March 24, 2016

Ethnic Nationalism and Religious Sectarianism Manufactured by the Ruling Class Has Divided People in Order to Rule Them More Effectively (Divide and Conquer)

"And the multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself. And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils. And he called them unto him, and said unto them in parables, 'How can Satan cast out Satan? And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end. No man can enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.' " (Mark 3:20-27, Matthew 12:22-30; Luke 11:14-23)

On June 16, 1858 more than 1,000 delegates met in the Springfield, Illinois, statehouse for the Republican State Convention. At 5:00 p.m. they chose Abraham Lincoln as their candidate for the U.S. Senate, running against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. At 8:00 p.m. Lincoln delivered this address to his Republican colleagues in the Hall of Representatives. The title reflects part of the speech's introduction, "A house divided against itself cannot stand," a concept familiar to Lincoln's audience as a statement by Jesus recorded in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke).

The Arab, the Iranian, the revolutionary

Hashem Beni Torofi [photo courtesy of Hashem Beni Torofi's family and friends]
Hashem Beni Torofi [photo courtesy of Hashem Beni Torofi's family and friends]

March 27, 2016

Hamid Dabashi - Whoever heard of Hashem Beni Torofi? Have you ever heard of Hashem Beni Torofi? Of course not - how could you? Don't try to Google him. You will find nothing in English, and very little in Persian or Arabic.

In March 23, a noble man died peacefully in his home in Tehran. There was no official announcement of his death. Scarce anyone except his immediate family, friends, and comrades took notice of his death. 

The ignorance of people in both Iran and the Arab world, and by extension, around the world about who Hashem Beni Torofi was and the significance of his passing is no comment on his precious life, cherished legacy, and revolutionary ideals, and far more, a gloss on the calamity that has befallen both Arabs and Iranians who no longer recognise their mutual and common heroes.

March 22, 2016

Greece's Role in the Energy Game Between Russia and Turkey

Russia vs Turkey : The Geopolitics of the South and the Turk Stream Pipelines [Excerpt]

- At the following Spiegel article, titled “Erdogan Urges Turks Not to Assimilate”, February 2011, you can read that during his very successful tour in Germany, Erdogan urged Germans of Turkish origin not to assimilate. The Germans are not feeling very comfortable with that, given that Erdogan is an Islamist, and he is also supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
4th, 5th Paragraphs

They have come from all over Germany to see him live, some 10,000 people. They say things like: “The Germans will never accept us, but we have Erdogan.” Or: “At last someone feels responsible for us, for the first time a Turkish prime minister isn’t forgetting his compatriots abroad.” One woman says: “Erdogan may get Merkel to see us as part of this society. He is our savior.”

Some 3 million people of Turkish origin live in Germany, most of them descendants of Turks invited by the government in the 1950s and 1960s as ” guest workers” to make up for a shortage of manpower after World War II.

14th, 15th, 16th Paragraphs

In a newspaper interview published ahead of his speech, Erdogan urged Merkel to drop her opposition to Turkey’s accession to the EU. “Never have such political obstacles been put in the path of an accession country,” he said.
And then he repeats the sentence that caused such a stir at a speech heheld in Cologne three years ago. He warns Turks against assimilating themselves. “Yes, integrate yourselves into German society but don’t assimilate yourselves. No one has the right to deprive us of our culture and our identity.”

Erdogan knows that this statement amounts to a provocation in Germany — no politician here is demanding that Turkish immigrants should deny their roots or give up their culture. Erdogan adds: “German newspapers will pick up on this tomorrow, but that’s a mistake.”
The new Greek government is trying to take advantage of this diversion between the American and German interests by indirectly saying to the Americans that if they do not put pressure on the EU, in order to give money to Greece without asking for privatisations and reforms, Greece will block the Southern Energy Corridor by stopping the Trans Adriatic Pipeline.

On the other hand the new Greek government is also saying to the Germans that if they do not give money to Greece without asking for reforms and privatisations, Greece will block the Southern Energy Corridor, which will force Turkey and Albania to attack Greece, and the United States will have to rush on the side of Turkey to create an alternative to the Southern Energy Corridor and save NATO from the Russian gas.

But if the Americans help the Turks and the Albanians, the Germans cannot be on their side, because they cannot afford to see the Islamists reaching the heart of Europe, as would happen if the Christian wall that is formed by Greece and Bulgaria was to fall (see the following map).

Picture 78
Greek Bulgarian Wall

The Islamists of Turkey are a much greater problem for the Europeans than the Americans, and a collapse of Greece could possibly lead to an even greater divergence of interests between the Americans and the Germans. After all, Northern European countries are already connected to the Russian gas through the North Stream pipeline, and it is very unlikely that they would be willing to support Turkey and Albania against Greece. For the Northern Europeans it would probably be better if Greece was left bankrupt but untouched. But the Americans and other NATO members cannot see it that way because if there is no Southern Energy Corridor there is no NATO, unless of course Putin decides to make Russia a democratic country, which for the moment seems unlikely.

The Greek communists are threatening both the Americans and the Germans that if they insist on reforms and privatisations they will kill Greece, implying that Greece’s funeral will be very very expensive for both of them. If Greece collapses very dramatic events could be triggered. The Americans and the Germans are not worrying about the economic consequences of a Greek collapse, but they are terrified about the geopolitical consequences of such a collapse.

These are very dangerous games by the Greek communists who are willing to risk Greek land just to save their businesses in the Greek public sector.

History of Golan Heights and the Battle Over Control of Oil and Natural Gas

The Intra-Arab War for Oil : 1950-1970

June 9, 2015

- Gamal Nasser was a socialist army officer in the Egyptian army. In 1952 Nasser, together with other Egyptian army officers, overturned the Egyptian King. Eventually Nasser became Egypt’s president, and he established a one party political system. In 1967 he decided to close the Straits of Tiran to Israel, sending at the same time many army units at the Sinai Peninsula. By closing the Straits of Tiran, Nasser was basically blocking the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline. However Israel, supported by the Americans, attacked Egypt and Syria, and during the Six Days War, the Israelis took the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Therefore the Eilat- Askhelon Pipeline Company was established in 1968; and, at the same time, the piece of the Trans Arabian Pipeline that was passing through the Golan Heights was no longer under Syrian control.

Gamal Nasser died in 1970, without ever achieving to control the oil of the Persian Gulf. However he had supporters in all Arab countries, and all Arab leaders attended his funeral. The only Arab leader who did not attend was the Saudi King. After all, Nasser was mainly after the Saudi oil. When Nasser was using Pan-Arabism, and the socialists of the Persian Gulf, in order to attack the Arab monarchs of the Persian Gulf, the Saudis were using Pan-Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, in order to attack Nasser. Therefore Nasser designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

However, nowadays, the Muslim Brotherhood is supported by Turkey and Erdogan. Tayip Erdogan wishes to become the new Sultan of the chaliphate. That way Turkey would play a greater role in the oil and natural gas of the Persian Gulf. As a result the Saudis have designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. In a way Erdogan is for the Saudis a new Nasser. Except that Erdogan is not a socialist, like Nasser was, but he is an Islamist. That does not mean that the Saudis and the Turks cannot reach an agreement. That will depend on how much Turkey wants.

You always hear intellectuals saying how complicated the Middle East is. That’s a great lie. The Middle East is complicated only when oil and natural gas is not based at the centre of the analysis. When oil and natural gas are placed at the centre of the analysis the Middle East is the simplest region in the world. There is only one rule in the Middle East, and that is that the fastest gun takes the oil. But the intellectuals will not say that because their job, as Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand were saying many decades ago, is to convince us about how much we need the civil servants that are paying them.

Two Explosions at the Airport and One at the Subway in Brussels, Belgium Kill at Least 34 and Injure 170; Two Days Prior, Two Bombings in Turkey Killed at Least 41 and Injured More Than 100

Fatal Explosions Reported at Multiple Locations in Brussels; At Least 34 Dead, 170 Injured

March 22, 2016 - Multiple reports confirm that two explosions in the departure hall of Brussels Zaventem airport killed at least 14 people and dozens more injured Tuesday morning.

Another explosion in Brussels less than an hour later at Maalbeek Metro station killed at least 20, and early reports indicated 55 more were injured, officials said Tuesday morning. By 9:30 a.m. Eastern, the death toll from the explosions in the city had risen to at least 34, with 170 total people injured.

According to local broadcasters VTM and RTBF, Belgium's federal prosecutor said the Zaventem airport explosions were carried out by a suicide bomber.

After the deadly explosion at Zaventem, another explosion took place at Maalbeek Metro station during morning rush hour in the heart of Brussels, just steps away from the headquarters of the European Union. 

"There are victims, serious injury, people have died. I have no idea yet on the numbers of injured or dead," Christian De Coninck, a spokesman for the Brussels police, told the Associated Press.

STIB, the train operator, reported early on that at least 15 were killed and 55 more were injured in the Maalbeek blast, according to Bloomberg.

"The metro was leaving Maalbeek subway station when there was a really loud explosion," a witness named Alexandre Brans told the AP while reportedly wiping blood from his face. "It was panic everywhere. There were a lot of people in the metro."

Though no group has yet taken credit for the deadly explosions, the timing of the blasts occurs just four days after Paris attack suspect Salah Abdeslam was shot and arrested in the Molenbeek district of Brussels.

Hours after the explosion at Maalbeek, a blast at a third location in Brussels from "a controlled explosion of a suspect package" was reported by multiple outlets.

March 21, 2016

Hezbollah Leader Warns Israel Against Attacking Lebanon

Anthony Bourdain No Reservations S06E21, Back To Beirut

In 2008 Syria and Lebanon established diplomatic relations. The reason: Iran, Syria’s main ally, is financing Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah is playing an increasingly important role in Lebanon. Moreover, Iran brought forward the project of the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon Pipeline. [Source]

"Regarding the May 29 op-ed by Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, “Strategic anti-Semitism in Iran”:
Iran is not anti-Semitic. It is anti-Zionist, and so are some Jewish people. Iran has a seat in parliament for a Jewish Iranian citizen to represent the 25,000-strong Jewish community in Iran. The op-ed conflated hatred of Jews — anti-Semitism — with political opposition to the apartheid-like Jewish identity of Israel, its violent origins and its continuing violent oppression of Palestinians. Many anti-Zionist Jewish supporters of Israel, including me, who seek to find ways to make real peace with the Arabs and Palestinians are thus identified, along with Iran, as “anti-Semites.” The situation demands more than propaganda." - Charles Kestenbaum, Vienna, Vice President of the Middle East & North Africa Consultants Association.

Hezbollah Chief Warns Israel There Will Be 'No Red Lines'

March 21, 2016

AP - The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah has warned Israel against attacking Lebanon, saying it will fight any new war with the Jewish state without any red lines.

In an interview with the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen station Monday, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah says the group has a comprehensive list of targets in Israel that includes nuclear reactors and biological research centers it can hit.
"There will be no ceiling, limits or red lines," he said. "We can strike any target we want inside occupied Palestine."
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah fought Israel to a draw during a ferocious month-long war in 2006. The border between the two countries has been largely quiet since then.

March 13, 2016

Government Policies are Creating Another Housing Bubble and Inevitable Crash

Obama is setting us up for another housing crash

March 12, 2016

New York Post - We learned nothing from the last financial crisis. The housing market is set to collapse, again, and a key culprit, again, is artificial demand created by government policies.

For starters, mortgage-software firm Ellie Mae reports that the average FICO credit score of an approved home loan plunged to 719 in January (the latest month for which data is available) from 731 a year earlier, and well below 2011’s peak of 750.

It’s a dangerous sign lenders are loosening underwriting standards. Lower FICO scores correlate with higher risk of loan default.

The Federal Housing Administration is a big reason for falling credit scores. So are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The government housing agencies have slashed credit requirements under pressure from the Obama administration — like the Clinton administration before it — to qualify more immigrants and minorities with low incomes and “less-than-perfect credit.”

Meanwhile, home lenders are approving more debt-strapped borrowers. According to Ellie Mae, applicants approved for mortgages in January had an average household debt-to-income ratio of 39%, up from 2012’s annual average of 34%. Borrower debt loads have been creeping higher each year since 2012, when Ellie Mae first started tracking such data.

Flip and flop

A recent report by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a federal agency that regulates the nation’s banks, warns that declines in mortgage underwriting standards are mirroring pre-crisis trends.
“Underwriting standards eased at a significant number of banks for the three-year period from 2013 through 2015,” the report said. “This trend reflects broad trends similar to those experienced from 2005 through 2007, before the most recent financial crisis.”
Not since 2006, it noted, have lenders taken on so much credit risk, and it says the hazard will continue to grow this year: “Examiners expect the level of credit risk to increase over the next 12 months.”

A large chunk of the risk is coming from first-time home buyers with shaky credit and so-called “rebound” buyers who previously defaulted on home loans.
In the interest of ‘fairness,’ Obama is lowering credit standards for mortgages — recreating the conditions that brought down the economy in 2008.
The American Enterprise Institute reports that its National Mortgage Risk Index for first-time buyers jumped almost a full percentage point in January from a year earlier, driven by “loose credit standards.” The demand from otherwise ­uncreditworthy home buyers “is driving home prices up faster than incomes and inflation,” noted ­Edward Pinto, co-director of AEI’s International Center on Housing Risk in Washington.

This is especially true in hot spots like California, where subprime-mortgage lenders offering interest-only loans with no FICO-score requirements are cropping up from the ashes of Countrywide Financial, the bankrupt Calabasas, Calif.-based subprime giant.

In another sign housing is overheating, home “flipping” is red hot again and hitting levels not seen since just prior to the mortgage meltdown. Nationwide, almost 180,000 homes were sold and then resold last year — the highest level since 2007.

In fact, according to RealtyTrac, flipping in a dozen metro areas — including New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla. — exceeded peaks set in 2005, when investors took advantage of low interest rates and easy credit.

March 12, 2016

Chicago Public School Teachers Threaten 'Ditch Day' on April 1st to Protest Pension Reform

How CPS students will lose if their teachers ditch class

"You know, like, look at it as an extra holiday, right? I mean, just look at it that way. That's the only thing I can tell them to make them feel better." - Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, March 7, 2016
March 11, 2016

Chicago Tribune Editorial - Karen Lewis breezily tells parents not to worry if teachers ultimately decide to skip work on Friday, April 1. Even though it's scheduled as a school day. Even though students are expected to attend their classes.

Where will teachers be if not in classrooms? Union leaders haven't said. Will teachers be on the picket line? In the Loop for another of those raucous red-shirt rallies? Should children show up for school? What do working parents do?

Not sure yet, we'll get back to you, Lewis says about the union's "Shut It Down" event — billed on the CTU website as "a march and a day of direct action ..."

We hope teachers don't abandon their students to show their pique against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gov. Bruce Rauner and CPS leaders. If so, they would demonstrate a breathtakingly heedless disregard for the instruction that about 22,000 union members — they're educators, remember — provide to students.

Teachers should be making the most of every precious minute in the instructional day. There are only 178 of those days in a school year. They go fast. Children fall behind when they're not in class. They lose their momentum, their eagerness to learn.

Yet teachers and their union leaders could squander April 1 with little more than a shrug: School's out, kids. We're declaring our own furlough day ...

Students don't learn only in the classroom. They learn by watching adults. Their parents. Their teachers.
No matter what teachers try to teach, CPS students are learning about what matters most to many of the adults entrusted with their education.

If teachers walk, students would learn an acrid lesson about the teachers union's astonishing disrespect for the value of classroom instruction. Think about that.

Children would learn how a labor union, deep in contract negotiations, throws a tantrum because it won't accept a new pact that phases out a lavish 7 percent pension payment pickup the district can no longer afford. CPS still would be responsible for its employer contribution to the pensions. But it would stop paying most of the employee contribution.

Students would learn that when money and education are in play, some adults put education second to their real priority.

Remember: CPS is broke. CPS CEO Forrest Claypool declared three furlough days for teachers and administrators to make ends meet. On Wednesday, he told principals to pare back spending because the district is short of cash to finish the year. "In this fiscal crisis, please only fill jobs that are absolutely essential for students," CPS told principals.

Essential for students. CPS has its priorities straight.

Under state bargaining protocols, the teachers union can't yet legally strike. That day won't come until mid-May.

But what teachers can do, legally or not, is churlishly abandon their students on April 1.

No, it's not a holiday, as Lewis suggests.

It's a school day.

And what about all those single parents who work, who expect that their kids will be in class, who would have to scramble to find child care or just miss a day of work?

Sorry, parents, you won't count. Neither would your child's education. Teachers could abandon their students because they don't like those furlough days or CPS' last contract offer.

March 11, 2016

Chicago School Board Seeks $65 Million in Lawsuit Against ex-CEO in Multi-million-dollar Bribery Scheme

The Chicago Board of Education is seeking more than $65 million in damages and penalties in a lawsuit against former district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her co-defendants in a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme. Also named in the lawsuit is SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates; Gary Solomon and his partner Thomas Vranas are owner of the companies. The federal indictment accused Solomon and Vranas of arranging to pay Byrd-Bennett as much as $2.3 million in kickbacks and other perks in exchange for her using her influence to award more than $23 million in no-bid contracts to SUPES Academy. Byrd-Bennett had previously worked as a consultant for SUPES. In its lawsuit, the school board says the defendants "have used and are continuing to use public funds fraudulently obtained from Plaintiff to pay multiple law firms to defend them in their efforts to avoid the consequences of their wrongful conduct, to hire lawyers to insist that Defendants' ability to pay be kept secret from public scrutiny, and to provide sources of funds to pay criminal penalties as part of hoped-for concessions in plea agreements and sentencing."  [Chicago Tribune]

Chicago school district sues former CEO as finances worsen

March 10, 2016

Reuters - The Chicago school district on Thursday sued its former chief, who pleaded guilty last year to her role in a kickback scheme, and owners of two education training firms, seeking more than $65 million in damages.

The civil lawsuit was filed in Cook County Circuit Court as the third largest U.S. school district faces a cash crunch in June when a big teachers' pension payment is due, and a possible teachers' strike before the school year ends.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former Chicago Public Schools chief executive, pleaded guilty in November to one count of wire fraud in a case involving $2 million in kickbacks and bribes she agreed to accept in exchange for a lucrative contract to train Chicago school principals.

The lawsuit also named Gary Solomon and Thomas Vranas, and their SUPES and Synesi education training firms which had won the contract. Solomon and Vranas have also been charged with crimes in the kickback case and their cases are pending.
"With scarce resources, staff furloughs and painful budget cuts, CPS is keeping a close watch on every dollar," Forrest Claypool, who took over as the district's CEO in July, said in a statement.

"Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her co-conspirators knew the district's dire straits and still concocted this scheme to divert needed resources away from classrooms and line their own pockets," he added.
Byrd-Bennett's attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Claypool told school principals on Wednesday to curb spending because the district did not have enough money to get through the school year, as it is due to pay $700 million into the teachers' pension fund this summer.

With its debt rating at "junk" status, the district would have to pay very high interest rates if it were to issue bonds to resolve its cash crunch.

The district has more than 600 schools and 435,000 students.

March 9, 2016

The Government is Hiding the Fact That There Has Been No Global Warming for 58 Years

No Global Warming For 58 Years: What The Government Is Hiding

Investor's Business Daily
March 8, 2016

Junk Science: NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration seemed eager in January to declare that 2015 was the hottest year on record. But they left out data that tell a somewhat different story.

When comparing temperatures, it would seem instructive to include a lengthy timeline. That’s not what happened, though, when NASA and NOAA came together to scare the public with their announcement, according to a skeptical website.
“In their ‘hottest year ever’ press briefing, NOAA included this graph, which stated that they have a 58-year-long radiosonde temperature record. But they only showed the last 37 years in the graph,” says Real Science.
Why would NOAA do such a thing? Because the fuller story contradicts the man-made global warming narrative. The government was “hiding the rest of the data,” says Real Science, which “showed as much pre-1979 cooling as the post-1979 warming.”

Indeed, when temperature data going back to 1957 are attached to the front of the 1979-2015 trend line, a different story materializes. Temperatures fall from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, then rise and fall throughout the next half century.

So, what does all this indicate?

One, federal agencies have a strong interest in keeping the climate change scare alive. It means more budget and research dollars for them, and it also increases Washington’s power, as the solutions offered to stop global warming are always based on handing more authority to government.

Two, it’s really impossible to say what the real global temperature is year to year, given the many different ways to measure it, the problems created by heat islands and the poor placements of weather stations. And there is also the data tampering by government functionaries and academics who are obsessed with proving something that can never be proved.

NOAA is not the only government outfit that appears to be trying to conceal the larger truth. It was researchers at Britain’s Climate Research Unit who wanted to “hide the decline” in temperature data, and NASA has been involved, as well, in making “adjustments” to the raw data which might, or might not be, trustworthy. Best to bet on the latter.
“This pattern of NASA making the past cooler and the present warmer has occurred repeatedly since NASA became chartered with proving global warming. The past keeps getting colder,” says Real Science.
Meanwhile, no one knows what the future will bring, especially those who have tried to alter or cover up the past.

March 8, 2016

County Prosecutor Says the Shooting of Oregon Protester LaVoy Finicum in the Back by State Police Was 'Justified'

Click here for the true story of the incident as told by 18-year-old Victoria Sharp, in an interview shortly after it happened; she was in the pickup truck with Finincum.

She was also interviewed by CNN - see story below.

In addition, she gave her testimony to Scott Bennett, Ph.D., former U.S. Army Special Operations Officer, retired (video below at 59:21 timer):

Police shot Oregon protester in back but act was 'justified': prosecutor

March 8, 2016

Reuters - A slain leader of the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon was killed by three gunshots fired into his back by police, a county prosecutor said on Tuesday, calling the shooting "justified and necessary."

Robert "LaVoy" Finicum was shot and killed by Oregon State Police on Jan. 26 after he ran from his pickup truck at a roadblock along a snow-covered roadside during the occupation by lands rights protesters at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Relatives of Finicum, who was a spokesman for the group that seized buildings at the refuge, have previously said that he posed no threat to police during the confrontation and have rejected official assertions that he was armed at the time.

Speaking at a press conference in Bend, Oregon, Deschutes County Sheriff Shane Nelson said a loaded 9mm handgun was found in the pocket of Finicum's jacket following the shooting.

Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris said eight shots were fired at Finicum during the confrontation, six of them by Oregon State Police officers and two by FBI agents.

An autopsy found that three of the bullets fired by Oregon State Police officers struck Finicum in the base of the neck, shoulder and lower back and led to his death, Norris said.
"The six shots fired by the Oregon State Police were justified and in fact necessary," Norris said.
During the press conference, officials played video and audio tapes of the confrontation, during which Finicum can be heard telling law enforcement officers:
"Go ahead, put the bullet through me. I don’t care. I’m going to meet the sheriff. You do as you damn well please.”
At another point he is heard to say:
"If you want a blood bath, it's on your hands."
The videotape had been released previously but was synched with audio from inside the pickup truck and played in slow motion at times to show what law enforcement officials said was Finicum reaching for his weapon immediately before he was shot.

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement that its inspector general's office was investigating the actions of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team in the Finicum shooting.The takeover, which began on Jan. 2 with at least a dozen armed men, was sparked by the return to prison of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires that spread to federal property in the vicinity of the refuge.

March 6, 2016

Half of Americans Don’t Have a 401(k) or Pension; Federal Employees Have Both as Part of a 3-Tiered Retirement Plan

Pension Benefit Cuts Planned at T.V.A., Breaking a Federal Firewall

New York Times - Politicians in states around the country have moved in recent years to rein in the pensions of government employees, which in many cases had become more generous and less risky than those of their private sector counterparts.

Now that movement may be breaching yet another firewall: the pensions of federal employees.

On Thursday, the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority Retirement System, the pension program for roughly 11,000 workers and 24,000 retirees at the venerable New Deal-era agency, approved a tentative plan to lower the system’s funding shortfall by reducing benefits.The plan will be implemented later this year if the T.V.A.’s management and board go along with it.

The immediate impetus for voting on the changes was a proposal put forth in December by William D. Johnson, the agency’s chief executive, who argues that demographic trends and the retirement system’s historical generosity make it unsustainable. Mr. Johnson’s proposal, a modified version of which the board embraced, called for shifting many employees from a pension that guarantees a fixed level of benefits, a feature of most federal employees’ retirement package, to a 401(k) plan. It would have also lowered the cap on cost-of-living increases even for current retirees, effectively cutting a benefit they had already earned.

But what has elevated an increasingly common debate about pensions into a larger controversy about inequality is Mr. Johnson’s decision to exempt from the cutbacks the benefits that he and other executives receive through a supplemental retirement plan. (Their benefits in the general T.V.A. pension plan would be subject to the same cuts as other workers.)

That is particularly galling to union officials at the T.V.A., who point out that Mr. Johnson’s total compensation in 2015 was approximately $6.4 million, which is believed to be the highest pay for any federal employee in the country. President Obama earns a salary of $400,000.

Moreover, Mr. Johnson’s plan runs counter to common practice in the private sector.
“By and large, people tend to run their supplemental executive plan in parallel with the qualified plans,” said George H. Bostick, who recently retired as the Benefits Tax Counsel at the Treasury Department, referring to the plans that cover most workers. “If they’re reducing benefits prospectively in a qualified plan, they’re reducing benefits prospectively in the supplemental plan as well.”
The T.V.A. retirement system was substantially overfunded as of the late 1990s, when a booming stock market was fattening its investment accounts.

Thereafter, several developments conspired to throw it some $6 billion out of balance. The costs of an extra benefit that the agency added when times were flush were starting to rise, as was the ratio of retirees to employees. The bursting of the stock market bubble in the early 2000s and the financial crisis of 2008 dented its investment returns. And while the agency has long contributed the minimum amount that the retirement system asks for each year, it has frequently not contributed much more.
“The TVARS board has two numbers,” said Les Bays, who worked for 33 years at a T.V.A. coal plant and is a former chairman of the T.V.A. Retirement System board, a mix of representatives from the ranks of workers and management. “There’s the recommended number, and the other is called the minimum contribution, which is not actuarially sound.”
Many T.V.A. workers and retirees say that this chronic reluctance to make sufficient contributions is the biggest culprit of today’s shortfall. As evidence, they point to some of the T.V.A.’s peers in the private sector, which improved the funding position of their pension system over much of the same period that the public power agency’s was deteriorating.
“We gave T.V.A. a loan,” said Gay Henson, the president of the local International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers affiliate, which represents engineers and other high-skilled workers like scientists at the T.V.A. “This is the thanks we get for it.”
Mr. Johnson protested that the comparison with private sector competitors was inappropriate because they could more easily raise rates on their customers to cover pension shortfalls.
“We’re a community development organization with a social mission, which is to make electricity to do a lot of good things,” he said. He described the users of the electricity the T.V.A. provides as “nine million of the poorest people in America.”
Mr. Johnson, who came to the T.V.A. in 2013 after working his way up the ranks to become chief executive of the investor-owned utility Progress Energy (now a part of Duke Energy), has generally won favorable reviews. That includes a 2015 report by the liberal Economic Policy Institute saying the agency appeared to be “on a more sustainable financial path” under his leadership.

The 401(k) plan Mr. Johnson proposed as part of a package that will save the retirement fund some $700 million over 20 years is generous compared with its private sector equivalents. The company would contribute 6 percent of each worker’s salary every year, then offer a 100 percent match for individual contributions, up to another 6 percent. (The T.V.A. plans to close the remaining $5.3 billion shortfall largely through rate increases.)

March 5, 2016

Israel Prepares for Ground Offensive Inside Lebanon and Considers Hezbollah Its Biggest Military Threat; the Next Israel-Hezbollah War Holds the Potential to be the Most Destructive

Hezbollah Claims a ‘Nuclear Option’ in Tense Standoff with Israel

The threat of devastation on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon conflict is now enormous. Does that mean no more wars? 

March 3, 2016

The Daily Beast - “Lebanon has a nuclear bomb,” Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared in a televised address to supporters of the Shia militant group in Beirut last month. “This is no exaggeration,” he went on, before admitting that it was, in fact, a slight exaggeration.
“We don’t really have a nuclear bomb,” he said, laughing—rather, the threat was that “several missiles” launched from Lebanon onto ammonia storage depots in the Israeli port city of Haifa would “lead to the same impact as a nuclear bomb.” 
Citing a previous Israeli study, Nasrallah claimed that blowing up 15,000 tons of the toxic gas in a densely populated region of 800,000 people would lead to tens of thousands of casualties.

In Israel, Hezbollah’s latest threat dominated national headlines, underlining the tense cold war going on between the two old foes. Like the historic global battle between East and West, this more localized Middle Eastern version sees both Israel and Hezbollah preparing tenaciously for the next round of hostilities, a hot war of untold destruction, while maintaining the present nervy standoff and engaging carefully, when need be, in contained skirmishes.
“The missiles of the resistance cover each and every spot in occupied Palestine,” Nasrallah threatened, touting his “nuclear” option.
Yet in line with classic deterrence theory, he went on to add:
“We do not want war. This kind of war is not part of our strategy, but we must be ready for it, in order to prevent it and in order to be able to win it, if it takes place.”
Such a statement perfectly encapsulates Israel’s current strategic thinking regarding Hezbollah as well. 

Nasrallah’s boast about his group’s expansive missile capabilities is not mere bluster. Haifa’s ammonia depots are just one of many potential targets inside Israel.  Hezbollah’s rocket and missile arsenal, estimated at 150,000, is believed to now hold precision guidance systems—putting not only Haifa’s heavy industries but the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Kiryah Tel Aviv headquarters, the Knesset parliament building in Jerusalem, and the nuclear reactor in Dimona in harm’s way.

A day after Nasrallah spoke, IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot admitted that Hezbollah was Israel’s biggest threat and the “organization with the most significant capabilities” to inflict harm on the country.  Indeed, in private discussions IDF officers betray a grudging respect for Hezbollah, comparing other armed groups—Hamas, ISIS, etc.—to the Lebanese militia and finding them all wanting. 

Nearly everything Eisenkot has done since assuming the top military post one year ago appears to have been done with Hezbollah in mind. 

The IDF is in the process of implementing a new five-year strategic plan called “Gideon” that views sub-state armed groups like Hezbollah as Israel’s main military threat—above conventional armies or even the Iranian nuclear program. 

As part of Gideon, the IDF is restructuring its force posture, one element of which was the formation of an elite Commando Brigade for more agile, penetrating attacks against guerrilla groups. The Israeli Air Force, as the Jerusalem Post and others have reported, has been developing more “efficient” precision-strike capabilities that can deliver thousands of bombs onto targets daily— to exactly combat Hezbollah’s widely dispersed missile storage facilities and command and control positions. More revealing still: For the past several years IDF infantry and armor brigades have been undergoing intensive training exercises, with an eye to a major ground offensive inside Lebanon.

Just what that ground operation would look like recently was described for The Daily Beast by a senior IDF officer with responsibility for Lebanon, who spoke on condition of anonymity, according to IDF protocol.
The difference between the last major Israel-Hezbollah confrontation in 2006, when Hezbollah held out for weeks against the once-seemingly invincible IDF, and the next conflict, the officer explained, “will be the difference between an operation and a war: 2006 was an operation and we didn’t use all of our power. Next time it won’t just be planes flying around.” (In 2006, Israel initially tried to win the fight without putting boots on the ground.) This time, said the officer, “Ground forces will be maneuvering into southern Lebanon, wherever Hezbollah is—we will use all of our power to destroy Hezbollah militarily.”

Of course, in the 2006 war, Israel did belatedly launch an ill-defined ground campaign. In the next conflict, the IDF seems to be promising, a major ground offensive likely tallying several divisions is a given.