Archive for March, 2012

Lobbyists, Guns and Money – NYTimes.com


Florida’s now-infamous Stand Your Ground law, which lets you shoot someone you consider threatening without facing arrest, let alone prosecution, sounds crazy — and it is. And it’s tempting to dismiss this law as the work of ignorant yahoos. But similar laws have been pushed across the nation, not by ignorant yahoos but by big corporations.

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Paul Krugman

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Specifically, language virtually identical to Florida’s law is featured in a template supplied to legislators in other states by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-backed organization that has managed to keep a low profile even as it exerts vast influence (only recently, thanks to yeoman work by the Center for Media and Democracy, has a clear picture of ALEC’s activities emerged). And if there is any silver lining to Trayvon Martin’s killing, it is that it might finally place a spotlight on what ALEC is doing to our society — and our democracy.

What is ALEC? Despite claims that it’s nonpartisan, it’s very much a movement-conservative organization, funded by the usual suspects: the Kochs, Exxon Mobil, and so on. Unlike other such groups, however, it doesn’t just influence laws, it literally writes them, supplying fully drafted bills to state legislators. In Virginia, for example, more than 50 ALEC-written bills have been introduced, many almost word for word. And these bills often become law.

Many ALEC-drafted bills pursue standard conservative goals: union-busting, undermining environmental protection, tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. ALEC seems, however, to have a special interest in privatization — that is, on turning the provision of public services, from schools to prisons, over to for-profit corporations. And some of the most prominent beneficiaries of privatization, such as the online education company K12 Inc. and the prison operator Corrections Corporation of America, are, not surprisingly, very much involved with the organization.

What this tells us, in turn, is that ALEC’s claim to stand for limited government and free markets is deeply misleading. To a large extent the organization seeks not limited government but privatized government, in which corporations get their profits from taxpayer dollars, dollars steered their way by friendly politicians. In short, ALEC isn’t so much about promoting free markets as it is about expanding crony capitalism.

And in case you were wondering, no, the kind of privatization ALEC promotes isn’t in the public interest; instead of success stories, what we’re getting is a series of scandals. Private charter schools, for example, appear to deliver a lot of profits but little in the way of educational achievement.

But where does the encouragement of vigilante (in)justice fit into this picture? In part it’s the same old story — the long-standing exploitation of public fears, especially those associated with racial tension, to promote a pro-corporate, pro-wealthy agenda. It’s neither an accident nor a surprise that the National Rifle Association and ALEC have been close allies all along.

And ALEC, even more than other movement-conservative organizations, is clearly playing a long game. Its legislative templates aren’t just about generating immediate benefits to the organization’s corporate sponsors; they’re about creating a political climate that will favor even more corporation-friendly legislation in the future.

Did I mention that ALEC has played a key role in promoting bills that make it hard for the poor and ethnic minorities to vote?

Yet that’s not all; you have to think about the interests of the penal-industrial complex — prison operators, bail-bond companies and more. (The American Bail Coalition has publicly described ALEC as its “life preserver.”) This complex has a financial stake in anything that sends more people into the courts and the prisons, whether it’s exaggerated fear of racial minorities or Arizona’s draconian immigration law, a law that followed an ALEC template almost verbatim.

Think about that: we seem to be turning into a country where crony capitalism doesn’t just waste taxpayer money but warps criminal justice, in which growing incarceration reflects not the need to protect law-abiding citizens but the profits corporations can reap from a larger prison population.

Now, ALEC isn’t single-handedly responsible for the corporatization of our political life; its influence is as much a symptom as a cause. But shining a light on ALEC and its supporters — a roster that includes many companies, from AT&T and Coca-Cola to UPS, that have so far managed to avoid being publicly associated with the hard-right agenda — is one good way to highlight what’s going on. And that kind of knowledge is what we need to start taking our country back.

 

 

Lobbyists, Guns and Money – NYTimes.com.

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Paul Volcker: Obama Socialist Comments Have ‘No Connection With Reality’


Paul Volcker Obama

 

Paul Volcker sounded off on critics of President Obama in an interview with CBS’s Anthony Mason.

 

Asked whether he agrees with accusations that the president is waging class warfare by pushing for Wall Street reforms and higher taxes for the rich, Volcker said, “I don’t understand the depth of that feeling. I really don’t. This business that he’s a great socialist and out to undermine the free enterprise system and so forth, I just think it has no connection with reality.”

 

He balked at the notion that Obama could have taken office without going after the banks.

 

“How could you have a President of the United States taking office in the midst of a financial crisis and a deep recession and not be critical of the financial system? He would have been deaf, dumb and blind,” he said.

 

Volcker, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve and Obama adviser, is the namesake for “the Volcker Rule,” a major provision in the Wall Street reforms that could take effect as early as this July.

 

Though Obama has been critical of Wall Street, a survey from the end of last year found that he had approved fewer regulations than President Bush had at the same point in his presidency.

 

As HuffPost’s Jen Bendery reports, Wall Street executives actually thrive under President Obama. Still, most major Wall Street donations are heading to Mitt Romney, who is perceived as much friendlier to banks.

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Volcker: Obama Socialist Comments Have ‘No Connection With Reality’.

Murder Incorporated: the Politics of Violence on the Mexican Border | Digg Topnews


This is the second article in an occasional Truthout series looking at US “immigration” policy and Mexican border policy through a social justice lens, focusing on the lower Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville, Texas, area. Mark Karlin, editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout, visited the region recently to file these reports. The first installment was “The Border Wall: The Last Stand at Making the US a White Gated Community.”

Murder Incorporated: the Politics of Violence on the Mexican Border | Digg Topnews.

Relatives of Afghan civilians killed or injured in Robert Bales’ ‘shooting spree’ receive tens of thousands of dollars from US military – NYPOST.com


New York Post

Last Updated:Sun., Mar. 25, 2012, 11:26am

Relatives of victims in Afghan shooting spree paid $900K by US military

Last Updated: 11:15 AM, March 25, 2012

Posted: 10:48 AM, March 25, 2012

KABUL — Relatives of 17 people shot dead in a rampage by a US soldier in southern Afghanistan were paid tens of thousands of dollars in compensation, a tribal chief and government officials said Sunday.

The money — provided by the US military — was handed over at a private ceremony at the Kandahar provincial governor’s office, they said.

“The elders called me and said they were paid $50,000 per person for the dead and $11,000 for the injured per person,” Haji Agha Lalai, a tribal chief and a member of the Kandahar provincial council, said.

The killings — mostly of women and children — in Panjwai district are thought to be the deadliest crime by a US soldier during the decade-long conflict and have tested Washington and Kabul’s already tense relationship.

AP
Afghan villagers pray over the grave of one of the victims of a shooting rampage earlier this month.

The US is keen to draw a line under the massacre earlier this month as far as it can, and the sums — around $900,000 in total — amount to a fortune in rural Afghanistan.

The payments Saturday came a day after Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, 38, of the US 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, was formally accused of 17 premeditated murders for the killings — charges that could carry the death penalty.

He also is accused of six counts of assault and attempted murder.

Afghan government officials speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed the payments but differed slightly on the amounts, citing them as 2.3 million Afghanis ($46,000) each for the families of the dead and 500,000 Afghanis for the injured.

American officers, local government leaders and tribal elders were present at the event, they said.

Local government officials in Kandahar declined to comment.

In Kabul, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) declined to confirm that any payment was made.

“As a matter of policy, ISAF does not make restitution for losses resulting from combat, combat-related activities or operational necessity,” he said.

But he added, “Individual troop-contributing nations may participate in some form of restitution consistent with the cultural norms of Afghanistan.”

Such payments are normally kept confidential, he added.

Fears had been expressed that if the families received compensation, they could be targeted by Taliban militants, who consistently threaten anyone who receives money from the United States or other foreign forces in Afghanistan.

Bales allegedly walked off his combat outpost under cover of darkness March 11 and killed 17 people in two nearby villages, burning some of their bodies before returning to the base and surrendering.

Responding to the charges against the soldier, a spokesman for Afghan president Hamid Karzai said, “We want justice, and we want it as soon as possible.”

Bales is currently being held at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, and a spokesman for Joint Base Lewis-McChord, his home station, said it was likely to be 18 to 24 months until any trial.

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Relatives of Afghan civilians killed or injured in Robert Bales’ ‘shooting spree’ receive tens of thousands of dollars from US military – NYPOST.com.

Canada lacks investor protection


Canadian companies are getting picked off piecemeal due to one principal problem: the lack of investor protection in Canada, which discounts the cost of buying assets.

The impending buyout of BCE Inc. is a case in point.

Leveraged buyout artists circling around this underperformer plan to pick up its assets more cheaply by subordinating its bonds to the huge loans they will incur to buy companies.

In the case of BCE, which has yet to be taken over, the value of the Canadian BCE bonds has already fallen by 10% to 18% whereas BCE’s U.S bonds have dropped by only 2%.

Why the difference? Because American bondholders have investor protection that the Canadian bondholders do not. It’s called ERISA, or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. This legislation requires money managers (running pension or mutual funds) to undertake class-action lawsuits to protect investors hurt by attacks on bonds or equities.

It also makes responsible for such drops in value, the officers and directors of BCE or other bond-issuers.

This legislation does not exist in Canada even though it has transformed investment management south of the border. To not have reciprocity, in the form of such protection, means that Canada’s legal stupidity is helping finance the American takeover of our economy.

This ERISA legislation not only forces money managers to do their jobs, but stops the sort of soft-dollar nonsense that coopts money managers into blessing bond attacks, as in BCE’s case, in return for some collateral arrangement. Which brings me to BIMCOR, Bell’s internal pension fund management operation with $12-billion under its stewardship. Most other companies farm out their pension investment responsibilities but not Bell.

So here’s the problem: Whoever takes over Bell can co-opt money management outfits that otherwise might squawk over the bond theft with the promise that the new owner will privatize BIMCOR and they can manage some, or all, of the funds.

In Canada, there is no law against this.

These days, money managers slaver over such a huge slice of business, or even part of it. Typical fees amount to 0.5% of $12- billion, which is a nice chunk of change in a slow-growing money management sector.

So Canada’s investors are sitting ducks for international and local marauders.

Even worse, individual bondholders and shareholders have no recourse in Canadian courts or with toothless securities commissions. Brokers, owned by banks, are co-opted because they don’t want to alienate corporate managements or buyout artists.

And the justice system is nonexistent for individuals. Lawyers rarely do contingency fee cases for fear of running into conflicts of interest with the same buyout artists they represent. Even the Supreme Court of Canada recently defanged the Ontario Securities Commission by saying it had no jurisdiction over Asbestos Corporation’s buyer, the Province of Quebec, which shortchanged minority shareholders in contravention of securities laws and Toronto’s stock exchange rules.

The ERISA laws in the United States have made a big difference, which is why the BCE ”yankee bonds” are hardly affected. The failure to have ERISA laws here is why Sears was able to finance its privatization in Canada, partially off the backs of Canadian bondholders, with impunity.

Meanwhile, in the United States, ERISA resulted in a successful class-action settlement in the U.S. involving Royal Dutch Shell and its reduced reserves controversy. The oil giant paid out US$90-million. So did Global Crossing (US$79-million) and AT&T (US$29-million) for transgressions.

ERISA imposes responsibilities on people who handle other people’s money but also extends this to the directors and officers of the companies? whose bonds or stocks have dropped because they have not done all they could to defend values.

Companies whose securities drop as calamitously as Bell’s bonds would be automatically subject to charges under ERISA class action.

Meanwhile, here in Canada there is no protection and this failure leads to the co-opting of the pools of capital, which should be deputized to be watchdogs over the capital markets.

On top of all this, there is little, if any, recognition of problems among the politicians in charge of Canada’s fragmented, ineffective securities and financial system.

Lastly, other countervails are non-existent. There’s Bay Street (enough said) and the business media, which mostly have a conflict of interest because two of the biggest outlets are owned by BCE itself.

“Corporate bonds and prefs are getting hit hard by these LBO guys, and it’s destroying an important market. They are using these guys as cheap money they don’t have to repay,” said Stephen Jarislowsky of Jarislowsky, Fraser & Co. in a recent interview. “It’s a crime or should be.”

dfrancis@nationalpost.com

 

 

Canada lacks investor protection.

Obama tells federal agencies to ‘cut through red tape’ to OK part of Keystone XL | CanadianBusiness.com


WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama pushed Thursday for the speedy approval for the southern leg of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline as he insisted oil has an important place in his national energy plans.

“Today, I am directing my administration to cut through red tape, break through bureaucratic hurdles and make this project a priority,” Obama said to applause as he stood in front of stacks of pipe to be used to build a portion of Keystone XL from Cushing, Okla., to Gulf Coast refineries.

The announcement came just a few weeks after Obama rejected the entire length of Keystone XL, a pipeline that would transport Alberta oilsands bitumen from the northern reaches of the province through six U.S. states to Texas.

The president said there was not enough time to review a new route around a crucial aquifer in Nebraska in order to meet a tight deadline imposed by congressional Republicans.

He insisted on Thursday he remains a staunch supporter of domestic oil production as he stood in tiny Cushing, where there’s a backlog of oil from states like North Dakota and Montana that cannot be easily transported south.

“Producing more oil and gas here at home has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of our all-of-the-above strategy,” Obama said. “Anybody who suggests that somehow we’re suppressing domestic oil production isn’t paying attention.”

The president also pledged to carefully review any future TransCanada permit applications, saying Republican pressure tactics forced his hand in February when he rejected the entire expanse of Keystone XL.

“As long as I’m president, we’re going to keep encouraging oil development and infrastructure in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people,” he said.

TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard called the announcement good news.

“It’s an important step forward for the Gulf Coast project,” Howard said. “There’s a recognition that this is a critical piece of North American energy infrastructure.”

He added the announcement suggests the Obama administration is favourable to the entire Keystone XL pipeline.

“Ultimately, there’s a recognition that Gulf Coast refiners and refiners in the Midwest need increased supplies of both Canadian and American oil,” he said.

“It’s just a fact, and it’s not going to change and by moving oil from Canada and from fields in the U.S. into those refineries, it helps displace foreign sources of crude that come from regions that are often hostile to U.S. interests.”

Environmentalist Bill McKibben, who led high-profile White House protests against Keystone XL last summer, expressed dismay about the announcement.

“No movie producer, 50 years from now, will be able to resist a scene that explains the depth of our addiction to oil: the president coming to the state that just recorded the hottest summer in American history, in the very week that the nation has seen the weirdest heat wave in its history, and promising not to slow down climate change but instead to speed up the building of pipelines,” he said in a statement.

“It’s clear that the power of the oil industry drives political decision-making in America.”

Environmentalists have mounted an extensive campaign against Keystone XL, assailing the plan to transport millions of barrels a week of bitumen — an energy source they decry as “dirty oil” — to the Gulf Coast.

The U.S. State Department has yet to make a decision on the entire length of the proposed pipeline. State Department officials are assessing the project because it crosses an international border.

In November, the State Department punted a decision on Keystone until after this year’s presidential election, citing concerns about the risks posed to the aquifer.

Pipeline proponents responded angrily, accusing Obama of making a cynical political move aimed at pacifying environmentalists and improving his chances of re-election. They insist Keystone XL will create thousands of jobs and help end American dependence on oil from often hostile OPEC regimes.

Outraged Republicans then successfully inserted pipeline provisions into payroll tax cut legislation in late December.

But within a month, facing a mid-February deadline imposed by those measures, Obama nixed TransCanada’s existing permit outright. But he also assured Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the rejection was not a reflection of the pipeline’s merits, and that Republican pressure tactics necessitated his decision.

Obama’s announcement on Thursday, at the end of a four-state tour to tout his energy policies, came as prices at gas pumps in the U.S. continue a relentless march towards $4 a gallon.

Republicans have been blaming Obama’s energy policies for rising pump prices and have been hounding him for rejecting the pipeline.

Obama pushed back in Oklahoma.

“Anyone who says that just drilling more will bring gas prices down … isn’t paying attention; they’re not playing it straight. We are drilling more. We are producing more. But the fact is, producing more oil at home isn’t enough by itself to bring gas prices down overnight.”

 

Obama tells federal agencies to ‘cut through red tape’ to OK part of Keystone XL | CanadianBusiness.com.

have been engaged in a battle with administrators over proposed 5 percent increase in tuition for incoming students


College-bound Illinois students seeking financial aid to offset their tuition costs will be turned away if their application was received after March 13, because the state has run out of money.

Illinois received a record high flood of Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSAs) from current or prospective college students vying for a piece of the state’s Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant money this year, prompting the Illinois Student Aid Commission (ISAC) to suspend fund disbursement starting March 14, the Northern Star reports. Before the ISAC put a hold on all grants, they had lowered the maximum award from $4,968 last year in anticipation of less available money and a greater need this year.

MAP funding is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, and the Chicago Tribune reports that FAFSA aid requests were received from between 140,000 to 145,000 students by March 13, for values that will deplete the available funding for the 2012-13 year. Request submitted on or after March 14, a deadline announced by officials Tuesday, will be denied, affecting an estimated 140,000 students who will still seek aid for the coming academic year.

Colleges were alerted Friday that further applications would be ineligible for grant awards. FAFSA applications have been accepted since Jan. 1, according to the federal application’s website.

ISAC spokesman John Samuels says the March cutoff marks the earliest the state has ever run out of MAP grant funding, according to the Associated Press.

Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed adding an additional $50 million to the $387 million sum Illinois awarded the ISAC to continue the grant program this year, to meet the increased need, the Tribune reports. But Samuels says the anticipated need would call for $1 billion to fund financial aid for each applicant.

The funding shortages coincide with rising college costs, particularly at in-state schools. DePaul University students have been engaged in a battle with administrators over proposed 5 percent increase in tuition for incoming students and 2.2 percent for current students.

 

 

have been engaged in a battle with administrators over proposed 5 percent increase in tuition for incoming students.