Daily Archives: February 6, 2013

Why Germany Is Failing to Boost Its Birth Rate

Familienpolitik auf dem Prüfstand
Germany dumps hundreds of billions of euros into its family policy each year, but it isn’t paying off, with the number of births continuing to shrink. DPA

SPIEGEL | Feb 6, 2013

Germany spends more on families than most European countries, but its birth rate is falling. A government-commissioned study seen by SPIEGEL argues most of the money is being wasted. Instead of complicated benefits and tax breaks, the government urgently needs to invest in preschools.

A study commissioned by the German government has reached a damning verdict on the country’s efforts to boost its low birth rate, saying billions of euros are being wasted on complex benefits and tax breaks that are largely ineffective and in some cases counterproductive.

Europe’s largest economy spends some €200 billion ($270 billion) on promoting children and families per year — that’s almost two-thirds of the federal budget. But its birth rate, at 1.39 births per woman aged 15 to 49, remains among the lowest in Europe and compares with an Office of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 1.74.

The number of births in Germany has fallen to a record low. It was just 663,000 in 2011, 72,000 fewer than a decade earlier.

The German government ordered a detailed cost-benefit study of its family policies five years ago. The panel of experts led by Basel-based consultancy Prognos has completed a 66-page interim report that SPIEGEL has seen.

Its findings could open up a major battleground in this year’s election campaign because they amount to an indictment of 60 years of German family policy. Successive governments, whether from the center-right or center-left or grand coalitions, it seems, got it wrong. And some of the most expensive measures often yield the least benefit.

The study makes enlightening reading for those who wonder why Germany is consistently near the top in international rankings for family spending while its birth rate and job prospects for young mothers are near the bottom.

The government had pledged to release the findings in the current parliamentary term. But officials no longer seem in a hurry and it might not be made public before the September general election. That may be because the study supports calls by the opposition center-left Social Democrats and Greens for a massive expansion in preschool facilities and all-day schools, as well as caps on tax benefits for married couples.

Outdated Notions of Family Life

The findings run counter to a traditional view of the ideal family still held dear by many in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union party: Dad earns the money, Mom stays at home and looks after the children. That, say the government-commissioned experts, can no longer serve as the basis for modern policy-making.

The government’s latest policy initiative caused intense controversy, with opposition parties saying it was trying to transport Germany back to the 1950s. Launched at the insistence of the CDU’s staunchly conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, the “childcare allowance” will come into force this August — and pay a benefit of €100 per month to stay-at-home mothers.

The authors of the study say that the current tax and benefit arrangements discourage women from working full-time when they have children, discriminate against unmarried parents and in general aren’t making it easier for people to raise children.

The web of benefits is so complex that even experts don’t fully grasp it: There’s a “child supplement,” “parental benefit,” an “allowance for single parents,” a “married person’s supplement,” a “sibling bonus,” “orphan money” and “child education supplement,” not to forget the “child education supplementary supplement.”

Responding to the SPIEGEL article, Family Minister Kristina Schröder, 35, mother of a one-and-a-half-year-old child, defended her policies. “I don’t regard family policy like an investment banker with the aim of profit-maximization,” she told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper on Tuesday. She said she was opposed to a policy “that focuses more on macroeconomic profit than on human solidarity.”

Schröder called on companies to help boost the birth rate. “The most important thing is to adapt working life more to the needs of families instead of going on requiring families to keep on adapting to the requirements of the working world.”

Manuela Schwesig, a deputy leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party, said: “The government’s policy on families is shaped by a picture of the family that is half a century old. Single parents or couples with children but without a marriage certificate are virtually ignored.”

Cash or Daycare

The central question of family policy is whether the government should invest in education and preschool facilities or simply give families cash.

In Germany, governments have always chosen the latter option, not least because benefits and tax breaks tend to win votes. The problem is that the money often doesn’t end up reaching the people who need it.

Take Claudia Kinski and Andreas Schulte*. They both work and are raising a child. He has a public sector job and works in shifts. She does security checks at a major airport. They always await their new shift rotations with trepidation. Will they have to work a lot of weekends this month? Will they have to start work at five in the morning or eight at night? The rotation determines how often Claudia will see her 11 year-old son, when she will need a babysitter, and for how long.

“Sometimes I have to ring him up from work in the morning to wake him up and tell him where he can find his breakfast,” she says. “An hour later I ring him up again to make sure he leaves the house.”

The fundamental problem that faces this family and many others is that they can’t find adequate daycare facilities. They earn too much to qualify for most of the benefits, and they don’t get tax breaks because they’re not married.

The study criticicizes some of the main components of Germany’s family benefits system:

so-called “tax splitting” for married couples, in which the husband and wife each pay income tax on half the total of their combined incomes. This costs the government some €20 billion a year and is one of the most expensive instruments. It rewards married people who have different incomes. The bigger the income difference between them, the bigger the tax advantage. In the best-case scenario, they can get a tax break of up to €15,694 per year, if there’s only one earner. The sytem means the “wedding market is often more lucrative than the labor market,” says family policy researcher Jutta Allmendinger. Single parents, unmarried couples or same-sex married couples with children, get nothing. If Mom and Dad aren’t married, they’re treated as singles.
The child benefit is the most expensive family policy tool, costing some €40 billion. At present, parents get €184 per child per month. Adjusted for inflation, that’s over three times higher than in the 1970s. But the study says it’s a “fiscally relatively expensive way to avoid poverty and doesn’t create any beneficial effects in terms of employment.” Meaning: poorer families don’t really profit because child benefit is offset against other benefits they get. And it tends to encourage women in middle-class families to stay at home.

The system is damaging the economy because it discourages women from seeking full-time employment. That’s the vicious circle of the German tax and benefit system. The state hands out generous payments like the child benefit but in turn charges high taxes and welfare contributions on employment. As a result, almost 50 percent of working women in Germany are in part-time employment — more than in most other European countries.

The study says a far more effective and cheaper way of helping families and boosting the birth rate is to open more preschools. It found that mothers with children aged up to three years who have found a place in a nursery work 12 hours hours more per week on average than mothers who haven’t been able to find a place. The income gain is almost €700 per month before tax. It’s a similar story for mothers of children aged between three and six years.

The researchers say there’s empirical evidence of a correlation between the availability of preschool places and the birth rate. They refer to certain rural districts of western Germany where an increase in the number of daycare spots for children by 10 percent led to an increase in the birth rate to 3.5 percent from 2.4 percent within two years.

So nursing care expansion could be at least partly self-financing. “The rising employment activity of mothers and the resulting increased revenues from taxes and social contributions means that a large part of the original outlay would flow back to the state,” the study says.

Here’s an intriguing statistic: Germans aged between 25 and 29 can expect to receive family related benefits and tax exemptions totalling €133,400 by the end of their lives. That sounds like a tidy sum. But almost 85 percent of it consists of monetary and tax benefits that will have relatively little impact. Only 15 percent is in the form of tangible services like preschools.

Merkel’s government doesn’t see that as a problem. Family Minister Schröder praises the new childcare allowance for stay-at-home mothers as a “fair offer” and says she’s a fan of the married couple’s tax-splitting provision. “Marriage,” says the 35-year-old, “has an intrinsic value for the state, even as a childless community of responsbililty.”

But what many parents really need is a policy that integrates leisure activities into the school system, that pays babysitters more and does more to help private households that employ nannies.

Some Conservatives Realize Need for Change

Even CDU politicians are realizing this, especially at the local government level. Take Sonneberg in the eastern state of Thuringia. The town of 22,000 opened one of Germany’s first 24-hour daycare centers two years ago. The project was initiated by CDU mayor Sybille Abel. It looks like a designer hotel and cost the city €1.4 million to build. Sonneberg has many car components firms and two large hospitals where people work in shifts. Unemployment in the town is just 3.6 percent. The new center, called Zukunft (Future) is the town’s 14th nursery. It’s a rare paradise for parents. “We as former GDR citizens evidently have different priorities in this regard,” says Abel, referring to communist East Germany’s good record on providing childcare facilities.

Even though the study’s findings are critical of government policy, they provide Merkel with an opportunity to sweep aside outdated ideologies and start dealing with the realities of modern life. “It’s time for a paradigm change in family policy,” says one of the authors of the study.

Some politicians may mock subjecting children and families to such a rigorous cost-benefit analysis — but there is no denying that family policy is a massive investment program in the future of society. As such, it should be a central focus of the election campaign.

3D-Printed Human Embryonic Stem Cells Created for First Time

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Scientists used 3D printing to form these aggregates of embryonic stem cells, shown here at 24 hours (left) and 48 hours (right) after printing.

LiveScience.com | Feb 6, 2013

By Tanya Lewis

Imagine if you could take living cells, load them into a printer, and squirt out a 3D tissue that could develop into a kidney or a heart. Scientists are one step closer to that reality, now that they have developed the first printer for embryonic human stem cells.

In a new study, researchers from the University of Edinburgh have created a cell printer that spits out living embryonic stem cells. The printer was capable of printing uniform-size droplets of cells gently enough to keep the cells alive and maintain their ability to develop into different cell types. The new printing method could be used to make 3D human tissues for testing new drugs, grow organs, or ultimately print cells directly inside the body.

Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are obtained from human embryos and can develop into any cell type in an adult person, from brain tissue to muscle to bone. This attribute makes them ideal for use in regenerative medicine — repairing, replacing and regenerating damaged cells, tissues or organs. [Stem Cells: 5 Fascinating Findings]

In a lab dish, hESCs can be placed in a solution that contains the biological cues that tell the cells to develop into specific tissue types, a process called differentiation. The process starts with the cells forming what are called “embryoid bodies.” Cell printers offer a means of producing embryoid bodies of a defined size and shape.

In the new study, the cell printer was made from a modified CNC machine (a computer-controlled machining tool) outfitted with two “bio-ink” dispensers: one containing stem cells in a nutrient-rich soup called cell medium and another containing just the medium. These embryonic stem cells were dispensed through computer-operated valves, while a microscope mounted to the printer provided a close-up view of what was being printed.

The two inks were dispensed in layers, one on top of the other to create cell droplets of varying concentration. The smallest droplets were only two nanoliters, containing roughly five cells.

The cells were printed onto a dish containing many small wells. The dish was then flipped over so the droplets now hung from them, allowing the stem cells to form clumps inside each well. (The printer lays down the cells in precisely sized droplets and in a certain pattern that is optimal for differentiation.)

Tests revealed that more than 95 percent of the cells were still alive 24 hours after being printed, suggesting they had not been killed by the printing process. More than 89 percent of the cells were still alive three days later, and also tested positive for a marker of their pluripotency — their potential to develop into different cell types.

Biomedical engineer Utkan Demirci, of Harvard University Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has done pioneering work in printing cells, and thinks the new study is taking it in an exciting direction. “This technology could be really good for high-throughput drug testing,” Demirci told LiveScience. One can build mini-tissues from the bottom up, using a repeatable, reliable method, he said. Building whole organs is the long-term goal, Demirci said, though he cautioned that it “may be quite far from where we are today.”

Others have created printers for other types of cells. Demirci and colleagues made one that printed embryonic stem cells from mice. Others have printed a kind of human stem cells from connective tissues, which aren’t able to develop into as many cell types as embryonic stem cells. The current study is the first to print embryonic stem cells from humans, researchers report in the Feb. 5 issue of the journal Biofabrication.

Former Treasury Secretary Geithner to join Council on Foreign Relations

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Reuters/Reuters – Outgoing U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arrives for the presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Win McNamee/Pool

Reuters | Feb 6, 2013

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is set to join the Council on Foreign Relations as a distinguished fellow, the New York-based policy think tank said on Wednesday.

Geithner stepped down as President Barack Obama’s treasury secretary on January 25, handing the reins temporarily to his deputy, Neal Wolin. Obama’s pick to succeed Geithner, former White House chief of staff Jack Lew, is awaiting congressional confirmation.

Geithner was the head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank before becoming treasury secretary in 2009. He had previously served at the U.S. Treasury during President Bill Clinton’s administration and had held a senior post at the International Monetary Fund.

“His coming to CFR only strengthens our capacity to produce thoughtful analysis of issues at the intersection of economic, political, and strategic developments,” CFR President Richard Haass said in a statement.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Vicki Allen)

LAPD combing through 12,000 pages of priest sex abuse records for leads

Reuters | Feb 6, 2013

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Los Angeles police are combing through some 12,000 pages of priest abuse records released last week by the city’s Catholic archdiocese to determine whether to open any new criminal investigations, authorities said on Tuesday.

Many of the cases detailed in the more 120 personnel files were already known to law enforcement, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman said, and others could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run out.

But detectives wanted to make sure no leads had been missed in documents made public by the archdiocese as part of a 2007 civil court settlement, officer Bruce Borihanh said.

Vatican in rare reversal praises US media for attention on sex scandals

“Now that the list is available we want to be proactive and look at that list,” Borihanh said. He said he was not aware of any specific case that investigators were focused on and that it was possible no new leads would be discovered.

The probe marks the latest development following Thursday’s release of the files, which has already led Archbishop Jose Gomez to strip his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony, of all public and administrative duties.

Mahoney’s former top aide, Thomas Curry, also stepped down as bishop of Santa Barbara. Both men had been linked to efforts to conceal the abuse.

In further fallout, the Los Angeles Unified School District severed its ties on Monday with a priest who, the files show, was once accused of molesting a teenage girl.

Father Joseph Pina, 66, took a job working for the school district in 2002, several years after he resigned as a pastor and was placed on inactive leave by the church. An attorney for Pina has declined to comment to Reuters on the matter.

The Los Angeles archdiocese, which serves 4 million Catholics, reached a $660 million civil settlement in 2007 with more than 500 victims of child molestation in the biggest such agreement of its kind in the nation.

Mahony at the time called the abuse “a terrible sin and crime.”

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

The Inconvenient Truth About Polar Bears: ‘far more polar bears alive today than 40 years ago’

polarbear
Never Look A Polar Bear In The Eye: A Family Field Trip to the Arctic’s Edge in Search of Adventure, Truth, and Mini-Marshmallows by Zac Unger. Hardcover, 296 pages

I started realizing polar bears were not in as bad a shape as the conventional wisdom had led me to believe, which was actually very heartening, but didn’t fit well with the book I’d been planning to write.

NPR | Feb 2, 2013

In 2008, reports of polar bears’ inevitable march toward extinction gripped headlines. Stories of thinning Arctic ice and even polar bear cannibalism combined to make these predators into a powerful symbol in the debate about climate change.

The headlines caught Zac Unger’s attention, and he decided to write a book about the bears.

Unger made a plan to move to Churchill, Manitoba, a flat, gray place on the Hudson Bay in northern Canada accessible only by train or plane. For a few months out of the year, as the bay starts to freeze, tiny Churchill boasts as many polar bears as it does people.

Unger packed up his wife and three small kids, and set out with a big bold idea. He wanted to write the quintessential requiem of how human-caused climate change was killing off these magnificent beasts.

In the end, he came away with something totally different, Unger tells NPR’s Laura Sullivan.


Interview Highlights

On wanting to write the next great environmental tract

“My humble plan was to become a hero of the environmental movement. I was going to go up to the Canadian Arctic, I was going to write this mournful elegy for the polar bears, at which point I’d be hailed as the next coming of John Muir and borne aloft on the shoulders of my environmental compatriots …

“So when I got up there, I started realizing polar bears were not in as bad a shape as the conventional wisdom had led me to believe, which was actually very heartening, but didn’t fit well with the book I’d been planning to write.

“… There are far more polar bears alive today than there were 40 years ago. … In 1973, there was a global hunting ban. So once hunting was dramatically reduced, the population exploded. This is not to say that global warming is not real or is not a problem for the polar bears. But polar bear populations are large, and the truth is that we can’t look at it as a monolithic population that is all going one way or another.”

On moving his family to “Polar Bear Capital of the World”

“We were in this town in northern Manitoba where polar bears literally will walk down Main Street. There are polar bears in this town. People will leave their cars and houses unlocked, and it’s perfectly good form just to duck into any open door you can find when there’s a polar bear chasing you.

“People use what they call Churchill welcome mats, which is a piece of plywood laid down in front of the door or leaned up against the door with hundreds of nails sticking out so that when the polar bear comes up to pad across your porch, he’s going to get a paw full of sharp nails.”

On Churchill’s strategies for living among bears

“There are definitely polar bears that come into town; there are definitely polar bears that will eat people’s dogs. But Churchill has developed an innovative polar bear alert program. The way it works is you dial a phone number — 675-BEAR — if you see a bear, and a bunch of wildlife conservation officers will come by in a truck with a bunch of guns. And they try really hard not to harm the bears, and they kind of scare the bears out of town. They have a progression that they use: First, they will fire firecracker shells; then they move up to rubber bullets; and as a last resort, they’ll move up to real bullets.

“They don’t want to do that. These are conservation officers so their job is to keep bears safe. Churchill also has a polar bear jail. These are for bears who keep coming into town and can’t be hazed out of town. And what they’ll do is they will trap these bears and put them in the polar bear jail, which is just a great big decommissioned military building. And they will give them no food, and they’re given only snow to drink and then they wait until the bay freezes up. And when the bay freezes up, these bears can be released to go back out on the ice.

“[The bears] don’t want to be in town, they’re just waiting for the ice to freeze. But if they’re a hassle in town, put them in jail, give them a short sentence, and the problem is solved.”

On trick-or-treating when polar bears might be lurking around the corner

“Halloween is when you’re supposed to go up with lots of food and run around with your kids. So we were up there for Halloween … and so what they do is when you go out trick-or-treating you go out with somebody who has a gun — whether it’s a police officer, or a volunteer or someone from the military. They all come out and they help you go trick-or-treating. Now, they have one rule, which is that kids can’t dress in anything white — no princesses, no ghosts — because you don’t want to be dressed as something white in the darkness when there’s a bunch of guys with guns looking for polar bears.”

Moscow, Russia crippled by snowiest winter in 100 years

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A Russian man clears the path to an Orthodox church that stands behind the snow-covered trees after snowfall in Moscow, Russia, February 5, 2013. Snow continues to be forecast in the region over the coming days. (SERGEI ILNITSKY – EPA)

washingtonpost.com | Feb 6, 2013

By Jason Samenow

According to news reports, Moscow has endured its snowiest winter in a century, with 216 centimeters so far, or slightly over 85 inches.

Pyotr Biryukov, deputy mayor for residential issues, said the total snowfall is about one and a half times the normal amount for an entire winter (152 centimeters) reports The Moscow Times.

Link: Incredible Aerial Photos of Moscow’s Snow (Business Insider)

Heavy snowfall snarled traffic early this week.

“On Monday night, the overall length of traffic jams in Moscow made up 3,500 kilometres [2,175 miles], which is a distance between Moscow and Madrid,” reports The Voice of Russia.

More than 3,000 traffic accidents resulted from the hazardous conditions between Monday and Tuesday The Moscow Times said.

Link: Snowiest winter in 100 years paralyzes Moscow (PHOTOS)(RT)

Moscow’s snowy winter started fast and furious and has not relented. The city experienced its heaviest November snow in 50 years, logging about 27 cm (8 inches).

The pattern which produced the early season snowfall has been fairly persistent throughout the winter. Moscow has received bout after bout of overrunning precipitation – wedged between strong high pressure to its east and low pressure to its west.


GFS model forecast shows more snow around Moscow Friday as moisture from low pressure its east is drawn northward. (WeatherBell.com)

More snow is predicted Friday as this meteorological set up repeats.

By  |  01:12 PM ET, 02/06/2013

100-year snow paralyzes Moscow

More than 2 meters of snow falls in Moscow

Incredible Aerial Photos Show Moscow’s Snowiest Winter In 100 Years

Snowiest winter in 100 years paralyzes Moscow traffic for 3,500 km

Government decrees all dogs shall now be microchipped

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The number of patients treated in hospital for dog bites has more than doubled in a decade to more than 6,000 a year Photo: GEOFF PUGH

All puppies will now have to be microchipped to make it easier to trace the owners of dangerous dogs.

Telegraph | Feb 5, 2013

By Peter Dominiczak

Ministers will say that compulsory microchipping will ensure that all dogs can in future be traced back to their owners, who will then be held accountable for the animal’s behaviour.

There have been growing calls for the Government to take action amid concern from animal charities about dangerous dogs being used as weapons and status symbols.

Under the measures to be unveiled by Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, dog owners will also now face prosecution if an animal attacks anyone in their home.

Those plans will be welcomed by postmen, who have campaigned for a new law ensuring that dog owners are prosecuted even if their dog attacks someone on private property.

Current rules mean that legal action is only taken if a dog attacks a person on public land.

The number of patients treated in hospital for dog bites has more than doubled in a decade to more than 6,000 a year.

Groups including the RSPCA and the Dogs Trust have called for compulsory microchipping to create a clear link between dogs and their owners.

The electronic chips hold an electronic record of their owner’s name and addresses, as well as a unique identity number.

Implanting can cost as little as £5, however the Telegraph understands that the scheme could be subsidised to avoid pet owners being forced to pay for the chips.

Ministers believe the effect of the new rules will be near-universal coverage of British dogs within little more than a decade.

Recent surveys have suggested there are about 8.3 million dogs in Britain. More than half already have microchips.

Animal charities say there is a growing problem of people abandoning dogs.

Defra last year estimated there are about 125,000 strays in England and Wales.

About 6,000 healthy animals are destroyed each year because they have no permanent home.

Northern Ireland last year became the first part of the UK to introduce a law on microchipping.

Andrew Rosindell, the Conservative MP for Romford, welcomed the announcement and said that the moves will also prevent local authorities from having to spend “huge amounts of money” kennelling lost dogs.

“This is an extremely positive way forward,” he said. “It is the welfare of the animal that we should be putting first.”

Ministers last year announced that owners of dangerous dogs which attack people in public will face stiffer penalties, including up to 18 months in prison.