Tuesday, May 4 Nine Circles of Hell!

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In wake of flood, Nashville authorities fear finding more dead
The Associated Press
(5/4/10)

More victims feared as Tenn. floodwaters recede

Rescuers feared even more bodies would emerge on Tuesday as muddy flood waters ebb from torrential weekend rains that swamped Nashville, much of Tennessee and two neighboring states, killing at least 29 people.

The Cumberland River that submerged parts of Music City’s historic downtown began to recede Tuesday after being swollen by heavy rain and the flooding creeks that feed into it.

Residents and authorities know they’ll find widespread property damage in inundated areas, but dread even more devastating discoveries.

“Those in houses that have been flooded and some of those more remote areas, do we suspect we will find more people? Probably so,” Nashville Fire Chief Kim Lawson said. “We certainly hope that it’s not a large number.”

Businesses along Nashville’s riverfront lost electricity early Tuesday. Laurie Parker, a spokeswoman for Nashville Electric Service, said a main circuit failed before dawn, knocking out power to downtown businesses in a 24-square-block area, including the 33-story AT&T Building, a Hilton hotel, the arena where the Nashville Predators NHL team plays and honky-tonks in the country music tourism district.

Parker said the power in that district would be out the rest of the week.

“It will be Friday at the earliest,” she said, “depending on how fast the water level falls.”

Thousands of people have fled their homes and hundreds were rescued by boat and canoe over the past two days, but as the floodwaters began recede, bodies were recovered from homes, a yard, even a wooded area outside a Nashville supermarket. By Tuesday morning, the flash floods were blamed in the deaths of 18 people in Tennessee alone, including 10 in Nashville.

By Tuesday, rescue operations of stranded residents were winding down in Nashville, though emergency management officials were checking a report of a house floating in a northern neighborhood, trying to determine if anyone was in it.

It remained unclear how many people were still reported missing …

‘BP’s green image was nothing more than a scam’
Mother Jones
(5/4/10)

BP’s Slick Greenwashing

Past This Is Hell! guest James Ridgeway writes …

For the last decade, BP has been busily engaged in a multi-million-dollar greenwashing campaign. Changing its name from British Petroleum to BP, the company adopted a new slogan, “Beyond Petroleum,” and began a “rebranding” effort to depict itself as a public-spirited, environmentally sensitive, green energy enterprise, the very model of 21st century corporate responsibility.

It’s going to take more than a name change and a clever ad campaign to erase the image of oil spreading across the Gulf Coast from BP’s offshore rig, and dead wildlife washing up onto beaches. Even as the company magnanimously agreed to cover the costs of cleaning up the mammoth spill, BP on Monday was still insisting that it wasn’t at fault for the accident that caused it—instead blaming the offshore drilling contractor that operated the rig. So much for corporate accountability.

Before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP’s green image was nothing more than a scam. While making miniscule investments in things like solar power, biofuels, and carbon fuel cells that backed its PR claims, BP continued to work relentlessly to expand its oil and gas operations. In the last decade, as the world’s second largest producer of fossil fuels, the company drilled (and spilled) vast quantities of oil and gas on Alaska’s North Slope and in the North Sea. It positioned itself to rip up Canada’s tar sands to extract its dirty oil, and grabbed a 50 percent interest in Iraq’s rich Rumaila oil field. BP boasted the highest number of explosions and other accidents at its US refineries (several of them deadly), and made the Multinational Monitor’s 10 Worst Companies lists in 2000 and 2005, based on its environmental and human rights record.

BP clearly believed that green was in the eye of the beholder. The company’s move toward green marketing began in 1997, when it quit the industry’s climate change denial group, the Global Climate Coalition, and acknowledged a possible link between global warming and the use of fossil fuels. By 2000, the vertically integrated multinational—which explores, extracts, transports, refines, and sell fuels through its myriad gas stations–had bought up Amoco, Arco, and Burmah Castrol. It united them under the BP brand with a feel-good flowering sun logo, and hired the advertising firm of Ogilvy & Mathers to launch a $200 million rebranding campaign …

Federal law may limit responsibility in British Petroleum oil spill
The Associated Press
(5/3/10)

Federal law may limit BP liability in oil spill

A federal law may limit how much BP has to pay for damages such as lost wages and economic suffering in the Gulf Coast oil spill, despite President Barack Obama’s assurances that taxpayers will not be on the hook.

A law passed in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska makes BP responsible for cleanup costs. But the law sets a $75 million limit on other kinds of damages.

Economic losses to the Gulf Coast are likely to exceed that. In response, several Democratic senators introduced legislation Monday to raise the liability limit to $10 billion, though it was not clear that it could be made to apply retroactively …

Poisoned Puerto Ricans seek justice
In These Times
(5/3/10)

The Poisoning of Puerto Rico

On March 31, retired Sgt. Hermogenes Marrero was told during a visit to the Veterans Affairs (VA) outpatient clinic in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, that he didn’t have cancer — or at least, his official VA computer file no longer showed any record of cancer.

But Marrero was not relieved. He had been diagnosed twice before with colon cancer and suffers today from a dozen other illnesses, including Lou Gehrig’s disease, failing vision, a lung condition that keeps him on oxygen around the clock, not to mention tumors throughout his body. The terminally ill and wheelchair-bound, 57-year-old veteran immediately suspected that the U.S. government had manipulated his medical record.

Marrero is the star witness in a lawsuit filed in 2007 against the U.S. government by Mississippi attorney John Arthur Eaves on behalf of more than 7,000 residents of the picturesque, yet heavily polluted, Puerto Rican island of Vieques. From 1941 until 2003 the U.S. Navy operated a base here, conducting bombing runs and testing chemical weapons for use in foreign wars, from Vietnam to Yugoslavia to Iraq.

The three-quarters of Vieques’ population listed as plaintiffs in the suit blame the billions of tons of bombs dropped by the Navy on Vieques’ eastern half, and the toxic chemicals released into the water, air and soil during that period, for their physical and psychological illnesses. Viequenses today suffer 30-percent higher cancer rates than other Puerto Ricans, 381-percent higher rates of hypertension, 95-percent higher rates of cirrhosis of the liver and 41-percent higher rates of diabetes. Twenty-five percent more children die during infancy in Vieques than in the rest of Puerto Rico.

Early in World War II, when fortunes looked grim for the Allies, the U.S. Navy occupied three-quarters of Vieques, which sits eight miles from the Puerto Rican mainland, moved one-third of its population to the nearby Virgin Islands, and planned to relocate the entire British fleet there in the event of a German invasion of England. Instead, Vieques became the U.S. testing ground for nearly every weapon used during the Cold War.

Though Marrero spent only 18 months on Vieques during his tour in the early 1970s, the Special Forces Marine suffers today from many of the same medical conditions as the local population. The Puerto Rican native, raised in Queens, N.Y., arrived on the island in 1970 with the task of guarding the vast array of chemical weapons the Navy stored and tested there. Marrero was exposed to toxics, including napalm and Agent Orange — which at the time he thought was weed killer. He developed massive headaches, bled from his nose, and suffered nausea and severe cramps. “I witnessed some of the most awesome weapons used for mass destruction in the world,” Marrero says. “I didn’t know how dangerous those chemicals were, because it was on a need-to-know basis.”

Today Marrero waits in the city of Mayaguez in western Puerto Rico for his chance to testify in court against the U.S. military for poisoning the people of Vieques and U.S. soldiers based there.

“These are American citizens, yet we violated their human rights,” says the humbled former Marine. “This would never have been allowed to happen in Washington or Seattle or Baltimore” …

“The Lower Jordan River is expected to run dry at the end of 2011″
Agence France Presse
(5/3/10)

Jordan River will be dead by next year, environmentalists say

The once mighty Jordan River, where Christians believe Jesus was baptized, is now little more than a polluted stream that could die next year unless the decay is halted, environmentalists say.

The famed river “has been reduced to a trickle south of the Sea of Galilee, devastated by overexploitation, pollution and lack of regional management,” Friends of the Earth, Middle East said in a report.

More than 98 per cent of the river’s flow has been diverted by Israel, Syria and Jordan over the years.

“The remaining flow consists primarily of sewage, fish pond water, agricultural run-off and saline water,” the environmentalists from Israel, Jordan and the West Bank said in the report to be presented in Amman today.

“Without concrete action, the LJR (lower Jordan River) is expected to run dry at the end of 2011” …

IMF plans for Greece, Latvia, Estonia ‘a train going in the wrong direction’
Sri Lanka Guardian
(5/2/10)

The Imf’s Road To Ruin

Past This is Hell! guest Mark Weisbrot writes …

Latvia has experienced the worst two-year economic downturn on recorde, losing more than 25 percent of GDP. It is projected to shrink further during the first half of this year, before beginning a slow recovery, in which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that it will not reach even its 2006 level of output by 2015 – nine years later.

With 22 percent unemployment, a sharp increase in emigration and cuts to education funding that will cause long-term damage, the social costs of this trajectory are also high.

By keeping its currency pegged to the euro, the government gives up the opportunity to allow a depreciation that would stimulate growth by improving the trade balance. But even more importantly, maintaining the peg means that Latvia cannot use expansionary monetary policy, or expansionary fiscal policy, to get out of recession. (The United States has used both: in addition to its fiscal stimulus and cutting interest rates to near zero, it has created more than 1.5 trillion dollars since the recession began).

Some who believe that doing the opposite of what rich countries do – i.e. pro-cyclical policies — can work point to neighboring Estonia as a success story. Estonia has kept its currency pegged to the Euro, and like Latvia is trying to accomplish an “internal devaluation.” In other words, with a deep enough recession and sufficient unemployment, wages and prices can be pushed down. In theory this would allow the economy to become competitive again, even while keeping the (nominal) exchange rate fixed.

But the cost to Estonia has been almost as high as in Latvia. The economy has shrunk by nearly 20 percent. Unemployment has shot up from about 2 percent to 15.5 percent. And recovery is expected to be painfully slow: the IMF projects that the economy will grow by just 0.8 percent this year. Amazingly, by 2015 Estonia is projected to still be less welloff than it was in 2007. This is an enormous cost in terms of lost actual and potential output, as well as the social costs associated with high long-term unemployment that will accompany this slow recovery. And despite the economic collapse and a sharp drop in wages, Estonia’s real effective exchange rate was the same at the end of last year as it was at the beginning of 2008 – in other words, no “internal devaluation” had occurred.

Yet Estonia is being held up as a positive example, even used to attack economists who have criticized pro-cyclical policies in Latvia …

Greece, unfortunately, is not being offered any grants from the European Union or the IMF. Their plan for Greece is all about pain and punishment. And with a public debt of 115 percent of GDP and a budget deficit of 13.6 percent, Greece will be forced to make spending cuts that will not only have drastic social consequences but will almost certainly plunge the country deeper into recession.

This is a train going in the wrong direction, and once you go down this track there is no telling where the end will be. Greece – like Latvia and Estonia – will be at the mercy of external events to rescue its economy. A rapid, robust rebound in the European Union – which nobody is projecting – could lift these countries out of their slump with a huge boost in demand for their exports, and capital inflows as in the bubble years. Or not: Western European banks still have hundreds of billions of bad loans to Central and Eastern Europe from the bubble years. Some big shoes could still drop that would depress regional growth even below the slow recovery that is projected for the Euro zone. Germany, which has been dependent on exports for all of its growth from 2002-2007, could continue to soak up the regional trade benefits of a Euro zone and/or world recovery.

Now matter how you slice it, these 19th-century-brutal pro-cyclical policies don’t make sense. They are also grossly unfair, placing the burden of adjustment most squarely on poor and working people. I would not wish Estonia’s “success” on any population, simply because they avoided a debt run-up and are on track to join the Euro. They may find, like Greece – as well as Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Italy – that the costs of adopting a currency that is overvalued for a country’s level of productivity are potentially quite high over the long run, even after these economies eventually recover …

Greek austerity measures mean hundreds of thousands protest, lose their jobs
AOL News
(5/4/10)

Greeks Besiege Acropolis as Protests Spread

As thousands of workers spilled onto the streets of the Greek capital to protest new austerity measures, some 200 communist supporters swarmed the Acropolis, Greece’s most sacrosanct archaeological site, and unfurled banners reading: “People of Europe — Rise up.”

Instead, the markets fell as concerns deepened that the debt crisis that precipitated the tough Greek budget cuts could spread. London’s FTSE 100 was down 1.2 percent, while the key index of the Madrid stock exchange was down 5.5 percent on the day, highlighting concerns over the Spanish government’s fiscal stability.

The scene at the most important symbol of ancient Athenian democracy didn’t leave just onlooking tourists aghast. “I’m a communist, but this is a disgrace,” said Aliki Rizopoulou, phoning in to a radio talk show early today. “There’s nothing catchy about having foreigners seeing us as wacky on top of being considered liars and cheaters” …

Pressed for cash after weeks of market turmoil, Athens announced a fresh raft of austerity measures in return for a $146 billion lifeline of loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to prevent Greece from facing a humiliating bankruptcy.

The painful retrenchment is already facing vociferous opposition from unions and social activists who view the new measures — mainly new hikes on sales tax and deeper cuts in pensions and public servants’ pay — as a “savage” attack on open-handed policies of the sort that Greeks — and many other Europeans — consider inalienable rights …

But some of those rights would seem to fall short of inalienable by most objective measures. Consider early retirement.

Greece’s average retirement age is 61.2, and the new reforms will increase that to 63. The reforms would also curtail the right to quit working as early as 50 for some professions deemed especially hazardous — including television presenters allegedly exposed to bacteria in their microphones and grave diggers who have to work with dangerous chemicals to exhume human remains.

Such generous benefits have long bred tension with more frugal countries such as Germany, which finally agreed on Sunday to back the financial aid package for Greece in return for reforms that abolish such perks and remedy Athens’ free-spending practices of the past …

That protest comes as the beleaguered Socialist government of Prime Minister George Papandreou scrambles to implement the three-year austerity and reform program, due to be ratified by the 300-seat parliament this week.

“It will be chaos,” predicts Daniel Toska, a 24-year-old jobless electrician. “People may protest, but they won’t revolt.”

Eventually, he add, “lads like me may have no other option than to pick up their belongings and leave [the country].”

Labor experts anticipate the austerity measures to yield 250,000 unemployed by the end of the year …

Workers at the end of the global supply chain in our shared ‘moral blind spot’
The Independent
(5/3/10)

Out of sight, out of mind

Saturday was International Labour Day, though you’d hardly know it. For all but some trade unions and fringe socialist groups, it’s just the dimly remembered rationale for the early May Bank Holiday …

Today, no issue has a comparable moral urgency for so many. But we should not assume that all the great battles have been won, and that all we have left to do is dot the ethical I’s and cross the moral T’s …

We need to look elsewhere for our current moral blind spots. To do so, it might help to ask what the great moral blind spots of the past had in common. The key factor was that they all involved a demonstrable failure to treat like as like. Slavery, racism and the subjugation of women all came to be seen as wrong because there was simply no justification for treating these oppressed groups differently to the rest of humanity. So what stopped people realising their errors for so long? An unholy trinity of innumerable self-serving, “common-sense” justifications, bolstered by widespread false assumptions, in the absence of a strong enough motivation to challenge them.

There is a contemporary injustice that fits this pattern, and May Day is the perfect time to bring it to the fore. We are all implicated in it, it is an evident moral wrong, and it has numerous common-sense and even expert justifications which crumble on examination. But because so few people are up close to the reality of the injustice, and because it would be so inconvenient to confront it, we complacently go along with the status quo. That moral blind spot is the way in which we treat labour, usually in the developing world, at the end of our global supply chains.

The fact that this is a gross, manifest wrong can be made clear by a general principle, which all but the most rabid of free-marketeers must surely accept: it is morally wrong to exploit a fellow human being by using their need as leverage to make them work for as little as you can possibly pay them …

Saturday was International Labour Day, though you’d hardly know it. For all but some trade unions and fringe socialist groups, it’s just the dimly remembered rationale for the early May Bank Holiday …

Over recent decades, the market price for coffee beans has often fallen below the costs of production, meaning that farmers actually worked at a loss to satisfy the caffeine cravings of Western consumers.

But because the vast bulk of coffee is traded on open markets, manufacturers paid only the market price, irrespective of what that meant for growers. As a result, they – and through them the consumers – used growers’ desperate need to at least get some return on their crop as leverage to make them accept as little as we could possibly pay them.

Faced with this manifest injustice, we are apt to react as the slave owners did. Because the victims are far away and harmed only indirectly by our indifference, it just seems incredible to think we’re implicated in a massive injustice. Because the status quo seems so natural and nothing feels wrong about drinking coffee, we convince ourselves that arguments that say we are acting immorally must be flawed. It just can’t be right that good, decent people such as ourselves are systematically behaving so badly. But slave owners were not moral monsters either. They were people considered, by themselves and others, to be decent, virtuous people, like George Washington, the first President of the United States …

But the idea that there is no problem as long as there is consent is flawed for several reasons. First, people sometimes have to choose terrible things because in practical terms they have no choice. Prostitution is a good example. There are some, maybe many, Belle de Jours for whom sex work is not a last resort but a deliberate career move, but in many cases women are driven to prostitution out of desperation. Any man who thinks prostitution is never exploitative just as long as the woman isn’t being physically forced into the job is surely deluded.

Second, the fact that something unpleasant is the best choice available to someone doesn’t make it ok, if we could be offering them a better one at little or no cost. It is not uncommon for managers in factories in the developing world that supply the West to refuse their workers sufficient toilet breaks, deny them drinking water, fail to follow local laws or health and safety procedures – the list could go on. So what if working in one of these places is still the best option locally? If paying a little bit more could remove all these hardships, why not do it?

There are always more options than the free-market apologists set out …

The point is simple. Poor working conditions may be better than nothing, but that does not justify us supporting poor working conditions. The alternative should not be nothing, but making things better. (Parents who feed their child junk food cannot say that they should not be criticised because junk food is better than no food, because there is the option of offering proper food) …

What the developing world needs most of all, they claim, is a genuinely free global market. Coffee farmers would have no trouble making a good living from their beans if advanced Western nations eliminated import tariffs, farm subsidies and other distortions to the market.

The problem with this argument is that the question facing us is not how we should behave if global trade were truly free, but how we should behave as things are now. The free marketeer, if genuinely concerned by morality, should both campaign for freer trade and, in the interim, avoid reinforcing the injustices of the current system.

It is somewhat baffling that so many criticisms of the fair-trade alternative to exploitation are rooted in free-market thinking. The Adam Smith Institute, for instance, insists fair trade means that “its favoured farmers do not have to respect market conditions which might tell others to cut back production in the event of a world surplus”. The Economist claims that fair trade encourages overproduction by “propping up the price” of commodities.

The reality is that initiatives like the Fairtrade label are free-market mechanisms par excellence. Fair trade is not like government subsidy, which fixes prices of a whole nation’s crops. It is a voluntary, consumer subsidy, no more contrary to free-market economics than the decision to volunteer an extra 25p to have a shot of syrup in your latte. The premium paid on fair-trade coffee is not a market-bucking one but a market-dependent one.

The price is higher solely because consumers want to pay the extra for the benefits they believe that produces. Others prefer to pay extra for a celebrity endorsed product, or one with a logo. Yet I do not hear economists protesting that the prices of Adidas T-shirts are kept “artificially high” by designer-labelling schemes.

The way we treat suppliers in the developing world is a moral disgrace, and none of the defences stand up to scrutiny. The optimal solution is up for debate, but the fundamental wrongness is not. The injustice persists because of psychological weakness, not moral rightness. And I don’t claim to be immune from this. I argue this case passionately and adjust my behaviour to a certain extent, but I don’t check the provenance of every item of clothing or foodstuff I buy. This weakness is natural – but that only explains, it doesn’t excuse …

Terrorism rare because few are terrorists, attacks are difficult, they never serve purpose
AOL News
(5/4/10)

Where Are All the Terrorist Attacks?

As the details of the Times Square car bomb attempt emerge in the wake of Faisal Shahzad’s arrest Monday night, one thing has already been made clear: Terrorism is fairly easy. All you need is a gun or a bomb, and a crowded target. Guns are easy to buy. Bombs are easy to make. Crowded targets — not only in New York, but all over the country — are easy to come by. If you’re willing to die in the aftermath of your attack, you could launch a pretty effective terrorist attack with a few days of planning, maybe less.

But if it’s so easy, why aren’t there more terrorist attacks like the failed car bomb in New York’s Times Square? Or the terrorist shootings in Mumbai? Or the Moscow subway bombings? After the enormous horror and tragedy of 9/11, why have the past eight years been so safe in the U.S.?

There are actually several answers to this question. One, terrorist attacks are harder to pull off than popular imagination — and the movies — lead everyone to believe. Two, there are far fewer terrorists than the political rhetoric of the past eight years leads everyone to believe. And three, random minor terrorist attacks don’t serve Islamic terrorists’ interests right now …

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Tuesday, May 4
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