Nine Circles of Hell!: Friday, October 21 Nine Circles of Hell!


The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – the nine most hellish news stories, for Friday, October 21, 2011, are:

New stats show income gap continues to grow unabated

Foreclosed Americans mental, physical health decline

Wal-Mart cuts benefits: “No wonder people are protesting in the streets”

Taxpayers could spend $1.5M in GOP fight for Defense of Marriage Act

Republicans block money for first responders, teachers

US was leading arms dealer to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen

Palestinians turn down first Israeli offer as Colombia works on peace deal

“Climate-change impacts on water resources continue”

Astronomers find vapor cloud which may bring water to dry planets

New stats show income gap continues to grow unabated
The Washington Post

The median U.S. wage in 2010 was just $26,363

The government has released the first official payroll data for 2010. As you might expect, the numbers aren’t too encouraging. The “raw” average wage–net compensation divided by total number of workers–was $39,959.30, according to the data from the Social Security Administration. But the median wage is far lower: 50 percent of workers earned less than or equal to $26,363.55 for 2010.

As the SSA explained, “The reason for the difference is that the distribution of workers by wage level is highly skewed.” Almost 66 percent of U.S. workers earned below the average wage in 2010 because of income disparity. In other words, looking at the difference between average and median wage is another way to gauge the growing income gap. And the recession has only exacerbated the problem.

Foreclosed Americans mental, physical health decline

Study: Foreclosure crisis threatening Americans’ health

Researchers examined data collected in 2006 and 2008 on nearly 2,500 Americans who took part in the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative sample of Americans older than age 50. The data included questions about overall health, psychological health, income and whether they had fallen two months or more behind on their mortgage payment.

People who reported that they had fallen behind on their mortgage between 2006 and 2008 reported more depressive symptoms, more food insecurity and were more likely to say they weren’t taking prescription medications as prescribed because of cost.

“People are making unhealthy trade-offs when they’re trying to make their mortgage,” said study author Dawn Alley, an assistant professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “We think it’s a very serious issue.”

The study is published in the Oct. 20 online edition of the American Journal of Public Health.

In the past few years, the number of foreclosures began to rise with the collapse of the housing bubble and the financial crisis. By 2009, 2.2 percent of all U.S. homes, or more than 2.8 million properties, were in some stage of delinquency, according to background information in the study. People over age 50 made up about one-quarter of defaults and foreclosures, Alley said.

In the study, researchers controlled for demographic factors, health behaviors, chronic diseases, debt and income.

Among the 68 participants who were delinquent on their mortgage, 22 percent developed elevated depressive symptoms over the two-year period compared to 3 percent of the non-delinquent, the investigators found.

About 28 percent of those who were behind on their mortgage payments reported food insecurity, meaning that they worried about not having enough food, compared to 4 percent in the non-delinquent group.

About 32 percent of those who were behind on their mortgage said they didn’t take medications as prescribed because of costs, compared to 5 percent of those who were able to make their mortgage payments.

“Depression, not taking medications and not spending enough money on nutritious food can exacerbate conditions you already have,” Alley said.

Some states were hit harder than others, including California, Arizona, Nevada and Florida, which made up 51 percent of all foreclosure filings in 2008, according to another new study about the impact of foreclosure on health that will be published in Nursing Outlook.

In that study, University of Pennsylvania researchers surveyed 800 residents of those states and found that homeowners in default or foreclosure had poorer mental health and more symptoms of poor health than renters and homeowners not in arrears.

Wal-Mart cuts benefits: “No wonder people are protesting in the streets”
The New York Times

Wal-Mart Cuts Some Health Care Benefits

After trying to mollify its critics in recent years by offering better health care benefits to its employees, Wal-Mart is substantially rolling back coverage for part-time workers and significantly raising premiums for many full-time staff.

Citing rising costs, Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, told its employees this week that all future part-time employees who work less than 24 hours a week on average will no longer qualify for any of the company’s health insurance plans.

In addition, any new employees who average 24 hours to 33 hours a week will no longer be able to include a spouse as part of their health care plan, although children can still be covered.

This is a big shift from just a few years ago when Wal-Mart expanded coverage for employees and their families after facing criticism because so many of its 1.4 million workers could not afford or did not qualify for coverage — rendering many of them eligible for Medicaid.

Under pressure from states saddled with rising Medicaid costs and from labor unions and community groups, Wal-Mart had agreed to offer part-time employees, even those averaging less than 24 hours a week, health care insurance after a year on the job, shaving a year off the eligibility requirement. Wal-Mart also said that it was offering health plans that cost its employees about $250 a year for family coverage.

At the time, the moves were considered a departure from some of its major rivals and large employers, more than half of whom offer no company-sponsored health plan for part-time workers …

Dan Schlademan, director of Making Change at Walmart, a union-backed campaign, condemned the changes.

“No wonder people are protesting in the streets,” he said. “This is another example of corporations putting profits ahead of what’s good for everyday Americans. It’s outrageous and damaging to many hard-working families that the biggest corporation in America is increasing health care costs for many employees by 40 percent.”

Taxpayers could spend $1.5M in GOP fight for Defense of Marriage Act
US News & World Report

House Could Spend $1.5M Defending Marriage Act, Congressman Fights Back

The cost to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, could balloon to $1.5 million, and Democratic Rep. Mike Honda of California wants none of it. Honda is calling for a hearing to address what he said is an “irresponsible, backdoor use of taxpayer money” on the part of House Republicans, who have agreed to increase the pay cap for an outside firm defending the law, as first reported by LGBTQ Nation.

“The speaker of the House has been on the job for 288 days and has not created a single job for the American people,” Honda said in a statement Thursday. “Instead, the House Republican leadership wastes precious resources by putting the American taxpayers on the hook for a $1.5 million legal tab in defense of discrimination.”

After a February announcement by the Obama administration that it would no longer defend DOMA—which defines marriage as between a man and a woman—in court, Republican leaders decided the House would take up the case itself. So the House general counsel hired lawyer Paul Clement, who served as solicitor general under President George W. Bush, to do what the Department of Justice would normally have done: defend the law.

Clement and his firm, Bancroft PLLC, were first given a $500,000 cap, but they are now authorized to charge the legislative branch “a sum not to exceed $750,000.00,” but that the “cap may be raised from time to time up to, but not exceeding $1.5 million, upon written notice of the General Counsel to the Contractor.” This means the costs could now triple, and the contract also leaves room for future increases, if the parties come to a written agreement.

“How long are we going to let this Republican political exercise go on, and at what cost to the American tax payers?” Honda asked, adding that GOP leaders have not been clear about where the money would come from.

Republicans block money for first responders, teachers
The Washington Post

Senate blocks money for teachers, firefighters

Nine days after President Obama’s $447 billion jobs package was blocked in the U.S. Senate, one of the plan’s key components — which would provide $35 billion to states and local governments to hire teachers and first responders — suffered the same fate late Thursday.

The vote represented the legislative part of a strategy by Democrats to convince voters that they are pushing popular job-creation bills that are being thwarted by Republican opposition.

All 47 Republicans voted against allowing the bill to proceed to a full debate, arguing that temporary stimulus dollars for state and local government would do little to bolster the private sector.

Republicans also opposed imposing a 0.5 percent surtax on million-dollar incomes to pay for the aid, as Democrats proposed. They contended that inclusion of a tax increase signaled that the vote was intended as a campaign tool and was not a serious effort to find bipartisan agreement on spurring job growth.

Two Democrats also opposed proceeding with the measure, as did Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.); 50 senators voted to move ahead with the bill.

Under the rules of the Senate, 60 votes were needed to continue toward action on the bill …

Democrats have been buoyed by polls that show providing dollars to pay teachers, police officers and firefighters is overwhelmingly popular, particularly as state and local budget cuts have resulted in teacher layoffs, increasing class sizes and eliminating of such school programs as art and music.

And they have pointed to monthly statistics that show the public sector has been losing jobs even as the private sector has been slowly adding employees.

But Republicans said the aid to states — $30 billion for education and $5 billion for public safety — would amount to a bailout for state and local government, paid for with new taxes on businesses best able to create private-sector jobs.

Twice before Congress has approved assistance for states, which were slashing their budgets because of declining tax revenue in the economic downturn. Economists say propping up state and local government budgets has slowed public-sector job losses, but GOP leaders counter that it has failed to spark a full economic recovery.

US was leading arms dealer to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen
Al Jazeera

Tracing the Middle East weapons flow

Earlier this year, as mass popular uprisings spread through the Middle East and audiences across the world sat transfixed by images of unarmed citizens confronting iron-fisted security forces in the streets of Arab capitals, powerful governments from Russia to the United States were forced to begin accounting for the weapons they had for decades sold to the very rulers they now found themselves abandoning.

In Egypt and Bahrain, protesters held up tear gas canisters stamped “Made in USA”, giving longstanding US support for autocratic Arab regimes a painful physical manifestation.

But the United States has not been the only culprit. Egyptian riot police fired shotgun shells made in Italy, and Libyan special forces wielded Belgian assault rifles. Bulgaria has led weapons sales to Yemen, and Russia likely supplies a huge amount of Syria’s armoury.

According to a report released on Wednesday by London-based human rights organisation Amnesty International, in the five years preceding the Arab Spring, a host of at least 20 governments – including Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Serbia, Switzerland and South Korea – sold more than $2.4 billion worth of small arms, tear gas, armoured vehicles and other security equipment to the the five countries that have faced – and violently combated – popular uprisings: Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

After security forces turned on protesters with lethal force, some governments, such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany, suspended certain arms sales. Britain announced in February that it would revoke more than 50 arms licenses, including for tear gas and ammunition, to Bahrain and Libya. In Syria’s case, many governments had not sold weapons to the government of Bashar al-Assad for years.

But for the thousands of people who have died since January, such measures came too late, and many countries seem ready to return to business as usual. The United States is currently considering selling Bahrain $53 million of Humvees, bunker-busting TOW missiles and other items, the first such sale to the Gulf island monarchy since protests erupted and were violently repressed earlier this year. China has said it will look into whether companies violated state policy when they negotiated an arms deal with Muammar Gaddafi’s regime during the uprising in Libya, but neither Beijing nor the government in Russia publishes data on its weapons sales, making accountability difficult for two of the world’s biggest arms suppliers (10 per cent of Russia’s arms sales go to Syria, according to Amnesty).

The United States has far outpaced all other countries in arms exports to the five countries mentioned in the report, approving sales worth roughly $1.1 billion between 2005 and 2010, all but $100 million of which went to Egypt. Italy sold $554 million in arms, mostly to Libya, followed by $145 million from Germany and $111 million from Serbia.

Using the data compiled by Amnesty International as well as independently sourced information from the United Nations’ Comtrade database, Al Jazeera has assembled a graphical representation of the arms traffic.

Palestinians turn down first Israeli offer as Colombia works on peace deal

Palestinians confirm Israel offered partial West Bank settlement freeze in return for talks

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Friday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered to freeze government construction in West Bank settlements as well as construction on government land there in return for an agreement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resume direct peace talks.

Erekat told the Associated Press that the proposal was offered to the Palestinians via a third party and that the Palestinians rejected the proposal because it only applied to government construction and most settlement construction is carried out by private contractors.

“If Netanyahu wants to resume negotiations, he has to say that settlement building will stop. Either it stops or it doesn’t stop,” Erekat said.

Erekat’s statements confirmed an earlier Haaretz report about the offer of a government construction settlement freeze.

According to a senior Israeli official, Abbas had not yet responded, but he has been threatening to resign if there is no diplomatic progress in the next three months.

The Prime Minister’s office said, however, that Netanyahu did not offer an additional freeze. According to the PMO, Israel’s position had not changed, they continued to offer an immediate start to direct talks with the Palestinian Authority with no preconditions.

The senior Israeli official said a new proposal was relayed to Abbas on Wednesday by Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin, who arrived on a surprise visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. She was sent by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has launched a mediation effort in an attempt to break the deadlock in the peace process.

“Climate-change impacts on water resources continue”

Why the World May Be Running Out of Clean Water

“Climate-change impacts on water resources continue to appear in the form of growing influence on the severity and intensity of extreme events,” says Peter Gleick, one of the foremost water experts in the U.S. and head of the Pacific Institute, an NGO based in Oakland, Calif., that focuses on global water issues. “Australia’s recent extraordinary extreme drought should be an eye-opener for the rest of us.”

Volume 7 of the Pacific Institute’s regular report on global water usage, The World’s Water, comes out today, just in time to address the squeeze of droughts, the increasingly apparent impact of climate change and the threats facing our relatively scarce supplies of freshwater. The sweeping report is a reminder that clean water is vital to life — as Gleick points out, more than 2 million people die each year from preventable water-related diseases — and that on the whole, we’re not doing a very good job of husbanding that resource. There’s even a risk here that parts of the U.S., especially the arid West, may have passed “peak water” — the point at which it becomes essentially impossible to increase supply.

Potential water shortages are one more reason to try to reduce carbon emissions and blunt the worst impacts of climate change — a warmer world is likely to further dry out already arid regions, even as extreme rainfall intensifies in already wet areas. But however severe the effects of climate change become, we’re going to need to use water much more efficiently than we do now: the world’s population is expected to pass the 7 billion mark by the end of this month, and more people will need more water. “New thinking about solutions and sustainable water planning and management, better data, case studies and efforts to raise awareness, are all needed,” Gleick writes in The World’s Water.

Smarter water policy might mean rethinking other fields of resource use. Take, for example, natural gas drilling. Hydraulic fracturing has vastly increased American supplies of natural gas, which is good for gas companies and, because natural gas generally has a greener footprint, potentially good for the environment as well. But fracking requires a significant amount of water — up to 5 million gal. (19 million L) per well. That might not be a major problem in a relatively wet state like Pennsylvania, but in bone-dry states like Texas, water-intensive fracking has sparked a backlash. There’s also the uncertain risk of water contamination from fracking and drilling, and the problem of water waste. “The rapid expansion of the use of hydraulic fracturing to increase natural gas production has serious potential consequences for local water resources,” says Gleick. It’s important that “more effort be put into both understanding the real risks and protecting water resources before pushing for accelerated programs of natural gas production.”

What we need most of all is a rethink of how we deal with water and a recognition of just how valuable it is — especially in a warming world. That means focusing on modulating demand as much as increasing supply. Through most of the 20th century, governments dealt with water problems through massive construction projects designed to expand and regulate supply — think the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas or the Three Gorges Dam in China.

But the era of those big projects may be ending, largely because we’ve begun to recognize the environmental problems that come with major dams, including the loss of aquatic wildlife and the displacement of local populations. Last month Burma’s military government — not ordinarily responsive to public opinion — canceled a planned $3.6 billion Chinese-backed hydroelectric dam that would have displaced thousands of villagers. Just as we’ve recognized that energy efficiency is often the fastest and cheapest way to address carbon emissions, there’s much that can be done to curb water waste. We need to “adopt 21st century strategies of new forms of sustainable water supply, rethink water demand and efficiency of use, and [embrace] smart use of pricing and economics,” says Gleick.

Astronomers find vapor cloud which may bring water to dry planets

Nearby Planet-Forming Disk Holds Water for Thousands of Oceans

For the first time, astronomers have detected around a burgeoning solar system a sprawling cloud of water vapor that’s cold enough to form comets, which could eventually deliver oceans to dry planets.

Water is an essential ingredient for life. Scientists have found thousands of Earth-oceans’ worth of it within the planet-forming disk surrounding the star TW Hydrae. TW Hydrae is 176 light years away in the constellation Hydra and is the closest solar-system-to-be.

University of Michigan astronomy professor Ted Bergin is a co-author of a paper on the findings published in the Oct. 21 edition of Science.

The researchers used the Heterodyne Instrument for the Far-Infrared (HIFI) on the orbiting Hershel Space Observatory to detect the chemical signature of water.

“This tells us that the key materials that life needs are present in a system before planets are born,” said Bergin, a HIFI co-investigator. “We expected this to be the case, but now we know it is because have directly detected it. We can see it.”

Scientists had previously found warm water vapor in planet-forming disks close to the central star. But until now, evidence for vast quantities of water extending into the cooler, far reaches of disks where comets and giant planets take shape had not emerged. The more water available in disks for icy comets to form, the greater the chances that large amounts will eventually reach new planets through impacts.

“The detection of water sticking to dust grains throughout the planet-forming disk would be similar to events in our own solar system’s evolution, where over millions of years, these dust grains would then coalesce to form comets. These would be a prime delivery mechanism for water on planetary bodies,” said principal investigator Michiel Hogerheijde of Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Other recent findings from HIFI support the theory that comets delivered a significant portion of Earth’s oceans. Researchers found that the ice on a comet called Hartley 2 has the same chemical composition as our oceans.