Category Archives: Nature

Radiation leak report reveals serious problems


Valentine’s Day was anything but happy for workers at the at the Department of Energy’s New Mexico Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [WIPP] near Carlsbad Caverns. At 11;14 p.m., alarms shrieked warning of a radiation release from an exhaust vent moving air out of the underground storage facility.

Part of the waste stored in the interim facility [no permanent repository has yet been approved as each site, in turn, proved vulnerable to leaks] hailed from the nearby Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where UC scientists work with others to build next generation nuclear weaponry.

From the 18 October 2004 [PDF] edition of TRU Teamworks, the WIPP newsletter for employees:

In a true California-style send-off, the first shipment of TRU [transuranic — esnl] waste from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory [LLNL] left the Golden State October 19 I n a downpour. The shipment and its payload of forty-two 55-gallon drums began the 1,400-mile trip to WIPP with a forecast of favorable weather and road conditions ahead.

More shipments were to follow.

And today the DOE released a major investigative report on the St. Valentine’s Day leak.

Here’s the press release:

Today, the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) released the initial accident investigation report related to the Feb. 14 radiological release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico.

“The Accident Investigation Board reviewed procedures related to safety, maintenance, and emergency management to better understand the aboveground events surrounding the radiological incident,” said Matt Moury, EM Deputy Assistant Secretary, Safety, Security, and Quality Programs. “The Department believes this detailed report will lead WIPP recovery efforts as we work toward resuming disposal operations at the facility.”

The report is comprised of two phases. The document released today includes the initial investigation that focused on the release of radioactive material from the underground facility into the environment and related exposure to aboveground workers, as well as the actions taken by Nuclear Waste Partnership, the management and operations contractor at WIPP, and federal employees in response to the release. Once entry teams determine the source of the radiological event, the board will gather additional information and release a supplemental report that focuses on the direct cause of the release and worker protection measures in the underground.

“This report will serve as guidance for the recovery team moving forward,” said, Joe Franco, DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office Manager. “We understand the importance of these findings, and the community’s sense of urgency for WIPP to become operational in the future. We are fully committed to pursuing this objective.”

WIPP has already begun implementing corrective actions to address many of the issues raised in the report. These include enhanced work planning, nuclear safety controls, deploying experienced supplemental contractor and federal staff to assist, and implementing additional senior contractor and federal oversight. A formal corrective action process will also be implemented to ensure that all of the issues raised in the report are addressed.

The 302-page report is available online here [PDF].

In skimming the document we were struck by the following graphic, which offers a socking look at the apparent negligence of site operators and the sad state of critical equipment. Click on the image to embiggen:

Microsoft Word - Final WIPP Rad Release Phase 1 04 22 2014 r2 (2

Headlines again, with global warning signs


Today’s entries cover everything from social media to troubling tensions in Asia.

We open with a tale of corporatized medicine from the Los Angeles Times:

UC OKs paying surgeon $10 million in whistleblower-retaliation case

The settlement ends a case brought by the ex-head of UCLA’s orthopedic surgery department, who says the medical school allowed doctors to take industry payments that may have compromised patient care.

The settlement reached Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court came just before closing arguments were due to begin in a whistleblower-retaliation case brought by Dr. Robert Pedowitz, 54, a surgeon who was recruited to UCLA in 2009 to run the orthopedic surgery department.

In 2012, the surgeon sued UCLA, the UC regents, fellow surgeons and senior university officials, alleging they failed to act on his complaints about widespread conflicts of interest and later retaliated against him for speaking up.

From Reuters, a tale of not-so-rigorous regulation:

Special Report: For private deals, no one is watching the watchdogs

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the industry’s self-regulating body, requires that broker-dealers conduct “a reasonable investigation” of a private placement before selling it for the issuer. That’s the due diligence. At a minimum, FINRA requires that for each new placement, the broker’s investigation entail a review of the issuer and its management; its business prospects; assets it holds or plans to acquire; the intended use of proceeds from the offering; and claims made in any offering documents.

Some brokers lack the resources to cover all of that, so they rely on reports supplied by third-party due diligence firms. The reports are paid for by the issuer of the private placement. Brokers are meant to use the reports to help them decide whether to market the placements. They don’t typically show the reports to clients.

The set-up constitutes what many see as a fundamental conflict of interest: Companies that raise money through private placements, such as Provident, are paying due diligence firms to review their deals so that broker-dealers will sell them. “They have to write these reports in such a manner that it’s gotta be acceptable” to the issuer, said Michael Miller, a due diligence officer at Sigma Financial, a broker-dealer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This isn’t the only instance of regulatees selecting their regulatory overseers. Developers seeking approval for their projects also select the folks who prepare their Environmental Impact Reports [EIRs]. During our coverage of tribal casinos in California we discovered that most of the projects we covered had EIRs prepared by one single company. Their reports always seemed to find that the casinos would have negligible impact. The same was true in communities like Berkeley, where successful developers generally used the same handful of consultants. . .

From BBC News, soaring profits from the intangible:

Facebook earnings surge on mobile advertising

Social networking giant Facebook reported profits of $642m (£383m) during the first quarter of 2014, beating analyst expectations.

The firm said surging mobile advertising helped push first quarter revenue 72% higher, to $2.5bn.

Mobile now makes up 59% of advertising revenue, from 30% a year ago.

BBC News again, this time with profits for a media makers whose products carry those Facebook ads:

Apple announces share buyback as earnings rise

Technology giant Apple reported profits of $10.2bn (£6.1bn) after selling 43.7 million iPhones during the three-month period ending 29 March.

Apple also announced plans to buy an additional $30bn of its stock back from shareholders and to increase its quarterly dividend by 8%.

It also said it would split its stock for the first time in nine years.

The moves are meant to appease investors as the firm reports slowing revenue growth.

From Jiji Press, hands across the Pacific struggle to engage in the neoliberal handshake:

Japan, U.S. to defer broad trade accord

Japan and the United States are now seen deferring a broad trade agreement until after a summit meeting set for Thursday due to differences over key issues, informed sources said Tuesday.

The two countries’ leaders are now expected to welcome progress so far made in bilateral trade talks under the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership framework and reaffirm their nations’ commitment to concluding the TPP negotiations, the sources said.

A stalemate over Japanese tariffs on U.S. pork continued during a working-level session in Tokyo on Tuesday.

On to Europe with this report of realism from From New Europe:

Majority of Germans think eurozone crisis not over

A new opinion poll shows that a majority of Germans believed the eurozone crisis is far from over, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported Wednesday.

According to a survey conducted by polling institute INSA, 81 percent of those asked said the European debt crisis was not yet over, while only 7 percent believed the crisis had ended.

The poll said many German citizens were concerned about developments in Greece. Only 34 percent of respondents saw the country on the right track. A further 39 percent said Greece was not making enough efforts to implement reforms.

The Portugal News covers lingering neoliberalism at work:

Austerity ‘certain’ to continue after troika – Socialist Party

  • The Portuguese Socialist Party said on Tuesday it was “certain” after a meeting with the troika (International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and the European Commission) that austerity would continue in Portugal despite the financial assistance programme formally coming to an end shortly

And from Reuters, a billionaire and former chief executive gets a mere wrist-slap for profitable corruption:

Italy’s Berlusconi to start community service work next week

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Wednesday he would start doing community service with the elderly next week as part of a one-year tax fraud sentence.

A court ruled earlier this month that Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest men, must spend four hours a week [emphasis added] in a Catholic old people’s home on the outskirts of Milan.

After completing the first six months, Berlusconi’s one-year sentence will automatically be reduced to 10 and a half months.

And from United Press International, Italian blackshirt nostalgia:

Mussolini’s birthplace in Italy to get a fascist museum

A museum dedicated to the history of fascism will be created in Predappio, Italy, the birthplace of dictator Benito Mussolini, Mayor Giorgio Frassineti announced.

A museum dedicated to the history of fascism will be created in Predappio, Italy, the birthplace of dictator Benito Mussolini, Mayor Giorgio Frassineti announced.

The northern Italian city, known for neo-fascist pilgrimages, already maintains the home in which Mussolini was born, as well as the mausoleum where he is buried. The museum will be located in the now-abandoned Casa del Fascio, built in the 1930s as part of an urban renewal program, to accommodate visitors and to glorify Mussolini.

On to Greece, in the first of three stories on the austerian numbers game, first from ANA-MPA:

Greek primary surplus totalled 3.4 billion euros in 2013?

  • Greece’s primary surplus totalled 3.4 billion euros in 2013 (excluding the financial support offered to banks), Alternate Finance Minister Christos Staikouras said on Wednesday.The primary surplus figure was based using Eurostat’s methodology, while the troika estimates this figure at 1.5 billion euros.

A contrary take from The Guardian:

Greece’s public finances are in a dire state, and cooking the books won’t help

  • Primary budget facts and details in the small print can no longer be hidden by creative accounting and a sleight of hand

It was dodgy accounting that got Greece into a mess in the first place. Now, more dodgy accounting is being used to dress up the dire state of the nation’s public finances.

When the government in Athens announced last week that it was running a surplus in its primary budget – a measure of financial health that strips out interest payments – it could only do so by recording more than €3bn (£2.5bn) in arrears owed to hospitals and the social security fund as assets. Without this creative accounting, there would have been a primary deficit.

And the third story, with Neos Kosmos covering one of the consequences:

Greece lines up tax cuts

  • Greece is set to ask its eurozone partners to gradually reduce corporation tax rates as part of a wider plan to generate growth in Greece

Greece is set to ask its eurozone partners when the Eurogroup meets on May 5 for permission to gradually reduce corporation tax rates as part of a wider plan to generate growth in Greece, Kathimerini understands.

Several government officials, including Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras and Development Minister Costis Hatzidakis met Tuesday to finalize a three-page proposal that will form the basis for a growth plan that will run from this year until 2020. Both coalition parties, New Democracy and PASOK, were represented at the meeting.

From EnetEnglish.gr, austerity’s fruit ripening:

Uninsured mother unable to afford medication loses her life

  • How many more patients must die from austerity, asks voluntary health clinic
  • Woman’s death proves once again that the government’s ‘policy of excluding our uninsured fellow citizens from healthcare means that human life is endangered and often lost’, says the Metropolitan Community Clinic in Elliniko, Athens

40-year-old uninsured single mother of two young children from the island of Mytilini died earlier this month from the effects of a stroke because she didn’t have the money to pay for her medication, the country’s leading voluntary health clinic said on Wednesday.

Raising the woman’s case, the Metropolitan Community Clinic at Elliniko, Athens, said the woman’s death proved once again that the government’s “policy of excluding our uninsured fellow citizens from healthcare means that human life is endangered and often lost”.

And from To Vima, more of that hard times intolerance:

ANTARSYA condemns fascist attack against election campaign offices

  • Attack took place on Easter Monday, on the anniversary of the military junta’s rise to power in 1967

Leftist party ANTARSYA has condemned a fascist attack against its election campaign offices in Athens, which took place on Monday the 21st of April, anniversary of the 1967 military dictatorship’s rise to power.

ANTARSYA’s municipal candidate Petros Konstantinou claimed to have personally received threatening telephone calls on Thursday evening, with the caller threatening “to show you what Golden Dawn can do”.

The attackers smashed the front door of the offices and ripped down anti-fascism posters that were in the building’s lobby. A trail of blood was discovered outside the offices on the 5th of floor, which the attackers unsuccessfully tried to break into.

On to the Ukraine and journalistic errata from Consortiumnews:

NYT Retracts Russian-Photo Scoop

  • Exclusive: After starting a propaganda stampede – with a lead story about photos of Russian troops purportedly in Ukraine – the New York Times admits the pictures really don’t prove much, and one photo was labeled as snapped in Russia when it was really taken in Ukraine, writes Robert Parry.

After the jump, more escalation and anxieties in Asia’s game of Thrones [with Uncle Sam jumping in], an almost-admirable death sentence, Asian environmental woes, the lLatest chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now!, plus new developments in the world of Big Brothering and covert ops, plus the latest from the realm of cannabis and crime. . . Continue reading

Map of the day: Bay Area’s most polluted sites


Detail from a statewide map created by the California Environmental Protection Agency’s new CalEnviroScreen online mapping tool of the state’s most polluted regions. We have heightened the contrast to bring out detail:

BLOG Pollution detail

More on the tool from Tony Barboza of the Los Angeles Times:

The California Environmental Protection Agency has released a statewide list of census tracts most burdened by pollution, providing a first-of-its-kind ranking certain to pressure regulators to clean up neighborhoods with long-standing health risks.

Many of the worst pollution pockets identified and mapped by state officials are in the San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire. Their residents are largely low-income Latinos who have had little power to force improvements in their communities.

By providing the public with an objective accounting of conditions in areas as small as a few thousand residents, Cal/EPA has created a powerful tool to spur regulators to act in highly polluted neighborhoods, state officials and environmental activists say.

“It is a major breakthrough that will give us a better opportunity to direct or redirect precious resources to the communities that need it the most,” said state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).

Most sites in the San Francisco Bay Area are in the East Bay, including Richmond, one of the region’s region’s poorest cities and with a large minority population. We wrote extensively about two adjoining Richmond sites during our years at the Berkeley Daily Planet, Campus Bay and the University of California’s Richmond Field Station.

More than $2 billion in developments at both sites [including nearly 1,500 units of housing] were halted, a change in regulatory oversight mandated, and more intensive cleanups ordered, in part, we were told, because of our reporting. Even then, there were case of serious misconduct on the part of both private developers and the university. And since the newspaper folded, no journalists have been following events at either site.

Fukushima alarm: A former mayor lays it out


The earthquake-and-tsunami-created nuclear disaster at the TEPCO nuclear power station in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture continues long after the 11 March 2011.

In this video by Russia Today’s Sophie Shevardnadze interviews Katsutaka Idogawa, former mayor of Futuba in the hard-hit Fukushima Prefecture. It’s a sobering account, and a revelation of the depths of the continuing crisis.

From Russia Today:

Fukushima disaster: Tokyo hides truth as children die, become ill from radiation – ex-mayor

Program notes:

Nearly three years ago, Fukushima nuclear plant disaster forced thousands out of their homes. This also led to deaths of many more. Tokyo claims the effects are all but gone; however disturbing facts sometimes rise to the surface. To shed some light on the mystery of Fukushima Sophie Shevardnadze talks to former mayor Katsutaka Idogawa.

From the transcript:

http://rt.com/shows/sophieco/fukushima-disaster-radiation-children-740/

SS: You decided to evacuate people from Futaba as far as possible without consulting anybody – so you completely assumed responsibility?

KI: Our city always had an emergency plan in case of a fire or an accident at the plant. Every year, we had special drills in case there was a fire at the plant. I think it’s the central government and the Fukushima Prefecture authorities that bear the most responsibility for what happened. As mayor, it is my responsibility to take care of the people of Futaba. At that time, I had no time to get advice. I tried talking to the prefecture authorities but there was absolute chaos. It was impossible to get advice or hold a meeting. So I chose to act on my own, and I decided to start with evacuating the people as far from the radiation as possible.

SS: Your town is moving to a new location, to the neighboring city of Iwaki. Is it safe there? Do you see this as a new start for the people?

KI: I’d like to show you a table with radiation levels around Chernobyl. Radiation levels around Fukushima are four times higher than in Chernobyl, so I think it’s too early for people to come back to Fukushima Prefecture. Here you can see radiation levels in our region, Tohoku. This is ground zero, and the radiation radius is 50-100km, even 200km in fact. Fukushima Prefecture is at the very center. The city of Iwaki, where Futaba citizens moved, is also in Fukushima Prefecture. It is by no means safe, no matter what the government says. Exposing people to the current levels of radiation in Fukushima is a violation of human rights. It’s terrible.

SS: Evacuation advisories are being lifted for some cities in the Fukushima area, but you’re saying that the government is allowing this, despite the danger of radiation?

KI: Fukushima Prefecture has launched the Come Home campaign. In many cases, evacuees are forced to return. Here is a map of Fukushima Prefecture, with areas hit by radiation highlighted in yellow, and you can see that the color covers almost the entire map. Air contamination decreased a little, but soil contamination remains the same. And there are still about two million people living in the prefecture, who have all sorts of medical issues. The authorities claim this has nothing to do with the fallout. I demanded that the authorities substantiate their claim in writing but they ignored my request. There are some terrible things going on in Fukushima. I remember feeling so deeply for the victims of the Chernobyl tragedy that I could barely hold back the tears whenever I heard any reports on it. And now that a similar tragedy happened in Fukushima, the biggest problem is that there is no one to help us. They say it’s safe to go back. But we must not forget the lessons of Chernobyl. We must protect our children. I talked to local authorities in different places in Fukushima, but no one would listen to me. They believe what the government says, while in reality the radiation is still there. This is killing children. They die of heart conditions, asthma, leukemia, thyroiditis…Lots of kids are extremely exhausted after school; others are simply unable to attend PE classes. But the authorities still hide the truth from us, and I don’t know why. Don’t they have children of their own? It hurts so much to know they can’t protect our children.

SS: I understand that many children who have been evacuated are now living in the Fukushima district again; new schools have opened for these children, and you say they are facing radiation there…Is anything being done to help the children affected by the nuclear fallout?

KI: Officially, both the central government and the prefecture authorities say there is no radiation. They’re not doing anything, and they’re not going to do anything. They say Fukushima Prefecture is safe, and that’s why nobody’s working to evacuate children, move them elsewhere. We’re not even allowed to discuss this.

Headlines of the day: Classes, deep politics, more


First, a stunning landmark is reached. From the New York Times:

The American Middle Class Is No Longer the World’s Richest

The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction.

While the wealthiest Americans are outpacing many of their global peers, a New York Times analysis shows that across the lower- and middle-income tiers, citizens of other advanced countries have received considerably larger raises over the last three decades.

After-tax middle-class incomes in Canada — substantially behind in 2000 — now appear to be higher than in the United States. The poor in much of Europe earn more than poor Americans.

On of the key mechanisms of the collapse of the middle class from Mother Jones:

How Taxpayers Subsidize the Multi-Million Dollar Salaries of Restaurant CEOs

  • Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz raked in $236 million in taxpayer-subsidized compensation over the past two years.

As the fight to raise the minimum wage has gained momentum, the restaurant industry has emerged as the biggest opponent. This is no surprise, since the industry claims the highest percentage of low-wage workers—60 percent—of any other business sector. Front-line fast-food workers earn so little money that about half of them rely on some form of public assistance, to the tune of about $7 billion a year. That hidden subsidy has helped boost restaurant industry profits to record highs. In 2013, the industry reaped $660 billion in profits, and it in turn channeled millions into backing efforts to block local governments from raising pay for low-wage workers and to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 an hour (exactly where it’s been for the past 22 years). But public assistance programs aren’t the only way taxpayers subsidize the restaurant industry.

A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies finds that the public has been contributing to excessive CEO compensation as well, helping to widen the gap between the lowest-paid workers and their bosses. Thanks to a loophole in the tax code, corporations are allowed to deduct unlimited amounts of money from their tax bills for executive compensation, so long as it comes in the form of stock options or “performance pay.” The loophole was the inadvertent result of an attempt by Congress to rein in CEO compensation by limiting the tax deduction for executive pay to $1 million a year. That law exempted pay that came in the form of stock options or performance pay. This loophole has proven lucrative for CEOs of all stripes, but it is particularly egregious in an industry that pays its workers so little that it is already heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

More from UC Berkeley’s Robert Reich:

Raising Taxes on Corporations that Pay Their CEOs Royally and Treat Their Workers Like Serfs

Until the 1980s, corporate CEOs were paid, on average, 30 times what their typical worker was paid. Since then, CEO pay has skyrocketed to 280 times the pay of a typical worker; in big companies, to 354 times.

Meanwhile, over the same thirty-year time span the median American worker has seen no pay increase at all, adjusted for inflation. Even though the pay of male workers continues to outpace that of females, the typical male worker between the ages of 25 and 44 peaked in 1973 and has been dropping ever since. Since 2000, wages of the median male worker across all age brackets has dropped 10 percent, after inflation.

This growing divergence between CEO pay and that of the typical American worker isn’t just wildly unfair. It’s also bad for the economy. It means most workers these days lack the purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing — contributing to the slowest recovery on record. Meanwhile, CEOs and other top executives use their fortunes to fuel speculative booms followed by busts.

Renting wombs to fertilized eggs from abroad via Quartz:

Wealthy Chinese are turning to American surrogates to birth their children

The familiar image of international surrogacy until now has mainly involved Americans and Europeans crossing the world to find women to birth their children. Now, wealthy Chinese couples are seeking surrogates in the US. The practice—a new version of Chinese “birth tourism”—offers a solution to rising infertility in China, a way around Chinese population controls, and even the added bonus of US citizenship for babies born in the States.

For years, pregnant Chinese women have come to the US, mainly to the West Coast, to give birth to baby US citizens who can, at the age of 21, sponsor their parents for green cards. In a new wrinkle, some are instead paying American women to carry their children—a way of getting citizenship as well as dealing with the fact that more Chinese couples are facing trouble having children. (Other surrogacy destinations for wealthy Chinese include Thailand, India, and Ukraine, but the US is still the favorite.)

Salon finds brown noses:

Welcome to Plutocrat-geddon! Obama and Thomas Friedman flatter our new billionaire overlords

  • Forget inequality! Judging by the White House and the media, the real answer is sucking up to the wealthiest

Inequality is a burning topic among economists, especially since the release of Thomas Piketty’s recent book on the subject. Many are questioning whether this is a temporary period of runaway inequality, or whether we are on the verge of an irreversible collapse into extremes of wealth and poverty. (What would we call it? The Oligopolypse? Plutogeddon?)

But numbers alone don’t tell the full story. Culture, too, is adapting to this unequal world. We idealize the wealthy today in ways that would have been unthinkable decades ago.

With the children of today’s baby boomers scheduled to inherit $30 trillion in the next several decades, politicians and the press are hard at work flattering plutocrats of all ages by portraying them as paragons of wisdom.

Another assault on the potential middle class from the New York Times:

Student Loans Can Suddenly Come Due When Co-Signers Die, a Report Finds

For students who borrow on the private market to pay for school, the death of a parent can come with an unexpected, added blow, a federal watchdog warns. Even borrowers who have good payment records can face sudden demands for full, early repayment of those loans, and can be forced into default.

Most people who take out loans to pay for school have minimal income or credit history, so if they borrow from banks or other private lenders, they need co-signers — usually parents or other relatives. Borrowing from the federal government, the largest source of student loans, rarely requires a co-signer.

The problem, described in a report released Tuesday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, arises from a little-noticed provision in private loan contracts: If the co-signer dies or files for bankruptcy, the loan holder can demand complete repayment, even if the borrower’s record is spotless. If the loan is not repaid, it is declared to be in default, doing damage to a borrower’s credit record that can take years to repair.

And a warning to labor from the London Daily Mail:

The future of factories? Swarm of super-fast robotic ‘ANTS’ powered by magnets can independently climb walls and even build

  • The army of robo-ants can move at around 13.7 inches (35cm) a second
  • This is equivalent to a human running at just under the speed of sound
  • Each ant can be individually controlled using magnets on a circuit board
  • Swarm has already built a tower 30cm (11.8 inches) high from carbon rods

Business Insider sounds the alarm:

DAVID EINHORN: ‘We Are Witnessing Our Second Tech Bubble In 15 Years’

Hedge-fund manager David Einhorn, who runs Greenlight Capital, says we’re seeing another tech bubble, CNBC reported, citing his fund’s quarterly investor letter.

“Now there is a clear consensus that we are witnessing our second tech bubble in 15 years. What is uncertain is how much further the bubble can expand, and what might pop it,” Einhorn wrote in the letter (PDF) posted online by @Levered_Hawkeye.

Clicking away your rights from the Christian Science Monitor:

General Mills drops arbitration clause, but such contracts are ‘pervasive’

Consumer advocates warn that clicking ‘I agree’ to online contracts can crimp buyers’ legal rights, if a contract requires arbitration and nixes class-action lawsuits. The practice is spreading, though General Mills encountered a backlash.

When consumers click “I agree” to online contracts, two things can happen: They may give up their right to pursue a class action lawsuit if something goes wrong, and they can seek damages only through arbitration, an out-of-court legal process that many experts say weighs against the harmed consumer.

From the Los Angeles Times. Another landmark:

Supreme Court upholds Michigan ban on affirmative action

The Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on the use of racial affirmative action in its state universities Tuesday, ruling that voters are entitled to decide the issue.

The 6-2 decision clears away constitutional challenges to the state bans on affirmative action, which began in California in 1996.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, speaking for the majority, said the democratic process can decide such issues. “This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved,” he said. “It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this court’s precedents for the judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”

Kochs go Latino, via Reuters:

Conservative Koch-backed group uses soft touch in recruiting U.S. Hispanics

The conservative advocacy groups backed by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch are known mostly for spending millions of dollars to pelt Democratic candidates with negative television ads.

But this year, one Koch-backed group is using a softer touch to try to win over part of the nation’s booming Hispanic population, which has overwhelmingly backed Democrats in recent elections. The group, known as The Libre Initiative, is sponsoring English classes, driver’s license workshops and other social programs to try to build relationships with Hispanic voters in cities from Arizona to Florida – even as the group targets Democratic lawmakers with hard-edged TV ads.

Taking a cue from liberal groups that have been active in Hispanic neighborhoods for decades, Libre says it aims to use these events to build support for small-government ideas in communities that typically support big-government ideals.

From NPR, a reminder from Mother Nature:

California’s Drought Ripples Through Businesses, Then To Schools

Nearly half of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables come from California, a state that is drying up. , the entire state is considered “abnormally dry,” and two-thirds of California is in “extreme” to “exceptional” drought conditions.

Earlier this year, many farmers in California found out that they would get no irrigation water from state or federal water projects. Recent rains have helped a little. On Friday, government officials said there was enough water to give a little more to some of the region’s farmers — 5 percent of the annual allocation, instead of the nothing they were getting.

>snip<

Economists say it’s too early to accurately predict the drought’s effect on jobs, but it’s likely as many as 20,000 will be lost.

That might not sound like a lot, but many of those workers are already living paycheck to paycheck in communities that depend on that work.

Via the National Drought Monitor, the current state of affairs in California, ranging from lightest [abnormally dry] to darkest [exceptional drought]:

BLOG Drought

After the jump, the latest from Europe [including spiking austerian suicides], Asia’s Game of Zones, an American Nazi whose work inspired a French film, spy games, and muich more. . . Continue reading

More of those not-so-random headlines. . .


We open with this grim assessment from United Press International:

One-fifth of Chinese farmland is polluted, study says

  • Nearly one-fifth of China’s available farmland is polluted.

Nearly one-fifth of China’s available farmland is polluted, a government report said.

Issued Thursday by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land Resources, it said 16.1 percent of the country’s land was polluted, as was 19.4 percent of its farmland, citing “human industrial and agricultural activities” as the cause. The report was based on a study, from 2005 to 2013, on land across China.

China’s rapid industrialization, a lack of regulations and a dominance of commercial interests were cited as the cause.

The most common pollutants are cadmium, nickel and arsenic, three materials whose presence in soil have risen sharply since 1986. The cadmium level in southwestern land increased by 50 percent since 1986, and southern Chinese soil is more severely polluted than that in the north, the report said.

And an even grimmer warning from The Guardian:

Entire marine food chain at risk from rising CO2 levels in water

  • Fish will make themselves vulnerable by being attracted to predator odour and exhibiting bolder behaviour

Escalating carbon dioxide emissions will cause fish to lose their fear of predators, potentially damaging the entire marine food chain, joint Australian and US research has found.

A study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook University and the Georgia Institute of Technology found the behavior of fish would be “seriously affected” by greater exposure to CO2.

Researchers studied the behavior of coral reef fish at naturally occurring CO2 vents in Milne Bay, in eastern Papua New Guinea.

And from Reuters, a case of too little, too late:

Manager at Japan’s Fukushima plant admits radioactive water ‘embarrassing’

The manager of the Fukushima nuclear power plant admits to embarrassment that repeated efforts have failed to bring under control the problem of radioactive water, eight months after Japan’s prime minister told the world the matter was resolved.

Tokyo Electric Power Co, the plant’s operator, has been fighting a daily battle against contaminated water since Fukushima was wrecked by a March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government pledged half a billion dollars last year to tackle the issue, but progress has been limited.

“It’s embarrassing to admit, but there are certain parts of the site where we don’t have full control,” Akira Ono told reporters touring the plant this week. He was referring to the latest blunder at the plant: channelling contaminated water to the wrong building.

From the Washington Post, yet another take on Obama’s alleged “recovery”:

Long-term unemployed struggle to find — and keep — jobs

For the long-term unemployed, finding a job is hard — but keeping one may be even harder.

New research tracking people who have been out of work for six months or longer found that 23 percent landed a job within a few months of the study. But a year later, more than a third of that group was unemployed again or out of the labor force altogether.

The findings are the latest in a bleak but growing body of literature suggesting long-term unemployment has become a trap that is difficult to escape.

Economists say that means the long-term unemployed could become a permanent underclass, left behind by the nation’s broader economic recovery.

From MediaWire, a case of censorship from afar:

NYT abides by Israeli gag order, draws questions from public editor

The New York Times delayed publication of a story this week about a young journalist and Palestinian rights advocate held by Israeli authorities, abiding by a court gag order, the Times’ public editor wrote Friday.

Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren told Public Editor Margaret Sullivan that the paper is bound by the gag orders:

She said that the situation is analogous to abiding by traffic rules or any other laws of the land, and that two of her predecessors in the bureau chief position affirmed to her this week that The Times has been subject to gag orders in the past.

The newspaper’s newsroom lawyer told Sullivan “the general understanding among legal counsel in other countries is that local law would apply to foreign media,” but said the Times hasn’t challenged the restriction in Israel.

And from the Japan Times, rebranding militarism:

Military waging popularity campaign

  • SDF charm offensive coincides with Abe’s collective defense push

Pacifist Japan is gradually learning to love its military, with an apparent public relations campaign to soften its image featuring online popularity contests, a much-touted soprano vocalist and dating events.

The armed forces are also visible in youth culture, with young teens tuning in to “Girl und Panzer,” a cartoon about schoolgirls who do battle in tanks. Japan’s most popular Twitter hashtag in 2013 was #KanColle, a reference to an online game in which anthropomorphized warships compete to out-pretty each other as young girls.

The image change comes as nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing to give the Self Defense Forces more money and scope to act as a normal military might, at a time of rising tensions with China.

From the Reykjavík Grapevine, the curious case of the peaceful latter-day Vikings:

Examining The First Use Of Lethal Force By Icelandic Police

In a large apartment block in the Árbær suburb, the police gunned down a middle-aged man early morning on December 2, 2013. Not only was this the first time the Icelandic police used lethal force, but also the first time they fired a live round in the line of duty. Considering its monumental significance in Icelandic history this incident has received remarkably little attention from the media.

Finally, via the Oakland Tribune, a criticism of the profiteering spouse of California’s plutocratic senator:

Berkeley: USPS doesn’t follow historic preservation rules, report says

An agency that oversees preservation of federally owned historic property took the United States Postal Service to task in a report issued April 17, noting “significant concerns” resulting from sales of historic post offices due to the loss to the public of facilities built for public use, and the risk to historic art and architecture.

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation report “Preserving Historic Post Offices: A Report to Congress,” states that “these concerns include not just the decision to close the facilities, but the manner in which the USPS is conducting its decision-making process, the transparency of that process, and how it conducts the … consultation process” mandated under the National Historic Preservation Act.

>snip<

One of the problem areas the report noted was that the postal service did not look at alternatives to sales, such as leasing properties.

“The ACHP has no evidence that the USPS has explored (as mandated under the preservation act) any alternatives to disposal of any of the historic post offices to date,” the report said.

ACHP further criticized USPS for not using “alternative property disposal systems.”

Currently, USPS has charged the giant real estate firm CBRE with marketing historic post offices. CBRE chair is Richard Blum, UC Berkeley trustee and spouse of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco.

The report says it would be preferable to market the properties through the General Services Administration’s Office of Real Property Disposal, which “offers comprehensive services to federal agencies … in the marketing and sale of federal real estate at a cost lower than commercial vendors.”

By now, the pattern should be clear: The catastrophic consequences of our brave new neoliberal world are global, with a notable exception provided by the descendants of those who were once some of planet’s most violent predators.

Just some random headlines. . .or are they?


First, from the London Telegraph:

Infants ‘unable to use toy building blocks’ due to iPad addiction

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers warn that rising numbers of children are unable to perform simple tasks such as using building blocks because of overexposure to iPads

Next, from the London Daily Mail:

Pregnant women who take SSRI antidepressants are three times more likely to have a child with autism

  • The effect of  the drugs is particularity pronounced during third trimester
  • Researchers suggest rising rates of autism and SSRI use may be linked

Next up, from the Los Angeles Times:

Household rat poison linked to death and disease in wildlife

Evidence of rat poison is found in a sickly puma whose territory includes Griffith Park. Researchers suspect a link between poisons and mange.

During nearly two decades of research in and around the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, park service scientists have documented widespread exposure in carnivores to common household poisons. Of 140 bobcats, coyotes and mountain lions evaluated, 88% tested positive for one or more anticoagulant compounds. Scores of animals are known to have died from internal bleeding, researchers said.

The poisons also affect protected or endangered species including golden eagles, northern spotted owls and San Joaquin kit foxes.

And the Los Angeles Times again:

EPA drastically underestimates methane released at drilling sites

Drilling operations at several natural gas wells in southwestern Pennsylvania released methane into the atmosphere at rates that were 100 to 1,000 times greater than federal regulators had estimated, new research shows.

Using a plane that was specially equipped to measure greenhouse gas emissions in the air, scientists found that drilling activities at seven well pads in the booming Marcellus shale formation emitted 34 grams of methane per second, on average. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that such drilling releases between 0.04 grams and 0.30 grams of methane per second.

The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, adds to a growing body of research that suggests the EPA is gravely underestimating methane emissions from oil and gas operations. The agency is expected to issue its own analysis of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector as early as Tuesday, which will give outside experts a chance to assess how well regulators understand the problem.

Next, from the East Bay Express:

Environmental Activist Forcibly Removed from Chevron-Sponsored Event in Oakland for Mocking the Company’s ‘News’ Website

Security guards forcibly removed Paul Paz y Miño, an employee of the environmental group Amazon Watch, from a Chevron-sponsored event today in Oakland because he was carrying flyers that he said he had planned to distribute outside the building after the program. When Miño, who had paid $75 for a ticket to the public event, refused to leave, guards forcibly removed him.

Called the “Illuminating Ideas: ENERGY & Sustainability Summit,” the economic development event was held at the Oakland Marriott. It was organized by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and primarily sponsored by Chevron. PG&E, Bank of America, and Merrill Lynch were also sponsors. The event offered several panel discussions on green infrastructure, energy smart cities, and private and public partnerships. The keynote speaker was Jon Wellinghoff, the immediate past president of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was also a speaker at the event.

And them this, from VentureBeat:

The future of Silicon Valley may lie in the mountains of Afghanistan

The future of Silicon Valley’s technological prowess may well lie in the war-scarred mountains and salt flats of Western Afghanistan.

United States Geological Survey teams discovered one of the world’s largest untapped reserves of lithium there six years ago. The USGS was scouting the volatile country at the behest of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations. Lithium is a soft metal used to make the lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries essential for powering desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets. And increasingly, electric cars like Tesla’s.

The vast discovery could very well propel Afghanistan — a war-ravaged land with a population of 31 million largely uneducated Pashtuns and Tajiks, and whose primary exports today are opium, hashish, and marijuana — into becoming the world’s next “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” according to an internal Pentagon memo cited by the New York Times.

Finally, from the New York Times:

The Environmentalist Who Decided It Was Too Late

After decades of fervent environmental activism, Paul Kingsnorth concluded that collapse is inevitable. So now what?

Okay, so maybe they’re not such random headlines after all.

Rather, they are examples that should stir a form of thinking that the late UC Santa Barbara ecologist Garrett Hardin called ecolacy, the much-needed complement to the more commonly cultivated skills of literacy and numeracy.

Hardin, who was tragically wrong about what he called “the tragedy of the commons” [mistaking what economists term a free-for-all for the community-engendered commons], was spot on in his formulation of his First Law of Human Ecology, which states with deceptive simplicity: “You cannot do only one thing.”

Many of the headlines we have cited are examples of Hardin’s law, proof that actions hailed as desirable in one context can be devastating in the second. . .as in children skilled at screens and inept at manipulating real world objects. . . and as mothers relieved of depression and rewarded with the depressing burden of autistic offspring. . .and as when posons designed to kills household vermnin spread to destroy the wildlife around us.

Another grouping reminds us of the distortion of information to suit the interests of the few at the peril of the many. . .as when producing a fuel touted as a way to cut greenhouse gases actually produces vastly more atmosphere-imperiling emissions that the corporateers would have us believe. . .and when a corporation that touts itself as a bastion of community responsibility censors those who proclaim otherwise. . .and when a glimpse is revealed of deeper causes behind devastating flag-draped bloodshed.

The last headline speaks for itself.

Chart of the day II: A Kochian tar sands bottom line


The potential bottom line for the liberscarian bothers,  also from that ominous IFG report [PDF]. Clickk on the image to enlarge:

layout

Chart of the day: A Canadian tar sands cui bono


If you’re wondering who stands to reap the biggest profits from the environmentally dangerous Canadian tar sands oil rush, consider this from a sobering new report [PDF] from the International Forum on Globalization. Click on the image to enlarge:

layout

Headlines of the day II: EconoEuroAsianFukuDup


A very, very long compilation and perhaps the last of its sort, covering a panoply of notable developments in the economic, political, and environmental domains:.

For our first item, via the Press Gazette, proof there’s more than one way to control information:

Journalists seeking accreditation for Brit Awards asked to agree coverage of sponsor Mastercard

A PR company representing MasterCard, who are a major sponsor for tonight’s Brit Awards for pop music, appear to have asked journalists to guarantee coverage of their client as the price of attending.

Before providing two journalists from the Telegraph with accreditation to attend the event House PR has asked them to agree to a number of requests about the coverage they will give it.

They have even gone as far as to draft Twitter messages which they would like the journalists to send out – and asked that they include a mention of the marketing campaign #PricelessSurprises and @MasterCardUK.

And from the Los Angeles Times, What’s in Your Wallet?™:

Capital One says it can show up at cardholders’ homes, workplaces

  • The credit card company’s recent contract update includes terms that sound menacing and creepy.

Ding-dong, Cap One calling.

Credit card issuer Capital One isn’t shy about getting into customers’ faces. The company recently sent a contract update to cardholders that makes clear it can drop by any time it pleases.

The update specifies that “we may contact you in any manner we choose” and that such contacts can include calls, emails, texts, faxes or a “personal visit.”

As if that weren’t creepy enough, Cap One says these visits can be “at your home and at your place of employment.”

The police need a court order to pull off something like that. But Cap One says it has the right to get up close and personal anytime, anywhere.

We switch to a global headline that overshadows pretty much defining the nature of life in the era of neoliberal austerity. From Reuters:

World risks era of slow growth, high unemployment: OECD

Sweeping reforms are urgently needed to boost productivity and lower barriers to trade if the world is to avoid a new era of slow growth and stubbornly high unemployment, the OECD warned on Friday.

In its 2014 study on “Going for Growth”, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said momentum on reforms had slowed in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, with much of it now piecemeal and incremental.

From CBC News, another consequence of neoliberalism comes back to bites one its leading proponents in the bottom line:

Wal-Mart cuts growth forecast as poor shoppers spend less

  • Food stamp cuts in U.S. eat into same-store sales

Recent U.S. cuts in federal food stamps for the working poor and unemployed has led Wal-Mart Stores Inc to lower the forecast for its full-year profits.

The world’s largest retailer still expects net sales growth of three to five per cent this year.

But less food stamp aid, higher taxes and tighter credit are eroding its grocery sales, as its low-income customers struggle to get by on less.  As many as a fifth of Wal-Mart’s customers rely on food stamps, according to one analyst quoted by Reuters.

From Salon, more of the same, this time from the company founded by the new publisher of the Washington Post:

Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers

  • You might find your Prime membership morally indefensible after reading these stories about worker mistreatment

Amazon equals Walmart in the use of monitoring technologies to track the minute-by-minute movements and performance of employees and in settings that go beyond the assembly line to include their movement between loading and unloading docks, between packing and unpacking stations, and to and from the miles of shelving at what Amazon calls its “fulfillment centers”—gigantic warehouses where goods ordered by Amazon’s online customers are sent by manufacturers and wholesalers, there to be shelved, packaged, and sent out again to the Amazon customer.

Amazon’s shop-floor processes are an extreme variant of Taylorism that Frederick Winslow Taylor himself, a near century after his death, would have no trouble recognizing. With this twenty-first-century Taylorism, management experts, scientific managers, take the basic workplace tasks at Amazon, such as the movement, shelving, and packaging of goods, and break down these tasks into their subtasks, usually measured in seconds; then rely on time and motion studies to find the fastest way to perform each subtask; and then reassemble the subtasks and make this “one best way” the process that employees must follow.

Amazon is also a truly global corporation in a way that Walmart has never been, and this globalism provides insights into how Amazon responds to workplaces beyond the United States that can follow different rules. In the past three years, the harsh side of Amazon has come to light in the United Kingdom and Germany as well as the United States, and Amazon’s contrasting conduct in America and Britain, on one side, and in Germany, on the other, reveals how the political economy of Germany is employee friendly in a way that those of the other two countries no longer are.

ProPublica covers the sadly predictable:

U.S. Lags Behind World in Temp Worker Protections

‘Permatemping’ cases highlight lack of U.S. protections for temp workers. Other countries limit the length of temp jobs, guarantee equal pay and restrict dangerous work.

Since the 2007-09 recession, temp work has been one of the fastest growing segments of the economy. But a ProPublica investigation into this burgeoning industry over the past year has documented an array of problems. Temps have worked for the same company for as long as 11 years, never getting hired on full-time. Companies have assigned temps to the most dangerous jobs. In several states, data showed that temps are three times more likely than regular workers to suffer amputations on the job. And even some of the country’s largest companies have relied on immigrant labor brokers and fly-by-night temp agencies that have cheated workers out of their wages.

In contrast, countries around the globe have responded to similar abuses by adopting laws to protect the growing number of temps in their workforces. These include limiting the length of temp assignments, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work and restricting companies from hiring temps for hazardous tasks.

Badly Behaving Banksters pay their dues, via TheLocal.ch:

Credit Suisse to pay $196m US fine

Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse has admitted it violated US securities laws and will pay $196 million to settle the charges, the Securities and Exchange Commission said Friday.

The SEC action came as the Department of Justice investigates Credit Suisse for allegedly helping US citizens illegally avoid taxes.

The SEC said that Credit Suisse Group violated laws by providing cross-border brokerage and investment advisory services to US clients without first registering with the SEC.

According to the SEC, the Zurich-based global bank began conducting the unregistered services as early as 2002 and had collected about $82 million in fees on the accounts before completely exiting the business in mid-2013.

Belated action from United Press International:

California unveils legislation to help deal with drought

California officials Wednesday unveiled a $687.4 million plan to help the state cope with its severe drought.

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders said the proposal would provide funds for direct relief for farm workers who will likely be out of a job for an extended period as growers cut back on their planting.

In addition, the legislation provides funding for water-conservation projects and a public-awareness campaign to remind Californians it is shaping up to be a long, dry summer.

The Christian Science Monitor adds context:

California drought: Farmers cut back sharply, affecting jobs and food supply

With drought limiting water deliveries from northern California and the price of irrigation skyrocketing, farmers’ fields lie fallow and the politicized debate over solutions rages.

And from the U.S. Drought Monitor, the latest image of California’s water crisis, with severity increasing with color darkness [the dark brown being the worst, “Exceptional Drought”]:

BLOG Drought

Al Jazeera America campaigns:

Push to boost wages at big LA hotels

  • City council to consider proposal to raise hourly rate to $15.37, which would be among nation’s highest if passed

Three Los Angeles City Council members have launched a bid to nearly double the minimum wage for hotel workers to $15.37 an hour, among the highest proposed minimums nationwide.

The living wage proposal, applicable to about 11,000 workers employed by Los Angeles hotels with more than 100 rooms, would help to lift employees out of poverty and benefit the city economy, proposal supporters said on Tuesday when the proposal was introduced.

California’s minimum wage is $8 an hour with a $1 bump coming in July. It will reach $10 in 2016. Cities and counties can set a higher minimum wage. In San Francisco, for example, the minimum is $10.74 with annual cost of living increases. Nationwide, a number of cities have adopted or are considering minimum wage proposals, including a citywide $15-per-hour rate urged by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

Meanwhile, there’s another crisis in California, reported by the Los Angeles Times:

Many L.A. Unified school libraries, lacking staff, are forced to shut

Budget cuts leave about half of L.A. Unified’s elementary and middle schools without librarians, and thousands of students without books.

About half of the 600 elementary and middle school libraries are without librarians or aides, denying tens of thousands of students regular access to nearly $100 million worth of books, according to district data.

The crisis has exacerbated educational inequalities across the nation’s second-largest system, as some campuses receive extra money for library staff and others don’t. It has also sparked a prolonged labor conflict with the California School Employees Assn., which represents library aides.

Cashing in the Mile High City’s state with the London Telegraph:

Bumper cannabis sales in Colorado form billion-dollar industry

  • In America’s first cannabis-legal state sales are surging far ahead of predictions, bringing huge additional tax revenue

Cannabis is likely to become an annual billion-dollar legal industry in the sate of Colorado by next year after officials suggested greater volumes of the drug are being sold than anticipated.

Colorado was the first state in the US to licence and tax sales of the drug for recreational use, allowing dozens of shops to open for business on Jan 1, 2014.

In the lead up to legalisation it was estimated that sales would reach $395 million in the 2014/2015 financial year.

But in its first assessment since the New Year Governor John Hickenlooper’s budget office has dramatically increased that to $612 million.

When the $345 million in estimated sales of the drug to people with medical conditions is added that means a total of almost $1 billion.

The Hill concedes the despicably considered:

Obama drops proposal to cut Social Security from his budget

Yielding to pressure from congressional Democrats, President Obama is abandoning a proposed cut to Social Security benefits in his election-year budget.

The president’s budget request for fiscal 2015, which is due out March 4, will not call for a switch to a new formula that would limit cost-of-living increases in the entitlement program, the White House said Thursday.

“This year the administration is returning to a more traditional budget presentation that is focused on achieving the president’s vision for the best path to create growth and opportunity for all Americans, and the investments needed to meet that vision,” a White House official said.

Obama last year proposed the new formula for calculating benefits as an overture to Republicans toward a “grand bargain” on the debt.

Barry O continues his neoliberal trade crusade with BBC News:

Obama champions controversial North America-Asia trade deal

US President Barack Obama has vowed to expand trade agreements between North America and Asia, despite concerns within his own political party.

Ending a day of talks with the leaders of Mexico and Canada, Mr Obama said they must keep up their “competitive advantage”.

The three countries are negotiating a major Pacific trade deal.

But Mr Obama’s Democratic allies oppose the agreement amid concerns that American jobs could be lost.

Republic Report adds significant context:

Obama Admin’s TPP Trade Officials Received Hefty Bonuses From Big Banks

Officials tapped by the Obama administration to lead the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations have received multimillion dollar bonuses from CitiGroup and Bank of America, financial disclosures obtained by Republic Report show.

Stefan Selig, a Bank of America investment banker nominated to become the Under Secretary for International Trade at the Department of Commerce, received more than $9 million in bonus pay as he was nominated to join the administration in November. The bonus pay came in addition to the $5.1 million in incentive pay awarded to Selig last year.

Michael Froman, the current U.S. Trade Representative, received over $4 million as part of multiple exit payments when he left CitiGroup to join the Obama administration. Froman told Senate Finance Committee members last summer that he donated approximately 75 percent of the $2.25 million bonus he received for his work in 2008 to charity. CitiGroup also gave Froman a $2 million payment in connection to his holdings in two investment funds, which was awarded “in recognition of [Froman’s] service to Citi in various capacities since 1999.”

Getting together with Kyodo News:

Crucial TPP ministerial meeting begins in Singapore

Ministers from the 12 countries involved in the envisioned Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade accord began talks in Singapore on Saturday seeking to achieve the challenging goal of reaching a broad agreement after missing an end-of-2013 deadline.

But the momentum for an early conclusion of the ambitious U.S.-led trade initiative has been overshadowed by U.S. frustration over Japan’s reluctance to open up its agricultural market, as well as Malaysian and Vietnamese opposition to reforming state-owned firms.

During a five-day working-level meeting through Friday, each country held bilateral meetings on the sidelines of plenary sessions to bridge gaps over outstanding issues, but officials made little progress on thorny issues.

The Japan Times covers amen choristers:

Don’t fold on TPP tariffs: senators

A bipartisan group of senators has sent a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman urging the Obama administration not to make tariff concessions to Japan during the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.

The letter, dated Saturday and signed by 15 senators led by Michael Bennett, a Colorado Democrat, and Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, “asked for assurances that the TPP negotiations will not be concluded until Japan agrees to eliminate tariff and non-tariff trade barriers for agricultural products,” the National Pork Producers Council said the same day.

Tokyo and Washington are jousting over Japanese duties on five “sacred” farm product categories — rice, beef and pork, wheat, dairy and sugar — that Tokyo wants to retain under the TPP, which is based on the principle of abolishing all tariffs.

The Obamanations continue via The Guardian:

Obama begins Mexico summit with orders lowering trade barriers

  • Before meeting Mexican and Canadian heads of state, president bypasses Congress by signing trade liberalisation orders

Barack Obama begins a North American summit in Mexico on Wednesday with a gesture of defiance toward allies in Congress who are hampering his ability to negotiate controversial trade liberalisation agreements.

In the latest in a series of so-called executive actions promised in his state of the union address, the US president will sign new measures to speed up imports and exports for businesses by reducing bureaucratic barriers.

And from one Canadian province, a modest resistance to the tenor of the times, via CBC News:

Quebec proposes rules to prevent hostile takeovers

  • Budget sets out economic agenda that includes government taking stakes in mining sector

Quebec’s Parti Québécois government proposed measures to shield businesses headquartered in Quebec from hostile takeovers in a budget tabled Thursday.

It was one in a series of proposals geared at keeping Quebec business in the province that also included plans for the government to buy direct stakes in oil and mining companies with new finds in Quebec.

The proposal comes at a time when the minority government is expected to call a provincial election and may not last long enough to pass through the legislature.

From MercoPress, deserved anxiety:

IMF concerned with risks in emerging markets from pulling back stimulus too quickly

Advanced economies, including the United States, must avoid pulling back stimulus too quickly given the weak global economic recovery and recent market volatility highlights key risks in some emerging markets, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday.

The IMF said there was scope for better coordination of central bank exit plans, something many emerging market policymakers have called for as the Federal Reserve has begun to wind back its US support for the economy.

In a briefing note prepared for upcoming Group of 20 meetings, IMF staff said the outlook for global growth was similar to its last assessment in January, with growth of about 3.75% seen for this year and 4.0% in 2015.

More from China Daily:

Growth in emerging economies to decline: IMF

Anticipated growth in emerging surplus economies, including China’s, is “expected to decline” and output gaps in advanced economies remain negative, the International Monetary Fund said in a report released ahead of this weekend’s G-20 finance meeting in Australia.

Global recovery from the recession has been “disappointingly weak,” and G-20 countries are still producing “far below” the longer-term trend, the report said.

While global economic activity picked up in the second half of 2013 due to strengthening advanced economies, trade volumes remain below trend, decline in unemployment and strong private demand “did not materialize,” the IMF said Wednesday.

Against the backdrop of slower-than-anticipated global growth, emerging economies are experiencing bouts of volatility in the financial sector, influenced in part by weakening sentiment toward emerging economies, the IMF said.

On to Europe with another red flag from BBC News:

Eurozone business growth slowed in February, PMI study suggests

Business growth in the eurozone eased this month but the bloc’s economy continued to expand at a “robust pace”, a closely watched survey suggests.

The latest Markit eurozone composite purchasing managers’ index (PMI) dipped to 52.7 from 52.9 in January. A figure above 50 indicates expansion.

Within the bloc, Germany and France continued to see contrasting fortunes. German companies saw strong growth, but activity among French firms declined for the fourth month in a row.

Another from Deutsche Welle:

Eurozone January inflation too tame to please ECB

In January, price increases in the eurozone remained well below the rate desired by the European Central Bank. The timid inflation rate for the month points to a lackluster recovery in the recession-hit currency area.

Annual inflation in the 18-nation eurozone remained tame in January, recording 0.8 percent higher than in the previous month of December, according to Monday.

In the wider 28-nation European Union, inflation fell to 0.9 percent against 1 percent at the end of last year, Eurostat said.

Compared with January 2013, however, the rates for both areas were significantly lower, coming down from 2 percent and 2.1 percent annual inflation respectively a year ago.

And from Eurostat [PDF], the graphic that tells the deeper story [click to enlarge]:

BLOG Inflate

Another indicator of creepy europoverty from The Guardian [obesity rates rise as poverty increases, with the rates of obesity highest in Europe’s unfortunately named, crisis wracked PIGS]:

Overweight children could become new norm in Europe, says WHO

As many as a third of 11-year-olds in some countries are overweight, as well as two-thirds of UK’s adult population

Being overweight is in danger of becoming the new norm for children as well as adults in Europe, the World Health Organisation warns, issuing figures showing that up to a third of 11-year-olds across the region are too heavy.

According to the EU figures, Greece has the highest proportion of overweight 11-year-olds (33%), followed by Portugal (32%), Ireland and Spain (both 30%).

More anxieties from EurActiv:

Europe tries to reverse drift towards de-industrialisation

After a lost decade, Europe is trying to reverse a decline in manufacturing which has brought industrial output to a standstill. The issue will reach the EU’s top decision-making body in March when European leaders meet for their quarterly summit in Brussels.

Over the past few years, the European Commission has been the most vocal EU institution campaigning for the continent’s industrial revival, positioning itself as a driver of competitiveness and job creation.

Within the EU executive, the commissioner for enterprise, Antonio Tajani, has emerged as the winner of an internal debate opposing supporters of industry to environmentalists, whose policies were blamed for hampering the economy.

Another warning from New Europe:

North-South gap weakens employment and social cohesion

  • The latest European Vacancy Monitor revealed a growing North-South divide

A widening gap in job opportunities between Northern and Southern EU countries is threatening the employment and social cohesion of the EU.

On 24 February, the European Commission announced the latest issue of the European Vacancy Monitor (EVM), which indicated a shortage in labour supply in countries such as Austria, Denmark Sweden, Estonia and Latvia, and an increased competition for jobs in countries such as Greece, Slovakia and Spain.

László Andor, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, said that the Northern-Southern employment gap indicates Eurozone’s employment and social asymmetries. “Diverging job prospects in Northern and Southern Europe underline mismatches in the European labour market, linked also to Eurozone asymmetries. Labour mobility might help to reduce those imbalances. Tools supporting workers mobility within the European labour market such as EURES are available to help job seekers find job opportunities,” Commissioner Andor said.

A shift in sentiment from EUobserver:

Poll: Socialists to top EU elections, boost for far-right

Europe’s socialists are set to top the polls in May’s European elections, according to the first pan-EU election forecast.

The projections, released by Pollwatch Europe on Tuesday (19 February), give the parliament’s centre-left group 221 out of 751 seats on 29 percent of the vote, up from the 194 seats it currently holds.

For their part, the centre-right EPP would drop to 202 seats from the 274 it currently holds on 27 percent of the vote across the bloc. If correct, it would be the first victory for the Socialists since 1994.

EurActiv takes a hit:

Financiers snipe at draft EU law against money laundering

Representatives of financial transactions services have criticised harshly the EU’s draft legislation to fight money laundering which will go through its first parliamentary vote today (20 February) and enjoys the support of the anti-corruption champion, Transparency International.

The European Commission proposal, tabled in February last year, is aimed at tightening EU rules on financial transactions in a bid to step up the fight against money laundering and terrorism funding.

One of the main elements of the proposal is the introduction of a mechanism to name the beneficial owners of companies, in order to prevent the illicit activities which are often carried out under anonymity.

The proposal also includes requirements to increase customer due diligence and tightening the rules obliging financial companies to identify their clients and the legitimacy of their activities.

Europe Online pulls back:

Iceland moves to withdraw EU application

Iceland’s centre-right government is to seek parliamentary approval to withdraw its application to join the European Union, opting not to restart accession talks that were put on ice a year ago.

A bill proposing the withdrawal was sent to parliament late Friday and was due to be debated next week, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson told dpa on Saturday.

The move came after the parliamentary caucuses of the ruling parties – the centrist Progressive Party and the conservative Independence Party – voted Friday to withdraw the application.

In comments on the proposal quoted by online news site Visir.is, the government said it “did not have a support base” to complete the accession process.

Off to Britain, with a major policy reversal of the post-equine escape animal enclosure locking sort from Sky News:

Cameron: UK Ready To Fund New Flood Defences

  • David Cameron tells Sky News he is ready to open the Government’s “chequebook” to build new flood defences.

David Cameron has suggested that his “money is no object” pledge on the flood relief effort could be extended to cover the costs of new defences.

In an exclusive interview with Sky News, the Prime Minister said he was ready to take out his “chequebook” following a major review of what went wrong and how it could have been prevented.

“You’ve got to look at where the floods have been this time, compared with 2007, compared with 2003,” he said.

From the London Telegraph, the usual result:

Wages rise but still below inflation

  • Pay increase and a fall in unemployment a boost for the Bank of England

Wages are still failing to keep up with the rising cost of living despite climbing at a faster rate in the final quarter of last year.

Average weekly pay including bonuses edged up 1.1pc to £478 in the three months to the end of December, up from the 0.9pc rate of increase in the three months to the end of November, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

However, the Government’s preferred inflation measure, the consumer prices index (CPI), currently stands at 1.9pc – below the 2pc target – despite a surprise 0.1 point fall on Tuesday.

Another austerian consequence from The Observer:

Cash-strapped older women are forced back to work

  • Older women taking on more jobs, study finds, but pay gap between the sexes is growing wider

More than three-quarters of the rise in female employment, which hit record levels last December, is the result of women aged over 50 taking on jobs, a study has found.

A report by the TUC to be released this week has established that 2,278,000 more women are now working than in 1992, and that 1,645,000 (72%) of these are aged 50 or over.

Last week the government welcomed news that more women were in work, with the proportion – 67.2% – the highest since records began 43 years ago. The TUC study pinpoints how many older women have felt the need to return to work or to continue working until later in life, for a combination of reasons. These include the rising cost of living, the increase in the state pension age and the fall in value of workplace pensions.

While much of the rise in female employment is due to the greater number of over-50s in the population, the rate of employment has risen too. In 1992, 50.7% of women in the 50-64 age group were economically “inactive”, compared with 36.8% today.

The Observer follows hunger in posh places:

‘Most desirable’ district in the country has three food banks

  • In wealthy towns, families hit by falling incomes and benefit cuts are increasingly being forced to rely on charity handouts

Volunteers have sounded the alarm over a growing reliance on food banks in one of the richest areas in Britain.

Weekly earnings in Hart in Hampshire, recently named as the most desirable district in the country for quality of life, are a third higher than the national average. But the district also has three food banks, which have given out more than 1,000 emergency food parcels in the past six months.

Anti-poverty campaigners say that, even in wealthy areas such as Hart, benefit changes and low wages are creating growing pockets of desperate need.

EurActiv readies the trial:

Britain sets out new test to limit EU migrant benefits

Britain laid out new rules on Wednesday (19 February) designed to limit the access that migrants from other European Union states have to the country’s welfare system.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is seeking to curb immigration into Britain in an effort to quell concerns about migrants entering the country to claim benefits, referred to as ‘benefits tourism’. The move may also stop voters defecting to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party.

The new test, due to come into effect on March 1, sets a minimum income threshold to determine whether a migrant working in the UK should have access to the wider suite of benefits that comes with being classed as a worker rather than a jobseeker.

But the Usual Suspects are doing quite well, thankee kindly. Via Reuters, a case of Banksters Behaving Brazenly:

HSBC to announce bonuses totaling $4 billion: report

HSBC will announce staff bonuses totaling just under 2.4 billion pounds ($4 billion) globally for 2013 and is expected to report a significant rise in pretax profit, Sky News reported on its website on Saturday without citing its sources.

Referring to an unnamed source close to the bank, Sky also said Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver will receive a 1.8 million pound bonus as part of an overall pay deal worth more than 7 million pounds, though this would be less than his previous year pay deal of 7.4 million.

Europe’s biggest bank is expected to announce the size of its bonus pool on Monday along with its yearly results. Bonus payments remain a sensitive issue as many Britons still blame banks for the 2008 financial crisis, after which the state was forced to bail out RBS and Lloyds.

On to Scandinavia and some hard times intolerance from TheLocal.no:

Three men charged for racist attack in Norway

Three men in their twenties have been charged for assaulting a black man in northern Norway, allegedly telling him “we do not like immigrants in Verdal” as they hit him on the back with a snow shovel.

Jacob Kuteh, who was born in Liberia, was hospitalized after the  attack, which took place on Saturday night.

Kuteh claimed the men hit him, strangled him and kicked him in the head, before hitting him with a snow shovel, all the while telling him, “we hate you. We’ll take you.”

“I’ve lived here for ten years and have never experienced anything like this,” Kuteh told VG newspaper. “I have kids that go to school here and it’s no fun at all that someone has suddenly come and told me that they do not like the colour of my skin.”

Sweden next, with a demographic note from TheLocal.se:

Immigrants behind boom in Sweden’s population

The population of Sweden saw the biggest yearly increase in 70 years last year, according to new statistics, thanks largely to the almost 120,000 immigrants who arrived throughout the year.

Sweden’s population on the last day of 2013 was 9,644,864 – a 0.93 percent hike from 2012. The total increase was the largest since 1946, and statisticians at Statistics Sweden (Statistiska centralbyrån – SCB) marked it down to a record-high level of immigration.

In total, 115,845 immigrants arrived in Sweden in 2013, many from Syria and Somalia. The figure is the highest Sweden has ever had in a one-year period. The men outnumbered the women by around 5,000.

TheLocal.se again, this time with a contrarian finding:

Romanian beggars cleared in court

A district court in central Sweden has cleared three Romanian nationals of begging following a previous indictment, saying they did not need the permission of the police to beg.

The trio had previously been prosecuted for begging on the streets of Södertälje, Stockholm county, in January. In court it was debated whether the three individuals had broken any local laws regarding the collection of money.

Local newspaper Länstidningen said that the case was unique as the issue has never been tested before by law.

According to local Södertälje regulations police permission is required for the “collection of money in boxes or similar.” In court the example of street musicians, who don’t require police permission, was raised and comparisons were made between the beggars and street performers.

And more academic austerity ahead with TheLocal.se:

Borg to cut student grants and pension perks

With autumn elections on the horizon, Sweden’s Finance Minister Anders Borg said his government would cut student grants and make alcohol and tobacco more expensive, part of a budget plan to fill Sweden’s coffers.

“You shouldn’t stoke the fire in good times,” Borg told reporters in Stockholm on Thursday as he mapped out the centre-right government coalition’s budget prognosis for the near- and medium term. He said he no longer saw the need to use stimulus measures to keep Sweden’s economy buoyant, and argued that it was time to strengthen public finances.

“Sweden needs proper levees in place before the next crisis,” Borg said, adding that Sweden’s reliance on liquidity and its high household indebtedness was “a big element of uncertainty in the Swedish economy”.

Off to the Netherlands with stagnation from DutchNews.nl:

House prices stabilise but building permits reach 60-year low

House prices were down just 0.5 percent in January, compared with January 2013, showing house prices have now stabilised, the national statistics office CBS says on Friday.

Month on month, there was a 0.4% rise in house prices.

House prices are now in line with 11 years ago, after reaching a peak in August 2008, the CBS says. Houses have gone down an average of 20% in price since then.

At the same time, the CBS says the number of permits for new houses reached a record low of 26,000 in 2013. This is 30% down on 2012 and 70% down on 2008. Permits for new housing have not been so low since 1953, the CBS says.

Germany next, and a pain in the wallet from TheLocal.de:

Wages fall for first time since crash

Wages in Germany fell by an average of 0.2 percent last year, the first drop since the 2009 economic crisis, the federal statistics office said on Thursday.

The calculation was in terms of the real buying power of wages, allowing for inflation, and the fall bodes ill for efforts to fire up domestic consumption to boost recovery in Europe’s biggest economy.

Germany has relied mainly on exports to drive growth.

Citing preliminary results, the statistics office said that nominal wages in 2013 were up 1.3 percent from the previous year, but that consumer prices rose faster, at 1.5 percent, over the same period.

“One reason for the decline in real wages in 2013 was a decline in bonuses which are frequently performance-related,” said a statement by the Wiesbaden-based agency which is known as Destatis.

Deutsche Welle tracks a booming business:

Arms manufacturer Rheinmetall logs lower profit but higher orders

Germany’s biggest arms maker, Rheinmetall, has defied weak defense spending in Europe in 2013 to surprise investors with higher-than-expected earnings. A massive order backlog for 2014 boosted company shares further.
Panzer

Last year, Rheinmetall’s performance had been stable, with consolidated sales of 4.6 billion euros ($6.3 billion). Before special items, Rheinmettal also boasted an operating profit of 213 million euros, the German defense and automotive industry conglomerate announced as it released figures for its 2013 fiscal year on Wednesday.

Rheinmetall’s 2013 operating result was about 55 million euros lower than in 2012, but higher than forecast for 2013, the Düsseldorf-based company announced. The decrease was the result of restructuring measures to the tune of 86 million euros, as well as a further 15 million euros in expenses for strategic portfolio measures, Rheinmetall aannounced.

Annual sales also fell in 2013, however, with the 2 percent decline mainly being a result of unfavorable exchange rates for the euro.

And a point we’ve made before, from EUbusiness:

Germany has ‘unfair’ edge with low salaries: minister

Germany’s low salaries have given Europe’s biggest economy an “unfair” competitive advantage over its partners and must be corrected, a junior German minister has said.

Michael Roth, state secretary for European Affairs, was commenting on Germany’s record trade surplus, which surged to nearly 200 billion euros ($270 billion) last year, and has seen Berlin placed under EU scrutiny.

He said in an interview with AFP Thursday that imbalances had appeared among EU members and there “was a duty not only for countries running a deficit but also for Germany to reduce them”.

The comments by the Social Democrat politician differ from the stance of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, who disagree that Berlin has a problem with its trade surplus despite it consistently exceeding EU limits.

France next, and a uniquely Gallic form of action from Europe Online:

New “boss-napping” incident at a French factory

Workers at a French factory were holding three managers captive for a second day Thursday, after its owners announced that it would be shut down.

The managing director, technical director and financial director of Depalor, a company that produces wood panels in the north-eastern Lorraine region, were being held in an office building.

A trade union representative told France Info radio that the three were barred from leaving until the CEO of parent company Swiss Krono Group came to discuss redundancy terms for the 142 workers.

The incident is the second case of “boss-napping” in France within two months.

And the hidden disclosed, via TheLocal.ch:

France says thousands declare Swiss accounts

The French government says that nearly 16,000 people have declared funds hidden abroad after Switzerland curtailed its vaunted banking secrecy.

France’s Budget Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Wednesday that the government was on track to collect 230 million euros ($316 million) from only 2,621 of the cases.

He told the finance committee of the lower house National Assembly that 80 percent of the newly declared accounts were from Switzerland, which has curtailed its banking secrecy traditions under international pressure.

France 24 ponies up:

French government, China’s Dongfeng to invest in Peugeot

Peugeot Citroën, which has been manufacturing automobiles in France for more than 100 years, has agreed to a deal that will see both the French government and Chinese carmaker Dongfeng buy large stakes in the struggling company.

Peugeot announced on Wednesday that its board had approved the agreement, in which the French government and Dongfeng will each invest €800 million ($1.1 billion) in exchange for 14 percent stakes in the company.

The move marks a huge transition for the carmaker, which until now has been controlled by the Peugeot family. Under the agreement, the family’s 25 percent stake and 38 percent of voting rights will now be reduced to equal the French government and Dongfeng’s stakes in the company.

On to Switzerland and a case of resigned to not being resigned from TheLocal.ch:

German professor quits over Swiss ‘xenophobia’

A German professor at the Federal Institute for Technology in Zurich (ETH) has made a splash in the media for quitting his job over the Swiss vote to limit immigration.

Christopher Höcker, who had taught at the university’s Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture since 1999, told his students this week he was stepping down.

The decision by Swiss voters in a February 9th referendum to narrowly support quotas for immigrants from the European Union was the last straw for the 57-year-old German citizen.

“I do not want more exposure to the increasingly xenophobic climate in Switzerland,” Höcker told 20 Minuten newspaper.

TheLocal.ch delays:

EU not compromising but gives Switzerland time

The EU said Thursday it cannot compromise on the principle of freedom of movement but will allow Switzerland time to find a solution after a controversial referendum approved immigration curbs.

“It is a serious . . . not a minor change which we have to assess calmly,” chief operating officer of the EU external affairs service David O’Sullivan said of the referendum outcome.

“Freedom of movement is a fundamental core value” of the European Union and as such is not open for negotiation, O’Sullivan said after talks with Yves Rossier, his counterpart in the Swiss department of foreign affairs.

On to Spain and onto the streets with United Press International:

Spanish marchers protest job cuts, law against protesting

Demonstrators in at least seven Spanish cities have called for an end to a “gagging law” that set large fines for protest marches.

The protesters were joined by factory workers due to be laid off and groups seeking to preserve access to universal healthcare, Think Spain reported. Monday.

The anti-demonstration law, which affects even peaceful protests, calls for fines of $41,000 to $823,000 for anyone staging the marches.

The protests, which drew thousands of supporters in each of the cities, also want the Spanish Parliament to reject a proposed law restricting abortions.

From Spanish Property Insight, the one group of immigrants eagerly sought:

First Chinese property investors get their “Golden Visas”

Chinese nationals investing in property in Spain are starting to get their residency visas, according to Spanish press reports.

A businesswoman from Shanghai who spent €520,000 on flats in Barcelona and Madrid has become one of the first Chinese nationals to get a Spanish residency via the new “Golden Visa” law that offers Spanish residency permits to non-EU nationals in return for real estate investments of €500,000 or more.

She invested in Spanish property via the Emigration Centre at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), which has a programme to help Chinese nationals invest in residency schemes abroad.

On to Lisbon and yet another austerian misery demanded from the Portugal News:

EU calls for Portugal wages to fall by a further 5%

The European Commission has argued that Portugal needs a further 5% average reduction in wages to ensure a balance between the unemployment rate and wage rates.

Portugal’s government responded by saying that it continued to disagree with that view, arguing that recent increases in exports show that wage adjustment in the private sector has been “sufficient”.

In its report on the 10th regular review of Portugal’s economic and financial assistance programme, released on Thursday, the European Union executive states that “Portugal needs wage moderation sufficient to absorb unemployment” and outlines some estimates.

According to the commission’s calculations, “a reduction of one percentage point in the unemployment rate demands a reduction in real wages of about 2.4%” – which it said means real wages falling 5% if the gap is to be closed between the current jobless rate and that at which wage levels will not lead to new increases in unemployment.

Deutsche Welle takes us to Italy and the latest regime:

Italy swears in its youngest-ever prime minister, Matteo Renzi

  • Italy’s new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, and his cabinet have been sworn into office at a ceremony in Rome. The new government is the youngest in the recent Italian history.

The swearing-in of the prime minister took place at a ceremony in Rome under the auspices of Napolitano.

At 39, Renzi is the youngest-ever person to take the reins in the eurozone’s third largest economy, and his cabinet, with an average age of 47.8 years, is also the most youthful in recent Italian history.

As a result, the government is facing widespread skepticism as to whether it has the political maturity to cope with the challenges currently facing the country.

And the road’s already getting bumpy, via TheLocal.it:

Grillo declares ‘war’ as Berlusconi backs Renzi

Five Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo has lashed out at Matteo Renzi, saying the prime minister designate is “not credible” and declaring a political “war” against the country’s prospective new leader.

Since being nominated for the premiership on Monday, Renzi has been meeting with party leaders to gain the political backing needed to push urgent reforms through parliament.

While some meetings, such as one with Go Italy (Forza Italia) leader Silvio Berlusconi, have gone relatively well, the same cannot be said of Renzi’s meeting with Grillo.

Visible to all by a live internet stream, their meeting appeared to be a dialogue of the deaf, with neither side appearing interested in the other.

ANSA raises an alarm:

Italian recovery slow, growth stalling, say industrialists

  • Urgent need to address competitiveness, demand and bank credit

Italy’s economic recovery is extremely slow and recent data shows that industrial production in the eurozone’s third-largest economy is close to stalling, according to a new report released on Wednesday by Italian employers’ association Confindustria.

“(The recovery is) moving ahead very slowly, almost at a standstill”, Confindustria’s economists said. “These are the harsh facts of the Italian economy”, with employment and industrial production data “confirming that the pick up from the extremely deep hole that has been dug by the recession is extremely slow”.

Fourth-quarter gross domestic product data, which showed the economy expanded 0.1% in the last three months of 2013, was “lower that expected” and “confirms the extreme weakness of the recovery”, according to the report drawn up by Confindustria’s economic research unit which is headed by economist Luca Paolazzi.

And another call for an increasingly mooted move from ANSA:

Re-open cannabis debate, hurt mafia, says ex-health minister

  • Ban on marijuana doesn’t work, says top oncologist Veronesi

It’s time that Italy re-opened the debate on liberalizing marijuana use, to cut out drug traffickers, permit its medical use, while acknowledging the current ban doesn’t work, former health minister Umberto Veronesi said Thursday.

In an opinion article published in La Repubblica newspaper, Veronesi, a prominent oncologist, said that liberalizing the drug would take away power from the mafia and other criminals who now profit greatly from its cultivation and sale.

It would make marijuana more safe for users, including those who need it for pain relief, added Veronesi, whose comments come amid debate about Italy’s illegal-drug laws.

And from New Europe, departures from Bucharest:

Romanian ministers resign

Romania is in the throws of a political crisis after two ministers from the junior party in the ruling coalition resigned.

Finance Minister Daniel Chitoiu and Economy Minister Andrei Gerea, both Liberal Party members, stepped down on Wednesday after Prime Minister Victor Ponta refused to accept the Liberals’ nomination of Klaus Johannis, the popular mayor of Sibiu city, as interior minister. The position, now vacant, was recently held by another Liberal Party official.

Ponta, leader of the Social Democratic Party, will temporarily head the finance portfolio. He named a party colleague as interim economy minister.

After the jump, the latest Greek debacles, unmentionable anxieties in Russia, the latest from Kyiv, an African GMO invasion, the latest turmoil from Latin America, India swings to the right, Thai troubles, worries down under, Chinese alarm bells, Abenomics on the rocks, nucelear woes in the U.S.A., Big Ag hits a roadblock, fracking woes go global, a Spanish snail invasion, and a globl arming cooler. . .plus Fukushimapocalypse Now! Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliEcoFukunews


We begin today’s collection of news political, economic, environmental, and nuclear — including the latest chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now! — with a take on the merger de jour from Kevin Siers of the Charlotte Observer:

BLOG Siers

From the Washington Post, consequences of enserfing students:

Student debt may hurt housing recovery by hampering first-time buyers

The growing student loan burden carried by millions of Americans threatens to undermine the housing recovery’s momentum by discouraging, or even blocking, a generation of potential buyers from purchasing their first homes.

Recent improvements in the housing market have been fueled largely by investors who snapped up homes in the past few years. But that demand is waning as prices climb and mortgage rates rise. An analysis by the Mortgage Bankers Association found that loan applications for home purchases have slipped nearly 20 percent in the past four months compared with the same period a year earlier.

First-time buyers, the bedrock of the housing market, are not stepping up to fill the void. They have accounted for nearly a third of home purchases over the past year, well below the historical norm, industry figures show. The trend has alarmed some housing experts, who suspect that student loan debt is partly to blame. That debt has tripled from a decade earlier, to more than $1 trillion, while wages for young college graduates have dropped.

A decline from the Los Angeles Times:

Builder confidence down sharply in February

Builder confidence in the new home market plunged in February, a combination of debilitating weather and few lots available for construction, a trade group said.

The National Assn. of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index tumbled 10 points from January to a seasonally adjusted level of 46, the largest drop since the index launched in 1985. A level higher than 50 means more builders see the market for new, single-family homes as good rather than poor.

From the Los Angeles Times again, another decline:

Coca-Cola announces $1 billion in cuts as demand, profit slide

Coca-Cola Co., faced with tepid demand and a drop in fourth-quarter earnings, said Tuesday it was initiating a $1-billion cost-cutting campaign to improve profitability.

The world’s largest beverage company said Tuesday that profit fell 8.4% in the fourth quarter of 2013 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Investors were selling on the news. Shares of the Atlanta company were down $1.46, or nearly 4%, to $37.47 at 9 a.m. PST.

Another sort of decline from the Associated Press:

After UAW defeat, can GOP fulfill promise of jobs?

Republicans fighting a yearslong unionization effort at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee painted a grim picture in the days leading up to last week’s vote. They said if Chattanooga employees joined the United Auto Workers, jobs would go elsewhere and incentives for the company would disappear.

Now that workers have rejected the UAW in a close vote, attention turns to whether the GOP can fulfill its promises that keeping the union out means more jobs will come rolling in, the next great chapter in the flourishing of foreign auto makers in the South.

Regardless of what political consequences, if any, Republicans would face if that fails to happen, the Volkswagen vote established a playbook for denying the UAW its goal of expanding into foreign-owned plants in the region, which the union itself has called the key to its long-term future.

CNBC posits the negative:

$10.10 minimum wage could hit total employment: CBO

Raising the U.S. federal minimum wage to $10.10, as President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress are proposing, could result in about 500,000 jobs being lost by late 2016, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated on Tuesday.

The non-partisan CBO also said that increasing the hourly wage could reduce U.S. budget deficits by a small amount for several years, but then increase them slightly in later years.

The current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Democrats who control the U.S. Senate could try to advance minimum wage legislation as early as next month.

Xinhua invests:

Foreign holdings of U.S. Treasury debt hits record in December

Foreign buyers continued to increase their holdings of U.S. Treasury securities for a fifth straight month in December, even though the two largest holders of U.S. public debt trimmed their shares, U.S. Treasury Department said Tuesday.

The total foreign holdings rose to 5.79 trillion U.S. dollars in December, up 1.4 percent from that in November, showed the Treasury International Capital report. The figure surpassed the all-time high hit in March of 5.73 trillion dollars.

China, the largest foreign buyer of the Treasury debt, trimmed its holdings by 47.8 billion dollars to 1.27 trillion dollars in December, its first reduction in the past four months, the report showed.

Japan, the second largest holder, sold 3.9 billion dollars to 1. 18 trillion dollars in December, according to the figures.

Salon disgraces:

Virginia county sheriff hosting anti-Muslim training by disgraced conspiracy theorist

  • John Guandolo says Muslims “do not have a First Amendment right to do anything.” Now he’s instructing law officers

The Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia is planning to host a three-day training by John Guandolo, a notorious Muslim-basher and conspiracy theorist who resigned from the FBI before he could be investigated for misconduct, according to promotional materials.

It’s hard to believe that the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office would knowingly associate itself with such a disreputable character, who regularly attacks the U.S. government, claims that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency is a secret Muslim agent for the Saudi government and says that American Muslims “do not have a First Amendment right to do anything.”

Guandolo joined the bureau’s Counterterrorism Division in the wake of 9/11, but by 2005 he was posing as a driver for a “star witness” in the corruption case of former Congressman William Jefferson (D-LA). He made “inappropriate sexual advances” to that witness and soon was having an “intimate relationship…that he thought could damage an investigation.” He also unsuccessfully solicited the witness for a $75,000 donation to an organization he supported and carried on extramarital affairs with female FBI agents.

And the Los Angeles Times talks a deal:

U.S.-Mexico-Canada talks will focus on strengthening economic ties

Mexico is expected to avoid discussions about its drug-related violence and focus on its oil and gas industry, along with border and immigration issues.

Twenty years after their countries signed a landmark regional trade agreement, the presidents of the United States, Mexico and Canada will meet this week to attempt to strengthen the economic ties envisioned in that pact, correct the omissions and find ways to expand.

Trade and commerce are expected to dominate the agenda when President Obama meets with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts — President Enrique Peña Nieto and Prime Minister Stephen Harper — in the Mexican city of Toluca, just west of Mexico City, on Wednesday.

Large squads of soldiers and police were patrolling Toluca, the capital of Mexico state, and blocking off major roadways Monday. Schools in the central city were suspending classes. Leftist political parties were planning demonstrations, with several hundred people marching from Mexico City to Toluca.

EUbusiness covers another deal in the making:

EU, US reps meet ahead of free-trade talks

US Trade Ambassador Michael Froman received his European counterpart Karel De Gucht in Washington Monday, preparing for next month’s fourth round of talks on creating the world’s largest free-trade area.

The two sides have been in discussion since last year over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which aims to expand trade, investment and regulatory cooperation between the two huge economies.

Froman and De Gucht spoke briefly to reporters in Washington before two days of closed-door meetings with the EU trade commissioner, meant to take stock of progress made during three past rounds of negotiations, which wrapped up in December.

On to Europe and a call from The Guardian:

Eurozone countries should form United States of Europe, says EC vice-president

  • Viviane Reding calls for full fiscal and political union for 18 eurozone countries but says UK should remain apart

A celebrated call by Winston Churchill for the creation of a “United States of Europe” was revived on Monday by a leading member of the European commission who said the 18 eurozone countries should form a full fiscal and political union.

Viviane Reding, a vice-president of the commission, told Cambridge University’s law faculty that “bold reforms” were needed to avoid tensions across Europe as new governance arrangements were introduced to stabilise the single currency.

A lop-sided take from New Europe:

EU industry: Towards an unbalanced recovery

  • The output of the EU industry remains below the pre-crisis levels

The EU industry lacks of a cohesive growth as according to a report by the European Commission most sectors have still not regained their pre-crisis level of output and significant differences exist between sectors and Member States.

The data for the EU industry shows a mixed picture. The economic output of the manufacturing sector has declined significantly, but important differences between sectors remain. According to the “EU Industrial structure report 2013: Competing in Global Value Chains,” the pharmaceuticals sector has experienced sustained growth since the start of the financial crisis, while high-technology manufacturing industries have, in general, not been impacted to the same extent as other industries.

Moreover, EU manufacturing output indicates significant differences between Member States. Strong recoveries can only be seen in Romania, Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic States, which all regained and exceeded their pre-recession peaks. On the other hand, the EU manufacturing recovery remains below the pre-recession levels in 20 Member States.

Spiegel diagnoses:

The Swiss Virus: Europe Gripped by Immigration Worries

  • The Swiss aren’t the only ones in Europe deeply concerned about immigration. Many across the Continent would also like to see limits placed on newcomers from elsewhere in the EU. Europe must remain firm, but right-wing populists stand to benefit.

Greeks, Italians and French blame economic policy from Brussels for their difficulties. At the same time, Germans and other Northern Europeans are afraid they will ultimately be forced to cough up for EU countries to the south. What some call “reform” and others call “austerity” is driving a wedge between Europeans. And now, the issue of free movement across the EU is being thrown into the discussion because many are concerned they could lose out on the employment market. But questioning the EU principle allowing people to choose where they wish to live and work is akin to questioning the entire European project.

On to Britain and the austerian price of a flooding disaster, via The Guardian:

Thames flood defences among schemes hit by coalition funding cuts

  • Avoidable damage estimated to cost £3bn as projects at Heathrow, Dawlish and Somerset Levels delayed or downsized

Planned defences along the length of the flood-hit Thames Valley were delayed and downsized after government funding cuts following the last election, the Guardian can reveal.

The schemes, totalling millions of pounds, include projects near Heathrow, near David Cameron’s country home in Oxfordshire and in the constituency of the minister who oversaw annual flood budget cuts of almost £100m.

West Drayton, near Heathrow, the scene of significant flooding in west London, was in line for £2.8m of funding to build up concrete and earth bank defences by 2014-15. But following budget cuts, the Arklyn Kennels scheme was downgraded to a £1m scheme and delayed until at least 2018-19.

At Penton Hook, on the Thames near flood-affected Staines in Surrey, a £5.6m dredging scheme was due to be completed by the end of March 2014, but has received just £2m to date. The scheme was also intended to clean up a site where contaminated silt dredged from the river was dumped.

From New Europe, a warning:

Reding: UK would lose influence outside EU

European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding warned that the EU would lose influence outside the EU and that all the talk of opt-out by the British government distracts from the real issue which is to find solutions for the EU economy.

“The truth is, outside the EU, the UK would lose influence. If the UK were to leave the EU, it would no longer be able to influence EU regulation. It would have to live with the rules decided on by the other EU countries,” Reding told an audience in Cambridge on February 17.

“To get access to the Single Market, you have to apply its rules. Just ask the Norwegians. It’s difficult to see why the other Member States would grant the UK unfettered access to their markets without requiring it to apply the EU’s rules,” she added.

The federalist Commissioner also added that the rhetoric of David Cameron’s Conservatives – who want to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership and have promised a referendum on the issue in 2017 should they win the next election – distracts from the real issues facing the bloc.

And from CNNMoney, the latest instance of Banksters Behaving Badly:

Ex-Barclays bankers charged with Libor rigging

Prosecutors have charged three former Barclays bankers in connection with the rigging of global interest rates.

The U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office, which prosecutes complex cases of fraud, said Monday that it’s started criminal proceedings against Peter Charles Johnson, Jonathan James Mathew and Stylianos Contogoulas in connection with manipulating the London interbank offered rate, or Libor.

All three have been charged with conspiring to defraud between June 2005 and August 2007.

Pondering a change of course with the London Telegraph:

Interest rate rise ‘a last resort’ to cool housing market

  • David Miles, a member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), describes rate rises as a “blunt tool” that will only be used if other policies fail

The Bank of England will only use interest rate rises to cool the housing market if its financial stability toolkit is “not up to the job”, one of its policymakers has said.

David Miles, an external member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), said rate rises were a “big stick” that would only be used as a last resort.

“We do have, as the last line of defence, the blunt instrument, the big stick of interest rates,” he told Bloomberg TV. “If you did get into a situation where the tools that the Financial Policy Committee (FPC) have seem not up to the job of stopping overheating in the housing market, we would then turn to the blunter instrument of using bank rate.

“We’re a long way from that.”

The Guardian delivers a jeremiad:

New Catholic cardinal renews attack on ‘disgraceful’ UK austerity cuts

  • Roman Catholic archbishop Vincent Nichols, who is to be made a cardinal by Pope Francis, inundated with messages of support

The leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales says he has been inundated with messages of support after branding the government’s austerity programme a disgrace for leaving so many people in destitution.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4′s Today programme to mark his imminent appointment as a cardinal by Pope Francis, Archbishop Vincent Nichols expanded upon his comments to the Telegraph when he criticised the government’s welfare reforms as “punitive”.

“The voices that I hear express anger and despair … Something is going seriously wrong when, in a country as affluent as ours, people are left in that destitute situation and depend solely on the handouts of the charity of food banks,” Nichols said.

In his Telegraph interview, published on Saturday, Nichols accused ministers of tearing apart the safety net that protects people from hunger and destitution. He said since he made those comments he had been “inundated with accounts from people … saying there are indeed many cases where people are left without benefits, without any support, for sometimes weeks on end”.

On to Sweden and a case of that Swiss fever from TheLocal.se:

Roma migrants evicted from Stockholm site

Officials evicted all remaining Romanian migrants from a campsite in southern Stockholm on Monday morning, just days after over 100 campers were given a free bus ride home.

The Swedish Enforcement Agency (Kronofogden) carried out the eviction in Högdalen, a suburb in the southern reaches of Stockholm, at 9am on Monday, just days after a bus load of the campers went home.

“All I know is that it’s more or less empty,” Henrik Brånstad, spokesman at the agency, told the TT news agency. “Many have apparently moved to other places while others have jumped at the chance of a bus ride home to Romania.”

Over 100 EU-migrants accepted the bus tickets home, many of whom had earned money begging in the Swedish capital. One of the buses crashed in southern Sweden on Sunday morning on the way to Bucharest. Only the driver was injured.

Rumbles from the right head to court with TheLocal.se:

First charges filed for Stockholm Nazi attack

Seven people were charged on Monday in the wake of a neo-Nazi attack on anti-racist demonstrators in Stockholm last year. But prosecutors say more indictments are on the way.

Charges were filed on Monday against people who took part in a violent riot in Stockholm’s Kärrtorp suburb in December last year. Four of the suspects were charged with violent rioting (våldsamt upplopp) and hate speech (hets mot folkgrupp) and another three were charged with instigating violent rioting. According to the indictment, several of those charged threw bottles, rocks, and firecrackers.

“There will be more charges filed than just these, altogether there were around 30 people detained after the demonstration,” Ulf Sundström of the Söderort police told the TT news agency.

And TheLocal.se, and a word for the teacher:

Teacher salaries too low in Sweden: OECD

Teacher salaries in Sweden are lower than in countries with higher–performing schools, according to an extra OECD evaluation requested by the government on the heels of Sweden’s dismal performance in the latest Pisa rankings.

“The quality of an education system can never exceed the quality of its teachers,” Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Deputy Director of Education and Skills, told reporters at a press briefing in Stockholm on Tuesday.

“In higher-performing countries, teachers have higher salaries but also clear career possibilities.”

The analysis, which marks the first time ever that Sweden has asked the OECD for extra help in evaluating its school system, also found that Sweden has relatively high costs per student, with only nine other OECD countries spending more money per pupil.

The Associated Press covers a Norwegian whiner:

Breivik hunger strike threat: wants bigger gym

Convicted Norwegian mass-killer Anders Behring Breivik has threatened to go on hunger strike unless he gets access to better video games, a sofa and a larger gym.

In a letter received by The Associated Press Tuesday, Breivik writes the hunger strike will continue until his demands are met or he dies. Breivik’s lawyer Tord Jordet confirmed the letter was authentic and said his client is waiting for a response from prison authorities before starting the hunger strike.

Breivik is serving a 21-year prison sentence, which can be extended when it expires, for killing 77 people in bomb and gun massacres in 2011.

Among his demands, Breivik wants the lifting of restrictions on communications and improved air conditions. He wants the available PlayStation 2 console replaced by a modern version.

Germany next and a call for a New Deal from Deutsche Welle:

IW think tank urges change in German investment policy

A leading German economic think tank has announced that massive investments in infrastructure are needed so as not to lose out to competitors. The institute found many companies were worried about possible disadvantages.

In its study released Monday, the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW) said despite a relatively good infrastructure many companies polled were increasingly worried about a deterioration of the country’s road network.

They also voiced concerns about the future state of the energy grid, with the shift to renewables currently posing enormous problems and a necessary expansion of the network facing community-level resistance.

Companies also worried about broadband Internet connections not being created fast enough in all regions. About two-thirds of the 2,800 firms polled reported that they were already experiencing disadvantages as a result of infrastructure problems.

The research institute calculated that all in all some 120 billion euros ($164.6 billion) would have to be invested into infrastructure over the next 10 years, to be spent evenly on road maintenance and extension, the broadband communications network and the national energy grid, with a major new north-south line.

From TheLocal.de, a cartel cabal busted:

Sugar giants fined €280m for price fixing

German consumers have been paying over the odds for sugar for years, it emerged on Tuesday, when authorities fined Germany’s three biggest sugar firms €280 million for illegally fixing prices.

Pfeiler & Langen, Südzucker and Nordzucker, along with seven unnamed individuals were found to have been fixing prices, sales territories and quotas between them for many years, the Federal Cartel Office in Bonn said.

The three German sugar producers agreed on various strategies between them aimed at pushing up sugar prices across the board, whether they sold to households or the food industry.

The manufacturers agreed “to keep to their traditional sales territories and not get in the way of the other cartel members,” said Cartel Office president Andreas Mundt in a statement.

And Europe Online notes a decline:

German investor confidence posts surprise fall in February

German investor confidence posted a surprise decline in February over concerns of a slowdown in the United States and uncertainties in emerging economies, a key survey showed Tuesday.

The closely watched indicator gauging the mood among analysts and institutional investors slipped to 55.7 from 61.7 in January, the Mannheim-based ZEW institute said.

While Spiegel covers blowback:

Child Porn Investigation: Merkel Cabinet Rife with Suspicion and Mistrust

It is a disastrous start for Angela Merkel’s new government: After details of a child pornography investigation were leaked, a cabinet member was forced to resign. Now, the chancellor’s new cabinet is consumed by backbiting and mistrust.

Deutsche Welle notes another downside to the German miracle:

Study: Eastern Europeans underpaid in Germany

  • Massive poverty-driven migration from Eastern Europe? Recent studies suggest a different situation: More than half of all immigrants from these countries have good credentials, but work for low wages in Germany.

The Employment Agency’s statistics show that a far larger percentage of Eastern Europeans receive low wages than their German counterparts do. In December 2012, around 52 percent were paid low-wage salaries, meaning they earned less than two-thirds of the country’s average income. The share of such workers among Germans makes up just under 20 percent.

At the same time, the educational level of immigrants keeps rising, says Nina Neubecker from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW): “We found that those who moved to Germany after 2004 are considerably more qualified than immigrants from years in the past.”

Neubecker says her research revealed that two thirds of Eastern European immigrants hold a university degree or have completed a vocational training course. She also found that a significant part of Romanians and Bulgarians who moved to Germany after 2007 carry out jobs not requiring their level of education. Depending on the method used, estimates of the proportion of these overqualified immigrant workers range from 40 to 58 percent.

And a call to chill from Deutsche Welle:

Merkel calls on EU to remain calm after controversial Swiss referendum curbing immigration

German Chancellor Merkel has called on EU states to remain calm after a controversial Swiss referendum which limits the number of immigrants within its borders. The comments followed a meeting with the Swiss president.

Chancellor Merkel warned fellow EU members against “rashly breaking” relations with Bern. “It can’t be that because one side did something in one specific area that the other side says nothing works in other areas,” she said, referring to Brussels’ retaliatory moves.

“The challenge will now be that we deal with the results in a way that relations between the European Union and Switzerland remain as intense as possible with respect for the referendum,” Merkel added.

Merkel and Burkhalter also reaffirmed their commitment toward maintaining German-Swiss ties. The current bilateral trade volume is worth roughly 75 billion euros ($103 billion) and some 350,000 Germans are employed in Switzerland.

On to France and a fear from TheLocal.fr:

French TV execs want protection from Netflix

French TV executives have asked to meet with top leaders to plead for “urgent measures” that would guard them against the pending arrival of video service Netflix and tech giants like Google.

The heads of France’s three largest private television networks have asked the government to protect them from US competitors like Google, Apple and Netflix who are set to enter the market.

The bosses of TF1, Canal+ and M6, alarmed by the impending arrival of the American tech giants, have sought a meeting with Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti to discuss “urgent measures” to reform the sector.

“It is not an economic crisis that is being faced by TF1, Canal+ and M6 but a rapid sectoral change,” Nonce Paolini, Bertrand Meheut and Nicolas de Tavernost said in the letter written last week and seen by AFP on Monday.

And another Roma tragedy from TheLocal.fr:

Blaze ravages another Roma camp in France

Fire raged through a Roma camp in Marseille on Sunday, just days after a blaze in a Paris area Roma camp killed an eight-year-old girl. Following that deadly fire the local mayor said it was time France dismantled its slums.

No one was hurt in the latest fire on Sunday morning, but all 15 makeshift homes near the Marseille port were completely destroyed, said the local fire brigade in a statement.

“Preliminary investigations suggest the fire was started accidentally,” a judicial source told AFP.

Around 45 people who were in the camp will now be housed by authorities in a hotel for the next week, but their future is in doubt since the local government was on the verge of evicting them.

Switzerland next and blowback from TheLocal.ch:

EU freezes research and student exchange funds

In a tit-for-tat retaliation, the European Union has frozen research grants for Swiss universities worth hundreds of millions of euros and suspended the involvement of Switzerland in the Erasmus student exchange programme.

A spokesman for the EU announced the freeze on Sunday, a day after after Bern announced it had refused to sign a deal opening labour market access to Croatia, the ATS news agency reported.

The Swiss government said it was unable to ink the deal because of the February 9th referendum decision to scrap the freedom of movement of labour agreement with the EU and impose immigration quotas.

But Brussels considers that Horizon 2020, an €80-billion research and innovation programme spread over seven years (2014-2020), and Erasmus, are tied to the free movement of people accord, ATS said.

More blowback from TheLocal.ch:

Moody’s: Swiss migrant vote ‘credit negative’

Curbs on immigration from the European Union will hurt Switzerland’s economy and its banking sector, ratings agency Moody’s said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

Swiss voters on February 9th supported an initiative to reintroduce quotas on immigrants from the EU in a move that has already led to retaliation from the 28-country bloc.

“Limiting immigration is likely to affect the country’s growth potential, wealth and overall economic strength,” Moody’s said, noting that the effect of the vote was “credit negative”.

The agency noted that Switzerland has benefited over the past decade from the “strong inflow of highly qualified workers”.

And from RT, tucked in for the night:

Swiss jets not scrambled over hijacked plane because ‘airbases closed at night’

An incident with a highjacked Ethiopian passenger jet has exposed the Swiss Air Force’s inability to deal with threats in ‘off-duty’ hours. An emergency escort to the aircraft in distress was carried out by vigilant colleagues from Italy and France.

Early on Monday morning, an Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot told ground control he had highjacked flight ET-702 from Addis Ababa to Rome and was going to land in Geneva. The Swiss Air Force was caught off guard and missed a rare opportunity to go on a real mission. It turned out that they were unable to scramble any jets because they only work during office hours!

“Switzerland cannot intervene because its airbases are closed at night and on the weekend,” Swiss Air Force spokesman, Laurent Savary, commented to AFP later on, adding that it is “a question of budget and staffing.”

According to Laurent Savary, the Swiss Air Force operates during office hours only, specifically from 8am until a lunch break at noon. A return to cockpits happens at 1:30 pm and they watch over Switzerland’s skies until 5pm.

Spain next, and blowback from anti-immigrant violence of another kind from El País:

Immigration law change in works: interior minister

  • Rajoy defends civil guards’ reaction to tragic Ceuta stampede
  • Brussels denies receiving Spain’s request for border help

Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz on Tuesday announced that the Popular Party (PP) government is preparing a change in the immigration law to help civil guards facing mass attempts by migrants to cross the border into the Spanish North African exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.

“The law is not designed for events such as the stampedes in Ceuta and Melilla,” Fernández Díaz said in the halls of the Senate after a tense session. “It is not the same as controlling the border at Barajas or Melilla [airports]. We are working on a reform to control the borders, so that the Civil Guard has adequate regulations to confront these situations.”

Earlier in the upper house he and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy vigorously defended the actions of civil guards at the Ceuta security fence on February 6, when 15 sub-Saharan migrants died as a result of a mass attempt to cross the border during which rubber bullets were fired.

TheLocal.es has a deal for you:

Spain rolls out plans to flog off failed bank

Spain will sell its stake in bailed-out bank Bankia in stages over two or three years, its president said in an interview published on Sunday.

Bankia became the symbol of Spain’s financial crisis when it lost more than €19 billion ($26 billion) in 2012 and pushed the government to ask its eurozone partners for €41 billion in rescue loans to shore up the entire banking system.

Under the terms of the European Union’s 2012 bailout, the Spanish government has until 2017 to sell its 68 percent stake in Bankia.

“It would be reasonable for the privatization process to be similar to what is being carried out with Lloyds. That is, that it be carried out in phases and take two or three years,” Bankia president Jose Ignacio Goirigolzarri said in an interview published in daily newspaper ABC.

Europe Online covers another record:

Spain’s public debt at record high

Spain’s public debt has risen to its highest level since records began, data released on Monday showed, with the country posting an unprecedented deficit of 961.6 billion euros (1.3 trillion dollars) at the end of 2013.

The debt level marks an 8.7-per-cent increase on the previous year’s figure, the Bank of Spain revealed on Monday.

It represents around 94 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), which is slightly higher than the Spanish government’s 2013 target of 94.2 per cent.

El País covers departures:

Chinese burned

  • Some Spanish firms are abandoning China because of the problems of doing business there

“The wave of news stories about the rise in the Chinese market is creating a very distorted image of what it means to do business in this country and the risks involved.” This is the opinion of the director of a big Spanish industrial company with a presence in China. The director spoke on the condition that he was not named. “Currently, although the opposite image is given, very few Spanish companies are making a profit in China, and many are having great problems finding room for themselves in a particularly difficult market,” the director says.

Cases such as those of Revlon and Garnier, which this year decided to pull out of China, have shown that such problems are common to all foreign companies, although the idea persists that Spanish firms are finding it particularly difficult because they “lack the right background and financial resources.”

“Many companies are reaching desperation point. Traditional markets are not working and they’re convinced that anyone can make money in China. But they limit themselves to putting an intern in a business center and hoping for results that obviously will never come,” says the director, who is a leading member of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. “The problem of human resources is a major one: they don’t invest enough in personnel, there is a lack of talent and the turnaround in staff is one of the highest in the world.”

On to Lisbon and a caution from the Portugal News:

‘Crisis not over’ – finance minister

Portugal’s finance minister, Maria Luís Albuquerque, said on Monday in Brussels, that one of the country’s biggest challenges was not to be tempted to give up on budget discipline because it felt the worst part of the crisis was over.

Maria Luís Albuquerque, who was speaking at an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) meeting before a Eurogroup meeting, said that “ among the reforms being implemented across Europe, the banking union was clearly the priority for Portugal”, since the current “credit conditions are a very negative factor for the competitiveness of Portuguese companies and the economy as a whole”.

Noting that the structural reforms, one of the topics of the seminar, are also high on the agenda, and there were reasons to be satisfied with the results, but added that there was “still a lot more work ahead”.

Italy next and a change at the top from ANSA:

Renzi handed govt mandate, sets ambitious reform goals

  • Premier-designate eying one major reform every month till May

Democratic Party (PD) leader Matteo Renzi set ambitious reform targets on Monday after being given a mandate to try to form a government from Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Renzi, 39, is set to become Italy’s youngest-ever premier after torpedoing the coalition administration of his PD colleague Enrico Letta last week over his lack of progress with much-needed institutional reforms and measures to revive the troubled economy.

Italy is slowly emerging from its longest postwar recession, but it is still ravaged by unemployment of over 12% with over four in 10 under-25s out of work. Constitutional changes are also needed to streamline government and reduce the cost of the country’s expensive, slow-moving political system.

Les than enthused with TheLocal.it:

Italians think Renzi takeover is ‘pointless’

Matteo Renzi was nominated as Italy’s new prime minister on Monday after a “palace coup” which saw Enrico Letta resign from the leadership. But a new poll has found that few Italians believe it is a positive political move.

Just 31 percent of Italians think replacing Letta with Renzi, who aged just 39 is set to be Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister, is positive, an Ipsos poll on Sunday found.

While 23 percent found the move outright wrong, 26 percent said it was “pointless” while 15 percent found the current situation “absurd”.

Still more enthusiasm absent from ANSA:

Fitch keeps outlook negative, ‘Renzi faces same problems’

  • Letta’s resignation highlights ‘volatility of Italian politics’

Ratings agency Fitch said Monday it was keeping a negative outlook for Italy with a BBB+ rating, saying premier-designate Matteo Renzi “will probably have the same problems as his predecessor” in pushing through reforms if he manages to form a new government.

Fitch said the resignation of outgoing Premier Enrico Letta on Friday highlighted the “volatility of Italian politics” pointing out that Renzi was set to be the country’s fourth premier since November 2011.

A plutocratic spat from the London Telegraph:

Tycoons quarrel over Italy’s young jobless

  • Two of Italy’s business heavyweights have gone to war over the country’s soaring levels of youth unemployment
  • Italy’s youth unemployment reached a record 41.6pc in January

Diego Della Valle, head of the Tod’s luxury leather goods empire, launched a blistering attack on John Elkann, the president of the Fiat auto giant, after Mr Elkann said Italy’s young unemployed had no desire to look for work.

Mr Della Valle, the colourful entrepreneur known for his exuberant ties and gold-tinted spectacles, labelled Mr Elkann an “imbecile” after a week of bitter exchanges between the two.

Unhappy other from TheLocal.it:

Desperate business owners march on Rome

An estimated 60,000 Italians protested in central Rome on Tuesday, calling for greater action to save the millions of small- and medium-sized businesses which employ almost half the country’s workforce.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo on Tuesday; a collective army of business owners demanding the government do more to stem the worrying rise in bankruptcies.

“Without business there is no Italy,” was the slogan of the day, organized by the Italian Enterprise Network (Rete Imprese Italia) along with a number of business associations.

Among a series of demands was an overhaul of the tax system, often described as a barrier to growth with such high rates many Italians simply evade their tax duties.

After the jump, the latest on the endless Greek crises, violence in the Ukraine, Turkish joblessness rising, Turkish economic alarms, Venezuelan turmoil, troubles in Brazil, Argentinian woes, Latin legalization moves, Australian economic woes and a Murdochian bonanza, Indian populism and woes, Thai turmoil, a mixed report from China, Abenonics in extremsis in Japan, nuclear woes, and Fukushimapocalypse Now! . . . Continue reading

Trophic cacades: How wolves can change rivers


A remarkable video from SustainableMan featuring journalist George Monbiot in a narrative about the major ecological changes wrought by the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park:

How Wolves Change Rivers

Program notes:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” — John Muir

When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable “trophic cascade” occurred. What is a trophic cascade and how exactly do wolves change rivers? George Monbiot explains in this movie remix.

H/T to Permaculture.

Headlines of the day II: EconPoliEcoGrecoFuku


We begin our collection of things economic, political, and environmental with a reminder from Mother Nature via Nikkei Asian Review:

Crazy weather disrupting economic activity worldwide

A merciless cold snap gripping the U.S., blizzards burying Japan, record rainfall inundating the U.K., and droughts searing South America. Abnormal weather patterns are wreaking havoc across the world, and while the impact on production is still limited, nature’s fury is beginning to take a toll on global economic activity. Some regions are experiencing a drop in consumer spending and sluggish car sales, and global prices are rising for commodities such as coffee beans.

The U.K. is being drenched. Not since 1766 has the southern part of the nation seen so much rain in January, and the wet weather continues. The upper part of the Thames River is flooding and the damage is widening. And with rail lines submerged, the distribution of goods has stalled in some parts.

Normally hot Thailand is locked in a cold front that claimed more than 60 lives through the end of January. With temperatures dipping to 10 C in the northern and northeastern parts of the country, the government has begun distributing free blankets to a population ill equipped to fend off the cold.

Another icy front swept across much of the U.S. this week, forcing some government agencies to shut down in Washington. Many retailers were also forced to close.

Another weather report from United Press International:

Obama offers short-term relief to California; warns of global warming

President Obama announced a four-prong approach Friday to help Californians get through one of the state’s worst-ever droughts.

Speaking at the farm of Joe Del Bosque in Los Banos, Calif., Obama said his administration’s assistance for the parched state would include accelerating $100 million from the farm bill to help ranchers, allocating $15 million more on top of the $20 million given hard-hit communities last week, directing the Interior Department “to use its existing authorities, where appropriate, to give water contractors flexibility to meet their obligations,” and ordering all federal facilities in California “to take immediate steps to curb their water use, including a moratorium on water usage for new, non-essential landscaping projects.”

“As anybody in this state could tell you, California’s living through some of its driest years in a century,” the president said. “Right now, almost 99 percent of California is drier than normal — and the winter snowpack that provides much of your water far into the summer is much smaller than normal.

“While drought in regions outside the West is expected to be less severe than in other years, California is our biggest economy, California is our biggest agricultural producer, so what happens here matters to every working American, right down to the cost of food that you put on your table.”

Bloomberg sounds another warning:

Factory Production in U.S. Falls by Most Since 2009

Factory production in the U.S. unexpectedly declined in January by the most since May 2009, adding to evidence severe winter weather weighed on the economy.

The 0.8 percent decrease at manufacturers followed a revised 0.3 percent gain the prior month that was weaker than initially reported, figures from the Federal Reserve showed today in Washington. The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a 0.1 percent advance. Total industrial production dropped 0.3 percent even as utility output climbed the most in almost a year.

Assembly lines slowed last month as colder weather tempered production, the Fed said, showing a pause in the momentum of an industry that’s helped bolster the economy. A pickup in capital spending and faster hiring that drives consumer purchases will be needed to spur production gains.

From RT, the latest appalling reminder of who rules:

‘Corporate rights’: Judge blocks popular move to end tax breaks for big energy

Citing corporate rights under the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, a St. Louis, Missouri circuit court judge has temporarily blocked a citizen-led municipal ballot initiative that could end city tax breaks to “unsustainable” fossil fuel companies.

Judge Robert Dierker granted this week a temporary restraining order that, for now, puts a citywide ballot initiative on hold. The measure “would end public financial incentives, such as tax abatements, to fossil fuel mining companies and those doing $1 million of business with them per year,” according to Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE).

MORE has led the effort to put the proposed charter amendment on St. Louis’ April 8 ballot. Volunteers with the Take Back St. Louis coalition gathered over 22,000 signatures last year in an effort to put the proposal in front of St. Louis voters. In addition to curbing tax breaks, the measure would require the city to work on a sustainable energy plan that makes way for renewable energy efforts on vacant city-owned property.

Dierker said the ballot initiative was “facially unconstitutional” given it may collide with state law and because targeting unsustainable-energy companies is a “patent denial of equal protection to those entities.”

From PandoDaily, a rare win:

BREAKING: PBS to return John Arnold’s $3.5 million, following Pando exposé

Following Pando’s exclusive report on a secret financing deal between public broadcasting officials and the nation’s leading anti-pension activist, officials from PBS have announced they are returning the $3.5 million from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

In a breaking-news story published Friday afternoon, the New York Times credited PandoDaily for breaking the original story and ultimately for public broadcasting officials’ decision to return the money:

WNET, the New York City public television broadcaster, said Friday that it will return a $3.5 million grant it received to sponsor an ambitious project on public pensions amid charges that it solicited inappropriate underwriting for the series.

In the absence of the funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the project, called “Pension Peril,” will go on hiatus

From the Los Angeles Times, a rational change:

Obama issues guidelines for banks on funds from legal marijuana sales

The Obama administration issued guidance to prosecutors and banks Friday meant to make it easier for legal marijuana sellers to open bank accounts.

But the guidance fell short of giving banks carte blanche to get involved in a business that is legal in some states for medical or recreational purposes but is still illegal under federal law.

A memo issued Friday by Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to all federal prosecutors said that prosecution may not be appropriate for banks dealing with marijuana sellers if they are operating legally in their states and stay away from red zones, such as the sale of the drug to minors or across state lines. The banks must also follow new Treasury Department procedures.

Although President Obama and Holder have indicated they have no desire to be tough on pot, the cautious move Friday reflects a reluctance to go too far because of solid opposition to marijuana legalization within the ranks of law enforcement.

And a video report on implications from Bloomberg News:

A Pot Banking Guide to Financial Institutions

Program note:

Peter Cook reports on marijuana banking guidelines for financial institutions on Bloomberg Television’s “Bottom Line.”

North of the border with the Financial Post and anther indicator:

The Canadian dollar hasn’t had this bad a start to a year in more than 4 decades. Has it seen the worst?

Traders are betting the Canadian dollar fell too far, too fast in its worst start to a year in more than four decades, as rising commodities prices and a forecast budget surplus damp speculation for interest-rate cuts.

The cost to insure against the loonie weakening further dropped to the lowest in three years, and analysts are downgrading the currency at the slowest pace since October, when the Bank of Canada began a policy shift that sent it tumbling to a 4 1/2-year low of C$1.1224 per U.S. dollar on Jan. 31. Canada’s dollar has gained more than 2% since then to C$1.0981, and is forecast to end the first quarter at C$1.10, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of 64 respondents.

From the Financial Post, a prospering sector:

Canadian arm of weapons maker General Dynamics wins ‘biggie’ Saudi contract worth up to $13-billion

U.S. weapons maker General Dynamics Corp has won a contract worth up to $13 billion for its Canadian division to build light-armoured vehicles for Saudi Arabia, in what Ottawa said was the largest advanced manufacturing export win in Canadian history.

General Dynamics said on Friday the 14-year contract for military and commercial vehicles and training and support services has a value of $10 billion, but could be worth about $13 billion if all options were exercised.

The company did not identify the customer, but Canadian Trade Minister Ed Fast issued a statement saying the vehicles would be sold to Saudi Arabia and would create and sustain 3,000 jobs each year in Canada.

On to Europe, first with a regional story from the New York Times:

France and Germany Lead Euro Zone to Higher Growth

The euro zone economy grew slightly faster than expected in the last three months of 2013, an official report showed on Friday, bringing welcome news for the global economy amid signs of slowing in the United States and China.

Although growth in the 18-nation currency union is still weak, at a 1.1 percent annualized rate, it was the euro zone’s third straight quarter in positive territory, indicating that the bloc is well beyond the year-and-a-half recession that ended in mid-2013.

The broader 28-member European Union also grew, though weakly, for the third consecutive quarter. The Union, with a market of 500 million consumers and an economy worth about 11.7 trillion euros, or $16 trillion, is one of the pillars of the global economy, and the extended weakness there has been a major source of concern for officials in the United States.

A qualification from EUbusiness:

Expect more sluggish growth in eurozone: analysts

New growth figures on Friday should show the eurozone economy continuing only a modest recovery as key problems remain, among them near-record unemployment and the threat of deflation.

Recent data has been very mixed, especially after a much weaker-than-expected third quarter, sparking concerns the bloc risked falling back into recession.

That worst fear is unlikely to be realised in Friday’s fourth-quarter data, analysts said, but the outlook remains fragile and the growth report will be very closely scrutinised for any sign of weakness.

Blame-placing from EUobserver:

MEPs accuse troika of causing ‘social tsunami’

The troika caused social devastation by forcing eurozone crisis countries to ignore social and welfare standards, MEPs have said.

Deputies on the European Parliament’s employment committee backed a report by Spanish centre-left MEP Alejandro Cercas by 27 votes to seven on Thursday (13 February), which accuses governments of ignoring the European Social Charter and employment conventions set out by the International Labour organisation (ILO).

Speaking with reporters following the vote, Cercas accused the troika – officials who manage bailout payments on behalf of EU and international lenders – as well as eurozone finance ministers, of riding roughshod over the EU treaties and creating a “social tsunami.”

“The arrogance of economic fixation has made policy makers forget that there are conventions which you must stick to … even in a crisis you can’t reduce pensions below the breadline,” he said.

“It’s time for employment and these social benefits which have been destroyed by structural reforms need to be brought back,” he noted, adding: “budgets are now balancing and we need to bring back those who have been left behind.”

On to Britain and more weather from The Guardian:

Expect no let-up in severe weather, UK forecasters warn

Around 5,000 military personnel committed to flood relief work as violent storms set to batter southern coast over weekend

Violent storms will batter cliffs and promenades along the south coast this weekend, with tidal surges and gale-force winds set to cause more flooding for days to come. Forecasters warned that there would be no let-up in the severe weather as defence chiefs committed 5,000 military personnel to the flood relief mission.

Two people were killed late on Friday in the stormy weather and the high winds left more than 16,000 homes in north Wales without power.

And rough sailing for labor, via The Guardian:

Public sector jobs are set to be cut by 40% throughout Britain

  • Report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies finds that the planned reductions would hit the poorest parts of the country the hardest

The biggest cull of public sector jobs for at least 50 years will see vulnerable parts of the state endure reductions in headcount of up to 40%, Britain’s leading tax and spending thinktank said today.

A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that the reductions planned as part of the coalition’s deficit reduction programme would hit the poorest parts of Britain hardest, and warned they would prove “challenging” for those parts of government bearing the brunt of austerity.

The IFS said that the government’s own spending watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, was expecting 1.1m jobs to go in the eight years from 2010-11, of which only a quarter had so far been lost.

The London Telegraph scolds:

New Cardinal Vincent Nichols: welfare cuts ‘frankly a disgrace’

  • Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, condemns Government’s austerity programme as a ‘disgrace’ for leaving poor facing ‘destitution’

Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric has accused the Coalition of leaving increasing numbers of people facing “hunger and destitution”.

Cardinal-designate Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, said that while the need to reduce spending on benefits is widely accepted, the Government’s reforms have now destroyed even the “basic safety net”.

Archbishop Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said the welfare system had also become increasingly “punitive”, often leaving people with nothing for days on end if they fail even to fill a form in correctly.

He said it was “a disgrace” that this was possible in a country as rich as Britain.

And speaking of the rich. . . From Sky News:

Investors Warn Of Fresh Barclays Pay Revolt

  • Leading investors tell that a protest vote over the bank’s £2.4bn bonus pot is “inevitable” given the fall in profits.

Barclays is facing a battle to avert a mass revolt of its leading investors at this year’s annual meeting amid fury over the £2.4bn bonus pool announced this week.

Sky News has spoken to a number of Barclays’ biggest shareholders who have warned in recent days that they are unlikely to be dissuaded from voting against the bank’s remuneration report or individual directors involved in setting pay.

They are furious that Antony Jenkins, the chief executive, announced this week that bonus payments for 2013 were 10% higher than the previous year despite a slump in profits from £7bn to £5.2bn.

Investors will not cast their votes until much closer to Barclays’ annual meeting on April 25, but three big City institutions said a major revolt looked “inevitable”.

The Guardian investigates:

Foreign exchange benchmarks face investigation by FSB regulator

  • Financial Stability Board to open investigation into allegations of price manipulation into world’s largest financial market

Foreign exchange benchmarks will be reviewed by the world’s top financial regulator, the latest front to be opened in a global investigation into allegations of price manipulation in the world’s largest financial market.

The Financial Stability Board (FSB), which co-ordinates regulation for the Group of 20 (G20) leading economies and is chaired by Bank of England governor Mark Carney, said on Friday it would open its own investigation.

It is the latest step in an investigation into allegations that a handful of senior traders exchanged market-sensitive information and colluded to manipulate benchmark currency rates.

The US Department of Justice and Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) are among those leading the investigations into potential wrongdoing in the $5.3tn-a-day (£3.2tn) market.

Bad news for the Tories from EUbusiness:

Eurosceptics beat British PM’s party into third place in by-election

The eurosceptic UK Independence Party received a boost ahead of European polls in May by beating British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives into third place in a by-election, results showed Friday.

The opposition Labour party comfortably won the election in Wythenshawe and Sale East in northwest England, receiving 55 percent of ballots in a vote triggered by the death of Labour MP Paul Goggins, who had represented the area since 1997.

But the anti-EU, anti-immigration UKIP — whose leader Nigel Farage said the election campaign was “as dirty as they come” — polled second with 18 percent, ahead of the Conservatives who won 15 percent of the vote.

The Liberal Democrats of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the junior partner in the coalition government with the Conservatives, got just five percent and lost their deposit for the ninth time since the last general election in 2010.

The Independent spots a curious connection:

NHS adviser Sir Stuart Rose has private health link

The former Marks & Spencer’s boss appointed by Jeremy Hunt to advise on improving the NHS could “make a fortune” from hospital takeovers by private companies, the country’s biggest union has claimed.

Sir Stuart Rose, who will lead a review of management in the NHS, is also paid to sit on the advisory board of Bridgepoint, an international private equity group, which is the major shareholder of private health firm Care UK.

Care UK is in the running to take over the George Eliot NHS Hospital Trust – one of 14 hospital trusts in Sir Stuart’s review. Rachael Maskell, national officer for health at the Unite union, said Sir Stuart’s appointment represented a “gobsmacking conflict of interest” and called on him to confirm he would not profit personally from Care UK’s bid for the Warwickshire hospital.

Oln to Iceland and another country ready to jump on the band wagon via the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Health Minister “Very Supportive” Of Decriminalising Drugs

Minister of Health Kristján Þór Júlíusson surprised many attendees at a meeting of young conservatives by expressing his support for re-examining Iceland’s drug laws.

Vísir reports that the minister was one of the guest speakers at an event hosted by Heimdallur, a society of young conservatives, which bore the title, “Is the punitive policy against drugs working?”

Kristján apparently believes it is not, as he told attendees, “I am very supportive of the opinion that we ought to try to decriminalise [drug] use in this matter.”

Taking questions from the audience, the minister was asked if he believed that even the most basic drug laws need review, to which he replied, “That’s what I’m offering. I am convinced that we need to try other remedies.”

Germany next, and a departure from an almost-new cabinet via euronews:

German minister quits over alleged leak of confidential information on porn probe

German Agriculture Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has stepped down over allegations he breached confidentiality passing on information about an inquiry into child pornography.

The leak is now under scrutiny by the authorities.

In Friday’s hastily arranged press conference Friedrich told reporters he was convinced he acted correctly in both the political and legal senses and added such was the pressure now he did not think he could do his job as Minister of Agriculture with the required political support. He vowed he would be back in the political arena.

It’s claimed Friedrich, a member of the CSU – Merkel’s sister party passed on information when he was interior minister to Sigmar Gabriel the chairman of the Social Democrat Party, telling him fellow SPD lawmaker Sebastian Edathy was the target of a child pornography probe. Gabriel then told other senior members of his party.

Swiss dissent from TheLocal.ch:

Student groups fight threatened mobility curbs

In yet more fallout from the decision of Swiss voters to curb immigration to Switzerland from the European Union, student organizations are alarmed about the impact this will have on educational exchange programmes.

“Switzerland is on a slippery slope of isolating its students and academics from the outside world,” Elizabeth Gehrke, vice-chairwoman of the European Students’ Union (ESU), said in a statement issued on Thursday.

“This could have devastating effects that would be difficult to reverse.”

One of the chief concerns is that educational and research exchanges between the EU and the Swiss may be scrapped if bilateral agreements between the two sides are nullified.

New Europe stays mum:

Portugal: No decision on “clean” bailout exit

The Portuguese government denied that it had already taken the decision for a “clean” bailout exit saying it is too early to make the option.

A “clean” bailout exit, means for Portugal to exit the bailout programme with international lenders without seeking a precautionary loan as a safety measure. On 13 February, Portuguese Cabinet Office Minister Luis Marque Guedes said the decision whether to seek a precautionary program after Portugal’s bailout exit would only be taken “at the right moment” stressing that “the right moment is not three months beforehand.” Minister Guedes also said that the government has time to “assess the development of the situation.”

In a statement issued on Thursday, Prime Minister of Portugal Pedro Passos Coelho also reaffirmed that “no decision has been taken on this subject by the Portuguese government and … no preference has even been communicated to any institution.” Mr. Coelho said that his government will make its decision on the issue before the country exit the bailout program in May.

Italy next, and an assessment from New Europe:

Italian economy in recovery, government in intensive care

Italy’s economy grew by 0.1 percent in the last three months of 2013 compared to the third quarter, the national statistics institute, Istat, said on Friday in preliminary estimates while a government crisis was unfolding in Rome following the ousting of Prime Minister Enrico Letta by his Democratic Party rival Matteo Renzi.

Italy’s gross domestic product (GDP) slightly increased after nine months of negative or zero growth – the country’s longest postwar recession that ended in the third quarter with flat GDP.

Last year the Italian economy contracted 1.9 percent, Istat added in the preliminary estimates.

Also on Friday, the Italian central bank said the country’s public debt fell by €36.5 billion to €2.0675 trillion euros from November to December. The Italian debt is the second largest compared to GDP in the eurozone after Greece’s.

More from BBC News:

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi tipped to be Italy’s youngest PM

Florence mayor Matteo Renzi is expected to be offered the chance to become Italian prime minister, as talks begin on forming a new government.

President Georgio Napolitano is starting consultations following the resignation of Enrico Letta.

He was ousted in a vote called by Mr Renzi at a meeting of their centre-left Democratic Party. The 39-year-old would be Italy’s youngest prime minister.

Mr Letta was under increasing pressure over Italy’s poor economic performance.

And a Bunga Bunga reminder from the Associated Press:

Berlusconi remains a force in Italy turmoil

He has been convicted of tax fraud, booted out of the Senate and banned from political office.

In other countries, that would be three strikes. But in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has not lost his political legitimacy, and it will be on full display when the former premier leads his Forza Italia party to meet with Italy’s president to discuss prospects for a new government after Premier Enrico Letta’s resignation Friday.

Berlusconi’s reemergence on Italy’s political scene comes just days after a court in Naples put him on trial yet again, this time for allegedly paying a senator 3 million euros ($4 million) to switch parties to bring down a rival government.

“Silvio Berlusconi is a survivor. He has survived many crises, political and legal. He is not going to give up,” said Wolfango Piccoli, an Italian political analyst based in London. “Italians are used to seeing Berlusconi as a political leader, regardless of whether he is a felon or regardless of whether he lost his seat in the Parliament.”

And another country eases up via RT:

Italy overturns ‘absurd’ drug law equating marijuana and hard drugs

Italy’s constitutional court has overturned a controversial law equating cannabis with cocaine and heroin. The decision could see around 10,000 people released from the country’s overburdened jails.

The court ruled the law was “illegitimate,” without elaborating further.

The law, passed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2006, has been blamed for Italy’s swelling prison population, as sentences for selling, growing or possessing marijuana effectively tripled.

Official data shows that Italian prisons are operating beyond capacity, with 62,000 inmates residing in facilities meant to house a maximum of 48,000.

After the jump, the latest Greek woes, Venezuelan disorders, Argentine anxieties, another leglaization call from Uruguay, an Indian resignation, Thai police action, mixed Chinese news, Japanese structural woes, economic alarm bells, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoEuroEcoFukunomia


From the worlds of politics, economics, and environmental news, today’s collection begins with a propitiatory sacrifice from Jiji Press:

Obama Urged Not to Sign TPP Unless Japan Bans Dolphin Hunting

A group of celebrities and activists in the United States are urging President Barack Obama to refuse to sign a proposed international trade deal unless Japan bans dolphin hunting.

In a letter dated Wednesday, hip-hop producer Russell Simmons asked U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy to urge Obama not to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact unless Japan bans the hunt.

Simmons’ effort draws support from about 40 celebrities and activists including film director Oliver Stone and actress Cameron Diaz.

Bloomberg limits the bubble:

Home Prices Rose in Fewer U.S. Markets in Fourth Quarter

Prices for single-family homes rose in 73 percent of U.S. cities in the fourth quarter, fewer than in the previous three months, as surging values in the past two years started to reduce affordability.

The median transaction price for an existing home climbed from a year earlier in 119 of 164 metropolitan areas measured, the National Association of Realtors said in a report today. In the third quarter, 88 percent of markets had increases.

While tight inventories and improving employment are bolstering the housing recovery, home-price gains are poised to decelerate as an increase in mortgage rates from record lows cuts into affordability. Values have been rising faster than incomes, particularly in the West, the Realtors group said.

Businessweek takes a flier:

Yes, There’s a Pilot Shortage: Salaries Start at $21,000

The regional side of the U.S. airline industry has long been a fiercely competitive arena in which the big airlines auction large sections of their flight schedules to the lowest bidder. That’s put pressure on wages: The starting salary for a first officer at a regional airline is a little more than $21,000 per year—about $40,000 lower than the same job at Delta (DAL) and United (UAL), according to the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest U.S. pilot union.

And the stingy pay, in turn, exacerbates the pilot shortage. Not only does it make pilot jobs less appealing, but the small salaries also combine with the more onerous federal training rules to put many new pilots deep in debt. Paying for the necessary hours of training flights before getting a first job can cost more than $100,000.

“There may be a shortage of qualified pilots who are willing to fly for U.S. airlines because of the industry’s recent history of instability, poor pay, and benefits,” ALPA President Lee Moak said last week in a statement that aimed to refute the “myth” of such a shortage. The union says that Emirates Airlines pays new first officers $82,000, “plus a housing allowance and other extraordinary benefits,” and that thousands of U.S. pilots on furlough and working abroad are “eager to return to U.S. airline cockpits—under the right conditions.”

From In These Times, Tea Party pols:

When the Boss Wants a Union, But the GOP Says ‘No’

Volkswagen is willing to let employees at its Tennessee plant unionize, but Republicans are stiff in their opposition.

Republicans are blasting VW (actually criticizing a corporation!) because VW is cooperating with an attempt by the United Auto Workers to organize the German automaker’s Chattanooga, Tenn., assembly plant. The workers at VW’s German assembly plants are organized and paid twice the wage of the Chattanooga workers.

VW wants to establish works councils at its Chattanooga plant, just like those it has in Germany. In Europe, these groups of white- and blue-collar workers collaborate on issues such as plant rules, work hours and vacations. In VW’s experience, cooperating with employees through these councils increases productivity and profitability.

Because the councils discuss labor issues such as work hours, VW and the UAW have determined that to legally establish them in Chattanooga, the plant must be unionized.

This is intolerable to the GOP. Two of Tennessee’s most powerful Republicans, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, insist they know how to run an auto company better than VW. Despite this successful international auto company’s actual business experience with work councils, these GOP politicians say that they know what’s best, that they just know unionization won’t be good for VW.

Al Jazeera America prolongs:

California gets two more years to ease prison overcrowding

  • Judges’ ruling sets compliance officer who will release inmates early if state fails to ease problem

Federal judges on Monday gave California two more years to meet a court-ordered prison population cap, the latest step in a long-running lawsuit aimed at improving inmate medical care.

In doing so, the judges said they would appoint a compliance officer who will release inmates early if the state fails to meet interim benchmarks or the final goal.

The judges said the delays have cost taxpayers money while causing inmates to needlessly suffer. Judges had previously extended the deadline in December.

The order from the three-judge panel delayed an April deadline to reduce the prison population to about 112,000 inmates. California remains more than 5,000 inmates over a limit set by the courts, even though the state has built more prison space and used some private cells.

The Hill anchors the baby:

Chinese ‘birth tourism’ booming in US territory

A growing number of pregnant Chinese women are having their babies in the U.S. territory of Saipan, automatically giving the children American citizenship, according to the region’s congressman.

Del. Gregorio Sablan (D) represents Saipan and the rest of the Northern Mariana Islands in Congress. The U.S. territory is in the Pacific Ocean, roughly 3,700 miles west of Honolulu and a four-hour flight from China.

Sablan said in an ABC News report that he has reached out to the Department of Homeland Security to look into the “birth tourism” situation. “We want to fix this and we want to make sure that this small problem remains very small,” Sablan said.

Heading north of the border for another “free trade” travesty from EurActiv:

EU-Canada free trade deal ‘opens door to environmental lawsuits’

Multinationals will have wide-ranging powers to sue EU states that enact health or environmental laws breaching their “legitimate expectations” of profit, according to a leaked ‘investment chapter’ from the Canada-EU free trade agreement (CETA), which was signed last November.

A separate ‘nature and scope’ document for EU-US free trade talks, which EurActiv has seen, makes clear that similar parameters are foreseen for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement.

The CETA investment chapter proposes a definition of ‘fair and equitable treatment’ (FET) for investors which has sparked multi-million dollar lawsuits, such as one by Lone Pine challenging a shale drilling ban by the Canadian state of Quebec.

EU officials have reportedly not challenged the authenticity of the leaked document, which was published online by the Trade Justice Network, although they were unavailable for comment on the issue.

Pronouncement from a high place via Xinhua:

OECD index shows growth recovery in major economies

The latest composite leading indicators (CLIs) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are pointing to an improving economic outlook in major advanced economies, said the Paris-based think tank on Monday.

The CLIs, designed to anticipate turning points in economic activity relative to trend, stood at 100.9 for the OECD area, up by 0.1 percentage compared to last month, while the oulook of seven major economies pointed to a firming growth.

In the euro area, the indicators projected the single-currency bloc to witness positive change in momentum and reached a ratio of 101.1 at the end of 2013 compared to November’s 100.9.

As for France and Germany, Europe’s main powerhouses, the OECD report expected economic activities to gain ground. Their ratios were above the long term average rate of 100, with respectively a ratio of 100.5 and 100.8 for December after 100.3 and 100.7 reported a month earlier.

But The Guardian adds a qualification:

OECD admits overstating growth forecasts amid eurozone crisis and global crash

Biggest forecasting errors were made when looking at the prospects for the next year, rather than the current year, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said

A failure to spot the severity of the eurozone crisis and the impact of the meltdown of the global banking system led to consistent forecasting errors in recent years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development admitted on Tuesday.

The Paris-based organisation said it repeatedly overestimated growth prospects for countries around the world between 2007 and 2012. The OECD revised down forecasts at the onset of the financial crisis, but by an insufficient degree, it said.

“Forecasts were revised down consistently and very rapidly when the financial crisis erupted, but growth out-turns nonetheless still proved substantially weaker than had been projected,” it said in a paper exploring its forecasting record in recent years.

The biggest forecasting errors were made when looking at the prospects for the next year, rather than the current year.

On to Europe with an alarm from the London Telegraph:

ECB paralysed by German court decision as deflation threatens

  • The ‘thunderbolt’ ruling on eurozone rescue policies by Germany’s top court marks a serious escalation of Europe’s governance crisis

Last week’s ‘thunderbolt’ ruling on eurozone rescue policies by Germany’s top court marks a serious escalation of Europe’s governance crisis and may ultimately force Germany to withdraw from the euro, the country’s most influential magazine has warned.

A sweeping report by Der Spiegel said the court ruling amounts to a full-blown showdown between Germany and the European Central Bank over the methods to shore up southern Europe’s debt markets.

“It is nothing less than a final reckoning with the crisis-management strategy pursued by the ECB. The German justices insist that the German constitution sets limits on the ECB’s crisis strategy. In a worst-case scenario, the Court could forbid Berlin from contributing to efforts to save the euro or even force Germany to leave the currency zone entirely,” it said.

The warning came as market analysts began to see the darker implications of the ruling, which was initially seen as a green light for the ECB’s bond operations.

From the London Telegraph again, a contrarian take:

Schaeuble: German court decision no threat to eurozone

  • The German finance minister plays down damage of ruling that powerful ECB tool could be unconstitutional

Curbing the European Central Bank’s (ECB) powers to do “whatever it takes” to save the eurozone will not harm the single currency, the German finance minister has claimed.

Wolfgang Schaeuble said that although the ECB’s most effective tool for calming the eurozone debt markets, unlimited bond buying, could be ruled illegal by the European Court of Justice, that financial markets are now confident that the eurozone will remain intact.

“I think the return of financial market confidence in the stability of the euro has been due not only, not even primarily, to the ECB’s (unlimited bond buying) announcement,” said Mr Schaeuble in an interview with Reuters.

New Europe debunks:

Mobile EU citizens are mainly young people looking for job opportunities

  • Mobile EU citizens are often overqualified for the jobs they take up and may be paid less

A new study on the integration of mobile EU citizens was published today by the European Commission.

The study, which was carried out by Ernst and Young, focused on six European cities, chosen for the multinational composition of their population. The cities were Barcelona, Dublin, Hamburg, Lille, Prague and Turin. According to the study, most of the mobile EU citizens are young people looking for job opportunities.

The study showed that the the inflow of younger, working age EU citizens has had a positive economic impact in the cities under examination. For example in Turin, a local evaluation indicated that tax revenues from foreigners on the whole brought a net benefit of €1.5 billion to national public finances. Moreover, the newcomers have helped fill gaps in local labour markets, contributed to growth in new sectors and have helped balance out ageing populations. However, the study found that mobile EU citizens are often overqualified for the jobs they take up and may be paid less and at the same time do not always benefit from the same access to housing and education.

On to Britain and ongoing misery from Sky News:

UK Floods Could Last Months, Scientist Warns

Some 1.6 million properties across Britain are now at risk of groundwater flooding and there is no end in sight, an expert says.

Scientists have told Sky News that groundwater levels are now so high that parts of Britain face a serious risk of flooding for weeks or even months to come.

Andy McKenzie, a groundwater scientist at the British Geological Survey, told Sky News that even if the rain stopped today, so much water is soaking through the soil that levels are likely to keep rising for another two months.

The risk of flooding could remain high until May, he said.

Figures exclusively revealed to Sky News show that boreholes used to measure the height of the water table are overflowing in many areas, with the highest levels ever recorded.

The Guardian covers austerian pluvial accounting:

Government raised bar for funding of flood defence schemes

  • Defra wanted to see an average of £8 of damage avoided for every £1 it would spend on schemes

Coalition ministers made it more difficult for flood defence schemes to get funding by introducing tougher targets demanding 60% more “benefits” for every pound spent on protection, it has emerged.

Under the new rules brought in three years ago, the Department for Environment Food And Rural Affairs (Defra) wanted to see an average of £8 of damage avoided for every £1 they would spend on schemes.

Previously, projects were simply expected to deliver more than £1 of damage avoided for every £1 spent, with an average across all schemes of £5 of damage avoided for every £1 spent.

On hand giveth whilst the other taketh away, via Reuters:

Barclays to cut 12,000 jobs, pays bigger bonuses

Barclays said it would axe up to 12,000 jobs this year even as it raised bonuses for investment bankers, prompting fury among politicians and unions who said it had not learned the lessons of the financial crisis.

Britain’s third-biggest bank said up to 9 percent of employees could go, including 7,000 in Britain, as it tries to lower costs. The cuts are not concentrated in any one business area.

It said it paid 2.4 billion pounds ($3.9 billion) in incentive awards last year, raising bonuses at the investment bank by 13 percent despite a slump in its profits. The average bonus for the investment bank’s 26,200 staff was 60,100 pounds.

Critics of the bonus hike said it showed Britain’s biggest banks were still failing to heed the lessons of a financial crisis caused by dangerous risk taking and excessive pay.

The Independent calls the shots:

Revealed: Big Pharma’s hidden links to NHS policy, with senior MPs saying medical industry uses ‘wealth to influence government’

NHS bosses allowed a lobbying company working for some of the world’s biggest drugs and medical equipment firms to write a draft report which could help shape future health policy. NHS England commissioned a group called the Specialised Healthcare Alliance (SHCA) to consult with patients’ groups, charities and health organisations and produce a report feeding into its future five-year strategy for commissioning £12bn of services.

But the SHCA has confirmed to The Independent that it is entirely funded by commercial “members”. Its director, John Murray, is also a lobbyist whose company lists some of the world’s biggest drug and medical device firms as clients.

Mr Murray put his name on a foreword to the NHS England document along with James Palmer, the clinical director of specialised services at NHS England, with whom he admits he has had “many meetings [on] a wide range of organisations and interests”.

The findings raise significant questions about links between the lobbying industry and NHS England – a quango set up to run the NHS under the Government’s health reforms.

Hints of Banksters Behaving Badly from The Guardian:

Bank of England launches inquiry into forex manipulation claims

  • Senior currency trader says Bank officials condoned information sharing between traders under investigation

The Bank of England has launched an internal inquiry into allegations that its officials endorsed sharing of information between traders in the foreign exchange market, the central bank’s deputy governor told MPs.

The inquiry will examine claims that at a meeting between Bank officials and senior currency traders last April the officials said it was permissible for traders in different banks to share information about clients’ positions ahead of the setting of a benchmark rate in the foreign exchange market.

On to Iceland and a crisis resurrection from DutchNews.nl:

Icesave dispute reopened, Dutch and British demand €3.5bn

The Dutch and British authorities have reopened their dispute with Iceland over the bankruptcy of online bank Icesave by filing claims for up to €3.5bn from the Icelandic bank guarantee fund.

The Netherlands and Britain chose to compensate savers who lost billions when Iceland bank Landsbanki collapsed in 2008 from their own domestic guarantee schemes. At the time, this was seen as a sort of loan to Iceland.

However, last year a European court ruled Iceland itself was not responsible for repaying the cash.

Iceland again, and misbehavior in high places from the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Protest At Interior Ministry

Three organisations will be holding simultaneous protests at the Ministry of the Interior tomorrow at noon, demanding the minister’s resignation.

The Alda – Association for Sustainability and Democracy, activist organisation Attac and refugee and immigration rights group No Borders have all planned protests in front of the ministry at noon tomorrow. These protests call for the resignation of Minister of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, whose ministry is being investigated by the police for allegedly leaking a memo which falsely impugned on Nigerian asylum seeker Tony Omos and the mother of his child, Evelyn Glory Joseph. Lawyers for both Tony and Evelyn filed charges against the ministry, including breach of confidentiality, slander, and abuse of public office.

Alda has called the ministry’s handling of the case as being “characterised by silence, arrogance, and contradictory statements”. No Borders has taken matters further, saying that Tony Omos’ asylum case should be re-introduced for consideration in light of the unfair treatment he has received.

Norway next, with a familiar theme from EUbusiness:

Norway’s populists demand immigration referendum

Days after the Swiss narrowly voted to curb immigration from the EU, Norway’s populist right-wing party on Tuesday demanded a similar referendum in the prosperous Nordic country.

“I won’t take a stance on a quota system like the one the Swiss people have voted for,” said Mazyar Keshvari, immigration spokesman for the Progress Party, a member of the ruling coalition which wants a more restrictive immigration policy.

“But the idea of a referendum is interesting and Norway should also organise a referendum on immigration. I’m completely certain that a majority wants to tighten up” the policy.

Norway is not a member of the EU but is included in the European Economic Area and the Schengen Area which allows relatively unrestricted movement of citizens.

Spain next, and departures from El País:

Is the crisis fueling an exodus?

Studies are trying to pinpoint just how many people are leaving Spain due to rampant unemployment

What if the Spanish exodus caused by the crisis was not quite as massive as we have been led to believe? This is the question that drives a recent study by Carmen González Enríquez, of the Elcano Royal Institute think-tank. Based on information gathered from Spanish consulates, the researcher notes that only two percent of nationals living abroad are Spaniards who left because of the crisis. That is just 39,912 people.

But what if it was the other way around, and we were in fact underestimating the extent of the trend? This is what Amparo González Ferrer, a sociologist and demographics specialist at the CSIC National Research Council, claims. She says that the number of émigrés who left the country between 2008 and 2012 — rather than the number of Spaniards living abroad — is closer to 700,000 than the official figure of 225,000. That Spain is losing population to emigration is unquestionable in view of the data. The latest census report by the National Statistics Institute (INE), containing data up to January 2013, shows a drop of 135,538 people during 2012, taking the population down to 47,129,783.

But how many Spaniards are actually leaving due to the economic situation? There is a debate among the scientific community because of the absence of a statistical mechanism that can quickly and efficiently register the departure of nationals.

And a blow to Iberian Brits from TheLocal.es:

Spain’s UK expats to lose free NHS health care

Thousands of British expats who have taken early retirement in Spain will now have to get private health insurance following the UK government’s decision to scrap free access to their local Spanish health care system.

The change in legislation, set to be implemented on April 1st, will affect only those who haven’t already completed a Social Security residual form S1 before leaving the UK.

However, once their current form comes to an end, jobless UK expats in Spain are likely to also be obliged to buy private medical insurance.

Up to now, unemployed Brits in Spain and other EEA countries who were under the age of 65 were able to pass on their health care costs to the UK Treasury.

And a case of Royals Behaving Badly from El País:

Prosecutor seeks 19 years in prison for princess’s husband Urdangarin

  • More than half of Nóos case suspects may not face charges
  • Infanta Cristina could be required to pay 600,000 in civil liability
  • Princess Cristina will have to return 600,000 euros if husband found guilty

After Princess Cristina’s unprecedented testimony before an investigating judge in Palma de Mallorca on Saturday, the anticorruption prosecutor in the Nóos investigation, Pedro Horrach, maintains that the infanta should not be implicated in the business dealings of her husband, former Olympic handball medalist Iñaki Urdangarin, and has also stated that over half of the 40 official suspects in the case should not face charges.

However, the prosecutor has now asked that Urdangarin, the Duke of Palma, should face a 19-year prison sentence and his former business partner Diego Torres 15 years, both on charges of embezzlement, falsifying documents, tax fraud and other financial crimes. Torres’ brother-in-law and financial advisor, Miguel Tejeiro, who designed the shell companies and tax fiddles though which Torres and Urdangarin allegedly funneled millions of euros of public money, also faces 19 years if found guilty.

On to Italy and a low rating from ANSAmed:

Italy bottom in EU for labour-cost competitiveness

  • 100 euros of labout costs generated 126% of added value in 2010

Italy is the bottom of the European Union when it comes to the competitiveness of labour costs, national statistics agency Istat said in a report Tuesday. Istat said every 100 euros an Italian business spent on labour costs in 2010, the most recent year in which there is comparative data for the rest of the EU, generated added value of 126%.

This was lowest in the EU and way behind the figure of 211.7% for Romania. Istat said that labour-cost competitiveness improved in 2011, with every 100 euros of labour costs generating 128.5% of added value.(ANSAmed).

Bunga Bunga politics from Deutsche Welle:

Berlusconi back on trial for political corruption

Italy’s scandal-ridden former premier Silvio Berlusconi is back in court yet again. This time he is facing charges of having bribed an opposition politician to swap sides.

Silvio Berlusconi’s latest trial opened in the southern Italian city of Naples on Tuesday, with the former premier facing charges of having used bribery to persuade a senator to join his party in 2006.

Berlusconi was not at Tuesday’s hearing and was not obliged to attend under Italian law.

He is accused of giving a 3-million-euro ($4.1-million) bribe to senator Sergio De Gregorio to entice him into leaving the anti-corruption Italy of Values party to join Berlusconi’s own People of Freedom party. The prosecution sees the bribe as part of a plan to bring down the-then center-left coalition of Romano Prodi.

Prodi still won in 2006, but his coalition finally collapsed in 2008, paving the way for early elections and Berlusconi’s return to power. De Gregorio, who had formed part of Prodi’s coalition, defected to Berlusconi’s conservatives and was re-elected in that capacity in 2008.

And from Deutsche Welle, resurrection?:

Berlusconi comeback in European elections?

Silvio Berlusconi is planning his comeback in Europe. Thus far, Brussels isn’t taking the idea too seriously. But his appeal at the ECJ and a political rehabilitation in Italy might make it possible.

Those who know Silvio Berlusconi won’t be surprised that he is planning a comeback on an international platform. At a meeting with his re-established political party, Forza Italia, in January, the former Italian prime minister announced his plans to run for office during European elections in May 2014 – despite the fact that a law forbids him from doing exactly that.

The so-called “Legge Severino” is a law prohibiting convicts to run for a post for six years. And then there’s the Mediaset verdict imposing a two-year-ban from public office; both obstacles in the way of the former premier, who was convicted on tax fraud charges and is currently facing more recent charges of bribery.

For a while now, Berlusconi’s lawyers have been working on a plan to circumvent the “Severino” law, according to reports in the Italian media. That plan leads directly to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxemburg, where Berlusconi has already filed for appeal proceedings.

ANSAmed grimly enumerates:

Almost one in four Italians in dire straits

  • 24.9% of households in situation of ‘deprivation’

Almost one in four Italian households, 24.9%, are in a situation of “deprivation”, Istat said Tuesday, as they are positive for at least three of the statistics agency’s nine factors of economic hardship. These include the inability to meet unexpected expenses, being behind in loan payments or being unable to afford a meal with a high protein content at least once every two days.

Istat said the percentage of people in a situation of deprivation was 22.3% in 2011, when Italy entered its longest postwar recession.

More from TheLocal.it:

Italians pay almost as much tax as the Swedes

Average tax levels in Italy grew from 41.3 percent in 2000 to 42.5 percent in 2011, the agency said.

Meanwhile, the average rate in Sweden, where taxpayers receive favourable social benefits in return for their high contributions, actually fell from 51.7 percent in 2000 to 44.7 percent in 2012.

Taxes in Italy might be almost as high as in Sweden, but the main gripe among Italians is that they don’t get the same high standard of services in return, whether that be in healthcare, education or public transport.

Istat’s report, called Noi Italia, also revealed that just 61 percent of Italians between the ages of 20 and 64 have jobs, well below the 75 percent employment level stipulated by the European Union, had jobs in 2012.

Women fared the worst, with just 50.5 percent – one of the worst rates in Europe – being in work in 2012, while 71.6 percent of working-age men were employed.

From Reuters, revelatory blowback:

Italian President Napolitano under fire over Monti appointment

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano faced fierce criticism on Monday over reports that he asked Mario Monti about replacing Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister months before his government fell at the height of the euro zone crisis in 2011.

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party expressed “bitterness and shock” at the reports, based on interviews with Monti and others in a forthcoming book by journalist Alan Friedman, extract of which were published by the Financial Times and the Corriere della Sera newspapers.

Although the events recounted in the book occurred more than two years ago, they risk reopening wounds between the parties that could complicate the already difficult situation facing Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s fragile ruling coalition, which is struggling to adopt economic and political reforms.

“We are dismayed to learn that, as early as June 2011, the head of state was actively taking steps to bring down the Berlusconi government and replace him with Mario Monti,” the parliamentary floor leaders of Forza Italia, Renato Brunetta and Paolo Romani, said in a statement.

After the jump, the latest from Greece, a Cypriot uptick, Mexican vigilante motives, Myanmar miseries, troubles for Australian industry and ministerial corporateering, Chinese strategy, bad numbers for Japan, environmental woes, a Big Agra GMO win, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Crows: Amazingly adept at solving problems


What more to say, save that we’ve explored the subject before‘?

From BBC 2:

Are crows the ultimate problem solvers? – Inside the Animal Mind

Program note:

Dr Alex Taylor sets a difficult problem solving task, will the crow defeat the puzzle?

Humans and landscapes, a complex interaction


On his UC Berkeley faculty website, archaeologist Patrick V. Kirch lists his specialties as “Prehistory and ethnography of Oceania, ethnoarchaeology and settlement archaeology, prehistoric agricultural systems, cultural ecology and paleoenvironmentalism, ethnobotany and ethnoscience, development of complex societies in Oceania.”

In this presentation Dr. Kirch applies the ideas of the cultural landscape developed by an earlier Berkeley geographer, Carl O. Sauer, to human interaction with the landscapes of three Polynesian cultures, those of Mangareva, Mo’orea, and Hawaii.

What kept the Polynesian Islands so green? In part, the phosphorus blown in the winds in dust from China and Mongolia.

But some islands, like those of the Mangareva archipelago and Easter Island, lay in regions missed by the winds from Asia, leaving one other source of phosphorus and other key soil nutrients, populations of fish-eating, guano-pooping sea birds.

Todat the once-forested islets of Mangareva, the smallest, most barren, and most ancient of the three, today resemble a nearly barren desert islands, landscapes created in large part by the relatively late arrival of Polynesians who eliminated or decimated the once varied native bird populations.

Mo’orea is a much younger island, with the human population living in intimate relationship with an evolving and eroding landscape, shifting settlement as new soils are exposed and older soils become depleted.

And then there’s Hawaii, a still-growing landscape but nonetheless precarious landscapes populated by an emerging state society that had neared the carrying capacity of the delicate landscape when Europeans arrived, along with the diseases that laid waste to the Polynesians.

From University of California Television, an important reminder of just how delicate our world really is:

Island Landscapes or Sauer Among the Polynesians

Program notes:

Geographer Carl Ortwin Sauer demonstrated through his work and writings that landscapes are the long-term contingent product of interactions between natural processes and cultural forces. In this lecture, Patrick Kirch, Professor of Anthropology and Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, applies the concept of landscape to the islands of Polynesia. Drawing upon recent multi-disciplinary research, Kirch shows how certain natural properties of islands shaped the course of cultural and social evolution of island peoples, at the same time that cumulative effect of human actions irreversibly altered island environments. Series: “UC Berkeley Graduate Council Lectures” [2/2014]

Li Min: Whale Killing


A China Daily editorial cartoonist weighs in on Japan’s obstinate refusal to stop slaughtering some of the most majestic creatures on the planet:

BLOG Japan whaler

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliAsianWoes


Today’s compilation of economic, political, and environmental developments opens with a somber statement from the Economic Times:

US economy may be stuck in slow lane for long run

Two straight weak job reports have raised doubts about economists’ predictions of breakout growth in 2014. The global economy is showing signs of slowing _ again. Manufacturing has slumped. Fewer people are signing contracts to buy homes. Global stock markets have sunk as anxiety has gripped developing nations.

Some long-term trends are equally dispiriting.

The Congressional Budget Office foresees growth picking up through 2016, only to weaken starting in 2017. By the CBO’s reckoning, the economy will soon slam into a demographic wall: The vast baby boom generation will retire. Their exodus will shrink the share of Americans who are working, which will hamper the economy’s ability to accelerate.

At the same time, the government may have to borrow more, raise taxes or cut spending to support Social Security and Medicare for those retirees.

From the Daily Dot, the latest from the party of family values:

Are fake candidate websites the new political attack ads?

Republican politicians finally figured out how to use the Internet as a campaign tool, and they’re really proud of themselves. Unfortunately, the GOP’s newfound Web savvy has taken the form of a campaign program that’s ethically questionable, intensely negative, and may or may not be against the law.

The National Republican Congressional Committee created a spate of fake websites for Democratic candidates that at first glance look like normal, legit sites, but then rip into the candidate in the text. The faux sites also have donation forms that send funds to the NRCC. There are several fake microsites up now, and the committee says it’s buying up URLs to create even more.

So is this shit even legal? It’s not an easy thing to answer. The spoof sites teeter on the fine line between parody and fraud, and the devil is in the details of the election law. According to Federal Election Commission regulations, political groups can’t use a candidate’s name in a “special project”—like a website—unless it “clearly and unambiguously shows opposition to the named candidate.”

Cementing class divisions with the San Jose Mercury News:

High prices sending Bay Area renters and homebuyers to outlying communities

Squeezed by astronomical home prices and rents that are almost as unaffordable, a growing number of Bay Area residents are pulling up stakes and trading long commutes for cheaper housing.

They’re heading to places like Tracy, Mountain House, Patterson, Hollister and Los Banos. Some are buying bigger homes and others are renting for much less, hoping to put money aside for a down payment of their own one day, in a replay of the eastward migration during the dot-com boom.

“Rentals in the Bay Area are just too high,” said Alma Gomez, an administrative assistant for Union City who’s heading east with her family.

The San Francisco Chronicle covers another kind of costly leak:

Bay Bridge’s new problem: leaks

The just-opened eastern span of the Bay Bridge, already beset by questions about flawed welds and cracked steel rods, has a new problem: It leaks.

Rainwater is dripping into the steel structure beneath the road deck on the suspension stretch of the span, which is supposed to be watertight, Caltrans said. Outside experts say that could pose a risk of corrosion on a bridge that cost $6.4 billion and is supposed to last well into the 22nd century.

“That’s a problem, a big problem,” said Lisa Thomas, a metallurgical engineer who studies material failure at a laboratory in Berkeley and analyzed bridge rods that snapped last year. “They want it to last 150 years, but with water coming in, something is going to corrode until it’s too thin and weak.”

From the Washington Post removing pedal appendage from orifice:

AOL chief reverses changes to 401(k) policy after a week of bad publicity

AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong told employees in an e-mail Saturday evening that he was reversing the company’s 401(k) policy and apologized for his controversial comments last week.

“The leadership team and I listened to your feedback over the last week,” Armstrong wrote in his e-mail to the company. “We heard you on this topic. And as we discussed the matter over several days, with management and employees, we have decided to change the policy back to a per-pay-period matching contribution.”

The policy change would have switched 401(k) matching contributions to an annual lump sum, rather than being distributed throughout the year with every paycheck. The switch would have punished employees who quit or were fired mid-year. It would also have cost employees who stayed, since they would not see the benefits of compounding in their retirement accounts.

The Financial Express covers funny money:

Bitcoin gang inches towards 100-member mark, hits $13-bn value

Enhanced regulatory oversight in India and other countries seems to be having little impact on spread of bitcoins and other virtual currencies, whose number is fast moving towards a century with a total valuation of close to USD 13 billion.

A number of new entrants, such as bitgem, catcoin, unobtanium and sexcoin, have arrived on the scene even as regulators across the world grapple with risks posed by such currencies and transactions conducted through them.

At least 93 virtual currencies are at present being used by people across the world over the internet, as also for some offline transactions, and their total valuation has reached USD 13 billion (over Rs 80,000 crore), out of which bitcoin alone accounts for over USD nine billion, according to market estimates.

At end of December last year, the number of virtual currencies stood at 67.

Of to Europe and a cautionary note from the London Telegraph:

Eurozone banks face £42bn ‘capital black hole’

Government adviser Davide Serra says this year’s stress tests by European authorities are likely to find fresh problems in the eurozone banks.

Eurozone banks are facing a new capital black hole of as much as €50bn (£42bn), according to one of the UK’s most respected financial analysts.

Davide Serra, the chief executive of Algebris, who advises the Government on banking, said that this year’s stress tests by the European Banking Authority and the European Central Bank were likely to find fresh problems in the eurozone banks.

He said that Germany had one of “the worst banking systems in the world” and that three or four regional Landesbanken were likely to be wound up. He also said banks in Portugal and Greece were likely to need more capital.

Britain next and life at the bottom of the pyramid from The Independent:

Working poor trapped in unbreakable cycle of poverty turn to food banks in their lunch breaks

Millions of low-paid workers are trapped in an unbreakable cycle of poverty, and are even turning up at food banks in their lunch breaks asking for help to feed their families, the Archbishop of York warns.

Dr John Sentamu, writing in The Independent, says low pay is a “scourge on our society” and challenges David Cameron to back up his “warm words” with action to boost the incomes of the working poor.

An independent commission chaired by the Archbishop says the economic recovery will make no difference to the lives of the five million lowest-paid workers unless they paid the so-called “living wage”.

They are being suffering a “double squeeze” on their incomes as their wages remain stagnant and their and living costs rise steadily.

Bankster insecurity from The Guardian:

Barclays blasted over ‘catastrophic’ theft of thousands of customer files

  • Files containing names, addresses, medical details and NI numbers have allegedly been sold for use by scammers

Barclays is under scrutiny by regulators and could face a hefty fine after thousands of confidential customer files were stolen in a data breach described as catastrophic by an adviser to the business secretary, Vince Cable.

The files, containing details on 2,000 individuals including their names, addresses, phone numbers, passport numbers, mortgages and levels of savings, were allegedly sold for use in boiler-room scams, in which vulnerable savers are snared into fraudulent investments.

“This is catastrophic, just awful,” the Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt, who is parliamentary private secretary to Cable and has campaigned on mis-selling by banks, told the Guardian. “What protections have Barclays got in place? Are the police going to pursue this, are they going to prosecute, and is someone going to go to jail for this? They should do.”

From The Independent, playing to the base of the base:

David Cameron accused of ‘pandering’ to xenophobia with rhetoric on immigration

Laszlo Andor, the Employment Commissioner, who has previously attacked the Government for its “nasty” curbs on benefits for foreign nationals, will step up his attack during a visit to Britain.

He will accuse politicians of avoiding the “inconvenient truth” that most migrants move for work and are an “asset” to economies like Britain’s with an ageing population.

Mr Andor will warn the Prime Minister he cannot base policy on “perceptions, gut feelings or anecdotes”.

In a speech in Bristol, he will say: “Politicians should be responsible enough to talk about facts, rather than to pander to prejudice, or in the worst cases, xenophobia.”

The Observer crowns hypocrisy:

Royal estates ‘fail to meet targets to build affordable homes’

  • Study finds Crown Estate and Duchy of Cornwall regularly get councils to cut ratios of affordable homes on cost grounds

Two of Britain’s largest landowning bodies, which between them generate millions of pounds a year for the Queen and Prince Charles, are regularly failing to meet affordable housing targets when building new homes on their land.

Amid an escalating housing crisis, planning documents unearthed by the independent Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveal that both the Crown Estate and the Duchy of Cornwall are persuading councils to allow them to cut their affordable housing quotas on the grounds that meeting them would be too expensive.

An investigation by the bureau for the Observer has examined the two landowners’ plans to build 4,299 homes in 31 schemes. Of these, 14 developments, set to produce 2,470 units, fail to meet local targets, resulting in at least 213 fewer affordable homes being built. The bureau also found that 10 of the 19 largest Crown Estate developments have not or will not meet affordable housing targets.

And New Europe bubbles:

London housing market under price bubbles risk

Housing market in London is beginning to show signs of bubble-like conditions, said a research report issued by Ernst and Young Item Club (EY ITEM Club) on Monday, while asking the government to monitor the trend closely and be prepared to intervene.

The EY ITEM Club forecast showed the average house price in London is expected to reach nearly £600,000 by 2018, some 3.5 times the average price in Northern Ireland and more than 3.3 times the average in the North East.

It said the average house prices in Britain growing by 8.4% this year and 7.3% in 2015, before cooling to around 5.5% in 2016.  House prices would show a regional divergence. Outside of London and the South East, the regions with the highest levels of house price growth are expected to be the South West and East of England, both set to grow by 6.2% from 2013-18.

Switzerland next and job-creating electoral results from TheLocal.ch:

Voters back national rail infrastructure plan

A project to boost financing for passenger rail infrastructure won widespread support from Swiss voters in a national referendum on Sunday.

More than 62 percent of the electorate voted for the improvements designed to improve train service through 6.4 billion francs’ worth of projects between now and 2025.

The plan will also add an extra billion francs a year to the four billion francs already allocated annually for rail infrastructure and maintenance.

It will allow for improvements to service on Lausanne-Geneva, Bern-Lucerne, Zurich-Chur, Lucerne-Giswil, Bellinzona-Tenero and Zurich-Fiesch routes, according to the federal government, which backed the proposal.

The expansion gives the green light for the financing of such projects as the expansion of Geneva’s main train station Cornavin (790 million francs) and a billion-franc modernization of the Lausanne station and its links with Renens, the nearby suburb.

While BBC News has another electoral result, and a possible Swiss miss:

Swiss immigration: 50.3% back quotas, final results show

Swiss voters have narrowly backed a referendum proposal to bring back strict quotas for immigration from European Union countries.

Final results showed 50.3% voted in favour. The vote invalidates the Swiss-EU agreement on freedom of movement.

Fiercely independent Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but has adopted large sections of EU policy. Brussels said it regretted the outcome of the vote and would examine its implications.

A Yes vote of more than 50% was needed for the referendum to pass.

On to Spain and life on the sombra side from TheLocal.es:

Spain’s shadow economy flourishes in downturn

Spain’s shadow economy — where cash is king, there are no contracts and the taxman is cut out of the equation — is flourishing amid an economic downturn that has pushed the jobless rate to 26 percent.

Economists estimate Spain’s underground economy equals 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The parallel economy “unfortunately is a longtime problem” in Spain, which “has worsened due to the economic crisis”, said Santos Nogales of the UGT, Spain’s second-largest labour union.

“Undeclared work does not distinguish between nationalities. It touches immigrants and many Spaniards,” he added.

thinkSPAIN delivers a shock:

New electricity bill structure ‘penalises energy saving’ and increases costs for low-use households, say consumer groups

CONSUMER protection groups have criticised the government’s new electricity billing structure as it ‘penalises’ those who use the least power and does not provide any incentive to save on energy consumption.

A year ago, the ‘fixed’ part of a household bill accounted for 35 per cent and the variable part, relating to consumption, was 65 per cent, but this was changed last July with a gradual move towards the standing charge taking up a higher percentage of what is paid by residential homes.

Now that this gradual migration has finished, from this week onwards, the fixed charge will be 60 per cent of the bill and the variable consumption-related part 40 per cent.

While New Europe lays off:

Jobless total spikes

Spanish government figures show that the number of people registered as unemployed has risen by 113,097 as temporary job contracts created over Christmas come to an end, AP reported.

On 4 February, the Labor Ministry said the reduction put the total number of those registered in unemployment offices at 4.81 million in January. Year-on-year, the figure was down 166,343.

Quarterly unemployment surveys – seen as more accurate by economists – show Spain’s unemployment rate was 26% in the fourth quarter of 2013, with six million people out of work. The rate is the second highest in the 28-country European Union after Greece.

Spain is battling to recover from a two-year recession. However, the government insists the economy is improving and will create jobs in 2014.  Almost 100,000 people were laid off from the services sector, while employment also fell in agriculture, by 8,110 people and in industry, by 3,577.

And from TheLocal.es, not a crowning glory:

Spain princess ‘evasive’ in fraud hearing

Spain’s princess Cristina tried to distance herself from unprecedented fraud accusations Saturday, telling a judge she had simply trusted her husband, one of the lawyers in the courtroom said.

Spanish King Juan Carlos’s youngest daughter was “evasive” as she testified as a criminal suspect in the Palma de Majorca court, said Manuel Delgado, a lawyer for a civil party in the case, left-wing association Frente Civico.

The first direct member of the Spanish royal family in history to face such a hearing, the 48-year-old blonde Cristina said she “had great trust in her husband”, the lawyer told reporters during a break in the proceedings.

Long thought untouchable as a royal, Cristina finds herself at the centre of the scandal, accused of being complicit in the allegedly fraudulent business dealings of her husband, former Olympic handball player Inaki Urdangarin, who is also under investigation.

While Al Jazeera America covers the culture wars:

Thousands protest proposed abortion restrictions in Spain

Thousands of women marched in the streets of Madrid Saturday to protest against the Spanish government’s plan to limit access to abortion, which could force many women to travel abroad to obtain the procedure.

Protesters chanted “Freedom of abortion!” and waved signs such as “MPs and rosaries, out of my ovaries”, targeting the Catholic Church as the supposed driver of the new restrictions.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government said in December it would eliminate a 2010 law that allows women to opt for an abortion within the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The new legislation would allow abortion only in cases of rape or a threat to the physical or psychological health of the mother.

After the jump, Greek protests and woes, outrage in Bosnia, crisis in the Ukraine, Mexico rising, hard times in South Korean heavy industry, Chinese austerity and an exodus, Japanese corporate games, and the latest Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoEuroSinoFukuFuel


We begin our collection of headlines form the economic, political, and environmental realms with a new reality from CNBC:

More men in their prime working years lack jobs, says WSJ

A large number of men who are still in their prime working years find themselves without jobs for extended periods, despite an improving economy, according to a piece in The Wall Street Journal.

The trend has been building for decades. The percentage of unemployed men 25 to 54 more than doubled between the early 1970s and 2007, from 6 percent to 13 percent, before jumping to 20 percent in the depths of the recession in 2009, according to the article.

As of December 2013, 17 percent of men are not working. Of that group, about two-thirds are not looking for work, which excludes them from the government’s official unemployment numbers.

Economists were alarmed to learn that 40 percent of those looking have been out of work for six months or more, according to the Journal. Some had expected employment figures to rebound to pre-recession levels, but the trend is actually getting worse.

One response, via The Hill:

Senate rejects jobless benefits

Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked Democrats’ third attempt to pass an extension of federal unemployment benefits.

The Senate voted 58-40 Thursday on a proposal that would have continued unemployment insurance for three months, just short of the 60 votes needed to end debate.

“I’m beginning to believe there is nothing that will get Republicans to yes,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “It’s a ‘no’ vote because they don’t want to extend unemployment insurance.”

Any excuse to gut environmental laws, via Salon:

House GOP overrides Endangered Species Act protections to pass California water bill

  • The bill would undermine years of conservation efforts in Northern California

Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that would override federal rules and protections in California to allocate more water to farmers.

It would allow state and federal officials to pump more water out the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta in Northern California, a source of drinking water to 22 million Californians and home to endangered salmon, in what Gov. Jerry Brown called “an unwelcome and divisive intrusion into California’s efforts to manage this severe crisis” and Rep. John Garamendi (D) referred to as “a theft of water from someone to give to somebody else, plain and simple.”

CNBC shivers in anticipation:

Hedge funds bet on US gas shortage as cold boosts demand

An unexpected fear haunts the land of the shale bonanza story: running low on natural gas.

Furnaces, utilities and power plants have guzzled trillions of cubic feet of the fuel as the U.S. slogs through what may be recorded as the coldest winter since the invention of gas futures in 1990.

Hedge funds are now betting the country will face a critical shortage before spring. The wager comes with long odds but a huge possible payout.

“It’s been a relentless cold,” says Eric Bass, managing partner at Velite Benchmark Capital Management, a Houston gas hedge fund. “This market has slowly started to realize there could potentially be an inventory problem.”

From Al Jazeera America, Banksters Behaving Badly™:

Banks under investigation for alleged currency exchange rate-fixing

  • Barclays, Goldman Sachs among institutions being investigated for allegedly manipulating foreign exchange markets

New York state’s financial regulator has opened an investigation into alleged manipulation of foreign exchange markets and is demanding documents from more than a dozen banks, a source familiar with the investigation told Al Jazeera.

Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group, Goldman Sachs and a number of other large banks that the Department of Financial Services regulates will be investigated in the probe, the source said.

Authorities in the U.S., Britain, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore have opened probes into whether the large banks manipulated foreign exchange rates used to set the value of trillions of dollars of investments.

Investigators suspect that traders from different banks may have used chat rooms to share information about trades in ways that benefited their positions.

Profligacy from The Guardian:

National lab in California scolded over Lusitania project

  • $80,000 in taxpayer money spent to help National Geographic with documentary about sinking of the ship during WWI

A federal watchdog agency reprimanded a national lab in Northern California for spending more than $80,000 in taxpayer money to help National Geographic with a documentary film about the sinking of the ship Lusitania during World War I.

The Energy Department’s inspector general said in a report issued last week that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory improperly used its licensing and royalty fees to perform tests for the documentary and should not have done the work.

“Federal officials at Livermore knew about it and didn’t take any action,” said Rickey Hass, a deputy inspector general at the Energy Department. “The work itself was not really the issue, but it was inappropriate in that it may have competed with private sector organizations and was funded with money that should have not been used for that purpose. It also wasn’t necessarily reported with complete transparency.”

NBC News greens the green:

Pot buyers add more than $1M to Colorado tax coffers

In the first month of legal recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, retailers who shared their proprietary data with NBC News say they have collected $1.24 million in tax revenue.

Half of the state’s 35 licensed recreational retailers participated in the NBC News survey. The 18 retailers shared the first 27 days of their tax data because they say they believe it will help their image.

In the first month of operation, sellers of recreational marijuana are doing brisk business in Colorado. One seller said she averages about $20,000 a day in sales.

Blowback from Channel NewsAsia Singapore:

India warns US of consequences on visa reform

India has warned the United States of consequences for its companies if lawmakers tighten visa rules on high-tech firms as part of an immigration overhaul.

Ambassador Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that India would see a decision to restrict certain temporary visas for skilled workers as a sign that the US economy is becoming less open for business.

“We think this is actually going to be harmful to us. It would be harmful to the American economy and, frankly, it would be harmful to the relationship” between the two countries, Jaishankar told AFP in an interview.

Sensible advice from Salon:

Elizabeth Warren calls on Obama to nominate fewer corporate judges

  • Massachusetts’ senior senator promotes more professional diversity in U.S. courts

Speaking at an event hosted by the left-leaning Alliance for Justice, an association of more than 100 groups who work on improving the justice system, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren criticized President Obama for putting forward so many judicial nominees whose prior experience was mainly with big firms representing corporations.

“We face a federal bench that has a striking lack of diversity,” said Warren. “President Obama has supported some notable exceptions but … the president’s nominees have thus far been largely in line with the prior statistics.”

Repeating points made in the AFJ’s recent report on the federal judiciary’s excess of former corporate lawyers, Warren noted that 71 percent of Obama nominees’ prior experience was chiefly defending corporations. Just 3.6 percent of Obama’s nominees, according to the report, have previously worked mainly for public interest organizations.

Warren warned that, in America, “Power is becoming more and more concentrated on one side.” She recommended “professional diversity” in the judiciary, saying it would be “one way to insulate the courts from corporate capture.”

Heading north of the border with capital flight woes of another kind from South China Morning Post:

Exclusive: How mainland millionaires overwhelmed Canada visa scheme

Mainland millionaires swamped HK consulate with applications and led to freezing of world’s most popular investor immigration scheme

Canadian immigration department spreadsheets obtained by the Post show how the huge number of applications forced the government in Ottawa to freeze the world’s most popular wealth-based migration scheme. One document, dated January 8 last year, showed there was a backlog of 53,580 Hong Kong-based applications for Canadian federal investor visas.

That represented more than 70 per cent of the global backlog. And attempts by Ottawa in 2010 to tighten access to the coveted visas by doubling the wealth criteria had the effect of increasing Chinese domination. In 2011, applications sent to the Hong Kong consulate made up 86 per cent of the global total.

Analysis of arrival data suggests that about 99 per cent of applications in Hong Kong were lodged by mainlanders. Under the scheme’s current limits, applicants worth at least C$1.6 million (HK$11.2 million) receive residency if they “invest” C$800,000 in the form of a five-year interest-free loan to Canada.

On to Europe, first with BBC News:

ECB rejects deflation fears as it holds rates at 0.25%

The head of the European Central Bank (ECB) has said deflation is not a threat to the eurozone economy.

The ECB kept its benchmark interest rate at 0.25% after its latest meeting. The rate was cut to its current record low in November.

ECB president Mario Draghi said: “We have to dispense with this idea of deflation. The question is – is there deflation? The answer is no.”

Eurozone inflation slowed to 0.7% in January from 0.8% in December. The figure fuelled worries about whether the euro bloc could suffer deflation, potentially de-railing economic growth.

Another take from the London Telegraph:

Split ECB paralysed as deflation draws closer, tightening job vice in southern Europe

  • Mario Draghi said the ECB’s council had discussed a wide range of measures but needed more information

The European Central Bank has brushed aside calls for radical action to head off deflation and relieve pressure on emerging markets, denying that the eurozone is at risk of a Japanese-style trap.

Yields on German two-year notes almost doubled to 0.12pc as markets slashed expectations for future rate cuts, while the euro spiked 1.5 cents to more than $1.36 against the dollar, implying a further tightening of monetary conditions for Europe.

Mario Draghi, ECB president, said the bank is “alert to the risks, and stands willing and ready to act” if inflation falls even further below target or if the fragile recovery falters, but offered no clear guidance on future policy.

The Guardian hasn’t recovered:

Real wages likely to take six years to return to pre-crisis level

  • Average wages are at 2004 levels and it will take until six years before they return to 2009 peak according to leading thinktank
  • The Governor of Britain’s Bank of England, Mark Carney, speaks

Britons will have to wait six more years before their inflation-adjusted wages are back at pre-crisis levels and it “feels” like recovery, a leading thinktank has warned.

Average real wages are still at 2004 levels and it will take until 2020 before they return to their 2009 peak, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR).

“It’s a long way off,” said Simon Kirby, principal research fellow at the thinktank. “It will take a number of years before people actually start to feel the recovery.”

The gradual rise in wages could take even longer if Britain’s productivity performance, which has been “abysmal” in recent years, did not improve, he said.

BBC News splits:

Divorce rate up ‘because of recession’, report says

  • A wedding ring on the bible The recession of 2008/9 could be to blame for more marriages failing

The divorce rate in England and Wales has gone up, possibly because of the last recession, according to a report.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said there were 118,140 divorces in 2012, up 0.5% on 2011.

Between 2003 and 2009 there was a general downward trend in the number of divorces, but in 2010 they rose 4.9%.

“One theory suggests recession could contribute to a rise in partnership break-ups because of increased financial strain,” the report says.

Off to Iceland and an immigration crisis denied via the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Minister Dismisses Ministry Employee Requests For Independent Investigation

Minister of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir has allegedly denied requests from ministry staff for an independent investigation of the ministry over a leaked memo regarding a Nigerian asylum seeker.

DV reports that several ministry employees approached the minister with the suggestion that an independent investigator be brought in to examine the ministry with regards to the case of Tony Omos, a Nigerian asylum seeker who, along with the expecting mother of his child, Evelyn Glory Joseph, had his reputation impugned by a memo which leaked to certain members of the press last November. The memo made allegations about Tony and Evelyn which later proved to be untrue.

The minister allegedly told the employees who requested the independent investigation that this was not going to happen. Ministry employees are reportedly unhappy with the minister and her assistants over the matter.

The uncuttest kind of all from TheLocal.no:

Norway politician wants jail for circumcisers

A leading politician for Norway’s Centre Party has stepped up calls for a ban on ritual male circumcision, or failing that up to 10 years in prison, for those who botch the operation, as the government debates a proposed new law on the practice.

Jenny Klinge, the party’s justice spo complained about the stark difference in penalties under law for those who injure children through female genital mutilation and those who injure them through circumcision.

“It can not be such that when a boy dies, then it’s not punished at all, while if a girl dies it’s punishable by up to 10 years,”  Klinge said in parliament, according to NRK.

She called again for a ban, but said that failing that significant penalties should be put in place for those who injure children during the operation.

Danish austerity strikes again,, via the Copenhagen Post:

Parliament expected to end EU insurance coverage

  • As of August, CPR card will no longer cover Danish residents in other EU countries

You may want to be more careful on future trips to other EU countries. Today, parliament is expect to abolish the public travel insurance provided by the yellow health insurance card. According to DR Nyheder, a large majority will vote in favour of the bill, which then will come into effect by August.

When the proposal is passed, Danish residents will no longer have all their medical expenses paid when visiting another EU country. Instead they will fall under the same regulations as citizens of the respective country. To avoid unexpected medical bills on your next holiday in Europe, it will therefore be necessary to take out your own health insurance.

Nexit news from DutchNews.nl:

Leaving the EU would boost Dutch economy, report for PVV says

Leaving the European Union would boost the Dutch economy, Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right PVV, said on Thursday, quoting a study drawn up by a UK agency.

The Capital Economics report says leaving the EU would allow the Netherlands to increase its prosperity in a way only possible in the distant past. Economic growth figures would be higher than if the Netherlands remains in the EU, the report states.

The Netherlands would no longer be tied to EU rules and requirements, allowing a freer hand to trade with other countries. Gross Domestic Product would be between 10% and 12% higher by 2035 if the Netherlands left the EU, Capital Economics said.

EurActiv rebuts:

Dijsselbloem counters Wilders’ EU exit claim

Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who also heads the Eurogroup, has hit back at far-right politician Geert Wilders’ claim that leaving the European Union would be good for the Dutch economy.

“The Netherlands is an economic powerhouse in Europe. We earn the bulk of our money in trade with EU countries so the Netherlands has a lot of interest in a single market with easy trade,” Dijsselbloem told local media, adding that quitting the EU would be “very unwise”.

On to Germany and a case of the Benz from TheLocal.de:

Daimler enjoys record €9 billion profit

Luxury auto maker Daimler said on Thursday that it achieved record sales and profits in 2013, and it expects to achieve “significant” growth again this year.

“Daimler concluded the year 2013 with record levels of unit sales, revenue, EBIT [earnings before interest and tax] and net profit,” the car maker said in a statement.

“The company anticipates renewed growth in 2014,” it added.

Net profit climbed by 28 percent to €8.72 billion and underlying profit, as measured by earnings before interest and tax, was up 23 percent at €10.82 billion.

Europe Online declines:

German factory orders post surprise slump in December

German industrial orders posted a surprise 0.5-per-cent fall in December despite a rebound in demand from the eurozone, the Ministry of Economics said Thursday.

The decline in the monthly data failed to offset the surge in orders in November, which jumped by an upwardly revised 2.4 per cent as a result of strong demand for bulk orders from Europe’s biggest economy.

“The trend toward increasing demand for industrial products continues despite the slight decline in December,” the ministry said.

TheLocal.de lights a fuse:

Court grants EU migrants German jobless benefits

A German job centre will have to pay a jobless Spanish family unemployment benefits, a court ruled on Thursday, in an apparent contradiction of German law.

The Court of Social Affairs in Dortmund ruled unemployed immigrants from the European Union could claim Hartz IV unemployment benefits, in a judgment which decided in favour of European Union law over German.

European law states citizens from other EU countries must be treated equally, which includes access to benefits.

But German law grants exemptions by classifying Hartz IV as a “social benefit” which can be denied to EU citizens rather than a “special benefit” which cannot be. It means EU migrants who are in Germany but are not seeking work are excluded from claiming unemployment benefits.

On to France and a walkout ahead from TheLocal.fr:

French teachers to strike over August return

Summer holidays are sacred in France and even more so it seems for French teachers. One union has called for a strike after the government did the unthinkable and timetabled the start of the autumn term before the end of August.

Even though back to school for autumn 2014 is a full six months away—and school isn’t even out yet—the first strike of the next school year has already been called.

The members of the national union of secondary and high school teachers (Sydicat National des Lycées et Collèges) sent out warning on Wednesday of the strike pencilled in for the end of August. This time its not about pay cuts or a lack of funding, but a decision to make them to return to school after the summer holidays, in the sacred holiday month of August.

The government has rewritten the school calendar so that teachers have to be back on August 29. Bearing in mind August is traditionally the month when the whole country pretty much shuts down and everyone goes to the beach, the move has not gone down well with in staff rooms.

Switzerland next and more hard times immigration politics from TheLocal.ch:

Immigration: ‘total chaos’ seen if curbs backed

Switzerland’s ties with the European Union face a crunch test on Sunday as voters decide whether to revive immigration quotas on EU citizens, in a referendum piloted by rightwing populists.

The result could be close, with the latest poll indicating 43 percent back the “Stop Mass Immigration” proposal and 50 percent oppose it.

Switzerland is not in the EU but is ringed by members of the 28-nation bloc, which is its main export market. If passed, the proposal would bind the government to renegotiate within three years a deal which gives the EU’s 500 million residents equal footing on the job market in this nation of 8.1 million people.

Opponents of the plan — the government, most political parties and the business sector — warn that ripping up free labour market rules for EU nationals in force since 2007 would unravel related economic deals.

Another consequence of the battle for women’s bodies from El País:

Doctors shun life-saving abortion

  • As 32-year-old Daniela found out, access to the procedure at a public hospital can be impossible
  • The government is planning to make the law covering terminations even tougher

La Paz Hospital, one of the largest public health centers in Madrid, refused to perform an abortion on Daniela, a 32-year-old woman who had lost all her amniotic fluid when she was 20 weeks pregnant. In these conditions, a fetus no longer has a chance to live, according to all the specialists consulted by this newspaper, and the mother is at risk of serious infection.

Even though she met all the requirements set out in the current abortion law – which the Popular Party government plans to toughen up on – the Madrid hospital refused to terminate her pregnancy. Eventually, Daniela, who was on intravenous antibiotics to prevent infections, was discharged from La Paz so she could go to a private center for her abortion, after the regional government confirmed her right to one.

A spokeswoman at La Paz said that all the doctors there are conscientious objectors – whose rights are enshrined in the current Spanish law on abortion – and that in 2010 the gynecology department in full decided not to carry out any abortions, ever.

thinkSPAIN charts the loss:

Salaries have fallen by 10 per cent since labour reform came into effect, say recruitment centres

  • Mass redundancies falling, but on-the-job training is a must, according to Adecco

WAGES have gone down by an average of 10 per cent, and the typical redundancy pay-off to 26 days’ salary per year of service, according to research by three recruitment agencies.

Adecco, the Sagardoy Foundation and the Excellence in Sustainability Club – which all form the official Observatory for monitoring the government’s labour reform – studied 200 companies, most of which have a minimum of 50 employees.

They say redundancy pay has gone down, but remains on the whole higher than the requisite 20 days’ salary per year of service which is the legal minimum for a ‘fair dismissal’.

TheLocal.es has poor possibilities:

Half of Spain’s job ads pay less than €1K/month

The so-called ‘mileurismo’ phenomenon continues to grow as data from employment portal jobandtalent.com reveals that 49 per cent of jobs offered in Spain in January had net salaries equivalent to less than €1,000 ($1,350) per month.

Information published in the company’s blog showed that jobs in the ‘mileurismo’ category – those that pay less than €1,000 a month – had risen from 30 per cent  to 49 per cent of those on offer.

Of those, positions offering gross annual salaries of under €15,000 rose from 20 per cent to 31 per cent of the total, and jobs offering €16,000 to €20,000  from 6 per cent to 18 per cent.

The blog presented the figures as a complement to data released this week by the Juan Alfaro Club of Excellence’s Labour Reform Monitor which showed that average wages across Spain had fallen by 10% since the introduction of new legislation designed to introduce flexibility into the job market.

But one number is heading up. From TheLocal.es:

Spanish bankruptcies hit the roof in 2013

The number of household and business bankruptcy filings leapt by 6.5 percent to 9,660, the National Statistics Institute said, as the economy emerged from a long recession.

Spain’s economy grew slowly in the second half of 2013, shaking off a double-dip recession but still weighed down by a 26-percent unemployment rate.

The eurozone’s fourth-largest economy is still overshadowed by the aftermath of a decade-long property bubble, which collapsed in 2008 destroying millions of jobs and flooding the nation in debt.

In a sign that the business sector’s decline may be steadying, however, bankruptcy filings rose at a slower pace last year when compared to a 15.1 percent increase in 2011 and a 32.2 percent surge in 2012. But the number of bankruptcy filings remains at historically high levels.

And battle over women’s bodies ends the same way, via thinkSPAIN:

Surrogate births not recognised under Spanish law, rules Supreme Court

CHILDREN born to surrogate mothers cannot be registered as the legal offspring of the parents who commissioned the woman who gave birth, Spain’s Supreme Court has ruled.

Whilst in the USA, couples who cannot have children or all-male couples can ‘rent a womb’ to enable them to start a family and register the baby as their own, Spanish law does not recognise the procedure, as two men discovered when they attempted to do so with their two children born in California.

The couple, who are married, had all the legal certificates issued by the county of San Diego, California to prove they were the legal fathers of the twin boys born in 2008 via a surrogate mother, in accordance with US law.

Italy next and another number of the way up from TheLocal.it:

Rents in Italy soar as wages stagnate

Italians are spending the bulk of their monthly salary on rent as prices climb and landlords refuse to negotiate even in times of job loss, a survey has revealed.

Over 40 percent of those surveyed by mioaffito.it, the Italian property website, said between 35 and 50 percent of their salary goes on rent, while 30 percent said they spend even more.

Rents in Italy have risen by 105 percent over the last twenty years, while average household salaries have gone up by just 18 percent, Gaia Merguicci, a community manager at mioaffito.it told The Local.

The average monthly rent in Italy is around €780, up from €738 since last August, according to data from the website. Florence saw the steepest climb over the past six months, with rents increasing by 14.2 percent.

However, the most expensive place to rent is the business hub of Milan, where the monthly average is €1,823 followed by Rome at €1,629 and Florence at €1,228. The cheapest place is Ragusa, in Sicily, where rents average €390.

The latest Bunga Bunga blowback from TheLocal.it:

Italian senate to join civil case against Berlusconi

The speaker of Italy’s upper house of parliament on Wednesday announced the Senate would declare itself a civil party in a trial against former premier Silvio Berlusconi for allegedly bribing senators, according to Italian media reports.

Speaker Piero Grasso said said it was his “moral duty” to declare the Senate a civil party despite an earlier recommendation by a parliamentary
committee for the upper house to stay out of the media magnate’s latest legal troubles.

Embattled Berlusconi was ousted from parliament and stripped of legal protection in November after he was found guilty of tax fraud.

TheLocal.it once again, and a heads up for the big winners:

Bonino defends German role in euro crisis

Italy’s Foreign Minister Emma Bonino on Thursday defended Germany against charges its austerity demands were the cause of suffering in the crisis-hit eurozone.

“Those who hold Germany responsible for everything are not only telling an untruth but also behaving unfairly,” Bonino told Munich daily the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

“I find this criticism of Berlin quite petty and only partially appropriate,” said Bonino, a former EU commissioner.

After the jump, the latest in the ongoing Greek disaster, Ukrainian warnings, drought and a protest victory in Latin America, Australian and Japanese tapering, Thai troubles, Chinese anxieties, Sony woes, a free-trade-for-dolphins ploy, U.S. and European GMO word wars, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines of the day II: EconoPoliEcoFukuFolly


We begin today’s headlines from the economic, political, and environmental realms with the inevitable outcome of a healthcare system that isn’t public, via the New York Times:

Health Care Law May Result in 2 Million Fewer Full-Time Workers

A new analysis from the Congressional Budget Office says that the Affordable Care Act will result in more than 2 million fewer full-time workers in the next several years, providing Republican opponents of the law a powerful political weapon leading up to this years midterm elections.

The law is also expected to have a significant effect on hours worked, the nonpartisan budget office said in a regular update to its budget projections released Tuesday. With the expansion of insurance coverage, more workers will choose not to work and others will choose to work fewer hours than they might have otherwise, it said. The decline in hours worked will translate into a loss of the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time positions by 2024, the budget office said.

Republicans immediately seized on the report as evidence of the health care law’s adverse effect on the economy.

From USA TODAY, third third state?:

Alaska moves toward August vote on legal pot

Alaska could be the next state to reconsider the prohibition on marijuana, following legalization votes by Colorado and Washington last year.

Alaska elections officials posted data Tuesday showing that a petition for a statewide vote on marijuana legalization has gained enough signatures and met legal thresholds needed to put the issue before voters.

Under Alaska law, the petition when officially certified would appear on the Aug. 19 primary ballot. No formal opposition to the initiative has emerged thus far.

Reuters readies the job ax:

RadioShack to close about 500 stores: WSJ

U.S. electronics chain RadioShack Corp is planning to close about 500 stores within months, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, citing people familiar with the matter.

The struggling retailer, which is due to report results for the fourth quarter later this month, said it could not comment on rumor or speculation.

RadioShack has been working with bankers from Peter J Solomon Co to boost its liquidity and with AlixPartners on its operational turnaround.

Its sales have been in free-fall amid executive departures, strong competition and an image problem. Despite its ubiquitous presence in the United States, analysts say it has not done enough to transform itself into a destination for mobile phone shoppers, nor has it become hip enough to woo younger shoppers.

And another ax-wielder from the New York Post:

500 layoffs expected today at Time Inc.

Tuesday is D-day at Time Inc.

Around mid-morning, staffers are expected to start hearing how deep the cuts will be as Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp unveils what is likely the last big downsizing before Time Warner spins off the publishing group as a separate company later this year.

“It’s very nerve racking,” said one source inside the company that publishes People, Time, Sports Illustrated and In Style.

The recently acquired American Express Publishing and the London-based IPC subsidiary, are expected to be particularly hard hit.

Out first global headline, via The Independent:

Das Capital: Trust in banks wanes as savers find other ways to protect their money

  • The ultra-rich are switching to real assets – gold, commodities, farm land

All systems – social, cultural, spiritual, economic and financial – rely on trust. Policy makers are now systematically undermining trust in institutions, turning to financial repression in attempting to deal with the economic crisis.

Current government policies focus on low interest rates, with returns artificially set below the true inflation rate. Where interest rates are near zero, governments print money, manipulating the amount rather than the price of money.

These measures reduce borrowing costs allowing borrowers to maintain high levels of debt. Rates below that of inflation help reduce the value of the debt, effectively decreasing the amount that must be paid back in economic terms. The policy subsidises borrowers at the expense of savers.

The London Telegraph sounds a warning:

Emerging markets more vulnerable than ever to Fed tightening, warns BIS

  • Bank for International Settlements says there had been a “massive expansion” in borrowing on global bond markets by banks and companies in developing countries

Emerging markets may be even more vulnerable to an interest rate shock today than they were during the East Asia crisis in 1998, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) has warned.

The Swiss-based watchdog said there had been a “massive expansion” in borrowing on global bond markets by banks and companies in developing countries, leaving them exposed to “powerful feedback” risks as borrowing costs rise in the West.

“The deeper integration of emerging market economies into global debt markets has made emerging market bond markets much more sensitive to bond market developments in the advanced economies,” the BIS said in a working paper.

New Europe pontif-icates:

Pope warns that ‘unjust’ unemployment can lead to sin, moral destitution and even suicide

Francis discussed three types of destitution — material, moral and spiritual — in his first message for Lent, the solemn period leading up to Holy Week and Easter, that was released Tuesday.

Moral destitution, he said, “consists of slavery to vice and sin” such as alcohol, drugs, gambling and pornography.

He noted that sometimes “unjust social conditions” like unemployment lead to this type of destitution by depriving people of the dignity of work and access to education and health care.

“In such cases, moral destitution can be considered impending suicide.”

How, then, about folks who are doing quite well, Say, such as the consumers of this little joy from the London Daily Mail:

The Mile-Low Club: Travel company launches £175k Valentine’s Day submarine package with interior design of your choice and aphrodisiac menu (flights to the mooring not included)

  • Luxury travel company unveil submarine treat whereby couples can choose to harbour wherever they like
  • Also includes aphrodisiac menu featuring champagne and oysters
  • The bespoke submarine will actually travel 200m under the water
  • Price for a basic vessel starts at £175,000
  • Extras including helicopter transfers, entertaining rooms and champagne breakfast available

And from TheLocal.de, the crabby old man was right:

Too much reality TV ‘harms pupils’ grades’

Have you ever been worried that too much reality TV might be frying your brain or more to the point your kids’ brains? Well you better read on.

Parents everywhere have been muttering it under their breaths for years and now French researchers claim to have dealt conclusive proof.

A study by the Ministry of Education linked body DEPP (Direction of Evaluation, forecasting and performance) shows a dramatic reduction in results for 15-year-old pupils who watch too much reality TV.

The study, which relied on stats from the Ministry of Education, looked at the impact on grades of the typical activities of young kids in France from playing video games to listening to music and sending texts to friends but it was watching shows like The Voice,  Koh Lanta (the French version of Survivor)  or the Infamous Angels of Reality TV, featuring Nabilla (pictured) that appears to have the most detrimental impact on standards.

“It is the frequent watching of reality TV programmes that impacts the most negatively on the cognitive and academic performances,” said the study.

On to Europe and intolerant umbrage from EUobserver:

MEP receives 41,000 emails against gay rights

An MEP who drafted a resolution on securing the basic rights of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex) people in the EU has so far received almost 41,000 emails against the proposal.

“My website was hacked as well, I don’t know who it was from. It might be coincidence, it might not be a coincidence,” Green Austrian MEP Ulrike Lunacek told the Strasbourg assembly on Monday (3 February).

A large banner which says “Warning – visiting this website may harm your computer!” has replaced her personal site since last week.

Her office said they are working to get it back to normal. They suspect it was hacked by ultra-conservative groups.

Casting a cynical eye with EUbusiness:

Ombudsman wants EU probed for corruption

The European Union’s own institutions should be probed for corruption, the EU’s watchdog said Tuesday, a day after Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem described the bloc’s graft problem as “breathtaking.”

“The EU administration has to live up to the very highest standards,” European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said in a statement, adding that it largely does so and compares favourably with many member states.

However, it should not be complacent, and accordingly, O’Reilly encouraged the European Commission to “include the EU institutions in the next Anti-Corruption Report.”

On to Germany and action in Berlin from MintPress News:

Fed Up With Agribusiness, Protesters Take To The Streets In Berlin

The protesters said agribusiness threatens the livelihoods of small family farmers, leads to standardization of tastes, and damages the environment and biodiversity.

United under the declaration, “we are fed up,” around 30,000 people from several associations representing farmers, beekeepers and consumers, as well as environmental, development and food organizations, gathered in Berlin to demonstrate against large-scale agribusiness.

The protesters said that agribusiness threatens the livelihoods of small family farmers, leads to standardization of tastes and damages the environment and biodiversity. They demanded environmentally friendly farming, protection for bees, access to land and healthy, affordable food for all. They’re also seeking fair prices for farmers, an end to hunger, food scandals, monocultures, GMOs and land grabs by governments and investors.

Escorted by some 70 tractors, they marched through the streets of the German capital, from Potsdamer Platz to the government buildings of the Ministry of Agriculture and the offices of the federal chancellor. The demonstrators expressed their demands to Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel.

On to France and a taxing threat from EUbusiness:

French to make 1 bn euro tax claim against Google: report

French authorities have decided to make a tax claim of 1 billion euros against Google following a probe into the tax strategies by the US Internet giant, Le Point magazine reported Tuesday.

A Google spokesman in France declined to comment on the report, saying the company does not comment on rumours.

The French finance ministry also declined to comment, citing tax confidentiality.

France is one of a growing number of cash-strapped nations to pursue more aggressively what they see as abuse of tax and accounting rules that allows some multinational companies to pay less tax.

What Ailes France from France 24:

Is a new Tea Party brewing in France?

Interior Minister Manuel Valls has warned that France was seeing the birth of its own version of the grassroots, anti-tax Tea Party movement amid a surge of anti-government demonstrations by right-wing groups and religious conservatives across the country.

“We are witnessing the creation of the French version of the Tea Party. By exploiting the political and leadership crisis on the right, and the National Front party’s move away from the far-right, a conservative and reactionary right has been set free,” Valls, a Socialist, told the Journal du Dimanche in an interview published on Sunday.

The eye-opening comparison came hours ahead of massive rallies in defence of traditional families in Paris and the eastern city of Lyon. They were organised by the so-called “Manif Pour Tous” (Protest for all) group that staged massive protests against gay marriage last year.

Sunday’s march, which police said drew 80,000 people in Paris, was just the latest public display of anger against President François Hollande’s government in recent days.

EUbusiness goes medical:

France announces EUR 1.5 bn anti-cancer plan

French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday announced a 1.5 billion euro ($2 billion) anti-cancer plan aimed at reducing inequalities in treatment of the disease.

The 2014-2019 plan aims to give “the same chances to everyone everywhere in France” in preventing and fighting cancer, Hollande said in a speech to medical professionals.

His announcement comes a day after the United Nations warned that new cases of cancer will rise by half by 2030, reaching 21.6 million per year compared to 14 million in 2012.

On to Spain and a new low from El País:

Number of people in work in January declines to lowest level in 12 years

  • Jobless claims in Spain climb by 113,097 in first month of year

The number of people signed up with the Social Security system in Spain declined by 184,031, or 1.13 percent, in January from the end of last year to 16.173 million, the lowest figure since April 2002, according to figures released Tuesday by the Labor Ministry.

In what is traditionally a bad month for the labor market, jobless claims rose by 113,097, or 2.4 percent, from December to 4.814 million.

The ministry said that on a month-on-month basis, this January was the “least negative” since 2007, given that since the current comparable statistical series began there has never been an increase in the number of people signed up with the Social Security system. On a year-on-year basis, the number of affiliates declined by 5,829, or 0.04 percent.

TheLocal.es looks for resolution:

UN urges Spain to drop Civil War taboos

A UN expert on Monday urged Spain to break a decades-long taboo by investigating atrocities allegedly committed in its 1936-39 civil war and the Franco dictatorship that followed.

UN justice rapporteur Pablo de Greiff said Spain should scrap a 1977 amnesty law that stops victims from prosecuting the alleged perpetrators of such atrocities, which divide Spaniards to this day.

In a report, he urged Spain to scrap the amnesty and called on “the state institutions to show a decisive and determined commitment” to investigating and making sure that victims are compensated.

The amnesty was seen as a necessity by the leaders tasked with unifying Spain after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975.

Portugal next and a temporary halt to a sale of the commons from Deutsche Welle:

London auction house cancels sale of Miro paintings

Citing legal uncertainties stemming from the lawsuit in Portugal, auction house Christie’s said on Tuesday that it had decided to cancel the sale of the Miro paintings pending the resolution of the dispute.

“While the recent injunction to stop the sale was not granted, the legal uncertainties created by this ongoing dispute mean that we are not able to safely offer the works for sale,” Christie’s said in a press release.

Hours before the auction’s scheduled start time, a judge denied the opposition Socialist Party’s request for an injunction to stop the sale. Portugal’s government pleaded that harsh austerity measures have left the country short of cash, and it could not make retaining the collection of the Catalan surrealist Miro one of its priorities.

Portugal’s public prosecutor backed the appeal to stop the sale, which accused the administration of ignoring “the immeasurable immaterial value” of the collection to the country, forced into austerity measures following a 78-billion-euro ($105 billion) rescue by international creditors in 2011.

The Portugal News charts reduced losses:

BCP stems losses by around half a billion

BCP, Portugal’s largest private sector bank, announced a €740 million loss for 2013, down from €1.219 billion in 2012, following the closure of the stock market on Monday.

“This loss is significant but also substantially below that of the previous year. This reflects the macroeconomic situation and is in accordance with the restructuring plan agreed with the General Directorate of Competition of the European Commission,” BCP President Nuno Amado told a press conference.

The loss also includes €126 million in provisions for early retirement and redundancy payoffs as the bank advances with its plan expected to see several hundred employees leave the firm over the first half of this year.

On to Italy and an austerian declaration from AGI:

President Napolitano says Italy must stay course on debt

Italy cannot afford to let up its efforts to keep its public debt in check, President Giorgio Napolitano said in a speech to the European Parliament on Tuesday.

Despite the government’s concerted response to financial market pressure and significant achievements in 2013, Italy cannot afford to relax in its efforts to further curtail its public debt, he said.

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