Daily Archive: 03/30/2011

Mar 30 2011

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”

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Are there no standards for punditry?

Last Sunday, ABC’S “This Week” turned to none other than Donald Rumsfeld, the former Bush administration defense secretary, to get his informed judgment of the mission in Libya. Last month, the journal International Finance featured former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan commenting on what is “hampering” the economic recovery.

Fox News trumped even that, trotting out retired Marine Col. Oliver North, the former Reagan security staffer who orchestrated the secret war in Nicaragua, to indict President Obama for – you can’t make this stuff up – failing to get a congressional resolution in support of the mission in Libya.

Next we’ll see a cable talk show inviting the former head of BP to tell us what it takes to do offshore drilling safely.

Susan Feiner: Assault on Public Unions an Affront to Women’s Historic Gains

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s slash-and-burn approach to public sector unions — imitated by over a dozen Republican governors across the nation — is the political equivalent of slamming women’s labor history into reverse. Right in the middle of Women’s History Month.

While women represented 57 percent of the public-sector work force at the end of the recession, women lost the vast majority–79 percent–of the 327,000 jobs cut in this sector between July 2009 and February 2011, according to a January report by the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s Law Center.

Of course these job losses–and those still to come–have a bad ripple effect, leading to even more unemployment, spreading the pain far beyond the initially affected workers.

Ruth Marcus: Obama fills in some important blanks on Libya

In his speech Monday night to a public thoroughly, and understandably, befuddled about U.S. policy in Libya, President Obama began to fill in some important blanks. The White House would dispute this assessment, but Obama’s remarks came unfortunately late. Rallying the public behind “kinetic military action,” my new favorite phrase, requires explanations sooner rather than later. This is especially true when it is a kinetic action of choice, not necessity; in the nervous aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan; and in the relentless context of a 24-7 news cycle.

And especially when the run-up to action has been so herky-jerky, with clashing messages about the wisdom and feasibility of a no-fly zone and a confusing bifurcation of means and ends. It is U.S. policy that Moammar Gaddafi should – indeed, must – go, but that is not the stated aim of the military action.

Mar 30 2011

On This Day in History March 30

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.

March 30 is the 89th day of the year (90th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 276 days remaining until the end of the year.

On this day in 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward signs a treaty with Russia for the purchase of Alaska for $7 million. Despite the bargain price of roughly two cents an acre, the Alaskan purchase was ridiculed in Congress and in the press as “Seward’s folly,” “Seward’s icebox,” and President Andrew Johnson’s “polar bear garden.”

Alaska Purchase

Russia was in a difficult financial position and feared losing Russian America without compensation in some future conflict, especially to the British, whom they had fought in the Crimean War (1853-1856). While Alaska attracted little interest at the time, the population of nearby British Columbia started to increase rapidly a few years after hostilities ended, with a large gold rush there prompting the creation of a crown colony on the mainland. The Russians therefore started to believe that in any future conflict with Britain, their hard-to-defend region might become a prime target, and would be easily captured. Therefore the Tsar decided to sell the territory. Perhaps in hopes of starting a bidding war, both the British and the Americans were approached, however the British expressed little interest in buying Alaska. The Russians in 1859 offered to sell the territory to the United States, hoping that its presence in the region would offset the plans of Russia’s greatest regional rival, Great Britain. However, no deal was brokered due to the American Civil War.

Following the Union victory in the Civil War, the Tsar then instructed the Russian minister to the United States, Eduard de Stoeckl, to re-enter into negotiations with Seward in the beginning of March 1867. The negotiations concluded after an all-night session with the signing of the treaty at 4 a.m. on March 30, 1867, with the purchase price set at $7.2 million, or about 2 cents per acre ($4.74/km2).

American public opinion was generally positive, as most editors argued that the U.S. would probably derive great economic benefits from the purchase; friendship of Russia was important; and it would facilitate the acquisition of British Columbia.

Historian Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer summarized the minority opinion of some newspaper editors who opposed the purchase:

   “Already, so it was said, we were burdened with territory we had no population to fill. The Indians within the present boundaries of the republic strained our power to govern aboriginal peoples. Could it be that we would now, with open eyes, seek to add to our difficulties by increasing the number of such peoples under our national care? The purchase price was small; the annual charges for administration, civil and military, would be yet greater, and continuing. The territory included in the proposed cession was not contiguous to the national domain. It lay away at an inconvenient and a dangerous distance. The treaty had been secretly prepared, and signed and foisted upon the country at one o’clock in the morning. It was a dark deed done in the night…. The New York World said that it was a “sucked orange.” It contained nothing of value but furbearing animals, and these had been hunted until they were nearly extinct. Except for the Aleutian Islands and a narrow strip of land extending along the southern coast the country would be not worth taking as a gift…. Unless gold were found in the country much time would elapse before it would be blessed with Hoe printing presses, Methodist chapels and a metropolitan police. It was “a frozen wilderness.

While criticized by some at the time, the financial value of the Alaska Purchase turned out to be many times greater than what the United States had paid for it. The land turned out to be rich in resources (including gold, copper, and oil).

Senate debate

When it became clear that the Senate would not debate the treaty before its adjournment on March 30, Seward persuaded President Andrew Johnson to call the Senate back into special session the next day. Many Republicans scoffed at “Seward’s folly,” although their criticism appears to have been based less on the merits of the purchase than on their hostility to President Johnson and to Seward as Johnson’s political ally. Seward mounted a vigorous campaign, however, and with support from Charles Sumner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, won approval of the treaty on April 9 by a vote of 37-2.

For more than a year, as congressional relations with President Johnson worsened, the House refused to appropriate the necessary funds. But in June 1868, after Johnson’s impeachment trial was over, Stoeckl and Seward revived the campaign for the Alaska purchase. The House finally approved the appropriation in July 1868, by a vote of 113-48.

Mar 30 2011

Getting Away With Fraud But Only If You’re A Bank

You can get away with defrauding people of possibly trillions of dollars but don’t do it if you’re a borrower or undocumented immigrant working on the banker’s estate.

The Department of Justice: Indicting Immigrants, Ignoring Wall Street Crooks

by Richard (RJ) Escow

If you’re a banker who bought your estate with the millions you made from mortgage fraud, relax. The Justice Department isn’t looking for you. But if you’re an illegal immigrant who’s working on that banker’s estate, look out. The Department of Justice is ignoring your boss and devoting most of its resources to catching you.

And the Justice Department’s “mortgage fraud” unit doesn’t prosecute bankers. It protects them.

Joe Nocera of the New York Times contrasts the legal treatment that was given to one high-flying borrower with that received by Angelo Mozilo, CEO of the fraudulent lender Countrywide. But if stories like this one are bad, the numbers are even worse.  

If you also take a qualitative look at some of the federal government’s other well-publicized mortgage fraud efforts, like its “Stop Fraud” website, the picture becomes pretty stunning — if not downright infuriating.

Mortgage Brokers Go Free While Mortgage Customer Goes to Jail

by David Dayen

Joe Nocera’s story over the weekend about a man thrown in jail for signing his name on a liar loan is a textbook example of the two-tiered system of justice in this country. On the one hand you have the banks, who systematically committed fraud on millions of loans, and for their trouble received hundreds of billions in bailout money and access to cheap money. On the other hand you have a customer, who gets taken to jail for his one loan transgression. Never mind that for many millions of customers, they didn’t even know they were lying on their loans; shady mortgage brokers falsified their records, forged their signatures and altered the terms and conditions repeatedly during the run-up of the housing bubble. And that’s possibly true of Charlie Engle as well, as Nocera illustrates.

As for the loans themselves, on one of them Mr. Engle claimed an income of $15,000 a month. As it turns out, his total income in 2005, according to his accountant, was $180,000, which amounts to … hmmm …$15,000 a month, though of course Mr. Engle didn’t have the kind of job that generated monthly income. (In addition to real estate speculation, Mr. Engle gave motivational speeches and earned around $50,000 a year as a producer on the hit show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”)

   The monthly income listed on the second loan was $32,500, an obviously absurd amount, especially since the loan itself was for only $300,000. It was a refinance of a property Mr. Engle already owned, allowing him to pull out $80,000 of the $215,000 in equity he had in the property.

   Mr. Engle claims that he never saw that $32,500 claim and never signed the papers. Indeed, a handwriting analysis conducted by the government raised the distinct possibility that Mr. Engle’s signature and his initials in several places in the mortgage documents had been forged. As it happens, Mr. Engle’s broker for that loan, John J. Hellman, recently pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud for playing fast and loose with a number of mortgage applications. Mr. Hellman testified in court that Mr. Engle had signed the mortgage application. Early this week, Mr. Hellman received a reduced sentence of 10 months, less than half of Mr. Engle’s sentence, in no small part because of his willingness to testify against Mr. Engle.

The specifics of the case are quite disturbing – the IRS man with an axe to grind, the confused jury – but the general impression is perhaps worse. A loan is a contract between two people. When that loan is fraudulent, to the extent that the fraud is willingly entered into by both parties, they should in any reasonable world share the blame. But not only did Engle suffer disproportionately by losing all his equity when the bubble popped, he lost his personal freedom in a crime that his mortgage lender was all too happy to facilitate and may have even perpetrated.

This is the Obama administration Justice Department at work. Meanwhile the banksters are now trying to keep this all out of court:

Are Banks Scheming to Gut the Role of the Courts in Foreclosures?

by Yves Smith

I may be overreacting but given the sorry behavior of banks throughout the crisis and its aftermath, better to be vigilant than sorry.

The Wall Street Journal provided a very sketchy summary of the counterproposal that the banks will put on the table in the foreclosure fraud settlements this week:

   The 15-page bank proposal, dubbed the Draft Alternative Uniform Servicing Standards, includes time lines for processing modifications, a third-party review of foreclosures and a single point of contact for financially troubled borrowers. It also outlines a so-called “borrower portal” that would allow customers to check the status of their loan modifications online.

   But the document doesn’t include any discussion of principal reductions. Nor does it include a potential amount banks could pay for borrower relief or penalties.

This seems innocuous, right?

Think twice. It depends on what they mean by “third party review of foreclosures”. I strongly suspect that the intent is to pull as many contested foreclosures as possible out of the court process, particularly those that involve chain of title issues, since enough adverse rulings have the potential to blow up the entire mortgage industrial complex.

Yup, getting away with fraud unless you’ve already lost your shirt or you have no papers and work for a banker. You rock, Mr. Rule of Law.

Mar 30 2011

P. J. Crowey: Manning’s Treatment Is Stupid, Still

Recently, US State Department spokesperson, P.J. Crowley was forced to tender his resignation becuase he had the audacity to call the inhumane treatment of PFC. Bradley Manning “ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid”. He is now defending that statement and explaining how Manning’s treatment undermines our own strategic narrative, as his piece in the Guardian explains:

The US should uphold the highest standards towards its citizens, including the WikiLeaks accused. I stand by what I said

   But I understood why the question was asked. Private Manning’s family, joined by a number of human rights organisations, has  questioned the extremely restrictive conditions he has experienced at the brig at Marine Corps base Quantico, Virginia. I focused on the fact that he was forced to sleep naked, which led to a circumstance where he stood naked for morning call.

   Based on 30 years of government experience, if you have to explain why a guy is standing naked in the middle of a jail cell, you have a policy in need of urgent review. The Pentagon was quick to point out that no women were present when he did so, which is completely beside the point.

   Our strategic narrative connects our policies to our interests, values and aspirations. While what we do, day in and day out, is broadly consistent with the universal principles we espouse, individual actions can become disconnected. Every once in a while, even a top-notch symphony strikes a discordant note. So it is in this instance.

   The Pentagon has said that it is playing the Manning case by the book. The book tells us what actions we can take, but not always what we should do. Actions can be legal and still not smart. With the Manning case unfolding in a fishbowl-like environment, going strictly by the book is not good enough. Private Manning’s overly restrictive and even petty treatment undermines what is otherwise a strong legal and ethical position.

   When the United States leads by example, we are not trying to win a popularity contest. Rather, we are pursuing our long-term strategic interest. The United States cannot expect others to meet international standards if we are seen as falling short. Differences become strategic when magnified through the lens of today’s relentless 24/7 global media environment.

   So, when I was asked about the “elephant in the room,” I said the treatment of Private Manning, while well-intentioned, was “ridiculous” and “counterproductive” and, yes, “stupid”.

   I stand by what I said. The United States should set the global standard for treatment of its citizens – and then exceed it. It is what the world expects of us. It is what we should expect of ourselves.

Today, Crowley appeared on the Dylan Ratigan Shoiw and reiterated what he said in his article but hemmed and hawed when Ratigan asked him about a similar leak about classified information to the press.

Mr. Crowley, if we are going to vigorously prosecute Bradley Manning for releasing documents that even the Vice President has said have done no harm. why aren’t you supporting the ferreting out of this other “leaker”? What is the difference if information is given to the press or Wikileaks? The US can hardly be an arbiter of human rights and the rule of law when it can’t apply either to even its own citizens.

Mar 30 2011

DocuDharma Digest

Regular Features-

Featured Essays for March 29, 2011-

DocuDharma

Mar 30 2011

from firefly-dreaming 29.3.11

Essays Featured Tuesday the 29th of March:

Late Night Karaoke looks Behind Blue Eyes, mishima DJs

Six Brilliant Articles! from Six Different Places!! on Six Different Topics!!!

                Six Days a Week!!!    at Six in the Morning!!!!

In Tuesday Open Thoughts puzzled ponders on too many house-guests & introverts  

TheMomCat highlights the fact that Federal Medical Marijuana Policy Needs Clarity

Gha!

In Book Nook, a bi-weekly series, Xanthe gives a review of Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell

Afternoon music from Timbuk3: The 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time!

Tonight #94

Mar 30 2011

A China Syndrome?

Wikipedia

The term “China Syndrome” refers to a possible result of a catastrophic meltdown of a nuclear reactor. Also called a loss of coolant accident, the scenario begins when something causes the coolant level in a reactor vessel to drop, uncovering part-or all-of the fuel element assemblies. Even if the nuclear chain reaction has been stopped through use of control rods or other devices, the fuel continues to produce significant residual heat for a number of days due to further decay of fission products. If not properly cooled, the fuel assemblies may soften and melt, falling to the bottom of the reactor vessel. There, without neutron-absorbing control rods to prevent it, nuclear fission could resume but, in the absence of a neutron moderator, might not. Regardless, without adequate cooling, the temperature of the molten fuel could increase to the point where it melts through the structures containing it. Although many feel the radioactive slag would stop at or before the the underlying soil, such a series of events could release radioactive material into the atmosphere and ground, potentially causing damage to the local environment’s plant and animal life.

Some have less than seriously called this- ‘burning a hole all the way to China’ hence the name, but in fact it would probably go no farther than the mantle which is already kind of molten and radioactive or at worst the core of the Earth which is considerably molten and radioactive.  Even in the absence of drag the Second Law of Thermodynamics would mitigate against it fully overcoming the force of Gravity and emerging on the other side, though you might want to buy some thick soled boots to be sure.

Of course they’re quite serious about that “release radioactive material into the atmosphere and ground, potentially causing damage to the local environment’s plant and animal life” thing.

Compare the above description with this-

Japan may have lost race to save nuclear reactor

Ian Sample, science correspondent, guardian.co.uk

Tuesday 29 March 2011 16.53 BST

Fukushima meltdown fears rise after radioactive core melts through vessel – but ‘no danger of Chernobyl-style catastrophe’

The radioactive core in a reactor at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant appears to have melted through the bottom of its containment vessel and on to a concrete floor, experts say, raising fears of a major release of radiation at the site.



At least part of the molten core, which includes melted fuel rods and zirconium alloy cladding, seemed to have sunk through the steel “lower head” of the pressure vessel around reactor two, Lahey said.

“The indications we have, from the reactor to radiation readings and the materials they are seeing, suggest that the core has melted through the bottom of the pressure vessel in unit two, and at least some of it is down on the floor of the drywell,” Lahey said. “I hope I am wrong, but that is certainly what the evidence is pointing towards.”

And about that radiation thing-

Radiation from Japan found in Concord snow

By DAVID BROOKS, Staff Writer, Nashua Telegraph

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Radiation from the Japanese nuclear power plant leak has been found in snow in Concord at levels roughly similar to that found last week in Massachusetts rainwater – a level that officials say is 25 times below the level of concern even if found in water that people drink.

(h/t John Aravosis @ Americablog)