To be followed by another set from the world of zones, drones, spooks, and military posturing.
The New York Times gives us our first headline:
U.S. Economy Barely Grew in First Quarter
The American economy slammed on the brakes in the beginning of 2014, as weaker exports and lower spending by businesses essentially brought growth to a standstill.
At 0.1 percent, the pace of expansion in January, February and March was the slowest since late 2012, and revealed another one of the periodic pauses in the growth that has characterized the slow recovery of the last five years.
Many experts had predicted a slowing in the first quarter of 2014, especially in the wake of more robust growth in the second half of 2013 and very cold weather in January and February, but the figures released by the Commerce Department on Wednesday morning were still drastically below the 1.2 percent rate of expansion that Wall Street had been expecting.
So how did the markets respond? Well, they paid more attention to another report. From BBC News:
All three major US indexes closed higher on Wednesday, with the Dow Jones finishing at a record high
The Dow Jones rose 45.47 points to close at 16,580.84, four points above a previous high hit on 31 December 2013.
The S&P 500 index increased 5.62 points to 1,883.95, and the Nasdaq climbed 11.01 points to 4,114.56.
Traders cheered a US Federal Reserve statement which indicated the central bank thought the US economy was improving.
From the Los Angeles Times, another favor to the corporate bottom line:
GOP senators block minimum-wage hike but Democrats vow to try again
A top election-year proposal from Democrats — a bid to raise the federal minimum wage — was rejected by Republicans in the Senate, who blocked legislation Wednesday to boost the rate to $10.10 an hour.
President Obama has turned the plight of the nation’s low-wage workers into a battle cry for Democrats as they try to appeal to voters while the economy continues to sputter. Several states have advanced their own wage hikes amid congressional inaction.
“It’s time for Republicans in Congress to listen to the majority of Americans who say it’s time to give America a raise,” the president said before the midday vote.
However, the effort made little headway with Republicans, who argued that the rate hike would cost jobs. The measure was blocked by a GOP filibuster on a party-line vote, 54-42.
While BBC News has more bad news for the real losers in the game of greed:
American Dream breeds shame and blame for job seekers
- Out-of-work Americans tend to blame themselves for their predicament
Decades ago, the American dream inspired employees, offering the promise of the good life. But now, with jobs disappearing, that dream has become a nightmare for the unemployed who see their joblessness as a personal – and shameful – failure.
Victor Tan Chen studies some of the unluckiest people in the US.
The sociology fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, researches car workers in cities like Detroit, hard-hit by the economic downturn and by long-term trends in the US industrial base.
“But they used to be the luckiest men in America,” Chen says.
From United Press International, a noble effort with questionable chances of success:
Senate Dems to attempt to reverse Citizens United
Democrats announced a plan to push for a constitutional amendment to undo changes to campaign finance rules wrought by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling.
After complaining for four years about changes to campaign finance allowed by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, Democrats are finally doing something about it.
Rules Committee Chair Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced Wednesday that Democrats would schedule a Senate vote for this year on an amendment, sponsored by New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall. The amendment would overturn Citizens United and another recent decision that classified campaign spending as speech protected under the First Amendment and opened the door to corporation- and union-run SuperPACs that flooded the country with political advertisements.
“The Supreme Court is trying to take this country back to the days of the robber barons, allowing dark money to flood our elections. That needs to stop, and it needs to stop now,” Schumer said. “The First Amendment is sacred, but the First Amendment is not absolute. By making it absolute, you make it less sacred to most Americans. We have to bring some balance to our political system.”
ProPublica documents the sad plight of the concept of euqal justice under law:
The Rise of Corporate Impunity
Meet the only Wall St. executive prosecuted as a result of the financial crisis. Has justice been served?
American financial history has generally unfolded as a series of booms followed by busts followed by crackdowns. After the crash of 1929, the Pecora Hearings seized upon public outrage, and the head of the New York Stock Exchange landed in prison. After the savings-and-loan scandals of the 1980s, 1,100 people were prosecuted, including top executives at many of the largest failed banks. In the ‘90s and early aughts, when the bursting of the Nasdaq bubble revealed widespread corporate accounting scandals, top executives from WorldCom, Enron, Qwest and Tyco, among others, went to prison.
The credit crisis of 2008 dwarfed those busts, and it was only to be expected that a similar round of crackdowns would ensue. In 2009, the Obama administration appointed Lanny Breuer to lead the Justice Department’s criminal division. Breuer quickly focused on professionalizing the operation, introducing the rigor of a prestigious firm like Covington & Burling, where he had spent much of his career. He recruited elite lawyers from corporate firms and the Breu Crew, as they would later be known, were repeatedly urged by Breuer to “take it to the next level.”
But the crackdown never happened. Over the past year, I’ve interviewed Wall Street traders, bank executives, defense lawyers and dozens of current and former prosecutors to understand why the largest man-made economic catastrophe since the Depression resulted in the jailing of a single investment banker — one who happened to be several rungs from the corporate suite at a second-tier financial institution.
It brings a song to mind, one written the last time nation was dealing with the grim aftermath of a market collapse wrought by untrammeled greed.
From vlogger Evertnr11
Woody Guthrie: Pretty Boy Floyd
From the lyrics:
Well, you say that I’m an outlaw,
You say that I’m a thief.
Here’s a Christmas dinner
For the families on relief.
Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.
And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
From NextGov, Warren weighs in on the new and noxious FFC rule proposals:
Elizabeth Warren: Internet ‘Fast Lanes’ Will Help ‘Rich and Powerful’
Sen. Elizabeth Warren urged the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday to enact strong net-neutrality rules to ensure that all websites receive equal service.
“Reports that the FCC may gut net neutrality are disturbing, and would be just one more way the playing field is tilted for the rich and powerful who have already made it,” the Massachusetts Democrat wrote in a Facebook post.
“Our regulators already have all the tools they need to protect a free and open Internet—where a handful of companies cannot block or filter or charge access fees for what we do online. They should stand up and use them.”
And from the China Post, the latest counter to Washington’s global neoliberal trade agenda:
China pressing for vast Asia-Pacific FTA as rival US-led deal runs into snags
China is pressing for a vast Asia-Pacific free trade agreement, a senior official said Wednesday, as a rival U.S.-led deal that excludes the Asian giant runs into snags.
Wang Shouwen, an assistant commerce minister, told reporters at a briefing that China has proposed setting up a working group to study the feasibility of an Asia-Pacific Free Trade Agreement (FTAAP).
The proposal comes ahead of a meeting in May of trade ministers from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which China will host.
The response from Washington was prompt, as China Daily reports:
US not edged out of Latin America: State
A US assistant secretary of state criticized the US media’s “Chicken Little” views on China’s growing engagement with Latin America, saying “it’s not a question of someone edging us (the US) out of a market”.
“That’s an exaggeration,” Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said during a talk at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas in Manhattan on Tuesday.
Calling the US’s Latin America relationships “the strongest they’ve ever been”, Jacobson said in response to an audience member’s question that she is “not particularly worried about (the US) becoming obsolete in the region” despite media reports that have suggested the country is “losing influence” in a part of the world considered its backyard. Jacobson attributed the negative portrayal to a US media obsession with the invading “country of the moment”.
“One day it’s China, one day Russia,” she said.
While the Economic Times covers another Washington worry:
China poised to overtake US economy: World Bank ranking
China is advancing rapidly to overtake the United States as the biggest economy in the world, new data shows, with the leader of the world economy since the 19th century possibly losing its top spot to the Asian giant from this year.
“The United States remained the world’s largest economy (in 2011), but it was closely followed by China” once data was adjusted for comparison on a standard basis, the World Bank said on Wednesday. “India was now the world’s third largest economy, moving ahead of Japan.”
In parallel, the OECD grouping 34 advanced economies and analysing the same data, said that “the three largest economies in the world were the United States with 17.1 percent (of global output), China 14.9 percent and India 6.4 percent.”
From AlterNet, more on that long, grievous Claifornia Dought we’ve been covering:
All of California Is Now Under Drought Conditions, and That’s Bad News for All of Us
- Consumers will feel the effect soon as food prices are expected to skyrocket.
For the first time in 15 years, all of the Golden State suffers from a water shortage, and while that’s very bad for the region, it may also send food prices skyrocketing throughout the country.
The U.S. Drought Monitor, a weekly map of drought conditions produced jointly by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Agriculture, and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says that the entire state suffers from conditions ranging from “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought.” The heavy-population centers all suffer from “extreme drought” or “exceptional drought.” The latter designation, also known a as a D4, being the most critical.
It has also been reported that all of the state’s reservoir levels are low, with one, the San Antonio Reservoir, which is in Alameda County and serves the Bay Area, being essentially dry since winter. Other reservoirs are reported to be near half capacity, and others are at less than half capacity.
The drought has also led to a really frightening potential for fires, with headlines like this one from CNN today occurring in April, rather than August and September:
Fast-moving wildfire in Southern California grows, driven by wind
Mandatory evacuations were lifted Wednesday for nearly 1,700 homes in the path of a wildfire near Rancho Cucamonga, California, but fire officials urged some residents to keep on an eye on the wind-whipped blaze, authorities said.
The fire, fanned by strong wind gusts and high temperatures, began in the Etiwanda Preserve in San Bernardino National Forest at about 8 a.m. local time, according to Cal Fire. By late afternoon, it had grown to more than 1,000 acres, the agency said.
Next, a trip north of the north with the Canadian Press and yet another growing gap:
Western growth pulls away further from rest of Canada’s
A regional breakdown of economic performance suggests Canada’s two economies drifted even further apart in 2013.
Statistics Canada says in a new report issued Tuesday that improvement in economic output last year was heavily slanted toward resource-rich regions.
The gap between the West and the rest was even more pronounced, said Bank of Montreal economist Robert Kavcic, widening to almost two full percentage points.
Saskatchewan, which also benefited from a bump in the agriculture sector, posted a 4.8% surge in gross domestic product in 2013, while oil-rich Alberta realized a 3.9% growth rate.
On to Europe, starting with a headline from Reuters:
Euro zone inflation edges up, swift ECB action seen less likely
Euro zone inflation rose in April, reducing chances the European Central Bank will act soon to ward off deflation, but the pace of price rises was below forecast and still within the ECB’s “danger zone” of under 1 percent.
Annual consumer inflation in the 18 countries sharing the euro nudged higher to 0.7 percent in April from March’s 0.5 percent, which was the lowest since late 2009, the European Union’s statistics office Eurostat said on Wednesday.
The reading was lower than the 0.8 percent predicted in a Reuters poll despite higher spending over the Easter period, reflecting the poor state of the euro zone economy after a long recession and with unemployment at near-record levels.
And a major defeat for Britain in its battle against the Tobin Tax, via EUobserver:
EU top court throws out UK challenge to transactions tax
The European Court of Justice on Wednesday (30 April) rejected a UK legal challenge to plans by eleven countries to set up a financial transactions tax (FTT).
The main thrust of London’s opposition to the tax relates to the so-called “residence” and “issuance” principle in the proposed bill, which means that some traders operating outside the FTT-11 would still be liable to pay the levy. The UK, which has the largest financial services sector in the EU, says that it would be hit by the tax as a result.
But since the proposal has not been agreed, the UK case was restricted to challenging the right of the eleven countries, led by France and Germany, to proceed with the bill.
From the London Telegraph, winners in the Great Mail Robbery of 2014:
Abu Dhabi and Soros got ‘golden ticket’ in Royal Mail sale
Sovereign wealth funds and billionaire investors among 16 firms given preferential treatment over small investors in the Royal Mail privatisation
Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, billionaire investor George Soros and activist hedge fund Third Point were among the 16 investors given preferential treament in the controversial Royal Mail privatisation.
The Government on Wednesday released details of these preferred investment firms, who saw the shares they had bought rise 38pc on the first day of trading, while thousands of small private investors missed out after the Government imposed a cap of £10,000 on them.
Other preferential investors included Lazard Asset Management, the investment arm of the government’s independent adviser on the privatisation, Capital Research, Fidelity Worldwide, GIC, Henderson, JP Morgan, Kuwait Investment Office, Lansdowne Partners, Och Ziff, Schroders, Standard Life, and Threadneedle.
More from The Independent:
Royal Mail float scandal: how hedge funds cleaned up
The Royal Mail flotation scandal has deepened after officials finally admitted that hedge funds were among the “priority investors” sold hundreds of millions of pounds of shares.
The Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has repeatedly insisted that the handful of key investors offered Royal Mail shares on preferential terms were long-term institutional investors. This was to ensure the new company started with “a core of high-quality investors” who “would be there in good times and bad”. He promised to marginalise “spivs and speculators”.
But sources in the Department for Business have confirmed to The Independent that around 20 per cent of the shares it had allocated to 16 preferred investors had gone to hedge funds and other short-term investors. This would equate to around £150m of Royal Mail shares – 13 per cent of the entire stock sold by the Government. The companies bought in at the float price of 330p a share. The shares shot up within seconds of trading, eventually peaking within weeks at more than 600p, allowing the hedge funds to bank vast profits at the taxpayers’ expense.
On to Amsterdam and a dirty little secret from euronews:
Dutch prime minister reacts to revelations he threatened to leave the eurozone
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte threatened to take his country out of the eurozone.
His stance was two years ago over planned reforms which were never implemented. It has been revealed in a Dutch newspaper.
European Council President Herman van Rompuy told the paper he was shocked at the strength of opposition to the reforms but stressed no other European leader had talked of leaving the euro. Eurosceptic politician Gert Wilders wants explanations.
“I was very pleasantly surprised. I remember Mr Rutte telling my party it’s a crazy idea only to think about leaving the eurozone. I have asked for an urgent debate in the Dutch parliament. I hope he will support me. Mr Rutte can explain what he really said,” the leader of the Party for Freedom said.
Germany next, and good news for Angela Merkel from Deutsche Welle:
German jobless rate down during spring economic upswing
The German labor market has seen a boost amid mild spring weather, seeing unemployment drop below a psychologically important threshold. Stable growth conditions have helped many people find a new job.
The number of people unemployed in Europe’s biggest economy fell below the three-million threshold for the first time this year in April, the Nuremberg-based Federal Employment Agency (BA) reported Wednesday.
It logged 2.943 million people out of work last month, the lowest figure recorded in any April in 22 years.
The agency said the overall jobless number dropped by 110,000 over March, and by 77,000 compared to last April.
On to France, where RFI reports that the Parisian species of austerianism still resists the usual tax cuts for elites and corporations. [But it’s still austerity, and those who bear the brunt are the least able to afford it. . .]:
Valls defends ‘modern’ economic policy after Socialist revolt
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls defended his “deeply modern” economic policy on Wednesday, the day after 41 MPs from his Socialist Party refused to back a cuts package that finances reductions in taxes for business.
Describing his policies as social-democratic and reformist, Valls told France Inter radio he was proud of a “this deeply modern left, which faces up to reality and at the same time wants to respond to expectations of social justice”.
Dossier: Eurozone in crisis
“I don’t think being left-wing means passing on debt to future generations,” he told a caller who had said that left-wing supporters felt betrayed by his policies. “I don’t think being left-wing means raising taxes and smothering the middle class.”
Meanwhile, reaction sets in via France 24:
No mosques or EU flags: France’s far-right mayors get down to business
The 11 far-right National Front mayors elected in France’s recent municipal elections have begun implementing controversial policies, including rejecting projects for new mosques and cancelling commemorations of the abolition of slavery.
A month after their victory in French municipal elections, the 11 far-right National Front mayors have implemented their first policies – and some of them have already caused quite a stir.
France 24 again, this time with legal umbrage:
Strauss-Kahn to sue Belgian pimp over ‘DSK’ brothel
Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is suing a Belgium-based pimp for opening a brothel that bears the initials ‘DSK’, his lawyers said Wednesday.
The pimp, Dominique Alderweireld or “Dodo la Saumure” (“saumure” means brine, or the salted oil in which mackerel – also the French slang for pimp – is often served), has been linked to sex parties the disgraced French politician attended in the past.
Strauss-Kahn, a potential presidential contender in the 2012 French election whose chances were dashed by a New York sex scandal involving a hotel maid, is well known by his initials DSK in France and French-speaking countries like Belgium and Switzerland.
From RFI, a powerful symbolic act:
PSA Peugeot Citroën workers give ‘pathetic’ bonuses to charity as boss’s salary announced
Angry employees of French carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroën have donated their “pathetic” bonuses to charity. Workers received bonuses of between 40 cents and 18 euros, unions said, just as the company announced a 1.3-million-euro annual salary for new boss Carlos Tavares.
Judging their bonuses “pathetic and not acceptable”, workers at PSA’s factory in Valenciennes, northern France, decided they would give them to the Restos du Coeur, a charity launched by comedian Coluche in the 1980s to help the poor.
Spain next, starting with a promise from El País:
Government promises to create 600,000 jobs in two years
- But Rajoy administration admits employment levels it inherited in 2011 will not return until 2018
Spanish labor market continued to shed jobs in first quarter of 2014
The government has promised to create 600,000 jobs between 2015 and 2016 despite admitting that employment would not return to the levels it inherited when it came into power in 2011 until 2018, three years after the current legislature ends.
According to the macroeconomic framework approved by the Cabinet on Wednesday, employment will grow 0.6% this year, 1.2% in 2015 and, in 2016, hopefully pick up steam with a rise of 1.5%, always in terms of the national accounts.
But the improvement will not be sufficient to compensate for the decline that the labor market has suffered since 2011, when Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party came to power.
Looking for an out with TheLocal.es:
Half of all Catalans want out of Spain: poll
Almost half of all Catalans would vote to become independent from Spain, a recent poll by a Catalan government research group shows.
Forty-seven percent said they would vote in favour of an independent Catalan state, while 19.3 percent would give the proposal the thumbs down.
Some 8.6 percent said they would want Catalonia to be a state, but not an independent one according to the Catalan research institute Centro de Estudios de Opinion (CEO).
With a possible referendum coming later this year, one in ten Catalans are still undecided on whether they would vote.
TheLocal.es again, this time with a highly publicized arrest for a nasty bit of racist theatrics:
Arrested: Man who threw banana at Dani Alves
The man who threw a banana at FC Barcelona Brazilian player Dani Alves, sparking a global anti-racism campaign, has been arrested by Spanish police.
Barcelona’s Alves made headlines when decided to eat the piece of fruit thrown at him during Sunday’s game against Villareal, a reaction he described as “instinct”.
That reaction has now become a worldwide anti-racism campaign with footballers celebrities, and even politicians posing in selfies eating bananas to support the cause.
Now the man who threw the banana has been arrested by Spanish police on a charge of inciting hatred.
And a fascinating story about a legal ruling politically painful to the ruling party, via the victor, El País:
Judge rules against ex-PM in EL PAÍS defamation case over illegal payments
Ruling states that PP, in breach of law, paid Aznar on at least three occasions while in office
A judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by former Popular Party (PP) Prime Minister José María Aznar against EL PAÍS over a story it published in May 2013 that alleged he had continued to receive sums of money from the Popular Party after he took office in 1996, in contravention of the Incompatibilities Law.
On April 25, Judge Enrique Presa Cuesta ruled that Aznar was paid bonuses on at least three occasions by his party while prime minister. The judge pointed out in his sentence that Aznar’s lawyer had argued that the money was given in return for activities he had carried out before taking office in May 1996, but had failed to back this up with any documentary evidence.
The ruling also requires Aznar to pay all legal costs, noting that in preparing the story, EL PAÍS used “official PP accounts,” and that it also “tried to contact the former prime minister and his party to ascertain their version of events.”
From the Guardian, another way to penalize the poor [who can’t buy those costly carts] via the Guardian:
Madrid’s smart parking meters to charge more for most polluting cars
- Electronic cars will park free and hybrids will get 20% off under scheme to target emissions in Spanish capital
The city of Madrid is introducing smart parking meters that will slap a surcharge on cars that pollute more and reduce parking charges for efficient vehicles, a system that city officials are touting as the first of its kind in the world.
Starting on 1 July, the price a motorist pays to park in the city streets will be based on a complex table governed by the engine and the year of the car. Hybrids will pay 20% less to park, while a diesel car made in 2001 will see a 20% mark-up. Electronic cars will park for free.
Italy next, and some modestly good news from ANSAmed:
Italy’s youth jobless rate dips to 42.7% in March
- Second straight 0.1% monthly drop but 3.1% higher over year
Youth unemployment in Italy dipped to an annual 42.7% in March, 3.1% higher than March 2013 but down 0.1% on February 2014, national statistics agency Istat said Wednesday. The rate has fallen 0.1% for the second straight month, from 42.9% in January, Istat said in provisional estimates. The number of 15-to-24 year-olds in work rose 1.4% from February to March, to 915,000, but was 6.0% down on March 2013. The youth employment rate of 15.3% was 0.2% up on February and 0.9% down over the year.
Premier Matteo Renzi has vowed to tackle youth unemployment by freeing up the labour market but has faced criticism that new flexibility moves raise already widespread job insecurity.
And a trip to Eastern Europe with EUbusiness:
Kosovo privatisation officials arrested in multi-million-euro fraud
Police on Wednesday arrested 10 officials of Kosovo’s privatisation agency suspected of embezzling millions of euros during the sale of a factory.
The officials are accused of triggering the bankruptcy of the factory in northern Kosovo which produced concrete reinforcements, a police statement said.
It said “several million euros” had been embezzled without giving a more precise figure.
After the jump, more grim news from Greece — including a political death, recession in Russia, good news for Venezuela workers, Indonesia labor force problems, Indian economic ascendancy, Thai troubles, nuclear industry consolidation, Japanese judicial rage, Microsoft move fills Japanese trash piles, Norse land losses, and more environmental news as well. . . Continue reading