Thursday, September 23 Nine Circles of Hell!


The Nine Circles of Hell! – all the news that gives you fits in print – for Thursday, September 23, 2010, are:

Tax breaks meant to build wealth only help already rich

Europe watches as strike against raising retirement age rocks France

Singapore, Hong Kong “the new alternative” to Swiss bank secrecy

Hillary Clinton calls Sudan a “ticking time-bomb”

“South Africa’s own Chernobyl” may threaten ‘Cradle of Humankind’

Mine officials refuse to answer questions about deadly disaster

‘Closed-basin’ lake captures rain, snowmelt and a couple towns

Fight against global warming stalls as signs of climate change grow

FDA says drug linked to heart attacks can stay on market

Tax breaks meant to build wealth help rich, not middle-, low-income

$400 billion in tax breaks seen favoring wealthy

The United States spent nearly $400 billion last fiscal year to fund tax breaks and programs aimed at helping Americans build wealth, but the majority of that money went to the highest earning taxpayers, according to a report released Wednesday.

The report, from the Corporation for Enterprise Development and The Annie E. Casey Foundation, said low-income families benefit the least from federal policies aimed at helping Americans buy homes, save money, start businesses, pay for college and retire comfortably …

While the goal is to help families climb the economic ladder by acquiring assets, the report said these policies are skewed towards high-income taxpayers because they are based on things such as the size of a home or an investment portfolio.

Middle class and low-income families, the report said, receive none of the benefits because they often don’t make enough money to itemize deductions or even to accrue much tax liability.

“At a time when the economic downturn has left so many low- and middle-income families struggling to get by, we simply can’t afford a wealth-building strategy that primarily helps those who are already wealthy,” said Robert Giloth, a vice president at the Casey Foundation.

Europe watches as strike against raising retirement age rocks France
The Associated Press

France paralyzed by strikes over raising retirement to 62

Tens of thousands of French workers took to the streets Thursday for the second day of nationwide strikes this month to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age to 62. Union walkouts crippled planes, trains and schools across the country.

The strikes are seen as a test for the conservative Sarkozy and are being watched elsewhere in Europe, as governments struggle to rein in costs with unpopular austerity measures after the Greek debt crisis sapped confidence in the entire 16-nation euro currency.

Protesters brandishing flags, balloons and signs gathered at Paris’ Place de la Bastille, iconic site of the French Revolution and starting point for the French capital’s demonstration, which was snaking through eastern Paris to the Left Bank.

Turnout at 232 demonstrations nationwide was key to Thursday’s showdown between unions and the unpopular Sarkozy. Labor leaders urged people to march in even greater numbers than during the last round of protests Sept. 7, which brought at least 1.1 million people into the streets …

Sarkozy has indicated he is willing to make marginal concessions but remains firm on the central pillar: increasing the retirement age from 60 to 62 and pushing back the age from 65 to 67 for those who want full retirement benefits …

Sarkozy’s reform passed a vote in the National Assembly lower house of Parliament but still faces other hurdles — including an upcoming debate in the Senate — before becoming law …

The leftist opposition sees retirement at 60 as a sacred symbol of France’s social welfare system. They say Sarkozy’s reform won’t fix the problem and have also insisted any changes must make more exceptions for certain categories of workers.

“An increasing number of French people understand that the reforms the president is trying to impose will not solve the pensions issue,” Martine Aubry, the head of the opposition Socialist party, told journalists at the Paris march. “Pensioners will pay the price for it. And tomorrow, young people will not benefit from government-funded pensions — the only system that is fair and shows solidarity between generations” …

Walkouts disrupted travel and commutes across France, and post offices and even opera houses were hit too.

Traffic was snarled in France’s cities, with fewer than half of the Paris Metro’s lines working normally, according to the RATP public transit network, and about half of France’s long-distance trains canceled, according to the SNCF state-run rail system.

Security was higher than usual at some Metro stations, where soldiers armed with machine guns were on patrol. In recent days, top officials have warned that the risk of a terrorist attack on French soil was at a record high …

The main teachers’ union said over 50% of teachers were expected to strike, though the Education Ministry put the figure at just over 25%.

At the SNCF national railway, about 38% of employees heeded the call to strike, according to the management. Some SNCF unions have already called for new strikes beyond Thursday.

Even at 62, France would have one of the lowest retirement ages in Europe. Neighboring Germany has decided to bump the retirement age from 65 to 67.

The U.S. Social Security system is also gradually raising its retirement age to 67.

Singapore, Hong Kong “the new alternative” to Swiss bank secrecy
The New York Times

Seeking Bank Secrecy in Asia

For centuries, Switzerland has been the sanctuary of choice for wealthy people seeking to hide their fortunes and evade taxes. Now, amid a growing crackdown on Swiss private banking, the rich are flocking to Singapore and Hong Kong, which still offer some of the world’s most secret accounts.

But there is a twist in this shift to the East: Many of the banks growing in these low-tax oases have Swiss pedigrees. And their clients are not only Asia’s growing number of millionaires but also wealthy Americans and Europeans who, lawyers say, have been spooked by mounting scrutiny from the tax authorities in their own countries.

From UBS, which operates a training center in Singapore, to smaller private banks like Julius Baer, Swiss banks and those with Swiss-based operations are tripping over themselves to expand in the region.

“We have seen a massive uptick in hiring hundreds of private bankers” in Singapore and Hong Kong “to take the business leaving Switzerland,” said Raymond W. Baker, the director of Global Financial Integrity, a research institute in Washington.

Reuven S. Avi-Yonah, director of the international tax program at the University of Michigan Law School, called the two Asian locales “the new alternative” to Swiss bank secrecy after the shackles placed on UBS by the United States last year.

UBS, the largest bank in Switzerland, has lost an estimated 200 billion Swiss francs, or about $200 billion, in assets from private banking clients over the last two years. But in Asia, it has won more new money than it has lost, according to an August presentation to investors by the bank’s chief executive of wealth management, Jürg Zeltner.

The bank would not give actual figures. But it did say it was planning to hire an additional 400 “client advisers,” or private bankers, for its Asia-Pacific region, on top of the current 867.

In February, UBS raised bonuses for Singapore bankers who bring in new clients. The Singapore government is one of the bank’s biggest shareholders, with about 9 percent, since diluted, bought in late 2007.

Credit Suisse’s top private banking executive, Walter Berchtold, said this month that net new assets coming into the bank from rich clients in Asia would grow more than 20 percent a year, more than triple the global average the bank has forecast.

Hillary Clinton calls Sudan a “ticking time-bomb”

US and UK to warn Sudan amid fears of renewed civil war

Sudan is due to go to the polls in three months to decide whether its oil-rich south should secede from the rest of the country. The referendum is a final plank in a 2005 peace deal ending Africa’s longest civil war, which raged for 22 years and killed more than 1.9 million people, mostly civilians in the south.

Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president who is wanted by the International Criminal Court to face genocide charges, has been accused of directing his officials to drag their heels on key preparations ahead of the January 9 vote. Diplomats, aid workers and activists have warned that the south may unilaterally secede if the poll is postponed, which could lead to heavy reaction from the national government in Khartoum.

“The number one message is that these referendums must go off on time, that they must be peaceful, and they must reflect the will of the people of south Sudan,” said Samantha Power, White House senior director of multilateral affairs.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has called Sudan a “ticking time-bomb” with regard to growing tensions between the south and the north, the two sides in the civil war.

Most of Sudan’s 500,000 barrel-a-day oil production comes from areas along the north-south border, and proven reserves are mostly in the south …

A Western diplomat in Khartoum said: “The fact is they can talk all they like there in New York [at the UN], but here on the ground we are seeing every day new threats to the referendum.”

“South Africa’s own Chernobyl” may threaten ‘Cradle of Humankind’
The Globe and Mail

Poisonous water rising from the ground threatens Johannesburg

Africa’s wealthiest city was built on gold. Fortunes were made, mansions were built, thousands of miners toiled and a metropolis was created.

But today, after 120 years of mining, the gold is disappearing, hundreds of mine shafts have been abandoned, and Johannesburg is facing a nightmare of biblical proportions: a vast tide of poisonous water rising inexorably toward the foundations of the city itself.

The problem is known as “acid mine drainage” and it has affected mining regions around the world, including Canada. With nearly 6,000 abandoned mines across the country, South Africa is more endangered than any other. But no metropolis is as threatened as Johannesburg, and the situation here offers a glimpse of what might some day happen in parts of Canada if the problem is not properly managed.

Some analysts are calling it a ticking time-bomb. One scientist has described it as “South Africa’s own Chernobyl” – potentially one of the worst environmental catastrophes in the continent. The toxic mine water is 550 metres below Johannesburg, but it is rising by at least 0.35 metres a day – possibly up to a metre a day – and could reach a critical level within the next 15 months. Officials have acknowledged that the rising water could begin to trigger sinkholes and earth tremors if it reaches within 150 metres of the surface.

The implications, according to environmentalists, are like something out of a disaster movie. The acidic water could corrode the foundations of Johannesburg’s buildings, eating away at the steel and causing buildings to collapse. Small earthquakes could be triggered as water flows into cracks in the earth. Drinking water could be contaminated. Rivers and wildlife reserves could be endangered. Huge sinkholes could be created. Drainage from old uranium mines could cause radioactivity in the water supply …

Acid mine drainage is a phenomenon that begins when rising groundwater floods into old mine shafts and tunnels. During mining operations, this water is normally pumped out. But when the mines are abandoned, there is nothing to stop the water from flooding through the mine shafts. This water causes an oxidation of metal sulfides in pyrite in the surrounding rock, and the resulting product is a highly acidic water – often filled with toxic heavy metals – that decants toward the surface as the mine shafts become deluged.

Johannesburg is particularly vulnerable because there are millions of cubic metres of water in the natural aquifers below the city. The clean water is now becoming contaminated by the toxic mine water as it rises …

Mine water could also threaten the famed Cradle of Humankind, the ancient caves near Johannesburg that contain fossil evidence of one of the birthplaces of the human species.

Mine officials refuse to answer questions about deadly disaster
Charleston Gazette

Massey managers sue to block disaster interviews

Six Massey Energy management personnel — including the company’s corporate safety director — have filed suit challenging subpoenas that would force them to answer questions about the April 5 explosion that killed 29 workers at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

Lawyers for Massey vice president of safety Elizabeth Chamberlin and five other mine managers allege the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training is wrongly using its subpoena power to help federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials force them to appear for interviews with investigators …

The court filing sets up another legal battle between Massey and government investigators over the ongoing probe of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.

“It is unprecedented in the history of mining accidents in this country for a substantial group of mine management to refuse to provide information which will help to prevent this kind of accident from occurring in the future,” said longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who is conducting an independent probe of the disaster for Gov. Joe Manchin.

‘Closed-basin’ lake captures rain, snowmelt and a couple towns
The Associated Press

North Dakota lake swallows land and buildings

It’s been called a slow-growing monster: a huge lake that has steadily expanded over the last 20 years, swallowing up thousands of acres, hundreds of buildings and at least two towns in its rising waters.

Devils Lake keeps getting larger because it has no natural river or stream to carry away excess rain and snowmelt. Now it has climbed within 6 feet of overflowing, raising fears that some downstream communities could be washed away if the water level isn’t reduced.

And those worries are compounded by another problem: Scientists believe the pattern of heavy rain and snow that filled the basin is likely to continue for at least another decade.

“It’s a slow-moving torture,” said 72-year-old Joe Belford, a lifelong resident of Devils Lake and a county commissioner who spends most of his time seeking a way to control the flooding and money to pay for it.

No other place in America has faced such a dilemma. The nation’s only other significant “closed-basin” lake is the Great Salt Lake, which was in danger of flooding housing developments in the mid-1980s. But shortly after the state spent $70 million on huge pumps, a dry spell began. Those pumps now stand idle.

Fight against global warming stalls as signs of climate change grow
The Washington Post

Signs of climate change fail to shift political landscape

The evidence for climate change grows: The first eight months of 2010 put this year on track to tie 1998 as the hottest year on record, global bleaching is devastating coral reefs and Arctic summer sea ice is reaching new lows.

But for all the visible signs of global warming, weakened political support for curbing the emissions that drive it means that the United States is unlikely to impose national limits on greenhouse gases before 2013, at the earliest. Several leading GOP  candidates this fall are questioning whether these emissions even cause warming, while some key Senate Democratic candidates are now disavowing the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House in 2009.

“I don’t see a comprehensive bill going anywhere in the next two years,” Senate Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) told a Washington policymakers’ conference sponsored by Reuters on Tuesday.

This disconnect has left environmentalists and many climate scientists feeling pessimistic. For years activists argued it was hard to limit greenhouse gases because unlike other forms of pollution, they were impossible to see, smell or touch. Climate effects are increasingly plain to see, but no easier to address.

Rafe Pomerance, a senior fellow at the group Clean Air-Cool Planet, said he and other experts are stunned to see so many examples of global warming materializing at once: “It is breathtaking to watch several indicators demonstrate simultaneously climate impacts from the poles to the equator.”

However these developments, coupled with extreme weather events such as massive wildfires in Russia and floods in China and Pakistan this summer, have done nothing to revive prospects for a climate policy that President Obama has championed since taking office. In at least eight contested House races and six competitive Senate races – all of which would represent GOP pickups – the Republican candidates reject the idea that human activities are linked to global warming.

“If many of the climate science deniers get elected to Congress, it is difficult to imagine the next Congress limiting global warming pollution,” said Daniel J. Weiss, who directs climate strategy for the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

FDA says drug linked to heart attacks can stay on market
The Associated Press

FDA keeps diabetes pill with heart risks on market

Federal health regulators will allow GlaxoSmithKline to continue selling a controversial diabetes pill but will restrict access to the once-blockbuster drug because of heart attack risks.

The Food and Drug Administration says new patients will get a prescription for Avandia only if they can’t control their diabetes with other medications.

The FDA’s decision marks the second time in three years that the agency has decided to leave Avandia on the market, despite mounting pressure to recall the drug from outside medical experts, politicians and some of its own scientists.