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Nine Circles of Hell!: Monday, December 5 Nine Circles of Hell!
The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – today’s nine most hellish news stories, for Monday, December 5, 2011, including a bonus and surprising story on Iraq, are:
Zuccotti Park owners among businesses owing $149 million in back taxes
New York Daily News
Zuccotti Park owners Brookfield Properties owe city $139G in back taxes
City taxpayers have poured millions of dollars and hundreds of police hours into keeping the peace at the privately owned Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protests.
The least the park’s owners could do is pay their taxes.
The city Finance Department says park owner Brookfield Properties and its parent company, Brookfield US Corp., currently owe the city more than $139,000 in unpaid business taxes from 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.
“That’s obviously ironic,” said City Councilman Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn), who was arrested last month protesting the NYPD clearing of Zuccotti Park.
“Occupy Wall Street has been talking about economic disparity . . . and here’s Brookfield Properties, which has worked with the mayor to keep the messengers out, not paying their share” …
Brookfield is among 40,000 entities that owe the city an eye-popping $149 million in overdue business taxes dating to 2000, the Finance Department says.
Outgoing Medicare, Medicaid chief sees $150-$250 billion in waste
The New York Times
Health Official Takes Parting Shot at ‘Waste’”
The official in charge of Medicare and Medicaid for the last 17 months says that 20 percent to 30 percent of health spending is “waste” that yields no benefit to patients, and that some of the needless spending is a result of onerous, archaic regulations enforced by his agency.
The official, Dr. Donald M. Berwick, listed five reasons for what he described as the “extremely high level of waste.” They are overtreatment of patients, the failure to coordinate care, the administrative complexity of the health care system, burdensome rules and fraud …
Asked why Americans were still deeply divided over the new health care law, signed 20 months ago, Dr. Berwick said: “It’s a complex, complicated law. To explain it takes a while. To understand it takes an investment that I’m not sure the man or woman in the street wants to make or ought to make” …
Dr. Berwick, a soft-spoken pediatrician, received his own Medicare card in September when he turned 65. As Medicare chief, he has pushed doctors and hospitals to adopt electronic health records, merge their operations and coordinate care to eliminate medical errors that kill thousands of patients each year.
If his estimate is right, Medicare and Medicaid could save $150 billion to $250 billion a year by eliminating waste, which he defines as “activities that don’t have any value.”
Medicaid cuts mean more suicides in rural America
Rural Suicides Follow Medicaid Cuts
Suicide is on the increase in rural America–nowhere so much as in western mountain states like Idaho, Wyoming and New Mexico. Mental health professionals attribute it in part to cutbacks in Medicaid funding, to the recession and to the culture of the rural West.
In Idaho, somebody kills himself every 35 hours, according to a 2009 report to Idaho’s governor by the state’s Council on Suicide Prevention. Their report calls suicide “a major public health issue” having a “devastating effect” on Idaho’s families, churches, businesses and even schools: 65 students aged 10 and 18 killed themselves in a recent five-year period …
Historically the suicide rate in rural states has been higher than in urban ones. According to the most recent national data available, Alaska has the highest rate, at 24.6 suicides per 100,000 people. Next comes Wyoming (23.3), followed by New Mexico (21.1), Montana (21.0) and Nevada (20.2). Idaho ranks 6th, at 16.5. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Idahoans aged 15-34. Only accidents rank higher …
Reductions in funding have led to the closing of mental health offices, she says. Such closings mean more in Idaho than they would, say, in Manhattan, where a therapist can be found on every block. Before the cuts and closings, somebody in Idaho seeking therapy might have had to drive 160 miles to find it …
Dave Strong, an assessment and referral coordinator for the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, says the people now most at risk, ironically, are not the most severely ill. “Schizophrenics, once they’ve been diagnosed and qualified by Medicaid, don’t fall out of treatment,” he says.” They’re always able to get services.”
Rather, it’s people suffering the first onset of their disease who have the hardest time getting treatment. With services reduced, the mildly depressed now have to wait until their condition has reached a crisis stage to before they can get medical attention.
“We wait too long now to get treatment to them,” said Garrett. “It’s like telling somebody with diabetes that he’ll have to wait until he’s in a coma.”
Cutting Retiree Benefits A Sore Subject For Military
Bean counters at the Pentagon are working long hours to figure out how to cut close to a trillion dollars from the Department of Defense budget over the next 10 years.
Those were the Pentagon’s marching orders after the congressional supercommittee failed to come up with a plan to slash the country’s deficit. Pentagon officials are looking at cutting weapons programs, troop levels and possibly even some base closures.
Part of the defense budget usually protected from budget cuts is personnel costs: mainly health care and retirement benefits. While Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said everything’s on the table, cutting benefits for troops is not an easy sell.
Bryan McGrath served in the U.S. Navy for 21 years, part of that time commanding the USS Bulkeley, a naval destroyer. Like many officers, he had enlisted in ROTC in college and figured he’d serve four years, get school paid for and be done.
“The problem was within those first four years, I came to absolutely love what I was doing,” McGrath tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin. “There was no reason to leave.”
It’s easy to listen to someone like McGrath and think the military should be doing everything possible to recruit people like him, and then take care of them after they retire. But McGrath is the first to tell you that his military benefits — his $3,000 pension, and his health care — are costing his country too much money.
“My health care costs me the equivalent of approximately one triple latte a week, about $20 a month,” he says. “My view — and this is my view only – is that my 21 years of service [is] rolled up into a great big love of country, and I think my country is in trouble.”
Military retiree benefits cost the Pentagon $50 billion a year. That’s more than next year’s entire budget for the Department of Homeland Security. There are 1.9 million military retirees drawing pay and benefits, compared to 1.5 million in the active duty force. In 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said those costs are “eating the Defense Department alive.”
(To be clear, veterans are those who have served in the military; they receive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Military retirees are those who serve 20 years or more — it is their benefits that are often seen as unsustainable.)
“Military retirees who are working age … for a family plan you pay $460 a year, [and] that covers you and all of your dependents,” says Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. “And if you’re single, it’s $230 a year.”
When military retirees reach age 65 and are eligible to go on Medicare, they gets something called TRICARE, a Medicare supplemental insurance plan, Harrison says. It covers everything Medicare doesn’t cover. The cost: It’s free. In addition to that, retirees also receive pensions. Depending on the rank of the retiree, the pension can be a couple thousand dollars a month or more.
To understand why these benefits are so expensive, you have to think about when military retirees start collecting them. Unlike private sector employees, who don’t receive entitlements like Social Security and Medicare until they are 65 years old, military retirees generally begin collecting benefits in their 40s. The average age of officers when they retire is 47, Harrison says. The average age of enlisted soldiers when they retire is 43.
“They’re paying retirement benefits to people who are 90 [or] even 100 years old right now, who served a couple of generations ago,” he says.
US exporting record amount of oil
Gasoline: The new big U.S. export
The United States is awash in gasoline. So much so, in fact, that the country is exporting a record amount of it.
The country exported 430,000 more barrels of gasoline a day than it imported in September, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That is about twice the amount at the start of the year, and experts and industry insiders say the trend is here to stay.
The United States began exporting gas in late 2008. For decades prior, starting in 1960, the country used all the gas it produced here plus had to import gas from places in Europe.
But demand for gas has dropped nearly 10% in recent years. It went from a peak of 9.6 million barrels a day in 2007 to 8.8 million barrels today, according to the EIA.
The drop was caused partially by the recession but also by the advent of more fuel efficient vehicles, higher prices and the greater use of ethanol as an ingredient in gasoline. Demand for other products made from crude oil like diesel and jet fuel has also declined, although not as much.
To be sure, the United States is still importing plenty of oil to make that gasoline — and is still dependent on foreign countries for well over half the crude it uses.
But now the country’s massive refining infrastructure is producing more gasoline, diesel and jet fuel than the United States needs, freeing it up to be exported to places like Brazil, Mexico and Chile where demand is still strong.
The Wall Street Journal, which reported on the export trend last week, said the United States is on track this year to be a net exporter of refined products for the first time in 62 years.
There will be fracking “contamination accidents”
Cornell fracking expert urges caution
An engineering professor from Cornell University urged Maritime governments to be cautious about shale gas development.
Tony Ingraffea, who has a Ph.D. in rock fracturing mechanics, told delegates at the “Protecting our Communities: A Conference on Shale Gas and Fracking” conference in Truro, N.S., on Saturday that there is no reason to rush into shale gas drilling.
Ingraffea said there is still much that science doesn’t know about the process, but the fact that it causes groundwater contamination is not in doubt.
In Nova Scotia, the Dexter government announced a review of its regulations regarding shale gas development in April.
Ingraffea said it could take 10 years to collect enough data to determine the safety of hydro-fracking.
“There will be contamination incidents,” he said.
“The question is: how many, at what rate should we expect them over space and time and what will be the environmental, human health and financial costs?” …
“There’s no logical reason other than political reason for Nova Scotia to join the experiment. Let it play out where it’s ongoing,” he said.
“Let the science continue to evolve. Let the technology continue to evolve and get to a point … four to five, maybe even 10 years from now, when adequate science has been done and the cumulative impact of all this activity on the environment, human health and climate can be scientifically assessed.”
Has US declared war on Iran without telling anyone?
Los Angeles Times
Mysterious blasts, slayings suggest covert efforts in Iran
At an Iranian military base 30 miles west of Tehran, engineers were working on weapons that the armed forces chief of staff had boasted could give Israel a “strong punch in the mouth.”
But then a huge explosion ripped through the Revolutionary Guard Corps base on Nov. 12, leveling most of the buildings. Government officials said 17 people were killed, including a founder of Iran’s ballistic missile program, Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam.
Iranian officials called the blast an accident. Perhaps it was.
Decades of international sanctions have left Iran struggling to obtain technology and spare parts for military programs and commercial industries, leading in some cases to dangerous working conditions.
However, many former U.S. intelligence officials and Iran experts believe that the explosion — the most destructive of at least two dozen unexplained blasts in the last two years — was part of a covert effort by the U.S., Israel and others to disable Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. The goal, the experts say, is to derail what those nations fear is Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons capability and to stave off an Israeli or U.S. airstrike to eliminate or lessen the threat.
“It looks like the 21st century form of war,” said Patrick Clawson, who directs the Iran Security Initiative at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank. “It does appear that there is a campaign of assassinations and cyber war, as well as the semi-acknowledged campaign of sabotage.”
Or perhaps not. Any such operation would be highly classified, and those who might know aren’t talking. The result is Washington’s latest national security parlor game — trying to figure out who, if anyone, is responsible for the unusual incidents.
For years, the U.S. and its allies have sought to hinder Iran’s weapons programs by secretly supplying faulty parts, plans or software, former intelligence officials say. No proof of sabotage has emerged, but Iran’s nuclear program clearly has hit obstacles that thwarted progress in recent years.
“We definitely are doing that,” said Art Keller, a former CIA case officer who worked on Iran. “It’s pretty much the stated mission of the [CIA's] counter-proliferation division to do what it takes to slow … Iran’s weapons of mass destruction program.”
Iran insists that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only.
Many Western experts are convinced that American and Israeli engineers secretly fed the Stuxnet computer worm into Iran’s nuclear program in 2010. The virus reportedly caused centrifuges used to enrich uranium to spin out of control and shatter. Neither the U.S. nor Israeli government has acknowledged any role in the apparent cyber-attack.
Nor did anyone claim responsibility after two senior nuclear physicists were killed, and a third wounded, by bombs attached to their cars or nearby motorcycles in January and November last year.
Militants waving pictures of one of the slain scientists stormed the British Embassy in Tehran last week, setting fires and causing extensive damage. Several European countries recalled their envoys from Iran after the British government closed its embassy and expelled Iranian diplomats from London.
US steps up Baghdad embassy security after kidnapping, terror threats
The New York Times
U.S. Tightens Its Security in Baghdad
The American Embassy in Baghdad has placed sharp new restrictions on how government workers can travel inside the walled-off International Zone, citing serious threats of kidnapping and terrorist attacks across Iraq and near the embassy’s own doorstep.
In a statement posted to its Web site on Saturday, the embassy said it had “severely restricted” movement through the International Zone, also known as the Green Zone, and had increased security. To go to a nearby shop, restaurant or government office in the area, embassy employees must now be accompanied by security guards.
American and Iraqi officials have been bracing for insurgent violence as the last American troops turn over their few remaining bases and leave Iraq. A vestigial presence will remain to guard the embassy, supplemented by thousands of security contractors here and at diplomatic outposts.
American officials did not provide other details on the threats.
The embassy in Baghdad regularly warns American travelers and citizens of kidnapping threats, and the risk of terrorist attacks on trade fairs or at public demonstrations, a constant shadow over life in a place where about 200 Iraqi civilians are killed every month.
But the announcement of tightened security measures is more unusual, coming less than a week after a suicide bomber managed to bring explosives into the International Zone and set off a bomb just outside the gates of Parliament. Iraqi officials called the blast a botched assassination attempt against either the speaker of Parliament or Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
- In other and far more shocking Iraq news, Reuters reports, “Iraq says ready to mediate with Syrian opposition“:
Iraq is ready to mediate between the Syrian government and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad to help end months of violence in the neighbouring country, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Saturday.
Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders are concerned that turmoil in Syria could bring a hardline Sunni leader to power should protests lead to the downfall of Assad, who is facing increasing international condemnation over a crackdown on protesters.
Ali al-Moussawi, Maliki’s media adviser, said Iraq was ready to receive the Syrian opposition to try to reach a solution to achieve the demands of the Syrian people and avoid bloodshed.
“We as a government … seek a solution. If this clash continues forever it will be harmful for all, particularly to the Syrian people and the Syrian state,” he said.
“He (Maliki) is clear he is ready for a dialogue with all the parties.”
Pakistan to review all accords with US, NATO: Gilani
Pakistan will review all its agreements with the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the aftermath of the November 26 airstrike that left two dozen Pakistan Army soldiers dead, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has said.
Mr Gilani said in Lahore on Sunday that the government had decided to review the agreements made by the then President Pervez Musharraf’s government with the US, NATO, United Nations (UN) and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), reported Dawn.
The NATO airstrike on two checkposts in Mohmad Agency late last month left 24 Pakistan Army soldiers dead, sparking outrage in the country. Islamabad promptly stopped NATO supply through the country.
“Soon after the NATO attack… we took up this issue very seriously by involving all stakeholders, including military and political leadership,” said Mr Gilani.
He said that the political and military leadership, along with the Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC), see the Nov 26 incident as a reason to revise the entire terms of business (ToBs) on all national and international issues such as war on terror and security of the region, made by the Musharraf government with the US, NATO, ISAF and the UN.