Friday, August 31, 2007

Are your union dues a good investment?

Mary Dalrymple has written this article for The Motley Fool, an excellent stock investing website. They also do some personal finance articles, and run a charity contest every year where readers select a charity on the basis of how good it is as an investment: i.e. how much impact their money will have. And, of course, labor day is coming up.

Labor Day brings the end of summer, the beginning of school, and an annual reminder that "the folks who brought you the weekend" used to carry some serious clout. Unions' influence has since dwindled, and by last year only 12% of workers counted themselves card-carrying members.

However, if you're on a manufacturing line, or you're a teacher, police officer, firefighter, or librarian, the odds remain pretty good that a union representative will come knocking at your door. If you're thinking about signing up, you may be wondering what those union dues buy.

Let's set politics aside for a moment in favor of economics. After all, unions promise to make your standard of living better through increased wages and benefits. The first thing to know? It's no guarantee, especially when an entire industry faces challenges. Despite strong unions in the auto industry, thousands of jobs have been eliminated at GM (NYSE: GM), Ford (NYSE: F), and Chrysler. And unions haven't prevented slashed pensions at airlines like UAL's (NYSE: UAUA) United Airlines and Delta Airlines (NYSE: DAL).

To find out whether your union dues will be money well spent, ask some questions:

How much are the dues? Are they calculated as a percentage of your pay or as a flat fee? If they're a percentage of your pay, find out whether any future pay raises will be counted fully or partially toward that calculation. Don't assume that your union dues can be deducted from your taxes. They can, but they must (when combined with other professional expenses and other miscellaneous items) exceed 2% of your adjust gross income before you can start deducting them.

How will your dues be spent? If your local or national representatives can't answer that question, it may be a sign that the union isn't acting as a good steward of your money.

Find out whether the union stays active all the time, or whether it only gets organized when contract talks start. Ideally, you'd like your union to be paying attention to job matters even when they're not knee-deep in negotiations.

Talk to your shop steward to find out what kind of successes the union has had on behalf of workers, individually and as a group, in the past. What kind of resources does the union have to help you pursue a problem or a contract violation? If you can talk with an employee who has used the union grievance procedure to try to remedy a job wrong, that's even better.
Take a look at the contract, your salary, and your benefits and compare them to others in your industry. Are they better, or about the same? Even if they aren't ideal, has the union successfully staved off the erosion of benefits (like health and retirement perks) that has hit many workers?

Does the union actively defend the contract? If you work in a place where the culture means that employees don't claim the rights they have in the contract, you may find your dues don't come back to you in the form of the overtime pay or other apparent benefits.

If you ask all these questions and you aren't satisfied with the answers, you have one more reason to think about joining -- pay your dues and get to work changing the organization from the inside.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

"Critical" housing needs among US households

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- The proportion of households in the United States with "critical" housing needs is growing, accounting for about 17% of households in 2005, according to a report released Thursday.

The percentage of all U.S. households with critical housing needs is up from 14.2% in 2003 and 14.5% in 2001, according to a report from Center for Housing Policy, the research affiliate of the National Housing Conference. Two criteria describe critical housing needs: spending more than half of income for housing and/or living in dilapidated conditions.

"What we see in this report is the situation before the other shoe drops," said Barbara Lipman, research director for CHP.
Lipman said she is concerned that housing troubles could worsen for both renters and owners in coming years, as problems in the subprime mortgage market are reflected in the larger housing market.

"As interest rates reset, [borrowers] will have to pay larger portions of income for housing. Some will be finding themselves back in a rental market that is already strained, and doesn't provide enough opportunity now," she said. "We're very worried."
The total number of U.S. households with critical housing needs rose to 17.5 million in 2005 from 14.3 million in 2003, with much of the gain by nonworking households, such as the elderly, according to the report.

The availability of affordable housing has not kept pace with demand, Lipman said. "We have not been adding housing for lower and moderate market rentals," she said.

The number of low- to moderate-income working-family renters that spends more than half of income for housing grew 103% to 2.1 million in 2005 from 1 million in 1997, according to the report. Among all low- to moderate-income working families, 5.2 million experienced critical housing needs in 2005, compared with 3 million in 1997, according to the report.
Many low-income households include elderly and disabled members, as well as low-wage earners working full time at jobs that keep communities working, said Nicole Letourneau, a spokeswoman with housing advocate National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Production of affordable housing lags
There's a shortage of 2.8 million homes renting at prices that would be affordable to the more than 9 million low-income renter households throughout the nation, according to NLIHC.
"That shows that the need for more affordable housing is acute," Letourneau said.
John Taylor, president and chief executive of nonprofit National Community Reinvestment Coalition, said he sees home foreclosures hurting whole communities, making it even more difficult for troubled borrowers to find a good housing situation.

"Existing homeowners...are going to find a real constriction of credit," he said.

There are good solutions that have worked to support housing in local communities, such as making it easier and more profitable for builders to work on low- and middle-income projects and being more creative about land use, Lipman said, adding that national support would also be a good idea.
In late July, a House panel approved creating a national affordable housing trust fund with a goal of producing, rehabilitating and preserving 1.5 million housing units over the next 10 years. House floor action is expected in September.
It's also important to educate home buyers about the benefits and risks of homeownership, so that they don't take on obligations that they can't afford, Lipman said.

Ruth Mantell is a MarketWatch reporter based in Washington.

Message in the drink bottle

From the (urk) Wall Street Journal

When activists and some top chefs uncorked an attack on bottled water as wasteful and a contributor to global warming, beverage makers showed few signs of concern, partly because so many consumers are guzzling branded water as a chic, healthier alternative to soda.

Things are starting to change. Following months of unflattering news coverage, press releases and even a resolution by the U.S. Conference of Mayors calling for research into the impact of discarded bottles on municipal waste, the beverage industry is stepping up efforts to promote recycling and use more recycled plastic in production of its soda, water, juice and tea bottles. Some companies are reformulating containers to reduce the amount of plastic.

Coca-Cola Co., with a 36% share of the $106 billion-a-year U.S. nonalcoholic ready-to-drink beverage business, says it plans to build a plant that will be able to recycle as many as two billion 20-ounce bottles a year. Atlanta-based Coke won't say exactly where the plant will be located or when it will open. The company already has invested $41 million to build recycling plants in Australia, Austria, Mexico, the Philippines and Switzerland. But the move reflects a wider push by Coke to boost the amount of recycled material in its U.S. bottles to at least 10%, up from just under 5% in 2006.

Coke and its biggest bottler, Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc., have also formed a company that plans to establish recycling centers in the U.S. to collect recyclable beverage material. "Our vision is to no longer have our packaging viewed as waste but as a resource for future use," says Scott Vitters, Coke's director of sustainable packaging.

Meanwhile, the American Beverage Association trade group has formed a task force of executives from Coke, PepsiCo Inc. and Nestlé SA's U.S. water unit to look for ways to spark more consumer interest in recycling. One possibility is throwing the industry's weight behind efforts to clone the most effective recycling programs. "We have a responsibility to do a better job on recycling," acknowledges Kim Jeffery, president and chief executive of Nestle Waters North America Inc., Greenwich, Conn. Mr. Jeffery is heading the task force, which had its first meeting Aug. 6.

Until now, Coke, Pepsi and other beverage companies typically fought laws mandating deposits on bottles and cans. Now, though, some beverage makers are starting to warm up to financial incentives for recycling. Coke has invested more than $2 million in RecycleBank LLC, a Philadelphia curbside recycling company that gives consumers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware coupons in exchange for their throwaways.

The program will expand soon to parts of New England, says Ron Gonen, RecycleBank's founder and CEO. The company also is in talks with PepsiCo about a potential cash infusion similar to Coke's, according to Mr. Gonen and a spokesman for Pepsi, based in Purchase, N.Y.

One big reason why beverage marketers are mounting a counterattack is that bottled water is widely seen as part of the answer to the soda sales slump. Bottled water has just a 17% U.S. market share, compared with 66% for sodas, according to Beverage Digest, a trade publication. But bottled-water volume rose 11% in the first half of 2007. Soda volume decreased 5.9%.

The tidal wave of bottled water has increased the beverage industry's ravenous appetite for plastic. Demand for recycled polyethylene terephthalate, familiarly called PET, is especially fierce, because it can cost as much as 50% less than newly made plastic. PET bottles are cheap, lightweight and far more convenient than refillable glass bottles that require gallons of water to be cleaned and are heavier to transport.

Coke and Pepsi once thirsted for glass bottles, which could be resold several times. Then came disposable bottles and aluminum cans, along with litter that prompted angry lawmakers to rekindle the idea of adding a small deposit -- usually five cents -- to the purchase price. The beverage industry's opposition didn't fully succeed, and 11 U.S. states now have deposit laws, including California, New York, Massachusetts and Hawaii. But only four state laws extend or are preparing to extend deposits to include bottled water.

Deposit laws have had mixed success in spurring recycling. In the U.S., just 23% of recyclable PET bottles and jars were actually recycled in 2005, down from 40% a decade earlier, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources.

Still, the U.S.Government Accountability Office said in a December report that a federal bottle-deposit bill could help boost municipal recycling rates. In California, which has a deposit law and widespread curbside recycling, the beverage-container recycling rate reached about 60% in 2006, according to the California Department of Conservation. The Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit group that supports deposit laws, says the beverage-container recycling rate in deposit states is about 70%, while it is about 34% nationwide.

Fending off the specter of a federal bill could require the beverage industry to show continued signs that it is willing to change. Coke and Pepsi both have reduced the amount of plastic in their soft-drink bottles, which are heavier than water bottles to preserve carbonation. Mr. Vitters says Coke will eliminate 100 million pounds of plastic from various products in the U.S. this year.

Pepsi, which already gets about 10% of the PET it uses in the U.S. from recycled materials, says it has trimmed the amount of plastic in its half-liter Aquafina water bottles by nearly 40% since 2002. The company is working on an even lighter version, a spokesman says. Nestlé, with regional brands Poland Spring and Arrowhead, recently introduced even lighter bottles.

Just for fun: why can't 20% of "U.S. Americans" find the US on a world map?

I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don't have maps and I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and the Iraq everywhere like such as and I believe that they should our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S. or should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future for.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"I am not gay and never have been."

Senator Larry Craig of Idaho was recently arrested for lewd conduct - soliciting sex in a men's bathroom. The person he solicited was another man, which you'd expect from the title. He was also an undercover cop.

If you read the article, Craig has tried to squirm his way out. Exactly what he said is of little consequence. More important is the fact that he's been a consistent opponent of gay rights.

Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican, is calling for Craig to resign. Certainly, soliciting sex in a public bathroom is illegal. Further, if Craig did not use protection in his sexual encounters, he exposed his wife to AIDS and other STDs. However, as long as he always solicited consensual sex, my attitude towards him is the same as towards Bill Clinton: what he did was wrong, but it's not bad enough to force him out of office.

Hoekstra, though, misses the point. I try to shy away from psychodynamic explanations (explaining people's behavior based on their strong internal conflicts, often but not exclusively with parents or other authority figures). But many have said that many of the strongest anti-gay politicians and religious figures are gay themselves, and that hostility towards their own sexuality fuels their fanaticism. Certainly, there have been a large number of (male) political and religious leaders who have opposed gay rights, and been found having sex with men ... and there have been quite a few recent cases.

Something is not right here. The anti-gay crowd will condemn Craig and force him to resign. But they will simply continue to miss the point, that variations in sexual orientation are simply part of human nature. They will continue to act as if people like Jen, Alix, Riley and Olivia are threats to the institution of marriage. In fact, it is people like Larry Craig who threaten the institution of marriage by cheating on their spouses because of their same-sex desires. That threat can only be solved by creating a society where people may be open about their sexual orientation. For the homophobes, that would be worse than genocide, but they are on the losing end of the battle.

Note to "sodomy lobby": must include financial planning in the homosexual agenda

Jen and Alix Leon know what they want retirement to look like. To get there, they need to take smart risks with their money - and stop taking bad ones.

By Josh Hyatt, Money Magazine senior writer
August 24 2007: 10:14 AM EDT

NEW YORK (Money Magazine) -- Like most 19-year-olds, Jennifer Leon took a job to help save extra money for a secret splurge. Unlike her peers, though, her splurge was retirement. "I could already see myself older, stepping out of my beach house and right onto the sand," says Jennifer, who worked as a bank teller back then.

Now a small business owner and a 35-year-old mother of two, she remains committed to that vision. "Jen lives for the future," says Alix Leon, 31, her partner of seven years. "I'm the one who lives for the day."

The Leons: Jen, Riley, Alix and Olivia (from left to right)

Jen, owner of a mortgage brokerage in Portland, Ore., is so anxious to get to the beach that she occasionally skips ahead. In February she almost bought a $275,000 lakefront home where she and Alix could retire in 25 years. "With a second child coming," she says, "I suddenly felt like I had to get everything in place."

That wasn't the only time she went into future shock. Hyper-aware that she was missing out on a bull market, she recently told a financial adviser to buy stocks with the $240,000 in a rollover IRA that she had parked in short-term investments. She lost $15,000 in three days, and now the money is back mostly in cash, earning a measly 4 percent. "You can't always see the future," she admits.

Where they are
Alix serves as full-time mom to Rylie, 3, and three-month-old Olivia. Jen leaves a good chunk of her company's earnings in the business and pays herself about $72,000 a year. That funds their household expenses of $4,800 a month. Jennifer has $100,000 in taxable savings accounts and can count on a small pension from the bank where she worked.

Alix, a schoolteacher, plans to return to the classroom in two years. She figures that over a 30-year career she can build a retirement kitty of $350,000. "I'm not concerned about having enough to live on," she says.

Jen worries enough for the two of them. They put just $100 a month into college savings. And they bought a $750,000 house last year and have an interest-only ARM that resets in 2012, meaning their monthly mortgage tab of $2,500 could spike up. "No wonder I have these mini heart attacks," says Jen.

What they need to do
Jennifer has been diligent about saving money, but she and Alix need to add risk to their portfolio, and take it out of the rest of their lives.

Invest smarter. Financial planner Phyllis Carlton of West Linn, Ore. suggests that Jen move her IRA into either a retirement fund with a target date of 2030 or a simple combination of six Money 70 funds (see the portfolio to the right).

These low-cost funds will provide enough exposure to stocks. The target-date fund requires virtually no maintenance. Its asset mix will grow more conservative as Jen gets older. She'll also save the 1.5 percent annual fee she's been paying a planner.

Redirect their savings. Given the profitability of Jen's company, she can put $14,000 a year into what's known as a SEP-IRA and another $4,000 into a Roth IRA. She can also invest $10,000 into each child's 529 plan. Doing so will effectively allow her to convert taxable savings into tax-deferred accounts. They can keep an emergency stash of $30,000.

Protect the kids. The couple have $1.5 million of insurance on Jen but none on Alix. They should spend about $500 a year to get her $500,000 worth of coverage. Otherwise, "Jen would end up depleting her retirement savings for child care," says Carlton.

What if both parents died? As a same-sex couple, they need to have wills that spell everything out. Carlton wants them to bulk up their college savings when Alix returns to work.

Reduce interest-rate risk. The Portland real estate market has proved resilient, and the couple's home has increased in value. Still, when their mortgage resets they could see their payments skyrocket. Without Alix's income they won't qualify for an attractive loan, so they should look to refinance once she's earning money again.

"They have taken on big interest-rate risk," warns Carlton. Jennifer, a bit uncharacteristically, says she isn't worried: "I'll get us a good deal. After all, I am in the business."

Want a Money Makeover? E-mail us at:

Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma

From CNN:

Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her nonviolent efforts to bring down the oppressive military regime that rules over the Southeast Asian country. She is under long-term house arrest in the city of Yangon.

The regime, led by General Than Shwe, has destroyed more than 3,000 villages in eastern Myanmar, formerly called Burma. More than 1.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes, and the regime has recruited more child soldiers than any other country in the world, Carrey says in his spot.

"People around the world need to come to her aid, just as they supported Mandela when he was locked up," said Jeremy Woodrum, co-founder of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, in a statement Tuesday.

"This announcement contributes to an upsurge in activism around Aung San Suu Kyi in the United States and throughout the world."

More here

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Truthout: Fringe Evangelicals distort US policy

Fringe Evangelicals Distort US Military Policy
By Thomas D. Williams and JP Briggs II, Ph.D.
t r u t h o u t | Special Report

Friday 24 August 2007

"He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;" - Micah, Chapter 4, The Bible
"And make not Allah because of your swearing (by Him) an obstacle to your doing good and guarding (against evil) and making peace between men, and Allah is Hearing, Knowing." - The Koran

For decades, especially since the end of the Vietnam War, the US military has been wrestling with aggressive sects of doomsday Christians demanding control and conversions of those of other faiths as well as nonbelievers within the armed forces.

Even beyond this high-pressure hard sell, those Judgment Day, apocalyptic Christian leaders, with followings estimated at 40 million parishioners, have urged public officials on all levels to wage war with Israel's enemies. Sometimes they and others even send their followers into dangerous war zones to preach their faith and risk lives. In at least one case, the Pentagon is supporting a Christian evangelistic group's efforts to promote itself inside the Muslim-dominated Iraq war zone.

The end-time evangelists' aggressive domestic and foreign relations stances have frequently caught the ears of President George W. Bush and those within his administration, as well as a large cadre of influential congressmen.

"The rise of evangelicalism in today's armed forces can trace its roots to the Viet Nam War," writes US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Millonig. "Public support for the war declined steadily as the years wore on, but evangelical Christians remained generally supportive of the war throughout. Over the course of the war, they found themselves progressively more aligned with the military - a military which increasingly found itself isolated from the general population." Millonig's March 2006 US Army War College piece is titled: "The Impact of Religious and Political Affiliation on Strategic Military Decisions and Policy Recommendations."

Initially willing to be interviewed, Millonig ultimately refused to discuss his article. His refusal came after he spoke with an Air Force superior who said it is inappropriate for Millonig to comment about anything unrelated to his current job, said a US Army War College spokeswoman, Carol Kerr.

"After the Vietnam War, there was disenchantment with military service by the mainline religions, because the war began to look like an unjust war," said retired US Army Chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. "The military chaplains were not talking about that, and the churches thought they should," explained Keizer, chairman of the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces. Then, he explained, with the advent of the all-volunteer Army, evangelical military chaplains began to increase, because their faith encouraged young people into the ministry and a vocation like military service to actively proclaim their beliefs to others.

Keizer, however, emphasized that more moderate evangelicals, as represented by the powerful National Evangelical Association, have been an influential voice for wartime justice for enemy prisoners. And, to promote peace, in late July the organization agreed to hold discussions in the nation's capital with Muslim leaders, with 14 evangelical preachers on one side and 12 US-based Arab diplomats on the other, The Washington Post reported. More than a year earlier, the organization called for religious freedom within the military.

On the other hand, the promotion of powerful Christian religious fundamentalist voices and religious conversions within the Armed Forces, especially encouraged and engineered by end-time evangelical Christians, has become a focus of concern among many other religious leaders. That concern heightened particularly after 9/11, when Islamic terrorists attacked New York City's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Less than a month later, on October 7, 2001, President George W. Bush launched the so-called war on terror with attacks on al-Qaeda camps and Taliban installations in Afghanistan. And, as the heated conflict in Afghanistan temporarily subsided, the Bush administration extended the "terror war" by invading Iraq on March 20, 2003.

Since 9/11, US officials, religious leaders, the press and the public have focused a continuous stream of criticism at religious Muslim fundamentalists. But, what has been largely glossed over by some in the public, media and government are the unrelenting cries for aggressive US military attacks by end-time US evangelicals such as Pastor John Hagee, not only against Islamic extremists, but also against Iran, Syria and the Palestinians threatening Israel.

This pressure for warlike behavior comes from two types of end-time Christians. The "dispensationalists" insist that true believers will be "raptured" into heaven just before a catastrophic war between "left behind" believers and the forces of the Antichrist. "Dominionist" end-timers presuppose that the United States, as a Christian nation, will act as a special representative of God in the final battles. The Dominionists forge on toward the construction, or "reconstruction," of an American theocracy to fulfill God's end-time plan. The two brands cross over and blend. Collectively, they call themselves Christian Zionists to affirm their support of Israel's control over the holy lands.

As war cries from Islamic terrorists and end-time Christians create a danger for ever-expanding religious battles in the Middle East, a small cadre of Christian and Muslim leaders has become alarmed.

"The most basic Christian commitment ... is that we say we believe in the Lordship of Jesus. But, if we claim that, how can a Muslim or Jew trust us, if we say Jesus is the Lord of all Lords?" asked Professor Lee Camp, a Lipscomb University theologian, last November at an interfaith gathering in Nashville, Tenn. "We need to forsake the Christendom model," Camp said. In its place, he explained, should be an international ideal, allowing leaders and members of all faiths to live in peace and communicate.

In February, Louis Farrakhan, 73, leader of The Nation of Islam, insisted the world was at war because followers of contrasting faiths did not understand one another. Jesus Christ and Muhammad would embrace with love if they were on the stage behind him today, he exclaimed. "Our lips are full of praise, but our hearts are far removed from the prophets we all claim," Al Jazeera quoted Farrakhan as saying.

Proselytizing by end-time Christians and others within the military has become a crucial issue within the armed forces, especially during the past half decade. And, US military leadership, influenced by war-encouraging, right-wing evangelists, endangers complex Middle East diplomacy efforts.

"To proselytize in this (military) environment is not allowed except as the individual asks (for it), said retired US Navy Chaplain Victor Smith, a Christian Scientist. "For example, the use of the name of Jesus in public prayers with a mixed congregation such as at a command or official function is prohibited," he said. "Most of the chaplains who pray, and rightly so, pray on behalf of the congregation, as well as with the congregation," said Smith. "Every single person in the military should be protected in every way, physically, sexually and spiritually, while they are serving their country. They already put their lives on the line in warfare. The damage from forcing religion on the unwilling is very deep emotionally. Well, have you ever talked to a rape victim? It's not quite that physical, but it sure is spiritually."

Smith pointed out, "There is a small subset of these faith groups that foster some more extreme views to others and sometimes punish those who don't follow their faith stances." He added, "They include some conservative wings of Baptists and others. These individuals, both lay and apparently some chaplains, say: 'You are not a good soldier unless you believe in my preachings and my faith. '"

While Smith confined religious aggressors to that "small subset," others watching closely for military religious territorial scuffles feel the right-wing evangelical clique is larger and more powerful.

Small or large, officials of the Department of Defense, at least in one telltale instance, are promoting an aggressive Christian group that promises to bring its views in a "crusade" to Iraq. Operation Straight Up "is working to help military children and families become stronger through faith-based entertainment," wrote The American Forces Press Service in April. The story appeared on the America Supports You Internet site sponsored by the Pentagon. It was initially reported in an outside publication by The Nation.

Operation Straight Up is evangelical. Its leaders are former boxer and kick boxer Jonathan Spinks and Hollywood actor Stephen Baldwin.

Here's what Spinks's website said about its potential operations in Iraq: "On the most dangerous soil in our world, we're taking a team of performers, professional athletes, and evangelists on a mission that will be both entertaining, as well as lend tremendous solitude to our men and women stationed in this war-torn country of Iraq. We are most excited about this crusade and yes we are willing to go to the front lines with a very encouraging word straight from God, to our troops. We feel the forces of heaven have encouraged us to perform multiple crusades that will sweep through this war-torn region. We'll hold the only religious crusade of its size in the dangerous land of Iraq." The link, describing these "crusade" plans, became difficult to fetch after emails questioning the "crusade" were sent to its advertised contact: and to the Defense Department. The Spinks site, which does not have a telephone contact number, did not answer repeated emails with queries for this article.

Asked if the Pentagon is lending support or security for these crusading efforts, a Defense Department health records public affairs spokesman, who declined to be identified, said: "There are none. OSU has stated its desire to go and we have suggested ways in which they can arrange that for themselves." Asked whether the Defense Department's announced public support for the Christian evangelistic Operation Straight Up in the Defense Department site, in light of its announced "crusade" inside Iraq, is in violation of federal separation of church and state guidelines, he said: "The Department of Defense is committed to upholding the Constitution of the United States. My oath of office swears me to uphold it." Department rules prevent its officials from sanctioning personal participation with a non-governmental organization. They forbid granting a selective benefit or preferential treatment to any organization. Its officials are constrained by federal law from promoting any specific religious group.

The spokesman also explained the department's support for Operation Straight up by saying: "America Supports You connects Americans supportive of our troops with organizations that are devoted to helping the troops and their families, while also providing a one-stop location on the Internet at where our military and their families can find hundreds of support organizations eager to help our heroes when they need it most. More than 250 home front groups, representing communities from coast to coast, have joined the America Supports You team to support the troops in many ways, including writing letters and emails, sending care packages and assisting military families or helping the wounded when they return home."

However, after an ABC segment on Operation Straight Up, the Defense Department prevented the sending of a controversial video game promoted by the evangelical group to service members in Iraq. The game depicts a film about the battle of Armageddon, in which believers of Jesus Christ fight the Antichrist.

Mikey Weinstein, founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an Air Force Academy graduate and former assistant general counsel for former President Ronald Reagan, said his organization intends to sue the Defense Department over its support of Operation Straight Up. He is vociferous about what he considers such saturated fundamentalist domination within the military.

"What we are seeing is an imperious, fascistic contagion of unconstitutional religious triumphalism that represents a national security threat internally to this country," he said. "This is every bit as significant in magnitude as that presented externally by the now resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida. Let's call a spade a spade: We are confronting the Christian Taliban, period!"

Weinstein has worked intensively through his foundation to battle the influential forces of Christian end-timers and other religious zealots. His foundation recently announced it is filing a federal lawsuit challenging alleged US military participation in a three-day evangelical Christian gathering in Georgia. It quotes the organizers, Task Force Patriot USA's Internet web site as saying it exists "for the purpose of sharing the fullness of life in Jesus Christ with all US military, military veterans and families," and exclaiming that "Christ is our Commander-in-Chief."

Jim Freeman, the Task Force's founder, said Weinstein "is driving a 'wedge' within the military ranks that will ultimately weaken the strength of our military forces. If Task Force Patriot set out to do the same things he is doing, he would scream violently and file more complaints. Our organization has done nothing of a clandestine nature. Our web site has been up for nearly nine years, clearly stating our position as a Christian Veteran To Veteran Outreach. My question is simply this: Does Mikey Weinstein have enough troops that support his exemption of Christians in the US military to defend America against her enemies? I think not. My organization is supported by a very large majority of America's 27 million-plus US military veterans, along with their families."

Late last year, Weinstein filed a complaint with the Defense Department's Inspector General, demanding an investigation of the Christian Embassy, whose Internet video showed "senior military officers, dressed in uniform and in their Pentagon offices, openly discussing their religious commitment and their strategy to bring religion into the military." Last month, the Inspector General concluded some high-ranking officers indeed violated military regulations by participating in the Christian promotional video in uniform and within the Pentagon's offices. The IG recommended that "the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Army consider appropriate corrective action with respect to the military officers concerned; the administrative assistant to the Secretary of the Army and the Pentagon Force Protection Agency initiate inquiries into the manner; and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs review procedures to ensure that film crews operating within the Pentagon are appropriately escorted and monitored."

Other individual outrageous violations of the principles of the separation of church and state within the government, says Weinstein's foundation, include: "blatant displays of religious symbolism on military garb by the 523rd Fighter Squadron; placement of a biblical quotation above the door of the Air and Space Basic Course classroom at Maxwell Air Force Base; illegal use of official military email accounts to send emails containing religious rhetoric, and attempts by missionary organizations such as Force Ministries and the Officers' Christian Fellowship to create 'Christian soldiers' by training active-duty military personnel to evangelize their subordinates and peers."

Asked how strictly the Pentagon controls promotion of religious fundamentalism in the armed forces, Jonathan Withington, a Defense Department spokesman, said: "A basic principle of our nation is free exercise of religion. The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the armed forces to observe the tenets of their respective religions. It is DOD policy that requests for accommodation of religious practices should be approved by commanders when accommodation will not have an adverse impact on military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline."

The concerns of some within the military are that not only do fundamentalist Christian public pronouncements seep into top-ranking military officials, but their beliefs can infect the decision-making of those officials. For instance: evangelical Army Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin made headlines in 2003 when he said he believed America was engaged in a holy war as a "Christian nation" battling Satan. Adversaries can be defeated, he said, "Only if we come against them in the name of Jesus."

Despite his highly publicized rhetoric, Boykin remains Bush's deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Last February, Army Gen. Peter Pace joined with President Bush and the Fellowship Foundation, "a low-profile group that promotes Christian evangelism," to conduct a reading at the Washington, DC prayer breakfast.

With Christian evangelism at this level of the government, some worry about subconscious or even conscious decision making by these leaders at a time when the United States is "at war with Islamic extremists."

"If the armed forces' culture is allowed to stifle creativity and diversity of thought, then the strategic leader's difficult and often time-sensitive decision process may find itself with fewer courses of action from which to choose," wrote Colonel Millonig in discussing public religious proselytizing by military leadership. "Fewer choices are more easily influenced by a select group of individuals and can lead to disastrous consequences in the short term. Left unchecked, the credibility of the military's decision making and policy advice to senior civilians could steadily erode over the long term."

Millonig said his purpose in writing the academic paper "is not to analyze the validity of any individual beliefs, but to show how the rise of conservative Christian and Republican values have affected the military's decision making and policy recommendations. Whether right, wrong or indifferent - the conservative Christian voice has impacted our military. America's strategic thinkers, both military and civilian, must be aware of this trend and its potential implications on policy formulation. The role of intuition on subconscious biases and perceptions can dramatically impact the decision process."

On the other hand, Chaplain Keizer expressed full faith in the military leadership to weed out religious bias in crucial decision making and to prosecute those who force their faith on others. "In the military, I am not sure the evangelicals pose any more of a danger than any other religion on decision making. It is the political neocons who are pushing the US to become more supportive of Israel. The military leadership appears more pragmatic, while the politicians are more activist than reflective."

He cited what he considered crucial examples of this contrast. In one instance, he said, it was Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, then chief of staff, who went against the grain of former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in suggesting troop strengths should be much higher in the Iraq war than the Bush administration did. He was heavily criticized by the Bush administration and retired. And, during the scandals over US military treatment of Iraqi prisoners, Keizer said, it was those within the military leadership, not US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who insisted prisoners should be treated humanely under the international Geneva Convention. In one instance, a dozen retired generals wrote the US Senate Judicial Committee to oppose torture tactics by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military.

Nevertheless, Colonel Millonig warns that the dangers of religious influences within the military are substantial. "America's military leaders must ensure preconceived notions based on religious or political ideology do not adversely shape the decision-making process, nor can it allow intuition based on 'automated expertise' to override an objective evaluation of relevant possibilities," he wrote. "Failure to do so can lead to an erosion of trust with civilian leadership and degrade national policy decisions."

"One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal," said Bill Moyers, a journalist-commentator for the Public Broadcasting Service in a speech to Harvard Medical School in December 2004. "It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seat of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. Theology asserts propositions that cannot be proven true; ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. When ideology and theology couple, their offspring are not always bad but they are always blind. And there is the danger: voters and politicians alike, oblivious to the facts." Moyers is an ordained Baptist minister.

JP Briggs II, Ph.D. is a Distinguished CSU professor at Western Connecticut State University, specializing in creative process. A former reporter for the Hartford Courant and coordinator of the journalism program at WCSU, he is currently senior editor of the intellectual journal "The Connecticut Review." His books include "Fire in the Crucible" (St. Martins Press); "Fractals, the Patterns of Chaos" Simon and Schuster), and "Trickster Tales" (Fine Tooth Press), among others. Email:

Thomas "Dennie" Williams is a former state and federal court reporter, specializing in investigations, for the Hartford Courant. Since the 1970s, he has written extensively about irregularities in the Connecticut Superior Court, Probate Court systems for disciplining both judges and lawyers for misconduct and the failures of the Pentagon and the VA to assist sick veterans returning from war. He can be reached at

The Bad News First

"NO surprises” is a basic rule in hospitals. Junior doctors are supposed to notify their superiors promptly about worrisome developments in a patient, and information is supposed to move smoothly up the chain of command. One of the gravest errors a doctor in training can make is to inform the attending physician well after the fact about a patient’s turn for the worse.

Unfortunately, this rule does not extend to seriously ill patients themselves. They and their families are frequently surprised by the sudden imminence — and the raging authority — of death.

Research has revealed doctors’ tendency to contribute to the problem by avoiding making prognoses. In one study of nearly 5,000 hospitalized adults who had roughly six months to live, only 15 percent were given clear prognoses. In a smaller study of 326 cancer patients in Chicago hospices, all of whom had about a month to live, only 37 percent of the doctors interviewed said they would share an accurate prognosis with their patients, and only if patients or their families pushed them to do so.

Even when doctors do prognosticate, the research shows, they typically overestimate the time a patient has left to live, often at least tripling it, perhaps because they feel overconfident. The pugilistic attitude most doctors adopt toward disease is understandable, even desirable, for much of the course of illness. But there comes a time when this attitude can lead to false optimism. Doctors who wrongly think that patients are going to live much longer wind up recommending needlessly painful and expensive treatments. This phenomenon is neatly captured by a gallows-humor joke told by hospice nurses: Why are coffins nailed shut? To keep doctors from administering more chemotherapy.

By not making or communicating prognoses, doctors can make the end of life more unpleasant. Patients are given no chance to draft wills, see distant loved ones, make peace with estranged relatives or even discuss with their families their wishes about how to live the end of their lives. And they are denied the chance to make decisions about what kind of medical care they want to receive.

Roughly half of Americans die with inadequately treated pain. Large minorities suffer symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea or depression. Four in five die in hospitals and nursing homes, rather than at home as most prefer. And more than half significantly burden family caregivers in the course of their final illness: the family loses its life savings, a caregiver has to quit work or a spouse falls seriously ill.

For reliable prognoses to become a routine part of medical care they must become a priority of medical research and education. Less than 5 percent of research focuses on prognosis. Textbook descriptions of diseases cover prognosis less than 25 percent of the time. And medical schools and residency programs almost completely neglect training in prognostication.

Greater investments in new statistical tools and databases that help physicians predict outcomes are also needed. With these, doctors could translate the clinical, biochemical and genetic information they collect on their patients into statistical predictions of life expectancy that could supplement their own clinical judgment.

Doctors often say they worry that predictions about survival may become self-fulfilling prophecies or cause patients to lose hope. But a realistic assessment of how long a patient has to live need not cause either the patient or doctor to become pessimistic. It should only refocus attention on the quality of the patient’s life. Sometimes living life to its fullest requires knowledge of its finitude.

Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and a professor of sociology at Harvard, is the author of “Death Foretold: Prophecy and Prognosis in Medical Care.”

Another Politkovskaya story

I imagine it would be difficult (but possible) for the Russian government to have killed Anna Politkovskaya. However, she certainly aroused Vladimir Putin's ire, and here, she details a story where she thinks some members of the FSB (descendants of the infamous KGB) tried to abuct or poison her. She nevertheless continued to work tirelessly for press freedom and human rights. Pray that the work she did may continue.

It is the morning of September 1. Reports from North Ossetia are hard to believe: a school in Beslan has been seized. Half an hour to pack my things as my mind works furiously on how to get to the Caucasus. And another thought: to look for the Chechen separatist leader, Aslan Maskhadov, let him come out of hiding, let him go to the hostage-takers, and then ask them to free the children.

Then followed a long evening at Vnukovo airport. Crowds of journalists were trying to get on a plane south, just as flights were being postponed. Obviously, there are some people who would like to delay our departure. I use my mobile and speak openly about the purpose of my flight: "Look for Maskhadov", "persuade Maskhadov".

We have long stopped talking over our phones openly, assuming they are tapped. But this is an emergency. Eventually a man introduces himself as an airport executive: "I'll put you on a flight to Rostov." In the minibus, the driver tells me that the Russian security services, the FSB, told him to put me on the Rostov flight. As I board, my eyes meet those of three passengers sitting in a group: malicious eyes, looking at an enemy. But I don't pay attention. This is the way most FSB people look at me.

The plane takes off. I ask for a tea. It is many hours by road from Rostov to Beslan and war has taught me that it's better not to eat. At 21:50 I drink it. At 22:00 I realise that I have to call the air stewardess as I am rapidly losing consciousness. My other memories are scrappy: the stewardess weeps and shouts: "We're landing, hold on!"

"Welcome back," said a woman bending over me in Rostov regional hospital. The nurse tells me that when they brought me in I was "almost hopeless". Then she whispers: "My dear, they tried to poison you." All the tests taken at the airport have been destroyed - on orders "from on high", say the doctors.

Meanwhile, the horror in Beslan continues. Something strange is going on there on September 2: no officials speak to the relatives of hostages, no one tells them anything. The relatives besiege journalists. They beg them to ask the authorities to give some sort of explanation. The families of the hostages are in an information vacuum. But why?

In the morning, also at Vnukovo airport, Andrei Babitsky is detained on a specious pretext. As a result, another journalist known for seeing his investigations through to the end and being outspoken in the foreign press is prevented from going to Beslan.

Word comes that Ruslan Aushev, the former president of Ingushetia, rejected by the authorities for advocating a settlement of the Chechen crisis, suddenly walked into negotiations with the terrorists in Beslan. He walked in alone because the people at the special services headquarters responsible for the negotiations were unable for 36 hours to agree among themselves who would go first. The militants give three babies to Aushev and then release 26 more kids and their mothers. But the media try to hush up Aushev's courageous behaviour: no negotiations, nobody has gone inside.

By September 3, the families of hostages are in a total news blackout. They are desperate; they all remember the experience of the Dubrovka theatre siege in which 129 people died when the special services released gas into the building, ending the stand-off. They remember how the government lied.

The school is surrounded by people with hunting rifles. They are ordinary people, the fathers and brothers of the hostages who have despaired of getting help from the state; they have decided to rescue their relatives themselves. This has been a constant issue during the past five years of the second war in Chechnya: people have lost all hope of getting any protection from the state and they expect nothing but extra-judicial executions from the special services. So they try to defend themselves and their loved ones. Self-defence, naturally, leads to lynching. It couldn't be otherwise. After the theatre siege in 2002, the hostages made this harrowing discovery: save yourself, because the state can only help to destroy you.

And it's the same in Beslan now. Official lies continue. The media promote official views. They call it "taking a state-friendly position", meaning a position of approval of Vladimir Putin's actions. The media don't have a critical word to say about him. The same applies to the president's personal friends, who happen to be the heads of FSB, the defence ministry and the interior ministry. In the three days of horror in Beslan, the "state-friendly media" never dared to say aloud that the special services were probably doing something wrong. They never dared to hint to the state duma and the federation council - the parliament - that they might do well to convene an emergency session to discuss Beslan.

The top news story is Putin flying into Beslan at night. We are shown Putin thanking the special services; we see President Dzasokhov, but not a word is said about Aushev. He is a disgraced former president, disgraced because he urged the authorities not to prolong the Chechen crisis, not to bring things to the point of a tragedy that the state could not handle. Putin does not mention Aushev's heroism, so the media are silent.

Saturday, September 4, the day after the terrible resolution of the Beslan hostage-taking crisis. A staggering number of casualties, the country is in shock. And there are still lots of people unaccounted for, whose existence is denied by officials. All this was the subject of a brilliant and, by present standards, very bold Saturday issue of the newspaper Izvestia, which led with the headline "The silence at the top". Official reaction was swift. Raf Shakirov, the chief editor, was fired. Izvestia belongs to the nickel baron Vladimir Potanin, and throughout the summer he was trembling in his boots because he was afraid to share the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, who has been arrested on fraud charges. He was doubtless trying to curry favour with Putin. The result is that Shakirov, a talented newspaper manager and a generally pro-establishment man, is out of the game, a latter-day dissident - and this for deviating ever so slightly from the official line.

You might think that journalists staged an action of protest in support of Shakirov. Of course not. The Russian Union of Journalists and the Media Union kept mum. Only a journalist who is loyal to the establishment is treated as "one of us". If this is journalists' approach to the cause that we serve, then it spells an end to the basic tenet that we are working so that people know what is happening and take the right decisions.

The events in Beslan have shown that the consequences of an information vacuum are disastrous. People dismiss the state that has left them in the lurch and try to act on their own, try to rescue their loved ones themselves, and to exact their own justice on the culprits. Later, Putin declared that the Beslan tragedy had nothing to do with the Chechen crisis, so the media stopped covering the topic. So Beslan is like September 11: all about al-Qaida. There is no more mention of the Chechen war, whose fifth anniversary falls this month. This is nonsense, but wasn't it the same in Soviet times when everyone knew the authorities were talking rubbish but pretended the emperor had his clothes on?

We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance. All we have left is the internet, where information is still freely available. For the rest, if you want to go on working as a journalist, it's total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial - whatever our special services, Putin's guard dogs, see fit.

· Anna Politkovskaya is a journalist on the Novaya Gazeta newspaper; she has won numerous awards for her reporting of the Chechnya conflict and was involved in negotiations with the gunmen who stormed the Dubrovka theatre in October 2002

Monday, August 27, 2007

Hélder Câmara, died 1999

Hélder Câmara, 1909-1999

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist."

His friends called him Dom Helder. His enemies called him the Red Bishop. Even today, the Red specter still haunts our political discourse. For example, if you talk about universal healthcare in the US, some might invoke the specter of "socialized medicine".

His uncompromising commitment to the church of the poor gave us courage to challenge our own culture of middle-class religion. His courage in the face of Brazil’s military regime inspired us to take on the militarism of our own country. And his firm commitment to nonviolence, particularly his political analysis of the "spiral of violence," grounded us in a theory and practice of revolutionary struggle without arms.

Ched Meyers, writing for Sojourners magazine in 1999.

When he died in 1999, the National Catholic Reporter called him a "lover of the poor."

Rosemary Radford Ruether, also a Sojourners writer, tells us that many Latin American bishops came in conservative, and were radicalized by the extreme poverty, violence and suffering. The Roman church has, to its disgrace, silenced many liberation theologians. Câmara focused his seminary on grassroots ministry to the poor, only to see that work and others undone by his right-wing successor.

In the language of Latin Americans who remember the martyrs with the cry "presente!" Helder Câmara, although dead, still lives. He rises again in our remembrance of him to continue to inspire followers.

—Rosemary Radford Ruether

But Pope John XXIII, the guy who started Vatican II, said,

"We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life."

Professor Jeanette Rodriguez put it a bit differently, "God is always pregnant." Gardens flourish, mothers give birth ... God, in other words, is always at work. God cannot be stopped. Câmara knew that. He was content.

"The Spirit of God breaths life into the Abrahamic minorities that already exist in the womb of all races, all religious, all countries and all human groups. Whoever hopes against hope, like Abraham, and decides to work, even sacrifice for a more just and humane world, belongs to these Abrahamic minorities."

Please pray for:

The poor.

All people who seek to advance God's agenda of liberation.

All the above, especially Roman Catholics, who are persecuted by church or secular hierarchies.

The rich, that our ignorance and selfishness may come to an end.
Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya Анна Степановна Политковская 1958-2006

Anna Politkovskaya was a renowned Russian journalist and human rights activist who fought to expose Russian brutality in Chechnya. She was gunned down at her apartment building on Oct 7, 1996. The Russian government will soon charge 10 people in connection with her death. Her murder was suspected to be a contract killing, and the Russian government has been accused of being wilfully slow in investigating her murder.

The article below is dated Oct 15, 2004, from the Guardian. Pray for her, and for journalists in danger.

Anna Politkovskaya was born into Soviet high society; the kind of privileged, metropolitan elite that knew abroad better than it knew the factories of the Urals, and whose children were guaranteed comfortable jobs in the rambling bureaucracies of Moscow.

Half a life later, in her 40s and a mother of two children, Politkovskaya found herself alone at night in the Chechen hills, fleeing through the darkness. She was running from the Russian security service, the FSB, which wanted to arrest her, but out there in the highlands of a lawless region steeped in bloodshed, she could have fallen victim to anyone or anything; Chechen bandits, Russian or Chechen government death squads, a broken neck. It was Europe, in 2002.

"I walked the whole night," she says. "I wanted to stay alive! It was terrifying. I reached the [Chechen] village of Stary Atagi at dawn. I stayed there for a day and a night, keeping my head down ..." She talks about it for a while, then seems to check herself, feeling perhaps that telling a stranger about one of the numerous occasions in her career as a journalist that she faced a threat of imprisonment or serious harm is irrelevant to the serious business of reporting. "These are just details," she says, finally.

In the bland setting of a publisher's London flat, you can see in Politkovskaya, one of the bravest of Russia's many brave journalists, the different ages of her life, and her looking serious in each of them: the bookish student of the 1970s, the earnest, curious young Soviet reporter, the journalist who embraced the freedoms of perestroika in the late 1980s, the veteran of Russia's recent conflicts who returns time and again to Chechnya to enrage the Kremlin leadership as it seeks to make of Vladimir Putin an infallible khan.

Her seriousness is not just her frown, her severe glasses and full head of grey hair. It's the tension, anger and impatience in her whole body, making clear that her sense of the continual injustice being perpetrated in her homeland never leaves her, that she can't shut it out in a way almost all British journalists, even the campaigning, radical kind, can.

It's a surprise, then, to see her start to laugh and make fun of the Guardian's photographer when he gets her to pose for him. "Photographers always do that," she says, in her hesitant English. "They get people to do things they don't normally do." The photographer gets quite annoyed and you realise that Politkovskaya is still young (she's 46). And still hopeful. The author picture on the back of her new book, Putin's Russia, is so self-consciously tragic, and its subject matter so bleak, that I ask her whether she thinks it might take generations for her country to become truly free.

"I wouldn't ever want to say it would take generations," she says. "I want to be able to live the life of a human being, where every individual is respected, in my lifetime."

Politkovskaya was born in New York, where her Soviet Ukrainian parents were UN diplomats, in 1958, five years after the death of Stalin. She was sent back home to be educated and after school entered one of the most prestigious university departments in the USSR, the journalism faculty of Moscow State University. Among its other advantages, her parents' diplomatic status enabled them to smuggle banned books into the country for her, and she was able to write her dissertation about a normally forbidden poet, the emigre Marina Tsvetayeva.

After graduation, Politkovskaya worked for the daily Izvestiya, then moved to the in-house paper of the state airline monopoly Aeroflot. "Every journalist got a free ticket all year round; you could go on any plane and fly wherever you wanted. Thanks to this I saw the whole of our huge country. I was a girl from a diplomatic family, a reader, a bit of a swot; I didn't know life at all."

With the coming of perestroika, Politkovskaya switched to the independent press which began to emerge and flourish: first Obshchaya Gazeta, then Novaya Gazeta (New Newspaper). None of the terrible things that have happened in Russia since the coming to power of the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 have persuaded Politkovskaya that it would have been better to preserve the USSR.

"From an economic point of view, life became very difficult," she says, "but politically it wasn't shocking at all. It was simple happiness, that you could read and think and write whatever you wanted. It was a joy. You need to endure a great deal in the way of economic hardship for the sake of freedom."

Hardly had the new countries of the former Soviet Union begun to stand on their feet, however, than a series of internal wars broke out. The most savage of them, continuing to this day, involves various attempts by Russian government troops to regain control over the small region of Chechnya. Politkovskaya became one of the most dogged reporters of that conflict.

Russians speak of two Chechen wars: the first, under Yeltsin, from 1994 to 1996, ended with a peace deal and troop withdrawal under pressure from the media and public. When Putin invaded for a second time, in 1999, he took steps to ensure that the media would not embarrass him with reports about the reality of Russia's brutality in Chechnya. If, as Politkovskaya believes, stopping the first Chechen war was the Russian media's greatest achievement in the relatively free Yeltsin years, the second Chechen war has been its greatest disaster. Once an independent voice among many, Novaya Gazeta is now among the few Russian media outlets which have not yet been intimidated into toeing the Kremlin line.

The second Chechen war began by costing Politkovskaya her marriage. She returned home to Moscow one day in 1999, fresh from reporting on a long-range Russian rocket attack in Grozny which had hit a market and a maternity hospital, killing scores of people, including women and children, to hear her husband tell her: "I can't take this any more." Recently, it almost cost her her life, when, on her way to Beslan in the early hours of the school hostage crisis, she was slipped poison in a cup of tea. In between, she has experienced countless death threats from Russian troops, Chechen fighters and the other, more shadowy armed groups operating in the margins of the war. The kidnappings, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, rapes and tortures she has reported on in Chechnya have left her convinced that Putin's policies are engendering the terrorists they are supposed to eliminate.

"To this day there's torture in any FSB branch in Chechnya, like the so-called 'telephone', where they pass an electric current through a person's body. I've seen hundreds of people who've been through this torture. Some have been tortured in such an intricate way that it's hard for me to believe that it was done by people who went to the same sort of schools that I did, who read the same textbooks."

Politkovskaya has no regrets about the times she has stepped outside the role of reporter in recent Chechen terrorist attacks - as a negotiator in the Moscow theatre siege, and as a would-be negotiator at Beslan, before she was poisoned. "Yes, I went beyond my journalistic role," she says. "But it would be quite wrong to say that doing so was a bad move from a journalistic point of view. By setting aside my role as journalist I learned so much that I would never have found out being just a plain journalist, who stands in the crowd along with everyone else."

She has harsh words for what she sees as the west's kid-glove treatment of Putin and Russia. "Most of the time they forget the word Chechnya. They only remember it when there's a terrorist act. And then it's, 'Oh!' And they start their full coverage up again. But virtually nobody reports on what is really going on in that zone, in Chechnya, and the growth of terrorism. The truth is that the methods employed in Putin's anti-terrorist operation are generating a wave of terrorism the like of which we have never experienced."

The Bush-Blair "war on terror" has been of enormous help to Putin, Politkovskaya says. Many people in Russia gained perverse comfort from the pictures of US abuses in Abu Ghraib prison. "I've heard it many times. In Russia you hear people talking about it with pride: that, 'We treated the blacks like this before the Americans did, and we were right, because they are international terrorists.'

"Putin's begun to try to prove on the world stage that he's also fighting international terrorists, that he's just a part of this fashionable war. And he's been successful. He was Blair's best friend for a while. When, after Beslan, he began to state that we were seeing virtually the hand of Bin Laden, it was appalling. What's Bin Laden got to do with it? The Russian government created these beasts, brought them up, and they came to Beslan and behaved like beasts."

The only way for the west to regain moral authority, Politkovskaya argues, would be for it to treat Putin as it treats Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic, bullying president of Russia's neighbour Belarus - not sanctions, but a more personal, tailored form of ostracism. "It's impossible to talk on the one hand about the monstrous scale of victims in Chechnya and the spawning of terrorism and then lay out the red carpet, embrace Putin and tell him: 'We're with you, you're the best.' That shouldn't be happening. I understand, our country's a big market, it's very attractive. I understand it very well. But we're not second-class people, we're people like you, and we want to live."

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Hanoi fires salvo at Bush's comments

[Article courtesy of the money-grubbing capitalists at MSN Money

Hanoi is dismayed by President George W. Bush's invocation of the ignominious US withdrawal from Vietnam to explain the need to maintain US forces in Iraq.

Mr Bush suggested that Washington's withdrawal from Vietnam precipitated a bloodbath in south-east Asia – including the Cambodian Khmer Rouge genocide – an assertion many Vietnamese see as a gross oversimplification of the region's complex and tragic history, and Washington's own role in it.

"It is very ill-considered and, frankly, cavalier to make use of Vietnam insuch a way to extricate himself from the Iraq debate," said Ton Nu Thi Ninh, former deputy chair of the foreign relations committee of Vietnam's National Assembly. "Opening this up again can only rekindle resentment, antagonisms that have been put on the shelf for the sake of looking into the future."

Vietnam was "an unjustified and a wrong war in the first place so to start analysing things only from the withdrawal of US troops is really puzzling", she said. "The root of the problem is not the withdrawal, it's the very fact of starting up the war in the first place."

Ms Ninh also objected to Mr Bush's "bad taste" in conflating post-war events in Vietnam with the Khmer Rouge "killing fields" in neighbouring Cambodia.

Hanoi views the withdrawal of US troops as the culmination of its successful nationalist struggle to reunify a divided country.

"With regard to the American war in Vietnam, everyone knows that we fought to defend our country and that this was a righteous war of the Vietnamese people," Le Dung, foreign ministry spokesman, told a Hanoi press conference this week.

"And we all know that the war caused tremendous suffering and losses to the Vietnamese people."

Vietnam's communist rulers have struggled for 30 years to promote recognition of their nation as a country, rather than a war, as they sought to bury the ghosts of the past and forge an amicable working relationship with the US, their former enemy.

As Asia's second-fastest growing economy, Vietnam is today a powerful magnet for foreign investment, with the US its largest single trading partner and a focus for growing bilateral co-operation.

Tran Quyet Thang, chairman of a local property development company, said Vietnam suffered unnecessarily as a result of US hostility and vindictiveness after the war, when Washington imposed a long, punishing economic boycott on reunified Vietnam.

"They had to withdraw from Vietnam – it was a wise decision and they should have done it earlier," he said. "But they should not have embargoed Vietnam – they should have engaged Vietnam right away.

"They could have achieved what they think they wanted without the war. But they were regretful about losing the war, so they continued fighting in their mind."

Ms Ninh believes the US has failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam.

"I think the US has no choice [in Iraq] but to withdraw – what good can itdo by staying longer?" she said.

"The US has opened the Pandora's box. It seems President Bush is saying it's a mess, and we have to stay to prevent it from being any worse.

"The only thing that really comes out is the notion of a quagmire."

Pope has too much power, says Sydney bishop

An article from Sydney Morning Herald:

THE Sydney bishop who helped write the Catholic Church's sex abuse policy in Australia has urged a fundamental reshaping of the church's power structures, warning papal authority has gone too far and calling for a review of compulsory celibacy for priests and the church's teachings on sex.

Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who retired three years ago and who was once touted as a possible candidate for the job of archbishop of Sydney, says the church has to get more serious about confronting clerical abuse and change must start at the top.

In an explosive critique of the church to be published tomorrow, he has directly criticised both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI for Rome's reluctance to take stronger action to tackle sexual abuse.

The breadth and scope of his stance is extremely unusual in the Catholic Church, where bishops usually observe an oath of silence in retirement.

Bishop Robertson said he did not expect immediate change but wanted to start a robust "conversation" in the church about the need for reform of power structures and sexual ethics.

He also says in his book that he was the victim of an abusive stranger, not a priest, as an adolescent. The experience shaped his response to abuse victims and led to significant disenchantment with the church.

In the book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church, Bishop Robinson says papal authority has gone too far, local bishops have been marginalised and the faithful of the church rendered powerless.

John Paul II had left the church to deal with "one of the ugliest stories to emerge from the Catholic Church" without appropriate levels of direction or guidance.

Pope Benedict's failure to even consider a review of priestly celibacy was to "lose credibility even before the discussion has begun".

There was a need for the church to review its commitment to priestly celibacy and its "extreme" teachings on sexual ethics, in which the church treats as a sin sex before marriage between committed couples.

And the attire of bishops and priests needed to be modernised - the bishop's mitre abandoned because of its "bad body language" and the priestly collar replaced in some circumstances with a distinctive tie.

Priests and bishops should be appraised every five or six years, as was normal in every workplace, and parishes would get a say in the priests appointed.

Specifically, Bishop Robinson has called for an elected parliament of bishops to be established, from which properly representative church leaders would elect future popes.

The tradition in the Eastern Catholic Church of appointing patriarchs to lead national churches could be adopted by the Roman Catholic church to remove hierarchical confusion.

But Bishop Robinson's powerful case for reform was likely to be resisted by those with a vested interest in not seeing any radical change within the church, said Father Michael Whelan, the principal of the Aquinas Academy and a founding member of the group Catalyst for Renewal. The Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, declined to comment.

[This guy is nuts and should be defrocked. The funky hats are the only thing separating us from the godless heathens. This excerpt from a Seinfeld episode illustrates; it's The Conversion, where George is converting to Latvian Orthodoxy to get some girl:
FATHER-PRIEST: Why do you want to accept the Latvian Orthodox faith?

GEORGE: (ahem) In this age of uncertainty and confusion, a man begins to ask himself certain questions. How can one even begin to put into words something so um… (trying to think of a word)



FATHER-PRIEST: Vast? (he pronounces it as "vost")

GEORGE: No not vast (he pronounces it as "vost")

FATHER-PRIEST: Well whatever it is, basically you like the religion.


FATHER-PRIEST 2: Is there one aspect of the faith that you find particularly attractive?

GEORGE: (he thinks) I think the hats. The hat conveys that solemn religious look you want in a faith. Very pious.

PS, George did not get the girl.]

Friday, August 24, 2007

"Morning after" pill sales nearly double

From CNN Money

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Sales of the Plan B "morning-after pill" nearly doubled in the past year, exceeding expectations after the U.S. government allowed adults to buy the emergency contraceptive without a prescription.

A three-year battle ended last August when the Food and Drug Administration decided that women and men, 18 and older, could buy the Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc. (up $0.16 to $52.22, Charts) product without a doctor's order if they showed proof of age at a pharmacy.

"More women know about it, and it's just becoming much more part of their mainstream reproductive health care," Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said.

For Big Pharma, drugs are a hard global sell
Plan B pills contain higher doses of progestin, a hormone used in prescription birth-control pills for 35 years. Two Plan B pills reduce odds of pregnancy by 89 percent if taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse, studies show.

Plan B sales hit about $40 million a year when the product required a prescription for all women. Industry analysts and Barr projected nonprescription access for adults, approved in August 2006, could boost sales to about $60 million in 2007.

The popularity of Plan B has exceeded those estimates.

Barr launched the nonprescription version last November, and the company predicts 2007 sales will reach about $80 million.

"We believe [sales] will continue to grow," Barr spokeswoman Carol Cox said.

Opponents of wider access say that is exactly what they had feared. Conservative and religious groups argued that easy availability would promote promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases among teens and others.

Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, a group that opposed Plan B sales without a doctor's order, said minors may be obtaining it without a prescription or some women may be using it more than once.

"The high sales may indicate that our concerns are occurring," Wright said.

Some organizations want states to effectively limit Plan B access, but those efforts largely have failed to advance.

Family-planning groups say some women have reported trouble getting Plan B, with some pharmacists declining to dispense it or stores refusing to carry it.

Genevieve DeLucchi, 26, of North Carolina, said the first two pharmacies she visited last year did not have it in stock. She was able to buy it at a third.

After that, DeLucchi became a volunteer shopper for Planned Parenthood to gauge availability at stores. At some pharmacies she found "a lot of them had it, but they didn't know what to tell" customers about how to use it, or seemed reluctant to discuss it.

Barr and other backers want the age limit for non-prescription sales removed. Legal challenges on both sides are pending.

The Center for Reproductive Rights said a judge in New York may rule soon on its argument that the FDA's decision-making was flawed and Plan B should be available without a prescription to women of all ages.

Concerned Women for America and other groups challenged the FDA decision last April in federal court in the District of Columbia. They want a doctor's order for all sales.

Bankrate: Small houses can be a good fit for many homeowners

[Jay McDonald, writing for, asks if perhaps we should consider downsizing our houses. I've occasionally joked that I love Americans, but there are a lot of them who would drive main battle tanks if they could ... same goes for houses. Bankrate is an excellent personal finance site that I recommend. On the actual article on Bankrate, there's a nice slideshow of some actual small houses.]

Frustrated with the size of your home? You're not alone.

But instead of feeling cramped, a growing number of Americans are finding they have more home than they want or need.

The reasons are numerous. Baby boomers, 77 million strong, are looking to downsize in retirement. Young home buyers are finding it increasingly difficult to afford or maintain larger homes. Urban land is at a premium. Smaller homes in desirable neighborhoods are scarce or outlawed by covenant. And environmental concerns about a residence's "carbon footprint" have further dampened enthusiasm for spacious showpieces.

That doesn't necessarily mean that smaller times are ahead for everyone. For growing families, some investors, the wealthy or homeowners who just want the room, bigger will most likely continue to be better.

But for homeowners who no longer wish to pay taxes, utilities and insurance on rooms they never use, or who simply find a smaller home more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing, the small-house movement is quietly reinventing the U.S. scale of living.

My shed, my home

In some cases, the small-house trend goes to the extreme Lilliputian end of the scale.

Jay Shafer lives quite comfortably in a 100-square-foot house in Sebastopol, Calif. You may have a tool shed or a master bath about the same size.

Shafer's home is on the small end of a line of compact, ready-made dwellings he designs for his Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. His designs have won numerous awards for energy efficiency and green building. The homes cost between $20,000 and $48,000, excluding land.

Though many customers use them as vacation homes or mother-in-law cottages, there are those smaller-is-better devotees who, like Shafer, simply prefer to live within their means.

Shafer, founder of the Small House Society, says "supersizing" came about when home builders hooked consumers on the one easily quantifiable aspect of every house: its square footage.

"It's true that the cheapest thing you can add onto a house is square footage, and of course the building industry likes to build these things and people are willing to pay a lot for that not-so-expensive addition," he says. "When the housing industry pushed for larger houses back in the '70s and '80s because their profits were leveling out, the banks followed suit. Then the codes followed suit, so it became illegal to build smaller than a certain size."

Americans quickly came to believe that more square footage paid for itself in resale, especially during the run-up of housing prices in the last decade. Since 1970, the average American home has grown from 1,500 square feet to the current average of 2,450 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Against that bigger-is-better investor mind-set, smaller homes were either shunned as fixtures from a bygone era or lumped in with mobile homes. Shafer, Alchemy Architects, the Tiny House Co. and others are attempting to change such perceptions about compact living by extolling the virtues of small houses.

Virtues of small houses:

• Energy efficiency: The propane bill to heat Shafer's cabin in frigid Iowa City, Iowa, was less than $170 for the entire winter.
• Durability: Tumbleweed houses withstand winds of up to 180 miles per hour.
• Expandability: Modular design allows for any necessary growth.
• Custom materials: The sky's the limit when it comes to materials. The smaller the house, the easier it is to use cedar, rubber shingle tiles, cork flooring and other materials that would bust the budget of a larger house.
Shafer says the small-house movement is growing as more people become dissatisfied with having to pay more for more house than they need.

"Most of the people who are interested tend to be looking at a house more as a home instead of an investment. It's hard to find a small house anymore. There is a demand for them and they're so rare," he says.

What about my stuff?

Ah, stuff. We love it, don't we? Perhaps the biggest obstacle to downsizing, even for Zen monks, is where will I put my stuff? Jim Gauer, author of "The New American Dream: Living Well in Small Homes," has these suggestions:
• Kitchen cabinets that go to the ceiling.
• Drawers, drawers and more drawers. Put them under beds, in kitchen bases, in bedside tables, inside closets.
• Closet systems, such as those available at California Closets and IKEA.
• Storage walls, such as those found behind the impossibly pristine minimalist interiors you see in architecture magazines. Often the space behind the floor-to-ceiling panels is shallower than one foot, but useful to hide all sorts of clutter.
• Outside storage option. If there is stuff that just won't fit, consider renting a storage locker. It's cheaper than
maintaining extra square footage you only use for storage.

The Katrina effect

New York designer Marianne Cusato wasn't out to change the world when she designed the Katrina Cottage. Her goal was to help provide immediate housing to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

But when Lowe's executives saw Cusato's compact, self-contained cottage at the International Builders Show in 2005, they recognized a solution to the broader need for affordable housing nationwide.

Lowe's partnered with Cusato and made Katrina Cottages available to order at its 29 locations in Louisiana and Mississippi. The one- and two-bedroom bungalows, in four styles ranging from 544 square feet to 936 square feet, are delivered in sections for easy assembly.

The cost: $40 to $50 per square foot, or less than $50,000 for the largest floor plan.

Once word of the Katrina Cottage got out, interested customers lit up Lowe's phone lines. "Surprisingly, we were getting more inquiries other than from the Gulf for mother-in-law houses, beach cottages, mountain homes, guest houses, even as primary residences," says Jennifer Wilson, a spokeswoman for Lowe's. "We've gotten more than 10,000 calls in the past six or seven months from people asking when it's going to be available to them."

So far, Katrina Cottage plans are only available for purchase online for Lowe's customers in the other 48 states. Included is a shopping list of materials that can be ordered through your local Lowe's store to build your own Katrina Cottage.

A major retailer selling prefabricated homes is not without precedent. Sears did it for years. But Cusato says the availability of a durable, new, "right-sized" house touched a nerve with people tired of having to carry the financial burden of oversized homes.

"A lot of times, houses are sold because Realtors convince somebody that it's not necessarily what they may want, but it's what they have to have to resell. So many people are living in houses not because it's the exact house they want but it's the house they need to sell out of," she says.

"It is a failure of the architecture profession that we haven't built better places so the only thing the buyer can do is talk about square footage, because we haven't given them anything else to talk about. It's a failure of urbanism that the Realtors have had to sell architecture that way."

Ultimately, says Cusato, the solution lies in well-built communities where homes can be of a human scale, instead of stretched out of shape in an effort to fit in everything from a fitness room to a movie theater that should be shared by the neighborhood.

"It's the idea of quality over quantity," she says. "Then you don't have to have everything in your house because you have the 'outdoor room,' you have the street, so you can also build smaller."

Downsizing's big challenges
Building small does have some unique challenges, often starting with the location.

To come up with the home they love, the Texas architect Rick Black and his wife just happened upon a half-lot that was practically unbuildable in their desirable but pricey Hyde Park community. That was just the starting point for the one-bedroom, 980-square-foot modern they built in 2004.

"'We had kind of a difficult time getting the house design appraised to get our construction loan. In terms of size of newer construction, there was nothing comparable for the appraiser to use," Black recalls.

He admits it costs more to get a smaller house; he estimates his home cost between $150 to $180 a square foot, including his "sweat equity." "For a developer, there is no reason to build those precious little jewels," Black says. "It's not rewarded by the market."

But Black contends it's a great way to get the house you really want, without sacrificing resale value. Their home recently appraised at $211,000; he estimates its current market value at more than $250,000.

"Our private clients, they get that," he says. "They don't need to be swayed by profit-taking as their primary motivation."

Contributing editor Jay MacDonald writes from his home in Austin, Texas.

How many congresspeople did American Express buy this year?

WASHINGTON (AP), posted on MSN Money - Credit card lender American Express Co. spent more than $1.3 million in the first half of 2007 to lobby the federal government, according to a recent disclosure form.

The company lobbied on bills related to credit card and banking regulations, patent reform, data security and other issues, according to the form posted online Aug. 10 by the Senate's public records office.

American Express lobbied Congress and the Social Security Administration.

Under a federal law enacted in 1995, lobbyists are required to disclose activities that could influence members of the executive and legislative branches. They must register with Congress within 45 days of being hired or engaging in lobbying.

American Express is based in New York.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Go see Hairspray

If you haven't seen the movie Hairspray, go see it.

I understand that it's maybe a bit less edgy than the original film and/or the musical, and I understand that John Travolta's casting as Edna came under fire because Scientology is allegedy homophobic (it's no worse than Christianity or Islam or Judaism). But, the movie was very well executed. And campy, cheesy, and very funny. And the leading character is a woman; and many of the major ones are women, either biologically or men in drag. :)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rights group calls Chinese toy factories "brutal", unsafe

HONG KONG (Reuters) -- A U.S.-based workers' rights group said it found "brutal conditions" and labor violations at eight Chinese plants that make toys for big multinationals, and called on the companies to take steps to improve standards.

China Labor Watch said in a report, issued Tuesday after several months of investigation, that the manufacturers - which served a handful of global players, including Disney, Bandai and Hasbro - paid "little heed to the most basic standards of the country."

Blame U.S. companies for bad Chinese goods
The report comes as Chinese exports are under scrutiny over safety concerns after Mattel Inc. recalled millions of toys, including 436,000 die-cast toy cars from its "Cars" line, because they may contain excessive amounts of lead.

China has also been criticized for the safety of food, drugs and other exports ranging from tyros to toothpaste. Officials have been quick to say that the vast majority of the country's exports meet standards.

The report concluded that "short-sighted policies" drive major companies to "turn a blind eye to safety - and to ignore the labor conditions in their supplier factories as well."

"Instead of concentrating on improving product safety and workers' lives, companies spend their energy creating beautiful pamphlets on social responsibility, disputing critical reports and shifting blame," it said.

Cheap subcontractors
Walt Disney Company International said that it and its affiliates take claims of unfair labor practices very seriously, investigate any such allegations thoroughly and take remedial action.

"We have a firm commitment to the safety and well-being of workers, and fair and just labor standards," spokeswoman Alannah Goss said in an e-mailed statement.

Hasbro could not be reached for an immediate comment, while Japan's Bandai declined to comment.

China Labor Watch listed steps big international firms should take, including: pay supplier factories a reasonable price for their products, help the factories correct violations and take responsibility for suppliers' legal infractions.

They should also pay better wages and publicize the results of factory audits, it said.

Recall: How to keep your child safe
Many foreign companies and experts in Chinese manufacturing say it can be hard to verify whether or not a supplier is living up to commitments to meet labor and environmental standards 100 percent of the time.

Suppliers, including some named in the China Labor Watch report, sometimes coach employees how to answer questions during inspections, and many keep two sets of books to fool auditors.

Industry experts also say that some manufacturers show off clean, inspection-passing facilities to international clients when they visit, but secretly subcontract some of the work to hidden, substandard production lines that are cheaper to run.

In the Pearl River Delta, a manufacturing hub on the southern coast near Hong Kong that drives much of China's spectacular growth, labor conditions have "improved somewhat" in recent years but remain poor, China Labor Watch said.

"Corporate codes of conduct and checklist-auditing are not enough by themselves to strengthen workers' rights if corporations are unwilling to pay the real price it costs to produce a product according to the standards in their codes," the group argued.

The group said it saw quality problems as "a result of multinationals' single-minded pursuit of ever-lower prices and neglect of other considerations."

Eighty percent of the $22.3 billion worth of toys sold in the United States were made in China, said China Labor Watch, which has been promoting labor rights in the country and reporting on working conditions there since 2000.