Daily Archives: November 28, 2008

Elitist image dogs Britain’s Conservatives

BRITAIN-ELITISM

Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, friend of banking heir Nathaniel Rothschild, attends an economic forum in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk in this February 15, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

A quick glance at its past leaders and chairmen shows a list littered with Barons, Viscounts and Lords.

Reuters | Nov 18, 2008

By Kylie MacLellan and Golnar Motevalli

OXFORD (Reuters) – As Britain hurtles into the deepest slowdown in more than 15 years, a party funding scandal has reminded the country of its most enduring schism: class. This does not bode well for the opposition Conservatives.

In a more buoyant climate the scandal — involving Conservative finance spokesman George Osborne, posh drinking clubs, a yacht and a Russian billionaire — may have made little more than tasty fodder for the country’s voracious media.

But as many Britons lay blame for mounting redundancies on rich City bankers — who in their white-collared stripy shirts are often closely allied to the party of the wealthy and elite — it could not have come at a worse time for the Conservatives.

Traditionally seen as a bedrock of the upper classes, the party had been striving to broaden its appeal: a quick glance at its past leaders and chairmen shows a list littered with Barons, Viscounts and Lords.

Since David Cameron became leader in 2005, the Conservatives, or Tories, have worked to secure working-class votes if they are to end 11 years of Labor rule at the next election, due by mid-2010.

But the scandal in late October, involving Osborne, Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska and their mutual friend the banking heir Nathaniel Rothschild, brought the Conservatives’ elite connections firmly back into view.

Rothschild alleged that Osborne, his friend since they were members of an exclusive drinking and dining club at Oxford University, had tried to solicit a large donation to the party from Deripaska, whose yacht he visited in the Mediterranean last August. Osborne denied seeking any such donation.

The focus of the scandal — sources of party funding — is a topic which has dogged both the main parties. But it was the Conservatives’ association with friends in high places and the exposure of an old boys’ network that did the damage.

“It does look incredibly bad when these leading politicians are flouncing around having cocktails… It does revive old kinds of images about the Conservatives that they’ve been adept at hiding for some time,” said Steven Fielding, director of the Center for British Politics at Nottingham University.

For some commentators and voters, the incident, which also involved Labor minister Peter Mandelson and appeared only to come to light as some act of revenge, simply highlighted that politics as a whole is an elitist business.

Trevor Phillips, the head of the country’s equality watchdog, argued after the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president that the way political parties are organized means a candidate of his background would never be elected in Britain.

“There are an awful lot of rich Labor politicians too,” noted Carol Richmond, 65, who is retired and lives in Cameron’s constituency.

“All it can do is further reinforce many people’s attitudes that politics is distanced from many people’s reality… It reinforces this attitude that politics is not for ordinary people, it’s an elitist game,” Fielding said.

A survey by education charity the Sutton Trust in 2005 found 32 percent of British members of parliament went to fee-paying schools, which educate just 7 percent of the population, and 27 percent are graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, the UK’s two most prestigious universities.

RETOXIFICATION?

Unfortunately for the Conservatives, the echoes of their elite connections sounded by the “yacht-gate” incident may undermine their ability to tap popular resentments as unemployment heads for its highest in more than a decade.

Opposition leader Cameron — educated at Eton College, which has fees of 28,000 pounds ($44,270) a year — has endeavored to portray himself as an ordinary man, cycling to work and posting video diaries on his blog site, “webcameron.”

Opinion polls suggest the effort was paying off. A survey by ComRes from before the scandal broke in October showed 33 percent of the two lowest social class categories — unskilled manual workers and the long-term unemployed — would vote Conservative if there were an election tomorrow, compared with just 18 percent in March 2005.

“The ability that David Cameron has had to detoxify the Conservative brand has certainly resonated among middle to lower class voters,” said Greig Baker, Research Director at ComRes.

This emerged at a local election in May, when the Tories snatched a seat held by Labor for 34 years, despite Labor campaigners mocking the Conservative candidate’s privileged background by dressing up in top hat and tails.

The result was embarrassing for Labor, whose class-centered campaign appeared to have backfired. Some said at the time it indicated class may no longer play so highly with voters.

CLASS-RIDDEN SOCIETY

The Labor government says social mobility, the ability of a person to move to a higher social class than their parents, is improving in Britain for the first time in 30 years.

But an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report last month said the gap between rich and poor in Britain is greater than in three-quarters of OECD countries, suggesting the class divide remains rife in British society.

Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown — who since he has run the country’s finances for most of the government’s term could be blamed for the mess — has made political capital from rescuing troubled banks and now emphasizes his ordinariness.

“It’s only a progressive government — in Britain a Labor government — that will take decisive action to safeguard people on middle and modest incomes,” he wrote in The Observer newspaper earlier this month.

“While the very privileged can look after themselves in times like these, the rest of us need to know we’re not on our own,” he added.

Robert Worcester, a leading commentator on British politics and founder of polling group Mori, believes class will always be a factor in the way the British vote.

“Class has and class will affect the outcome of general elections because it’s still a class-ridden society… Class is alive and well and living in Britain.”

Indonesia plans microchip implants for AIDS patients

‘People with AIDS aren’t animals; we have to respect their rights.’

— Tahi Ganyang Butarbutar

Associated Press | Nov 24, 2008

microchip_implantLegislators in Indonesia’s remote province of Papua have thrown their support behind a controversial bill requiring some HIV/AIDS patients to be implanted with microchips — part of extreme efforts to monitor the disease.

Health workers and rights activists sharply criticized the plan Monday.

But legislator John Manangsang said that by implanting small computer chips beneath the skin of “sexually aggressive” patients, authorities would be in a better position to identify, track and ultimately punish those who deliberately infect others with up to six months in jail or a $5,000 US fine.

The technical and practical details still need to be hammered out, he and others said.

But the proposed legislation has received full backing from the provincial parliament and, if it gets a majority vote as expected, will be enacted next month.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country and has one of Asia’s fastest-growing HIV rates, with up to 290,000 infections out of 235 million people, fuelled mainly by intravenous drug users and prostitution.

‘We have to take extraordinary action’

Papua, the country’s easternmost and poorest province, with a population of about two million, has been hardest hit . Its case rate is almost 61 per 100,000, according to internationally funded research, which blames lack of knowledge about sexually transmitted diseases.

“The health situation is extraordinary, so we have to take extraordinary action,” said another legislator, Weynand Watari, who envisions radio frequency identification tags like those used to track everything from cattle to luggage.

A committee would be created to determine who should be fitted with chips and to monitor patients’ behaviour, but it remains unclear who would be on it and how they would carry out their work, legislators said Monday.

Since the plan was initially proposed, the government has narrowed its scope, saying the chips would only be implanted in those who are “sexually aggressive,” but it has not said how it would determine who fits that group. It also was not clear how many people it might include.

Nancy Fee, the UNAIDS country co-ordinator, said the global body was not aware of any laws or initiatives elsewhere involving HIV/AIDS patients and microchips.

Though she has yet to see a copy of the bill, she said she had “grave concerns” about the effect it would have on human rights and public health.

“No one should be subject to unlawful or unnecessary interference of privacy,” Fee said, adding that while other countries have been known to be oppressive in trying to tackle AIDS, such policies don’t work.

They make people afraid and push the problem further underground, she said.

Health workers and rights activists called the plan “abhorrent.”

“People with AIDS aren’t animals; we have to respect their rights,” said Tahi Ganyang Butarbutar, a prominent activist in Papua.

He said the best way to tackle the epidemic was through increased spending on sexual education and condom use.

Toxic Chinese Melamine Found in U.S. Infant Formula

NY Times | November 25, 2008

By ANDREW MARTIN

The Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday that it had discovered the toxic chemical melamine in infant formula made by an American manufacturer, raising the possibility that the problem was more extensive in the United States than previously thought.

While few details were available late Tuesday, agency officials said they had discovered melamine at trace levels in a single sample of infant formula. It was also discovered in several samples of dietary supplements that are made by some of the same manufacturers who make formula.

F.D.A. officials insisted that the levels of melamine were so low that they did not pose a health threat.

“There’s no cause for concern or no risk from these levels,” said Judy Leon, an agency spokeswoman. Ms. Leon said the contamination was most likely the result of food contact with something like a can liner, or from some other manufacturing problems, but not from deliberate adulteration.

She declined to name the company that made the tainted infant formula.

Melamine contamination became a major scandal in China after it
was added to milk to disguise test results that measure protein levels. Since it was discovered in infant formula in September, it has sickened more than 50,000 infants and killed 4.

The F.D.A. has beefed up its inspections of Asian markets to make sure that infant formula and other products from China are not contaminated with melamine. At the same time, the agency said it had received assurances from American infant formula manufacturers that they did not import ingredients from China.

To date, several products carried primarily by Asian markets have been recalled because of melamine contamination, including certain varieties of Mr. Brown instant coffee and tea, White Rabbit Creamy Candy and Blue Cat Flavor Drink. Two weeks ago, the F.D.A. said all Chinese products containing dairy ingredients would be stopped at the border until importers proved they were not contaminated.

Though manufacturers of domestic infant formula say they do not use Chinese ingredients, the F.D.A. began sampling infant formula anyway, using more sophisticated testing than had previously been available.

Ms. Leon said the agency was testing 87 samples and had completed all but 10 of the tests. Of those, only one contained traces of melamine, she said. The F.D.A. allows anything below 250 parts per billion of melamine in infant formula, and the sample contained less than that, she said.

Ms. Leon said the other products containing trace elements of melamine were also below allowable levels. For supplements, the F.D.A. allows 2.5 parts per million, and she said all of the samples testing positive were below that figure.

Americans to carry DNA code cards in future Brave New World

Some fear such cards could lead to a kind of Brave New World, a reference to the “negative utopia” in the book by Aldous Huxley in which parents would want to select their children’s genes before they’re born.

Clarion Ledger | Nov 14, 2008

By Jerry Mitchell

World-renowned researcher Dr. Louis Kunkel believes Americans will one day have their genetic code on cards they can carry to doctors and pharmacists.

“They’re coming very soon,” said the professor of Pediatrics and of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. “The only thing that’s holding it back is the ability to entirely sequence your DNA and mine. The technique to do that is really expensive.”

Kunkel received worldwide attention for his ground-breaking work on Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

His newest research focuses on Americans surviving past 100, each of whom appears to have the same gene on chromosome 4 at a much greater rate than the general population. He hopes to use genetic cards with that group on a smaller scale.

A genetic card could make it possible for physicians to prescribe the drugs that work best with a particular person’s genes, but some fear such cards could lead to a kind of Brave New World, a reference to the “negative utopia” in the book by Aldous Huxley in which parents would want to select their children’s genes before they’re born.

Kunkel points out doctors can’t use many drugs because they have proven to be toxic to a small group of Americans. If doctors knew what gene reacted negatively, “you could target the drug and put it back on the market.”

Learning our genetic codes poses new questions for society, not just in terms of privacy, but in terms of how Americans use that information, said Philip Reilly, a longtime medical ethicist.

Spina bifida devastates 70,000 children in the U.S., leading to fluid on the brain, paralysis, learning disabilities and-or other difficulties.

The gene defect that causes spina bifida can be detected before birth, but there is a problem, Reilly said. “Not everybody with the gene gets the disease. Six in 10 have some medical problems, but only two develop it.”

Dr. Will Sorey, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said testing for faulty genes is sometimes necessary, particularly if a disease is severe.

But he fears the consequences of people learning their genetic codes, telling them whether they may develop Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or other dreaded diseases. “Knowing everything genetically is kind of like knowing the future.”

Japan announces military withdrawal from Iraq

UPI | Nov 28, 2008

TOKYO, Nov. 28 (UPI) — Japan, saying the Iraqi situation is improving, announced Friday it will end its military airlift mission in Iraq by year’s end.

“The situation in Iraq is improving and Iraq has become able to reconstruct itself on its own by the Iraqi people under a democratic government,” Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters.

He said Japan’s air self-defense force mission had helped in improving the Iraqi situation, Kyodo news service reported. The mission began about five years ago to help in the reconstruction of the war-torn country, the news agency said.

CNN reported the announcement is part of an effort to withdraw Japan’s 210 military personnel.

The report quoted the Japanese Foreign Ministry as saying the country’s air force has conducted 810 flights, which included transporting passengers and cargo between Baghdad and southern Iraq.

Obama Picks Volcker to Head New Economic Panel

Obama Economy

President-elect Barack Obama shares a laugh with former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, chairman-designate of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, as he speaks at a news conference in Chicago, Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008. AP

“A global economy requires a global currency” – Paul Volcker

New York Times | Nov 26, 2008

By JEFF ZELENY

CHICAGO — Paul Volcker, who helped tame runaway inflation in the 1980s during two terms as chairman of the Federal Reserve, has agreed to lead a new White House economic advisory committee, President-elect Barack Obama said on Wednesday. He praised Mr. Volcker as “one of the world’s foremost economic policy experts.”

“Paul has served under both Republicans and Democrats and is held in the highest esteem for his sound and independent judgment,” Mr. Obama said, as the 6-foot 7-inch Mr. Volcker towered nearby. “He has a long and distinguished record of service to our nation, and I am pleased that he has answered the call to serve once again.”

Mr. Obama made the announcement at his third news conference in three days. The public appearances by the president-elect are intended to show Americans that his team is focusing on resolving the financial crisis, which Mr. Obama said Wednesday demands “fresh thinking and bold new ideas from the leading minds across America.”

Mr. Volcker, 81, has been providing Mr. Obama with advice on the economy for months. After briefly considering him for Treasury secretary, Mr. Obama instead asked Mr. Volcker to lead the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, a new panel to be comprised of leading figures from a variety of business sectors. The group is supposed to advise Mr. Obama on how to jump-start the economy and stabilize the financial markets.

Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist who was a leading economic adviser to the Obama presidential campaign, will lead the staff of the advisory board, the president-elect said, calling him “one of America’s most promising economic minds, known for his path-breaking work on tax policy and industrial organization.”

Mr. Volcker became chairman of the Federal Reserve in August 1979 as President Jimmy Carter was fighting to rein in the inflation caused by the oil shocks of 1973 and 1978. Mr. Volcker, who led the Fed until 1987, often used tactics that were unpopular, like rapid increases in interest rates. Criticized at the time for causing a recession, Mr. Volcker was later praised for the effectiveness of his efforts.

The president-elect’s decision to name Mr. Volcker to a new economic panel was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

“This board will provide that fresh perspective to me and my administration, with an infusion of ideas from across the country and from all sectors of our economy, input that will be informed by members’ firsthand observations of how our efforts are impacting the daily lives of our families,” the president-elect said. He said he would announce other members of the board in the coming weeks, and that he wanted the panel to be “candid and unsparing” in its assessments.

In a brief question-answer session, Mr. Obama said his call for new ways of thinking should not be interpreted as a reflection of frustration and disappointment with the Bush administration’s recent economic-recovery efforts.

Rather, Mr. Obama said, his proposals reflect frustration over “eight years in which middle-class wages have gone down or, in real terms, their family incomes have been reduced.”

“It speaks to my frustration about all the families that I’ve met over the last two years who have lost their health insurance, or their pensions are in danger, young people who can’t afford to go to college,” the president-elect said.

“It expresses frustration about our inability to tackle some of the long-term problems that we’ve been facing, and have been talking about for decades, whether it’s health care, energy, an education system that’s been slipping behind in critical areas like math or science,” he said, “and, most of all, I think, frustration with the incapacity of Washington to take bold, clear, decisive steps to deal with our economic problems.”

Responding to a question about the holiday shopping season, which many retailers predict will be a dismal one, the president-elect said, “What we don’t want to do is get caught up in a spiral, where people pull back from the economy, businesses then pull back, jobs are reduced, and we get into a downward spiral.”

“What we want to do is to be sober, to be clear, to recognize that we’ve got some real adjustments that have to be made,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s true with — in individual businesses. It’s true in terms of individual family budgets. It’s also true for the economy as a whole.

“But we continue to have the best workers in the world. We continue to have the most innovation in the world. We continue to be in possession of extraordinary resources that, if we harness properly, will get this economy moving over the next couple of years but also over the next two decades or three decades.”

Related

Paul Volker and the Big Squeeze
Volker is a single global currency advocate as evidenced by his famous quote “A global economy requires a global currency”. He is also a part of the Bilderberg World Government camp.

Personality Spotlight: Paul Volcker
After leaving the Federal Reserve in 1987, Volcker became chairman of the prominent New York investment banking firm, J. Rothschild, Wolfensohn & Co., run by James Wolfensohn, who was later to become president of the World Bank.

Berlin acting as European hub for the Russian mafia

“You won’t believe it, but many politicians like to experience this sort of excitement that comes when you encounter the criminal milieu,” he said, adding that organized crime is increasingly trying to influence how government money is spent.

UPI | Nov 26, 2008

Berlin a Russian mafia hub

By STEFAN NICOLA

BERLIN, Nov. 26 (UPI) — Berlin has become a European hub for the Russian mafia, according to security experts in the German capital.

If you own a BMW X5 or a Porsche Cayenne, you shouldn’t park it in the streets of Berlin too often, because these fancy SUVs top the list from which the Russian mafia is “shopping” in Germany’s capital. The criminals cruise the rich neighborhoods until they find their car of choice, then open, short-circuit and load it onto a truck — in less than two minutes. Chances are the owners won’t see their cars again.

“Such vehicles are brought into nearby body shops … where they are tuned or taken apart completely,” Bernd Finger, the head of the Berlin Criminal Office, said earlier this month in an interview with the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. “From there they are taken to intermediate traders in Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovenia. And from there they are taken into the buyer’s country, most often Russia or Asia.”

Finger is Berlin’s chief anti-mafia czar, and he raised eyebrows when he recently revealed that Berlin, along with London and New York, has turned into a hub for the Russian mafia.

“We’re in the center between east and west,” he told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “You can get stolen goods to Poland within an hour, and the anonymity of a metropolis with 3.4 million people enables … ethnic compartmentalization. The members stay among themselves, and thus undisturbed.”

He later told the Tagesspiegel newspaper that Berlin in 2007 saw 68 organized crime cases with more than 1,000 individual crimes. Because of ongoing investigations, Finger didn’t want to comment on how many members the Russian mafia has permanently stationed in Berlin.

Unlike the Mafia from Italy, Russian organized crime is not based on local or family structures, he said, but on professional strategic alliances that operate globally.

“It’s all about making a lot of money very quickly,” Finger said.

The organized car thefts are only the lowest in a three-tier structure the Russian mafia has established in Berlin, officials say. The Russian mafia’s activities also include the middle league, such as prostitution or human trafficking, and the top league — money laundering. Berlin for these crimes serves as an intermediate hub between Europe and the rest of the world, said Finger, who has also had to investigate targeted killings and racketeering.

So what do these guys look like? Big SUVs, tattoos, ordering several Dom Perignon bottles at once — that holds true only for the midlevel gangsters, the henchmen, Finger said.

The really dangerous guys are eager not to make waves, and most often they are wearing expensive watches and business suits instead of gold chains and baggy pants.

“They work as economic experts in international companies, and move, in a matter of seconds, millions (of euros) that are tainted with the blood of the innocent. These are the guys we have to take care of.”

The Berlin police also advise German politicians, because the Russian mafia in the past has tried to influence their decision-making.

“You won’t believe it, but many politicians like to experience this sort of excitement that comes when you encounter the criminal milieu,” he said, adding that organized crime is increasingly trying to influence how government money is spent.

Spending money the right way — the German Police Union feels that has not happened when it comes to fighting organized crime.

“It doesn’t seem to be the political wish to do more” against the mafia, Konrad Freiberg, head of the police union, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper a few days after the Finger interview. He said the German states needs to dish out more money to improve police equipment.