Holding Company charter in late September of 2008, allowing it to borrow billions in lifesaving money from the Federal Reserve discount window at a time when Goldman execs were already selling their beach houses for cash in anticipation of the firm’s collapse. Surely even Mr. Binswanger is able to see that Goldman is not, in fact, a commercial bank, and that giving it a commercial bank hat to wear while standing on line to the Fed’s discount window is pure welfare, as inappropriate as LeBron James collecting a federal disability check.



So even forgetting the fact that this company on a good day makes its money rigging metals prices, stage-managing IPOs to help insiders, falsifying documents, selling phony mortgages to institutional investors while betting against their own product and engaging in highly dubious high-speed proprietary trading programs that mysteriously allow the firm to pick winners every single time (Harry, they’re using cheat-algorithms to trade split-seconds ahead of the market, not “digging” legitimately as “knowledge-seekers” for inside information, which I know you think should be legal) – even all that wasn’t enough, and Goldman still would have gone out of business, had all of us parasites not been pressed into service to rescue the company with our tax dollars.

It’s hilarious that these Rand-worshipping cultist types are still blind to this basic fact a half a decade later. And my God, Mother Teresa? Would she have been a more “valuable” person if she’d managed an Applebee’s? What the hell is wrong with you people?