Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hezbollah Tests Obama's Indecision

While President Obama is trying to decide whether the Syrians foaming at their nostrils and mouths were hit by al-Assad regime chemical weapons, the first test of Obama's weak decision-making capability occurred. Lebanon's Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said Tuesday that Syrian rebels will not be able to defeat President Bashar al-Assad's regime militarily, warning that Syria's "real friends", including his Iranian-backed militant group, would intervene on al-Assad's side if the need arises. Hezbollah is already backing Syrian regime fighters in Shiite villages near the Lebanon border against the mostly Sunni rebel fighters. But the comments by were the strongest indication yet that his group was ready to become substantially involved to rescue Assad's embattled regime. "Syria has real friends in the region and in the world who will not allow Syria to fall in the hands of America or Israel or the Takfiris," he said, referring to followers of an al-Qaida like extremist idology, adding that America's accusations about chemical weapons are just an excuse to intervene militarily in Syria. Hezbollah and Iran, close allies of Assad, have been accused by rebels of sending fighters to assist Syrian troops trying to crush the 2-year-old Syrian uprising that is now a civil war. Nasrallah said Tuesday that there are no Iranian forces in Syria now, except for some experts who he said have been in Syria for decades. But he asked: "What do you imagine would happen in the future if things deteriorate in a way that requires the intervention of the forces of resistance in this battle?" Hezbollah is the most powerful military force in Lebanon, stronger than the national army. Its increasing involvement in Syria is already raising tensions inside the divided country and has drawn threats from Syrian rebels. And while Hezbollah was sabre-rattling around President Obama's indecision, Hezbollah's Gaza 'cousins', Hamas, became involved in a fray between the Israeli military and the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Jerusalem area. The group is a little-known al-Qaida affiliate that has claimed responsibility for a number of rocket attacks, including the current rocket launches into Eilat, a quiet seaside town that borders the Red Sea and Egypt's Sinai desert. Israel views the Eilat attack as an escalation. It accused Gaza militants of firing the rockets, which caused no injuries, out of Egypt's lawless Sinai desert. The Israelis made an aircraft attack on a motorcycle in Gaza Tuesday, killing a man who the military said was a top militant in the shadowy group involved in a recent rocket attack on southern Israel. It was the first deadly airstrike in Gaza since an Egyptian-brokered truce was reached with Palestinian militants last November, and is the most serious test yet of the Egyptian-brokered agreement. The Israelis said the dead cyclist Mishal "has been a key terror figure, specializing in weapons and working with all of the terror organizations in the Gaza Strip." They also said he manufactured weapons and specialized in rockets and explosive devices that he sold to militant groups. Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza, condemned Israel but worked to maintain the truce. "We call on Egypt to put pressure on the Israeli occupation to stop these crimes and to force them to honor the truce and stop the aggression," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum. He also called for a "joint and unified" effort by Gaza's various militant factions. Hamas considers the jihadi groups responsible for the recent rocket fire to be rivals, and has struggled to keep them in check. Since the cease-fire, Hamas has deployed security forces along the border areas with Israel and Egypt to help preserve the calm. Hamas, an Islamist group close to the Muslim Brotherhood now ruling neighboring Egypt, has cracked down on hardline Salafi rivals it sees as jeopardizing its control of the Gaza Strip. ~~~~~ So, dear readers, we have the peculiar situation in which Hezbollah in Lebanon-Syria and Hamas in Gaza, both terrorist groups, are doing Obama's dirty work by trying to control al-Qaida in Syria and Gaza - not to help America or Obama but to protect their own positions as regional powers. I have long since abandoned hope that Obama will do anything to protect Syrians or Israelis or Jordanians or Lebanese. But can Obama not see just how far his non-action has eroded the situation in the Middle East, leaving it open to a Hezbollah-Hamas hegemony.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"The past is a foreign country" - Sometimes

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”― L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between. ~~~~~ This quote has become iconic in the years since 1953, when Hartley wrote it in his novel. As I think about it today, 60 years later, I wonder to which part of life it most applies. POLITICS - we have have today the news that GOP New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has again said of Democrat President Barack Obama that he has "kept every promise he made" in helping New Jersey to recover from Superstorm Sandy. Christie said he disagrees with Obama 95% of the time but not on the recovery. This week New Jersey is to receive $1.8 billion in recovery aid. In the past, Christie would have taken the money and kept quiet about a President from the other party, but political favors are always the same : "You scratch my back; I'll scratch yours." FISCAL AFFAIRS - we learned today that under President Obama the US national debt has risen to an all-time high when measured as a percent of the income of the average family of four. It stands at $53,000 with the average per family income at $51,000. On the past, this would have been a catastrophic announcement, but today it goes by almost unnoticed. THE COLD WAR - we really don't have a Cold War today. It is very Hot although not at all conventional. US Intel...as we now call it instead of laying it all at the doorstep of the CIA, is hot on the trail of the Boston Marathon bombers' family and friends. We are informed every step of the way, although whether the public is getting any information about the reality of the situation could be questioned. This is more like the past, but with the twist that in the past we were told nothing and so knew nothing. Today, we are told "everything" and still probably know nothing. SPORTS - in a few simple sentences, NBA veteran Jason Collins put years of worry and silence behind him to become the first active player in any of the four major US professional sports leagues to come out as gay. Collins said, "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay." There is no question that in the past, this would have been handled differently. And not for the better. Being forced to lie about oneself - whether it's about one's money, family, friends or sexual preferences - only makes the person a likely target for blackmail, clinical depression or suicide. And that was often what happened in the past, especially in the past of the Cold War. And I doubt it has changed much. In this regard the past is the same country.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

France, Putin, and Same-Sex Marriage

No one was more surprised than the French at the popular outcry when Socialist President Hollande carried through on his campzign prpmise to legalise same-sex marriage in face of protests It's an issue that has divided French society for months, but this Tuesday, the National Assembly finally approved a bill making France the 14th country in the world to allow same-sex marriage. But the past months have seen widespread demonstrations, for and against, and even violent homophobic attacks. The oposition to the law, which also opens adoption to same-sex couples, remains strong and vocal even after the vote. Members of Parliament from the country’s main opposition party, Sarkozy's center-right Union for a Popular Movement, had earlier announced that they would challenge the legality of the new law before the Constitutional Council, the French high court that rules on matters of constitutionality. An opposition movement called La Manif Pour Tous, or Protest for All, say they intend to continue to demonstrate. On Tuesday night, hundreds of demonstrators congregated in front of the National Assembly, where opponents have held daily protests. Several dozen violent protesters, some wearing balaclavas, clashed with the riot police, but most remained peaceful. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have marched in cities all across France to protest the law, with much of their attention focused on adoption by gay couples. The opponents have deplored what they call a threat to the foundations of French society and an injustice for children who will be raised by parents of the same sex. The tagline for La Manif Pour Tous was "All Born from a Man and a Woman." The Guardian, the leading Labor-left newspaper in Britain, expressed concern about the rightwing "rabble-rousers". And if The Guardian was surprised, so were French pollsters. All the opinion polls showed that a large majority of French people (58%) favoured gay marriage and 49% backed adoption by homosexual couples. But month after month, the poll numbers fell. Everyone, from the newly elected Socialist government to gay movement leaders, underestimated the power of conservative groups. But, while rhe world vuews France as an avant-garde nation with very open sexual and societal mores, in fact, France is still a mainly Catholic country. And the Church stood very strongly against the marriage-for-all bill. So in January, when the debate started at the National Assembly, the national consensus fell to pieces. The French media are quick to mock the excesses of some anti-gay politicians and preachers in the US, but over the past few weeks France has had to face the fact of its own deep divisions concerning gay marriage and adoption. Now that the bill has been passed, the first same-sex marriage will be celebrated in June. Dominique Bertinotti, the family minister, said:" It's time for healing." But the question is, can the French easily get over it? The anti-gay marriage movement has more demonstrations planned for May, and some MPs have suggested they wil overturn the law as soon as they find themselves with a parliamentary majority. Can those two Frances really make peace? One prominent voice siding with the anti-gay movement is Russian President Vladimir Putin. He signaled on Friday that Moscow would seek changes in an agreement regulating adoptions of Russian children by French parents, saying the French law allowing same-sex marriage went against traditional Russian values. Any move to scrap the year-old agreement with France, or impose new restrictions, would deepen a divide between Putin and European nations over homosexuality and gay rights. Putin has often championed socially conservative values since he began a third term last May. Putin, in power as president or prime minister since 2000, has spoken repeatedly in his new presidential term about the importance of what he has called traditional values and has drawn closer to the Russian Orthodox Church. Russia's parliament, in which the pro-Putin United Russia has a majority, has given preliminary approval to a ban on "homosexual propaganda" targeting minors, which critics say would effectively ban gay rights demonstrations. ~~~~~ Dear readers, I have hesitated to enter this deeply personal and divisive dispute, mostly because it has become difficult to oppose any aspect of gay rights without being labeled a right-wing "rabble-rouser." But let me express my opinion. As always, your comments would be welcome and respected. For me, the state is the final word concerning civil rights, if a majority of its citizens are in agreement. So when a state grants civil recognition and full rights to same-sex couples, I do not object. But, there is no definitive evidence either for or against the personal or societal effect of permitting children to be adopted and/or raised in same-sex couple homes. So, I oppose this aspect of same-sex civil rights legislation. As for "marriage" - if the state wants to grant the right to, and perform, civil marriages, I consider that within tbe state's right. But, because I fully support the separation of church and state and the fundamental right to freedom of religion, I oppose any legislation so broadly written as to make it likely that religious marriage is included in the civil rights granted to same-sex couples. I take this position because I can foresee finally, with the enactment of broad-brush same-sex marriage laws, that a church will refuse to perform the marriage and the courts may feel compelled to intervene on the side of the state. This would be contrary to the fundamental right to freedom of religion and the separation of church and state, and I prefer to prevent this argument from ever being necessary.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Crunch Time for President Obama

Thursday, senior members of the Obama administration held their preliminary strategy rehearsal about the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian al-Assad regime - in public. Soon after the White House released a letter sent to Senator John McCain and other members of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, the US Secretaries of Defense and State gave public statements which were clearly not coordinated. The effect in Europe and the Middle East was to make their own public statements asking what Obama was planning to do. Obama's own cautious response to Syria's likely use of sarin or other chemical weapons reflects a lack of agreement in Washington, and perhaps in his own administration, over whether to take aggressive military action. Lawmakers in both parties fear that inaction may embolden not only Syrian President al-Assad but other US foes as well. The administration made clear today that even a quick strike isn't imminent because they are trying to corroborate their information. Obama has insisted that the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" in the sand, but now he is saying that he needs more evidence to bolster intelligence assessments. Secretary of State John Kerry held a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill today with House Republicans and Democrats and afterward expressed uncertainty about the appropriate next step as the Obama administration considers limited military options. Lawmakers are opposed to a "boots on the ground" US military invasion, fearing that the American public is war-weary after more than 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hal Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said, "I think probably we should be asking the UN to be involved. I think perhaps that's in the making." Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, joined other lawmakers in calling for a cautious approach to Syria at the same time that they acknowledged the seriousness of the situation. US credibility and international authority are on the line in Syria. If al-Assad manages to delay or avoid US and UN action, the message sent to rogue states such as North Korea and Iran could lead to a global escalation of dangerous and unpredictable proportions. Because the United States has taken the position that chemical weapon use crosses a line, then failure to respond has implications, according to Representative David Cicilline, a Democrat who is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. GOP Representatove John Mica said, "I think the president was saying the use of chemical weapons is a game changer. I think most people agree with that. So that if we in fact determine that chemical weapons were used, I think the expectation is that we and the coalition and others take some action." Mixa suggested that the red line is "turning into a pink line." Meanwhile, in Syria, officials rejected the US intelligence assessment and denied that it had used chemical weapons. Asked about Syria's answer, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said, "If the regime has nothing to hide they should let the UN investigators in immediately so we can get to the bottom of this." And, there is also another cold reality facing President Obama and the international community - a military group fighting alongside the Syrian Free Army has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, making the deployment of weapons as dangerous as it would be if these groups got hold of al-Assad's chemical weapon stockpiles. This confirms what Senator John McCain said more than a year ago - the longer America and the world waits to help the rebels, the more they will be infiltrated by terrorist groups loyal to al-Qaida and Iran. But the idea of creating a free zone at the Turkish border or a no-fly zone poses a significant challenge, as Syria has an air defense system far more robust than the one brought down by the US and its allies in Libya two years ago. GOP South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham also expressed his concerns about the infiltration of Syrian rebel forces by al-Qaida affiliates. In an interview, Graham said, "Right weapons in right hands is the goal. The second war is coming. I think we can arm the right people with the right weapons. There's a risk there, but the risk of letting this go and chemical weapons falling into radical Islamists' hands is the greatest risk." Thus far, the United States has provided only non-lethal aid, including military-style equipment such as body armor and night vision goggles and also heavily participated in NATO's placement of Patriot missile batteries in Turkey near the border to protect against an attack from Syria. ~~~~~ Dear readers, this is not the time for President Obama to engage in his usual lead-from-behind style of presidency. He and the US must take a decisive leadership role in the current Syrian crisis. Otherwise, the Middle East could easily spin down into chaos. And if that happens, it will be America and its somewhat neutralizd allies, Israel and the Gulf states, who will lose. Lose face. Lose ground. Lose what's left of their credibility.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Joe Biden's Undignified Rhetoric

In a speech at the memorial service Wednesday for Sean Collier, a campus police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was ambushed and killed in his cruiser by the two brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon the bombings, Vice President Joe Biden called the two brothers "...perverted, cowardly, knockoff jihadists.". The Vice President may have been carried away emotionally by the occasion. Or it may have been just the latest example of Joe Biden's rabble-rousing rhetoric meant to appeal to the basest of human instincts in order to gain political points. I found it reprehensible and far, far below the dignity of the office of US Vice President. Please, Mr. Vice President, a little more decorum is in order.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

US Citizen Terrorist Acts and the Constitution

The Miranda warning is a criminal procedure rule that law enforcement officers are required to administer to an individual who is in custody and subject to direct questioning or its functional equivalent in order to protect his or her Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination. In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court held that the admission in a criminal trial of an "elicited" incriminating statement by a suspect not informed of these rights violates the Fifth and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. So, if law enforcement officials decline to offer a Miranda warning to an individual in their custody, they may interrogate that person and act upon the knowledge gained, but may not use that person's statements to incriminate him or her in a criminal trial. The Miranda rule is not absolute and can be more elastic in cases of public safety. Under public safety exceptions, to be admissible in the government's direct case at a trial, the questioning must not be "actually compelled by police conduct which overcame his will to resist," and must be focused and limited, involving a situation "in which police officers ask questions reasonably prompted by a concern for the public safety." The public safety exception was very narrowly applied until 2010, when the Federal Bureau of Investigation encouraged agents to use a broad interpretatieon of public safety-related questions in terrorism cases, stating that the "magnitude and complexity" of terrorist threats justified "a significantly more extensive public safety interrogation without Miranda warnings than would be permissible in an ordinary criminal case," listing such examples as: "questions about possible impending or coordinated terrorist attacks; the location, nature and threat posed by weapons that might pose an imminent danger to the public; and the identities, locations, and activities or intentions of accomplices who may be plotting additional imminent attacks." A Department of Justice spokesman described this position as not altering the constitutional right, but as clarifying the existing flexibility in the rule. ~~~~~ Based on the above, dear readers, it seems clear that the FBI has the right to interrogate the Boston bombing suspect on certain elements surrounding the bombings without administering his Miranda rights. Of course, if the suspect were to be treated as an enemy combatant he would have even fewer rights to protection from self-incrimination. But, the White House announced earlier this week that the surviving suspect will not be tried as an enemy combatant in a military tribunal. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be prosecuted in the federal court system, a conclusion supportd by President Obama’s entire national security team. On Monday, federal prosecutors charged Tsarnaev with one count of using a weapon of mass destruction and one count of malicious destruction of property resulting in death. The charges authorize penalties including death, life in prison, or a term in prison for any number of years. Tsarnaev is a naturalized U.S. citizen and the White House said that under US law, American citizens cannot be tried in military commissions as an enemy combatant could be, adding that since 9/11, the federal court system has been used to convict and incarcerate hundreds of terrorists. And, without being bound by the Miranda rule, the federal prosecutors will arrive at essentially the same interrogation place as if Tsarnaev were to be treated as an enemy combatant. And because he is a US citizen, the prosecution is precluded from sending him to a military court or to Guantanamo Base. Either of these might yield slightly more intelligence but a federal civilian interrogation and trial without the Miranda rule applying to what the suspect may know about terrorist acts in the planning stage or about about other terrorist activiies may well be just as successful. In the meantime, the White House and the Justice Department ought to be engaged in preparing a comprehensive legal framework, with draft legislation, to cover this area - US citizen terrorist acts on US soil, with suggestions for specific monitoring techniques that would pass constitutional muster - for future cases that may not be as clearcut as the Boston bombings case.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

US Citizenship and Homegrown Terrorism

Dear readers, today let's consider what former US Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served under President Bush and understands the problems and practices asociated with terrorists in America, has to say about the Boston Marathon bombings. Mukasey wrote an op-ed piece published in The Wall Street Journal Sunday. In it, he said that the Boston Marathon bombings were unmistakably a jihadist act, but that the Obama administration has disbanded the CIA interrogation group charged with investigating such plots, leaving America more vulnerable to future threats. Mukasey looks beyond the threat posed by the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, “...if your concern is over the larger threat...then worry - a lot.” ~~~~~ WORRY #1. Mukasey wonders how the High-Value Interrogation Group (HIG) will even be able to do its job. HIG was formed by the FBI after the “underwear bomber” was read his Miranda rights in 2009 because President Barack Obama had disbanded the CIA interrogation program that might have run the interrogation of the bomber without Miranda rights. The two prigrams are very different in their tactics and goals, according to Mukasey. He criticizes the FBI for watering down its training materials at the request of controversial Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups such as the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America, noting that they no longer even mention references to militant Islamism. “Does this delicacy infect the FBI's interrogation group as well?” he asks. "Will we see another performance like the Army's after-action report following Major Nidal Hasan's rampage at Fort Hood in November 2009, preceded by his shout 'allahu akhbar' - a report that spoke nothing of militant Islam but referred to the incident as 'workplace violence'?...If tone is set at the top, recall that the Army chief of staff at the time said the most tragic result of Fort Hood would be if it interfered with the Army's diversity program," Mukasey writes. ~~~~~ WORRY #2. Mukasey also wonders whether the probe will look into the FBI’s previous questioning of Tamerlan, after questions were raised by a foreign government, presumably Russia, about radical leanings.“ Tamerlan Tsarnaev is the fifth person since 9/11 who has participated in terror attacks after questioning by the FBI,” Mukasey writes. ~~~~~ WORRY #3. The Tsarnaevs obviously were conducting a suicide operation, Mukasey says, though not the type in which one blows himself up along with his intended victims. Rather, the brothers went about it “in the way of someone who conducts a spree, holding the stage for as long as possible, before he is cut down in a blaze of what he believes is glory." It had been believed such attacks were unlikely on American soil since organizers would find it hard to find enough spiritual support to keep would-be suicide attackers focused. “That analysis went out the window when the Tsarnaevs followed up the bombing of the marathon by murdering a police officer in his car - an act certain to precipitate the violent confrontation that followed,” Mukasey writes. US defenses put in place since 9/11 have led to smaller, less complicated crimes, according to Mukasey, pointing to the Times Square attempted bomber. These smaller events are still intended to send a message of terror But Mukasey suggests that message may be lost on a President who seems preoccupied with Islamic sensibilities, and not American security. "There is also cause for concern in the President's reluctance, soon after the Boston bombing, even to use the 't' word - terrorism - and in his vague musing on Friday about some unspecified agenda of the perpetrators, when by then there was no mystery: the agenda was jihad." ~~~~~ WORRY #4. For five years there have been claims that Americans need to learn how to change the Muslim world’s perception of the United States. Mukasey notes that few have focused on a more important question: why we are hated. He says that the ideology of hatred began with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in the early part of the 20th century. The ideology has regarded the United States as its principal adversary since the late 1940s, when a Brotherhood principal, Sayid Qutb, visited this country and was aghast at what he saw as its decadence.” One of the most influential Muslim thinkers of the last 100 years, Qutb is required in the curricula of the Arab world's finest universities. The first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, US embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and the 9/11 attacks were all fueled by hatred of American values that has its roots in Qutb's writings, according to Mukasey, yet despite this, no outreach is extended to critical Muslim organizations in the United States, such as the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, that speak out against the totalitarian Islamic ideology, Mukasey points out. "There are Muslim organizations in this country, such as the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, headed by Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, that speak out bravely against that totalitarian ideology. They receive no shout-out at presidential speeches; no outreach is extended to them," he added. At least one person seems to agree with Mukasey about the FBI. South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham says the FBI is going to need more legal clout in order to effectively track Muslim extremist activity in the United States. On Monday, Graham called on Congress to “revisit’’ the laws controlling the FBI’s ability to track Islamic radicals. He noted the agency interviewed Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011 at the request of the Russian government, which wanted to access his ties to Chechen terrorists, but Tsarnaev didn’t become a radical islamist until later. "In 2012 and 2013, when he became more radical, when he went on the Internet, when he interacted with this imam in Boston, the FBI tells me there are limitations on what they can do in situations like that,” Graham said in an interview with Fox News. “What the FBI told me sounded very reasonable. But the FBI's hands are tied here when it comes to following radical Islamist websites, and we're at war, folks. And if we don't realize it, there's gonna be more of this....I don't want a police state,” Graham added. “But I want a nation where the police can protect us.” ~~~~~ Dear readers, the elephant in the American legal room, the unspoken fact here is that tge older brother was a legal US resident and the younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who survived, is a naturalized US citizen. If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had bombed and killed people in Boston as a "non-terrorist," he would have received his Miranda rghts and the federal case would go forward according to normal procedural rules. But Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is not the Aurora cinema killer. He is a radical islamist aligned with foreign groups and organizations whose goal is the destruction of the United States. The US is a country of laws...and it makes huge efforts to see that its laws are applied evenly so that even the most despicable of criminals gets a fair trial. Criminal. Is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a criminal or is he something else that makes his rights something else, too, something lesser? Think about this question. It is not easy to answer despite those who would instantly say that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a lesser being under US law. We'll consider this question tomorrow.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Boston Bombings and Immigration Reform

Unlike his almost obsessive desire to have legislation on gun control leading to his complete defeat at the hands of his Democrat-controlled Senate, President Obama's goal of enacting immigration legislation appeared to have a clearer path to passage. Considering the growing political power of Hispanic voters, who voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the November election and the effort of Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio to find a compromise path to immigration reform, it also becomes clearer why some Republicans have recently reversed their opposition to an immigration bill that could grant citizenship to millions of people living in the US illegally. But that GOP reversal may have been cut short by the Boston Marathon bombings. When it was revealed by authorities that the bombing suspects were immigrants, even though there is no evidence that the men entered the US illegally, some Republicans seized on the events in Boston to raise questions about the existing immigration system and the proposed legislation. Despite the administration's desire to move on in the face of the Boston bombings, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer warns, "the smartest thing the White House can do is pause....they need to give it time and space to let the events settle." But Fleischer, who served in the White House during the September 11 and anthrax attacks, said putting on the brakes could prove difficult for the Obama White House, which began the year with a bold domestic agenda that they want to accomplish before mid-term congressional elections and the 2016 presidential race take center stage. Do the events in Boston suggest that President Obama is headed toward another major defeat? It's far too soon to judge. But with the specter of immigrants who moved to America only to seemingly become enmeshed in Islamist causes and undertake a senseless murder spree of innocents, and with the likelihood that the FBI was warned about one of the suspects and appears to have mishandled their investigation, Americans may have legitimate questions about how safe they really are with millions of illegal immigrants already in their country. These questions might also lead them to ask whether legalizing these illegals would make Americans safer or less safe. One thing is sure - the immigration reform and its proposed "path to citizenship" are in for harder times in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, and Obama's immigration reform efforts may well end like his gun control effort - thwarted by a GOP-conservative Democrat coalition in his own Democrat-controlled Senate.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Napolitano Re-elected President as Italy's Political Crisis Drags On

The Italian parliament on Saturday re- elected President Giorgio Napolitano to serve an unprecedented second term in an attempt to resolve the political stalemate caused by February's inconclusive parliamentary election. Napolitano was overwhelmingly elected by the 1,007 parliamentarians and regional representatives in a sixth round of voting after they had failed to find a mutually acceptable candidate in the previous attempts. As most of parliament cheered his re-election, a group of around 500 demonstrators protested outside, with a much larger rally planned later in the day. Normally, the presidency is a largely ceremonial position, but at times of political instability the president plays a crucial role in forming a government and has the power to dissolve parliament. At 87, Napolitano is one of the world's oldest heads of state and the fact that most of the main political forces virtually begged him to accept after he refused several times to be a candidate for re-election is a commentary on the state of Italian politics. Even Silvio Berlusconi visited him early on Saturday, apparenrly in an attempt to persuade him to continue as president. In almost two months since the parliamentary election, Napolitano has failed to broker a solution to the political gridlock, which left no coalition with enough seats in parliament to form a government. Napolitano is now expected to push for a broad coalition government. This possibility has been rejected by the center-left, which won most seats in the February election, as well as by the center-right led by Silvio Berlusconi. On Saturday, Mr. Napolitano became the first president in Italian history to secure a second seven-year term. "I consider it necessary to offer my availability," said Napolitano, who had been due to step down on 15 May. "I cannot shun my responsibility towards the nation," he added. Many of the demonstrators outside the Italian parliament were supporters of Beppe Grillo, the former comedian who is leader of the anti-corruption, anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. Grillo called on "millions" of Italians to join him in protest outside parliament later on Saturday to express their opposition to Napolitano's re-election which Grillo called a "coup d'etat." Parliament began the presidential election process on Thursday, but MPs voted five times without naming a winner. In desperation they turned to Napolitano, who should have been preparing to retire. And to make matters even worse, on Friday, the leader of Italy's center-left alliance, Pier Luigi Bersani, said he would resign as soon as a new president was elected. Bersani announced the news to his Democratic Party (PD) after many MPs in his center-left alliance refused to back his preferred candidate for president. Bersani’s departure will create a battle for leadership of the PD, which was founded in 2007 to unite numerous smaller, leftist and centrist parties. His resignation could pave the way for his rival, Matteo Renzi, the 38-year-old mayor of Florence. According to Reuters, Renzi enjoys wide public support, but is viewed with suspicion by the old PD hierarchy. The PD party won an outright majority in the lower house of parliament in February’s election, but not in the upper house, or senate. With Bersani's resignation, the future of the PD may now be in question. "The Democratic Party is tumbling down. This is the end of an era," according to Massimo Franco, a political commentator in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. Three months ago, Bersani seemed poised to become the next Italian prime minister, but the deep political divisions in the country raise questions not only about finding a governing coalition but also about whether much needed economic reforms can be implemented to revive Italy's economy, stagnating for the past 20 years. While the newcomer 5-Star Movement got a quarter of all votes in the February election, in what was its first national election, reflecting the anger among Italians at economic hardship and political corruption, it remains unclear whether the 5-star Movement could even govern Italy. But if a governing parliamentary coalition is not formed soon, the newly elected President Napolitano will have to call for new elections - even though it is not clear that the outcome would be any better than in February. Italy's political crisis is a drag on Europe and on the Euro and someone must somehow put an end to it.

Friday, April 19, 2013

April 19,1943 - The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

LEST WE FORGET. Today is the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the German Nazi occupation and systematic elimination of the Polish Jewish community durong World War II. April 19, 1943 - the first organized act of Jewish resistance against the holocaust. In the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Polish Jews fought against Nazi Germany's final effort to transport the remaining Ghetto population to the Treblinka extermination camp. The most significant portion of the rebellion took place beginning 19 April 1943, and ended when the poorly armed and supplied resistance was crushed by the Germans, who officially finished their operation to liquidate the Ghetto on 16 May. It was the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II. To understand the situation, we should remember that in 1940, German occupational authorities began to concentrate Poland's three million Jews into a number of extremely crowded ghettos located in large Polish cities. The largest of these, the Warsaw Ghetto, concentrated 300,000 – 400,000 people into a densely packed 1.3 square mile central area of Warsaw. Thousands of Jews died due to rampant disease and starvation under the SS, even before the mass deportations from the Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp began. Just before the first operation began in summer 1942, the German "Resettlement Commissioner" called a meeting of the Ghetto Jewish Council to explain the "resettlement to the East." The Council decided not to oppose the resettlement, but when the truth was learned, the Council president committed suicide. On 18 January 1943, the Germans began their second deportation of the Warsaw Jews, which led to the first instance of armed insurgency within the Ghetto. While Jewish families hid in their so-called "bunkers", fighters of the Polish ghetto resistance reacted, engaging the Germans in direct clashes. The deportation was halted within a few days. Only 5,000 Jews were removed, instead of the 8,000 planned. Hundreds of people in the Warsaw Ghetto were ready to fight, adults and children, poorly armed with handguns, gasoline bottles, and a few other weapons that had been smuggled into the Ghetto by resistance fighters. Two resistance organizations, the ŻZW and ŻOB, took control of the Ghetto, built dozens of fighting posts and executed a number of Nazi collaborators, including Jewish Police officers and members of the fake (German-sponsored and controlled) resistance organization Żagiew, as well as Gestapo agents. On 19 April 1943, on the eve of Passover, the police and SS auxiliary forces entered the Ghetto. They were planning to complete the deportation action within three days, but were ambushed by Jewish insurgents firing and tossing Molotov cocktails and hand grenades from alleyways, sewers and windows. The Germans suffered casualties and their advance bogged down. Two of their combat vehicles were set on fire by insurgent petrol bombs. Because the SS commander failed to contain the revolt, he was replaced by SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, who proceeded to lead a better-organized and reinforced ground attack. The longest-lasting defense of a position took place at Muranowski Square where the ŻZW chief leader, Dawid Moryc Apfelbaum, was killed in combat. On the afternoon of 19 April, a symbolic event took place when two boys climbed up on the roof of a building on the square and raised two flags, the red-and-white Polish flag and the blue-and-white banner of the ŻZW resistance. These flags remained there, highly visible from the Warsaw streets, for four days. After the war, Stroop recalled: "The matter of the flags was of great political and moral importance. It reminded hundreds of thousands of the Polish cause, it excited them and unified the population of the General Government, but especially Jews and Poles. Flags and national colours are a means of combat exactly like a rapid-fire weapon, like thousands of such weapons. We all knew that – Heinrich Himmler, Krüger, and Hahn. The Reichsfuehrer [Himmler] bellowed into the phone: 'Stroop, you must at all costs bring down those two flags!'" When Stroop's ultimatum to surrender was rejected by the defenders, his forces resorted to systematically burning houses block by block using flamethrowers and fire bottles and blowing up basements and sewers. "We were beaten by the flames, not the Germans," a Jewish survivor said in 2007, recalling: "The sea of flames flooded houses and courtyards....There was no air, only black, choking smoke and heavy burning heat radiating from the red-hot walls, from the glowing stone stairs." While the battle continued inside the Ghetto, Polish resistance groups AK and GL engaged the Germans between 19 and 23 April at six different locations outside the Ghetto walls, firing at German sentries and positions. In one attack, three units of the AK joined in a failed attempt to breach the Ghetto walls with explosives. Finally, the resistance lost all of its commanders and on 29 April the remaining fighters escaped the Ghetto through the Muranowski tunnel and relocated to the Michalin forest, marking the end of significant fighting. Organized defense collapsed and surviving fighters and thousands of remaining Jewish civilians took cover in the sewer system and in the many dugout bunkers. The Germans used dogs to look for such hideouts then usually dropped smoke bombs down to force people out. Sometimes they flooded the bunkers or destroyed them with explosives. A number of captured fighters - especially women - lobbed hidden grenades or fired concealed handguns after surrendering. The suppression of the uprising officially ended on 16 May 1943, when Stroop personally pushed a detonator button to demolish the Great Synagogue of Warsaw. In the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 13,000 Jews were killed - 6,000 burnt alive or smoke-suffocated. After the Uprising, the remaining 50,000 Warsaw Ghetto Jews were transported to work or extermination camps, most to Treblinka. Survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, known as the "Ghetto Fighters," went on to found the kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta'ot ("Ghetto Fighters"), which is located north of Acre in Israel. In 1984, members of the kibbutz published Edut ("Testimonies of Survival"), four volumes of personal testimonies from 96 kibbutz members. The settlement features a museum and archives dedicated to remembering the Holocaust. In 2008, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenaz led a group of Israel Defense Force officials to the site of the uprising and spoke about the event's "importance for IDF combat soldiers." A Warsaw Ghetto survivor interviewed today on French television said that she is concerned that fascist groups in Europe may try to restart the Jewish persecution prevalent all over Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. She also said that she stays in Poland because it is a relatively 'safe' place to live as a European Jew. ~~~~~ Dear readers, it is important not to forget the horrendous details of the Holocaust. But, above all, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising speaks to the unbreakable human spirit, to man's indomitable faith in the value of human existence, to the undying strength of the Jewish people...and it reminds all of us, each man and woman, that we are the past, the present and the future, and that we are all individually responsible for every other human being ever born. That is the significance in the words "eternal vigilance" of Thomas Jefferson.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Does Obama Recognize the Real World?

The second term of Barack Obama is coming unglued. The president is increasingly occupied with terrorism, politics, and disaster. After Boston's deadly terrorist bombs Monday, Obama lost a fight in the Senate for gun control measures he had personally championed. He also was the target, along with a US Senator, of letters that showed traces of poisonous ricin, and faced the Thursday news of a powerful fertilizer plant explosion that devastated a small Texas town. In addition, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, one of the health reform law’s chief authors, says he’s worried about a “huge train wreck coming down” if the Obama administration doesn’t improve its public outreach about Obamacare. Baucus, a Montana Democrat who is up for reelection in 2014, sharply criticized the administration’s outreach efforts in a budget hearing on Wednesday. He told Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that people and businesses “have no idea what to do, what to expect” from the law....I am concerned that not every state, including Montana, will have an insurance marketplace established in time.” And we need to add to this presidential disaster list the ongoing concern among Americans that Obama is failing to control events in the Middle East, specifically in Syria and Iran, and that his efforts to bring North Korea to the negotiating table have failed. ~~~~~ Dear readers, it may be that the very groups that have tried to lionize Obama and protect him from criticism - namely, the media and his own counsellors - have done him the greatest disservice. Washington politics is high powered, compressed into short up-and-down informal evaluations, and it is both a team and an individual activity. Barack Obama has been protected and sheltered from most of this by his own personality and lack of practical political experience, and also by those who have excused or failed to even criticize his missteps. The consequence is that the President believes everything he thinks or wants to do is right. He thinks a large majority of Americans always agree with him. He thinks he can have whatever he wants. It will, if it has not already, destroy his ability to lead, to act with reason and to evaluate his ideas and plans against reality. It is a dangerous situation for America and for the world - and it may be too late to repair the damage before a new President is elected in 2016.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Margaret Thatcher Belongs to the Ages Now

The funeral for Margaret Thatcher was formal and personal at the same time. It is not often that when a casket enters a church the mourners rise to applaud. They applauded Mrs. Thatcher today at St. Paul's Cathedral. The British people turned out in the thousands to watch the cortege pass. Those who had threatened to interfere were few and unimportant. The woman who was the creator of modern Britain still dominates post-World War II British politics. Her conservative beliefs about personal liberty and responsibility, her speeches and leadership style are the foundation for all British political discussions and programs -- one is a Thatcherite or one is not, but one must deal with the Iron Lady. In Europe, that legacy is carried on by current British Prime Minister David Cameron and if his call for Europe to roll back much of its mindless regulation to the member nations succeeds, it will be another victory for Mrs. Thatcher. We who loved Margaret Thatcher for her political courage and determination also knew that she was a Christian whose efforts at making economic and political equality a reality were founded not only in her conservative principles but in her religious convictions. Representatives from 170 countries were present to bid her farewell today. She is gone from us but her long shadow protects and encourages us still, wherever we may be in the world she loved, challenged and left better than she found it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston, an Illustrious Hub of American Patriotism

Dear readers, we are all aware of the horrible events surrounding the terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon yesterday. But, instead of going over the terrible details, let's talk about Boston, the ciry where it occurred. Boston, the largest city in New England and the fifth largest metropolitan area in the United States, is called the Cradle of Liberty because of its crucial role as a political hub in the American colonies and as the original leader in the American Revolution. Boston's motto is "Sicut patribus sit Deus nobis" (God was with our fathers, so may He be us). Boston is one of the oldest cities in the United States, founded on the Shawmut Peninsula in 1630 by Puritan colonists from England. It was the scene of key events of the American Revolution, including : (1). The Boston Massacre, known as the Incident on King Street by the British, occurred on March 5, 1770, when British Army soldiers killed five civilian men and injured six others; British troops had been stationed in Boston since 1768 in order to protect crown-appointed colonial officials attempting to enforce unpopular Parliamentary legislation, and amid growing tensions, a mob formed around a British sentry, who was subjected to verbal abuse and harassments leading to the arrival of eight additional soldiers, who fired into the crowd, without orders, instantly killing three people and wounding others. Two more people died later before the mob dispersed, but it reformed the next day, driving the British troops out of the center of Boston - the Boston Massacre is often cited as the real behinning of the American rebellion against the British. (2). The Boston Tea Party is surely the most famous single event in Boston's history, setting the colonists on the path to independence when Bostonians dumped tea into Boston Harbor rather than pay the British tax on it. (3). Paul Revere's famous "midnight ride" warning that the British Redcoat soldiers were matching toward the battles of Lexington and Concord. (4). The Battle of Bunker Hill and the Siege of Boston on June 15, 1775 - the American colonists heard that the British planned to control the Charlestown peninsula between the Charles and Mystic Rivers that include Bunker and Breed's Hill overlooking both Boston and its harbor, thus making the hills critical vantage points. In order to beat the British to the high ground, American soldiers dug into and fortified the Hill under cover of night on June 16 and at dawn, the British were stunned to see Breed's Hill fortified overnight with a 160-by-30-foot earthen structure. British General Gage dispatched 2,300 troops under the command of Major General Howe to take control of the hill. So, the Battle of Bunker Hill actually took place on Breed's Hill when fighting began at daybreak. As soon as the men on British frigates awoke they opened fire on the colonial fortifications. General Gage ordered his men to try and take control of the hill. An American soldier, would later write, “There was a matter of 40 barges full of Regulars coming over to us...the enemy landed and fronted before us and formed themselves in an oblong square...and after they were well formed they advanced towards us, but they found a choakly [sic] mouthful of us.” When the British forces were firmly established on the ground at the base of the hill they proceeded to charge, expecting to march up the hill and just scare the colonists away. The British Regulars advanced with bayonets fixed; many of their muskets were not even loaded. The British troops, wearing their bright red wool jackets and weighed down by heavy equipment marched up hill over farm fields and low stone walls hidden in the tall grass. As the colonists saw this massive red line approach slowly and steadily, they remained calm and did not open fire. The fact they waited so long to commence an attack was because their General Prescott has been assumed to have given the famous order, "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes." Once the British came within range, the colonists began firing, and the British soldiers started to fall rapidly and were driven back twice, but on their third and final thrust forward the British were able to break through the colonists' line, overrunning the tentative American fortifications, thus taking the hill. The colonists had run out of ammunition and supplies. The colonists fled back up the peninsula since it was their only escape route. This battle was one of the deadliest of the Revolutionary War and although the British technically won the battle because they took control of the hill, they suffered too many losses to fully benefit from it. The British had suffered more than one thousand casualties out of the 2,300 who fought. The colonists only suffered 400 to 600 casualties from an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 men. Besides having fewer deaths than the British, the colonists believe they had won in other ways as well. The Americans had proved to themselves, and the rest of the world that they could stand up to the British army in traditional warfare. And only a few days later, George Washington would lead a group of men up to Dorchester Heights, aiming their cannons at the British, and then watch the Red Coats retreat from the hill. So even though the British had won the battle, it was a short lived victory since the colonists took control quickly afterward. ~~~~~ I give you a piece of Boston's illustrious and patriotic history, dear readers, to say that Bostonians are tough-minded, fiercely proud and liberty-loving, and the bombs of yesterday, horrible as they were, will never defeat the New England Yankee Boston spirit. We grieve with Boston but we know her soul will rise to meet the needs of this latest assault on her freedom.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Markets, the Eurozone and Gold

The markets are on the rise in the United States but not in Europe, although even Wall Street took a big hit today after China announced a 7.7% growth in its economy, lower than expected. The dollar is hovering near $1.30 to €1.00. Japan is pumping Yen into its economy at a rate that would make Ben Bernanke blush - and is having to defend itself against accusations that it is deliberately driving the Yen down against other currencies in order to improve its worldwide trade position by having a less costly currency. And, everyone is selling gold, that bulwark against inflation and lately become the subject of serious discussions about a return to the gold standard - that is, forcing central banks to support their paper currencies with gold that could be demanded as payment by presenting the paper money to the central bank. That, as we all can well imagine, would put a huge wrench into the world's central banks, because it costs them nothing now to simply print as much paper money as they need to keep their economies afloat. In fact, while the obvious reasons for the fall in the price of gold are the threat of Eurozone leaders to force Cyprus, and perhaps Spain and Italy, to sell their gold reserves to cover their bailout needs - some think the whole idea of selling sovereign state reserve gold is precisely to prevent gold from becoming a standard for world currencies because that would end their ability to print paper money at will. And, some say that the money pumped into the US economy by Bernanke is causing the rise on Wall Street, fed by the return of individual investors. But Yale University economist Stephen Roach told CNBC on Friday, "Japan had its zombie corporations; we have zombie consumers." Roach, a former Morgan Stanley chief economist, disagrees with the notion that US buyers have recovered from the 2008 crisis. "The next time somebody says, 'yeah, the American Consumer is back,' ask them to try to justify that against...one number : Five years of consumption growth, in real terms, of less than one percent a year." Friday's soft-looking economic data supports Roach. The latest reading on consumer sentiment fell to a nine-month low in April, and retail sales showed another contraction in March, following last week's report of weaker job growth. ~~~~~ So, dear readers, we need to wait and watch. Will Cyprus actually sell its gold? Will the Eurozone be able to hold its currency together? Will central banks be forced to cut back on money printing by forces demanding some sort of value, perhaps gold, to support the paper? And is the American consumer back in sufficient force to drive the US economy upward? It all could be a soap opera, except that it is very serious for everyone. The world's two largest gold holders are probably George Soros and John Paulson. Soros says he's selling gold ETF holdings. Paulson so far has not said he's selling. Take your choice.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Tiger Woods and Tianlang Guan...Who Got the Penalty They Deserved?

Anyone who has been reading my blogs for awhile knows that sometimes I epitomize the old aphorism, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Well here we go. ~~~~~ Tiger Woods was given a two-shot penalty for a bad drop but was allowed to stay in the Masters Golf tournament after his shot on the par-5 15th hole of the second round on Friday hit the flag stick and bounced back into the water. I saw the shot live and I have to say, dear readers, I have never seen anything like it. It was heart-wrenching to watch a nearly perfect approach shot turn into a water hazard penalty. Well, Tiger took his penalty drop two yards behind where he hit the original shot, which was a rules violation. Augusta National reviewed the incident Saturday morning before the third round began and assessed the two-stroke penalty for an improper drop. Woods had a 73 instead of a 71 and went into the weekend five shots out of the lead. But the Masters Committee didn't disqualify him for signing an incorrect scorecard under a new rule - announced at the Masters two years ago - that allows a player to stay in the tournament if a rules dispute was based on television evidence. Here is Tiger's explanation of what happened : "At hole 15, I took a drop that I thought was correct and in accordance with the rules. I was unaware at that time I had violated any rules. I didn't know I had taken an incorrect drop prior to signing my scorecard. Subsequently, I met with the Masters Committee Saturday morning... and was advised they had reviewed the incident prior to the completion of my round. Their initial determination...was that there was no violation, but they had additional concerns based on my post-round interview. After discussing the situation...with them this morning, I was assessed a two-shot penalty. I understand and accept the penalty and respect the Committees decision." While the violation was apparent, Augusta National took the blame by saying its rules committee reviewed a video before Woods finished his round Friday and determined his drop was within the rules. The club said a television viewer prompted the review. Golf is the only sport where TV viewers act as rules officials. If they see a violation and it turns out to be true, a player must be penalized. Here is how Tiger had initially described his drop : "I went back to where I played it from, but went two yards further back and I tried to take two yards off the shot of what I felt I hit," Woods said Friday after he signed for a 71, leaving him three shots out of the lead. "And that should land me short of the flag and not have it either hit the flag or skip over the back. I felt that was going to be the right decision to take off four (yards) right there. And I did. It worked out perfectly." He hit that fifth shot to about 4 feet and made the putt for bogey. Rules 26-1 says that if a player chooses to go back to his original spot, the ball should be dropped as "nearly as possible" to the spot where it was last played. Photos and video shows his ball dropped at least a yard behind his previous lie. ~~~~~ Let's now skip to the 1-stroke penalty assessed on Chinese teenager Tianlang Guan for slow play on the back nine at Augusta National on Friday. The stroke penalty was harsh, and it seems unfair. It put Guan, the 14-year-old phenomenon, in danger of missing the cut. (He ended up making the cut.) Guan was warned three times. If there is one thing about golf (and Augusta National) that never changes, it's that the rules are unbendable. On Friday afternoon, Fred Ridley, the chairman of the competition committees, released this : "Tianlang Guan was assessed a one-shot penalty for violation of Rule 6-7 of the Rules of Golf and the Tournament's Pace of Play Policy. His group which included Ben Crenshaw and Matteo Manassero, was deemed out of position on No. 10. Guan began being timed on Hole 12 and received his first warning on Hole 13 after his second shot. In keeping with the applicable rules, he was penalized following his 2nd shot on the 17th hole when he again exceeded the 40 second time limit by a considerable margin." Would another player have been hit with this penalty? Probably not - because another player would know how to walk that clock line without crossing it. PGA Tour players play every round understanding the slow-play rules. They know when they are on the clock. Some of them push the limits - and their peers complain about slow play - but they rarely if ever get penalized. They know what they can do, and what they can't. Tianlang Guan didn't know. He told ESPN that he kept going back and forth between clubs because of the changing winds. It's easy to blame the rules official, John Paramor, but it's his job to keep play moving, not to 'baby' first-time 14-year-old players. And it would be easy to somehow blame Augusta National, because Guan is an outsider at the ultimate insider's course. But the fact is Augusta National has been exceptionally accommodating to Guan. He was allowed to play the course all week. He was given star treatment. His playing partners were sympathetic but clear. Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion, said he was "sick" about the penalty, and that the wind made club selection a challenge for everybody. But he also said, "There's no question he played slowly at times." Manassero said, "We all feel sorry, but this is the way professional golf goes, and he's going to be here … by the time he comes here, he's going to be ready and he's going to have fixed that particular thing." Manassero was given several chances to say the penalty was unfair. He wouldn't do it. But he did say this : "If I would have taken more time on 16, I probably would have saved two shots, as well." He didn't take more time, we may presume, because he knew he was being timed. And the double bogey he made at 16 dropped him to five over par, when a par would have put Manassero comfortably in under the cut line. These rules are part of competition. Guan put himself on the line when he showed up at Augusta. ~~~~~ So, here's my opinion, for what it's worth - from someone who has played and loved the game since I was 10 years old - someone who played with a father who was a European military sub-par competitive golfer - someone who has played with a brother who can quote the rules before you know that a rule even applies. My opinion is that Tianlang Guan was propetly penalized for slow play. It was a tough lesson for a young boy but he will be a better member of the pro golf fellowship because of it. Tiger Woods - who may well be the best technical golfer of all time, but who knows what Hogan or Snead or even Nicklaus or Palmer would have done with Tiger's physical training and club choices -- as Jimmy Connors said when asked who was the best tennis player in history, "Put them on a court with me using a wood frame gut-laced racket and we'll see who's the best." So, as for Tiger Woods, he knew he was favoring his lie to improve his chances. He said it himself. He signed his score card knowing that. He should have been disqualified.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Germany - Saving the Euro or Destroying It?

SORRY, DEAR READERS - we're having storms that are interferring with internet service. But today, let's summarize the situation in Europe,- not very reassuring and certainly not what we've been hearing from the EU leaders who continue to say that all's well in Euroland.~~~~~~~~~~~~~ FRANCE : Since 2008 there has been a 0.4% drop in the buying power of the French; a 0.1% drop in the actual consummation of the French, with a government analysis showing that the French no longer have enough available money in excess of their fixed expenses to afford credit purchases; and the French GDP has averaged 0.0%. Friday,15,000 dairy farmers dumped thousands of gallons of milk in several French cities to emphasize their increasingly impossible financial situation.~~~~~ CYPRUS : The government now estimates that cost of the bailout is €23 billion, not €17 billion as first thought. The Troika of the European Central Bank, the OMF and the European Union Commission have lost control of both growth and funding dimensions, but are not publicly saying what they know : "Key assumptions of the program are outdated if not totally obsolete." The IMF has not yet acknowledged that adherence to its operational principles would preclude it from lending to a country with an incomplete program design and a financing gap with no fixed arrangement for closing it. Accordong to PIMCO's CEO, "if the IMF decides to adhere to this approach, its ability to convince others to follow its lead on other rescues would be undermined further." And, of course, the greatest victims are the Cypriots themselves, who thought that European leaders would help them recover from a massive crisis. What they got from Europe is confusion and incoherence. Peter Rosenstreich, chief foreign exchange analyst at Swissquote Bank told CNBC Friday that he thinks Cyprus is being used as a test case for a euro zone exit. "But at this point I think what we're going to still see is Cyprus within the euro zone. I think there's no real catalyst at this point, while there's a lot of small little cuts... at this point the break up doesn't seem to be coming down the pipe," he said. The Eurogroup of finance ministers that oversees bailouts defended the plan, saying it is a viable plan, with ten billion Euros coming in from the program and all the other elements coming from the Cypriot government or the private sector by way of privatizations and the bail-in of the banks." ~~~~~ SLOVENIA and PORTUGAL : The Eurogroup met in Dublin on Friday to try to put some order in the Eurozone mess of bailouts, bank crises and a general economic malaise that is making any attempt to win the Euro currency battle more difficult. Slovenia, in the midst of a bank crisis, is trying to avoid requesting financial aid and the onerous Cyprus-like terms those loans are likely to have tied to any bailout. Earlier this week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD) said the central European economy risks a "deep recession" and a "severe banking crisis." Meanwhile, Portugal fired a warning shot against austerity this week when its constitutional court rejected cost-cutting measures which are central to the €78 billion bailout it received in 2011, throwing its austerity program and aid into further doubt. An ECB/IMF/EU document leaked on Thursday suggested that Portugal could struggle to avoid a second bailout, given the significant rise in its financing needs in 2014 and 2015 and into the future. In a research note on Friday, Nick Spiro of Spiro Sovereign Strategy said the leaked paper "is alarmingly frank - to the point of undermining what little confidence there is in Portugal's adjustment program." He added that promoters and designers of the austerity-focused Eurozone reform programs "are struggling to appear credible....Although Germany is convinced the bitter medicine is necessary and is working, even some of its northern European allies, notably Holland, are finding it difficult to practice what they preach," said Spiro. He noted that in the Eurozone periphery, governments are being voted out of office (or can't even be formed as in Italy). ~~~~~ Dear readers, Europe is not only not improving, it is sinking deeper into recession and chronic fiscal and banking holes that seem incapable of being repaired. The Euro has put a drain on all of the EU and without the healthy German economy and public treasury, the Euro would undoubtedly be gone by now. Can Germany support the entire Eurozone forever? One is forced to ask why it would want to. German voters are asking the same question.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Obama's Fake Budget

Is President Obama serious about the first budget he has ever presented to Congress (this should be his fourth not first budget, but he seemed to be too busy with other things to follow up on his constitutional duty to present an annual budget)? Or is he hoping to pit liberal Democrats against conservative Republicans so as to tie up Congress in yet another knot that will make him look like the "White Hat," the good guy. Take a look at what Obama is suggesting. Advocates for seniors say he is breaking his promise to protect Social Security, while conservatives say he is breaking his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class. And advocates from across the political spectrum are reminding the President of his past campaign promises. Max Richtman, head of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, says it will be up to Congress to set fiscal priorities. "The president's budget is not the balanced plan promised to Americans before November's election." The President's budget increases taxes by $1 trillion over the next decade. Most of the tax increases would target wealthy households and corporations, though some, including a tax increase on cigarettes and a new cost-of-living cakculation would hit low- and middle-income families, too. The far-reaching COLA proposal is Obama's plan to use what is called the chained Consumer Price Index. It would both reduce benefits and raise taxes because it calculates a lower level of inflation than the currently used Consumer Price Index. The change could have far-reaching effects because so many programs are adjusted each year based on year-to-year changes in consumer prices. Beginning in 2015, Social Security recipients, military retirees and civilian federal retirees would get smaller benefit increases each year. Taxes would gradually go up because of smaller annual adjustments to income tax brackets, the standard deduction and the personal exemption amount. Most of the COLA adjustment savings would come from Social Security. On average, the new measure would reduce annual cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, by 0.3 percentage points. This year, the COLA was 1.7%. Under the new measure, it would have been about 1.4%. President Obama barely mentioned Social Security in his 2012 campaign, but four years earlier, he made promises about it, and some liberal groups have been circulating the video evidence. In a 2008 speech to AARP, Obama said: "John McCain's campaign has suggested that the best answer for the growing pressures on Social Security might be to cut cost-of-living adjustments or raise the retirement age. Let me be clear: I will not do either." Now, in 2013, the President is saying, "I don't believe that all these ideas are optimal, but I'm willing to accept them as part of a compromise if and only if they contain protections for the most vulnerable Americans." His COLA proposal would exempt programs like food stamps and the President's new health care law, college tuition Pell Grant recipients and those who receive Supplemental Security Income or who have received disability benefits for 15 years. In all, the new COLA measure would reduce scheduled benefits by $130 billion over the next decade, according to administration estimates. It would raise taxes by $100 billion. The huge problem with the Obama proposal is that it would hit low-income taxpayers, who would see the biggest tax increases because much of their income is not currently subject to federal income tax. Democrat liberals in Congress say they will not support the measure. They say it is grossly unfair to penalize the poorest members of society in order to pay for deficits primarily caused by the Bush tax breaks, two unfunded wars and an economic recession as an answer to the nation's problems. But, the biggest tax increase in Obama's budget would limit the value of itemized deductions for wealthy families. The limits would apply to all itemized deductions, including those for mortgage interest that would kill the baby steps of the housing renewal now occurring, charitable contributions and state and local taxes. They would also apply to tax-exempt interest, employer-sponsored health insurance which he promised in lobbying for Obamacare, and income exclusions for employee retirement contributions that will make every American poorer. Charities oppose the limits because they are worried they would discourage wealthy people from donating. Obama has made similar proposals before and received lukewarm responses from fellow Democrats. Most Republicans oppose them. ~~~~~ So, dear readers, where are we? It looks to me like President Obama has presented a budget tailor-made to fail. Tailor-made to anger both Democrats, because it penalizes the poor and weak, and to anger Republicans because it proposes $1 trillion in new taxes over the next decade. BUT, the real flaws in the Obama budget are two : (1). It does indeed put the burden on those Americans least likely to be able to survive on reduced incomes, and (2). It ignores the basic problem - US federal entitlement programs, especially Social Security and Medicare, need a complete overhaul, not the bandaid provided by tweeking the COLA calculation. Where is the call for federal executive departments to reduce staff and justify programs, as Ronald Reagan demanded, resulting in the elimination of 700,000 federal employees? Where is the elmination of executive bureaus and agencies and tzars whose value is minimal at best? Where is the call for sending as many programs as possible back to the state level where they belong? Where is the call for a total review and revision of the US Income Tax Code and a serious effort to eliminate federal regulations and form-filling that cost business billions every year, things which would actually increase the tax base while freeing up business to expand and create sorely needed jobs? They do not exist in the Obama budget because he either does not understand what is really needed - or he does not care. As long as he can party at the White House with the likes of Justin Timberlake, send his wife and daughters to Colorado to ski while he plays golf in Florida, why should he care. Of course, he can always try to look good by giving back 5%of his salary while asking the poor and disabled to give back more. Of course, he can close the White House to the people it belongs to - the Americans who paid for it, who died to defend it, and who actually want to see it survive. But those are things Barack Obama, sadly for America, simply does not understand or identify with.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"The last of the conviction politicians". Maggie would have said,"Nonsense."

"The last of the conviction politicians...". That's what Christiane Amanpour of CNN called Margaret Thatcher in paying her homage Monday. I find the phrase completely dumbfounding. I cannot begin to imagine even the most avaricious or power-hungry politician without conviction - it may have been lost as the political ladder was climbed, but the conviction must have been there in the beginning. Why do politicians fight for or against - taxes, abortions, immigration, freedom of speech, free trade, dog licenses, garbage disposal based on content, military preparedness, the Euro currency - you name it. It is a conviction that the precinct, city, county, state, nation, world will be better for whatever the politician is fighting for or against. Margaret Thatcher had political convictions. So did Ronald Reagan. That's why they co-opted Mikhael Gorbachev, whose conviction that sovietism was right had disappeared. John Boehner and Barack Obama have opposing convictions. That's why they disagree on the future course for America. Even silly and dim-witted politicians have convictions...many of them seem to come from Chicago. But, Christiane Amanpour, you are too intelligent and battle-tested to say something as nonsensical as "..the last of the conviction politicians..." If you had taken time to think, to say what you meant, you would have said that Margaret Thatcher is the most recent example of a politician being courageous enough to act on her convictions - and winning. Because that's the real difference. All politicians act out of conviction, good or bad. But when their convictions sound a deep chord in the hearts of their constituency and when they are determined to make their convictions reality and when they are expert practitioners of the ancient and noble art of politics - the world changes, almost always for the better.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Worldwide Tributes to Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher worked, learned and succeeded in a world where there were no other women. She has been criticized by some feminists as a woman who could have helped women, but chose not to. I think perhaps Margaret Thatcher was the best possible example of women's success. Ask no quarter. Be judged as a leader, a human being, not in that all too often condescending category..."women"...as if less is expected because less is possible. Maggie would have said, "Nonsense." And as usual she would have been right. But, today as we consider some of the worldwide tributes pouring in at her death, one of the simplest, most personal and most heartfelt came from another woman, Nancy Reagan. "She had a nice, soft side...she wanted to deliver a eulogy for Ronnie but wasn't sure her health would hold up...so she taped her eulogy. It was beautiful. What a thoughtful thing to do. And she came to the funeral and stayed on the plane to go to California despite her age and illnesses." ~~~ President George W. Bush said, “She was an inspirational leader who stood on principle and guided her nation with confidence and clarity. Prime Minister Thatcher is a great example of strength and character, and a great ally who strengthened the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States." ~~~ Not everyone saw Margaret Thatcher so warmly. Consider the story told by her official photographer, who remained in the room with French President Francois Mitterrand, who during a break in a meeting with the British Prime Minister, unaware that the photographer spoke French, muttered in her absence, "Je n'en peux plus...je n'en peux plus." (I can't take any more...). ~~~ Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister, offered a sweeping tribute, "There are very few political leaders who have the chance to change their country, let alone the world. She did both. She was a very significant historical figure." Blair added, "She saw America as a beacon of liberty in a world where millions of people had no liberty." And he said, "Personally, she was very kind...the staff at Downing Street loved her. She helped me privately when I was prime minister." ~~~ Americans loved Margaret Thatcher, often offering to take her into US politics if Britain ever had enough. "She was my role model when I was mayor of New York City. Along with Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul and Mikhael Gorbachev, she led millions into freedom." Rudi Giuliani, former New York City mayor, remembered. ~~~ A Daily Mail journalist who covered her when he was a cub reporter offered the following, "What makes people hate a political leader is when they are right. She was right about the Cold War, she was right about the British economy, she was right about the Pound. What brought her down was not popular opposition but a conspiracy in her own Cabinet because she opposed the Euro exchange mechanism and the Euro currency...and she was right about that, too, as we now see." ~~~ US President Obama perhaps got the glass ceiling reference a little out of kilter, but he had kind words for a politician who could not have been more unlike him, saying she was “one of the great champions of freedom and liberty. America has lost a true friend,...she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.” He said Mrs. Thatcher “knew that with strength and resolve we could win the Cold War and extend freedom’s promise. Here in America, many of us will never forget her standing shoulder to shoulder with President Reagan, reminding the world that we are not simply carried along by the currents of history - we can shape them with moral conviction, unyielding courage and iron will,....” ~~~ US House Speaker John Boehner called Mrs. Thatcher “the greatest peacetime prime minister in British history. Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, stared down elites, union bosses, and communists to win three consecutive elections, establish conservative principles in Western Europe, and bring down the Iron Curtain,...there was no secret to her values – hard work and personal responsibility – and no nonsense at all in her leadership. Americans will always keep Lady Thatcher in our hearts for her loyalty to Ronald Reagan and their friendship that we all admired.” ~~~ US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said Mrs. Thatcher “never hesitated to remind Americans of their own obligations to the cause of freedom and of the need for political courage and confidence in the face of long odds. A towering figure of 20th century politics and an inspiration to millions around the globe, Margaret Thatcher set a standard of leadership that will be hard to replicate, but which will forever stand as a model for those who wish to change society for the better.” ~~~~~~ But, dear readers, Margaret Thatcher knew herself and understood her public persona better than anyone else.She once said of herself, "If I walked on water, some would say it was because I couldn't swim." That is surely the best summary of the Iron Lady...and it is entirely appropriate that it should come from the Lady herself. No one could come near to her incisive analysis of her unique position and her unbreakable spirit.

Monday, April 8, 2013

We Loved You, Margaret Thatcher, and We Always Will

The twentieth century will be remembered by future ages as the great battleground between socialist statism and conservative democracy. The horrific figures on the statist side were Hitler and Stalin. The conservative standard bearers were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The last of them died today. Margaret Thatcher was 87. There is little need to recount her achievements - privatization of British industry, defeat of the stranglehold of British unions that had kept Britain impoverished, re-establishment of the British Pound after years of IMF life support, and the Falklands, not so much for themselves but because they represented her will not to let a part of Britain be stolen by "bullies." And she supported Ronald Reagan in his great effort to end the tyranny of Marxism by bringing down the Soviet Union peacefully. She famously said of Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev, "We can work with him." But the greater legacy of Thatcher and Reagan was the proof that individual liberty, uplifted by democratic government, leads to the unleashing of the human spirit and intelligence for the good of all people. Margaret Thatcher was tough. She was determined to drive home her policies. She was the Iron Lady. And she changed Great Britain forever, snatching it from the jaws of third-world poverty and dependence on handouts to today's robust free market economy that should be the model for Europe, if only the rest of Europe could understand. Margaret Thatcher did what no one thought possible because she believed in democacy, free markets and individual political and economic rights not dependent for success on birth status or elite positions but on personal effort. She even managed to change her great opponent - the Old British Labor Party - that with her successor, Tony Blair, became the New Labor Party. Ronald Reagan said of her, "When she speaks, we wait to hear from her." Today, British Prime Minister David Cameron said of her, "She didn't just lead our country. She saved our country. And I think she will go down in history as the greatest peacetime prime minister." Rest in Peace, Mrs. Thatcher. May your light and legacy, and those of Ronald Reagan, inspire us to save ourselves and our world from the new 21st century wave of socialist statism now gripping us. You and your friend, "Ronnie" as you called him, showed the way. It is up to us now. As Ronnie said, "If not now, when? If not us, who?"

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Cyprus Deposit Seizures and Italy Payment Delays Highlight EU Recession

Dear readers, here are updates on topics we've covered this past week. (1). Italy seems to be ready to pay its bills. The president of Italy appointed a caretaker government last week to manage the country until new parliamentary elections are held. The caretaker cabinet approved a decree on Saturday to pay some €40 billion of the country's debts to private companies over the next 12 months. The decree is intended to provide needed liquidity to firms and help ease the bite of an almost precedented recession. But, the bill-paying decree was delayed while the Italian cabinet figured out how to fund the payments. The massive backlog of bills owed by Italy's public administration has been an ongoing major source of complaints by companies struggling to raise credit from banks facing increasingly tight credit conditions themselves. The government says settling the bills will provide desperately needed cash for an economy now stuck in its longest recession for 20 years. Italy has faced weeks with no party able to form a government while economic problem piled up. Mario Monti's outgoing government said on Saturday it was committed to not breaching the European Union's deficit ceiling of 3% of GDP. Monti last month hiked the 2013 deficit target sharply from 1.8% of GDP to 2.9%, bumping up against the EU 3% ceiling, after last year's deficit came in at exactly 3%. Public-finance data this year is not encouraging, with borrowing in the first quarter higher than the same period of 2012. (2). While Italy is striving to get its economic and fiscal houses in order, the EU economic and monetary affairs commissioner Olli Rehn took action making it clear that what happened to bank depositors is Cyprus is not a one-of-a-kind event. He said on Saturday that big bank depositors could take a hit under planned European Union law if a bank fails, but continued to insist that Cyprus's bailout model was exceptional. "Cyprus was a special case...but the upcoming directive assumes that investor and depositor liability will be carried out in case of a bank restructuring or a wind-down," Rehn said. "But there is a very clear hierarchy, at first the shareholders, then possibly the unprotected investments and deposits. However, the limit of 100,000 euros is sacred, deposits smaller than that are always safe." The European Commission is drafting a bank safety directive that would incorporate the issue of investor liability in member states' legislation. The price Cyprus paid for its €10 billion EU/IMF bailout last month was the extraction of heavy losses on bigger depositors. Initially it had also pledged to introduce a levy on deposits of less than €100,000 as well, even though they are supposedly protected by state guarantees. Cyprus gave up on that idea in the face of widespread protests. But, Rehn also said today that the European Central Bank should launch action to help boost the recession-hit Eurozone economy. ECB President Mario Draghi, at a press conference, called on the bank to consider cutting interest rates and to take fresh 'non-standard measures' - steps other than classic rate moves, such as government bond purchases or funding operations like the twin three-year loans it offered banks just over a year ago. Rehn said that high financing costs for companies, especially in southern Europe, were a major problem right now."Therefore, the ECB's talk on Thursday about both standard and non-standard measures is very important. ~~~~~ It's clear, dear readers, that the EU is searching for ways to fund member countries' bank liabilities, to find some way to lead the EU out of what has become a grinding recession - and at the same time find the money needed to provide survival funds for countries on the verge of fiscal collapse. While bank depositors know that their deposits in excess of rhe guaranteed limits are vulnerable, never since WWII have those deposits been seized to provide funds for government bailouts, even if the banks themselves are not bankrupt. Cypris was a dangerous road to take, not only for depositors but also for the future economic health of the EU, which depends on large depositors to help fund growth and cash flow in the EU. The new EU bank safety regulation should make clear that what happened in Cyprus will never again happen.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Soft Underbelly of the American Economic Recovery

There are always two sides to every story, dear readers, and today we're going to take a (much shorter) look at American and European economic data. First, Europe. Italy has delayed the payment of €40 billion the Italian government owes to private companies. This could indicate that Italy has a cash flow problem, that its tax receipts plus borrowing in the form of selling bonds, is currently insufficient for current debt payments. In any case, Italy's payment delay will certainly weigh heavily on Europe's already weak economic situation. It will also raise the spectre of another bailout, and the possibility of a second bank deposit seizure, this time in the heart of Europe, as the price of the bailout. In addition, today the French government asked Germany for an extension in the time required to meet its deficit target of 3% of GDP. This is no surprise since France's weak economy has made analysts begin to talk about it as the bailout bull in Europe's china shop. But it should alert the fibancial world to the general European economic and fiscal fragility. It should also remind us that the EU's 3% of GDP national budget deficit targets are not going to be met - not for the foreseeable future and for many EU countries, probably never. Now, for the soft underbelly of fiscal and econonic news in the US. In March, America added only 88,000 jobs, down from 283,000 added in February. This is the biggest drop in 4 months. And labor force participation in March was down to 63.3% from 63.5% in February - the lowest participation rate since 1979, which shows shrinkage in the number of people working or looking for jobs and is an indication of the structural shock the US received in 2007-2009. As President Obama began the first year of his second term, the US poverty rate rose to a level not seen since the 1960s, reflecting a fundamental failure of government policy. The Census Bureau says that 50 million Americans, roughly one in six, or almost 17%, are living below the poverty line, which is defined as earnings of less than $23,021 a year for a family of four. An estimated 20% of the nation's children are living in poverty. Of course, this is not headline news at the New York Times or Washington Post or on any of the networks that have become cheerleaders for President Obama. The mainstream press is so busy praising Obama that it misses or omits the disastrous economic details that Obama's policies have created. And the 50 million Americans living below the poverty line aren't the only marks of Obama's failure. Since the economy began its tentative recovery just a few months into his first term, the unemployment rate has been disastrous. It sits now at 7.7%, down from its peak of 10% in October 2009. But while that might seem an improvement, it's not. If the labor force participation rate were the same as it was when Obama took office, the unemployment rate would be higher than 12%. Another negative statistic is annual American GDP growth. Obama's average GDP growth has been less than 2% per quarter. In the last quarter of 2012, it was an almost non-existent 0.4%. For all of 2011, GDP growth was 1.8%, in 2012 it was 2.2%, below the 2.5% to 3% pace that most economists believe is the norm. The Obama White House had forecast 4% growth in each of these years. And, remember that the recession ended in June 2009, before Obama's policies could have had a positive impact on the economy. The economic weakness and joblessness of the American recovery occurred after the implementation of his policies - the nearly $1 trillion stimulus, tax hikes, ObamaCare, and greatly increased regulation and reporting burdens. All totalled, under Obama, the poverty rate grew from 14.3% in 2009 to 15.1% in 2010, then fell to 15% in 2011 before jumping to today's rate. A man who has promoted himself as a defender of the poor and middle class should have a better record. But as long as he refuses to give up on often-tested and always failed leftist-socialist policies, he never will. ~~~~~ So, dear readers, after two days of economic numbers and statistics, it is diffucult to say positively that the US has turned the corner definitively and put the Great Recession behind it. But, the US economy is moving forward in many important areas and is ready to turn that corner as soon as the President gets out of the way.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

America's Economic Indicators Are on the Rise

There are signs that the American Great Recession of 2007-2009 is actually ending. Home foreclosures and layoffs have dropped to pre-2007 levels. Economic output has rebounded. The Dow Jones industrial average is at record highs. But with unemployment at 7.7% and with 3 million fewer jobs than when the recession began, the US has a way to go. The housing market is improving, but it is not strong enough to feed economic growth, and job creation still has far to go before it can be called robust. After five years, the US is nearly back to where it was when the recession began. But the 2013 trends are healthier and fears that the economy could fall into another recession have disappeared. ~~~~~ WHAT'S STRONGER : (1). HOUSEHOLD WEALTH. Collapsed home values and stock prices have now been reversed. Household "net worth" (the value of homes, investments, bank accounts and other assets, minus debts such as mortgages, student loans and credit card balances) reached $66.1 trillion in the 4th quarter 2012, according to the Federal Reserve. That was only 2% below the peak reached in the fall of 2007. Steady increases in stock prices and home values so far this year have helped Americans, on average, to regain all their lost wealth, though many individual families have yet to recover. Increased net worth is vital to the economy because it drives spending. (2). RETAIL SALES. Just as household wealth has recovered, so has consumer willingness to spend more to shop, eat out and take vacations. That trend has spurred retail and restaurant job growth. Retail sales totaled $421.4 billion in February. Adjusted for inflation, that was nearly 18% above the recession low and just 0.7% below the record level in November 2007. (3). LAYOFFS. The job market remains weak. But if you have a job, you're less likely to lose it than at any other point in at least 12 years. That's a sharp turnaround from the depths of the recession, when layoffs soared - from 1.8 million in December 2007 to 2.6 million in January 2009. In January this year, employers cut 1.5 million jobs - the lowest monthly total in the 12 years the government has tracked such data. That explains why the number of people seeking first-time unemployment benefits each week has fallen - from 667,000 one week in March 2009, the most in nearly 25 years. Over the past month, weekly applications have averaged 354,000, only slightly more than in December 2007. (4). FORECLOSURES. One of the most visible signs of the recession was the "Foreclosure" and "Bank Owned" signs that sprang up around the country. But home prices have been rising steadily. Foreclosures have sunk back to pre-recession levels. Banks repossessed 45,000 homes in February 2013, according to RealtyTrac, a foreclosure listing firm. That was the fewest since September 2007 and was down from a peak of 102,000 in March 2010. (5). STOCK MARKETS. The markets have finally recovered the huge losses investors suffered during the recession. The Dow Jones industrial average closed at an all-time high of 14,253.77 on March 6. That topped its previous peak of 14,164.53 in October 2007. The Dow had plunged all the way to 6,547.05 in March 2009. It closed even higher last Tuesday at 14,662. 01. And the S&P 500 stock index, a broader measure of the market, reached a record 1,570.25. (6). GDP. America's economy is producing more goods and services than before the recession began. In the final three months of 2007, it produced an annual rate of $13.3 trillion in goods and services, a record high. That figure had shrunk to $12.7 trillion when the recession ended. It is recovering. The US gross domestic product, the broadest gauge of production, regained its previous peak by the end of 2011. And in the final three months of 2012, GDP was $13.7 trillion. Still, that gain comes with questions, because the population has grown. Viewed on a per capita basis, GDP at the end of 2012 remained 1.5 percent below its pre-recession level. (7). The recession eliminated 8.7 million jobs. Since then, 5.7 million jobs have come back, leaving the economy 3 million short. And the American population aged 16 and older has grown by 13 million since then. As a result, fewer people are either working or looking for work than before the recession. The labor force participation rate - the percentage of adults with a job or seeking one - has sunk from its pre-recession level of 66% to 63.5% in February. That decline in the labor pool matches a 30-year low and is worrisome. ~~~~~ WHAT'S NOT BACK : (1). UNEMPLOYMENT RATE. When the recession began, unemployment was 5%. Now, it's 7.7%. Probably no figure better illustrates the downturn's real damage. The unemployment rate is well below the recession's peak of 10% in October 2009 but far above the 5% to 6% range associated with a healthy economy. Twelve million people are unemployed. Yet that figure doesn't include 2.6 million people without jobs who have stopped looking for one. An additional 8 million work part time but want full-time work. Combining all those groups, 22.6 million people are either unemployed or "underemployed." They represent an underemployment rate of 14.3%, down from a peak of 17.1% in April 2010. The private sector added 158,000 jobs in March, the smallest gain in five months and short of economists' expectations, a report by ADP payrolls processor showed on Wednesday. The biggest job gains were in finance and professional and business services, while construction and manufacturing hiring remained weak, according to the ADP National Employment Report. The government will report its latest monthly employment data on Friday. Economists are projecting that non-farm payrolls grew by about 200,000 in March and the unemployment rate held steady at 7.7%. For the past two years, the economy has been adding about 175,000 new jobs a month, barely enough to produce a gradual decline in the unemployment rate. Despite that sluggish hiring pace, some occupations like engineering and health care seem to have dodged the Great Recession's heavy layoffs. An indicator of the shortage of those highly-skilled workers is the surge in applications this year for so-called H-1B visas. Under current immigration law, some 65,000 such visas are issued to foreigners who want to work for companies who can demonstrate they're having a hard time filling those jobs. On the other hand, millions of workers in occupations like construction and manufacturing remain caught outside the workforce. As of last month, more than one in seven construction workers was looking for a job. The housing market rebound that is helping to sustain the recovery also varies widely from region to region. In North Dakota, an ongoing energy boom has cut the jobless rate for the state's tiny labor force to just 3.3%. In California, which has the largest pool of workers in the nation, nearly 1 in 10 is unemployed as a lingering housing collapse continues to cut into job requirements. (2). HOUSING. Previously occupied homes were sold in February at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of about 4.98 million. An annual rate of about 5.5 million would be healthy. In the recession, sales had bottomed at 3.8 million. And last month, builders began work at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 917,000 homes. That's well up from a recession low of 478,000. But it's still far from a healthy annual rate of roughly 1.5 million. Prices have risen nearly 9% since bottoming in March 2012, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index, but they remain 29% below their pre-recession peak. Still, housing differs from other sectors because its peaks occurred during a housing bubble that eventually burst. Few expect or even want prices to return to those levels soon. Most economists welcome the steady but modest growth housing has achieved in recent months. (3). AUTOMOBILE SALES. Car sales in recent months returned almost to where they were in 2007. Americans bought cars at an annual rate of nearly 16 million in December 2007. Sales plunged to 10.4 million in 2009. In March this year, the annual sales pace was 15.3 million. The rebound has stimulated hiring and restored the once-bankrupt General Motors and Chrysler to health. Production was about 5% lower in February than in December 2007, according to the Federal Reserve. The Fed also tracks industrial output, a broader measure that includes mining and utilities. That figure is just 1.8% below its pre-recession peak. ~~~~~ So, dear readers, America is improving. It is putting the Great Recession behind it. Europe would be thrilled to have these economic indicators. But, there are problems like budget deficits and the national debt, as well as the galloping costs of social programs, still to deal with. But there is no doubt that a growing American economy will make these problems easier to solve - if only Washington chooses to act. [Thanks to AP and CNBC for the statistics.]