Saturday, January 27, 2007

Daffy Does Doom


Published: January 27, 2007
The New York Times

Dick Durbin went to the floor of the Senate on Thursday night to denounce the vice president as “delusional.”

It was shocking, and Senator Durbin should be ashamed of himself.

Delusional is far too mild a word to describe Dick Cheney. Delusional doesn’t begin to capture the profound, transcendental one-flew-over daftness of the man.

Has anyone in the history of the United States ever been so singularly wrong and misguided about such phenomenally important events and continued to insist he’s right in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

It requires an exquisite kind of lunacy to spend hundreds of billions destroying America’s reputation in the world, exhausting the U.S. military, failing to catch Osama, enhancing Iran’s power in the Middle East and sending American kids to train and arm Iraqi forces so they can work against American interests.

Only someone with an inspired alienation from reality could, under the guise of exorcising the trauma of Vietnam, replicate the trauma of Vietnam.

You must have a real talent for derangement to stay wrong every step of the way, to remain in complete denial about Iraq’s civil war, to have a total misunderstanding of Arab culture, to be completely oblivious to the American mood and to be absolutely blind to how democracy works.

In a democracy, when you run a campaign that panders to homophobia by attacking gay marriage and then your lesbian daughter writes a book about politics and decides to have a baby with her partner, you cannot tell Wolf Blitzer he’s “out of line” when he gingerly raises the hypocrisy of your position.

Mr. Cheney acts more like a member of the James gang than the Jefferson gang. Asked by Wolf what would happen if the Senate passed a resolution critical of The Surge, Scary Cheney rumbled, “It won’t stop us.”

Such an exercise in democracy, he noted, would be “detrimental from the standpoint of the troops.”

Americans learned an important lesson from Vietnam about supporting the troops even when they did not support the war. From media organizations to Hollywood celebrities and lawmakers on both sides, everyone backs our troops.

It is W. and Vice who learned no lessons from Vietnam, probably because they worked so hard to avoid going. They rush into a war halfway around the world for no reason and with no foresight about the culture or the inevitable insurgency, and then assert that any criticism of their fumbling management of Iraq and Afghanistan is tantamount to criticizing the troops. Quel demagoguery.

“Bottom line,” Vice told Wolf, “is that we’ve had enormous successes, and we will continue to have enormous successes.” The biggest threat, he said, is that Americans may not “have the stomach for the fight.”

He should stop casting aspersions on the American stomach. We’ve had the stomach for more than 3,000 American deaths in a war sold as a cakewalk.

If W. were not so obsessed with being seen as tough, Mr. Cheney could not influence him with such tripe.

They are perpetually guided by the wrong part of the body. They are consumed by the fear of looking as if they don’t have guts, when they should be compelled by the desire to look as if they have brains.

After offering Congress an olive branch in the State of the Union, the president resumed mindless swaggering. Asked yesterday why he was ratcheting up despite the resolutions, W. replied, “In that I’m the decision maker, I had to come up with a way forward that precluded disaster.” (Or preordained it.)

The reality of Iraq, as The Times’s brilliant John Burns described it to Charlie Rose this week, is that a messy endgame could be far worse than Vietnam, leading to “a civil war on a scale with bloodshed that will absolutely dwarf what we’re seeing now,” and a “wider conflagration, with all kinds of implications for the world’s flow of oil, for the state of Israel. What happens to King Abdullah in Jordan if there’s complete chaos in the region?”

Mr. Cheney has turned his perversity into foreign policy.

He assumes that the more people think he’s crazy, the saner he must be. In Dr. No’s nutty world-view, anti-Americanism is a compliment. The proof that America is right is that everyone thinks it isn’t.

He sees himself as a prophet in the wilderness because he thinks anyone in the wilderness must be a prophet.

To borrow one of his many dismissive words, it’s hogwash.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

A Convenient Truth

Published: January 26, 2007
The New York Times

Melbourne, Australia

CAN it be ethical for a young girl to be treated with hormones so she will remain below normal height and weight, to have her uterus removed and to have surgery on her breasts so they will not develop? Such treatment, applied to a profoundly intellectually disabled girl known only as Ashley, has led to criticism of Ashley’s parents, of the doctors who carried out the treatment, and of the ethics committee at Seattle Children’s Hospital, which approved it.

Ashley is 9, but her mental age has never progressed beyond that of a 3-month-old. She cannot walk, talk, hold a toy or change her position in bed. Her parents are not sure she recognizes them. She is expected to have a normal lifespan, but her mental condition will never improve.

In a blog, Ashley’s parents explain that her treatment is not for their convenience but to improve her quality of life. If she remains small and light, they will be able to continue to move her around frequently and take her along when they go out with their other two children. The hysterectomy will spare her the discomfort of menstrual cramps, and the surgery to prevent the development of breasts, which tend to be large in her family, will make her more comfortable whether lying down or strapped across the chest in her wheelchair.

All this is plausible, even if it is also true that the line between improving Ashley’s life and making it easier for her parents to handle her scarcely exists, because anything that makes it possible for Ashley’s parents to involve her in family life is in her interest.

The objections to Ashley’s treatment take three forms familiar to anyone working in bioethics. First, some say Ashley’s treatment is “unnatural” — a complaint that usually means little more than “Yuck!” One could equally well object that all medical treatment is unnatural, for it enables us to live longer, and in better health, than we naturally would. During most of human existence, children like Ashley were abandoned to become prey to wolves and jackals. Abandonment may be a “natural” fate for a severely disabled baby, but it is no better for that reason.

Second, some see acceptance of Ashley’s treatment as the first step down a slippery slope leading to widespread medical modification of children for the convenience of their parents. But the ethics committee that approved Ashley’s treatment was convinced that the procedures were in her best interest. Those of us who have not heard the evidence presented to the committee are in a weak position to contest its judgment.

In any case, the “best interest” principle is the right test to use, and there is no reason that other parents of children with intellectual disabilities as profound as Ashley’s should not have access to similar treatments, if they will also be in the interest of their children. If there is a slippery slope here, the much more widespread use of drugs in “problem” children who are diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder poses a far greater risk than attenuating growth in a small number of profoundly disabled children.

Finally, there is the issue of treating Ashley with dignity. A Los Angeles Times report on Ashley’s treatment began: “This is about Ashley’s dignity. Everybody examining her case seems to agree at least about that.” Her parents write in their blog that Ashley will have more dignity in a body that is healthier and more suited to her state of development, while their critics see her treatment as a violation of her dignity.

But we should reject the premise of this debate. As a parent and grandparent, I find 3-month-old babies adorable, but not dignified. Nor do I believe that getting bigger and older, while remaining at the same mental level, would do anything to change that.

Here’s where things get philosophically interesting. We are always ready to find dignity in human beings, including those whose mental age will never exceed that of an infant, but we don’t attribute dignity to dogs or cats, though they clearly operate at a more advanced mental level than human infants. Just making that comparison provokes outrage in some quarters. But why should dignity always go together with species membership, no matter what the characteristics of the individual may be?

What matters in Ashley’s life is that she should not suffer, and that she should be able to enjoy whatever she is capable of enjoying. Beyond that, she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her. Lofty talk about human dignity should not stand in the way of children like her getting the treatment that is best both for them and their families.

Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, is the author of “Writings on an Ethical Life.”

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On Being Partisan


Published: January 26, 2007
The New York Times

American politics is ugly these days, and many people wish things were different. For example, Barack Obama recently lamented the fact that “politics has become so bitter and partisan” — which it certainly has.

But he then went on to say that partisanship is why “we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that’s what we have to change first.” Um, no. If history is any guide, what we need are political leaders willing to tackle the big problems despite bitter partisan opposition. If all goes well, we’ll eventually have a new era of bipartisanship — but that will be the end of the story, not the beginning.

Or to put it another way: what we need now is another F.D.R., not another Dwight Eisenhower.

You see, the nastiness of modern American politics isn’t the result of a random outbreak of bad manners. It’s a symptom of deeper factors — mainly the growing polarization of our economy. And history says that we’ll see a return to bipartisanship only if and when that economic polarization is reversed.

After all, American politics has been nasty in the past. Before the New Deal, America was a nation with a vast gap between the rich and everyone else, and this gap was reflected in a sharp political divide. The Republican Party, in effect, represented the interests of the economic elite, and the Democratic Party, in an often confused way, represented the populist alternative.

In that divided political system, the Democrats probably came much closer to representing the interests of the typical American. But the G.O.P.’s advantage in money, and the superior organization that money bought, usually allowed it to dominate national politics. “I am not a member of any organized party,” Will Rogers said. “I am a Democrat.”

Then came the New Deal. I urge Mr. Obama — and everyone else who thinks that good will alone is enough to change the tone of our politics — to read the speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the quintessential example of a president who tackled big problems that demanded solutions.

For the fact is that F.D.R. faced fierce opposition as he created the institutions — Social Security, unemployment insurance, more progressive taxation and beyond — that helped alleviate inequality. And he didn’t shy away from confrontation.

“We had to struggle,” he declared in 1936, “with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. ... Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

It was only after F.D.R. had created a more equal society, and the old class warriors of the G.O.P. were replaced by “modern Republicans” who accepted the New Deal, that bipartisanship began to prevail.

The history of the last few decades has basically been the story of the New Deal in reverse. Income inequality has returned to levels not seen since the pre-New Deal era, and so have political divisions in Congress as the Republicans have moved right, once again becoming the party of the economic elite. The signature domestic policy initiatives of the Bush administration have been attempts to undo F.D.R.’s legacy, from slashing taxes on the rich to privatizing Social Security. And a bitter partisan gap has opened up between the G.O.P. and Democrats, who have tried to defend that legacy.

What about the smear campaigns, like Karl Rove’s 2005 declaration that after 9/11 liberals wanted to “offer therapy and understanding for our attackers”? Well, they’re reminiscent of the vicious anti-Catholic propaganda used to defeat Al Smith in 1928: smear tactics are what a well-organized, well-financed party with a fundamentally unpopular domestic agenda uses to change the subject.

So am I calling for partisanship for its own sake? Certainly not. By all means pass legislation, if you can, with plenty of votes from the other party: the Social Security Act of 1935 received 77 Republican votes in the House, about the same as the number of Republicans who recently voted for a minimum wage increase.

But politicians who try to push forward the elements of a new New Deal, especially universal health care, are sure to face the hatred of a large bloc on the right — and they should welcome that hatred, not fear it.

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Gates calls for end to stop-loss

By Gordon Lubold - Staff writer
Posted : Friday Jan 26, 2007 5:51:30 EST
The Air Force Times

As the Pentagon scrambles to identify enough troops to support its missions in Iraq and elsewhere, the Pentagon’s new boss is cracking down on the use of “stop loss” as a way to prevent service members from getting out of uniform on schedule.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told each of the service secretaries and other senior defense officials that it’s time to all but end the use of the unpopular stop-loss policy and find other ways to find the manpower the Defense Department needs.

The change will not affect the active Air Force, which has not used its stop-loss authority since 2003. The service since then has met or exceeded its end-strength goals.

Stop-loss authority allows the services to extend people on active-duty at will by delaying planned separations, retirements and demobilizations.

“Use of stop loss will be minimized for both active and Reserve component forces,” Gates wrote in a Jan. 19 memo that also outlined a number of other personnel initiatives that were widely reported in mid-January.

Gates directed that Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, each of the service secretaries, and the undersecretaries of defense to get back with him by Feb. 28 on their plans for reducing their use of stop-loss authority.

Since taking office in December, Gates has been intent on restructuring personnel policies to fight the war on terrorism. He also announced that he is growing the size of the Army and Marine Corps and changing some of the existing mobilization policies for National Guard and Reserve members. Gates also formally announced a compensation program for service members who are deployed earlier than planned or extended past the expected end of their deployments.

The directive on stop loss particularly affects the Army. As of last fall, for example, more than 10,000 regular Army, National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers were being retained beyond their planned separation or retirement dates.

The Marine Corps, which used the stop-loss policy during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, has all but abandoned their use of the policy. The Navy started using stop-loss after Sept. 11, 2001, until December 2002; 301 people were prevented from leaving the service during that period. The last time the service used the policy again was in April 2003, when it prevented 179 corpsmen from getting out of uniform.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Energy Research on a Shoestring

Published: January 25, 2007
The New York Times

GOLDEN, Colo. — Thirty years after it was founded by President Jimmy Carter, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at the edge of the Rockies here still does not have a cafeteria.

Evaporation chambers for new solar energy systems look like they belong in an H. G. Wells movie. Technicians had to knock out a giant door from a testing facility to fit modern wind turbine blades, which now stick out like a bare toe from an old sock.

The hopes for this neglected lab brightened a bit just over a year ago when President Bush made the first presidential call on the lab since Mr. Carter and spelled out a vision for the not-too-distant future in which solar and wind power would help run every American home and cars would operate on biofuels made from residues of plants.

But one year after the president’s visit, the money flowing into the nation’s primary laboratory for developing renewable fuels is actually less than it was at the beginning of the Bush administration. The lab’s fitful history reflects a basic truth: Americans may have a growing love affair with renewables and the idea of cutting oil imports and conserving energy, but it is a fickle one.

Riding that wave, the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, just promised committee hearings on how lawmakers could help limit climate change and enhance energy independence; Congressional Democrats pledged to find more research dollars for clean energy. [And President Bush, in his State of the Union address, called for greater federal mandates to increase use of homegrown alternative fuels.]

But the intertwined goals of developing domestic energy resources and reducing global warming gases are not necessarily in step with each other. Despite a lot of promises, no one so far has wanted to pay the extra costs to make wind and solar more than a trivial energy source. Research is uncertain and expensive, and the benefits seem far away.

So while all kinds of domestic energy technologies are being advanced in the name of energy independence, most of the money and attention are still focused on the dirty but cheaper standbys: offshore oil, oil sands and coal, in all its various incarnations, from straight out of the pit to black-coal liquid.

“You have fossil fuels competing with renewable fuels,” said Benjamin Kroposki, a senior scientist at the Renewable Energy Laboratory. “Renewables lose every time.”

One example is the shotgun approach to tax incentives, loan guarantees and other spending in the 2005 energy act, the first major energy legislation enacted by Congress in a decade: $13.1 billion for oil, gas and coal, $12 billion for nuclear energy and $7.7 billion divided up among a wide assortment of renewables like ethanol, hydroelectric, wind and solar.

Now that they are in control of Congress, Democrats have promised to increase the amount going to renewable energy sources, taking the money from tax breaks for oil companies.

But even additional money for renewable energy will be going up against government tax policies that encourage more energy consumption. Companies can still deduct purchases of sport utility vehicles and utility bills, for example, while consumers get a break to build bigger homes with deductions for interest payments on mortgages, even on second homes, that far outweigh their energy saving credits.

Meanwhile, fuel efficiency standards for automobiles have changed only slightly over the decades, and the federal government still does not have a building code to encourage energy efficiency.

It is a policy mix that goes back many administrations and appears difficult to shake, partly because dirty sources of energy like coal and shale are what the United States has in abundance.

“We are going dirtier,” said Amy Jaffe, an energy expert at the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. “If you need to come up with a fuel source other than drilling for oil under the ground in the Middle East, what is the most obvious thing with today’s economy, today’s infrastructure and today’s technology? Oil shale, liquefied coal and tar sands. It’s all dirty but it’s fast.”

Renewable energy today supplies only 6 percent of the country’s energy needs, and much of that comes from decades-old dams supplying hydropower. Under current policies, the Energy Information Administration estimates, renewables will increase only slightly in importance in the decades ahead. They would supply 7 percent of United States energy supplies by 2030, while coal would increase over the same period from 23 percent to 26 percent.

“Denmark gets 22 percent of its electrical energy from wind today and we get 0.5 percent,” noted Robert Thresher, director of the lab’s National Wind Technology Center. “That shows you what you can do when you really want to.”

Meanwhile imports of oil and gas are set to continue to rise in the decades ahead, as domestic production slows and the population grows.

“The current trends do not seem sustainable,” said Faith Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency. “For me the most important thing that is missing from current consideration is an increase in vehicle fuel efficiency.”

As they have in the past, higher prices for oil and gas have driven the renewed interest in alternative energy sources. With prices falling, some of that momentum may falter.

Still, President Bush advanced his call last year to end the nation’s oil addiction, providing some of the strongest rhetoric since President Carter called energy independence the moral equivalent of war.

[Mr. Bush set a goal of reducing gas use by 20 percent in the next 10 years. “To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017; this is nearly five times the current target,” he said Tuesday night.

[On Wednesday the administration sought to put some teeth into the goal by proposing $1.6 billion in new financing for renewable energy, with a focus on research and production of “cellulosic” energy from nonfood crops and agricultural waste.]

The Democratic Congress appears ready to put clean energy front and center in its agenda.

Prominent Democrats are talking about doubling the budget of the renewable energy lab, and otherwise greatly increase the priority of producing clean energy.

“You’ve got to invest in this new energy future that everybody pays lip service to, but when push comes to shove do we really stand there?” said Representative Mark Udall of Colorado, a senior Democratic spokesman on energy issues. “This is the country’s economic future not to mention the national security ramifications.”

Institutional investments in private clean energy companies in North America and Europe are rising quickly, from $500 million in 2004 to $1.3 billion in 2005 to $2.7 billion in 2006, according to Venture Business Research, an independent group based in Britain.

But even while top energy companies are also beginning to invest significant amounts in wind, solar and plants, those investments pale in comparison with the resources they are pouring into making synthetic fuels out of oil sands, a process that emits significantly more carbon dioxide than conventional oil.

Likewise energy companies are stepping up research and investments into oil sands, deep-ocean oil and gas drilling, and gasifying and liquefying coal — all with significant environmental consequences.

For instance, Royal Dutch Shell has invested $1 billion over the last five years in clean energy like biofuels for transportation, solar and wind for electrical generation and hydrogen. That is one of the biggest commitments to clean energy by any company, but it is less than one fifth of what Shell invested over roughly the same period with Chevron and another partner in a giant oil sand mining project in Canada.

The companies say they can contain emissions through a process called carbon capture and sequestration. But most experts say development of technologies to bury significant amounts of carbon gases effectively could take decades.

At the lab here, signs of change are mixed. Last year, the institution opened its first building in a decade, although meager budgets could leave its main laboratory as much as 80 percent vacant of equipment for the next several years unless Congress suddenly comes to the rescue.

Congressional earmarks that redirected Energy Department financing last year slowed or even shelved many research projects, including ones to develop bigger and more efficient wind turbines, to make hydrogen power out of a mix of algae and water, and to plant matter.

Its scientists are also doing ground-breaking work on finding environmentally benign ways of generating electricity to produce hydrogen from water to power cars; they are working on new materials and designs to make devices powered by solar cells cheaper; and they are developing enzymes and more efficient machinery to convert switchgrass and corn stalks into biofuels to reduce oil consumption.

When Chevron decided last year that it wanted to develop the next generation of ethanol and renewable plant-based diesel fuels from trees and agricultural waste, it turned to the lab here for a scientific partnership. Now Chevron and scientists from the federal laboratory are working to make hydrogen energy out of decomposed plants. DuPont, Cargill and the National Corn Growers Association look to the lab for help in producing ethanol.

But it is hardly the kind of crash program that government labs have conducted in the past to build an atomic bomb or go to the moon. Rather, the lab gingerly hands over slices of its yearly budget of $200 million to a smorgasbord of programs in solar, wind, plant matter, geothermal, hydrogen and fuel cells, efficient buildings, advanced vehicles and fuels and electric infrastructure.

“Our budget is nothing compared to the price of a B2 bomber or an aircraft carrier,” Rob Farrington, manager of the lab’s advanced vehicle systems group, said.

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Breaking the Clinch

(God help me - I'm reprinting a Brooks column...)

Published: January 25, 2007
The New York Times

Iraq is at the beginning of a civil war fought using the tactics of genocide, and it has all the conditions to get much worse. As a Newsweek correspondent, Christian Caryl, wrote recently from Baghdad, “What’s clear is that we’re far closer to the beginning of this cycle of violence than to its end.” As John Burns of The Times said on “Charlie Rose” last night, “Friends of mine who are Iraqis — Shiite, Sunni, Kurd — all foresee a civil war on a scale with bloodshed that would absolutely dwarf what we’re seeing now.”

Iraq already has the warlord structures that caused mass murder in Rwanda, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Violent, stupid men who would be the dregs of society under normal conditions rise amid the trauma, chaos and stress and become revered leaders.

They command squads of young men who leave the moral universe and have no future in a peacetime world. They kill for fun, faith and profit — because they find it more rewarding to massacre and loot than to farm or labor. They are manipulated by political leaders with a savage zero-sum mind-set, who know they must kill or be killed, and who are instituting strategic ethnic cleansing campaigns to expand their turf.

Worse, Iraq already has the psychological conditions that have undergirded the great bloodbaths of recent years. Iraqi minds, according to the most sensitive reporting, have already been rewired by the experiences of trauma and extreme stress.

Some people become hyperaggressive and turn into perfect killers. Others endure a phased mental shutdown that looks like severe depression. They lose their memory and become passive and fatalistic. They become perfect victims.

Amid the turmoil, the complexity of life falls away, and things are reduced to stark polarities: Sunni-Shiite or Shiite-Sunni, human-subhuman. Once this mental descent has begun, it is possible to kill without compunction.

In Rwanda, for example, the journalist Jean Hatzfeld interviewed a Hutu man who had killed his Tutsi neighbor. “At the fatal instant,” the man recalled, “I did not see in him what he had been before. ... His features were indeed similar to those of the person I knew, but nothing firmly reminded me that I had lived beside him for a long time.”

The weakness of the Bush surge plan is that it relies on the Maliki government to somehow be above this vortex. But there are no impartial institutions in Iraq, ready to foster reconciliation. As ABC’s Jonathan Karl notes in The Weekly Standard, the Shiite finance ministries now close banks that may finance Sunni investments. The Saadrist health ministries dismiss Sunni doctors. The sectarian vortex is not fomented by extremists who are appendages to society. The vortex is through and through.

The Democratic approach, as articulated by Senator Jim Webb — simply get out of Iraq “in short order” — is a howl of pain that takes no note of the long-term political and humanitarian consequences. Does the party that still talks piously about ending bloodshed in Darfur really want to walk away from a genocide the U.S. is partly responsible for? Are U.S. troops going to be pulled back to secure bases to watch passively while rivers of Iraqi blood lap at their gates? How many decades will Americans be fighting to quell the cycle of regional violence set loose by a transnational Sunni-Shiite explosion?

I for one have become disillusioned with dreams of transforming Iraqi society from the top down. But it’s not too late to steer the situation in a less bad direction. Increased American forces can do good — they are still, as David Ignatius says, the biggest militia on the block — provided they are directed toward realistic goals.

There is one option that does approach Iraqi reality from the bottom up. That option recognizes that Iraq is broken and that its people are fleeing their homes to survive. It calls for a “soft partition” of Iraq in order to bring political institutions into accord with the social facts — a central government to handle oil revenues and manage the currency, etc., but a country divided into separate sectarian areas to reduce contact and conflict. When the various groups in Bosnia finally separated, it became possible to negotiate a cold (if miserable) peace.

Soft partition has been advocated in different ways by Joe Biden and Les Gelb, by Michael O’Hanlon and Edward Joseph, by Pauline Baker at the Fund for Peace, and in a more extreme version, by Peter Galbraith.

On Sunday, I’ll give further publicity to their recommendations.

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Long on Rhetoric, Short on Sorrow

Published: January 25, 2007
The New York Times

President Bush showed what he does well at the beginning of the State of the Union ceremony when he graciously acknowledged and introduced Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House of Representatives. He seemed both generous and sincere, and it was the right touch for a genuinely historic moment.

At the end of his speech he introduced four Americans of whom the nation can be proud, including Wesley Autrey, a New Yorker who made like a Hollywood stunt man to save the life of a stricken passenger who had fallen onto the tracks in front of an oncoming subway train.

The rest of the evening was a study in governmental dysfunction. The audience kept mindlessly applauding — up and down, like marionettes — when in fact there was nothing to applaud. The state of the union is wretched, which is why the president’s approval ratings are the worst since Nixon and Carter.

If Mr. Bush is bothered by his fall from political grace, it wasn’t showing on Tuesday night. He seemed as relaxed as ever, smiling, signing autographs, glad-handing.

I wanted to hear him talk about the suffering of the soldiers he has put in harm’s way, and the plight of the residents of New Orleans. I wanted to hear him express a little in the way of sorrow for the many thousands who have died unnecessarily on his watch. I wanted to see him slip the surly bonds of narcissism and at least acknowledge the human wreckage that is the sum and substance of his sustained folly.

But this is a president who runs when empathy calls. While others are monitoring the casualty lists, he’s off to the gym. At least Lyndon Johnson had the decency to agonize over the losses he unleashed in Vietnam.

The State of the Union speech was boilerplate at a time when much of the country, with good reason, is boiling mad. The United States, the most powerful nation in the history of the world, seems paralyzed. It can’t extricate itself from the war in Iraq, can’t rebuild the lost city of New Orleans, can’t provide health care for all of its citizens, can’t come up with a sane energy policy in the era of global warming, can’t even develop a thriving public school system.

If it’s true, as President Bush told his audience, that “much is asked of us,” it’s equally true that very little has been delivered.

The Democrats, delighted by the wounded Bush presidency, believe this is their time. Like an ostentation of peacocks, an extraordinary crowd of excited candidates is gathering in hopes of succeeding Mr. Bush.

But such a timid crowd!

Ask a potential Democratic president what he or she would do about the war, and you’ll get a doctoral dissertation about the importance of diplomacy, the possibility of a phased withdrawal (but not too quick), the need for Iraqis to help themselves and figure out a way to divvy up the oil, and so on and so forth.

A straight answer? Surely you jest. The Democrats remind me of the boxer in the Bonnie Raitt lyric who was “afraid to throw a punch that might land.”

There’s a hole in the American system where the leadership used to be. The country that led the miraculous rebuilding effort in the aftermath of World War II can’t even build an adequate system of levees on its own Gulf Coast.

The most effective answer to this leadership vacuum would be a new era of political activism by ordinary citizens. The biggest, most far-reaching changes of the past century — the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement — were not primarily the result of elective politics, but rather the hard work of committed citizen-activists fed up with the status quo.

It’s time for thoughtful citizens to turn off their TVs and step into the public arena. Protest. Attend meetings. Circulate petitions. Run for office. I suspect the public right now is way ahead of the politicians when it comes to ideas about creating a more peaceful, more equitable, more intelligent society.

The candidates for the most part are listening to their handlers and gurus and fat-cat contributors, which is the antithesis of democracy. It’s not easy for ordinary men and women to be heard above that self-serving din, but it can be done.

Voters should listen to Dwight Eisenhower, who said in 1954:

“Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage.”

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Your MasterCard or Your Life


Published: January 22, 2007
The New York Times

Americans are increasingly living in a house of cards — credit cards.

A disturbing new report shows that with health care costs continuing their sharp rise, low- and middle-income patients are reaching for their credit cards with alarming frequency to cover treatment that they otherwise would be unable to afford.

This medical debt, to be paid off in many cases at sky-high interest rates, is being loaded onto consumer debt that is already at dangerously high levels. Many families have been crushed by the load, driven from their homes, forced into bankruptcy, and worse.

The report, released last week, was jointly compiled by Demos, a public policy group in New York, and the Access Project, which is affiliated with a health policy institute at Brandeis University and is trying to broaden the availability of health care in the U.S.

Imagine for a moment the seriously ill patient who needs to be hospitalized. In the cold new world of health care, the primary message to such patients is often “Show me the money!”

In many instances, of course, the patient does not have the money. What the report found is that even people with health insurance are being drained by health care costs to the point where the credit card seems the only option.

“As deductibles and co-payments increase,” the report said, “hospitals are finding more patients unable to pay their medical bills. Some hospital management analysts are expecting an increase in self-pay patients and are bracing for higher levels of bad debt.

“In recognition of the evolving payment landscape and the risk of hospital bad debt, health care providers are more aggressively seeking upfront collection of co-pays and deductibles. A component of this strategy is to encourage patients to use third-party lenders such as credit cards to pay for medical expenses they cannot afford, which families frequently do to meet high medical bills.”

It’s one thing to reach for your Visa or MasterCard to pay for a Barbie doll or flat-screen TV. It’s way different to pull out the plastic because you’ve just learned you have cancer or heart disease, and you don’t have any other way to pay for treatment that would prevent a premature trip to the great beyond.

A society is seriously out of whack when legalized loan sharks are encouraged to close in on those who are broke and desperately ill.

This medical indebtedness is hardly surprising. Health care costs continue to rise much faster than family income and inflation, and Americans (who have stopped saving altogether) were already mired in staggering amounts of personal debt. Some families have been putting their groceries on credit cards. Many have taken the financially disastrous step of using home equity loans to bring down credit card balances.

A serious illness for people already in shaky economic circumstances can be the final push into bankruptcy.

According to the report, called “Borrowing to Stay Healthy,” about 29 percent of low- and middle-income families with credit card debt reported using their credit cards to pay medical expenses — in most cases for major medical problems.

Over all, a full 20 percent of low- and middle-income families with credit card debt said they had used their cards to cover major medical expenses over the prior three years.

This indebtedness — subject to monthly late fees and penalties, and interest rates that can reach 30 percent — only adds to the trauma of serious illness.

It’s believed that 29 million Americans are burdened with medical debt of one form or another. Individuals who are already saddled with medical bills that they can’t pay are much more likely to avoid further medical treatment and to leave drug prescriptions unfilled. Such decisions often have life-threatening consequences.

There is an epidemic of personal bankruptcies in the U.S. and medical factors are believed to play a role in as many as half of them.

These are problems that cry out for reform — of the American health care system and the American way of debt, both of which seriously threaten the American way of life. At the very least, in the short term, we need to protect financially vulnerable patients from a credit card universe in which there are no legal limits on fees or interest, and where the abuse of customers is the norm.

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Gold-Plated Indifference


Published: January 22, 2007
The New York Times

President Bush’s Saturday radio address was devoted to health care, and officials have put out the word that the subject will be a major theme in tomorrow’s State of the Union address. Mr. Bush’s proposal won’t go anywhere. But it’s still worth looking at his remarks, because of what they say about him and his advisers.

On the radio, Mr. Bush suggested that we should “treat health insurance more like home ownership.” He went on to say that “the current tax code encourages home ownership by allowing you to deduct the interest on your mortgage from your taxes. We can reform the tax code, so that it provides a similar incentive for you to buy health insurance.”

Wow. Those are the words of someone with no sense of what it’s like to be uninsured.

Going without health insurance isn’t like deciding to rent an apartment instead of buying a house. It’s a terrifying experience, which most people endure only if they have no alternative. The uninsured don’t need an “incentive” to buy insurance; they need something that makes getting insurance possible.

Most people without health insurance have low incomes, and just can’t afford the premiums. And making premiums tax-deductible is almost worthless to workers whose income puts them in a low tax bracket.

Of those uninsured who aren’t low-income, many can’t get coverage because of pre-existing conditions — everything from diabetes to a long-ago case of jock itch. Again, tax deductions won’t solve their problem.

The only people the Bush plan might move out of the ranks of the uninsured are the people we’re least concerned about — affluent, healthy Americans who choose voluntarily not to be insured. At most, the Bush plan might induce some of those people to buy insurance, while in the process — whaddya know — giving many other high-income individuals yet another tax break.

While proposing this high-end tax break, Mr. Bush is also proposing a tax increase — not on the wealthy, but on workers who, he thinks, have too much health insurance. The tax code, he said, “unwisely encourages workers to choose overly expensive, gold-plated plans. The result is that insurance premiums rise, and many Americans cannot afford the coverage they need.”

Again, wow. No economic analysis I’m aware of says that when Peter chooses a good health plan, he raises Paul’s premiums. And look at the condescension. Will all those who think they have “gold plated” health coverage please raise their hands?

According to press reports, the actual plan is to penalize workers with relatively generous insurance coverage. Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the wealthy; we’re talking about ordinary workers who have managed to negotiate better-than-average health plans.

What’s driving all this is the theory, popular in conservative circles but utterly at odds with the evidence, that the big problem with U.S. health care is that people have too much insurance — that there would be large cost savings if people were forced to pay more of their medical expenses out of pocket.

The administration also believes, for some reason, that people should be pushed out of employment-based health insurance — admittedly a deeply flawed system — into the individual insurance market, which is a disaster on all fronts. Insurance companies try to avoid selling policies to people who are likely to use them, so a large fraction of premiums in the individual market goes not to paying medical bills but to bureaucracies dedicated to weeding out “high risk” applicants — and keeping them uninsured.

I’m somewhat skeptical about health care plans, like that proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that propose covering gaps in the health insurance market with a series of patches, such as requiring that insurers offer policies to everyone at the same rate. But at least the authors of these plans are trying to help those most in need, and recognize that the market needs fixing.

Mr. Bush, on the other hand, is still peddling the fantasy that the free market, with a little help from tax cuts, solves all problems.

What’s really striking about Mr. Bush’s remarks, however, is the tone. The stuff about providing “incentives” to buy insurance, the sneering description of good coverage as “gold plated,” is right-wing think-tank jargon. In the past Mr. Bush’s speechwriters might have found less offensive language; now, they’re not even trying to hide his fundamental indifference to the plight of less-fortunate Americans.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Britain's war on two frontlines: In Afghanistan and Iraq, two missions, one deadly outcome

21 January 2007
The Independent UK

The offensive reported on the previous pages highlights the very different dangers faced by UK troops in the killing fields of Helmand and the streets of Basra. By Raymond Whitaker

Britain's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed the lives of three servicemen in combat so far this month - but they are very different conflicts.

Two Royal Marines died in operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan's Helmand province, where British forces are pushing hard to dislodge as many insurgents as possible before an expected offensive which may come as early as next month. The aim is to convince the local population that the Nato forces of which the British form part are stronger than the Taliban, and that their best interests lie in opposing the insurgents.

In Iraq, by contrast, the battle for hearts and minds has all but been given up. Although efforts continue to root out rogue elements in the Basra police, troops are largely staying within their bases and seeking to avoid casualties. A steady trickle of losses to small arms fire, mortars and roadside bombs continues, however, with another soldier killed on patrol last week.

The British military, in short, is on the front foot in Afghanistan and on the back foot in Iraq. But the number of troops stationed in and around Basra - around 7,100 - is still well above the total in Helmand, where some 4,000 troops are based out of a total force in Afghanistan of about 5,200. While the US prepares to send in extra forces to seize control of Baghdad, British military chiefs have long sought to "draw down" their Iraq contingent so that the Afghan mission can be beefed up. The delays in achieving this are beginning to impose increasing strains on forward planning.

Last week the new US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, who replaced the discredited Donald Rumsfeld, toured Afghanistan as well as Iraq, where he visited Basra. In Afghanistan American commanders asked him for more troops, and Mr Gates said he was "sympathetic" to their request. He refused to be more specific, saying: "It depends on different scenarios." But in the wake of his remarks it emerged Britain was also looking at ways of stepping up its force in Afghanistan.

Hillary Clinton, who yesterday announced her presidential bid in 2008, visited Afghanistan last week with a group of US Senators. "This is the great missed opportunity that I fear we're going to stumble on, because Afghanistan is, so far, quite a success story," she said. "We should be putting troops into Afghanistan to be ready for what will be a spring offensive by the Taliban."

The US, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, the four nations bearing the brunt of the fighting in southern Afghanistan, have for months been seeking about 2,500 more front-line troops to form a "quick reaction force", ready to intervene when clashes with the Taliban flare up. With the fighting expected to intensify within weeks as winter eases its grip, the need for such a force has become urgent. Since other Nato members refuse to commit more troops or change the rules of engagement of their contingents in Afghanistan, however, London and Washington now appear to accept that they will have to supply their own reinforcements.

Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the senior American commander in Afghanistan, said he had asked for 1,200 soldiers who are due to leave soon to stay to the end of the year. But with the US now pledged to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq, it may be faced with the same problems of "overstretch" confronting British military chiefs.

What the military calls the "kinetic" nature of the conflict in Afghanistan was shown by the operation in which Lance Corporal Mathew Ford was killed. The Royal Marines were attempting to storm a Taliban fortress near Garmsir in southern Helmand when he was hit. His comrades realised he was missing when they withdrew across the Helmand river, and four of them volunteered to strap themselves to struts on the outside of an Apache helicopter in an attempt to rescue him. Although they succeeded in extracting him, his life could not be saved.

No such dramatic incident has taken place in southern Iraq since the early days of the fighting immediately after the invasion in 2003. The vicious civil war which is draining away American lives further north in Iraq has no counterpart here, but any attempt by British forces to assert their authority in and around Basra leads to an immediate spate of retaliatory attacks by groups allied to the main Shia militias, which in turn command influence in Baghdad.

But plans to reduce the British troop presence in Iraq by some 3,000 early in the year have receded, according to Louise Heywood, UK forces analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Although some hundreds might be withdrawn before the summer, she believed the security situation remained too fragile for the main drawdown to take place until the second half of 2007.

Ms Heywood added that careful thought would have to be given to the role of any reinforcements sent to southern Afghanistan. "Will they go there simply to fight the insurgency, or to build capacity for reconstruction and development, which is supposed to be their main mission?" she asked. "The situation British forces have found in Helmand is very pressing, but if more troops are sent there just to fill gaps and fight, it could simply give the Taliban more targets to shoot at."

Families mourn British soldiers who died on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan

Britain lost three servicemen in as many days last week - a soldier in Iraq and two Royal Marines in Afghanistan. They came from different corners of the country and died in different circumstances, but they had one thing in common: all three had dreamt as boys of the military life. Their deaths brought the total number of British personnel killed since 2001 to 129 in Iraq and 46 in Afghanistan.

Kingsman Alexander Green

Kingsman Green of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment died last Saturday, aged 21. He was hit by small-arms fire in Hayy Al Muhandisn, Basra. Kingsman Green joined the Army at 19 and was identified by commanders as a professional soldier, dedicated to his job. Chris Pegman, head teacher at St Margaret's primary school in Warrington, where he was a pupil, said: "Even at that age he was keen on the Army." The military and his two-year-old son were his life.

"It was all he wanted to do," his family said. "He was living his dream."

Marine Thomas Curry

Marine Curry, also aged 21, of 42 Commando Royal Marines, was killed by small-arms fire the same day, 13 January, fighting the Taliban near Kajaki in northern Helmand, Afghanistan. "Vinders", as he was known, joined the forces aged 19. "He was always very determined," said his father. "He wanted to be there serving his country. It was what he loved." Marine Curry proposed to his girlfriend, Carla Maynard, on the phone on Christmas Day. She said: "We had some wonderful times. I just loved him so much."

Lance Corporal Mathew Ford

Lance Corporal Ford will also be remembered for his bravery. He was serving with 45 Commando, the Royal Marines, and died on Monday during an offensive to the south of Garmsir in southern Helmand, Afghanistan. Aged 30, he had planned to leave the service to settle down and start a family with his fiancée, Ina. His mother Joan said: "We are all devastated by the news of Mathew's death. His love for life and his ability to make everyone laugh will always be with us."

--Charlotte Ashton

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Opium war revealed: Major new offensive in Afghanistan

Published: 21 January 2007
The Independent UK

The Kabul government is planning to take the war to its illegal drugs trade. And once again, it will put Britain's exhausted troops back into the firing line. Raymond Whitaker reports

British troops in southern Afghanistan, already engaged in stiff fighting with the Taliban, face a new threat as the Kabul government prepares to crack down on the country's rampant drugs trade.

The Independent on Sunday has learned that in the next week to 10 days, 300 members of the Afghan Eradication Force (AEF), protected by an equal number of police, will begin destroying fields of ripening opium poppies in the centre of lawless Helmand province, where Britain has some 4,000 troops. While British forces will not be directly involved in the operation, commanders concede that they will have to go to the aid of the eradication teams if they encounter armed resistance. "A backlash is definitely possible," said one senior officer.

The poppy fields to be targeted are on the Helmand river near Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital and headquarters of the British task force. The area has deliberately been selected because it is in the relatively peaceful "development zone", well away from the fighting which claimed the lives of two Royal Marines in the past week. "These people are growing poppy out of greed rather than need," a British counter-narcotics official in Lashkar Gah told the IoS. "They could earn a living by other means."

The Afghan government has rejected calls for defoliants to be sprayed on the crop, and the plants will be cut down by hand, or crushed by tractors dragging heavy metal bars behind them. The British official said there were some 22,000 hectares of opium poppies in the target area. The Afghan operation might destroy up to a third, if it didn't encounter trouble, "but it depends on the security situation as much as anything".

The attempted crackdown will be a crucial test of the Afghan government's willingness and ability to gain control over an illegal drugs trade which not only helps to finance the Taliban insurgency, but contributes to endemic violence and corruption, reaching to the highest levels of President Hamid Karzai's administration. Afghanistan produces over nine-10ths of the world's illicit opium, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and more comes from Helmand than any of the country's other 28 provinces. Half of the heroin on British streets originates there.

Despite the deployment of British forces in Helmand last year, opium production in the province soared by 160 per cent, faster than anywhere else in Afghanistan. A record crop was harvested in May under the noses of arriving British troops, and the area under cultivation increased further during the autumn planting season.

"It is is wall-to-wall poppies everywhere you look, just a mile or two from Lashkar Gah," said a source who travelled out of the provincial capital last week. "There was some early planting by people hoping to beat any crackdown, but the weather has also favoured growers, with rain at just the right time. The crop will be earlier this year than in 2006."

As soon as they moved to southern Afghanistan, senior British officers dissociated themselves from suggestions in Whitehall that they would seek to stamp out the drugs trade. They were aware that a badly handled eradication operation in 2002 had sown deep bitterness: big growers paid bribes to save their crops, and it was small farmers with no other livelihood who suffered. Funds to compensate them were misspent or stolen.

Poppy cultivation has since been declared illegal, and no compensation will be paid this time. "The aim is to go after the big operators, who grow opium with impunity on government-owned land they have seized," said the official. "It will be a powerful disincentive if they are seen to have lost their crops, although some smaller farmers will inevitably suffer. But they are in an area where funds are available, mainly from USAid, for 'cash for work' projects, such as road building and canal clearing."

International pressure has been applied to the Kabul government to remove officials implicated in the drugs trade, such as Abdul Rahman Jan, the former police chief of Helmand. Last February the provincial governor was sacked and replaced by Mohammed Daud, an English-speaking engineer and ex-UN worker.

When he fell victim in December to internal political wrangling, it was feared that his deputy, Amir Muhammad Akhundzada, a member of a clan with close links to the drugs trade in northern Helmand, would take over, but he too was ousted.

This month's eradication move is being carried out by the Kabul government, with the provincial administration having no say. The local authorities are supposed to make their own efforts to stamp out narcotics, but Governor Daud, fearing the backlash from destruction of crops, concentrated instead on seeking to persuade farmers not to plant poppies. It is understood that his successor, Asadullah Wafa, will meet President Karzai in Kabul tomorrow to discuss further measures to deal with the trade.

Even if the AEF succeeds in destroying a third of the poppies in their target area, or about 7,000 hectares, that would be barely one-10th of the total under cultivation in Helmand, which could still produce more opium this year than last. But the British official said eradication was only one strand of an anti-drugs strategy in which the main priority was to target the big traffickers.

An international think tank, the Senlis Council, is backing a radically different approach to the Afghan drugs problem. It says the world is suffering a shortage of legal opiates for medical use, and argues that buying up the entire Afghan poppy crop for legitimate purposes would not only be more cost-effective, but would cut out the traffickers and lead to a sharp reduction in violence. The group says this strategy worked in Turkey, which was one of the main sources of illicit opium and heroin in the 1960s before switching to legal production.

But the British official dismissed the plan, saying it would founder on Helmand's "utter lawlessness". He added: "In Turkey they were able to force farmers to sell their crop to legal buyers. Here they will sell to the highest bidder, and the traffickers will always go higher, because they can still make a profit. The economics don't hold up."

Opium: Facts and figures

Opium dominates Afghanistan's economy: the illegal trade is worth $2.6bn (£1.3bn) a year, more than a third of the country's gross domestic product.

ORIGINS: A traditional crop for centuries in the mountainous border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the opium trade exploded during the 1980s, when it helped to finance the mujahedin war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

BLOWBACK: With heroin laboratories springing up on both sides of the border, gun violence, corruption and drug use has spread in Pakistan, which has some three million heroin addicts.

THE TALIBAN: After the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan in 1996, it initially raised money by taxing opium production. But under UN pressure it finally cracked down, reducing the area under cultivation from 91,000 hectares in 1999 to only 8,000 in 2001, when it was ousted in the wake of 9/11 for hosting Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida.

EXPLOSION: Opium growing soared as soon as the Taliban fell, rising to 74,000 hectares in 2002. The head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime says it reached over 400,000 hectares last year, producing a record 6,100 tonnes of opium - 92 per cent of the world supply.

HELMAND: Afghanistan's largest province produces 40 per cent of its opium and half the heroin in Britain. The poppy-growing area grew 160 per cent in 2006.

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New report deals body blow to BP

Oliver Morgan, industrial editor
Sunday January 21, 2007
The Observer

Top US investigator makes direct link between cost-cutting and explosion at Texas City refinery

BP is to receive another hammer blow to its reputation as a new report will for the first time directly link cost-cutting with the fatal Texas City refinery blast.

Carolyn Merritt, chairman of the US Chemical Safety Board, is accusing BP of complacency and disregard for inherent danger, failings that she says went to the very top of the company.

Cuts to maintenance budgets had a 'causal relationship' with the explosion at Texas City in March 2005 that killed 15 people, she said. Merritt told The Observer that the impact of cost-cutting on safety would be central in the CSB's report into the causes of the accident. The report is due on 20 March.

The Baker Report, commissioned by BP on the advice of the CSB, had no remit to affix blame or responsibility, nor to determine the causes of the blast.

While the report noted significant cuts at Texas City by BP and Amoco, which owned the refinery before it was taken over by the UK company in 1998, it did not try to establish whether cost-cutting could have impacted on safety. The CSB's remit is to establish the cause of the accident. Merritt says one of the key causes was budget cuts, adding that whether executives intended to cut safety budgets was not relevant.

Merritt said: 'Budget cuts had an impact on safety and that impact on safety had a causal relationship with what happened on March 23. We have an iron-clad case for the impact of cost cutting on safety. We will be making those conclusions in our report.'

She said that despite a series of previous 'geyser-like releases' of flammable liquid similar to the one that caused the explosion, 'complacency and disregard for the inherent danger of what was being done was at every level of the organisation to the very top'. She added: 'The message that was communicated was that cost-cutting and maximising profits was the most important thing.'

A BP spokesman said: 'We have always said that budget cuts had no impact on safety. The [Baker] panel said it could not find a link.' He added that BP's spending on its five US refineries increased on average by 10 per cent a year from 2000 to 2005.

However, CSB officials point to a history of cost-cutting at Texas City: from 1992 to 1998 maintenance spending fell by 41 per cent. When the figures are extended to the eight years between 1992 and 2000 the fall was 84 per cent. They add that reports commissioned by BP said clearly that funding was inadequate, but attempts to increase spending were not effective.

CSB officials also point to a 'budget challenge' of 25 per cent ($48m) across BP's five US refineries in late 2004. They say the 'challenge' included items such as sustaining capital expenditure on maintaining the safe operation of the plant, and compliance with regulations. BP ultimately increased spending in 2005, in the aftermath of the accident.

BP chief executive Lord Browne is to travel to the US this week to discuss implementation of the Baker report, which the company has accepted. He will be accompanied by his successor, Tony Hayward, and by John Manzoni, head of refining and marketing.

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Global warming: the final verdict

Robin McKie, science editor
Sunday January 21, 2007
The Observer

A study by the world's leading experts says global warming will happen faster and be more devastating than previously thought .

Global warming is destined to have a far more destructive and earlier impact than previously estimated, the most authoritative report yet produced on climate change will warn next week.

A draft copy of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, obtained by The Observer, shows the frequency of devastating storms - like the ones that battered Britain last week - will increase dramatically. Sea levels will rise over the century by around half a metre; snow will disappear from all but the highest mountains; deserts will spread; oceans become acidic, leading to the destruction of coral reefs and atolls; and deadly heatwaves will become more prevalent.

The impact will be catastrophic, forcing hundreds of millions of people to flee their devastated homelands, particularly in tropical, low-lying areas, while creating waves of immigrants whose movements will strain the economies of even the most affluent countries.

'The really chilling thing about the IPCC report is that it is the work of several thousand climate experts who have widely differing views about how greenhouse gases will have their effect. Some think they will have a major impact, others a lesser role. Each paragraph of this report was therefore argued over and scrutinised intensely. Only points that were considered indisputable survived this process. This is a very conservative document - that's what makes it so scary,' said one senior UK climate expert.

Climate concerns are likely to dominate international politics next month. President Bush is to make the issue a part of his state of the union address on Wednesday while the IPCC report's final version is set for release on 2 February in a set of global news conferences.

Although the final wording of the report is still being worked on, the draft indicates that scientists now have their clearest idea so far about future climate changes, as well as about recent events. It points out that:

· 12 of the past 13 years were the warmest since records began;

· ocean temperatures have risen at least three kilometres beneath the surface;

· glaciers, snow cover and permafrost have decreased in both hemispheres;

· sea levels are rising at the rate of almost 2mm a year;

· cold days, nights and frost have become rarer while hot days, hot nights and heatwaves have become more frequent.

And the cause is clear, say the authors: 'It is very likely that [man-made] greenhouse gas increases caused most of the average temperature increases since the mid-20th century,' says the report.

To date, these changes have caused global temperatures to rise by 0.6C. The most likely outcome of continuing rises in greenhouses gases will be to make the planet a further 3C hotter by 2100, although the report acknowledges that rises of 4.5C to 5C could be experienced. Ice-cap melting, rises in sea levels, flooding, cyclones and storms will be an inevitable consequence.

Past assessments by the IPCC have suggested such scenarios are 'likely' to occur this century. Its latest report, based on sophisticated computer models and more detailed observations of snow cover loss, sea level rises and the spread of deserts, is far more robust and confident. Now the panel writes of changes as 'extremely likely' and 'almost certain'.

And in a specific rebuff to sceptics who still argue natural variation in the Sun's output is the real cause of climate change, the panel says mankind's industrial emissions have had five times more effect on the climate than any fluctuations in solar radiation. We are the masters of our own destruction, in short.

There is some comfort, however. The panel believes the Gulf Stream will go on bathing Britain with its warm waters for the next 100 years. Some researchers have said it could be disrupted by cold waters pouring off Greenland's melting ice sheets, plunging western Europe into a mini Ice Age, as depicted in the disaster film The Day After Tomorrow.

The report reflects climate scientists' growing fears that Earth is nearing the stage when carbon dioxide rises will bring irreversible change to the planet. 'We are seeing vast sections of Antarctic ice disappearing at an alarming rate,' said climate expert Chris Rapley, in a phone call to The Observer from the Antarctic Peninsula last week. 'That means we can expect to see sea levels rise at about a metre a century from now on - and that will have devastating consequences.'

However, there is still hope, said Peter Cox of Exeter University. 'We are like alcoholics who have got as far as admitting there is a problem. It is a start. Now we have got to start drying out - which means reducing our carbon output.'

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N.M. governor enters White House race

Jan 21, 9:33 AM EST
The Eugene (OR) Register-Guard

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., said Sunday he is taking the first step toward an expected White House run in 2008, offering extensive experience in Washington and the world stage as he seeks to become the first Hispanic president.

"I am taking this step because we have to repair the damage that's been done to our country over the last six years," said Richardson, a former congressman, U.N. ambassador and Energy Department secretary.

"Our reputation in the world is diminished, our economy has languished, and civility and common decency in government has perished," he said in a statement.

He said he had set up an exploratory committee that will allow him to begin raising money and assembling his campaign organization.

"The governor is in it to run for president," spokesman Pahl Shipley said. The formal announcement will come in March after the end of New Mexico's legislative session, he said.

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Where they stand on Iraq

The Des Moines Register

January 21, 2007

Here are brief synopses of the latest actions and statements by 2008 presidential prospects on the U.S. military in Iraq, and on President Bush's tactics.


Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware

Is co-sponsor of a Senate resolution objecting to Bush's plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq by roughly 21,500, calling the president's strategy "not in the national interest."

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York

Wants to cap the number of U.S. troops in Iraq at this month's level, require Bush to seek authorization from Congress for further deployments and set conditions for continued funding of Iraqi security forces. "We need to change course."

Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut

Has introduced a bill that would prohibit the number of U.S. combat forces being increased beyond current levels without congressional approval. "The time for blank checks is over."

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina

Has called for immediate withdrawal of 40,000 U.S. troops and has accused Congress of failing to act more swiftly to stop the Bush plan. "You have the power to prohibit the president from spending any money to escalate the war."

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts

Supported a short-term increase in U.S. troop levels in Iraq in 2004, but now says conditions have deteriorated. Now supports a Senate resolution condemning the Bush plan. "The lesson is simply that we need to change course rapidly."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio

Supports cutting off funding for the U.S. military in Iraq altogether to force an immediate withdrawal of troops.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois

Supports capping troop numbers at current levels but does not support cutting funding for troops in the field. "Congress has to respond as a coequal branch of government trying to constrain the president's approach and modify it."

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico

Says U.S. should begin pulling troops out of Iraq this year, and opposes the proposal by Bush for a short-term troop surge to secure Baghdad and other areas. "It will only add to the sectarian violence."

Former Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa

Asks Congress to prevent Bush from sending extra troops by refusing to authorize funding for it. Has also called on Congress for stricter oversight of reconstruction. "Are they just going to blindly approve another $100 million?"


Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas

Opposes Bush's plan to send 21,500 extra troops to help secure Baghdad and quell sectarian violence. "The United States should not increase its involvement until Sunnis and Shia are more willing to cooperate with each other instead of shooting at each other."

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York City

Supports Bush's troop increase, but less than he supports the Bush plan's political and economic aspects. Advocates a more rigorous system of measuring results from the Iraqi government and setting a stepped-up time frame for achieving those results.

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas

Characterizes Bush's plan as "gutsy," although he declines to say whether he favors the extra troop deployment. Instead, he praises the aspect that emphasizes getting neighboring Middle Eastern countries to push for peace. "That's something I think that's been missing a long time."

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia

Has been highly critical of Bush's handling of the war but gives measured support to a plan to increase the number of troops. Says the number of troops is less important than the speed and force they use. "It's about the relentlessness of being able to support our military. And we don't have it today."

Sen. John McCain of Arizona

Has been critical of Bush administration's handling of the war and three years ago called for increasing troop levels beyond what Bush has proposed. "It's going to be difficult and it's going to be hard, and I'm not positive - I can't guarantee it will succeed."

Former Gov. George Pataki of New York

Has not stated a clear position on whether he supports Bush's plan but says that a best-case scenario will include troops beginning to come home in about a year.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts

Agrees generally that more troops are required to restore peace to the population centers of Iraq before a political settlement can be reached by warring Shiite and Sunni factions. "It is impossible to defeat the insurgency without first providing security for the Iraqi people."

Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado

Is skeptical that a troop increase will lead to victory in the U.S. war against worldwide terrorists. "Whether an increased American military presence in Iraq will aid us in winning the global war against radical Islam ... I am not convinced that it will."

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin

Calls Bush's plan "bold" but doubts that the troop increase will lead to a U.S. military victory in Iraq. "I don't think that sending in 21,500 more troops will resolve the conflict on its own."

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Eco-friendly Iowans thrive off the grid

They live just like everyone else, but harvest their power from nature

January 21, 2007

Decorah, Ia. - Living off the grid conjures up images of a guy hunched over a wood stove in a dim, cold cabin in the middle of nowhere.

He's scratching at a long, gray beard that matches his long, gray ponytail and talking about the righteous 1960s.

But it's a new day. Global warming, volatile oil prices and a resurgent conservation ethic are beginning to break down the stereotype.

Iowans living without being hooked up to utilities are no longer social dropouts.

Tucked in the rolling hills northwest of Decorah, an off-the-grid neighborhood has expanded in the last five years with the arrival of college employees, artists, company owners and organic farmers. Eight homes in a 16-square-mile area are off the grid, and a few others are supplementing energy needs using the powers of the Earth.

Instead of burning fuel in furnaces and pulling electricity from huge power companies, they use the sun, the wind and wood-burning stoves to live quite comfortably.

In the morning, they get up and stoke a fire in the stove. They watch the wind velocity and check the weather for sunshine.

They don't expect a blast of water out of the faucet because much of it flows in a slow stream to the house via gravity.

Instead of just pulling out the vacuum, they consider how much energy is in storage.

They don't have to be reminded to turn out the lights when they leave a room.

Some people in town refer to them as the "granola eaters," but they just laugh at the label.

"We didn't come out here wanting to freeze in the dark," said Dale Kittleson, 47.

Kittleson is a tall, slim husband and father of two children who co-owns Wild Rose Timberworks Inc., a timber-frame home builder.

"People ask us how we can live like this. Jeepers, I just come home, turn on the lights, grab a cold beer from the refrigerator and watch the news on TV," he said.

"The only difference is when you are making your own energy, you are more aware of the energy you use."

As he says this, his daughter Clara, 10, gets a drink of water in the kitchen of the spacious, warm timber-frame and returns to listen at the dining room table.

If you've got kids, hold on here in disbelief: She flicked off the light switch after leaving the kitchen.

"Our system is part of our whole life out here, but it doesn't steer us," he said.

"This time of year when the days are short and have less sun, maybe we won't vacuum. But we are not doing without."

They are intimately in tune with the wind and the sun. And kilowatt hours.

A NEW BUZZWORD has emerged for 2007: micro-generation. The word means people who generate their own energy.

It's unknown how many Iowans live off the grid.

In the 2000 Census, 238 people reported using solar energy to heat their homes, and 13,243 said they used wood.

But the interest in renewable energy continues to grow, said Michelle Kenyon Brown, executive director of IRENEW, a nonprofit organization in Iowa City that promotes renewable energy.

The number of people who get IRENEW's newsletter has doubled to 3,000 in the last three years, Brown said, and most are interested in living off the grid.

A new development in Fairfield called Abundance Ecovillage is under construction with the goal of 21 single-family homes.

"Progress is being made," said Brown. "But there are challenges, including those that want to supplement their energy needs and interconnect (with energy companies).

"The process is difficult and requires fees and insurance."

Those who choose to live entirely off the grid invest in considerable research and upfront costs.

In Decorah, expertise on renewable energy is traded like produce in the town square.

The Oneota Food Co-op serves as a center of knowledge among like-minded conservationists.

Manager Steve McCarger has lived off the grid since 1982 and steers people in that direction.

Decorah has attracted a number people living off the grid partly because of its topography. The heavily wooded, bluff-filled, unglaciated area attracts nature lovers.

The land also wasn't heavily farmed in row crops, leaving remote areas that are desirable but have no power connections.

Renewable fever has also spread to town.

The latest development is high-end construction by Larry Grimstad, a retired bank CEO, who built an elegant, 3,000-square-foot limestone home in Decorah.

He is nearing the day when he will produce all the energy it takes to operate a modern home with flat-screen TVs, stereos and appliances.

Yes, it can be a comfortable life off the grid.

McCarger raised two daughters in his place on wind and solar power.

"We didn't want to contribute to the nuclear power industry, global warming or acid rain," McCarger said of spending $15,000 on his wind and solar systems. "It was never about the money."

The kids didn't even mind. They only threw a few fits about having to get up early to get firewood.

"As I got older, went away to college and overseas and came back, I developed a greater appreciation for what they have done," said daughter Hannah McCarger, 21.

"Both of my parents believe they can make a difference in the world in the choices they make in their lifestyle.

"They see the struggles in the world, and they think they can do their part. It's a matter of conviction."

IT'S A NEW ERA here off gravel Coon Creek Road in Winneshiek County.

In the late 1990s, four couples got together to hunt for land in the country to create a neighborhood. After months of looking, the group found a plot of 90 timbered acres and began building in 1998.

They discovered it would cost $10,000 to bring power out to the hills. That's when they considered solar and wind power.

They banded together to buy a wind-powered water pump that draws from a well into a 4,000-gallon tank. It uses gravity to flow into each of three houses sitting within eyesight of each other a few football fields away. (The fourth member hasn't yet developed a full-time home).

At first they were a bit skittish. They would run to the well and check the meter to see if the tank was full.

It was never a problem. A little bit of sun goes a long way.

Each home purchased solar photo voltaic power systems and wind turbines for electricity.

Kittleson says his equipment was roughly $10,000. The homes have ordinary lights and power outlets because the DC power is converted to AC and runs through traditional wiring.

The well-insulated houses are equipped with wood-burning stoves for cooking and heating. They smell earthy and warm; it's like sitting in a bistro with a pizza oven. Near each home, cords of wood are stacked high for the winter.

The places are also designed to use "passive" solar energy.

Huge south-facing windows draw in the low-hanging sun's power in the winter. Overhangs protect the home from the overhead sun in the summer.

Kittleson hosts school classes, and the kids are amazed to hear rock music blaring from a boom box hooked up to a tiny solar panel as a demonstration.

Kittleson steps in front of the panel, shades the sun and the radio turns off.

"Our power plant is 93 million miles away," he tells them.

One of the families recently decided to sell and move to town. They were concerned that an off-the-grid home might not sell well.

It never even hit the market.

"We've lived in Des Moines for 30 years, and for 10 years we've been looking for a home that is off the grid," said buyer Pat Brockett, 59.

"We even bought land in Arizona and Utah, but discovered we wanted to stay in the Midwest."

In 2005, Brockett and her partner, Barb Ettleson, drove to Decorah, stopped at the Oneota Food Co-op and by chance heard about a home that might be for sale.

They bought it the same day.

"We've always been alternative people," Brockett said. "That freedom to not be connected really appealed to us. And we are very concerned about using Earth's resources.

"It was like a dream."

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Prosecutor: Teen Admits Killing Editor

Associated Press Writer
The Chicago Tribune
Published January 21, 2007, 8:47 AM CST

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- A teenage boy has confessed to fatally shooting an ethnic Armenian journalist outside his newspaper office in a brazen daytime attack, a prosecutor said Sunday.

Ogun Samast, who is either 16 or 17 years old, was caught in the Black Sea city of Samsun late Saturday, a day after Hrant Dink was gunned down in Istanbul. Police said the youth was captured following a tip from his father after his pictures were broadcast on Turkish television.

The slaying highlighted the precarious state of freedom of expression in a country that is vying for European Union membership.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised the swift work of police, saying "this is a lesson to those who want to shoot at freedoms ... to those who don't want calm to reign in Turkey."

Chief prosecutor Ahmet Cokcinar told The Associated Press that the teenager had confessed to killing Dink during initial questioning in Samsun. He refused to give any further details.

Most Turks assume Dink, the 52-year-old editor of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, was targeted for his columns saying the killing of ethnic Armenians by Turks in the early 20th century was genocide. Nationalists consider such statements an insult to Turkey's honor and a threat to its unity, and Dink had been showered with insults and threats.

Turkey's relationship with its Armenian minority has long been haunted by a bloody past. Much of its once-influential Armenian population was killed or driven out beginning around 1915 in what an increasing number of nations are calling the first genocide of the 20th century.

Turkey acknowledges that large numbers of Armenians died but vehemently denies it was genocide, saying the overall figure is inflated and the deaths occurred in the civil unrest during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Istanbul prosecutor Aykut Cengiz Engin told reporters that authorities were investigating whether Samast acted alone or had ties to a group.

The suspect's uncle Faik Samast told private NTV television that he didn't think his nephew -- a high-school drop out -- was capable of shooting Dink on his own.

"He didn't even know his way around Istanbul," Samast said. "This kid was used."

Police detained six other suspects, including Yasin Hayal, who was convicted in the bombing of a McDonald's restaurant in the Black Sea city of Trabzon in 2004, Turkish news reports said.

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For war zone workers, a new fight

Some US firms deny injury claims

WASHINGTON -- US companies employing civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have refused to settle workers' compensation and medical benefit claims for hundreds of war-zone injuries that range from back pain to post-traumatic stress.

A Globe review of rulings by administrative judges that resolve disputed claims found that Halliburton Co., DynCorp International, and other US contractors have been ordered to pay millions of dollars in compensation to workers whose claims they initially denied. In some cases, the companies had fought the claims for years even though their own doctors agreed that a worker had been injured.

Judges ruled in favor of the employee three times as often as they ruled for the companies, according to the review.

The cases offer a rare glimpse into the trauma endured by civilian contractor workers in combat and the often difficult struggle for benefits that they face when they return home.

One truck driver who earned $87,000 a year in Iraq was forced to live on food stamps after he hurt his back in an accident in his truck and Halliburton cut off his workers' compensation payments.

A construction foreman in Iraq who earned $2,583 a week was forced to live in his car as he fought for medical care and workers' compensation. Halliburton had sent him home to receive medical treatment after a mortar attack, but then cut off his pay and failed to cover doctors' visits.

The Globe examined the records of 113 contested cases that eventually went before the Office of Administrative Law Judges in the US Department of Labor. In 37 of the cases, the workers won outright. In 65 cases, companies settled the claims, often agreeing to pay tens of thousands of dollars or more in additional benefits. Only 11 employees' claims were turned down by judges.

These cases represent a small fraction of the more than 13,000 insurance claims that have been filed by workers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vast majority of cases are resolved when employees file required paperwork or during private mediation between the companies and employees overseen by the Department of Labor. But in hundreds of cases, the companies refused to settle, arguing that workers were not injured on the job or that they were asking for too much money.

Unresolved disputes are sent before administrative judges that hold hearings around the country. A search of the database of cases identified 113 that had been decided so far.

Lawyers for the workers say the cases prove that companies are denying claims they should have quickly paid. They also say the system that handles contractor-employee claims has become backlogged and outdated as an unprecedented number of private employees in Iraq and Afghanistan fill jobs previously performed by the military.

"I think the system is just overwhelmed," said Gary Pitts , a Houston lawyer who represents about 200 contractor employees who worked in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pitts said the law should be changed so that the contractors suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome are treated at veterans hospitals rather than by civilian doctors.

Chris Winans , a spokesman for AIG, the insurance company that handles Halliburton's overseas claims, acknowledged that it is often more difficult and time-consuming to investigate injuries that happened in a war zone. But he said the fact that only a small percentage of cases end up before a judge shows that the system works.

"The vast majority of workers compensation claims -- much more than 90 percent -- are paid when the appropriate documentation is received," he said, adding that the rate of payment for overseas claims was very similar to that of domestic claims.

Winans also said it is common for judges to give employees the benefit of the doubt in both foreign and domestic workers' compensation cases.

The workers' compensation system for contractors was set up in 1941, when Congress passed the Defense Base Act, which required all companies working for the US government to purchase insurance for their employees working abroad. The federal government reimburses insurance companies for injuries due to hostile action.

The Department of Labor used to see only a handful of cases each year, but the number of private contractor employees working on bases overseas has grown exponentially, from a few thousand to more than 100,000. Now the Labor Department handles about 1,000 cases per month.

It took Robert Purcella nearly two years to win back his workers' compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder and physical injuries, during which time he had to sell his car and move in with his mother.

Purcella, a truck driver from Texas, had his windows blown out in four attacks in Iraq from September 2003 until March 2004. During one attack, a robber tried to pull him from the truck, and he was forced to kill the man with a hammer, "cracking his skull wide open," the ruling in his case states.

The judge also stated that Purcella was instructed by the military not to stop his truck under any circumstances and he "on occasion . . . ran over civilians as they attempted to stop the convoy."

Purcella was eventually diagnosed with "combat fatigue" and sent home after he reported additional injuries from a car accident that he said injured his shoulders and an eye. He filed a workers' compensation claim for all of those.

His workers' compensation checks abruptly stopped coming after a doctor hired by AIG found that he suffered from a congenital eye problem, not an eye injury, even though the doctor agreed that he had difficulty holding down a job because of the trauma that he had experienced, according to the documents.

The judges' rulings also detail the case of Samuel Walker , who won his case against Halliburton. Walker was burned on his hands and face during a suicide bombing on a military base in Iraq. Walker was initially refused treatment because his wounds were not life-threatening, a judge recounted in his ruling. Halliburton then prevented Walker and four other wounded employees from leaving the base to seek treatment on their own, because the company was understaffed.

After a television reporter threatened to publicize their story, the five were sent home, but were never given instructions on how to receive medical care in the United States, according to the ruling. It took months for him to find a doctor who would agree to treat him and who was also acceptable to Halliburton.

One pending claim is that of Robert Rowe, an Ohio truck driver who was shot in Iraq in August 2004. Rowe says it took him months of phone calls to Halliburton and AIG after his return to the United States to arrange for needed surgery to repair his leg. Ultimately, he said, AIG told him it would not compensate him because he did not have enough documentation and because they alleged that he had quit his job.

Rowe now has a lawyer and is fighting for compensation, but says he has been evicted. He said all he received in worker's compensation was a check for $386.

To see the judgments in these cases, go to and under docket search type in LDA in the middle search field.

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