Saturday, March 30, 2013

Happy Easter 2013

Dear Readers, I wish each of you a Sunday filled with the joy and love that we Christians feel today because it is Easter Sunday. The Easter story told by St. Luke is below. To our Jewish brothers and sisters, Passover has just been celebrated and Jews all over the world feel the special joy of their holy feast. To our Moslem brothers and sisters, I wish for you peace and unity with all who yearn for brotherhood and love among all people. This year especially, may we all take hope from the beauty of the way chosen by the new Pope Francis. If we all work together for good, we will change the world and make it a better place, as Michael Jackson wrote. St. Luke 24:1-8. On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3  but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4  While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5  In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them,“Why do you look for the liv~~ing among the dead? 6  He is not here; he has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” 8  Then they remembered his words.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Can Rational Analysis Adequately Explain North Korea's Irrational Behavior

For a week, the world has watched with something like amusement as North Korean soldiers gear up for battle, covering their jeeps and trucks with camouflage netting. Newly painted signboards and posters call for "death to the US imperialists" and urge the people to fight with "arms, not words." The world's amusement at these war preparations and the military orders being issued by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to his generals and his million-man army is based on the "received" knowledge that a successful missile strike on US targets would be suicide for the outnumbered, out-powered North Korean regime. The increasing drumbeat of threats and provocations that seems to be bringing the region to the brink, according to the general analysis, is Pyongyang's way of forcing Washington to the negotiating table, pressuring the new president in Seoul to change policy on North Korea, and building unity inside the communist country without triggering a full-blown war. In July, it will the 60th anniversary of the armistice Korea and China signed with the US and the United Nations ending three years of fighting that cost millions of lives. The designated Demilitarized Zone has evolved into the most heavily guarded border in the world. Although it was not intended to be a permanent border, six decades later, North and South remain divided, with, so goes the logic, Pyongyang feeling abandoned by the South Koreans in the quest for reunification and threatened by the Americans. In the past 60 years, South Korea has changed from an agrarian society into the world's 15th largest economy while North Korea is losing its battle to get out of a Cold War time warp that has left it with a per capita income on par with sub-Saharan Africa. The Chinese left the Korean peninsula long ago. But, America has 38,000 troops in South Korea and more nearby in Japan. This week, South Korea and America have been showing off their military power in joint exercises that Pyongyang says is a rehearsal for invasion. The centerpiece was the flyover of a B2 stealth bomber that can carry the US Air Force's largest conventional bomb - a 30,000-pound super bunker buster - powerful enough to destroy North Korea's web of underground military tunnels. The threat is overt and some analysts ask if it is directed at Beijing, as well as Pyongyang. North Korea says it is prepared to strike if US actions continue. A photo distributed by North Korea's official Central News Agency shows Kim in a military operations room with maps detailing a "strike plan" in a very public show of supposedly sensitive military strategy. North Korea cites the US military threat as a key reason behind its need to build nuclear weapons, and has poured a large part of its small national budget into defense, science and technology. In December, scientists launched a satellite into space using a long-range rocket with technology that could be converted for missile use. In February, they tested an underground nuclear device, part of a program to build a bomb they can load on a missile capable of reaching the US. However, say experts, what North Korea really wants is legitimacy in the eyes of the US, and a peace treaty. Pyongyang also wants American troops off Korean soil, and the bombs and rockets are more of an expensive, dangerous safety blanket than real firepower, according to these analysts, who say that military sabre-rattling is the only real playing card North Korea has left, and the bait they hope will bring the Americans to the negotiating table. But, there is another take on North Korea's missile capabilities. Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, isn't convinced North Korea is capable of attacking Guam, Hawaii or the US mainland. He says Pyongyang hasn't successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile. HOWEVER, its medium-range Rodong missiles, with a range of about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers), are "operational and credible" and could reach US bases in Japan, he says. The more likely possibility is a smaller-scale incident, perhaps off the Koreas' western coast, that would not provoke the Americans to unleash their considerable firepower. For years, the waters off the west coast have been a battleground for naval skirmishes between the two Koreas because the North has never recognized the maritime border drawn by the UN. For months, the masterminds of North Korean propaganda have pinpointed this year's milestone Korean War anniversary as a prime time to play up Kim's military credibility as well as to push for a peace treaty. By creating the impression that a US attack is imminent, the regime can foster a sense of national unity and encourage the people to rally around their new leader. ~~~~~ What cannot be factored into any rational analysis of events in North Korea is the question of the rationality of either Kim Jong Un or his advisors and generals. It is not rational to threaten to attack America with nuclear weapons. It is not rational to hold giant military parades in which "cardboard" missiles are displayed as the real thing. It is not rational to order hundreds of thousands of students and soldiers into a Pyongyang square to shake guns and fists at America. And perhaps such a long history of irrational behavior should be a signal to the world that amusement is not the appropriate response. B2's and military readiness may be the better approach. ESPECIALLY since Kim Jong Il put North Korea on a war alert footing this afternoon - with missile launchers loaded, if indeed they exist and are operational.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pope Francis Rolls On

Because of the young age of the inmates chosen to participate in the traditional Holy Thursday liturgy of the washing of the feet, the service was not televised. But AP Newswire has provided a description of the ritual that was carried on Vatican Radio. Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of a dozen inmates at a juvenile center as he had done for years as archbishop and is continuing now that he is Pope. Two of the 12 were young women, a remarkable choice given that the church's current liturgical law says only men should participate. Many of the detainees are Gypsies or North African migrants, and the 12 selected for the foot-washing rite included Orthodox and Muslim detainees, news reports said. Because the inmates were mostly minors - the facility houses inmates aged 14-to-21 - the Vatican and Italian Justice Ministry limited media access inside. Francis told the detainees that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion in a gesture of love and service. He said, "Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty, as a priest and bishop I must be at your service." The Vatican released a limited video of the ritual, showing Francis washing black feet, white feet, male feet, female feet and even a foot with tattoos. Kneeling on the stone floor as the 12 youngsters sat above him, the 76-year-old Francis poured water from a silver chalice over each foot, dried it with a cotton towel and then bent over to kiss each one. As archbishop, Francis performed the Holy Thursday liturgy in jails, hospitals or hospices - part of his ministry to the poorest and most marginalized of society. It's a message that he is continuing now that he is Pope, saying he wants a Church "for the poor." Previous Popes would carry out the foot-washing ritual on Holy Thursday in Rome's grand St. John Lateran basilica. The 12 people chosen for the ritual would always be priests to represent Christ's 12 apostles. Pope Francis included two young women among the 12, something extraordinary because Church rules restrict the ritual to men. AP reported that Edward Peters, a canon lawyer and advisor to the Vatican's top court, noted in a blog that the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1988 said in a letter to bishops : "The washing of the feet of chosen men...represents the service and charity of Christ who came 'not to be served, but to serve.'" Peters said that bishops have occasionally successfully petitioned Rome for an exemption to allow women to participate, but that the law on the issue is clear. "In violating his own law on this matter, Francis violates, of course, no divine directive," Peters wrote Thursday. "What he does do, I fear, is set a questionable example." "But the act of Francis in including women is hugely significant because including women in this part of the Holy Thursday Mass has been frowned on - and even banned - in some dioceses," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of "The Jesuit Guide." Father Martin said that Pope Francis' decision to include women was a mirror of the ministry of Christ who included everyone, men, women, Jews, gentiles, slave and free. Pope Francis talked with each of the 12 after the ritual and gave each one an Easter egg. He told them not to give up hope. "Understand? With hope, you can always go on." One of the inmates asked the Pope why he had come to visit them. Francis said it was to "help me to be humble, as a bishop should be." He said he wanted to come "from my heart. Things from the heart don't have an explanation," he said. ~~~~~ Dear readers, Pope Francis rolls on. He has taken a gold-plated papal ring, will not wear red capes, refuses to move into the papal apartment, prefers to be called the Bishop of Rome instead of Pope, and reaches out on a daily basis to ordinary people. The Church is in good hands, and the Ring of the Fisherman is safe. We can only hope that Vatican officialdom and canon lawyers survive -- and even learn a little about what service in the name of Jesus of Nazareth means.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Italy and France Feel the Pinch of the Euro and the Cyprus Crisis

It is a Wednesday full of angst in Europe, as deeper economic crevises are appearing in several countries, and in the Euro itself, which dropped against the Dollar to its lowest level in four months, to 1.2771 Dollars to 1 Euro. Meanwhile, the growing investor fear over the Cyprus bank crisis is rapidly being replaced by fears for Italy, as political deadlock continues and the country's main candidate to form a government - something Italy hasn't had since the inconclusive January parliamentary elections - reportedly said that only an "insane person" would want to govern Italy now. Pier Luigi's Bersani, the leader of the center-left coalition, reportedly made the remark after the anti-establishment "Five Star Movement" party headed by comedian Beppe Grillo again refused to form a coalition government with Bersani, dashing his latest attempts to form a governing alliance. Bersani refuses to form a government with the conservative Berlusconi, but few options remain, and it is likely that on Thursday the Italian president will name a caretaker government and call for new elections.After the latest rejection from the anti- establishment movement, Bersani said "only an insane person would want to govern this country, which is in a mess and faces a difficult year ahead," Dow Jones reported. Italian bond sales paid the price on Wednesday, rising above 5% on longer than 5-year bonds. The Italian political stalemate plus the Cyprus crisis drove down the Euro as investors sought to place their money in a safe currency. One place investors will not be putting their money is Cyprus. Cyrpiots will only be allowed to withdraw 300 Euros ($383) in cash each day when the country's banks open for the first time in more than 10 days on Thursday, the state news agency says. Credit and debit cards for payments abroad will be capped at 5000 Euros per day. Checks will not be cashed but they can be deposited into accounts, but then, would anyone want to deposit a check in a Cypriot bank? Meanwhile, armed police officers guarded several trucks carrying containers, presumably full of Euros, arriving at the country's Central Bank in Nicosia. A helicopter hovered overhead. Banks have been shut across the country since March 16 to prevent a run on deposits while politicians worked out a new plan to secure an international bailout. And the bad news in Europe goes on - the French government announced today that for the first time in 30 years, the purchasing power of the French declined, by 0.4%. And since bad news often does not come alone, the French also heard that the unemployment figure, already near historic highs, had risen slightly. Even legislative and political leaders of President Hollande's own Socialist Party began today to express concerns publicly about the ability of Hollande to manage the economy in such a perilous time. Hollande's government has systematically cancelled the economy-bolstering programs put in place by President Sarkozy, many saying this was done simply because they were started by a Gaullist conservative president. In addition, Hollande has raised taxes by 10% and eliminated a Sarkozy program that allowed employees to work more than the French 35-hour per week maximum in order to earn more. Meanwhile French salaries are not rising. One might wonder if Fran├žois Hollande will see out his 5-year term. And it is entirely probable that Pier Luigi Bersani is absolutely right in saying that "only an insane person would want to govern this country, which is in a mess and faces a difficult year ahead.". That political exaggeration may be prophetic - and it just might soon apply to France and to all of Europe.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Huckabee Threatens GOP over Same-Sex Marriage

Last week, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee told Newsmax that he is looking at a possible bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. Asked in a Newsmax TV interview if he is considering another White House run, Huckabee declared, “Yeah, I’m not ruling it out at this point. I’m not sitting around having meetings with the strategic team, but it’s something I will certainly look at and I’m talking to some people just to determine whether it’s a kamikaze raid or whether it has potential and possibility.” Huckabee, who was governor of Arkansas for 10 years until 1997, will be 61 in 2016, relatively young but almost a generation older than the new GOP contenders. Huckabee generally ran third in the 2008 GOP primaries, behind eventual winner John McCain and Mitt Romney. He won the Iowa caucuses and seven other states and got more delegates at the 2008 Republican National Convention than anyone apart from McCain. Then he became a TV personality with his own show and a commentator on political issues and decided to sit out the 2012 presidential race despite several polls saying he would be among the front-runners. “All the factors say ‘go’ but my heart says ‘no’,” he said about 2012. ~~~~~ Fast forward to 2013 - early this week, Huckabee, a Baptist minister, jumped into the same-sex marriage argument, warning that if the Republican Party announces its support for same-sex marriage, it will lose the religious-social right of the Party. Huckabee suggested that they would leave the GOP, which would suffer the loss of the backbone of its support. We might ask, dear readers, if Huckabee, the potential 2016 presidential candidate, would go with them. Given that the religious-social right would have to formally create a new party, register voters, get on ballots, raise funds and hold presidential primaries - all in less than three years, and remembering that a third party candidate has never come close to winning a presidential race - my guess is that Mike Huckabee is simply trying to arm-twist the GOP into standing by its no-same-sex-marriage position. And then we might also assume that Huckabee is not as serious about being a candidate as he is about influencing the GOP's choice of both candidate and platform for 2016. And he and the religious-social right are entitled to lobby for their principles. But, threatening to take his marbles and go home is probably not the best way to sway most Republican voters - or the Republican National Committee. Let's see what the US Supreme Court rules in June concerning the same-sex marriage cases before it now, Then, it will be time for the GOP to map out its same-sex marriage position going into 2016 and to develop a strategy to support that position.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Another Dangerous EU Decision in Cyprus

United Nations General Assembly Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948. -- Article 17. (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property. ~~~~~ Dear readers, you should read the property rights section of your own nation's constitution as well. Almost every governing political document in the world contains a provision protectong the individual right to own property and the right is protected by the corresponding right to due process of law before another individual or entity can take it away. And if the state takes real property, it must pay just compensation. All of these protections were brushed aside this weekend when the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund muscled Cyprus into accepting a deal that literally confiscates billions of Euros in individual accounts in two Cypriot banks. Under the deal reached during the night of Sunday-Monday in Brussels, Cyprus agreed to slash its oversized (because it has 710% of GDP in bank deposits...more on this later) banking sector and inflict big losses on large depositors in troubled banks to secure the 10 billion Euro ($13 billion) bailout. Discussions in Brussels suggest that because many bank depositors in Cyprus banks are Russian and not EU citizens, and because they may have been hiding money from Russian tax authorities, although this has not been proved, confiscation of their deposits was acceptable. Laiki and Bank of Cyprus depositors will pay based on the following formula, with the remainder coming from tax increases and privatizations : people and businesses with more than 100,000 Euros in their accounts at Laiki face significant losses because the bank will be dissolved immediately into a bad bank containing its uninsured deposits (those over the 100,000 Euro guaranty amount) and toxic assets, with the guaranteed deposits (amounts up to 100,000 Euros in each account) being transferred to the nation's biggest lender, Bank of Cyprus. Deposits at Bank of Cyprus above 100,000 Euros will be frozen until it becomes clear whether or to what extent they will also be forced to take losses. Those funds will eventually be converted into bank shares. Euro finance ministers noted the restructure is expected to yield 4.2 billion Euros ($5.4 billion) overall. Analysts have estimated investors might lose up to 40% of their money. After the negotiations in Brussels that resulted in the deal, Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades said that "the hours were difficult, at some moments dramatic. Cyprus found itself a breath away from economic collapse." Under the circumstances, he said it was the best Cyprus could have done. "The danger of Cyprus' bankruptcy is definitively overcome and the tragic consequences for the economy and society are averted." What are the ripple results of this weekend's EU work? They are many and not good. (1). The argument about Cyprus having an unusually high bank-deposit-to-GDP ratio is false. Luxembourg has 2100%, Malta has 700%, and mainstream France has 400%. So the fallout may be that rich non-EU citizens will take their money to Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Switzerland or even Britain and the US. This will mean that EU funds available for EU economic development, including car loans and house mortgages, will shrink. Not a good idea in an already struggling economic region. (2). Bank depositors in shaky EU countries - think Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and France - may start withdrawing funds in excess of the 100,000 Euro guaranteed level, causing mini- or maxi-runs on banks in those countries, again reducing funds available in the EU and putting downward pressure on the Euro. (3). Russia may choose to retaliate by reducing oil and gas exports to a very dependent EU. Russia may also consider re-evaluating its EU loan policy. (4). The Euro as a freely traded currency has been irremediably damaged. Never again will holding an EU account feel as secure as it once did because the EU has now made clear that money in EU banks may be seized without due process of law to pay for bailouts of failed Eurozone countries. Be careful, dear readers, because today EU leaders said the Cyprus solution may be a model for future bailouts.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Thoughts on Pope Benedict, Turkish-Israeli Relations and Boris Berezovsky

It has been a rather quiet Saturday but there are some interesting stories : (1). Pope Francis helicoptered to Castel Gandolfo to meet with Pope Emeritus Benedict, who came out to the helicopter pad to greet the new Pope. What struck me was how frail Benedict seemed, looking as if he had aged a year in one month. We should keep him in our thoughts and prayers because his health is clearly deteriorating. (2). While US President Obama was in Turkey, Israeli prime minister Netanyahu phoned Turkish president Erdogan to apologize for the 2010 Israeli boarding of a Turkush supply ship headed for Gaza that left 6 dead, promising to pay compensation to their families. If Turkey and Israel have settled their differences, that is very good news for the Middle East. (3). Snow and freezing winds continue to batter Great Britain, especially Wales and central England. This will be the coldest winter in England in the last 50 years. Global warming? (4). Boris Berezovsky has died in London. The Russian oligarch, a long time political enemy of Vkadimir Putin, fled Russia years ago to avoid the Russian president's pursuit. British authorities are investigating the Russian billionaire's death to determine its cause, hoping to rule out Kremlin responsibility, we can guess. ~~~~~ Have a happy Palm Sunday, dear readers, and enjoy these first mild days of Spring.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Protestant Hispanic Voters and the GOP

A recent Gallup poll based on interviews with more than 28,600 Hispanics in the United States found that a slight majority, 54%, are Catholic, while 28% are Protestant. Three percent belong to another religion, and the rest of the respondents cited no religion or declined to provide an answer. Among the Protestant Hispanics, 60% say they are very religious, meaning religion is an important part of their daily life and they attend religious services every week or almost every week. But only 43% of Hispanic Catholics are very religious, and 18% are not religious, meaning religion is not an important part of their daily life and they seldom or never attend services. Among Protestants, only 11% are not religious. The remainder of those polled are moderately religious, meaning they do not attend services regularly but consider religion important, or attend services but do not consider religion important to them. This is an interesting demographic profile because Hispanics in the United States are generally considered to be, and are treated as, a solidly Catholic Democrat-leaning voting bloc. This Gallup poll shows, however, that a surprising number of Hispanic Americans are in fact Protestant and they are significantly more religious than their Catholic counterparts. This difference in the importance of religion in the lives of Protestant and Catholic Hispanics is even more pronounced among younger Hispanics -- 52% of Protestant Hispanics ages 18 to 29 say they are very religious, compared to 33% of Hispanic Catholics in that age bracket. Gallup also found that less than half of Hispanics ages 18 to 29 are Catholic, 47% compared to 61% of those 65 and older. “A majority of Hispanics in America continue to identify themselves as Catholic, although the Catholic percentage among Hispanics appears to be decreasing and the youngest Hispanics today are less likely to be Catholic than those who are older,” according to Gallup's commentary. “These patterns suggest the potential for an increase in the relative or proportionate number of Protestant Hispanics in the years ahead. If this does happen, and given that Protestant Hispanics are considerably more religious than Catholic Hispanics, this could lead to a higher average level of Hispanic religiosity in future years.” ~~~~~ But, dear readers, the Gallup poll may also support another set of conclusions. One could actually treat the 28% of Hispanic Americans as an entirely different voting bloc, one more likely to be conservative concerning social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and other family-focused issues. So, Protestant Hispanics could be just the sort of voters who tend to gravitate toward conservative political opinions, including small government, low taxes, maximum individual liberties and less welfarism. In other words - Protestant Hispanics could be a voting bloc naturally inclined to vote Republican. While I support the GOP effort to find ways to reach out to the American Hispanic Catholic mainstream, it would be worthwhile to reach out separately and immediately to the 28% of Hispanic Americans who are Protestant. Bringing them into the Republican Party just might be the best way to reach out to their Hispanic Catholic counterparts. After all, the two groups must share family and business ties that bring them together often. What better way to reach out to Hispanic Catholic voters than through their Protestant, and Republican, friends and families.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Is Obama Ready to Stay the Course for Israel-Palestine Peace?

President Obama delivered the address in support of Israel that is five years too late in coming. Has the American President finally seen the light and understood that no amount of schmoozing of the Moslem Middle East community will make them put down their anti-semitism and voluntarily welcome Israel into their region. Or has he recognized that as a second-term lameduck President his options to leave an imprint are limited and the Middle East may be his best bet. Whatever the reason, peace-loving Americans and people all over the world must have breathed a sigh of relief, as I did, at the President's words before an audience of Jewish students and young people today. The proof of Obama's intentions is still to come. He delivered a call to action by Israel and Palestine. But that will only happen if he leads the way. Without President Obama and the American determination he represents, the simple truth is that peace between Israel and Palestine has no chance. So, Mr. President, please do not abandon either Israel or Palestine. Cajole...encourage...mediate...twist arms...whatever it takes to get the talks started and successfully ended on your watch. There could be no more fitting memorial to your time as US President.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The American-Israeli Relationship Got a Boost Today

Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu said at a press conference this afternoon that he is sure that President Obama, standing beside him, "...is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons,...I appreciate that. I appreciate the fact that the president has reaffirmed, more than any other president, Israel's right and duty to defend itself by itself against any threat." Netanyahu said the carrot-and-stick approach now being employed to cajole Iran into proving that its nuclear intentions are peaceful had to be bolstered by "a clear and credible threat of military action." Obama's recognition of Israel's right to act alone appeared to satisfy him, and the prime minister was also delighted by the American President's announcement that a new 10-year US-Israel security pact is being negotiated. Obama said the US also is investigating whether chemical weapons were deployed in Syria earlier this week. He said he was "deeply skeptical" of contentions by Syrian President Bashar Assad's government that rebel forces were behind any such attack. However, whereas Israel seems convinced that al-Assad has used chemical weapons recently, the US President, while supporting the conclusion that if chemical weapons were used, it was not the rebels who did so, also said that America is still investigating whether such weapons have actually been used, crossing the "red line" that Obama has repeatedly said would be "a game changer." The two leaders seemed at ease together, a far cry from their earlier frosty relationship. We may wonder, dear readers, whether they have changed their personal opinions of each other. But that is really not important. What matters is that once again Israel and the United States are standing shoulder-to-shoulder against Iranian nuclear ambitions, that they recognize that Israel's security is a paramount American pre-occupation, and that they are presenting a united front against would-be attackers of Israel. Obviously, America is the best friend, and sometimes the only friend, Israel has. But today's effort to display that friendship may also mean that President Obama has finally realized that Israel is the best, and sometimes the only, friend America has - in the Middle East and, along with Great Britain and Japan, we are tempted to add, in the world.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cyprus Has Won the Battle but the War Is Still Undecided

It has taken the smallest nation in the Eurozone of the European Union to stand up to the bullying tactics of the large countries, led by Germany, who impose insupportable conditions on weak, small southern Eurozone states that have been unable to support the strict fiscal conditions required of them when they made the Euro their currency. The Cyprus parliament voted today to reject, by a vote of 36 nays with 19 abstentions and no yes votes, the €10 billion bailout offered by the European Union because it includes the highly controversial 6.75% to 9.9% bank deposit tax that one Cypriot legislator called "raw blackmail." The rejection leaves Cyprus's bailout in limbo. Without an external injection of funds, the country's banks face collapse, largely because of their over-exposure to troubled Greek banks, and the government could go bankrupt. Cyprus will now have to create an alternative plan to raise the money. The government could offer a compromise bill that would be more acceptable to lawmakers than the deposit tax, but the EU powers are not making it easy to find a solution by their insistence on an unchanged total amount of €5.8 billion, in whatever way Cyprus chooses to allocate it among depositors. And the Cypriot parliament has already rejected any attempt to levy the confiscatory tax on small deposits of less than €20,000. The Cyprus government faces rising fury at home and from Russians who make up an estimated third of the total amount deposited in Cypriot banks and would lose an estimated €31 billion if the tax were levied. EU proponents of the deposit tax argued it would have made foreigners who have taken advantage of Cyprus's low-tax regime share the cost of the bailout of the banks. Finance Minister Michalis Sarris flew to Moscow Tuesday afternoon to meet with his Russian counterpart, amid rumors that Cyprus may ask Russia to fund its banks so that the EU bailout can be avoided. Cyprus fears that wholesale exemption for those below €100,000 would mean a "disproportionate" burden on large savers, and a "very detrimental" knock-on effect on economic growth because it would destroy the ability of the country to attract foreign investment. President Nicos Anastasiades, who was elected less than a month ago, told German Chancellor Angela Merkel Monday night that "the possibility of reducing the requirements from self-raised funds is being explored," a Cypriot government spokesman said. Meanwhile, all over the EU, bankers and financial experts continue to condemn the EU action as the most negative choice they could have made, saying that the EU will regret it for years to come, even if the Cyprus crisis is resolved. Perhaps the deepest cut was the remark that they had behaved like politicians with no appreciation of the financial fallout of their decision. There is an old saying that fully applies : "Trust is like paper. Once it is crumpled, it can never be perfect again."

Monday, March 18, 2013

EU Regulators Hit a New Low with the Proposed Cyprus Bank Deposit Tax

Dear readers, sometimes we poor common people have to wonder just how stupid bureaucrats really are. The latest proof that we have not yet plumbed the depths of their stupidity came over the weekend -- when the European Union's Eurozone overseers slapped a 7% to 10% tax on Cyprus bank deposits as the cost of providing a bailout for the little island country that represents 0.3% of the EU's economy. Are these bureaucrats so stupid that they could not foresee : (1). A run on Cypriot banks by account holders that started immediately and would be gathering steam today if the banks in Cyprus weren't closed for a bank holiday - and will this withdrawal panic slowly spread to other Eurozone countries? (2). A deep fall on European and American stock markets that started today with average falls of 2%, but stabilizing at about a minus 0.5%, except in Spain and Italy that remain at a minus 2%. (3). A visceral anger and fear all over the EU that these unelected bureaucrats have finally shown their true colors, "taking scalps" as one European analyst put it this morning in their effort to save the Euro without making the fundamental fiscal changes that are their only real hope of saving the currency. (4). A loud pushback in Spain and Italy, the two large Eurozone economies next on the list of probable bailout candidates, that the EU has proven that it cannot be trusted and that it will "confiscate" in order to protect the unpopular Euro. (5). A decision by the UK and Germany - yes, Germany that is being blamed for the bank deposit tax idea - that they will make whole any of their citizens hit with the tax. ~~~~~ And then there is Russia, whose citizens have billions of Euros in Cyprus banks and thzt thought it had negotiated a deal regarding Russian deposits in Cyprus banks. Will Russia once again negotiate by cutting off oil and gas supplies to Europe? There are even rumors that the EU thinks a solution might be for Russia itself to bailout Cyprus, an idea rejected by the Russian government. Dear readers, we might also give a thought to the Obama administration and its search for money required to expand social programs being denied it by the Republican House. Could President Obama be tempted by the EU confiscation-like bank deposit tax? Stay tuned. Meanwhile the Cypriot parliament has not yet approved the bailout package that includes the bank account tax. BUT the Cyprus government has just announced late this afternoon that Cypris banks will remain closed until Thursday - when Parliament expects to take the bailout vote - in order to prevent a further bank run.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Some American Stereotypes Debunked

The world has some set images of America and Americans - stereotypes that just don't go away, even though many of them are either false or badly out-of-date. Let's look at three of them. (1). President Obama often cites the collapsing American infrastructure as a reason to support his tax-and-spend budget ideas. But, surprise : a study by the Reason Foundation reveals that US roads and bridges have improved significantly over a 20-year period. The President has proposed spending $40 billion on “urgent upgrades” to the nation’s infrastructure, saying that “crumbling” roads, bridges, airports and rail lines are hindering US economic growth. “There are still plenty of problems to fix, but our roads and bridges aren’t crumbling,” said David Hartgen, lead author of the report and emeritus professor of transportation at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “The overall condition of the state-controlled road system is getting better and you can actually make the case that it has never been in better shape. The key going forward is to target spending where it will do the most good.” The Reason Foundation study measured the condition of US roads and bridges from 1989 to 2008, based on seven criteria; highway fatalities; miles of urban interstate highways in poor condition; miles of rural interstates in poor condition; congestion on urban interstates; deficient bridges; rural primary roads in poor condition; and the number of rural primary roads flagged as too narrow. The findings? Eleven states made progress in all seven categories, and 37 states improved in at least five of the seven. Only one state, California, showed improvement in just two. The US fatality rate lessened from 2.16 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles in 1989 to 1.25 fatalities in 2008, a decrease of about 42%. The fatality rate improved in all 50 states over the period. The percentage of deficient bridges fell from 37.8% in 1989 to 23.7% in 2008. The percentage of urban interstates in poor condition decreased from 6.6% to 5.4%. In Missouri, urban interstate mileage in poor condition plunged from 47% to just 1.3% over the period studied. The percentage of rural interstates in poor condition was reduced by two-thirds, from 6.6% in1989 to 1.93% in 2008. And 29 states showed reduced urban congestion between 1989 and 2008, with six states reporting improvements of greater than 20%. The nation also saw improvements in the condition of rural primary roads and in the number of primary roads considered too narrow. “It will take resolve, good policy and effective management to continue these trends.” (2). Despite all we hear on TV about the "abnormal and unacceptable" US level of gun ownership, America actually has a low gun murder rate. Several reports on gun ownership around the world clearly refute the assertion that the abundance of guns in the United States leads to a high rate of firearm homicides. Americans are the biggest gun owners by far, with an estimated 270 million civilian firearms, in addition to law enforcement and military firearms, according to the Small Arms Survey of 178 nations conducted by the Switzerland-based Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. In sheer numbers of civilian firearms, the No. 2 nation, surprisingly, is India with 46 million, followed by China (40 million), Germany (25 million), Pakistan (18 million), and Mexico (15 million). The United States also leads in gun ownership rate, with about 88 firearms per 100 people, according to the most recent Small Arms Survey compiled in 2007, far ahead of No. 2 Yemen, which has 55 firearms per 100 people. Switzerland is third with 46 per 100 people, followed by Finland (45), Serbia (38), Cyprus (36), Saudi Arabia (35), and Iraq (34). But when it comes to the firearm homicide rate, the US doesn’t even make the top 25. According to figures collected by the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime through its annual crime survey, 9,146 Americans were victims of a firearm homicide in the most recent year. That translates to a rate of 2.97 firearm homicides per 100,000 population, only the 27th highest rate in the world. The highest rate by far is in Honduras, 68 homicides per 100,000, followed by El Salvador (40), Jamaica (39), Venezuela (38.9), Guatemala (34), and Colombia (27). For America’s neighbors, the rate in Mexico is 9.9 per 100,000, and in Canada, 0.5 per 100,000. It is interesting to note that not only does the US have a relatively low homicide rate compared to its gun ownership rate, but Switzerland, which ranks third in the civilian gun ownership rate, has only the 46th highest homicide rate, and Finland, with the fourth highest ownership rate, is 63rd on the list. “The most obnoxious liberal talking points on guns involve the idea that guns, in and of themselves, cause gun violence,” writes news commentator Stephen Gutowski. But in light of the ownership and homicide figures, he observes: “More guns do not, in fact, mean more gun violence. Guns can be, and commonly are, used in a responsible manner, especially here in the United States.” (3). Many Europeans like to believe that they have more modern views than Americans about homosexuals. But, the US has one distinction that citizens of other countries might find amusing, given the rather Puritan image America has in Europe. The American military, beginning on 1 October 2013, will provide some benefits to unwed couples BUT only if they’re gay. Before resigning, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued a directive stating that certain military benefits formerly reserved for married couples will now be extended to unmarried partners - but only if they’re same-sex partners. Heterosexual unmarried partners do not qualify for the benefits. Panetta issued his directive in a memorandum citing the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law : “Discrimination based on sexual orientation no longer has a place in the military.” The memorandum continues: “At the direction of the President, the Department has conducted a careful and deliberative review of the benefits currently provided to the families of Service members. We have now identified additional family member and dependent benefits that we can lawfully provide to same-sex domestic partners of Military Service members and their children through changes in Department of Defense policies and regulations. These benefits shall be extended to the same-sex domestic partners and, where applicable, children of same-sex domestic partners, once the Service member and their same-sex domestic partner have signed a declaration attesting to the existence of their committed relationship.” The declaration defines a “domestic partner” as a “person in a domestic partnership with a Service member of the same sex,” and a “domestic partnership” as a “committed relationship between two adults, of the same sex, that meets all of the requirements below.” Among those requirements, neither of the partners can be “married, joined in a civil union with, or domestic partners with anyone else,” and the partners intend to remain in a committed relationship “indefinitely.” Among the benefits the Pentagon will now give to same-sex domestic partners but not to heterosexual unwed couples are disability and death compensation, legal assistance, some travel on Department of Defense aircraft, commissary privileges, welfare and recreation programs, emergency leave, and access to a “sexual assault counseling program.” Panetta’s memorandum also states that because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Defense Department cannot extend all of the benefits given to married couples to unmarried same-sex domestic partners, including healthcare and housing allowances. But it adds: “In the event that the Defense of Marriage Act is no longer applicable to the Department of Defense, it will be the policy of the Department to construe the words ‘spouse’ and ‘marriage’ without regard to sexual orientation, and married couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, will be granted full military benefits." ~~~~~ There you have it, dear readers, some facts that may change ypur opinions about America - for the better? That's for you to decide.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The GOP and Same-Sex Marriage

Republican Senator Rob Portman's endorsement of gay marriage today is the latest sign of the fundamental GOP struggle with America's rapidly-changing views on marriage. Portman says his change took a lot of thought and began after he learned one of his sons is gay. Portman, a prominent Republican, is a former US trade representative and White House budget director. Mitt Romney considered him as a running mate. He is the first Republican Senator to openly back gay marriage. Portman’s public endorsement makes him the third Republican now in federal office to endorse same-sex marriage. More than 100 high-profile Republicans recently urged the Supreme Court to strike down California’s Prop. 8 and allow gay marriage in that state. But only two of them are federal officeholders. While many states have passed constitutional bans prohibiting gay marriage, but public opinion is shifting and perhaps the Portman endorsement is the beginning of a GOP shift to match. The Supreme Court is also set to consider same-sex marriage. In oral arguments later this month, the Court will consider challenges both to Prop. 8, which outlawed same sex- marriage in California, and to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which Portman co-sponsored as a congressman. He now thinks parts of the law should be repealed. Foster Friess, a Republican mega-donor, accepted an award at the Conservative Political Action Conference today standing next to Rick Santorum, a favorite of social conservatives whose presidential candidacy Friess backed with millions of dollars last year. Friess stopped short of endorsing gay marriage, but he recently said the party has to move away from “gay bashers” and at a minimum allow same-sex couples the same rights in the tax code as the rest of Americans. There have been other high-profile Republican supporters of same-sex marriage. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger fought against Prop. 8, which banned same-sex marriage in his state in 2008. Vice President Dick Cheney, who, like Portman, has a homosexual child, said he thought people should be able to enter into relationships of their choosing during the 2004 presidential election. But he clarified that he wasn’t speaking for President Bush who opposed same-sex marriage. So opposition to same-sex marriage was the official Bush White House position. And in Ohio, Portman's home state, a state ballot initiative in 2004 is credited with helping get out conservative voters and swing the state toward Bush. The Ohio state constitution bans gay marriage as a result.“Only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this state and its political subdivisions,” according to the 2004 Ohio amendment. “This state and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design qualities, significance or effect of marriage.” ABC News asked Cheney last year whether gay marriage would be a relevant issue in the future. “I don’t know that it’s relevant now. You know? There are a lot of big issues,” Cheney said. When asked if he wished he had pushed a little harder on the issue, Cheney answered, “The fact of the matter is that it is regulated by the states,...I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that’s appropriate. I don’t think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area. I try to be open-minded about it as much as I can and tolerant of those relationships.” Thirty-one US states have provisions in their state constitution that ban same-sex unions. Twenty-eight of them have passed such measures since Cheney said he would try to be tolerant of same-sex relationships. Only nine states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. But now America is experiencing a shift on the issue. An ABC News-Washington Post poll in May of 2012 found 53% of Americans support gay marriage, up from 36% in 2006. One year ago President Obama endorsed gay marriage. At the time he said the issue should be left to the states. The President still says that, but he has added the caveat that he can’t imagine a compelling justification for outlawing same-sex marriage. But the shift is occurring slower among Republicans, especially the social conservative part of their base. Even still, you can sense a shift. Senator Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate, recently said, “I’ve always been uncomfortable with a federal constitutional amendment on anything, particularly on that, because it steps on the rights of states to define marriage,..." Rubio urged “mutual respect” at the CPAC conference on Thursday.“ Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot,” he said. Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has given the GOP a libertarian voice recently, wants to get government out of the marriage business entirely. “I’m an old-fashioned traditionalist. I believe in the historic and religious definition of marriage,...That being said, I’m not for eliminating contracts between adults. I think there are ways to make the tax code more neutral, so it doesn’t mention marriage. Then we don’t have to redefine what marriage is; we just don’t have marriage in the tax code.” Social conservatives still loudly oppose same-sex marriage in the GOP. But it is worth noting that while their personal opinions differ, Rubio’s policy position is not unlike what President Obama’s was when he personally endorsed gay marriage in May 2012. Obama said then that there was a healthy debate on the issue going on in the states. Then, just after North Carolina had banned same-sex marriage, Obama said states should have the final word and he explained that he hadn’t supported gay marriage earlier because he didn’t want to “nationalize” the issue. “I continue to believe that this is an issue that is going to be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what’s recognized as a marriage,” Obama said in 2012. But while the country and Republicans like Portman are reconsidering, President Obama seems to have further evolved. Obama said recently that he can’t envision a justifiable reason for a state to ban same-sex marriage. And his administration has joined the legal fight to overturn Prop. 8 in California. There we have it, dear readers. The states will probably continue to define marriage. But, the gay marriage states' rights issue is a lot like the voting rights issue we have already discussed. States decide how to regulate elections, but the Supreme Court has for 40 years upheld Congress's right to eliminate voting discrimination based on race and the Court has used statistics to determine where the discrimination is occurring. I think the argument about same-sex marriage is over. The Court will permit it. BUT, many conservatives are particularly worried about same-sex couples adopting children because there is no long-term scientific evidence that these children are not harmed by living in such a domestic environment. Can we hope that the Court will carve out and prevent same-sex couple adoption and await serious long-term, non-anecdotal evidence that such children are not harmed by the experience. This would make it easier for those opposed to same-sex marriage to swallow hard and accept it.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Follower's Description of Pope Francis

Deat readers, one of my followers just sent me an email that I want to share with you all. It is such a lovely image of Francis of Assisi...and Pope Francis. Thank you, dear follower. "It would seem that the rituals, pomp and circumstance, formality of the Church may be perched for a touch of "down home, good old boy action". Which may be overdue. He's an "I'll do it my way" type and that's what he'll do. I can just see him stealing out of the vatican at 2 AM to visit the people living on the streets and getting pizza for them. There they'll all be sitting on the water fountain in St. Peter Square as the sun comes up over the wall. A little time ago we were having a discussion about "the right person to stop this madness". And your point was that ..."When it is really needed the right person always seems to come to the front and accept the duty" (not exactly your words). Well, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Coolidge, Ike , Churchill, Reagan, Thacher, Golda all stepped up. Maybe it's now Pope Francis's time to lead the advance for the entire world and kick start the recovery with his simplicity and honestry. It's great to give flowery speeches, it's another to do the work. He seems to be a worker and doer ... not just a talker."

Pope Francis Speaks

Pope Francis has given his first homily, in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican - directly to the cardinals who elected him yesterday - but beyond them to all the priests and nuns and laity of the world. He wore simple vestments and black shoes and has not yet agreed to wear the large gold papal ring. He spoke without a text and in Italian, both breaks from the tradition that the Vatican secretary of state prepares a Latin text that the new pope obediently delivers. Francis said last night that he would make his homily himself. And he did. He spoke of three things : Walking, Building, Confessing. Walking among mankind as Jesus did. Building not sandcastles but stone edifices of faith because they are built with love in Jesus' name. Confessing Jesus and His Cross to the world because without confessing that He is Lord nothing will have meaning or last and the Church will become a "pitiful non-governmental organization." What a profoundly simple message for people of all faiths and of little or no faith. We can only wish Francis all success in bringing to the world the brotherhood and love of our fellow man that it is clear he lives in his own life.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Is America Poised to Lead the World Economic Recovery?

There is good economic news building this week - and wherever in the world you live, whether you are a business person or a salaried employee or looking for a job - the developing story will help you. The United States shows all the normal signs of being in the process of digging its economy out of the economic crisis that has engulfed the world sonce 2008. The February increase in retail sales of 1.1% was nearly double what many economists expected, and now they are now predicting economic better growth in the first quarter. Retail sales rose the most in five months even with higher taxes and rising gasoline prices. CNBC reports that Mesirow Financial economist Diane Swonk sees consumer confidence being related to the improvement in housing and rising home prices. "It really is important to understand the interactive role that jobs and wealth create together. The jobs picture has improved and while it is not perfect, it's important," she said. The February jobs report was also good, with 236,000 non- farm payrolls created. "That is one of the pivotal points, and it's been a real game changer," she said, predicting. first quarter GDP growth of about 2.5%, up from 2.1%. Swonk sees growth rising to 3.2% by the fourth quarter. Deutsche Bank chief U.S economist Joe LaVorgna says that he's not yet ready to predict 3%, but he says it's certainly a reasonable forecast. His published first quarter GDP forecast is currently 1.5%. "I am stunned at how resilient the consumer is ... we had high gas, slower(tax) refunds, horribly inclement weather, and the end of the payroll tax holiday — now these numbers are obviously susceptible to revision, and maybe March is weaker,...but consumer spending numbers look now that they're better than Q4....The bottom line is there's just much more momentum to deal with these headwinds. We can make it through like we couldn't a few years ago." Core retail sales, excluding automobiles, gasoline and building materials, rose 0.4%, up from 0.3% in January. High gasoline prices drove up receipts at gas stations by 5%, the biggest jump since August. Without gasoline, sales rose 0.6%. Auto dealership receipts increased 1.1%, after falling slightly in January. But LaVorgna is also wary of being burned."I feel like we've been here before," he said."It looks too good to be true that we're getting decent growth despite the headwinds." And perhaps the best evidence that America's economy is growing is that the Congressional Budget Office is forecasting that the budget deficit will total $845 billion. If correct, it will be first time the federal government hasn't run an annual deficit in excess of $1 trillion since 2008. The annual deficit is projected to be smaller this year because the government is collecting more revenue. At the same time, the government is spending less on some programs. That's in part because of spending cuts that were enacted under a 2011 agreement to raise the federal borrowing limit. Also, the improved economy has reduced demand for unemployment benefits and some other government programs. Last year, the economy grew at a modest 2.2% and generated an average of about 180,000 jobs a month. Stronger job growth is forecast for this year. More jobs mean more income, which generates more tax revenue for the government. Another factor in a smaller expected deficit is higher taxes for some Americans this year. When Congress and the White House reached a deal in January to avert the fiscal cliff, they allowed taxes to rise on high income individuals. And the agreement allowed a cut in the Social Security tax to expire, thereby raising taxes on nearly everyone who earns a paycheck. This year's higher Social Security tax is projected to raise about $10 billion more a month in revenue. The additional revenue is likely to slow the deficit's growth for rest of the budget year, which will end September 30. The CBO is projecting even smaller annual deficits of $616 billion in 2014 and $459 billion in 2015. While the US economy is showing real signs of the consumer confidence that must exist for the American economy to grow, things are gloomy in Europe. Germany and France, the Eurozone's two biggest economies, both recorded a 1.1% contraction in manufacturing, while data for Italy, Europe's third largest economy, was not available. The Eurozone reading may provide the European Central Bank with more of an incentive to consider cutting interest rates to below the current 0.75% rate later this year to lower the cost of borrowing for companies and households. A lower ECB interest rate would also drive down the Euro currency, which almost all analysts say is overvalued against the Dollar. A lower valued Euro would also help European export business, very much needed by Germany and France if their economies are to avoid slipping back into recession. So, dear readers, what the entire world desperately needs may actually now be happening. The American economy may be positioning itself to lead the global econony out of its crisis. It is eatly days, but let's watch with hope and growing confidence.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Human Rituals and the Papal Conclave

Like most of us, today I had one eye on the TV to follow events in Rome as the conclave to elect the new pope got underway. Firstly, I was interested because I am a practicing Catholic, but the political animal in me was also curious to see the procedure closer up than we ever have seen it before. And, being someone who has all my life been involved in theatre - as actrice, singer, makeup artist, critic and teacher - the ceremony and ritual were compelling. There is something fundamentally comforting about life's public rituals, whether they are religious, political or cultural. Man has been formed by the rituals of his own imagination. It is perhaps the best indication that we are creation's most intelligent and advanced specie. And, for me, what is so impressive about the Catholic Church ritual is that it is entirely peaceful and voluntary, and widespread over the Earth. That does not necessarily make it infallible, but it does make it unique in human history. Two thousand years of evolving ritual and words to bring people together as children of God...and 1.2 billion people follow where that ritual leads them. In Europe, it has formed the rituals for crowning sovereigns. In Ametica, its vestiges can be found in the inauguration of Presidents. Even the Olympic movement has tried to create rituals - an anthem, oaths, medals - to bind athletes together as a group recognizable among themselves and to rhe larger public. In much of the world, Asia especially, it is the life of the Buddha that provides ritual, although with a much lower profile than the Church's. The Buddha is quoted as saying : "Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it." That may be the best summation of ritual, tradition and human growth as thinking, feeling, political beings. And if you think about it, the Catholic Church has been through all of that - decadence, corruption, reform, piety of extraordinary degree - because thousands of Cardinals during thousands of years have tried to live up to the ritual and the religious beliefs it represents. Cardinals have connived as politicians, killed as soldiers or brigands, broken their vows of celibacy to have children - in brief, evolved as other humans have. But, every time the Church seemed about to implode, a Pope has come to his senses and led the needed reforms. That is what is happening in Rome now. A Church badly in need of reform has been given the chance to do it by a Pope, Benedict XVI, who saw that he was not going to succeed himself. Those red-capped Cardinals who entered the Sistine Chapel today must feel that heavily. Because it was they who, in a way, drove Benedict off the throne of Peter, just like a political behind-the-scenes clash. And now these same Cardinals must make it right. What they refused to help Benedict do as Pope, they will now, through conscience and belief and chagrin, do for him in his absence. Reform the Church. Their ritual has already called them to their higher obligation. They must now find the Pope to carry forward the task set before them by Benedict XVI.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Pope's Impossible Job Description

The Pope's job description is unique - unlike any other in the world. He is the CEO of a worldwide enterprise, head of the Vatican political state, the most listened to moral voice on the planet and, in the eyes of Roman Catholics, Christ's representative on earth, "the Vicar of Christ." Whoever is elected Pope in the conclave that starts Tuesday afternoon will inherit a Church divided over the role of lay people and women, on doctrine and social justice , even on what is required to be a Catholic. The challenges the next Pope will face are multiple and extremely difficult. First, there is the essential question of reform. The rumors making their way around the world suggest that there are two main factions going into the conclave -- (1) the group of cardinals who want reform, being led by American and reform-minded Italian cardinals who support Milan Cardinal Scola, a reformer, and (2) the Curia made up of the cardinals who are the Vatican bureaucrats, who support the status quo and prefer Brazilian Cardinal Scherer, whom the Curia think they can control. But there is an emerging third group that won't be voting but whose opinions will be very much in the thoughts of the voting cardinals - the worldwide Catholic laity, who are disgusted at the priest sex abuse scandals and who want a Church leadership that understands them and their children and will help them to hold onto their faith and Church in an increasingly secular and agnostic world. The next Pope will have to deal all these laity issues, as well as restore discipline to the central Curia administration of the church. Benedict XVI understood that the Curia was out of control when he commissioned a report on its condition that will be shown only to his successor. Benedict's butler had leaked the Pope's private papers revealing feuding, corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of administration. In addition, the secretive Vatican bank recently ousted a president for incompetence and is under pressure for greater financial transparency. Bishops in several countries say non-responsive Vatican officials are hampering local churches. The Curia decides everything from bishop appointments and liturgy, to parish closings and discipline for abusive priests. But, the Vatican Curia also remains under pressure to reveal more about its past role in the Church's failures to protect children worldwide. The issue resurfaced ahead of the conclave, when victims from the US, Italy, Chile and Mexico pressured cardinals to recuse themselves (i.e., stay out of the conclave) because they had shielded priests from prosecution. Benedict instructed bishops around the world to make policies to keep abusers from the priesthood, but church leaders in some nations haven't yet complied. "There's still the victims," Chicago Cardinal Francis George said in a news conference last week. "The wound is still deep in their hearts, and as long as it's with them it will be with us. The pope has to keep this in mind." It will take a very firm hand from the new Pope to prevail over the natural instinct of some in the Church hierarchy to hunker down and ride out the sex abuse scandal.Then there is the growing matter of secularism, which has already taken a toll on churches in Europe and America, where a growing number of people don't identify with faith. The worldwide distancing of people from organized religion is also hurting parishes in Latin America, where churches in Brazil and other predominantly Catholic countries have already been losing members to Protestant Pentecostal movements. As the Church loses members, it also loses influence. A good example is the ineffective Church opposition to same-sex marriage in the West. So, the next Pope must be a head missionary, with the charisma, weight and personal holiness to bring Catholics back to church. And, in addition to refilling parishes with practicing Catholics, the new Pope will need to help the Church recruit young men it needs as priests, especially in Europe and North America. And the Pope should be able to guide priests worldwide who are struggling with their own job descriptions as modern-day pastors. The job requires fundraising, personal counseling and the defense of doctrine, often to Catholics who don't want to listen. Priests are also operating in the shadow cast by the sex abuse crisis, although most known molestation cases occurred decades ago. In recent years, some priests have made their own proposals to strengthen their ranks. Clergy in heavily Catholic Austria in 2011 called for ordaining women and relaxing the celibacy requirement. Benedict chastised them. The new Pope will also have to deal with the discrimination and violence, both private and governmental, that Catholics and minorities face in many countries, including Syria, Egypt, India and China. This issue unites religious leaders across faiths and the Pope is always a key voice in the fight. Some of the toughest situations are found in Muslim nations, which often ban and punish Christian evangelizing. Addressing the issue requires skilled diplomacy because a misstep can cost lives. There is also the daily public relations aspect of being Pope. He has to maintain friendships with many other Christian groups and other religions, including Orthodox Christians, Anglicans and Jews. But his most pressing task will be to stabilize relations with Islam. The importance of the issue was made clear in the fallout from Benedict's 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he cited the words of a Byzantine emperor who characterized some teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman." Benedict made many efforts to mend fences, including praying beside an imam that same year at the historic Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The African laity has already asked the new Pope, whoever he may be, to address the problem of the threats and attacks, some fatal, they receive from radical Muslim movements. So, dear readers, the job is really beyond anyone's capacity to completely fulfill. The cardinals have begun their discussions and are trying to narrow the job qualifications down to the essentials required in the next ten years or so. The new Pope will be the person who meets the greatest number of the qualifications sought by the cardinals. What all of us, of every faith, can do is pray that the cardinals listen to their consciences and select the Pope best able to comfort and guide the world of the early 21st century.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The News - Negative for Nigeria and Egypt / Positive for Mandela and Beckham

Saturday is often a slow news day, but today there's a lot to report on. So let's cover some of the day's events. (1). As many feared, the Egyptian court today confirmed the death sentences of those convicted in January for the violent deaths that they caused in the 2012 Port Said football riots. This led to another violent day in Egypt. In Port Said and Cairo a police club and the Egyptian football federation headquarters were burned. At least two people are dead and Egypt is again in the throes of violent street protests that neither the government nor the military is capable of fully handling. (2). A suicide attack claimed by the Taliban has left nine civilians dead in Kabul as the new US Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, made Afghanistan his first foreign visit. This is just one more incident proving that the Afghanistan Taliban are neither beaten nor driven out of the Afghan capital. (3). Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the first president of Kenya, was officially proclaimed the victor in tbe Kenya presidential election, with 50.07% of the vote. His rival, Raila Odinga, is contesting the results but Kenyatta, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity during the last presidential election in 2007, has asked Odinga to join him in preventing a recurrence of the 2007 violence and in leading Kenya toward the future. So far, the ethnic violence that killed more than 1,000 Kenyans in 2007 has not occurred, thanks to the concerted effort of all leaders. (4). Ansaru, a radical islamist group that kidnapped seven hostages three weeks ago in northern Nigeria, has confirmed that it executed all of them...2 Syrians, 2 Lebanese, 1 British, 1 Italian and 1 Greek. ~~~~~ Is there any good news today, dear readers? Nelson Mandela is in hospital...but for a routine check-up. Preparations continue at a 'Vatican-pace' for the election of the next Pope, while young European Catholics talk about wanting someone like John Paul II whom they can identify with. AND, David Beckham has now played in three games at his new club, Paris-St. Germaine, and despite everyone saying that he has nothing to contribute at 37, his teammates are full of praise for his energy and enthusiasm and every PSG game (all wins since his arrival, including PSG's first ever qualification for the European League of Champions quarterfinals) is now covered on French national TV news. There is simply no one like Becks.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Egyptian Police Strikes Widen

Several weeks ago, we talked about Egyptian police going on strike to stand up for their rights against the Morsi government. The police are still striking and many more have joined in. Egyptian security forces have had to spread around the country, as police walked off the job or took to the streets on Friday, angry at being blamed for crackdowns on protests against the Islamist president and accusing his Muslim Brotherhood of trying to control them. The police discontent adds one more layer to Egypt's turmoil and political disarray. In the south, a powerful hard-line Islamist group said its members would now take over policing because most security forces in the province were on strike. The announcement by the Gamaa Islamiya in the southern province of Assiut raised the possibility of Islamist groups moving in to fill the void left by striking police. Gamaa said its members would carry out police duties like patrols. Islamists in nearby provinces have spoken of doing the same. Gamaa Islamiya is one of the militant groups that waged a violent campaign in southern Egypt aiming to overthrow the state in the 1990s. It has since repudiated violence and became a political group after Mubarak's fall in 2011, but it remains tied to a hard-line Islamist ideology. The Assiut security chief, General Aboul-Kassem Deif, said the act of policing by Gamaa would be illegal and accused Gamaa of inciting discontent in order to improve their chances in the next parliamentary elections. Deif says such acts would be dangerous because the people would not stand for it. But he seemed to acknowledge he could not stop it. "I don't know what to do," he told The Associated Press. On Friday, strikes by policemen and riot police were reported in 10 of Egypt's 29 provinces, including strikes at several stations in Cairo - where police demonstrated in front of the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the security forces, and demanded the resignation of their boss, the interior minister, who they accuse of masterminding efforts to bring Islamist sympathizers into the ministry. In Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, police stations closed their doors and tacked up posters saying, "We don't want politics" and in an attempt to show unity with the public, "Police and the people are one hand." Police discontent comes after relentless protests have spread throughout Egypt since late January, following an earlier wave of protests in November and December. Almost daily, protest marches against Morsi have turned into confrontations with police in various cities, with at least 70 protesters killed. Each death increases public anger against the security forces, reported to have used torture against some activists. The force is already despised because of its history of brutality under President Hosni Mubarak. This has caused a backlash by many of the lower-ranking members, who accuse Morsi of using them to crack down on his opponents. Police officers in the southern city of Sohag marched in front of one station, holding signs reading, "No to the Brotherhoodization of the ministry." Police in charge of protecting the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the core of Morsi's support, have gone on strike, as have others who escort Morsi's motorcades. Some members of the Central Security forces - the riot police force charged with cracking down on protesters - are almost in a state of insurrection. On Thursday, protesting riot police trapped the Central Security's top commander for several hours inside their camp at the city of Port Said, refusing to deploy in the city against protesters. Port Said, at the Mediterranean end of the Suez Canal, has seen the heaviest violence during the unrest, where a January police crackdown left 40 dead. Protests there in the past week have resulted in the deaths of eight people, including three policemen. On Friday, the military took over security in the city, with police withdrawing and riot police staying in their barracks. Because the protesters have more confidence in the army, it is hoped their presence will bring calm. But many fear a new wave of violence on Saturday when a court issues new verdicts and sentences in a devisive trial over a deadly soccer riot in Port Said in February 2012. A first set of verdicts on January 28 - in which 21 Port Said residents were sentenced to death - caused the city's first uprising because its population sees the trial as unjust and politicized. On Saturday, the court is scheduled to issue verdicts concerning 50 more defendants, mostly Port Said residents, but also including nine police officers. If the police personnel are convicted or handed heavy sentences, it will likely increase resentment among the security forces, who marched through Port Said on Friday in a funeral procession for a protester shot in fighting with police the night before. In Cairo on Friday, protesters and police fought on a main thoroughfare along the Nile River for the fifth straight day. ~~~~~ Dear readers, we know that Egypt is very unstable. The liberal, secular opposition says the disarray shows that Morsi and his Islamist allies are not qualified to rule. They have accused Morsi and the Brotherhood of imposing control without seeking consensus. Morsi's supporters, however, say the opposition is trying to use street violence to overturn their election victories. The police and junior security forces are lining up more and more with the protesters and against Morsi and the Brotherhood. When Mubarak was driven from power, it was the army that finally joined them to oust the dictator. We may now be seeing the beginning of a similar pattern forming against Morsi -- this time with both the army and the police joining in to bring down the government. The difference today is that the Morsi-Brotherhood ruling party have considerable popular support, something Mubarak lacked. This is what makes Egypt a candidate for the kind of protracted civil war now dragging on in Syria. The world should make every effort to prevent civil war in Egypt - but not by supporting Morsi at the expense of the Egyptian people.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Obama Is Already a Lameduck President

Is Barack Obama already a lameduck President? Consider the four items below before you answer. ~~~~~ (1). John Brennan won Senate confirmation Thursday as CIA chief after a late struggle that had more to do with presidential power to order drone strikes than with the nominee. The confirmation came after a 12-hour Senate filibuster by Kentucky GOP Senator Rand Paul, who was helped to carry on by several Republican and one Democrat Senator. Paul stopped his block of the Brennan vote after declaring he was satisfied with the administration's statement that the President does not have the authority to use a drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil. Some analysts said Paul's receiving the White House declaration was in reality a caputulation of President Obama to the Kentucky Senator and his Republican fellow Senators. (2). According to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, most Americans support the idea of cutting federal spending across the board, but insist defense programs be kept off limits when cutting the government budget. The survey of 1,017 conducted nationally February 27 to March 3 found that 61% of respondents support a 5%, across-the-board spending reduction in domestic programs, but 60% oppose an 8% reduction in military spending. The poll results follow closely the GOP House-defended automatic spending cuts that began Saturday in domestic and defense programs brought on by the sequester, which was originally suggested by President Obama, who recently repudiated the sequester as being catastrophic. The support for the across-the-board cuts crossed party lines, with a majority of both Democrats and Republicans favoring them. (3). In a related area, even Democrats are saying that Obama ‘overstated’ the effects of the sequester and offered a confusing message about it. The White House early on in the battle with the GOP made statements full of doom and gloom, warning of interminable lines at airports, widespread firings of teachers, and quick, huge job losses in the private sector as government contracts were canceled. That was going overboard, says former Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Ed Rendell. “They probably went over the top in terms of saying that the consequences were going to be horrible, especially because it’s happened and the lines in the airports aren’t long, the world hasn’t changed overnight.” A top Democrat congressional aide scolded Obama for strategic incompetence. “Don’t accentuate a fight you don’t intend to wage [and] can’t win,” the aide said. “They spent two weeks building up sequester as a horror show and then got fact-checked a dozen times and were forced to back off their own claims of it being a disaster once they were forced to acquiesce to the cuts happening.” Even Michigan House member Sander Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, who basically agrees with Obama on the sequester, told MSNBC, “Maybe at times there’s been an overstatement.” Obama and his aides have pulled back from their fire and brimstone act over the last few days. That represents a “recalibration,” an Obama insider euphemistically put it in an interview. The day before the cuts began, Obama started to soften his words. “This is not going to be an apocalypse, I think, as some people have said,” Obama told reporters. (4). Finally, after the shocking statements of Washington Post legendary journalist and editor Bob Woodward, who said that he had been threatened by the White House after he published comments saying that Obama had lied, Fox News chief Roger Ailes is quoted as saying in a new biography of him that President Barack Obama is “lazy’’ and claims the commander-in-chief “never worked a day in his life.’ In his upcoming biography, “Roger Ailes: Off Camera,’’ author Zev Chafets writes that Ailes reacted to a crack by Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen that Ann Romney, wife of last year’s Republican presidential candidate, “never worked a day in her life,” with his own blunt opinion of the president. “Obama’s the one who never worked a day in his life. He never earned a penny that wasn’t public money,’’ Ailes said, according to Chafets. “How many fundraisers does he attend every week? How often does he play basketball and golf? I wish I had that kind of time. … He’s lazy, but the media won’t report that.” Ailes says, however, that he didn’t come up with Obama’s “lazy’’ tag. Ailes says the president said it himself during a 2011 interview with Barbara Walters, in which he described his most deplorable trait as “deep down, underneath all the work I do, I think there’s a laziness in me.’’ ~~~~~ Dear readers, it is crystal clear that the Obama charisma and its capacity to muster both his Democrat Party and the media and public in support of almost any silliness he comes up with are over. He had been knocked off his pedestal for good. That is the definition of a lameduck President.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Don't Let Egypt Become Another Syria

If Egypt's unstable political situation has not been international page-one news lately, an Egyptian administrative court in Cairo may have changed that on Wednesday. It ordered the suspension of parliamentary elections scheduled to begin on April 22nd, undoubtedly beginning a legal battle that will delay the vote and deepen the political crisis between the Islamist president and his opponents that has caused an ongoing national political crisis for months. Non-functional political institutions, a weak economy and a wave of protests, strikes and clashes against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood that has spiraled for months around the country will surely continue. Port Said street protests are in their fourth day. The military intervened, trying to separate protesters and police, but protesters hurled stones at police who were firing tear gas. The result was six dead on Sunday. Morsi's Islamist supporters and some in the protest-weary public had viewed the parliamentary elections as a step toward bringing some stability. But the mainly liberal and secular opposition had called a boycott of the vote, calling on Morsi to find some political consensus and ease the wave of popular anger before voting began. With or without an opposition boycott, analysts feel that the Islamists would win a parliamentary majority. The current Islamist-drafted constitution contains vague language that permits elections to bypass constitutional court review, but the court ruling stated that the Islamist-led parliament had improperly pushed through a law organizing the elections without giving the Supreme Constitutional Court the opportunity to review it to ensure it conforms with the constitution. The court ordered the law referred to the constitutional court and the election suspended in the meantime. The court also annulled a decree by Morsi calling for the election to take place. Morsi's opponents quickly used the decision as further proof of their accusations that Morsi and his ruling Muslim Brotherhood are mismanaging the country, trying to dominate power without reaching consensus with others or abiding by the law. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBoradei said that ignoring the rule of law "is characteristic of a fascist state." Morsi's legal adviser, Mohammed Fouad, said the government would abide by the court's decision and refer the law to the constitutional court. When the judge read the verdict, lawyers in the court room broke out in chants of "God is great." Egypt's political crisis has encountered various judicial disputes, as well as opposition street protests following Morsi's decision last November to grant himself immunity from the judiciary's supervision. He later revoked this right, in the face of the massive protests, but he had already used the powers to appoint a new chief prosecutor and prevent the courts from blocking Islamists drafting a new constitution. With this court decision, dear readers, Egypt seems to be headed toward more chaos. Protests and violent clashes have spread in recent days in Cairo and Port Said, where public anger has been directed at the police. Many protesters say the security forces have been using excessive force against them and that Morsi has backed the police's excessive force. Troops lined up between protesters and police ib Port Said, but protesters shouted, "Morsi is the enemy of God" as they lined up in front of the troops. Furious at the president and the security forces, residents of Port Said have created a wave of protests and strikes amounting to an outright revolt against the central government. Whatever violence this latest anti-Morsi court decision leads to, one thing seems clear. Neither the Egyptian people nor their courts are going to surrender to non-democratic political rule without a fight. It would be helpful if the military were more determined in their support of them. And, it would be even more helpful if President Obama and the UN spoke up for the protesters and lent their considerable support, too. Syria should have taught them the value of early intervention on the side of people fighting for their freedom.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Newt Gingrich's Advice Summarized - Better Instead of More

Newt Gingrich is a real political pro...and a Republican to the depths of his soul. But he is also a wise person - when he wants to be - and as he grows older, his wisdom seems to expand. Gingrich was interviewed by Newsmax this week and when asked what words of wisdom he has for the Republican Party moving forward, Gingrich gave some advice that applies to Republicans and Democrats and political parties and governments all over the world. Here's what Newt said : “Focus on a better American future. Forget inside-the-party fighting. Forget being anti-Obama. Figure out what is it we can do as a nation to create jobs, what can we do to have better healthcare, what can we do to have better education? How can we get America moving again? If we’re the party trying to help the American people, we will be much better off than if we’re just the anti-Obama party.” Dear readers, in the past five years - yes, the economic crisis has dragged on for five years now - we have heard blame for the worldwide mess placed on 'greedy' banks and bankers, stupid home mortgage regulations, the overheated Chinese economy, President Bush, the Iraq war, and the Eurozone's one-size-fits-all currency regulations. But, I think Newt Gingrich has found the motherlode for curing the world's illness. If we eliminate 'America' and 'Republicans' and substitute 'world' and 'government', see how well his advice fits everyone. -- "Focus on a better future for the world's people. Forget inside-the-party fighting. Forget being anti-the-other-party(ies). Figure out what is it we can do as a nation and a world to create jobs, what can we do to have better healthcare, what can we do to have better education? How can we get the nation and world moving again? If we’re the party trying to help people, we will be much better off than if we’re just the anti-the-other-side party.” Of course, to do this - to think universally about a univeresal set of difficult circumstances and try to put together a coordinated worldwide effort to overcome our common disease would require real leadership from statesmen and women, not just petty political party leaders who are trying to win the next election, no matter how much damage they cause in their search for partisan victory. And governments - often led by faceless bureaucrats whose goal is to perpetuate their own departments and functions and jobs by growing them - need to be mature enough to put their citizens above their own aggrandisement. And citizens, those who have the great privilege of being able to use the ballot box, should put aside the siren songs of 'vote-for-me-and-my-party-and-we-will-give-you-even-more' candidates and vote for realism in what governments can afford to do. It does no good to vote for fat promises and later protest the cost in taxes of the goodies bought with selfish votes. Newt Gingrich is right. The curse of the modern political world is that people want More - not Better. They just don't want to - and increasingly cannot - pay for More. But together we could create Better for everyone.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Rory McIlroy's "Tooth Excuse"

The world of professional golf and of sports in general was clearly astounded at golf world #1 Rory McIlroy's decision to walk off the course on the 8th hole of the second round of the Honda Classic. He was 7 over par when he handed his score card to playing partner Ernie Els and left. TV golf commentator Johnnie Miller, himself a two-time major champion, claimed that McIlroy’s playing partners Ernie Els and Mark Wikson urged him not to leave the course, telling him he didn't understand the mess he'd be causing. Shortly after the incident, Tiger Woods weighed in, saying that Rory should be more careful about what he says, perhaps referring to the fact that prior to walking off McIlroy had complained a lot about his game but not about a sore wisdom tooth, which eventually became the reason given by Rory's spokesman for the act. Finally, golf legend Jack Nicklaus, who has become a mentor to Rory McIlroy, weighed in on Sunday. Nicklaus said: “He shouldn’t have walked off the golf course. That was unfortunate. I think if he’d thought about it for five minutes he wouldn’t have done it....I don't know whether it was a wisdom tooth or whatever. Probably he's so frustrated with what's happening and the way he's played for the last month or so. That would be my assessment although I might be talking out of school." Nicklaus had paid a visit to the course he designed and a tournament that benefits the children's charity run by his wife Barbara. McIroy is scheduled to address the media and apologize for his behavior at a Tuesday press conference at the WGC Cadillac Championship in Miami. He spent the weekend practising with his coach, Michael Bannon. Since Friday, McIlroy's walk-off has become known as ‘McIl-gate", with much of the attention focused once more on his mega-money move to Nike. Apparently, when McIlroy spoke to Nicklaus last week he confessed he was having problems adjusting to the irons, an argument that drew a swift rebuke from the Golden Bear Sunday. "I simply don’t buy the idea that the clubs have anything to do with how he’s playing," said Nicklaus, who, however, has never been sponsored by Nike. "I used to play one set of McGregor clubs in America, a set of Slazenger clubs in England and then another set and another ball when I was in Australia. Rory's talent is a far bigger influence on his golf than his clubs could ever be. He’s so gifted he could play with anything. He’s just having a little blip but he will be swinging the club just fine by the time the Master's comes around." The McIlroy team used the needed excuse of a sore wisdom tooth, because a medical reason is required by the tour to avoid fines for walking off the golf course before completing a round. But there have been many doubts raised about the authenticity of the tooth excuse since McIlroy had given no previous indication he was having any issues other than with his golf game. “I’m a great fan of Rory’s, but I don’t think that was the right thing to do,” said Els after the round. And, even more problematic was the remark of McIlroy’s agent, Conor Ridge, who reportedly said, “He’s not hurt. He’s not sick. And he won’t answer his phone. I don’t know.” Dear readers, every professional sportsperson has his or her bad days. And they have to endure having them while a worldwide TV audience is watching. But, the mark of a real professional is that they take the bad just as calmly as they take the good. It is easy to smile and be polite and follow the rules when receiving the PGA Open winner's trophy. The real test is to endure and continue when you're 7 over after 8 holes on a very tough Nicklaus-designed Pro course. Rory McIlroy needs to grow up and into his #1 role. Golf will not long tolerate a lack of respect for the game - and certainly not from young Rory McIlroy.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Will John Kerry Make a Difference for the Syrian People?

In a joint news conference appearance on Saturday, Iran and Syria condemned a new American plan to provide $60 million in aid to assist rebels fighting to defeat President Bashar al-Assad, saying the Syrian leader intends to stay in power at least until the 2014 Syrian presidential election. The commentary came as a strategic military victory for the regime allowed al-Assad to regain control over a string of villages along a key highway that could open a supply route in Syria's heavily contested north. Damascus has announced that regime forces had eradicated the remnants of "terrorist agents and mercenaries" in the area that links the regime-controlled central city of Hama with Aleppo's international airport. The US announcement by new Secretary of State John Kerry came as a surprise because America and the international community hesitate to send weapons to the rebels out of fear they may fall into the hands of extremists who are gaining influence among the rebels. But Secretary Kerry announced on Thursday that the Obama administration would, for the first time, provide non-lethal aid directly to the rebels. Syrian Secretary of State Walid al-Moallem and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, accused Washington of having double standards and warned it will only delay an end to the civil war. They also set clear parameters for any future talks with the opposition, saying that whether Assad stays or goes will be decided in presidential elections scheduled for next year. Salehi went further, suggesting that al-Assad may run for another term, saying that individuals have the freedom to run as candidates. Until that time, "Assad is Syria's president," Salehi said at the news conference in Tehran. Al-Moallem said the Syrian people have the right to choose their leaders through the ballot box. He also accused Turkey and Qatar and other unnamed countries of supporting and funding "armed terrorist groups" operating in Syria, using the regime's terminology for the rebels. Both countries have strongly supported the rebels and have offered logistical and other assistance to Syrian opposition groups. ~~~~~ Dear readers, can we hope that US President Obama has finally decided to assume his rightful position at the head of the international community of Syrian rebel supporters? If so, the Russian-Iranian tandem that has been trying to lead the world toward a permanent acceptance of the al-Assad regime may have ceased to matter. And, if this is true, can we also imagine that the turnaround is the work of John Kerry? As Senator, he was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry has, it must be said, much more foreign relations experience than his predecessor as US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Perhaps because of this, his real influence with the President is greater and his vision of how to proceed in Syria more practical. We can hope so - for the sake of all Syrians.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The American Budget and Debt Crisis Continues

On Thursday, a Washington Post editorial blasted both Congress and President Barack Obama, saying they had chosen “not to govern” by refusing to reach a deal to stop the $85 billion in broad government cuts scheduled to take place on Friday. The Post concluded that rather than averting the sequester, “...each side has concluded that its interest lies in letting the ‘sequester’ proceed as scheduled — and then trying to win the political blame game. This abdication is bad public policy,” The Post said. Agreeing with every journalist and economist who has commented, the Post attacked the idea of indiscriminate agency cuts — and how these cuts will lead to employee furloughs and loss of services, while doing little to solve the nation’s long-term budget issues. Indeed, one GOP proposal would have given Obama more flexibility in deciding where to make cuts, but without raising taxes. The President refused the option to shift the cuts from higher to lower priority budgets. The Post commented, “Apparently, in addition to its policy objections, the White House figured that a softened sequester couldn’t force Republicans to accept a long-term deal including higher revenue. It’s a gamble that the worse things might get now, the better they will get later.“ A strange place, and a sad one,” the Post concluded. The dressing down by the Washington Post fell on deaf ears. The Senate took an up-and-down vote on Thursday on two bills, one each of the majority Democrats and the minority Republicans. Neither bill passed. The President, who should have forced congressional leaders to meet with him until a compromise was reached, chose instead to wait until Friday afternoon to call a White House meeting. It was far too late to avoid the cutbacks from coming into force at midnight Friday. And in truth, the one thing everyone agrees on is that the US must reduce its budget expenditures and its national debt. At the Friday White House meeting, the President and GOP leaders expressed their determination to not let the fight shut the government down on March 28 when the temporary extension of the debt ceiling expires. Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner's office said meeting participants agreed legislation should be enacted this month to continue government operations while Congress and the administration work separately to find ways to replace the automatic cuts. Perhaps a deal will be brokered this month, but both sides will have to be much more open to compromise. Obama has not succeeded to persuade Republicans to accept his proposal to reduce deficits with a blend of tax hikes and long-term reduction in entitlement spending. And, in fact, many Democrats see the President's willingness to deal away entitlements as a betrayal of the Democrat Party's central tenet. But Obama softened his own rhetoric on Friday. Although he called the cuts "dumb" and predicted they would hurt the economy, he said: "This is not going to be an apocalypse." Obama used the Friday meeting to again explain his 10-year, $1.5 trillion deficit reduction plan. His chances are squeezed by both anti-tax conservatives and by liberals unwilling to cut into Medicare and Social Security, and by the GOP leadership that has said it will refuse any new revenue after agreeing to Obama's demands two months ago for a higher tax rate for top income earners. But, the White House says it believes Republicans will again agree to additional tax revenue, both to avoid drastic cuts and to win reductions in Medicare and Social Security spending from Obama that they have been unable to get from Democrats before. For example, Obama talks about closing loopholes to gain more revenue, but his tax plan would apparently close many corporate loopholes to lower corporate tax rates, not to generate more revenue. The Obama plan also cuts Medicaid and Medicare entitlements. Republicans say they are not impressed. Boehner rejected the Obama plan last December. But, we should remember, dear readers, that these are deeply important issues for America. They touch wide swaths of the American public and will set the country's course for 50 years. The long gridlock reflects the importance of the decisions that must be made. The doom-and-gloom agitation of the media is partly a reflection of their very short-term timeframes - get the story out and hammer home a position. But these fiscal and budget issues do not fit the media story mold. Be patient. Speaker Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will find the way forward. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will join them, as will President Obama. "The impossible takes a little longer."