Monday, November 3, 2008

Gobekli Tepe: The world’s first temple?

Six miles from Urfa, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey, Klaus Schmidt has made one of the most startling archaeological discoveries of our time: massive carved stones about 11,000 years old, crafted and arranged by prehistoric people who had not yet developed metal tools or even pottery. The megaliths predate Stonehenge by some 6,000 years. The place is called Gobekli Tepe, and Schmidt, a German archaeologist who has been working here more than a decade, is convinced it's the site of the world's oldest temple.

"Guten Morgen," he says at 5:20 a.m. when his van picks me up at my hotel in Urfa. Thirty minutes later, the van reaches the foot of a grassy hill and parks next to strands of barbed wire. We follow a knot of workmen up the hill to rectangular pits shaded by a corrugated steel roof—the main excavation site. In the pits, standing stones, or pillars, are arranged in circles. Beyond, on the hillside, are four other rings of partially excavated pillars. Each ring has a roughly similar layout: in the center are two large stone T-shaped pillars encircled by slightly smaller stones facing inward. The tallest pillars tower 16 feet and, Schmidt says, weigh between seven and ten tons. As we walk among them, I see that some are blank, while others are elaborately carved: foxes, lions, scorpions and vultures abound, twisting and crawling on the pillars' broad sides.

Schmidt points to the great stone rings, one of them 65 feet across. "This is the first human-built holy place," he says.

From this perch 1,000 feet above the valley, we can see to the horizon in nearly every direction. Schmidt, 53, asks me to imagine what the landscape would have looked like 11,000 years ago, before centuries of intensive farming and settlement turned it into the nearly featureless brown expanse it is today.

Prehistoric people would have gazed upon herds of gazelle and other wild animals; gently flowing rivers, which attracted migrating geese and ducks; fruit and nut trees; and rippling fields of wild barley and wild wheat varieties such as emmer and einkorn. "This area was like a paradise," says Schmidt, a member of the German Archaeological Institute. Indeed, Gobekli Tepe sits at the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent—an arc of mild climate and arable land from the Persian Gulf to present-day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt—and would have attracted hunter-gatherers from Africa and the Levant. And partly because Schmidt has found no evidence that people permanently resided on the summit of Gobekli Tepe itself, he believes this was a place of worship on an unprecedented scale—humanity's first "cathedral on a hill."

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Paulson's swindle revealed

The swindle of American taxpayers is proceeding more or less in broad daylight, as the unwitting voters are preoccupied with the national election. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson agreed to invest $125 billion in the nine largest banks, including $10 billion for Goldman Sachs, his old firm. But, if you look more closely at Paulson's transaction, the taxpayers were taken for a ride--a very expensive ride. They paid $125 billion for bank stock that a private investor could purchase for $62.5 billion. That means half of the public's money was a straight-out gift to Wall Street, for which taxpayers got nothing in return.
 
These are dynamite facts that demand immediate action to halt the bailout deal and correct its giveaway terms. Stop payment on the Treasury checks before the bankers can cash them. Open an immediate Congressional investigation into how Paulson and his staff determined such a sweetheart deal for leading players in the financial sector and for their own former employer. Paulson's bailout staff is heavily populated with Goldman Sachs veterans and individuals from other Wall Street firms. Yet we do not know whether these financiers have fully divested their own Wall Street holdings. Were they perhaps enriching themselves as they engineered this generous distribution of public wealth to embattled private banks and their shareholders?

Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, raised these explosive questions in a stinging letter sent to Paulson this week. The union did what any private investor would do. Its finance experts vetted the terms of the bailout investment and calculated the real value of what Treasury bought with the public's money. In the case of Goldman Sachs, the analysis could conveniently rely on a comparable sale twenty days earlier. Billionaire Warren Buffett invested $5 billion in Goldman Sachs and bought the same types of securities--preferred stock and warrants to purchase common stock in the future. Only Buffett's preferred shares pay a 10 percent dividend, while the public gets only 5 percent. Dollar for dollar, Buffett "received at least seven and perhaps up to 14 times more warrants than Treasury did and his warrants have more favorable terms," Gerard pointed out.

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Ellsberg: 'The US President is not a king'

Bankole Thompson interviews Daniel Ellsberg

DETROIT, Michigan  - At 76, Daniel Ellsberg is still vocal. The man who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1969, leading to the fall of President Richard Nixon, is speaking out this time on the 2008 presidential election.

IPS correspondent Bankole Thompson caught up with Ellsberg in downtown Detroit, where he keynoted the opening of the 2008 National Lawyers Guild (NLG) convention.

The celebrated whistle-blower has reservations about the candidacies of both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. But he still believes an Obama presidency would better deal with the constitutional crisis of the last eight years.

IPS: In your speech to the NLG, you said Nov. 4 will be an election between 'two monarchies.' Explain?

DE: The last seven years have expanded the powers of the president well beyond the bounds of the American constitution. Even [McCain's running mate] Sarah Palin said the other day 'well, it's rather flexible.' Well, it is not flexible enough to accommodate their view of the constitution of the president's role, which is that of a king -- exactly what the constitution meant to exclude was a ruler [who is] essentially beyond the laws. That's what the checks and balances were meant to reject.

With the cooperation of Congress, they really have said in the age of terrorism the president is a law unto himself. The fact is neither [Obama nor McCain] will inherit the limitations that are implicit in the constitution. If that's going to change, I do not think it will be by the efforts of the next president. No president has voluntarily cut back on the powers that they inherited when they came into office. It takes Congress to do that.

Again they won't do it without the public pressing them. There is some movement now for impeachment and for investigations that Congress has not responded to. I can't tell you whether it's because the movement is so small, and it is a minority or because Congress is so resistant. Why is Congress so uninterested in defending their own rules, their own powers?

IPS: If Obama won't do much to curtail presidential powers, why do you contend that it's 'urgent' for him to be elected?

DE: I disagree with Obama on many points of foreign policy and I'm very sorry that he has not stood up for the constitution. But in comparison with the Republicans, except Ron Paul who took the constitution seriously, any of the Democratic candidates [would be better].

To say the Republicans are no worse or no different is absurd. They've been consistently very much worse. I think if McCain were elected the chances of war with Iran alone would be much higher. I don't think there is chance with Obama. I think with McCain there is a high chance of war with Iran. That alone is reason to make it urgent to elect Obama.

It is not just a matter of his being better than McCain. That's a very low standard. He of course in many ways looks much more promising than people we've had.

IPS: What issues do you disagree with Obama on?

DE: On Iraq, he talks about ending the war. I don't think he intends to end the war in Iraq, but to keep our bases there. He wants to increase our forces in Afghanistan. I think that's a terrible mistake and could ruin his own presidency as well as kill a lot of Afghans. He wants to enlarge the size of the armed forces. That's the wrong way to go. He wants to increase the defence budget -- wrong way to go.

He can't achieve anything he wants to do significantly without doing something that he has so far not talked about doing -- and that is greatly reducing and converting the military budget. I don't even think he's likely to do that. And yet he can't achieve his goals by keeping the military budget at the level it is.

IPS: Has any government in the past reduced the military budget?

DE: Interestingly, the last one seriously to do it was Harry Truman just before the Korean War. Now you may not believe this, but he was getting the budget down to 10 billion dollars. And Korea came along and his backers used that as an excuse to quadruple the budget in a year and a half to two years. It went up to 40 billion dollars and never came down again. So that was an example after World War II.

The then secretary of defence [Louis Johnson] wanted to run as a president and his campaign was going to be 'I reduced the defence budget' and that was the last we heard of that. There was some talk of doing it after the Cold War and that didn't last very long. Otherwise it's going nowhere but up.

IPS: Which of the two, Obama or McCain, would be more prone to secrecy?

DE: Whether Obama would really, greatly change the system I don't know. But he has raised the secrecy issue and proposed to look at our regulations and not allow allegations of national security to trump everything. I think it's possible he would be much more open.

Both Clintons are rather secretive themselves in their own political world. But in terms of declassifying [President Clinton] was pretty good on that. And that was all reversed of course by George W. Bush.

For example, something Obama could do right in office is he could change the executive order Bush put in which made it much harder to get into presidential archives. George W. Bush, obviously in order to protect his own father, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, made it very much harder to get at a president's papers once he was out of office. Obama could change that with an executive order. He has nothing personally to worry about there. He is not related. It is not a dynasty here. Clinton would never do that now because they have too much to hide.

 

Retirement investment blows are smaller for lawmakers

Along with the rest of America, Representative George Miller has watched the value of his retirement investments plummet in recent weeks.

"I've lost 30 percent like everybody else. This hits home with the Miller family, too," the California Democrat said in a recent interview.

But the blow is softer for members of Congress than for most. Although lawmakers have lost value in their thrift savings plans - the government's version of a 401(k) - they are also offered a defined-benefit pension plan backed by the US Treasury and largely insulated from Wall Street fluctuations.

That puts Miller and the other lawmakers into an increasingly privileged category - workers with guaranteed retirement benefits that aren't subject to the vicissitudes of the financial markets.

Market meltdown or no, if Miller, 63, were to retire at the end of this year he'd take an annual pension of about $122,000, according to the National Taxpayers Union, a nonprofit advocacy group in Arlington, Va. On top of that, he could tap whatever remains in his 401(k)-like savings plan.

Lawmakers' retirement benefits start earlier and accrue faster than in plans offered to other federal workers, or by the average private company. Lawmakers also get cost-of-living increases, increasingly rare in the private sector.

Five percent of private sector workers have defined benefit pension plans, in which the employer pays into an account and promises benefits based on years of service, salary levels, and other factors. That's down from 1980, when 60 percent of workers had such plans, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Increasingly, employers are putting the responsibility for retirement - and the risk - onto workers by switching to investment plans like 401(k)s. About 30 percent of workers have 401(k)s, in which employees contribute to their own accounts, often with employers matching a small percentage of contributions, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Thirteen percent have both defined-benefit pensions and 401(k)s. The remaining workers don't have retirement coverage from their employers, according to the institute.

Despite the financial crisis - and the fact that lawmakers' retirement benefits are out of step with most ordinary Americans - Congress has made no effort to revisit its unusually sweet retirement deal.

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