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Monthly Archives: February 2012

The New World

February 28th, 2012 - 2:25 pm

Those who can read Catalan or Spanish may wish to browse the website Els Nous Pobres to get a glimpse into the future of post-welfare Europe. The AP calls these newly poor Spaniards, “The Lost Generation”.

It’s a devastating picture of blighted youth that threatens to distort Spain’s social fabric for years to come, dooming dreams, straining family structures and eroding the well-being of a rapidly aging population.

“This puts the whole welfare state at risk,” said Gayle Allard, a labor market specialist at Madrid’s IE Business School. “The young people who are coming on the market now are the lost generation. They are losing the advantage of their youth and energy and that does not come back.”


The Corruption of Culture

February 27th, 2012 - 10:24 am

Inside Higher Ed says there is a growing “gender gap” in tertiary education. The women are taking it over, or if you prefer, the men are leaving it.  “Those predictions come from ‘Projections of Education Statistics to 2014,’ the latest version of an annual report from the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics that examines trends for the decade ahead.” Women will make up 58 percent of students by 2014. As far back as 2006, the New York Times was excoriating the emergence of “affirmative action for men”.

Rest assured that admissions officers are not cavalier in making their decisions … The reality is that because young men are rarer, they’re more valued applicants. Today, two-thirds of colleges and universities report that they get more female than male applicants, and more than 56 percent of undergraduates nationwide are women. Demographers predict that by 2009, only 42 percent of all baccalaureate degrees awarded in the United States will be given to men.


The Party Line

February 25th, 2012 - 3:22 pm
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The Last to Know

February 25th, 2012 - 10:20 am

Foreign Policy’s Cable reports that “the State Department has begun coordinating with Syria’s neighbors to prepare for the handling of President Bashar al-Assad’s extensive weapons of mass destruction if and when his regime collapses, The Cable has learned.”

This week, the State Department sent a diplomatic demarche to Syria’s neighbors Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, warning them about the possibility of Syria’s WMDs crossing their borders and offering U.S. government help in dealing with the problem, three Obama administration officials confirmed to The Cable. For concerned parties both inside and outside the U.S. government, the demarche signifies that the United States is increasingly developing plans to deal with the dangers of a post-Assad Syria — while simultaneously highlighting the lack of planning for how to directly bring about Assad’s downfall. …

The State Department declined to provide access to any officials to discuss the private diplomatic communication on the record, such as the author of the demarche Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman. In a meeting with reporters earlier this year, Countryman expressed confidence that the United States knows where Syria’s WMD stockpiles are, but warned that they could become a very serious security issue for Syria and the region going forward.

“We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are,” Countryman said. “We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout… When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions — chaotic or orderly.”

The acknowledgement of the existence of WMDs in Syria may rewrite history’s understanding of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. For the present, however, the Cable report raises the question of what sort of “plans” the administration could be developing for dealing with Syria? What is to prevent such weapons from migrating to Iraq for example? Surely not the forces which the administration has withdrawn?


Classical Gas

February 24th, 2012 - 4:19 pm

The rising price of gas is in the news. Naturally the administration cites it as a reason for why the public should support its policies. An exchange between a reporter and Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest makes the connection.

“We’ve never seen $5,” the reporter said. “We’ve seen $4. Now we’re going into the possibility of $5.” … “Well, as I pointed out, in the short term, what the president has pursued was a payroll tax cut that would put $40 in the pocket of every working — of the average American family every two weeks,” Earnest replied.

But the issue remains. It’s even forcing some government officials to consider delaying their gas tax proposals. “Rising gas prices and the need to tackle a tough state budget are creating mounting challenges for Gov. Martin O’Malley’s gas tax proposal”, said the Washington Post. Between the price at the pump and the need to keep government expenditures going, well what’s a politician to do? Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore said he hadn’t seen the public this exercised since the recent flap about same-sex marriages.


It Works Like a Charm

February 24th, 2012 - 11:26 am

Alexandra Kassimi describes what it takes to start an online store in Greece. You know the place where people have no money, jobs or prospect of employment.

“Most stores begin operating after receiving only the approval regarding their brand name, as the bureaucracy involved takes such a long time to complete that it is simply impossible to keep up with the operational costs, such as paying rent on obligatory headquarters, without making any sales,” said Antonopoulos.

Antonopoulos and his partners spent hours collecting papers from tax offices, the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the municipal service where the company is based, the health inspector’s office, the fire department and banks. At the health department, they were told that all the shareholders of the company would have to provide chest X-rays, and, in the most surreal demand of all, stool samples.

Once they climbed the crazy mountain of Greek bureaucracy and reached the summit, they faced the quagmire of the bank, where the issue of how to confirm the credit card details of customers ended in the bank demanding that the entire website be in Greek only, including the names of the products.

Nothing in the story makes sense until you finally understand that the store is there — as is everything — to keep the bureaucrats involved. The health inspector, fire department, the regulated banker, the tech who literally analyzes the s**t. They are who the online store is supposed to support. They are what the economy is about.



February 23rd, 2012 - 10:26 pm

In December of last year, RecordNet asked whether union pensions would ultimately drive the city of Stockton, California, into bankruptcy. They were not optimistic:

If the union prevails, the city would be legally obligated to pay its members’ back pay. That would be — estimates vary — $9.1 million to $10 million.

Such a ruling would be bad news for the city. The city has only $1 million in reserves. It is struggling to pay off giant debts. Costs such as retiree medical are rising.

Furthermore, city finance experts fear the city has not hit bottom: property values will continue to decline, they believe; so will property tax revenues. The city will face deficits in the coming year.

This week CBS Sacramento reported that Stockton was considering precisely that:

The possibility of filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection. If it happens, Stockton would be the largest California city to go bankrupt.

It would follow in the footsteps of Vallejo, California, which was itself “the largest city to declare bankruptcy when it did so in 2008.”

Vallejo emerged from bankruptcy in mid-2011 by cutting costs and raising revenue:

Among other changes, city staffers now contribute more to their health insurance, new firefighters have lower pension plans, and the fire department no longer has minimum staffing requirements.

The city has also taken steps to find more revenue. It’s created a one-stop permit center for developers and is asking for a 1-cent sales-tax increase and medical marijuana tax on the Nov. 8 ballot.

The moves have paid off. Toys R Us is opening a new store, and Blu Homes, a pre-fabricated home manufacturer, is opening a plant on Mare Island, according to Assistant City Manager Craig Whittom.

The fire and police unions unsuccessfully sued to stop the bankruptcy, saying the city had ample funds and was merely trying to dodge its contract obligations.

Bankruptcy is a maneuver that the Stockton unions are now trying to block. Indeed, they have to apply for state permission to do so. The Sacramento Bee writes:

Last year, the Legislature decreed in Assembly Bill 506 that local governments could file bankruptcy only after either declaring a fiscal emergency or participating in a “neutral evaluation process.”

It was a modified version of legislation that public employees unions had sponsored to require local governments to gain state permission before filing bankruptcy, stemming from Vallejo’s insolvency.

Vallejo itself is emerging from the process scarred and with many issues unresolved. The Wall Street Journal describes Vallejo in the aftermath of bankruptcy, a city where the volunteer neighborhood watches had to stand in for the missing police and fire department regulars:

With the Vallejo police force cut back, the Kentucky Street Watch Owls, one of about 350 local neighborhood watch groups, has stepped up to confront pimps and hookers in the St. Vincent’s Hill neighborhood near downtown Vallejo. A surge in prostitution in this area began during the bankruptcy proceeding, according to residents and city officials. … The city’s police force operates at 38% of its peak capacity in 2004, and the fire department is at 30%.

The Owls, which ABC News noted was locally called the “Ho Patrol,” consisted largely of women, equipped with “fluorescent vests, cell phones and note pads, [who would snap] photos and write down descriptions of people they suspect[d] to be johns, hookers and pimps,” basically raining on their parade. But the Owls can’t hang up their vests and cell phones just yet. Vallejo emerged from bankruptcy with the largest issue unresolved: the fate of its pension obligations. Unless the unions give ground, Vallejo could fall back into even more dire straits:

Three union contracts — with the police, fire department employees and administrative workers — expire this year. Vallejo must win large concessions to stay on track with a five-year bankruptcy-exit strategy, which was approved in federal bankruptcy court so that Vallejo could emerge from the proceeding in August.

In particular, Vallejo must tackle pension payouts, which it didn’t deal with during bankruptcy. The pension payouts are set to rise from roughly $13 million in the current fiscal year to about $14 million in fiscal 2013, according to bankruptcy-court filings.

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“Just so. Just exactly so.”

February 22nd, 2012 - 10:44 pm

The chief argument against bailouts is they “privatize profits and socialize costs”. “In the financial language of options, “socializing losses” corresponds to private firms having a put option from the government: if they lose, the government will cover their losses.” For this to happen of course government must be involved in the economy. And a lot of people like it that way. But once certain activities are deemed too important to be left to the market or “too big to fail”, the public purse because commingled with the private.

Then we have bailouts whether they are called that or not.  Take Xavier Alvarez.



February 22nd, 2012 - 4:55 pm

Call it a failure of democracy. Stephen Reed, who began his political career in the Democratic Party as a teenager, heading the Teenage Democrats of Pennsylvania was the very definition of a popular politician.

Re-elected to the state house in 1976 and 1978, Reed was elected Dauphin County, Pennsylvania Commissioner in 1979 and Mayor of Harrisburg in 1981. He has won re-election as Mayor in 1985, 1989, 1993, 1997, 2001 and 2005. During the 2000s, he was considered “Pennsylvania’s most popular and successful mayor.” …

As late as January 2009, he was called “Mayor-for-life.”

Today, Reed is remembered as the man who borrowed Harrisburg, PA into so deep a hole they have to pipe the sunshine in. But during the good times, nobody thought the party would stop. The question is whether democracy has an Achilles’ Heel, in that politicians can always find a way to bribe voters with their own money, or in other cases, money borrowed in their name?


Lew, Jakin, Obama and ABBA

February 22nd, 2012 - 1:13 pm

Who can forget Kipling’s story about an unnamed British regiment, who first time out in Afghanistan, fled before a charge of the Ghazis.

Horrified, amused, and indignant, the Gurkhas beheld the retirement of the Fore and Aft with a running chorus of oaths and commentaries.

‘They run! The white men run! Colonel Sahib, may we also do a little running?’ murmured Runbir Thappa, the Senior Jemadar.

Everyone that is, but for the regimental drummer boys, Lew and Jakin, who were left behind as they were unable to keep up with the retreat.

Jakin and Lew would have fled also, but their short legs left them fifty yards in the rear … ‘Oh, the devils! They’ve gone an’ left us alone here! Wot’ll we do?’ …

‘We’re all that’s left of the Band, an’ we’ll be cut up as sure as death,’ said Jakin.

‘I’ll die game, then,’ said Lew thickly, fumbling with his tiny drummer’s sword. …

He slipped the drum-sling over his shoulder, thrust the fife into Lew’s hand, and the two boys marched out of the cover of the rock into the open, making a hideous hash of the first bars of the ‘British Grenadiers.’ …

The tune settled into full swing and the boys kept shoulder to shoulder, Jakin banging the drum as one possessed … The Fore and Aft were pouring out of the valley. What officers had said to men in that time of shame and humiliation will never be known; for neither officers nor men speak of it now.

Everyone who’re read Kipling knows what happened to Lew and Jakin.

The death of Times of London correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochilik by Syrian artillery in Homs may have similar results. It has prompted the British to summon the Syrian ambassador to protest amid reports that Damascus ordered the press center to be targeted as an object lesson to meddling foreigners.

Meanwhile, in other news, “the Obama administration, which has firmly rejected calls to arm the Syrian opposition, appeared at least to allow for the possibility Tuesday by emphasizing that “additional measures” might have to be considered if President Bashar al-Assad continues to escalate his military assault on civilians.”  That means the administration is apparently considering arming the Syrian opposition.