The United States may be a nation deep in debt, but you'd never guess, with stores still ringing in the takings. But it's the credit card firms who're making the killing, with shoppers weighing heavy on the plastic. RT's Anastasia Churkina met Reverend Billy - a man with a mission to break the American addiction to shopping.
Friday, December 31, 2010
There are fresh demonstrations in Madrid against severe budget cuts as the country tries to reduce its massive debt. Spain has been tipped as the next Eurozone economy at risk of needing a bailout, but some say it could be too big to save. RT talks to Jim Corr, a political activist and musician from the Irish band the Corrs.
Espionage Act: How the Government Can Engage in Serious Aggression Against the People of the United States
By Naomi Wolf (Huffington Post)
This week, Senators Joe Lieberman and Dianne Feinstein engaged in acts of serious aggression against their own constituents, and the American people in general. They both invoked the 1917 Espionage Act and urged its use in going after Julian Assange. For good measure, Lieberman extended his invocation of the Espionage Act to include a call to use it to investigate the New York Times, which published WikiLeaks' diplomatic cables. Reports yesterday suggest that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder may seek to invoke the Espionage Act against Assange.
These two Senators, and the rest of the Congressional and White House leadership who are coming forward in support of this appalling development, are cynically counting on Americans' ignorance of their own history -- an ignorance that is stoked and manipulated by those who wish to strip rights and freedoms from the American people. They are manipulatively counting on Americans to have no knowledge or memory of the dark history of the Espionage Act -- a history that should alert us all at once to the fact that this Act has only ever been used -- was designed deliberately to be used -- specifically and viciously to silence people like you and me.
The Espionage Act was crafted in 1917 -- because President Woodrow Wilson wanted a war and, faced with the troublesome First Amendment, wished to criminalize speech critical of his war. In the run-up to World War One, there were many ordinary citizens -- educators, journalists, publishers, civil rights leaders, union activists -- who were speaking out against US involvement in the war. The Espionage Act was used to round these citizens by the thousands for the newly minted 'crime' of their exercising their First Amendment Rights. A movie producer who showed British cruelty in a film about the Revolutionary War (since the British were our allies in World War I) got a ten-year sentence under the Espionage act in 1917, and the film was seized; poet E.E. Cummings spent three and a half months in a military detention camp under the Espionage Act for the 'crime' of saying that he did not hate Germans. Esteemed Judge Learned Hand wrote that the wording of the Espionage Act was so vague that it would threaten the American tradition of freedom itself. Many were held in prison for weeks in brutal conditions without due process; some, in Connecticut -- Lieberman's home state -- were severely beaten while they were held in prison. The arrests and beatings were widely publicized and had a profound effect, terrorizing those who would otherwise speak out.
Presidential candidate Eugene Debs received a ten-year prison sentence in 1918 under the Espionage Act for daring to read the First Amendment in public. The roundup of ordinary citizens -- charged with the Espionage Act -- who were jailed for daring to criticize the government was so effective in deterring others from speaking up that the Act silenced dissent in this country for a decade. In the wake of this traumatic history, it was left untouched -- until those who wish the same outcome began to try to reanimate it again starting five years ago, and once again, now. Seeing the Espionage Act rise up again is, for anyone who knows a thing about it, like seeing the end of a horror movie in which the zombie that has enslaved the village just won't die.
I predicted in 2006 that the forces that wish to strip American citizens of their freedoms, so as to benefit from a profitable and endless state of war -- forces that are still powerful in the Obama years, and even more powerful now that the Supreme Court decision striking down limits on corporate contributions to our leaders has taken effect -- would pressure Congress and the White House to try to breathe new life yet again into the terrifying Espionage Act in order to silence dissent. In 2005, Bush tried this when the New York Times ran its exposé of Bush's illegal surveillance of banking records -- the SWIFT program. This report was based, as is the WikiLeaks publication, on classified information. Then, as now, White House officials tried to invoke the Espionage Act against the New York Times. Talking heads on the right used language such as 'espioinage' and 'treason' to describe the Times' release of the story, and urged that Bill Keller be tried for treason and, if found guilty, executed. It didn't stick the first time; but, as I warned, since this tactic is such a standard part of the tool-kit for closing an open society -- 'Step Ten' of the 'Ten Steps' to a closed society: 'Rename Dissent 'Espionage' and Criticism of Government, 'Treason' -- I knew, based on my study of closing societies, that this tactic would resurface.
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Fragment of What the Bleep down the Rabbithole
By Mark LeVine (Al-Jazeera)
When your Swiss banker throws you overboard, you know you've made some very powerful enemies.
Long famed for hiding money for everyone from Nazis and drug lords to spies and dictators, the Swiss government's banking arm has decided that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange are just too hot even for it to handle.
And so the PostFinance, which runs the country's banks, declared in early December that it had "ended its business relationship with WikiLeaks founder Julian Paul Assange" after accusing Mr. Assange of - gasp! - providing false information about his place of residence.
This move followed similar moves by credit card companies MasterCard and Visa, as well as PayPal and Amazon.com, to no longer process WikiLeaks payments and, in Amazon.com's case, to cease hosting its data.
As I write this, Bank of America has joined the crescendo of corporations taking aim at WikiLeaks, refusing to process payments for it any longer because of "our reasonable belief that WikiLeaks may be engaged in activities that are, among other things, inconsistent with our internal policies for processing payments."
And soon after, none other than Apple joined the chorus, pulling the plug on a WikiLeaks app only days after it went on sale on its iTunes website. Every sector of the corporate economy, it seems, is out to get WikiLeaks.
Zeroing in on "neocorporatism"
Should CIA agents, mafia bosses and other fellow Swiss banking customers who have likely been even less than forthright in their personal representations than Assange is alleged to have been also worry about the loyalty and discretion of their Swiss bankers?
Probably not. And that's because the world's criminals, autocrats and spooks are very much part of the global political economic system, even if sometimes on opposite sides.
But WikiLeaks both operates outside the system, seeking "Matrix"-style, to use technology - the internet - to "destroy" it by prying it open to public scrutiny, exposing the constant conspiracies of the powerful against the rest of society.
This task, Assange argues, is the most important way to help free the system's millions of often complicit - if not quite willing - victims and in so doing, "change or remove... government and neocorporatist behaviour".
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Roosevelt Institute Braintruster William K. Black explains how the finance economy preys on the real economy instead of serving it. He shows how both have become dysfunctional and warns that we must not neglect the real economy — the source of our jobs, our incomes, and the creator of goods and services — as we focus on financial reform.
What exactly is the function of the financial sector in our society? Simply this: Its sole function is supplying capital efficiently to aid the real economy. The financial sector is a tool to help those that make real tools, not an end in itself. But five fatal flaws in the financial sector's current structure have created a monster that drains the real economy, promotes fraud and corruption, threatens democracy, and causes recurrent, intensifying crises.
1. The financial sector harms the real economy.
Even when not in crisis, the financial sector harms the real economy. First, it is vastly too large. The finance sector is an intermediary — essentially a "middleman". Like all middlemen, it should be as small as possible, while still being capable of accomplishing its mission. Otherwise it is inherently parasitical. Unfortunately, it is now vastly larger than necessary, dwarfing the real economy it is supposed to serve. Forty years ago, our real economy grew better with a financial sector that received one-twentieth as large a percentage of total profits (2%) than does the current financial sector (40%). The minimum measure of how much damage the bloated, grossly over-compensated finance sector causes to the real economy is this massive increase in the share of total national income wasted through the finance sector's parasitism.
Second, the finance sector is worse than parasitic. In the title of his recent book, The Predator State, James Galbraith aptly names the problem. The financial sector functions as the sharp canines that the predator state uses to rend the nation. In addition to siphoning off capital for its own benefit, the finance sector misallocates the remaining capital in ways that harm the real economy in order to reward already-rich financial elites harming the nation. The facts are alarming:
• Corporate stock repurchases and grants of stock to officers have exceeded new capital raised by the U.S. capital markets this decade. That means that the capital markets decapitalize the real economy. Too often, they do so in order to enrich corrupt corporate insiders through accounting fraud or backdated stock options.
• The U.S. real economy suffers from critical shortages of employees with strong mathematical, engineering, and scientific backgrounds. Graduates in these three fields all too frequently choose careers in finance rather than the real economy because the financial sector provides far greater executive compensation. Individuals with these quantitative backgrounds work overwhelmingly in devising the kinds of financial models that were important contributors to the financial crisis. We take people that could be conducting the research & development work essential to the success of our real economy (including its success in becoming sustainable) and put them instead in financial sector activities where, because of that sector's perverse incentives, they further damage both the financial sector and the real economy. Michael Moore makes this point in his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story.
• The financial sector's fixation on accounting earnings leads it to pressure U.S manufacturing and service firms to export jobs abroad, to deny capital to firms that are unionized, and to encourage firms to use foreign tax havens to evade paying U.S. taxes.
• It misallocates capital by creating recurrent financial bubbles. Instead of flowing to the places where it will be most useful to the real economy, capital gets directed to the investments that create the greatest fraudulent accounting gains. The financial sector is particularly prone to providing exceptional amounts of funds to what I call accounting "control frauds". Control frauds are seemingly-legitimate entities used by the people that control them as a fraud "weapons." In the financial sector, accounting frauds are the weapons of choice. Accounting control frauds are so attractive to lenders and investors because they produce record, guaranteed short-term accounting "profits." They optimize by growing rapidly like other Ponzi schemes, making loans to borrowers unlikely to be able to repay them (once the bubble bursts), and engaging in extreme leverage. Unless there is effective regulation and prosecution, this misallocation creates an epidemic of accounting control fraud that hyper-inflates financial bubbles. The FBI began warning of an "epidemic" of mortgage fraud in its congressional testimony in September 2004. It also reports that 80% of mortgage fraud losses come when lender personnel are involved in the fraud. (The other 20% of the fraud would have been impossible had these fraudulent lenders not suborned their underwriting systems and their internal and external controls in order to maximize their growth of bad loans.)
• Because the financial sector cares almost exclusively about high accounting yields and "profits", it misallocates capital away from firms and entrepreneurs that could best improve the real economy (e.g., by reducing short-term profits through funding the expensive research & development that can produce innovative goods and superior sustainability) and could best reduce poverty and inequality (e.g., through microcredit finance that would put the "Payday lenders" and predatory mortgage lenders out of business).
• It misallocates capital by securing enormous governmental subsidies for financial firms, particularly those that have the greatest political power and would otherwise fail due to incompetence and fraud.
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From Why women really do love self-obsessed psychopaths by Steve Connor (The Independent)
Bad boys, it seems, really do get all the girls. Women might claim they want caring, thoughtful types but scientists have discovered what they really want – self-obsessed, lying psychopaths.
A study has found that men with the "dark triad" of traits – narcissism, thrill- seeking and deceitfulness – are likely to have a larger number of sexual affairs.
Peter Jonason, of New Mexico University in Las Cruces, believes that these traits may have an innate, genetic component that explains why some men seem unable to stop themselves behaving badly.
The dark triad of traits are the self-obsession of narcissism, the impulsive, thrill-seeking and callous behaviour of psychopaths and the deceitful and exploitative nature of Machiavellianism. "We have some evidence these traits may represent a successful evolutionary strategy," Dr Jonason told New Scientist magazine.
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From Hungary's 'Orbanization' Is Worrying Europe, by Erich Follath (DerSpiegel)
The move by Hungary's right-wing government to muzzle the media is the most recent example of a disturbing political trend in the country that was once hailed as a model for post-commununist development. Should Europe impose sanctions just as Hungary is about to assume the rotating EU presidency?
The Hungarians have been Europe's heroes twice in the last few decades. The way they fearlessly faced off against Soviet tanks in 1956 and fought for their ideals remains unforgotten. In 1989, they courageously opened the borders that separated Eastern Europe from freedom. And in the initial years following the fall of communism, many saw Budapest as a possible model for the successful development of a democracy and market economy. Hungary, the land of the Magyars, was also a land of hope.
But that seems long ago now. The rotating chairmanship of the European Union, which Hungary assumes on Jan. 1, will not represent the culmination of a successful story. In fact, the opposite could be the case. Because of its policies, Budapest could now "be in for some serious problems," Martin Schulz, the parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats in the European Parliament said last Tuesday. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn went a step further, accusing the Hungarian government of violating "the spirit and text of the EU treaties." "The question arises," he continued, "as to whether such a country deserves to lead the EU. If we don't do anything, it will be very difficult to talk to China or Iran about human rights."
A great deal of anger has been building up. The fact that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has just cold-bloodedly pushed through a law that muzzles the press, only a few days before he steps onto the pan-European stage, is just the final straw. It has been a last, and possibly decisive step towards autocracy.
No other European politician will have as much power to implement such drastic measures against critical media as Orbán, whose right-wing populist Fidesz Party has a two-thirds majority in parliament. The new, 170-page law attempts to regulate all television and radio stations, newspapers and Internet sites. It even applies to blogs and foreign media available in Hungary.
At the center of the control mechanisms is a new government agency staffed exclusively with Fidesz members. It has the power to impose fines of up to €750,000 ($983,000) for articles with objectionable content -- and it alone will decide what is deemed objectionable. The staff of public media organizations will be placed under government supervision.
Outraged opposition politicians demanded to know how this differs from censorship in the days of former Communist Party General Secretary János Kádár, and demonstratively taped their mouths shut in parliament. Some Hungarian newspapers have published empty front pages in protest at the law.
Government representatives assured critics that the new law would not be applied in a restrictive manner. But when a journalist of government-owned radio station MR1-Kossuth Radio used a minute of silence to protest the change in the treatment of the press, he was suspended.
There are many reasons for Hungary's descent into the ranks of countries that are only partially democratic, but archconservatives and the radical right wing are not the only ones responsible for this adverse development. The Hungarian left has committed a form of gradual suicide. For several parliamentary terms it had the chance to shape Hungary, most recently between 2006 and the spring of 2010. But hopeful steps were quickly abandoned as corruption and nepotism shaped the political scene. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány highlighted the dilemma in a 2006 speech, when he said: "No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have … We have lied in the morning, at noon and at night." It was only the failure of the Socialists that enabled the triumph of the conservative challenger, a seducer of the people.
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