Democracy Gone Astray

Democracy, being a human construct, needs to be thought of as directionality rather than an object. As such, to understand it requires not so much a description of existing structures and/or other related phenomena but a declaration of intentionality.
This blog aims at creating labeled lists of published infringements of such intentionality, of points in time where democracy strays from its intended directionality. In addition to outright infringements, this blog also collects important contemporary information and/or discussions that impact our socio-political landscape.

All the posts here were published in the electronic media – main-stream as well as fringe, and maintain links to the original texts.

[NOTE: Due to changes I haven't caught on time in the blogging software, all of the 'Original Article' links were nullified between September 11, 2012 and December 11, 2012. My apologies.]

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Minimum Wage, Overtime Laws Due For Reform: Republicans

In a Congressional hearing Thursday, Republican lawmakers indicated a willingness to reform the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the bedrock Depression-era statute that established a minimum wage and time-and-a-half overtime for American workers.

Although he proffered no prescription for reform, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), who chairs the House education and workforce committee, called the hearing to explore whether the fair labor law is "meeting the needs of the 21st century." Invited to testify by the Republican majority were two business executives and a lawyer who said the statute has become too onerous for contemporary employers, leading to an explosion of costly lawsuits brought by workers.

"The law was a significant expansion of the government’s authority when it was created in the midst of the Great Depression," Walberg said. "Good intentions can often lead to unintended consequences. It is hard to imagine a law intended for the workforce known to Henry Ford can serve the needs of a workplace shaped by the innovations of Bill Gates."

At issue is who's exempt and who's non-exempt from the fair labor law. Non-exempt employees are protected by its provisions, which guarantee at least the federal minimum wage and time-and-a-half for any hours worked in excess of 40. Exempt employees, most of whom are salaried and tend to work in white-collar capacities, are not protected by the law and can be asked to work overtime without compensation.

Non-exempt employees who feel they've been cheated out of pay can sue their employers. Companies large and small -- from Wal-Mart to small family restaurants -- often wind up in court, usually settling the minimum wage and overtime claims for a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. But Republican witnesses pointed to large-scale, million-dollar settlements as an indication that lawyers and workers are taking undue advantage of the law.

J. Randall McDonald, a senior vice president at IBM, said the statute needs updating, suggesting that some workers who are currently covered by the law shouldn’t be. "How do you define some of the work now being done that the law didn’t anticipate?" he asked. "Our ability to use technology has dramatically changed the workplace."

Aaron Albright, a spokesman for Democratic committee members, said Republicans are essentially trying to "roll back" the statute so that fewer workers can receive overtime pay.

"What's the purpose for the tinkering? It's basically to reclassify workers so that they're not eligible for overtime or minimum wage," Albright told HuffPost. "The proposition is workers are making too much money, and that's probably a surprise to workers who haven’t seen a raise in quite a while. This is about large corporations increasing their bottom lines."

In a telling exchange at the hearing, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) asked each of the witnesses the same question: Should the federal minimum wage of $7.25 be raised, lowered, or kept the same?

"I don't understand the nature of the question," McDonald responded. The two other Republican witnesses also dodged the question.

Only Judy Conti, the federal advocacy director for the National Employment Law Project, gave Kucinich a firm answer, saying the minimum wage is due for a raise.

"I want to thank our witnesses for being here," Kucinich said to those sitting alongside Conti. "Your presence here proves what's wrong" with this country.

Source: Huffington 

Missouri Abortion Bill To Become Law

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri doctors and hospitals will face new restrictions and penalties for performing late-term abortions after Gov. Jay Nixon announced Thursday that he would let legislation backed by anti-abortion groups take effect without his signature.

The law is part of a trend among states to limit abortions past the point when a fetus may be able to live outside the womb. Missouri's proposal leaves it to doctors to determine viability on a case-by-case basis, unlike new laws in several other states that bar most abortions after 20 weeks.

Nixon, a Democrat, cited a section of the Missouri Constitution that allows bills to become law if not signed or vetoed by the governor within 45 days after the Legislature adjourns. Thursday was the deadline for him to take action.

"This legislation was approved by an overwhelming, bipartisan majority in both houses," Nixon said in a brief written statement.

At a signing ceremony in Kansas City for unrelated legislation, Nixon told reporters that abortion "is a public policy obviously that's talked about in Missouri tremendously, and I've tried to – you know – make sure that we are sensitive to all sides of the issue."

This marks the second straight year that Nixon has allowed an anti-abortion bill to become law without his signature as he attempts to walk a political tightrope by neither directly supporting nor opposing the measures. His decision prompted praise from some anti-abortion activists and disappointment among abortion-rights backers.

Since 1974, Missouri law has prohibited aborting viable fetuses unless necessary to preserve the life or health of the woman. The new law will delete that general health exception effective Aug. 28. Instead it will allow such abortions only to save the woman's life or when the pregnancy poses a serious risk of permanent physical harm to a major bodily function.

The effect could be to eliminate a woman's mental health as a justifiable reason for a late-term abortion – a change which some abortion-rights advocates say could run afoul of previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Missouri is among 31 states that currently have a general health and life exception to their bans on late-term abortions, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. With its new law, Missouri will join Idaho, Indiana, Kansas and Nebraska as now granting exceptions only for a woman's physical health or life.

"It is an effort to try to restrict abortion as much as possible, and one way we are seeing this play out is by narrowing these health exceptions," said Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst for the institute.

Under Missouri's new law, doctors who abort a viable fetus when a woman does not qualify for an exception could face prison sentences of up to seven years, fines up to $50,000 and the loss of their medical licenses. Hospitals and surgical centers allowing such abortions also could lose their state licenses.

But those penalties may seldom come into play. The state health department says just 63 of the 6,881 abortions recorded in Missouri in 2009 were on fetuses at least 21 weeks old, and none were reported as being viable. Figures were not available for 2010.

Some anti-abortion lawmakers and activists have questioned the veracity of those figures, suggesting that it is in the best interest of abortion providers not to report that a late-term abortion was conducted on a viable fetus.

Missouri law already requires doctors to determine the viability of a fetus when a woman is at least 20 weeks pregnant and requires that a second physician be present for abortions of viable fetuses. The new law will require that a second physician concur the abortion is necessary to preserve the life of the woman or prevent permanent harm to one of her major bodily functions.

The result is "it will save babies and it will protect women from the effects of late-term abortions," said Susan Klein, a lobbyist for Missouri Right to Life. "When you're five months into pregnancy – at this point and time – you could feasibly save the life of the baby and save the life of the mother."

Some abortion rights groups had called upon Nixon to veto the bill.

Under the new late-term abortion law, "Missouri's emergency exception is one of the narrowest in the country – it's basically your kidneys are going to fail or you're going to die," said Pamela Sumners, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri.

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

Deconstructing STIR: Vancouver's tax-cuts-for-developers housing strategy

Many Vancouverites are wondering what the city is doing to make Vancouver affordable and therefore liveable. Unfortunately, the city's main affordable housing initiative over the past two years has produced no new affordable housing.

Under the guise of a program supposed to "address the issue of rental and affordable housing supply in Vancouver," the city has handed tens of millions of dollars over to real-estate developers through tax breaks in order to 'incentivize' unaffordable market rental development. It is but one an example of Vision Vancouver's neoliberal approach to fiscal policy, pushing aside the interests of residents for those of big business.

The policy in question is called the Short Term Incentives for Rental (STIR). It was adopted in June of 2009 with limited public discussion or consultation. Some residents have been fighting it ever since.

When developers participate in the STIR program, the city exempts them from paying regular development taxes. Furthermore, the city allows the developer to rezone the property to allow higher more dense residential development, thereby greatly increasing the property's value. In exchange for this, the only thing the developer is obliged to do is build for-profit rental housing. There are no caps set on the rent that can be charged, and therefore no assurances that the rental will benefit those who need it most.

The idea of creating a tax incentive to stimulate real-estate development is not new. On the federal level, Canada used to provide tax incentives for rental construction through a special tax designation, known as 'Multiple Unit Residential Buildings' (MURBs). It allowed real-estate developers to claim the entire depreciation of their buildings at the start of construction as a non-taxable expense. The program was ended in 1981. While developers were quick to take in the tax cuts through the program, only 20 per cent of the projects were actually being finished.

Around the same time, tax incentives were proposed in Vancouver to increase the affordable housing stock. The existing Housing Planner Ann McAfee was quick to point out, however, that it was "easy to make a case to reinstate tax incentives for new rental housing. Easy, that is, if you don't ask who is helped and who is not." She went on, "there is considerable evidence to suggest that if the objective is to provide affordable housing to the average renter, we should target the subsidies directly to the renter through shelter allowances, and build non-profit housing." Because of her objections, as well as others, a tax incentive program was avoided.

When STIR was passed by Vancouver City Council on June 18, 2009, the question of "who is helped and who is not" was studiously ignored by the ruling Vision party. That the STIR program results in foregone income for the city, entrenching the regime of austerity at city hall, was not discussed. In fact, very little was discussed. The policy was presented to council as a late-distribution report (which means the public was not given the normal two weeks notice to prepare and organize for or against). Attempts by Councillor Ellen Woodsworth to postpone the meeting were shot down by Vision. As has been pointed out by others at the council meeting, Councillor Geoff Meggs put up the argument that "the consultation was the election," and that any further discussion wasn't warranted, despite the fact that members of the public had only been introduced to STIR a few short days beforehand, long after the elections. Councillors Woodsworth and Anton voted against the proposal, with Councillor Cadman absent. Vision, voting as a bloc, were in favour.

According to Vision, STIR was a response to the "short-term economic recession" of 2008. The housing collapse of that year, however, was in fact spawned by the same deregulation of the housing market proposed under STIR. Further, Olympics boosterism and a rock-bottom tax rate kept condo construction up throughout the Lower Mainland despite the U.S.-led recession.

If STIR does not produce affordable housing, why was it implemented? The main reason is that Vision Vancouver, elected in 2008 to a fanfare of environmentalism and 'progressiveness', needed to start paying back the business elite and real-estate developers that financed their campaign. The 2008 civic elections were the most expensive in Vancouver's history, made possible by donations from unions, big-business, and most significantly, real estate developers.

An understanding of STIR requires a brief look at real-estate economics and an introduction to how City Council regulates development in the City.

Urban residential real-estate is a unique type of market. New land cannot be produced, but multiple homes can be built on the same piece of land. In general, property values in a city rise and fall together. Individual properties increase relative to others when the potential profitability of development on the site increases. Profits for developers do come from the purchasing and reselling of capital in the traditional sense, but also come from general increases in the value of the land.

Upzoning, which increases density and/or height on a site, increases the value of land holdings. Construction of amenities, such as pools, libraries, and community centres, also increases the value of land. The important thing is that both of these are regulated by city government; the developer doesn't have to do anything to earn these increases in value. Because it would be unfair and corrupt to give developers money for doing nothing at the expense of the citizenry, these increases in value are supposed to be taxed. In other words, the city has the direct ability to increase the value of land, which is why developer contributions to municipal political parties amount to a daunting conflict of interest.

Taxing the increases in the value of land is a major source of revenue for the city, amounting to tens of millions of dollars annually. This money is most often used for amenities, such as social housing and libraries, which the city needs to accommodate the increase in density. These taxes also control the type and amount of real-estate that is built. Foregoing these taxes turns real-estate into a free-market. It also means money that would go to the city is kept by developers. Decreasing taxes hasn't led to more affordability, but it has drastically increased profits for developers, and decreased the city's income. While the city has no shortage of potential revenues with which to build social housing or expand its housing subsidies, it gives money away to the largest corporations and claims it can't afford to solve the housing crisis.

To give an example of the type of housing and sums of money at stake with STIR, we can look at the recent rezoning of 1650 Quebec, at the base of Main Street near Science World. A 376 sq ft studio renting for $825 ($2.2 per square foot) qualifies as "affordable" under the STIR rubric (page 8 here). Other projects are even more unaffordable. STIR rental units in the recently approved development at 1142 Granville go for $3 per square foot. A 320 sq ft studio rents at an astronomical $960 a month. STIR places no cap on the amount of rent that can be charged on the units built through the program. These rent rates pass as affordable because of the city's perverted, legal definition of affordable housing:

For the purpose of this initiative, "for-profit affordable rental housing" is to mean "three or more dwelling units designated for new rental housing subject to the provision of a legal agreement between the City and property owner to secure the rental housing units."

The universally adopted definition of affordability is: one third of the inhabitant's income. These units are not affordable. We do not need more luxury housing in Vancouver. One in seven Vancouverites spend more than 50 per cent of their income on housing. One in three residents spends more than 30 per cent on housing. Despite all claims, the STIR program is not designed to build affordable housing. It is designed to take money from the public and give it to Vancouver's wealthiest class.

Taxation at the City level is regulated by the Vancouver Charter. In addition to property taxes, the City taxes new developments. The two most significant such taxes are Development Cost Levies (DCLs) and Community Amenity Contributions (CACs). DCLs are taxes payed on the square foot of development. For most developments larger than a detached home and all commercial developments, the current city-wide rate is $10.42 per square foot, but can vary by neighbourhood. CACs are amenities, such as libraries, pools, daycares, parks, etc. that are built by the developer. An example of CACs can be seen at 1 Kingsway, which is the new Mount Pleasant Community Centre. In that case, the developer payed for the city-owned daycare facilities in exchange for additional density above the previously allowed zoning limits.

Through the STIR program, the city waives a portion of the Developmental Cost Levies and Community Amenity Contributions proportionate to the amount of market rental units included in a project. When the developer wants additional density, which usually means a higher tower (with better views and therefore more expensive suites), they propose adding STIR to their project and ask the city for a rezoning.

Returning to our previous examples: at 1142 Granville Street, the city waived and estimated $638,000 in DCLs. The development will have 106 units that are about 320 square foot, which will rent at $960 per month. That is a subsidization of over $6000 per non-affordable unit. At 1650 Quebec, the City waived DCLs of $1.5 million dollars for 91 units, a subsidization of almost $17,000 per unit. There have been dozens of these projects throughout the City.

Providing tax incentives to developers isn't working and can never work in Vancouver because traditional 'supply and demand' theory does not explain Vancouver's real-estate market. In theory, prices are pushed downwards through a competitive market structure. However, there are very few real-estate developers with sufficient capital to plan large developments of the type for which STIR was designed. These developers set the price and pace of housing construction, based on maximizing profitability. It is in their interest to slowly release the land holdings, keeping the price high. They act as a oligopoly, and display characteristics of a cartel. Buildings that cost the same amount to build as they did ten years ago (or less, through STIR), are being sold at two to three times the price. Adding to developers' profits with a tax incentive does nothing, since together they act as a monopoly and will produce the supply that maximizes profit, as opposed to producing where the marginal revenue from building equals to the marginal cost (as in a competitive market).

Part of the increase in housing prices has been caused by speculation and the purchase of secondary homes. Because of the huge disparity in wealth in Vancouver, some owners are able to buy many units while the majority of residents can't even dream of buying their own home. Most new condos in the city are not part of the STIR program, but are being rented out anyway. In Council on June 16, Anton remarked that after speaking to some of her "developer friends," she had been led to believe that 30 to 40 per cent of new condominiums built are being rented out anyways. If this is true, it renders the STIR program irrelevant. City council has the ability to regulate the use of land through taxes and zoning bylaws. The market for development is managed with these controls, but our current council has all but abandoned those tools. Through STIR, Vancouver real-estate has been pushed closer to a free market, which has caused home prices and developer profits to surge.

Leading up to implementation of the STIR program, affordability was maintained by building social housing, funded partially through the Development Cost Levies that are now foregone. While city council, led by Vision Vancouver, has argued it is not their responsibility to build public housing, we are far behind other cities. 41 per cent of the public housing in Toronto is owned by the city and not the provincial or federal government. The STIR program explicitly (page 3) places the priority of new, for-profit rental housing above the building of social housing.

So far, despite the fact that the NPA's campaign has seemingly moved into full swing, there has been no discussion of housing. Affordability has been, poll after poll, the number one priority for residents. The NPA has been uncritical of STIR because, as with Vision, they are a neoliberal, pro-developer party. Their backers benefit from the STIR program. The number one priority of residents will stand unaddressed as long as either of these two parties maintain a majority.


Southwestern U.S. headed for a ‘perpetual drought’

A 160-kilometre wide dust storm, corn shrivelling in Georgia fields and Texas blackouts are all harbingers of an unstoppable force geophysicists call “perpetual drought.”

At least the terrible Dust Bowl years of the 1930s in North America ended, Dr. Richard Seager told the Toronto Star on Thursday. This one won’t.

The U.S. Drought Monitor computer tracking tags the parched conditions in Texas and Oklahoma as an extraordinary drought, with the rest of the stretch from Arizona to Florida not much better.

Losses in Texas alone, to cattle and wheat, could reach $3 billion U.S., state officials said. Rainfall in Oklahoma is 28 per cent of normal.

In parts of Arizona, it’s half of what it should be. The July 5 dust storm, the worst in 30 years, shut down Phoenix Sky Harbour International Airport and coated the city in a crust of dirt.

All 254 counties of Texas have been declared natural disaster areas. In some place, salt buildup on power lines not swept away by rain has caused blackouts.

“The current drought has been running for less than a year,” said Seager of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The cyclical arrival of the La NiƱa weather pattern brought it and will eventually move on.

But more ominous and catastrophic is the permanent spike in temperatures that is making southwestern North American too feeble to bounce back.

“Beyond the year-to-year variability, the entire region from California to the southern plains is getting dryer. It may not be more severe than what we have now, but it will be more persistent,” Seager said.

By the middle of this century, he said, the drought state of the southern United States will be permanent.

Full Article
Source: Toronto Star 

ALEC Exposed

“Never has the time been so right,” Louisiana State Representative Noble Ellington told conservative legislators gathered in Washington to plan the radical remaking of policies in the states. It was one month after the 2010 midterm elections. Republicans had grabbed 680 legislative seats and secured a power trifecta—control of both legislative chambers and the governorship—in twenty-one states. Ellington was speaking for hundreds of attendees at a “States and Nation Policy Summit,” featuring GOP stars like Texas Governor Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Convened by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—“the nation’s largest, non-partisan, individual public-private membership association of state legislators,” as the spin-savvy group describes itself—the meeting did not intend to draw up an agenda for the upcoming legislative session. That had already been done by ALEC’s elite task forces of lawmakers and corporate representatives. The new legislators were there to grab their weapons: carefully crafted model bills seeking to impose a one-size-fits-all agenda on the states.

Founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich and other conservative activists frustrated by recent electoral setbacks, ALEC is a critical arm of the right-wing network of policy shops that, with infusions of corporate cash, has evolved to shape American politics. Inspired by Milton Friedman’s call for conservatives to “develop alternatives to existing policies [and] keep them alive and available,” ALEC’s model legislation reflects long-term goals: downsizing government, removing regulations on corporations and making it harder to hold the economically and politically powerful to account. Corporate donors retain veto power over the language, which is developed by the secretive task forces. The task forces cover issues from education to health policy. ALEC’s priorities for the 2011 session included bills to privatize education, break unions, deregulate major industries, pass voter ID laws and more. In states across the country they succeeded, with stacks of new laws signed by GOP governors like Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, both ALEC alums.

The details of ALEC’s model bills have been available only to the group’s 2,000 legislative and 300 corporate members. But thanks to a leak to Aliya Rahman, an Ohio-based activist who helped organize protests at ALEC’s Spring Task Force meeting in Cincinnati, The Nation has obtained more than 800 documents representing decades of model legislation. Teaming up with the Center for Media and Democracy, The Nation asked policy experts to analyze this never-before-seen archive.

The articles that follow are the first products of that examination. They provide an inside view of the priorities of ALEC’s corporate board and billionaire benefactors (including Tea Party funders Charles and David Koch). “Dozens of corporations are investing millions of dollars a year to write business-friendly legislation that is being made into law in statehouses coast to coast, with no regard for the public interest,” says Bob Edgar of Common Cause. “This is proof positive of the depth and scope of the corporate reach into our democratic processes.” The full archive of ALEC documents is available at a new website,, thanks to the Center for Media and Democracy, which has provided powerful tools for progressives to turn this knowledge into power. The data tell us that the time has come to refocus on the battle to loosen the grip of corporate America and renew democracy in the states.

Full Article
Source: The Nation 

The Boehner Illusion

When important politicians find themselves in a vulnerable position, they often respond by pretending that what appears to be weakness is, in fact, part of some sophisticated strategy that is underappreciated and actually quite brilliant. House Speaker John Boehner was able to keep up this ruse for the first six months of his speakership. But on Saturday, everything abruptly fell apart when his own party turned on him and aborted the historic $4 trillion deficit-reduction deal he was negotiating with President Obama.

Given the Republicans' path back to power, Boehner was always an unlikely leader. His weakness derives from his being a 20-year veteran of Washington who happened to be next in line for the speakership when last fall's Tea Party uprising delivered the House of Representatives to the Republicans. Boehner, the consummate insider, became speaker thanks to a bunch of militant outsiders. Power doesn't get more fragile than that.

But Boehner himself never conceded this. Instead, he laid out an elaborate theory of governance whereby he would end the recent House tradition of iron-fisted rule, employed by both Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert (really Majority Leader Tom DeLay), and delegate power from the speaker's office to the committees, freshly stocked with new ideologues. He presented this as the act of a true conservative instinctively inclined toward decentralizing power, and a sign of his allegiance to the cause. But all this was simply an attempt to put a noble polish on an act of appeasement necessary to maintain his precarious perch.

Nor did he stop there. He made a series of elaborate deferrals to junior Republicans who could easily have been steamrolled, and he sacrificed with apparent willingness high-profile projects that are a speaker's prerogative. Earlier this year, for example, he let freshman budget hawks kill off the multibillion-dollar alternative engine program for the F-35 jet fighter that was bringing jobs and money to his Cincinnati district. And though he must have understood how it could damage his party, he allowed his Budget Committee chairman, Paul Ryan, to introduce a radical agenda, including a plan to privatize Medicare, that passed the House in April.

And all this was in the service of his larger strategy, which went like this: by deferring to Tea Party freshmen and other hardcore conservatives on countless issues of process and policy, he would gradually win their trust so that when he truly needed them to do difficult things like raise the debt ceiling, he would have their support. A cover story in National Journal last month perfectly captured this vision: "A Different Kind of Speaker: How John Boehner is giving up power to gain power.''

But that illusion was only workable so long as it wasn't put to too hard a test. In April, he narrowly skirted a government shutdown and, after extracting $40 billion in concessions from the White House, appeared to have emerged intact. But these concessions turned out to be less than advertised, which left many members of his caucus feeling betrayed - and therefore less, not more, inclined to submit on the debt ceiling.

Boehner did what he could to protect his right flank, assigning Eric Cantor, his majority leader and possible Brutus-in-waiting, to negotiate a debt increase with the White House. But Cantor quit those talks last week, which thrust Boehner into the role of lead negotiator and finally exposed his true weakness.

The strategy failed. The pity of it is that although Boehner was derided as weak for breaching the latest right-wing orthodoxy and considering revenue increases (something most Republicans understand is necessary, but few admit for reasons now obvious), his $4 trillion deal with Obama would have cut spending far more than any current alternative. It also would have reformed entitlements like Medicare and Social Security that conservatives rail against, but dare not touch for fear of a backlash. Boehner would have bought cover from the Democrats at a bargain price. What he proposed - and what his party killed - would have done more to advance conservative objectives than anything that will now be considered.

Boehner, in other words, had the judgment, but not the power, that a speaker requires. And the irony now lost amid the clamor of his failure is that it was he, and not the Tea Party, who has proved to be the true radical.

Full Article
Source: The Atlantic 

How AEI Kneecapped the Financial Crisis Commission

When it came time for the bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission to unveil its final report on the causes of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, the commission's 11 members were bitterly divided. In the end, the FCIC's Republicans refused to put their names on the commission's final report. Instead, they released their own questionable narrative of what caused the crisis. Then there was Republican commissioner Peter Wallison, who broke with both Democrats and Republicans and published a solo report that, despite bundles of evidence to the contrary, pointed to government housing policy and fallen housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as the major causes of the financial crisis.

On the front page of his dissent Wallison listed his employer: the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an influential conservative think tank in Washington, DC, where he's a fellow in financial policy.
By claiming Fannie and Freddie triggered the crisis, Wallison had deployed a talking point straight out of the AEI playbook. Now, in a damning new report, the House oversight committee reveals that the ties between the FCIC's Republicans and AEI run much deeper than suspected—and that the influence of AEI-affiliated commissioners may have undermined the commission's work.

The House report, written by the committee's Democratic staff, resulted, ironically, from a prior investigation by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), then the committee's ranking member. That probe turned up more than 400,000 records related to the work of the commission's Democratic and Republican commissioners and staffs. (Issa is now the chairman of the oversight committee.) Issa alleged that the FCIC's Democrats and their staffs had mismanaged the commission's $8 million appropriation (it received an additional $1.8 million in July 2010) and had "extensive ties" to "partisan Democrat politics" that would skew the FCIC's final report on the causes of the crisis.

The opposite appears to be true. "The documents raise significant new questions about whether Republican Commissioners geared their efforts on the Commission toward helping House Republicans in their campaign to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act, rather than determining the facts that led to the economic crisis," the report says. It gives a clearer picture of the behind-the-scenes machinations of what many saw as a failed commission. And the Republican commissioners highlighted by the House report used their AEI ties to not only undermine the FCIC's work but also skirt ethics rules designed to protect the integrity of the taxpayer-funded group.

Phil Angelides, the Democrat who chaired the FCIC, says the new allegations do not undermine the findings or credibility of the FCIC's final report. But he added that certain Republican commissioners' partisanship was evident throughout the process. "The Republicans made their appointments and their affiliations were clear," he says. "I think what we learned today was there was a deliberate partisan effort to undermine the report, and to protect Wall Street."

The Dems' report zeroes in on Wallison in particular, noting that he pushed his fellow GOP commissioners to use their position on the FCIC to repeal the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which Obama signed into law in July 2010. (The FCIC was still crafting its final report at that point.)

In a November 3, 2010, email, Wallison wrote to fellow GOP commissioner Douglas Holtz-Eakin, "It’s very important, I think, that what we say in our separate statements not undermine the ability of the new House GOP to modify or repeal Dodd-Frank." The following day, Wallison sent an email to FCIC vice chairman Bill Thomas, to which he attached an news story titled, "GOP Pledges Major Changes to Dodd-Frank, Fannie and Freddie, CFPB." In that email Wallison wrote, "[Rep. Scott Garrett] has also suggested in the past a complete repeal of Dodd-Frank. This effort should not be undermined. That law will suppress economic growth because it was based on the idea that more regulation was necessary. [Soon-to-be Speaker of the House John] Boehner also said yesterday that changing this law was a priority."

That private lobbying against Dodd-Frank was on display in Wallison's dissent to the FCIC's main report on the crisis. He wrote that the Dodd-Frank bill "was legislative overreach and unnecessary."
Wallison, the House oversight report states, violated FCIC ethics rules by leaking confidential committee documents on multiple occasions to Ed Pinto, a former Fannie Mae official who now works at AEI. The FCIC's general counsel later found that Wallison had, in fact, violated ethics guidelines by leaking the information to Pinto. (Wallison did not respond to a request for comment.)

While on the commission, Wallison's cozy ties with AEI and insistence on peddling the think tank's debunked view that Fannie and Freddie triggered the financial crisis worried both Democratic and Republican members of the commission, the new report says. A special assistant to GOP commissioner Thomas, who called Wallison "intractable," wrote of Wallison and AEI's Pinto, "I can't tell re: who is the leader and who is the follower. If Peter is really a parrot for Pinto, he's putting a lot of faith in the guy."

Other commissioners also questioned Wallison's Fannie-Freddie theory. "I continue to think that Peter overplays the mortgage issue," wrote Republican commissioner Holtz-Eakin. FCIC chairman Phil Angelides, a Democrat, emailed Wallison to say that the commission had considered his position and found it "flawed." Angelides hinted at Wallison's intransigence, writing that the commission's staff "has spent more time responding to your questions and requests for information than any other Commissioner."

The committee report also found that Republican vice chairman Thomas gave internal FCIC documents to Alex Brill, a research fellow at AEI. (Thomas did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Brill is also the CEO of an outside political consulting group. Brill, who was not on the commission's staff, was given drafts of FCIC memos, internal information about upcoming FCIC investigations, and "information about how the Commission staff would treat specific corporations under investigation (such as Citigroup)."

Full Article
Source: Mother Jones 

Canada looking at building military bases in Arctic

OTTAWA—It is costly to operate in the vast and inhospitable Arctic. But the Canadian military is exploring a way to cut costs and speed up the movement of troops and equipment by building several new northern bases.

Along the way it could help to strengthen the country's Arctic sovereignty claims by placing additional boots on the tundra throughout the year.

The plan, sketched out in a study that was commissioned by the force's operational support command, is a variation of the one put in place for overseas operations.

Barebones transportation hubs — essentially a suitable landing strip and storage facility — at strategic spots around the globe make it more efficient when soldiers are called out to a global hot spot in a pinch.

Just this week, Defence Minister Peter MacKay was in Kuwait to announce an agreement to use the country as a transit point for equipment coming out of combat in Kandahar and making the long journey home to Canada.

The military is looking at a domestic variant of those overseas hubs.

The plan could result in remote bases and a small-but-permanent military presence in far-off communities.

Locations could include Alert, Inuvik, Whitehorse, Rankin Inlet, Iqaluit or Nanisivik, according to the technical memorandum prepared by the research wing of the military last year.

The Canadian Forces says no decision has been made to go ahead with the construction of new hubs.

That could change.

“The hub concept referred to in this report is just one of many ideas being examined at the time to enhance our capabilities up in the North,” said Navy Lt. Greg Menzies.

The report is premised on the priority that the Conservative government has placed on a more rigorous defence of Canada's territorial sovereignty in the North, where countries including Russia, Denmark and the United States are currently staking their claims to land and underwater territory.

“To maintain its sovereignty over its northern region, Canada will need to develop enforcement and surveillance capabilities for the Arctic,” the report says.

To that end, it envisions scenarios that could call for a military response in the North: disease outbreak in an Arctic community; a major air disaster; water contamination from an oil spill, and the cleanup of contaminated space debris, such as a satellite falling from orbit.

Full Article
Source: Toronto Star 

Losing subsidized daycare means not working for this parent

It is difficult to overstate the effect on Joanne Wilson and her family if she and her husband were to lose subsidized child care.

“I’d have to quit my job, because I’d be paying more for child care than I make,” said the 40-year-old mother of two, who works two part-time jobs. “Then we wouldn’t be able to keep the house on one income, so we’d have to sell it and rent again.”

An external audit of city services by consulting firm KPMG — aimed at finding ways to shrink the city’s budget shortfall — suggested that “phasing out” 2,000 subsidized child-care spaces could save $24 million.

Of the 53,000 child-care spaces in Toronto, 24,000 are subsidized. Of those, 22,000 are jointly subsidized by the province and the city. The remaining 2,000, subsidized by the city alone, are the spots targeted for cost-cutting in the report. There is currently a record number of people — nearly 20,000 — on the city’s waiting list for subsidized child care.

On Thursday, Wilson had just come home from a visit to the city’s Children’s Services office at Metro Hall, where she confirmed that child-care subsidies — half the full-fee price — had come through for her two children: Lucas, 1, and Evan, who turns 4 next month.

She spent more than 17 months on a waiting list to get the subsidy for Lucas (she signed up when she was still in her first trimester), and 15 months for Evan.

Wilson says if she had to pay full fees — upwards of $100 a day, per infant — it would take up her full income. “If I lose this, it means not working at all again.”

But Wilson said she’s more worried about single parents, who may be forced onto welfare without the benefit of subsidized child care.

“Hopefully (city councillors) don’t make this decision lightly.”

Full Article
Source: Parent Central & Toronto Star  

Climate Change: Denying the Deniers

It's not hard to poke holes in the "science" that attempts to discredit climate change.

In their desperation to find even a tiny shred of peer-reviewed science to challenge the volumes of research from around the world about human-caused climate change, deniers have often held up Willie Soon’s work.

Soon, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is known for studies that purportedly show that the sun, and not CO2 emissions from human activity, is the main factor in climate change, and that climate change in the 20th century wasn’t that unusual to begin with. He has also argued that mercury emissions from burning coal are no big deal.

Now, in response to a Greenpeace investigation, Soon has admitted that U.S. oil and coal companies, including ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, Koch Industries, and the world’s largest coal-burning utility, Southern Company, have contributed more than $1 million to his research over the past decade. According to Greenpeace, every grant Soon has received since 2002 has been from oil or coal interests. This, despite the fact that Soon once told a U.S. Senate hearing that he had not been hired by, been employed by, or received grants from any organization “that had taken advocacy positions with respect to the Kyoto Protocol or the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change."

Soon has also been affiliated with a number of industry front groups, including the coal-funded Greening Earth Society, and Koch-Exxon-Scaife-funded groups, including the George C. Marshall Institute, the Science and Public Policy Institute, the Center for Science and Public Policy, the Heartland Institute, and Canada’s Fraser Institute.

Correspondence uncovered by Greenpeace also found that, in 2003, Soon led a plan to undermine the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report years before it was even released in 2007.

It’s not news that the fossil-fuel industry has funded an ongoing campaign of doubt and misinformation about the effects of its products, and about the dangers of climate change – people and organizations from science historian Naomi Oreskes (author of Merchants of Doubt) to Greenpeace have been exposing these efforts for years. From hiring trolls and front groups to post comments on websites, submit letters to editors, and write opinion columns, to sponsoring “scientific” research and holding conferences, it’s all been well-documented. (The same tactics have also been used by the tobacco industry.)

The latest revelation is a bit of an embarrassment for oil-giant Exxon, though. The world’s largest oil company had admitted that it funded these efforts, but promised, in 2008, that it would stop giving money to groups that lobbied against the need to find clean energy sources.

It’s also an embarrassment for those who, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, deny the existence of climate change – or admit that it’s happening but say we can’t, or shouldn’t, do anything about it. Of course, they will continue to repeat the same discredited points about “climategate,” and medieval warm periods, and CO2 as plant food, and they’ll continue to take the advice of industry shills like Tom Harris to bombard the media with opinion articles and letters to editors, and to post numerous comments under online articles.

Full Article
Source: The Mark 

What It Means to be Black in Canada

If you are a Black Canadian, studies continue to show that you are less likely than a member of any other ethnic group to get a job or a promotion. You are more likely to get pulled over for "driving while Black," or to be discriminated against in the courts. What is more, you know that there are very few Blacks occupying the corner offices of Canadian companies, or in key roles in the academic world. And, over the past two decades, you have seen the representation of Blacks in federal, provincial, and municipal governments drop significantly. Why does this systemic racism persist? What is holding Blacks back? I believe there are three things that continue to impede our progress.

First, there's the fact that, unlike that of Blacks in the United States, the black experience in Canada has been largely ignored. For example, in Canadian history books, there is little mention of the fact that slavery once existed in the territory that is now Canada. Most Canadians don’t know that segregation was accepted in many parts of this country well into the 1960s. They believe the myth of a Canadian tradition of tolerance because most history books gloss over the overt racism that has afflicted Blacks in Canada throughout our country’s existence.

Equally significant is the fact that few Canadians are aware of the many contributions that Blacks have made to Canadian history, beginning with Mathieu da Costa, a Portuguese navigator and explorer, who arrived here in 1605 in the company of Samuel de Champlain. They have never heard of William Hall, who became the first Canadian, and the first person of African ancestry, to receive the Victoria Cross.

They don't know that the "The Real McCoy" was a Black Canadian engineer named Elijah McCoy, whose inventions for lubricating the engines of ships, trains, and factories were patented worldwide. And they're unaware of the achievements of Portia White, who broke the colour barrier in Canadian classical music, performing in more than 100 concerts around the globe. These Afro-Canadians, and many more, made their mark on Canada, all during times characterized by pervasive racism. And these great Canadians not only endured, they succeeded.

The second factor holding Blacks back is the existence of old and tired stereotypes stemming from our legacy of slavery and segregation. For instance, segregation meant there were white schools and Black schools; white churches and Black churches; barbers for white people and barbers for Blacks. In other words, segregation forced people to look at our differences, not the things we shared in common. It led some people to conclude that Black was not as good, as worthy, or as able as white – that Black was inferior to white.

Still today, we watch television and see Blacks portrayed as poor, with no chance for success, or as criminals or inmates in prison. What is the impact of this constant stream of demeaning images on young Black people? It's not pretty. I have seen the lack of self-esteem, the shame in our culture, and the humiliation at the place we have been assigned in our own country.

The third thing that holds Blacks back is ourselves. As human beings, we are defined by our circumstances. I was born of a poor Black family in Nova Scotia shortly before the Second World War. My father was a janitor at a university. He swept floors and cleaned washrooms to make a mere $25 a week. He had a wife and five children to support. My poverty has helped to define me. Ours was also the only Afro-Canadian family in an all-white university town. That defined me too. It gave me a powerful drive to achieve. And, combined with my family tradition, it underscored the importance of books, learning, and education – all of which saved me from the monotony of poverty.

In the same way that circumstances shape individuals, I believe that circumstances have a tremendous influence on a group of people. Our history of slavery and segregation continues to erect barriers that stand in our way of being accepted as equals. To break down those barriers once and for all, Blacks must become more powerful agents for change. We must come together to leverage the power of our collective voice.

I remember a time, not so long ago, when Afro-Canadians did just that. In fact, we felt compelled to make change happen. As the acclaimed Canadian author Lawrence Hill wrote:

For people like me, being Black and having access to a good education carried certain obligations. It wasn't good enough to get A's in school – you also had to ball up your fists and charge into battle if anybody used the word "nigger." In the workplace, it wasn't good enough to merely succeed professionally. You had to change the world, too.

I have witnessed this powerful force for social change first hand. All the members of my family, on both my father’s and my mother’s side, have devoted more than three generations to working for the uplifting of mankind, and, in particular, Blacks. I have seen what hope can do, most recently, with the election of U.S. President Barack Obama. I believe we urgently need to renew that sense of hope for Afro-Canadians today.

That's because Blacks in Canada still have a long way to go. We must embrace our proud heritage, our true potential, and our hope for the future. We must work together to put an end to racism now. It's clear to me that no one else is going to do it for us.

Source: The Mark 

GAO Report On Proprietary Trading Slammed By Senate Democrats As 'Misleading'

A new government report on banks' controversial practice of trading and investing for their own profit was condemned Wednesday by congressional Democrats who called the practice "woefully incomplete" and "misleading," adding that it failed to reckon with the risks to the broader financial system.

The Volcker Rule, which required banks to sell off their operations that engaged in this so-called proprietary trading, was one of the most contentious elements of financial regulatory reform last year. Proponents argued that the rule was necessary to prevent banks from profiting at the expense of their customers and, ultimately, American taxpayers who stepped in when their complex bets on mortgages went bad. Banks complained that the rule would hurt their profits, while at the same time arguing that the extent of such speculation was not big enough to pose a risk to the financial system. The Government Accountability Office was brought in as something of a referee, commissioned to conduct a study to assess the true extent of such trading practices and whether losses in that area can contribute to the instability of financial institutions.

The GAO report released Wednesday appeared to give ammunition to Wall Street by concluding that such trading only constitutes a small share of its revenue and, thus, does not present much of a risk to the financial system. Critics, including the primary authors of the provisions that limit such activity, countered that the study was flawed because it failed to grapple with the full extent of banks' trading. The report could lead to momentum against enforcing the Volcker rule.

Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) sent a strongly worded letter to the GAO, criticizing the auditor for not looking at the full scope of proprietary trading operations. The report was "woefully incomplete," said the pair because it only collected data from the six largest banks' stand-alone units, where only a fraction of such trading occurs, rather than from across all bank divisions.

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

Default risk widens rift within GOP

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned in congressional testimony that failure to raise the government's debt limit by Aug. 2 would be a "huge financial calamity."

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) issued a political warning that the party risked losing the next election if Republicans persisted on their current path.

So far, such warnings have had little impact in the House of Representatives, where many members of the Republican majority, particularly newly elected "tea party" conservatives, have vowed to let the government default on its bills rather than vote for any debt ceiling increase. House GOP leaders have said they will vote for an increase only if it is accompanied by a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, deep cuts to Medicare, or other spending restrictions that President Obama has rejected.

"Currently, there is not a single debt limit proposal that can pass the House," Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement Wednesday morning. Cantor has been at odds with McConnell and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in the last several days.

In a radio interview with conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, McConnell said the economic impact of a default would give Obama an opening to blame the GOP for the country's bad economy.

"Look, he owns the economy," McConnell said. "We refuse to let him entice us into co-ownership of a bad economy."

McConnell had offered his own "backup plan" Tuesday to end the stalemate — a proposal under which Congress would essentially surrender power to raise the debt ceiling and hand responsibility solely to Obama. He was excoriated by many conservatives in his party.

"Wow. Stupid idea," was the tweet from Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah.

McConnell fired back Wednesday, saying Republicans who think that the public will support them in the event of a government default were disastrously wrong. Default "destroys your brand," he said.

Full Article
Source: Los Angeles Times 

Jason Kenney on the Human Smuggling Ship: Lots of Noise, Little Substance

Several media outlets ran with a story about a ship (the MV Alicia) with an estimated 84 Tamils on board that was detained while supposedly en route to Canada. Most featured comments from Jason Kenney, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

What is interesting is the full-court press the minister gave to this issue without really having much to say and certainly not saying much that seemingly provided solid proof that Canada was the ships destination. He gave several interviews for both print and TV and he even went on Twitter to highlight a CP story that pushed his point of view.

However, at no time did Kenney actually say the MV Alicia was on route to Canada. Instead, he threw out the suggestion that the MV Alicia might have been heading our way and then sat back and watched the media not only ramp up his comments, but then go into much detail about previous boats that had arrived here, the numbers on board, the processing time, etc. Of course the real point of his media push was to get solid quotes into each article on why we need his legislation to prevent similar human smuggling operations from bringing more people to our shores.

Look at some of his quotes and they are pretty vague.

"This vessel is believed to be have been destined for Canada."

"There are indications that it may have been destined for Canada."

"There was some reasons to believe that this particular vessel may have been destined for Canada."

The bottom line is was it or was it not, coming to Canada? There are numerous reports saying the vessel was en route to New Zealand and at least in the public domain no solid proof that its destination was Canada. If it was, why not be clear and say so. If it wasn't or if there is no solid proof that it was heading our way, then the minister was simply piggy-backing on a media story to press his political agenda while doing a bit of fear-mongering to remind Canadians of what we can expect if his legislation isn't passed.

Clearly Kenney was quick of the mark as he saw the detention of a ship in Indonesian waters as an opportunity to promote the need to pass his "The Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act."

This quote backs up that assumption:

"This incident in Indonesian waters of a vessel believed to contain illegal migrants destined for Canada in a human smuggling operation underscores the need for Parliament to act in passing our anti-human smuggling legislation."
Kenney side-stepped questions about what proof he had by saying that he couldn't discuss intelligence reports. Fair enough and I agree completely with him on that point. The intelligence reports either said nothing about the MV Alicia, said it was coming here, said it was going elsewhere or were inconclusive. Whatever the reports said, the minister was out there chasing the media. Kenney is in a win-win situation. If it's proven that the ship was not coming to Canada, he can say he never said it was. If it's proven it was en route to our shores he can say I told you so. Not a bad day's work for the minister as he received substantial media coverage based on what on the surface appears to be pretty flimsy evidence.

Source: Huffington 

Intercepted Human Smuggling Ship MV Alicia Bound For Canada: Jason Kenney

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- CALGARY - Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said a human smuggling ship intercepted Monday appeared to have been "destined for Canada" and reinforces the need to pass the Tory government's anti-smuggling legislation.

"We are not going to be a doormat for the dangerous crime of human smuggling," Kenney told reporters at a news conference Tuesday in Calgary.

Human smuggling is already a crime in this country, but there has been few successful prosecutions and the government says the act would strengthen Canada's ability to prosecute such crimes and deter queue-jumping in the immigration system.

"The Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act" is supposed to make it easier to prosecute smugglers and impose mandatory prison sentences.

It will also hold ship owners and operators responsible if their vessels are used in smuggling operations.

Two ships of Tamil migrants have arrived off the coast of British Columbia since October 2009, with nearly 800 people authorities believe were the human cargo of smugglers.

The latest ship seized, the MV Alicia, was carrying close to 90 Sri Lankan Tamils and was intercepted by Indonesian authorities.

"This vessel is believed to be have been destined for Canada," Kenney said.

"This incident in Indonesian waters of a vessel believed to contain illegal migrants destined for Canada in a human smuggling operation underscores the need for Parliament to act in passing our anti-human smuggling legislation," he added.

"That would send a clear signal to those that want to treat Canada like a doormat that they should no longer target Canada for the odious business of human smuggling."

Whether or not the ship was actually headed for Canada is up for debate. There have been numerous media reports suggesting the final destination was actually New Zealand. However, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that "charts indicating the boat was prepared to travel to Canada" were found aboard the vessel, which was stopped on Monday.

Kenney conceded the reports are inconclusive.

"I read a report from the prime minister of New Zealand indicating that apparently the captain of this vessel indicated they might be headed for New Zealand...there is some evidence apparently that they were destined for Canada. We can't be absolutely certain what their destination was."

He said many smugglers have "open-ended" contracts with passengers that don't guarantee the destination.

The immigration minister credits a bolstered law enforcement and intelligence presence in southeast Asia at known transit points for human smuggling for preventing "several vessels destined for Canada from leaving port."

Kenney said Canada needs to reduce the number of "pull factors" that allow smuggling syndicates from targeting Canada.

"We have very generous policies, one of which is family reunification," he said.

"If someone comes here in a smuggling operation, succeeds in getting a positive asylum claim, they become a permanent resident and pretty quickly can turn around and sponsor family members that can help them pay off the debt to the smuggling syndicate."

Source: Huffington 

Gold Soars To Record On Debt Fears

CBC -- The price of gold hit a record high Wednesday as investors continued to flock to the precious metal as a perceived safe haven amid global financial turmoil.

In early New York trading, August gold futures contracts soared $17.70 to $1,580 US an ounce. Spot gold prices also hit a record.

Gold has risen for eight straight trading sessions as European debt worries gained new traction. Tuesday's downgrade of Ireland's credit rating to junk status also rattled financial markets.

"With European sovereign debt fears intensifying again, [and] little clarity on what Eurozone officials intend to do next ..., gold has been a beneficiary," said UBS analyst Edel Tully in a report. "This should, in theory, be gold's time to shine as a safe haven and as an alternative currency."

The inability of the White House and Republican leaders to reach a deal on the U.S. debt ceiling added to gold's appeal, analysts said.

Bullion prices also got a boost from the release Tuesday of minutes from the U.S. Federal Reserve that seemed to hint that some members of its key Open Market Committee were open to the possiblity of further quantitative easing measures to stimulate the economy.

Gold prices are up 11 per cent so far this year and have more than doubled in the last four years.

Source: Huffington 

East Africa Famine Threatens Regional Stability, USAID Chief Says

The long-suffering nations in the Horn of East Africa are enduring the worst drought conditions in more than half a century, and are at risk of "massive famine," Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), told The Huffington Post Wednesday.

The top American aid official said in an interview that the food crisis in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia is putting millions of lives at risk, and threatens to further destabilize a troubled region of the world.

"It’s very severe," Shah said. "We know from the data that we’ve been collecting that this is the worst drought in 60 years and it’s going to have severe consequences. Eleven and a half million people are at real risk of malnutrition and famine already."

In its most recent update on the crisis, USAID declared the food and water shortage in East Africa "the most severe food security emergency in the world today."

"The current humanitarian response is inadequate to prevent further deterioration," the report warned.

Aid workers in East Africa have spent months gearing up for the looming crisis, thanks in part to an early-warning system operated by USAID that first predicted a round of devastating crop failures and food shortages late last year.

But the high number of malnourished children and families so early in the dry season has nonetheless taken them by surprise, and the growing figures suggest the scope of a problem that is only beginning to emerge.

"It’s going to get worse because the next rains aren’t until October, and we’re already seeing people completely reliant on relief," says Anna Ridout, a Nairobi, Kenya-based spokeswoman for Oxfam.

Aid workers say the severity of the famine conditions has been exacerbated by spiking food prices and the increasing regularity of major African droughts over the past decade, which has made local communities less able to cope with new challenges.

In the Horn of Africa alone, drought conditions have affected crop levels three of the past four years.

"There’s no question that hotter and drier growing conditions in sub-Saharan Africa have reduced the resiliency of these communities," Shah said. "Absolutely the change in climate has contributed to this problem, without question."

Last week, the UN's top humanitarian relief official Valerie Amos also pointed to environmental change during a tour of a refugee camp in Somalia. "We have to take the impact of climate change more seriously," she said. "Everything I've heard has said that we used to have drought every ten years, then it became every five years and now it's every two years."

This year, aid workers say they are seeing new levels of starvation and suffering.

On a recent visit to the refugee camps in the Ethiopian town of Dollo Ado, along the Somali border, World Food Program official Judith Schuler said she found the area flooded with refugees seeking food and water.

"They are in a desperate state," Schuler said. "I was there there a bit more than a year ago in the same refugee camp, and back then everybody that arrived told me that they came because of violence and conflict. This is not the case anymore. It’s regular people who are coming because they have nothing left to eat."

Some 2,000 hungry refugees arrive at Dollo Ado from Somalia every day, according to the UN, and two of the camps there are already at twice their maximum capacity.

The vast majority of those arriving at Dollo Ado are children, and Schuler says many of them die at the camp despite finally receiving aid.

"They’ve had nothing to eat during their journey, which often last several days or a week," she said. "The only time they get food is if they can beg for it from villagers along the way. There are people here dying every day."

Save the Children has reported that malnutrition rates among children in Kenya and Somalia have reached 30 percent in some areas -- well above the official rate to classify a famine.

So far this year, USAID has facilitated the distribution of more than $350 million in aid to the Horn of Africa, but Shah says that emergency response efforts are not sufficient to curb a growing -- and seemingly chronic -- problem in the region.

"To me, the reason this is so glaring is it simply doesn’t have to be this way," Shah told HuffPost. "We know how to help countries and work in partnership with countries to build real modern agricultural systems. We know that every few years the lack of rainfall creates a huge depletion of assets that causes kids to be pulled out of schools to work on the farm. And we know that this cycle of agrarian fall-off results in chronic malnutrition for kids, and holds these countries back."

"This is happening precisely in a part of the world that our Defense Secretary Leon Panetta just said is a critical part of our fight against terrorism and our overall international security," he added. "It just underscores the deep link between food security and national security."

Shah continued, "It’s so important to be promoting security and stability in these parts of the world, as opposed to be dealing with these devastating and difficult consequences of failure."

Source: Huffington 

Ottawa To Release Champlain Bridge Report

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- MONTREAL - Canada's new transport minister was forced to perform an abrupt about-face Wednesday after declaring that he did not want to release a structural report on a major Montreal bridge because people might worry.

The remarks by Denis Lebel were, of course, noticed in Montreal where 60 million vehicles cross the Champlain Bridge annually and make it one of the country's busiest spans.

His remarks became a top news story in Quebec. The bridge has been a source of public concern since the release this spring of another report that warned it's at risk of collapse.

With 24 hours the Prime Minister's Office made it clear that the rookie transport minister would have more to say on the matter.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office announced Wednesday morning that the bridge report would be released, after all.

By early afternoon Lebel had issued a statement stressing his personal commitment to transparency in the matter: "We want to ensure that Canadians have access to information about the Champlain bridge, and that is why the pre-feasibility technical report has been publicly released."

As it turned out, the report was not actually that alarming.

Full Article
Source: Huffington 

Canada: The gift that keeps on giving to Israel

As Israel faces growing isolation and repercussions from an effective global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Campaign, over the past month Canada has continued to deepen its economic, political, and ideological relationship with Israel.

Least discussed of late has been the merging economic ties between the two countries. This week, the Canada-Israel Technology Innovation Summit in Tel Aviv concluded with a renewal of the Canada-Israel Industrial Research and Development Foundation. Canada's Minister of International Trade Ed Fast described Canada's $5 billion towards this "treaty" -- which will be tabled in Parliament prior to final ratification -- as a collaborative project between Canada's private-sector and Canada's "key trading partner."

One of the projects funded by this Foundation has been the Guardium Autonomous Security Vehicle for the purposes of, as described by Kole Kilibarda, militarizing the border. This is one of many initiatives within the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement and the Canada-Israel Public Security Partnership. Under the former agreement, bilateral trade has more than tripled, making Canada increasingly complicit in the economic normalization of the Israeli occupation as well as a critical stake-holder in Israel's defense complex. Under the Declaration of Intent for Cooperation on Public Security Issues, Canada and Israel supposedly face "common threats to border security, illegal immigration, and terrorist financing." In a post 9/11 climate and the never-ending War on Terror, this legitimizes both states' practices of torture, extraordinary rendition, racial and religious profiling, incarcerations, deportations, and surveillance.

The most discussed issue lately has been the Freedom Flotilla II. The Canadian Boat to Gaza Tahrir was one of 10 Gaza-bound vessels carrying humanitarian aid and challenging Israel's illegal blockade. Since 2007, Israel has imposed a tight siege on the 1.5 million residents of Gaza: maintaining control of airspace, waters, and land crossings; disallowing residents to leave without permits; and prohibition on imports and exports including food, fuel, and medical supplies. Aboard the Tahrir, Ardoch Algonquin Robert Lovelace described this collective punishment as follows:

"We recognize that the people of Palestine have been subjected to colonization in the same way that Indigenous people here have lost their relationship with the land. Gaza has become an open-air prison for 1.4 million people. It is the largest ‘Reserve' in the world."

Predictably, the Tahrir never reached Gaza, as Israel outsourced its siege to Greece, and the Greek government banned any ship from leaving its ports towards Gaza. Instead of demanding that the boat be allowed to sail, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird had proclaimed in advance that "Canada recognizes Israel's legitimate security concerns and its right to protect itself and its residents from attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, including by preventing the smuggling of weapons." This was congruous with the Canadian government parroting of the outlandish Israeli line last year, which alleged self-defence after the murder of nine activists aboard the Mavi Marmara flotilla.

Making no mention of the 11,000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails, Baird continued, "Canada continues to call for the immediate return of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas." Following the election of Hamas in 2006, Canada was the first country, even ahead of Israel, to boycott and vilify the Hamas government. Canada began funding and training Palestinian security forces loyal to appointed President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) as part of U.S. General Keith Dayton's training project and Operation Proteus.

Though focused on the dirty war against Hamas, this past week Canada reiterated hostility towards the P.A.'s bid for statehood at the UN General Assembly in Sept. 2011. While there has been much criticism of the process by Palestinians -- such as Ali Abunimah arguing that "the only thing that could be gained from UN recognition is for Abbas and his entourage to obtain international recognition for themselves as leaders of an imaginary state while nothing changes for Palestinians" as well as Raja Khalidi opposing the neoliberal economic foundation of the proposed state - Canada and the US have succumbed to Israel's (now leaked) global diplomatic campaign to persuade countries to vote against recognition.

Given the Conservative government's consistent support for the unilateral military actions of Israel -- who possesses nuclear capabilities and has occupied Palestinians since 1948 through one of the world's largest militaries -- the Department of Foreign Affairs statement "The Palestinian state is to be a non-militarized one" reflects the hypocrisy of imperial dictates. Furthermore, demanding that those being military occupied must engage in "bilateral peace negotiations" in fact perpetuates the very oppression being resisted. As Malcolm X said "You can`t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom." This week, the Palestinian BDS National Committee called for an immediate and comprehensive military embargo against Israel.

Not limited solely to the political or economic realm, Canada continues to be a primary ally in Israel's attempts to brand itself as a victim in our collective social conscience. This week the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism, co-founded by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, released its report noting a rise in "hateful discourse" against Israel, and unsurprisingly yet dangerously characterizes criticism of the state of Israel, particularly Israeli Apartheid Week campus organizing, as anti-Semitic. Meanwhile, Canada has been noticeably silent on the Knesset's passing of the widely condemned boycott law which criminalizes and penalizes support for the BDS campaign against Israel. Yet as Hind Awwad with the Palestinian BDS National Committee notes "This new legislation is testament to the success of the rapidly growing global BDS movement and a realisation within political elites inside Israel that the state is becoming a world pariah..."

And of course an accounting of Canada's generosity towards Israel would be incomplete without hockey. Israel already boasts a Canada-Israel Hockey School, and yesterday the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University announced a scholarship program for Israeli hockey players. Maybe the best gift from Canada that one can hope for will be a good old Canadian-style hockey riot in Israel and instead of a few broken windows, there will be a torn-down apartheid wall.