The End of the Affair

The fate of Detroit isn’t a matter of economics. It’s a tragic romance, whose magic was killed by bureaucrats, bad taste and busybodies.

The phrase “bankrupt General Motors,” which we expect to hear uttered on Monday, leaves Americans my age in economic shock. The words are as melodramatic as “Mom’s nude photos.” And, indeed, if we want to understand what doomed the American automobile, we should give up on economics and turn to melodrama.

Politicians, journalists, financial analysts and other purveyors of banality have been looking at cars as if a convertible were a business. Fire the MBAs and hire a poet. The fate of Detroit isn’t a matter of financial crisis, foreign competition, corporate greed, union intransigence, energy costs or measuring the shoe size of the footprints in the carbon. It’s a tragic romance—unleashed passions, titanic clashes, lost love and wild horses.

Foremost are the horses. Cars can’t be comprehended without them. A hundred and some years ago Rudyard Kipling wrote “The Ballad of the King’s Jest,” in which an Afghan tribesman avers: Four things greater than all things are,—Women and Horses and Power and War.

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Insert another “power” after the horse and the verse was as true in the suburbs of my 1950s boyhood as it was in the Khyber Pass.

Horsepower is not a quaint leftover of linguistics or a vague metaphoric anachronism. James Watt, father of the steam engine and progenitor of the industrial revolution, lacked a measurement for the movement of weight over distance in time—what we call energy. (What we call energy wasn’t even an intellectual concept in the late 18th century—in case you think the recent collapse of global capitalism was history’s most transformative moment.) Mr. Watt did research using draft animals and found that, under optimal conditions, a dray horse could lift 33,000 pounds one foot off the ground in one minute. Mr. Watt—the eponymous watt not yet existing—called this unit of energy “1 horse-power.”

In 1970 a Pontiac GTO (may the brand name rest in peace) had horsepower to the number of 370. In the time of one minute, for the space of one foot, it could move 12,210,000 pounds. And it could move those pounds down every foot of every mile of all the roads to the ends of the earth for every minute of every hour until the driver nodded off at the wheel. Forty years ago the pimply kid down the block, using $3,500 in saved-up soda-jerking money, procured might and main beyond the wildest dreams of Genghis Khan, whose hordes went forth to pillage mounted upon less oomph than is in a modern leaf blower.

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Horses and horsepower alike are about status and being cool. A knight in ancient Rome was bluntly called “guy on horseback,” Equesitis. Chevalier means the same, as does Cavalier. Lose the capitalization and the dictionary says, “insouciant and debonair; marked by a lofty disregard of others’ interests, rights, or feelings; high-handed and arrogant and supercilious.” How cool is that? Then there are cowboys—always cool—and the U.S. cavalry that coolly comes to their rescue plus the proverbially cool-handed “Man on Horseback” to whom we turn in troubled times.

Early witnesses to the automobile urged motorists to get a horse. But that, in effect, was what the automobile would do—get a horse for everybody. Once the Model T was introduced in 1908 we all became Sir Lancelot, gained a seat at the Round Table and were privileged to joust for the favors of fair maidens (at drive-in movies). The pride and prestige of a noble mount was vouchsafed to the common man. And woman, too. No one ever tried to persuade ladies to drive sidesaddle with both legs hanging out the car door.

For the purpose of ennobling us schlubs, the car is better than the horse in every way. Even more advantageous than cost, convenience and not getting kicked and smelly is how much easier it is to drive than to ride. I speak with feeling on this subject, having taken up riding when I was nearly 60 and having begun to drive when I was so small that my cousin Tommy had to lie on the transmission hump and operate the accelerator and the brake with his hands.

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A 1950 Studebaker Commander Convertible, with its famous ‘bullet-nose’ front end.

After the grown-ups had gone to bed, Tommy and I shifted the Buick into neutral, pushed it down the driveway and out of earshot, started the engine and toured the neighborhood. The sheer difficulty of horsemanship can be illustrated by what happened to Tommy and me next. Nothing. We maneuvered the car home, turned it off and rolled it back up the driveway. (We were raised in the blessedly flat Midwest.) During our foray the Buick’s speedometer reached 30. But 30 miles per hour is a full gallop on a horse. Delete what you’ve seen of horse riding in movies. Possibly a kid who’d never been on a horse could ride at a gallop without killing himself. Possibly one of the Jonas Brothers could land an F-14 on a carrier deck.

Thus cars usurped the place of horses in our hearts. Once we’d caught a glimpse of a well-turned Goodyear, checked out the curves of the bodywork and gaped at that swell pair of headlights, well, the old gray mare was not what she used to be. We embarked upon life in the fast lane with our new paramour. It was a great love story of man and machine. The road to the future was paved with bliss.

Then we got married and moved to the suburbs. Being away from central cities meant Americans had to spend more of their time driving. Over the years away got farther away. Eventually this meant that Americans had to spend all of their time driving. The play date was 40 miles from the Chuck E. Cheese. The swim meet was 40 miles from the cello lesson. The Montessori was 40 miles from the math coach. Mom’s job was 40 miles from Dad’s job and the three-car garage was 40 miles from both.

The car ceased to be object of desire and equipment for adventure and turned into office, rec room, communications hub, breakfast nook and recycling bin—a motorized cup holder. Americans, the richest people on Earth, were stuck in the confines of their crossover SUVs, squeezed into less space than tech-support call-center employees in a Mumbai cubicle farm. Never mind the six-bedroom, eight-bath, pseudo-Tudor with cathedral-ceilinged great room and 1,000-bottle controlled-climate wine cellar. That was a day’s walk away.

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Henry Ford and his Model T.

We became sick and tired of our cars and even angry at them. Pointy-headed busybodies of the environmentalist, new urbanist, utopian communitarian ilk blamed the victim. They claimed the car had forced us to live in widely scattered settlements in the great wasteland of big-box stores and the Olive Garden. If we would all just get on our Schwinns or hop a trolley, they said, America could become an archipelago of cozy gulags on the Portland, Ore., model with everyone nestled together in the most sustainably carbon-neutral, diverse and ecologically unimpactful way,

But cars didn’t shape our existence; cars let us escape with our lives. We’re way the heck out here in Valley Bottom Heights and Trout Antler Estates because we were at war with the cities. We fought rotten public schools, idiot municipal bureaucracies, corrupt political machines, rampant criminality and the pointy-headed busybodies. Cars gave us our dragoons and hussars, lent us speed and mobility, let us scout the terrain and probe the enemy’s lines. And thanks to our cars, when we lost the cities we weren’t forced to surrender, we were able to retreat.

But our poor cars paid the price. They were flashing swords beaten into dull plowshares. Cars became appliances. Or worse. Nobody’s ticked off at the dryer or the dishwasher, much less the fridge. We recognize these as labor-saving devices. The car, on the other hand, seems to create labor. We hold the car responsible for all the dreary errands to which it needs to be steered. Hell, a golf cart’s more fun. You can ride around in a golf cart with a six-pack, safe from breathalyzers, chasing Canada geese on the fairways and taking swings at gophers with a mashie.

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Louis Chevrolet sits behind the wheel of his prototype car in 1911.

We’ve lost our love for cars and forgotten our debt to them and meanwhile the pointy-headed busybodies have been exacting their revenge. We escaped the poke of their noses once, when we lived downtown, but we won’t be able to peel out so fast the next time. In the name of safety, emissions control and fuel economy, the simple mechanical elegance of the automobile has been rendered ponderous, cumbersome and incomprehensible. One might as well pry the back off an iPod as pop the hood on a contemporary motor vehicle. An aging shade-tree mechanic like myself stares aghast and sits back down in the shade. Or would if the car weren’t squawking at me like a rehearsal for divorce. You left the key in. You left the door open. You left the lights on. You left your dirty socks in the middle of the bedroom floor.

I don’t believe the pointy-heads give a damn about climate change or gas mileage, much less about whether I survive a head-on with one of their tax-sucking mass-transit projects. All they want to is to make me hate my car. How proud and handsome would Bucephalas look, or Traveler or Rachel Alexandra, with seat and shoulder belts, air bags, 5-mph bumpers and a maze of pollution-control equipment under the tail?

And there’s the end of the American automobile industry. When it comes to dull, practical, ugly things that bore and annoy me, Japanese things cost less and the cup holders are more conveniently located.

The American automobile is—that is, was—never a product of Japanese-style industrialism. America’s steel, coal, beer, beaver pelts and PCs may have come from our business plutocracy, but American cars have been manufactured mostly by romantic fools. David Buick, Ransom E. Olds, Louis Chevrolet, Robert and Louis Hupp of the Hupmobile, the Dodge brothers, the Studebaker brothers, the Packard brothers, the Duesenberg brothers, Charles W. Nash, E. L. Cord, John North Willys, Preston Tucker and William H. Murphy, whose Cadillac cars were designed by the young Henry Ford, all went broke making cars. The man who founded General Motors in 1908, William Crapo (really) Durant, went broke twice. Henry Ford, of course, did not go broke, nor was he a romantic, but judging by his opinions he certainly was a fool.

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Preston Tucker, in one of the few Tucker cars produced, celebrates being acquitted of charges of fraud over the failure of his automobile business in 1950.

America’s romantic foolishness with cars is finished, however, or nearly so. In the far boondocks a few good old boys haven’t got the memo and still tear up the back roads. Doubtless the Obama administration’s Department of Transportation is even now calculating a way to tap federal stimulus funds for mandatory OnStar installations to locate and subdue these reprobates.

Among certain youths—often first-generation Americans—there remains a vestigial fondness for Chevelle low-riders or Honda “tuners.” The pointy-headed busybodies have yet to enfold these youngsters in the iron-clad conformity of cultural diversity’s embrace. Soon the kids will be expressing their creative energy in a more constructive way, planting bok choy in community gardens and decorating homeless shelters with murals of Che.

I myself have something old-school under a tarp in the basement garage. I bet when my will has been probated, some child of mine will yank the dust cover and use the proceeds of the eBay sale to buy a mountain bike. Four things greater than all things are, and I’m pretty sure one of them isn’t bicycles. There are those of us who have had the good fortune to meet with strength and beauty, with majestic force in which we were willing to trust our lives. Then a day comes, that strength and beauty fails, and a man does what a man has to do. I’m going downstairs to put a bullet in a V-8.

P.J. O’Rourke is the author of 13 books, including “Driving Like Crazy.”

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Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203771904574173401767415892.html

After 1,250 Columns, It’s Time to Shift Gears

T he first of 1,250 columns, nine years ago, spoke of a time that seems impossible now, of heady young tech moguls flush with money and drunk with possibility, instructing the chef at The Palm in Tysons Corner to spell out “Netscape” for them — in crabmeat.

Today’s is my last column, and as I scan the archives, I see stories of public arrogance and private foibles, but mostly, I see stories of people poking their way through life — a quest I’ve tried to capture here a few times each week.

Those first columns covered topics that seem all too familiar today: police beatings, dreams of a trolley line from Bethesda to Silver Spring, schools that teach little more than cynicism. But other pieces feel like relics of another world: a journey with the mapmaker scurrying to keep up with the leading edge of sprawl, a visit with city kids who played baseball where dreamers thought there might someday be a major league stadium, an attempt to understand what drove angry college kids to shut down the city with protests against . . . well, it never was quite clear.

Those demonstrators didn’t teach me anything about globalization, but writing about them did show me that the relationship between news writers and readers was changing forever.

For that column, published the day after the anti-globalization movement held its biggest demonstration here, I wandered around downtown asking protesters what they were so angry about. One young woman explained that her parents failed to see the root injustices of society: “They say, ‘I like my VCR and my Saab, and I like medicine and fried chicken.’ ”

“Such terrible people,” I wrote. “Imagine, liking medicine and food!”

The reaction to my description of “humorless bands of adolescents . . . searching for ways to upset their elders” was immediate: Thousands of e-mails poured in (this was just as broadband was becoming commonplace), most howling about how mean I was. The issue was fleeting, but what stuck with me was how the culture of the Web was shifting the relationship between writer and reader. People took a visceral interest in how the story was told. They wanted to know how I’d chosen whom to quote, what views I’d brought to my reporting. I’d always received letters, but this was new — in the size of the response, in the unchecked venom, in the expectation that there ought to be a continuing conversation between news purveyor and news consumer.

There was something empowering about the new media, the digital technology that let readers speak out in the same format, the same time frame and the same space as the news that had hitherto been delivered from on high.

I loved the new battleground of ideas even as I lamented how opinion — the laziest form of journalism — was elbowing out the rigorous work of reporting. In this new world, it was so cheap to mouth off that the difficult and sometimes less-exciting work of ferreting out facts became too easy to discard or trim back.

On the first day I was given this space to play with, the great columnist Mary McGrory summoned me to her office with a note: “Come see me. I have three words for you.”

I scurried over and presented myself. Mary looked up from her desk and said, “Three words: Cruelty is important.” To do this job right, you must name and blame the bad guys. You must call it as it is. The minute you hold back, your credibility is shot. The second you stop reporting, you’re just one more pontificating, pusillanimous pundit.” (When my friend and colleague Marjorie Williams launched her column, she, too, received the gift of three words from Mary: “Subtlety is overrated.”)

The beauty of a column is that you can dig up the story, then say it straight: You can expose the cynicism that leaves D.C. school kids worse off at the end of their education than they were at the start, then you can call that system a criminal enterprise. You can reveal the narrow-mindedness that threatens to put mentally retarded people out on the street and then push until embarrassed officials do the right thing. You can keep hitting the same note until a school principal with a phony doctorate is removed.

But this work breeds humility and frustration, too: No matter how many times I wrote about the folly of zero-tolerance policies, bureaucrats held dear to rules that treat kids like crooks and punish them as we never would adults. Reporters like to think that merely shining light on a problem will lead good people to solve it. Sometimes that’s right, but often it’s not: I wrote over and over about how to move homeless people into housing at relatively low cost, yet many readers found my energy misplaced, preferring to rely on the old canard about the homeless being on the street because they want to be.

And readers consistently told me that I was dead wrong about privacy issues, even when it was clear (to me, anyway) that rules supposedly designed to protect people were instead preventing the public from learning about wrongdoing (this comes up especially on mental health and crime issues, such as after the Virginia Tech shootings).

This gig was always huge fun. I staged stunts: Amid the security hysteria after 9/11, I walked along downtown sidewalks wearing a gas mask and crash helmet to see how people would react (to my joy, most got the joke). I took the Virginia and Maryland standardized tests that are inflicted on eighth-graders (I’m still lousy at math). I watched 24 hours of the D.C. government’s self-promoting cable TV channels (I might have been the first customer to call the cable company requesting an outage).

In the column and on the Raw Fisher blog, which started in 2007, I have learned how deeply many of us crave community. The more atomized our lives become, the more we yearn to be part of something larger. Yet we also live in a time of great skepticism about the motivations of others. “Leave me alone” does constant battle with “hold me tight.”

The daily newspaper, like TV news anchors and radio DJs, was for many years a regular visitor in most homes. Newspaper columns were an invitation to a relationship with a reporter who would take you to places and introduce you to people you might not know firsthand but were part of the place you called home.

That much hasn’t changed: Readers taught me early on that while editors worried about whether we were writing about each locality in the Washington region, what mattered was the people and the stories. Even those who live miles away and take pride in never setting foot in the District would clamor for more on the city, because it is the central depot of our collective awareness. People want to talk about the great characters whose antics, agonies and achievements we all know, whether that be Marion Barry appalling us, Dan Snyder disappointing us or President Obama stirring us.

There are a million stories in the naked city, someone once said, and I told 1,250 of them here, and 1,200 more on the blog. I heard from readers 250,000 times, and I tried to respond to all of them. I could stay on this road for years to come, I love it so. But this path feels worn and familiar, and the challenge now is to hack out a new one.

Newspapers are in a fight to survive, desperately searching for new ways to reflect the world to an audience that is less trusting, more distracted and diffuse. For many people, digital connections seem to trump geography as the central definition of home. But those electronic ties don’t fulfill all our needs. Where we live still matters. Starting next month, I’ll be putting together a group of writers whose job it will be to tell the truths of the Washington area in compelling and essential ways, combining traditional storytelling with new forms that involve and engage the people who live here.

The ideas are the same ones that drove this column: to figure out what connects us — even when that something is paradoxically the very thing that divides us. To introduce readers to the characters whose stories tell us something about ourselves.

I’m grateful to the many who have come along on this ride, who have argued with me, fed me tips and steered me right. Thanks to all who shared their stories and even to those who splattered venom all over my e-mail queue. I’m off to expand my collection of funhouse mirrors and point them somewhere new.

Marc Fisher, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/30/AR2009053002020.html

Oregon man, 92, promoted to admiral in Polish navy

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Jerzy Tumaniszwili

Jerzy Tumaniszwili was a 23-year-old naval gunnery officer in the Polish navy when his destroyer left port to escape the imminent 1939 German invasion of his county.

He achieved the rank of lieutenant commander while serving 5 1/2 years during World War II, chasing German U-boats and protecting troops on D-Day in 1944.

Tumaniszwili emigrated to the United States after the war because he was considered an enemy by the Communist regime that had taken over Poland.

Now at 92, Tumaniszwili sets sail these days mostly on rivers and lakes. But his birth country isn’t finished thanking him: The government is honoring him as a rear admiral in the Polish navy.

“It’s probably because I’m the oldest one still alive,” Tumaniszwili said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It really surprised me.”

The Polish ambassador, Robert Kupiecki, was scheduled to present the promotion to Tumaniszwili at a ceremony on Sunday in Portland on behalf of Polish President Lech Kaczynski.

The promotion was approved last year, but Tumaniszwili was unable to attend a ceremony in Poland, according to Piotr Erenfeicht, counselor of political affairs at the Polish embassy in Washington, D.C.

Erenfeicht said promotions of retired servicemen occur “from time to time” and that other Polish Americans have received the honor.

But he said it was clear from his record that Tumaniszwili deserved it.

“When looking at his biography, you can see, he was very honored, very respected, a hero of the Second World War,” Erenfeicht said.

After the war, Tumaniszwili found a job with a medical equipment company in Waterbury, Conn., and was part of a team that helped invent a disposable hypodermic syringe.

He took the name George Trapper, a combination of his Polish first name, which translates to George, and the pseudonym, “Trapper,” which he used when he wrote of Polish navy exploits for British newspapers during the war _ “trapping” U-boats.

Tumaniszwili stayed with the Connecticut company through changes in ownership until retirement, which he had decided would be in Oregon after a visit in 1976.

“My wife and I, we just fell in love with Oregon,” Tumaniszwili (pronounced too-MAHN-ish-veel-ee) said from his home nestled in the Cascade Range foothills between Portland and Mount Hood.

Tumaniszwili met his wife, Jean, in England, and they had a son and daughter. “When my ship docked in Plymouth in 1940, I met her and fell in love with her,” Tumaniszwili said. “I said, ‘This is it, this is my wife.'”

She died four years ago, survived by her husband, their children, seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, many of whom will be on hand to see Tumaniszwili honored with his promotion.

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/30/AR2009053002122.html

Photo: http://www.polishnewsseattle.org/2009/May09.htm#Tumaniszwili

After Many Tuneups, A Historic Overhaul

A Global Industry Is Transformed In Race to Reinvent U.S. Automakers.

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Frank Stronach, chairman and founder of Magna International.

In the space of five head-spinning months, the economic downturn and a few strong-willed financial officials in the Obama administration have done what legions of car executives, consultants and policymakers had failed to do in three decades: overhaul the U.S. car industry.

This weekend marks a major turning point for two U.S. giants — General Motors and Chrysler — with the federal government, having already replaced their top executives, now set to take majority share positions in both companies. Chrysler, seeking to emerge from a quick trip through bankruptcy, will learn Monday whether a judge will bless a shotgun cross-national marriage that would wed the company with Fiat technology, models and management.

On the same day, GM is expected to file for the bankruptcy protection it long swore it would avoid, with its reorganization already well underway. On Friday, the company relinquished control of Opel, its German-based European arm since 1929, to a large but little-known Canadian auto-parts maker with global ambitions, German government loans and Russian bridge financing. The far-flung parts maker, Magna International, might better reflect the industry’s future than GM, which will soon be shorn of other established but money-losing brands, too. Magna agreed to limit job cuts in Germany and, at the Treasury Department’s request, keep Opel out of the U.S. market.

If all that were not enough, the Obama administration this month unveiled new fuel-efficiency standards that will change the engines, and perhaps the shapes of vehicles across the industry, challenging long-established American tastes for cars with size and power and stretching the limits of automotive and battery technology.

“It’s certainly an inflection point. This is an historic transformation,” said David McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers who helped negotiate the new fuel standards. “We’ll look back in a number of years and realize it was a significant point of change.”

In the new upside-down world of automobiles, the U.S. government will be the majority shareholder of both GM and Chrysler, giving rise to gibes that GM now stands for Government Motors.

“What is the role of the board of directors in this case?” said Maryann N. Keller, an independent auto analyst and author of a history of GM. “To operate in the economic best interests of this company? Or to operate it based on government policy, which may be in conflict with the profit motive? We’ve never had an entity like this, and we’re all going to watch it unfold.”

What’s good for the country might not be good for GM. Some difficult decisions could include whether to outsource manufacturing to countries such as China, South Korea or Canada where costs might be cheaper. GM has said it would buy components for electric car batteries from a South Korean company, though many U.S. firms are vying for that business.

President Obama has also urged car manufacturers to make fuel-efficient vehicles, but if oil prices stay low, demand for such vehicles could be weak. Last year, U.S. small-car sales held steady at 2.5 million, increasing market share to 19 percent as sales of big cars fell. “Small cars are a bit of a challenge for any carmaker in the U.S.,” said Itay Michaeli, an auto analyst at Citigroup. “They are entry-level cars and don’t command much premium. So it is difficult to make much money selling small cars without substantial volume and market share.”

On Friday, GM said it would build a new small car, about the same size as the Chevrolet Aveo, which is manufactured in South Korea by GM Daewoo, a joint venture. United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger said in a PBS interview that he had pressed GM and the administration to drop plans to make small cars in China for the U.S. market.

The track record is mixed when it comes to government intervention to save and revive big auto companies. British Leyland burned through $16.5 billion of British taxpayer money before going out of business. The French government had somewhat more success as a major shareholder in Renault, which has partnered with Nissan. South Korea’s government also intervened to bolster Kia when it was ailing.

The winners in the new world of autos could be a Chinese car company like Geely or India’s Tata Motors, which are building on strong domestic markets and looking to expand abroad. Or it could be the Canadian auto-parts maker, Magna International, which next week will take over Opel. Whereas some of the traditional auto companies have seen top executives evolve from founders to creative managers to caretakers (and perhaps undertakers), many of these companies are run by innovators and empire builders in countries with markets expanding much more rapidly than the mature U.S. market.

Time magazine covers were once graced by icons like GM chief executive Alfred P. Sloan and Lee Iacocca (once as Ford’s chief and once as Chrysler’s), but the man in automotive news this weekend is Frank Stronach, chairman of Magna. His company shows the industry’s key trends and challenges.

Stronach, who began as a tool-and-die maker, moved at age 21 from his native Austria to Canada with a few hundred dollars in his pocket in 1954. He rented a garage and bought some machines. Today he has 85,000 employees. A quarter of Magna’s $26 billion sales are to GM, but with the major manufacturers downsizing, Magna also assembles cars for Chrysler, BMW and Mercedes.

Unlike the ailing major manufacturers, Magna began conserving cash five years ago and has $1.5 billion in cash and no debt.

In an interview, Stronach said that Detroit’s Big Three suffered from years without competition followed by years of labor strife. His company has a “constitution” that promises workers 10 percent of profit — half paid in cash and half in stock — over and above wages.

“The Obama administration is doing the right thing by saying they have got to do everything to preserve jobs, to preserve hope and create an environment where things will get done,” Stronach said. But, he added, “you don’t change a culture in a few years.”

Magna’s strategy for Opel also reflects the future of the auto industry: The fastest growing markets are in Brazil, Russia, India and China. But getting a foot in the door of emerging markets can be tricky. Magna has already overhauled an assembly line owned by Gaz, part of the corporate empire belonging to Russian aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska. Stronach said that he hopes Opel — which last year sold about 1.5 million cars worldwide — can make 300,000 to 400,000 there.

But Russia wants a joint venture there with Russian partners owning a major stake. Stronach said Magna would accept a minority, but controlling, share while GM would retain the same 35 percent interest it will keep in Opel. Deripaska, who is close to the Kremlin, could be a partner, but he was so pressed for cash last year that he was forced to forfeit his $1.5 billion stake in Magna, which he had pledged as collateral for a loan. The Russian state-owned bank Sberbank has pledged financing.

Political complications aren’t limited to emerging markets. The Treasury has imposed a condition on the Opel deal that flies in the face of free markets, but is designed to shield existing U.S. jobs; Opel must be barred from selling cars or setting up manufacturing plants in the United States. And the Treasury insisted that, at least for a time, Opel stay out of China, where GM is strong.

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/30/AR2009053002146.html?hpid=topnews

A Red State Booster Shot

Those in the red states still smarting over Barack Obama’s election victory can perhaps take solace in this: The Democrats’ No. 1 domestic policy initiative, universal health care, is likely to help red America at the expense of blue.

Health-care reform may be overdue in a country with 45 million uninsured and soaring medical costs, but it will also represent a substantial wealth transfer from the North and the East to the South and the West. The Northeast and the Midwest have much higher rates of coverage than the rest of the country, led by Massachusetts, where all but 3 percent of residents are insured. The disproportionate share of uninsured is in the South and the West, the result of employment patterns, weak unions and stingy state governments. Texas leads the way, with a quarter of its population uninsured; it would be at the top even without its many illegal immigrants.

Then there is the matter of paying for universal health care. The plan picking up steam on Capitol Hill is to cover much of the $1.2 trillion cost over 10 years by taxing employer-provided health benefits. And who has the highest benefits? People in the North and the East, thanks to pricier health care markets, higher state standards for health coverage and stronger labor unions. Depending on how such a tax were designed, it could land hard not only on corporate executives but also on union workers whose compensation gains show up as health benefits instead of wages.

It would not be the first time that the historically more affluent part of the country has subsidized the less prosperous one. Long before jobs flowed to Mexico and China, they flowed from Massachusetts and Michigan to North Carolina and Tennessee, where unions were weaker and employers could pay less and provide fewer benefits.

The people followed, moving to a Sun Belt where taxes were lower because states offered less in the way of safety nets — nets that the North and the East will now pay to stitch up via universal health care.

“The cost of health care benefits was very much a factor in plant relocations in the eighties,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “And now we end up paying for [Sun Belt health care] anyway? It’s incredible.”

So far, though, the health-care debate is not talked about much in regional terms. In the fight over regulating carbon emissions, regional self-interest is plain, with Republican and Democratic lawmakers from coal-dependent Midwestern and Southern states trying to blunt the legislation. But pushing universal health care are Northeasterners such as Ted Kennedy and Chuck Schumer, and pushing against it are Sun Belters such as John Cornyn and Jon Kyl.

It is a rare triumph of principle over parochialism — or maybe no one is looking at the numbers.

Nationally, about 15 percent of Americans lack health insurance. But in the North, many states in addition to Massachusetts have less than 11 percent uninsured. They include Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota. In the South and the West, where small businesses dominate, many states other than Texas have more than 17 percent, including Arizona, Florida, California, Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Nevada and New Mexico.

The disparities extend to the value of employer-provided benefits. It is highest in the Northeast and the Midwest, lowest in the South and the West.

That means a big regional slant if the plan raises money by ending the tax exemption for employer health benefits or by taxing the value of above-average benefits, which is what Congress is leaning toward. Critics have long argued that exempting employer-provided benefits from taxes is unfair to self-insured people who have to use after-tax dollars to buy coverage, and that the exemption drives health costs higher by encouraging generous benefits plans.

But opponents of taxing health benefits say that it would hit many middle-class families whose packages are worth more than average simply because they live in high-cost markets. They argue that much of the Northeast has high health-care costs partly because the cost of living there is high, not because medical spending is out of control. Indeed, when it comes to Medicare spending, some of the top spending areas are in the South and the West, such as Miami and McAllen, Tex., while some of the most efficient areas are in the North. Better, some say, to raise revenue through other routes — reducing tax deductions for the wealthy, taxing sugary sodas, raising the capital gains tax or expanding the Medicare tax to unearned income.

“There’s a big regional backdrop to this,” said Harvard health policy professor Robert Blendon. “Those who are the beneficiaries of all this money that’s going to be floating around is one group of states, and who’s going to have to pay for the taxes if they lift this exemption is another group.”

For example, he said, if you’re a New York policeman married to a nurse and your combined salaries are $80,000, your health insurance will be taxed to pay for a family in Mississippi. “I’m trying to figure out how Chuck Schumer can raise his hands and say this is a good thing if New York workers are going to be such losers based on taxes,” he said.

Now, if national reform really does restrain health-care costs over the long run, it would help employers and consumers in the Northeast and the Midwest just as it would those elsewhere. And to lessen its effect on the middle class, the plan could limit taxes on employer benefits to wealthier taxpayers, or it could adjust the subsidies for the uninsured to reflect the higher cost of health care in certain areas. But that would complicate the tax code, cut into the needed revenues and arguably undermine the effort to reduce health-care costs.

Meanwhile, not everyone in a state such as Texas will gain from health-care reform. Larger employers will face a mandate to cover workers or pay a fee. Residents will probably face a mandate to buy coverage and not all will qualify for subsidies to do so. New federal standards for health benefits will mean that self-insured residents of states with loose standards will get easier access to coverage and better benefits, but they’ll have to pay more.

Still, the regional tilt is clear. One of the likeliest options for reform is to increase coverage among the working poor by expanding Medicaid eligibility in Southern and Western states that now limit it, even though, with their lower per-capita income, they receive a higher federal match to cover the cost. Texas, for instance, has not updated the Medicaid eligibility rules for parents of poor children in 23 years — most working parents qualify only if they earn less than $308 per month.

But to persuade stingier states to expand eligibility, the federal government may cover the full Medicaid cost of their newly eligible residents for at least a few years. This will draw howls from states that long ago expanded their eligibility rules and have been paying a large share of the cost of having done so. Again, the plan could try to mollify these states with extra aid, but that adds to the price tag.

“Do you penalize those that have been good in the past by only putting the new federal dollars into where the problem exists, or do you try to equalize the playing field to help the states that have been the best?” asked Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

To conservative health-care experts, a westward and southward wealth transfer is welcome and long overdue. Exempting health benefits from taxes, they say, has meant a big tax break for employers and workers in the wealthier and more unionized regions. And for union members to complain about being taxed for their good benefits just shows that they, too, have been hurt by the system, because health care absorbs too much of their compensation.

“No one should assert that what we have now produces some grand equitable solution,” said Joseph Antos of the American Enterprise Institute. “We’re going to be moving from imperfect to imperfect.”

Then there are staunch advocates for universal health care, like Anne Dunkelberg of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, who reject outright the regional point-scoring mindset, arguing that health-care reform is a national need. “We should be motivated by the fact that [the current system] is unsustainable for the whole country,” she maintained.

Of course, that’s easy for her to say: She’s in Austin, Texas.

Alec MacGillis is a reporter on the Post’s national staff.

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/29/AR2009052901548.html

Freedom on the Defensive

After pledging to defend democracy, the Organization of American States ignores Venezuela — and courts Cuba.

“THE PEOPLES of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.” So reads the first sentence of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which was adopted on Sept. 11, 2001, by the Organization of American States and signed by all 34 active member countries. Founded in 1948, the OAS defines its two top purposes as “to strengthen peace and security on the continent” and “to promote and consolidate representative democracy.” So with the organization’s annual assembly set to open Tuesday in Honduras, you’d think a principal item of business would be the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Venezuela, where would-be strongman Hugo Chávez has ordered up criminal investigations against most of his leading opponents — jailing one and driving another into exile — and is threatening to shut down the last opposition broadcast television network.

Not a chance. Far from facing the sanctions that the democratic charter authorizes, Mr. Chávez will be helping to lead a charge aimed at lifting the 1962 suspension of Cuba’s OAS membership — a campaign that enjoys the support of almost every government in the region. No, Cuba doesn’t come close to meeting the requirements of the democratic charter — in fact, its totalitarian domestic regime has remained essentially unaltered during the last 47 years. Nor do Raúl and Fidel Castro wish to rejoin the OAS; like Mr. Chávez, the Castros would prefer to form a new regional organization that excludes the United States.

Nonetheless, Latin American governments from Mexico to Argentina have chosen to make Cuba’s readmission the centerpiece of this year’s assembly. It’s a cheap and popular way to please leftist constituencies at home — and to pressure the Obama administration, which has unilaterally lifted several sanctions against Cuba but not what remains of the economic embargo. Sadly, even democratic governments such as Brazil and Chile are unwilling to stand by the pledge they made just eight years ago — they, too, are clamoring to restore Cuba’s membership while remaining silent about Venezuela.

Mr. Obama has proclaimed his wish to set U.S.-Latin relations on a new footing; he shook Mr. Chávez’s hand at a recent hemispheric summit and has refrained from criticizing the crackdown in Venezuela. That seems to have emboldened leftist leaders to press their own agenda at the OAS. The administration has been trying to finesse the issue: Last week it proposed that the suspension be lifted but that Cuba’s reinstatement be linked to steps toward democracy. When that proposal failed to gain traction, U.S. diplomats joined a working group trying to hammer out a compromise. But most likely the administration is fighting an unwinnable battle. By signaling that it cares more about “partnership” with Latin American governments than defending democracy and human rights, it has allowed support for those principles to crumble at the very institution founded to defend them.

Editorial, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/30/AR2009053001692.html

GM Is Sunk. Just Ask the Merchant Marine.

Once, the U.S. merchant marine included hundreds of ships that regularly transported a significant portion of U.S. imports and exports and employed tens of thousands of Americans at sea and on land. Today, only a handful of such liner vessels plying regularly scheduled routes still fly the Stars and Stripes and employ crews of U.S. citizens. But these ships (including the recently pirated Maersk Alabama), though subsidized by the U.S. government, are actually owned by Danish or Singaporean interests, and U.S. taxpayers enjoy little or no benefit from them. Essentially, the U.S.-owned and -operated merchant marine liner fleet no longer exists. And in its demise lies a lesson for the U.S. auto industry.

Despite the car manufacturers’ critical state, the United Auto Workers are resisting concrete steps to help the industry that has provided their livelihood for 70 years. Instead, they look to the government for subsidies to help their employers survive, at least for the near term. Reports from the annual AFL-CIO conference earlier this year detailed the UAW’s search for support from other unions — primarily the teachers unions — in lobbying Washington for more funds to stave off bankruptcies in Detroit.

Shades of the U.S. maritime industry, which began its death spiral in the 1970s, a time when it was massively subsidized by the federal government and when laws guaranteed that U.S.-flag vessels would carry all government-related cargo. Yet even with these subsidies and guarantees, the dozen or more U.S. companies — including such once well-known names as American Export Lines, Grace Lines and Pacific Far East Lines — failed, one after another, in the face of competition from more efficient carriers as more and more countries entered the international shipping market.

Initially, the unions and their congressional supporters pointed to “cheap foreign competition” as the source of their troubles. But those cries persisted even into the late ’70s and ’80s, when European and Japanese carriers were paying higher total wages per seafarer than U.S. flag vessels. It’s widely believed that along with less-than-stellar management, union demands for ever-higher wages and excess manning levels — such as insisting on crews of 35 or 40 when crews of 18 are sufficient to operate safely — doomed the U.S. flag industry. Even with all the subsidies, even with technical innovations, containerization and other pioneering cargo advances, U.S. companies couldn’t survive the financial burdens of the union demands.

I was frustrated watching all this unfold when I served in the State Department’s Office of Maritime Affairs. Instead of fixing the problem and meeting the competition, industry officials offered excuse after excuse and repeatedly trekked to Capitol Hill in search of more money. They sought protectionism as a remedy. That might have helped the industry, but only at the expense of American consumers and exporters, as it would have resulted in higher, less competitive prices for U.S. exports.

Ironically, all this happened not in a time of economic downturn like today, but over a two-decade period when international trade and shipping were experiencing their greatest growth. The only U.S.-owned liner shipping company that did well during those times, SeaLand, was the one carrier that held out longest without taking subsidies and sought out profitable trade lanes.

The lesson this experience teaches is simple: In an open economy, the most efficient providers of goods or services that are similar in price or quality will succeed, and those with costs that outpace their earnings will fail. The parallels between the auto industry and our departed maritime industry are bright beacons.

Foreign carmakers with plants in the United States, such as Honda, Toyota and Hyundai, have a total average hourly cost of $55 an hour per worker, whereas GM, Chrysler and Ford spend close to double that figure. GM loses money on every car it sells. Sadly, the UAW leadership, now buoyed by the prospect of Washington ownership and control of Chrysler and GM, has appeared reluctant to negotiate in a meaningful way to reduce the companies’ costs.

Although executives who fly private jets in troubled times are not blameless, the UAW, instead of looking for help in its lobbying efforts, should unilaterally announce its willingness to accept the same employment terms as those offered by foreign auto manufacturers operating in the United States. Such an announcement would remove one of the most difficult barriers to restructuring the industry. It could also open a whole new era of U.S. automaking. A positive effect on the stock market and on overall consumer confidence would follow.

The maritime example has shown that trying to keep a whole loaf instead of settling for half a loaf will result in no loaf at all. UAW-management labor negotiations over the past 30 years have (after difficult and strike-threatened periods) ballyhooed the ultimate “partnership” between management and labor. We now see that those pronouncements were window dressing even more illusory than announcements of bipartisan achievements in Washington. As unemployment figures continue to climb, it’s time for the UAW to protect its members, provide a true service to all its workers and become a real partner with Washington in the recovery the entire nation is waiting for.

Or else be prepared to go down with the ship.

Richard K. Bank, president of Millennium International Consultants, LLC, and a longtime international transportation and trade lawyer, was director of the State Department’s Office of Maritime Affairs from 1972-79.

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/29/AR2009052901551.html

A Killer’s Charmed life

Bond may 31

Bond, in front of his Baltimore home with his Briard named Magic.

Murdering his father with a hammer spawned surprisingly few complications in Bill Bond’s avid pursuit of the good life. But that may finally be changing.

The killer at middle age lives in a stately, terra-cotta-colored Georgian colonial on the same Baltimore block as a former U.S. senator.

He pads in his socks across finely woven Persian carpets — “This one would be worth $100,000 if it were in better shape,” he remarks offhandedly. He passes the buttery soft Le Corbusier leather sofas arranged by his interior designer and the burbling fountain positioned just so by his feng shui consultant in a living room where soothing classical music is almost always on the stereo. The tranquil ambiance offers no hint of the defining moment of Bill Bond’s life: a sudden flash of teenage violence nearly three decades ago that he once tried to profit from and has never denied.

Rather than occupying a prison cell, Bond has spent most of his adult life among Baltimore’s elite, playing tennis at the finest clubs, dining at French bistros, schmoozing at gourmet groceries. He walks his majestically coiffed champion showdog, Magic — a powerful Briard, the breed once favored by Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson — through the manicured gardens near his home in Guilford, a neighborhood famed for its sumptuous spring tulip bloom.

But a creeping anxiety has entered Bond’s carefully constructed world, a sense that the ground is giving way beneath him.

He’s lost his heiress wife, whose wealth, along with his own family inheritances, helped him indulge in the good life without a paying job before their separation. He’s lost a long, wildly tentacled legal battle aimed at preserving control of the untold story of his dark history — a complicated copyright dispute that he pursued, unsuccessfully, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court this year. And now he’s about to lose some of his finest wine.

Bond opens the basement door and starts down the stairs, followed by a wine broker, who claims his business is too hush-hush for his name to appear in print. They veer past a wall stacked high with legal filing boxes. One of them is labeled “Bond book.” That’s the one he refuses to show anyone.

The broker swings open a door in the back corner, revealing a climate-controlled room crammed floor to ceiling with hundreds of bottles.

“How about the Sassicaia?” the broker says, referring to an exquisite “Super Tuscan” that can go for hundreds of dollars a bottle.

Bond nods grudgingly — even selling off a fraction of his collection is painful. “I’m not going to watch this,” he says, turning his back and pacing.

The broker calls out, “You’ve got a ’96 Lafite here!”

Bond throws up his hands. “Don’t touch that!”

Even more off-limits is the box at the opposite end of the basement. Inside is a 600-page manuscript that has never been published but has become the pivot of Bonds’s life. Once, it amounted to a halting attempt to explain himself and, just as importantly, make him as rich as the people around him.

But Bond can’t truly be understood without going back to the very beginning, to a small town in Ohio, where he was a bright, athletic, angry teenager. A twin everyone called Billy.

The boy who killed his father and got away with it.

Billy and his twin, Richard, lived privileged existences in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. Their mother, whose maiden name is Elizabeth Johnson, came from old money, locals say. Their father, Mirko Rovtar Jr., hailed from a Slovenian immigrant family that had built a successful business but lacked high-society bona fides.

Billy, who changed his last name to Bond as an adult, attended an expensive private school. There were Caribbean vacations and tennis lessons. In photographs from the 1970s, he and his brother wear stylish clothes, their skin tanned from hours in the sun. They look happy.

Bond now stands 5-feet-8 and is a sturdy 180 pounds, with thickly muscled calves and forearms chiseled by biweekly boxing workouts, distance cycling and Ping-Pong lessons with a former Soviet national team coach. He has a round face with a sharp nose and piercing blue eyes that disappear behind wrap-around Oakley sunglasses when he guns his high-performance BMW M3 sports car on the curving roads north of his home.

Forty-five and balding, he no longer flaunts the flowing blond locks that once made him look a bit like the tennis star Björn Borg. He has a sardonic wit and a confiding way of smiling that suggests he has a secret to tell. He flirts habitually.

He is reluctant to talk about his childhood, but hints at class conflicts roiling his family. His parents met, he says, at Transylvania University, a small, liberal arts college in Lexington, Ky. His mother’s parents were not pleased when she became pregnant, Bond says.

The birth of twin boys did not make things easier. He describes his father as tall and “very good-looking,” but distant and unloving. As the boys grew, Bond says, his father engaged in “subtle psychological abuse.”

“What’s worse?” Bond asks. “I hit you one time in my kitchen, or every day for 10 years I tell you, ‘You’re no good.’ ” By the late 1970s, his parents’ marriage had unraveled. His father, who had operated a successful insulation business and worked in the chemical industry, had moved to Georgia. At home in Ohio, Billy clashed with his mother, accusing her of favoring his twin brother. “I was the bad one,” Bond says. She finally demanded that he go live with his father, Bond recalls. He was 17 when his father came to pick him up in June 1981.

“It was in the fall of my junior year when Ricky and I [had begun] talking, over ping-pong, of killing dad,” Bond wrote in his manuscript, according to an excerpt cited in promotional materials. “We both became infatuated with the idea, and we talked about it all the time. My mother did tell us not to discuss things like that … but Ricky and I definitely got the impression from her that it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing if dad was dead.”

Bond has said in court papers that his manuscript is a “highly fictionalized … stylized” account, but Maryland courts have said the work’s basic outline tracks the facts. Bond’s mother and his brother, Richard Johnson, an attorney who now goes by their mother’s maiden name, could not be reached for comment. In a 2001 interview with The Post, Richard Johnson denied that he had plotted with his brother to kill their father.

Before they could leave for Georgia, Billy argued with his father in the garage at the home of his grandfather, Mirko Rovtar Sr., in nearby Bainbridge, Ohio. Bond says his father, who was tinkering with an antique Corvette, told him: “I don’t want you to come live with me. I never wanted to have you.”

Billy responded by smashing his father’s skull with a hammer.

“I see the garage bathed in shadowy light, my father lying in a pool of his own blood, and, for the first time, I can see myself quite clearly. I am filled with vanity,” Bond wrote, according to the promotional materials. A Maryland appeals court gave more details, paraphrasing Bond’s manuscript — which has been kept under seal in a Baltimore courthouse after being used in a custody case related to Bond’s stepchildren. The court said he wrote of “how his dying father attempted to raise himself off the floor of the garage before Bond delivered the final blows to his neck and head. [The manuscript] describes Bond wiping away his fingerprints, scrubbing the garage floor, cleaning blood, flesh, and bone from his clothes.”

The body was found in the trunk of his father’s car, which was parked near a convenience store on the edge of town, says Bainbridge Police Chief Jim Jimison, who investigated the crime. Blood dripped from the trunk. Police discovered a note that suggested Rovtar was killed in a dispute over illegal drugs, but police weren’t buying it, Jimison says.

While police looked for clues, Billy went to a Joe Walsh concert with a friend, Autumn Basil. Police questioned him the next day. They were suspicious about bruises on his neck, but Basil said she had given him four hickeys.

Still, police wondered, Jimison says. Billy fiddled with a roll of tape during the questioning. He seemed nervous. That day, he failed a polygraph, Jimison says, but “there was no repentance.

“That’s what really bothers you,” Jimison says. “Only person in my career that when the evidence is put forward and the jig is up, who wasn’t able to show some remorse. You talk about calculating and selfish.”

The motive was uncertain. Quotes from Bond’s manuscript cited by Maryland courts indicate that he killed his father to gain an inheritance. Indeed, Bond acknowledges that he later inherited money from his father’s estate, but he won’t say how much.

Bond says he eventually was “found delinquent” as part of a deal with prosecutors to keep the case in the juvenile court system. He had killed his father less than eight months before his 18th birthday. Instead of going to jail, he was ordered to receive treatment at Sheppard Pratt, a highly regarded Baltimore psychiatric hospital. The facility was one of the few in the country deemed appropriate for him, he says, and had room.

“He got off far too easy,” Jimison says. “In my opinion, he should still be in prison. It seems like he went from riches to riches.”

On a chilly Monday afternoon, Bond steers his BMW onto the grounds of Sheppard Pratt.

“That’s where I lived,” he says, nodding up at a long sterile-looking building that would look at home in a suburban office park. “Hall C7.”

As he drives, Bond points out the field where he played Frisbee and walked through the snow. Many of the teens at Sheppard Pratt were drug abusers or fighting through emotional troubles, he says. He doesn’t recall any other teen killers: “I was very unusual.”

“In group therapy,” he says, “I wasn’t allowed to discuss why I was there. I’d get all the crazy kids upset.”

He remembers only one visit from his mother, and one or two from his father’s parents, who would give him money from time to time. In the years since, he has had an on-again-off-again relationship with his mother, who has periodically given him money as an adult. He is estranged from his twin brother.

“The whole family was sick,” Bond says. “I’m glad I got out of it. For all intents and purposes, I’ve lost them as a family, and I’m glad.”

At Sheppard Pratt, Billy formed a bond with one of his psychiatrists, Kay Koller, who would drive him to tennis clubs and helped prepare him for life outside the facility. Released after just 10 months, tennis gave the young Bond entree to people of means in Baltimore — he taught lessons at several clubs and resurfaced courts.

“I made myself likable,” he says. “A lot of different people took an interest in me.”

In the winters, Bond traveled, spending months in Brazil and Central America. He also visited Jamaica, where he says he fell in with a well-to-do crowd. Friends set him up with a house in Port Antonio, Jamaica, the very house, he says, where Robin Moore wrote “The French Connection.” It was there, in 1987, he says, that he set out to write his own bestseller.

Over seven years, Bond’s manuscript “went from fiction to nonfiction” to fiction again, he explains. “By the time it went through this, it was Truman Capote fiction-non-fiction; the way it reads is Gay Talese-ish.

“I wanted to make the manuscript a creative work. Do like Henry Miller, Guenter Grass, that kind of crap. The way I constructed it — the unapologetic narrative — it was like [Albert Camus’s] ‘The Stranger,’ ” he says. Later, though, he learned the “unapologetic narrative is not so great in a court proceeding.”

Despite his inexperience as a writer, Bond attracted the attention of a literary manager, Ken Atchity, who says his clients have included Jesse Ventura, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, and urban-erotic novelist Noire. They met in the early 1990s at the Yale Club in New York, Atchity recalls, and Bond was “very charismatic and persuasive … You would never have thought we were sitting there talking about murder. He was very crisp and matter-of-fact about it.”

Atchity’s firm later produced promotional materials, hoping to land a $1 million advance, Bond says, for a book called “Self-Portrait of a Patricide: How I Got Away with Murder.” But Atchity couldn’t get a publisher interested, and he soured on Bond.

“I really thought if somebody showed retroactive self-awareness, it could be a good story,” Atchity says. But that wasn’t the case, he says. The manuscript “was self-justifying, flat, emotionless, almost like he was in the audience watching somebody on stage.”

“Did he change” after the murder? Atchity asks. “In this case, the answer is no. You can’t ask somebody to go deeper if they can’t go deeper. He wasn’t feeling the dark night of the soul that one would expect.”

In 1995, Bond began dating a separated mother of three named Alyson Slavin who owned an antiques store called From Here to Timbuktu across the street from an Italian restaurant he frequented. He shared his manuscript with her, he says, and moved that same year into her 8,000-square-foot home in the swanky Guilford neighborhood.

Alyson is the daughter of Kenneth Blum Sr., the former chairman of Rent-a-Wreck and co-founder of Baltimore-based United Healthcare. In March 1996, Bond sent Blum an extraordinary letter — later disclosed in court — asking for a “dowry” before he would marry Alyson. Along with the dowry, Bond asked for a studio apartment, a salary to compensate him for helping Alyson with her family problems and the promise of a severance package if the marriage broke up. “You can pay me now or pay me later,” he said.

All this would be “a safeguard,” Bond wrote, “to ensure that all parties are operating with the premise of true love and commitment.” He described his future wife as “still very much a child … ill-suited to work for herself, or to be in charge of three needy children who are adept at manipulating her.” He also wrote that he “had a past” that makes “interesting reading.”

The letter, particularly the request for a dowry, incensed Alyson’s father. “That says it all,” says Blum, now 82 and retired in Boca Raton, Fla. “At best, I would say he’s very strange.”

Bond says the letter was intended to “mock” Blum’s “dysfunctional family.” Indeed, Blum had a history of problems with his children’s spouses. He once beat up Alyson’s first husband, William Slavin, after finding out that he was having an extramarital affair, court records state. Another son-in-law, Alan S. Cohn — then a vice president of United Healthcare — pleaded guilty in 1989 to a kickback scheme aimed at obtaining federal grants to run clinics in poor areas of Washington.

Bond accuses Blum of trying to control his daughter’s life with money, and of repeatedly provoking him with insults and harassing phone calls. Blum had been giving Alyson $200,000 a year for living expenses and paid for her children’s private education, according to court records. (Bond says the actual figure was closer to $400,000 a year.) Blum eventually hired a private investigator, former FBI agent Dudley Hodgson, to look into Bond’s past.

Despite her father’s fury, Alyson married Bond on May 8, 2001. Around that time, the investigator hit pay dirt. He acquired a copy of the manuscript from the widow of Bond’s former attorney. That discovery, along with the investigator’s acquisition of Bond’s Ohio juvenile record — which Bond says should have been kept under seal — set off a chain of events that has played out in Maryland courts ever since. The grudge match between Bond and Blum has cost Bond more than $600,000 in legal fees and threatened his financial stability. Along the way, with little success, Bond has accused some of Maryland’s most prominent lawyers and judges of all sorts of unprovable shenanigans.

After Bond’s manuscript was found, he was arrested for allegedly lying on a gun-purchase application about whether he had been in a mental institution. (The charges were dismissed after a psychiatrist certified that he was mentally fit to possess a gun.) Back then, Bond says, he seldom left the house without a weapon, a habit from his days in Jamaica. He had a pocket holster and several handguns, including a 9mm Glock and a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson.

“I had a permit to carry for eight years and never pulled it out and shot anybody,” he says. “What more proof do you want that I’m not a danger?”

Around the time of the gun issue, attorneys for Alyson’s first husband, William Slavin, tried to introduce the manuscript as evidence in a custody dispute. Slavin said he was concerned about his two minor children, 14- and 12-year-old daughters, living with Bond.

Bond tried to block the manuscript from being used by filing a copyright infringement lawsuit, which he lost. (In the years since, Bond has continued filing lawsuits, asking for attorneys’ fees and damages of more than $140 million and also has failed to prevail on claims that Blum, U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis, attorney Gerald Martin and others rigged cases against him. He suffered his latest setback in February, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear two cases stemming from the copyright infringement claim.)

Despite the introduction of the manuscript in the child custody case, Alyson Slavin Bond retained physical custody of her minor children. But Bond says the family was riven by resentments and discipline problems, and the next year, he and his wife sent the children to live with their father. Alyson, now 53, did not return phone calls. Her father says Bond “destroyed her life.”

As the court fight went on, the couple wasn’t as flush with cash as before. Alyson’s father cut off financial support. The couple remained in Guilford, but they downsized to a 2,500-square-foot house a few doors down from the home of former Senator Paul Sarbanes.

Few neighbors knew about Bond’s history, and those who did weren’t particularly bothered by it. They knew Bond as an active member of the community who took special interest in policing compliance with the neighborhood’s strict design covenants.

“I don’t think anybody who knows him focuses on that,” Howard Friedel, an attorney who is the head of the Guilford homeowners association, says of Bond’s criminal past. “He’s been a positive individual in the community.”

It’s a rainy afternoon, and Bond is thirsty. He asks the waitress at Corks for the super-premium wine menu and talks her into a half-price discount on the $40-a-glass Axios Cabernet Sauvignon. She brings the glasses, but he rejects them. “This is a Pinot Noir glass,” he points out, and she whisks proper glasses to the table.

Bond lives by himself now in the Georgian colonial. He says the difficulties with Alyson’s children strained their relationship, and they are getting divorced. He still sees a few friends for lunch. But it can be a lonely existence, Bond acknowledges.

On good days, he’ll play tennis or Ping-Pong with a pal, Chris Taylor. Bond “matter-of-factly” revealed his past a few years ago to Taylor, who calls his friend a “moral person, a very good guy.”

Taylor says he wonders sometimes how Bond can live so well — “nice house, nice wine, nice car” — without working. Once, Bond noticed that Taylor was playing Ping-Pong with cheap paddles. The next time they played, Bond showed up with a gift: fancy tournament-grade paddles that run $170 apiece.

Bond won’t reveal much about his finances. Sometimes, he fiddles with an unrealized business plan: a syndicated newspaper advice column and Web site called DearBill.tv. Often, he sits in his upstairs office, poring over a legal case that he cannot let go. One afternoon, Bond sorts papers into stacks on his office floor. “I love the smell of litigation in the morning,” he cracks, playing off the famous Robert Duvall line in the movie “Apocalypse Now.”

Just as Bond is enamored of his writing in his unpublished manuscript, he is in love with his prose in hundreds of pages of legal briefs, which include lines comparing a federal judge to a “blindfolded child … swinging his stick at the colorful piñata.”

“This is fantastic,” he says, flipping through stacks of his legal writings. “Look at this introduction … I love what I wrote at the beginning. Is it aggressive? You better believe it’s aggressive!”

On his office counter, there is a list of goals for 2009, among them finding “Mrs. Right!!!!! ♥♥♥ ”

Mrs. Right would resemble the wife of agent Ari Gold on the HBO show “Entourage” — “minus the temper,” Bond says. Or, maybe, the Playboy model and actress Shauna Sand “sans the insecurity.”

“When I put all these qualifications into Match.com, I had zero matches for the entire United States, which made me laugh very hard, then cry,” Bond says. He didn’t put “father killer” into his Match.com profile. But he knows that label is with him forever.

“I wish I wouldn’t have done it,” he says one day after much prodding. “Not because I miss my father so much, but because of what I did to myself.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/22/AR2009052201289.html

The Trauma of 9/11 Is No Excuse

Top officials from the Bush administration have hit upon a revealing new theme as they retrospectively justify their national security policies. Call it the White House 9/11 trauma defense.

“Unless you were there, in a position of responsibility after September 11, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans,” Condoleezza Rice said last month as she admonished a Stanford University student who questioned the Bush-era interrogation program. And in his May 21 speech on national security, Dick Cheney called the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a “defining” experience that “caused everyone to take a serious second look” at the threats to America. Critics of the administration have become more intense as memories of the attacks have faded, he argued. “Part of our responsibility, as we saw it,” Cheney said, “was not to forget the terrible harm that had been done to America.”

I remember that morning, too. Shortly after the second World Trade Center tower was hit, I burst in on Rice (then the president’s national security adviser) and Cheney in the vice president’s office and remember glimpsing horror on his face. Once in the bomb shelter, Cheney assembled his team while the crisis managers on the National Security Council staff coordinated the government response by video conference from the Situation Room. Many of us thought that we might not leave the White House alive. I remember the next day, too, when smoke still rose from the Pentagon as I sat in my office in the White House compound, a gas mask on my desk. The streets of Washington were empty, except for the armored vehicles, and the skies were clear, except for the F-15s on patrol. Every scene from those days is seared into my memory. I understand how it was a defining moment for Cheney, as it was for so many Americans.

Yet listening to Cheney and Rice, it seems that they want to be excused for the measures they authorized after the attacks on the grounds that 9/11 was traumatic. “If you were there in a position of authority and watched Americans drop out of eighty-story buildings because these murderous tyrants went after innocent people,” Rice said in her recent comments, “then you were determined to do anything that you could that was legal to prevent that from happening again.”

I have little sympathy for this argument. Yes, we went for days with little sleep, and we all assumed that more attacks were coming. But the decisions that Bush officials made in the following months and years — on Iraq, on detentions, on interrogations, on wiretapping — were not appropriate. Careful analysis could have replaced the impulse to break all the rules, even more so because the Sept. 11 attacks, though horrifying, should not have surprised senior officials. Cheney’s admission that 9/11 caused him to reassess the threats to the nation only underscores how, for months, top officials had ignored warnings from the CIA and the NSC staff that urgent action was needed to preempt a major al-Qaeda attack.

Thus, when Bush’s inner circle first really came to grips with the threat of terrorism, they did so in a state of shock — a bad state in which to develop a coherent response. Fearful of new attacks, they authorized the most extreme measures available, without assessing whether they were really a good idea.

I believe this zeal stemmed in part from concerns about the 2004 presidential election. Many in the White House feared that their inaction prior to the attacks would be publicly detailed before the next vote — which is why they resisted the 9/11 commission — and that a second attack would eliminate any chance of a second Bush term. So they decided to leave no doubt that they had done everything imaginable.

The first response they discussed was invading Iraq. While the Pentagon was still burning, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld was in the White House suggesting an attack against Baghdad. Somehow the administration’s leaders could not believe that al-Qaeda could have mounted such a devastating operation, so Iraqi involvement became the convenient explanation. Despite being told repeatedly that Iraq was not involved in 9/11, some, like Cheney, could not abandon the idea. Charles Duelfer of the CIA’s Iraq Survey Group recently revealed in his book, “Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq,” that high-level U.S. officials urged him to consider waterboarding specific Iraqi prisoners of war so that they could provide evidence of an Iraqi role in the terrorist attacks — a request Duelfer refused. (A recent report indicates that the suggestion came from the vice president’s office.) Nevertheless, the lack of evidence did not deter the administration from eventually invading Iraq — a move many senior Bush officials had wanted to make before 9/11.

On detention, the Bush team leaped to the assumption that U.S. courts and prisons would not work. Before the terrorist attacks, the U.S. counterterrorism program of the 1990s had arrested al-Qaeda terrorists and others around the world and had a 100 percent conviction rate in the U.S. justice system. Yet the American system was abandoned, again as part of a pattern of immediately adopting the most extreme response available. Camps were established around the world, notably in Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners were held without being charged or tried. They became symbols of American overreach, held up as proof that al-Qaeda’s anti-American propaganda was right.

Similarly, with regard to interrogation, administration officials conducted no meaningful professional analysis of which techniques worked and which did not. The FBI, which had successfully questioned al-Qaeda terrorists, was effectively excluded from interrogations. Instead, there was the immediate and unwarranted assumption that extreme measures — such as waterboarding one detainee 183 times — would be the most effective.

Finally, on wiretapping, rather than beef up the procedures available under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the administration again moved to the extreme, listening in on communications here at home without legal process. FISA did need some modification, but it also allowed for the quick issuance of court orders, as when President Clinton took stepped-up defensive measures in late 1999 under the heightened threat of the new millennium.

Yes, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice may have been surprised by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — but it was because they had not listened. And their surprise led them to adopt extreme counterterrorism techniques — but it was because they rejected, without analysis, the tactics the Clinton administration had used. The measures they uncritically adopted, which they simply assumed were the best available, were in fact unnecessary and counterproductive.

“I’ll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities,” Cheney said in his recent speech. But this defense does not stand up. The Bush administration’s response actually undermined the principles and values America has always stood for in the world, values that should have survived this traumatic event. The White House thought that 9/11 changed everything. It may have changed many things, but it did not change the Constitution, which the vice president, the national security adviser and all of us who were in the White House that tragic day had pledged to protect and preserve.

Richard A. Clarke, the national coordinator for security and counterterrorism under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, is the author of “Against All Enemies”and “Your Government Failed You.”

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/29/AR2009052901560.html

Today in History-May 31

Today is Sunday, May 31, the 151st day of 2009. There are 214 days left in the year.

Today’s Highlight in History

On May 31, 1889, more than 2,000 people perished when a dam break sent water rushing through Johnstown, Pa.

On this date:

In 1809, composer Franz Joseph Haydn died in Vienna at age 77.

In 1819, poet Walt Whitman was born in West Hills, N.Y.

In 1910, the Union of South Africa was founded.

In 1916, during World War I, British and German fleets fought the naval Battle of Jutland off Denmark; there was no clear-cut victor, although the British suffered heavier losses.

In 1949, former State Department official Alger Hiss went on trial in New York, charged with perjury. (The jury ended up deadlocked, but Hiss was convicted in a second trial.)

In 1961, South Africa became an independent republic.

In 1970, tens of thousands of people died in an earthquake in Peru.

In 1977, the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, three years in the making, was completed.

In 1989, House Speaker Jim Wright, dogged by questions about his ethics, announced he would resign. (Tom Foley later succeeded him.)

In 1994, the United States announced it was no longer aiming long-range nuclear missiles at targets in the former Soviet Union.

Ten years ago: During a Memorial Day visit to Arlington National Cemetery, President Bill Clinton asked Americans to reconsider their ambivalence about Kosovo, calling it ”a very small province in a small country. But it is a big test of what we believe in.” In Turkey, the treason trial of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan opened. (Ocalan was later convicted and sentenced to death, but the death sentence was commuted to life in prison in 2002.)

Five years ago: In Memorial Day tributes, President George W. Bush declared that ”America is safer” because of its fighting forces while Sen. John Kerry visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A bomb ripped through a Shiite Muslim mosque in Karachi, Pakistan, during evening prayers, killing at least 19 people. Alberta Martin, one of the last widows of a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, died in Enterprise, Ala., at age 97.

One year ago: Space shuttle Discovery and a crew of seven blasted into orbit, carrying a giant Japanese lab addition to the international space station.

Today’s Birthdays

Actress Elaine Stewart is 80. Actor-director Clint Eastwood is 79. Singer Peter Yarrow is 71. Former Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite is 70. Singer-musician Augie Meyers is 69. Actress Sharon Gless is 66. Football Hall of Famer Joe Namath is 66. Actor Tom Berenger is 59. Actor Gregory Harrison is 59. Actress Roma Maffia is 51. Comedian Chris Elliott is 49. Actor Kyle Secor is 49. Actress Lea Thompson is 48. Singer Corey Hart is 47. Actor Hugh Dillon is 46. Rapper DMC is 45. Actress Brooke Shields is 44. Country musician Ed Adkins (The Derailers) is 42. Jazz musician Christian McBride is 37. Actor Colin Farrell is 33. Rock musician Scott Klopfenstein (Reel Big Fish) is 32. Actor Eric Christian Olsen is 32. Rock musician Andy Hurley (Fall Out Boy) is 29. Actor Jonathan Tucker is 27. Actor Curtis Williams Jr. is 22.

Thought for Today

”One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it unless it has all been suffering, nothing but suffering.” — Jane Austen, British novelist (1775-1817).

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/05/31/us/AP-History.html

Cum Laude in Evading Bandits

One of the great failures of American universities is that they are far too parochial, rarely exposing students to worlds beyond our borders.

If colleges provide credit for dozing through an introductory Spanish class, why not give credit for a “gap year” in a Bolivian village? If students can learn about microfinance while sitting comatose in 9 a.m. lectures, couldn’t they learn more by volunteering with a lender in a Bangladesh slum?

So with summer starting, it’s up to students themselves to self-educate by setting off on their own. I hold my “win a trip” contest precisely to encourage such trips — I’m just back from visiting five West African countries with a University of South Carolina student. Yet when I encourage students’ wanderlust, questions invariably arise: Will I be safe? How do I avoid robbers and malaria?

In response, here are 15 tips for traveling to even the roughest of countries — and back:

1. Carry a “decoy wallet,” so that if you are robbed by bandits with large guns, you have something to hand over. I keep $40 in my decoy wallet, along with an old library card and frequent-flier card. (But don’t begrudge the wallet: when my travel buddy was pickpocketed in Peru, we tried to jump the pickpocket, who turned out to be backed by an entire gang … )

2. Carry cash and your passport where no robber will find it. Assuming that few bandits read this column, I’ll disclose that I carry mine in a pouch that loops onto my belt and tucks under my trousers.

3. Carry a tiny ski lock with a six-foot retractable wire. Use it to lock your backpack to a hotel bed when you’re out, or to the rack of a train car.

4. At night, set a chair against your hotel door so that it will tip over and crash if someone slips in at 4 a.m. And lift the sheet to look for bloodstains on the mattress — meaning bed bugs.

5. When it gets dark, always carry a headlamp in your pocket. I learned that from a friend whose hotel in Damascus lost power. He lacked a light but was able to feel his way up the stairs in the dark, find his room and walk in. A couple of final gropes, and he discovered it wasn’t his room after all. Unfortunately, it was occupied.

6. If you’re a woman held up in an isolated area, stick out your stomach, pat it and signal that you’re pregnant. You might also invest in a cheap wedding band, for imaginary husbands deflect unwanted suitors.

7. Be wary of accepting drinks from anyone. Robbers sometimes use a date rape drug to knock out their victims — in bars, in trains, in homes. If presented with pre-poured drinks, switch them with your host, cheerfully explaining: “This is an American good luck ritual!”

8. Buy a secondhand local cell phone for $20, outfit it with a local SIM card and keep it in your pocket.

9. When you arrive in a new city, don’t take an airport taxi unless you know it is safe. If you do take a cab, choose a scrawny driver and lock ALL the doors — thieves may pull open the doors at a red light and run off with a bag.

10. Don’t wear a nice watch, for that suggests a fat wallet and also makes a target. I learned that lesson on my first trip to the Philippines: a robber with a machete had just encountered a Japanese businessman with a Rolex — who now, alas, has only one hand.

11. Look out for fake cops or crooked ones. If a policeman tries to arrest you, demand to see some ID and use your cell phone to contact a friend.

12. If you are held up by bandits with large guns, shake hands respectfully with each of your persecutors. It’s very important to be polite to people who might kill you. Surprisingly often, child soldiers and other bandits will reciprocate your fake friendliness and settle for some cash rather than everything you possess. I’ve even had thugs warmly exchange addresses with me, after robbing me.

13. Remember that the scariest people aren’t warlords, but drivers. In buses I sometimes use my pack as an airbag; after one crash I was the only passenger not hospitalized.

14. If terrorists finger you, break out singing “O Canada”!

15. Finally, don’t be so cautious that you miss the magic of escaping your comfort zone and mingling with local people and staying in their homes. The risks are minimal compared with the wonders of spending time in a small village. So take a gap year, or volunteer in a village or a slum. And even if everything goes wrong and you are robbed and catch malaria, shrug it off — those are precisely the kinds of authentic interactions with local cultures that, in retrospect, enrich a journey and life itself.

 

Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/opinion/31kristof.html?ref=opinion

There is no ‘we’ in identity politics

How will Sotomayor make the imaginative leap into the experiences of others different from her?

Michaëlle Jean knows the meaning of empathy. Barack Obama does not.

Real empathy is the ability to project into the experience or feelings of those unlike ourselves. If you know how someone else feels because they are people of your own set or kind, that knowledge is not empathetic – it’s simple identification.

Ms. Jean was a spectacle of empathy in action this week. Her roots are in Haiti, which we will agree is not the Canadian Arctic, and her career, broadcasting (though it may overlap in some minds), is not seal-hunting. But she has an imagination, and a willingness to inform that imagination with experience. Hence, she was in Rankin Inlet at a feast and joining in robustly. Everyone has seen the picture of the seal’s-heart canapé. She made a leap from her experience to that of a far different culture.

When Mr. Obama speaks of empathy, he uses it as a glide word into another, that of identity. His choice for the U.S. Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, is hailed for her “Latino” background. She will be the first Latina Supreme Court judge. It’s seen as outreach to the growing Hispanic vote – like attracting like.

The Governor-General, on the other hand, is not an Inuk. She is one of the “newest” set of Canadians, as the Inuit are one of the “oldest.” She is at the apex of our social system – they, alas, are not. Their traditions are not her traditions. Yet, her full-handed participation in the Rankin Inlet feast, her sturdy defence of the lifestyle and tradition she saw there – was a spark across an immense gulf. It wasn’t “them” and “her.” It was an aspiration toward “we.” Empathy in deed.

Ms. Sotomayor is a nominee, on the other hand, because identity politics – like to like, even in “postracial” America – is still a prevailing dynamic. He who spoke so emphatically of “empathy” as a distinguishing characteristic contradicted himself when he nominated a “group representative.” Ms. Sotomayor needs no empathy to place herself in the shoes of Latinos.

And it is Ms. Sotomayor’s “identity” in this sense that both she and the President regard as critical. Ms. Sotomayor has made it abundantly clear that she regards her Latino roots (and gender) as determinants of her way of seeing things. “Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences … our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.” The key, startling word there is “inherent.” She’s claiming (among other characteristics) that an “inherent physiological” difference “may and will” shape her view. Claiming that judgment or reasoning is even partly conditioned by inherent physiological elements of one’s ethnicity is very odd.

It is very close to, if not the same as, saying that there is innate, in her ethnicity, qualities that make her a better judge. Which she seems to claim. For in the same lecture from which I’m quoting, she concludes “… I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

We’re all bounded, in this view, by the innate, inherent physiological or cultural properties, and gender, of our given identity. Her identity, to use the word often brought to these discussions, “privileges” her view of things. I’m not sure this is an advance on the thinking – race determines ability – that half a century of civil-rights struggle set out to defeat and exorcise.

There is, in Ms. Sotomayor’s formulation, only a very thin possibility of an “imaginative leap,” empathy in other words, into the experiences of others truly different from her. And in so far as physiological differences are at play – they can’t change – there is no way at all to make that leap. Identity politics is a closed circuit. It shuts the door to other experiences, even denying the possibility of transcending them. It is the very contradiction of empathetic power.

The scene in the Canadian North this week is a wonderful counter to this line of increasingly bounded and bristling politics. Openness, the willingness to encounter new, different experiences, the sense that there is deep commonality at the core of all our beings – these sentiments seem to spring out of Michaëlle Jean’s easy communication with and celebration of an “other” culture.

Diversity, in the American case, seems to be turning on itself. Every group is an island of difference and there are no bridges. Unless you are of the group, you cannot “understand” it. And it has led, at least in Ms. Sotomayor’s words, to a curious world where ethnic and gender characteristics are posited as the determinative basis of “superior” views, of people contained within their identities.

This is a very short and rigid view of human character. And I was very pleased to see a rebuttal in action this week under the wide, long lights of the Canadian Arctic.

Rex Murphy is a commentator with The National and host of CBC Radio’s Cross-Country Checkup.

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Full article: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/there-is-no-we-in-identity-politics/article1160642/

Telegraph report over Abu Ghraib ‘abuse’ photos confirmed

A former senior US army officer who spoke to the Daily Telegraph about photographs of rape and sexual abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq has confirmed the story, despite denials from the White House.

This newspaper reported that photographs showed a soldier apparently raping a female prisoner, a translator apparently raping a male prisoner and instances of sexual abuse involving objects.

After initially failing to respond to a request for comment, a White House spokesman eventually spoke to denigrate the standards of the British press, and said that the Telegraph report “mischaracterises” the photos.

But Major General Antonio Taguba, who retired from the army in January 2007 after writing a critical report on Abu Ghraib, has confirmed that the quotes the Daily Telegraph ran were accurate, in comments made to the Salon website.

He had told this newspaper the pictures show “torture, abuse, rape and every indecency” and that he did not believe they should be released.

The US defence department was preparing to release 44 photographs to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as part of a lawsuit along with a “substantial number of other images contained in Army Criminal Investigation Division reports” thought to number up to 2,000. The move was blocked after President Barack Obama changed his mind, saying that releasing the images could endanger the lives of servicemen on active duty.

Maj Gen Taguba clarified “the photographs in that lawsuit, I have not seen,” but confirmed that the images of rape and abuse were among “hundreds of images he reviewed as an investigator of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq”, according to Salon.

Further confirmation of the story was provided on Friday by Scott Horton, a leading US human rights lawyer, who wrote on the Daily Beast website that he had “obtained specific corroboration of the British account from several reliable sources, including a highly credible senior military officer with first hand knowledge, who provided even more detail about the graphic photographs”.

New-York based Human Rights Watch has called for an inquiry into the allegations of rape and sexual abuse.

Lt Col Patrick Ryder, a spokesman at the Pentagon, said the US department of defence had reviewed all the pictures they were preparing for release, which did not include any of the scenes described.

He said he was “not aware” of any other photographs and was “not aware” that any such photographs had been destroyed.

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Full article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5413633/Telegraph-report-over-Abu-Ghraib-abuse-photos-confirmed.html

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See also:

Retired U.S. general denies seen photos in Iraq flap

A retired U.S. general has denied reports that he had seen the pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused that President Barack Obama is seeking to keep secret, Salon reported on Friday.

The British newspaper Daily Telegraph reported that retired Major General Antonio Taguba told them he had seen the images Obama said will not be released. The newspaper quoted him as saying: “These pictures show torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.”

Taguba told the Salon.com website that while the Telegraph quoted him accurately, he was referring to pictures from Abu Ghraib that showed horrific abuse and not the 44 pictures the American Civil Liberties Union was seeking to have released.

“The photographs in that lawsuit, I have not seen,” he told Salon.

The Obama administration at first agreed to release the 44 pictures but reversed course, arguing that they could put U.S. troops abroad at greater risk.

The administration also accused the Daily Telegraph of misquoting Taguba, with the White House going so far as to cast doubt on the accuracy of the British press in general.

Taguba, who retired in January 2007, led an investigation in 2004 into abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison which included allegations of rape and sexual abuse.

Photographs of abuse at the prison outside Baghdad were published in 2004 and caused deep resentment in the Muslim world, damaging the image of the United States as it fought against insurgents in Iraq.

Obama has set a goal of improving America’s image in the Muslim world and plans to deliver a speech next week in Cairo aimed at reaching out to Muslims.

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/30/AR2009053001003.html

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See also:

White House takes swipe at British press over Daily Telegraph report

The White House has taken a swipe at the British press in an effort to fend off questions about photographs that reportedly show US soldiers in Iraq raping and sexually abusing prisoners.

At the daily White House press briefing, spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked to comment on a report in yesterday’s Telegraph that quoted a retired American general describing shocking details of photographs from US detention facilities in Iraq, which President Barack Obama has declined to release to the public.

“If I wanted to read a write-up today of how Manchester United fared last night in the Champions League cup, I might open up a British newspaper,” Gibbs said. “If I was looking for something that bordered on truthful news, I’m not sure it would be the first stack of clips I picked up.”

The Telegraph quoted retired Major General Antonio Taguba, who investigated abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, as saying that the unreleased photos “show torture, abuse, rape and every indecency” committed on prisoners in US custody.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Telegraph “completely mischaracterised the images”, and said “none of the photos in question depict the images that are described in that article”.

Gibbs twice more criticised the British press. “I think if you do an even moderate Google search, you’re not going to find many of these newspapers and truth within, say, 25 words of each other,” he said, adding, “I hate to lend any more credibility to nonfactual reports.”

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/may/29/bryan-gibbs-telegraph-british-media

Unlocking the cloud

Open-source software has won the argument. Now a new threat to openness looms.

“FIRST they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Mahatma Gandhi probably never said these words, despite claims to the contrary, but they perfectly describe the progress of open-source software over the past 15 years or so. Such software, the underlying recipe for which is created by volunteers and distributed free online, was initially dismissed as the plaything of nerdy hobbyists. Big software firms derided the idea that anyone would put their trust in free software written by mysterious online collectives. Was it really secure? Whom would you call if it went wrong?

At the time, selling software to large companies was sometimes likened to drug dealing, because once a firm installed a piece of software, it had to pay a stream of licence fees for upgrades, security patches and technical support. Switching to a rival product was difficult and expensive. But with open-source software there was much less of a lock-in. There are no licence fees, and the file formats and data structures are open. Open-source software gained ground during the dotcom boom and even more so afterwards, as a way to cut costs.

Microsoft, the world’s biggest software company, went from laughing at the idea to fighting it, giving warning that there might be legal risks associated with using open-source software and even calling it a “cancer” that threatened to harm the industry. Yet the popularity of open-source programs such as the Linux operating system continued to grow. The fact that Google, the industry’s new giant, sits on a foundation of open-source code buried the idea that it was not powerful or reliable enough for heavy-duty use. One by one the industry’s giants embraced open source. Even Microsoft admits that drawing on the expertise of internet users to scrutinise and improve software has its merits, at least in some cases.

The argument has been won. It is now generally accepted that the future will involve a blend of both proprietary and open-source software. Traditional software companies have opened up some of their products, and many open-source companies have adopted a hybrid model in which they give away a basic version of their product and make money by selling proprietary add-ons. The rise of software based on open, internet-based standards means worries about lock-in have become much less of a problem.

Clouding the picture

But now there is the danger of a new form of lock-in. “Cloud computing”—the delivery of computer services from vast warehouses of shared machines—enables companies and individuals to cut costs by handing over the running of their e-mail, customer databases or accounting software to someone else, and then accessing it over the internet. There are many advantages to this approach for both customers (lower cost, less complexity) and service providers (economies of scale). But customers risk losing control once again, in particular over their data, as they migrate into the cloud. Moving from one service provider to another could be even more difficult than switching between software packages in the old days. For a foretaste of this problem, try moving your MySpace profile to Facebook without manually retyping everything.

The obvious answer is to establish agreed standards for moving data between clouds. An industry effort to this effect kicked off in March. But cloud computing is still in its infancy, and setting standards too early could hamper innovation. So buyers of cloud-computing services must take account of the dangers of lock-in, and favour service providers who allow them to move data in and out of their systems without too much hassle. This will push providers to compete on openness from the outset—and ensure that the lessons from the success of open-source software are not lost in the clouds.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/opinion/displayStory.cfm?story_id=13740181&source=hptextfeature

Dying man wins bet he would live

Jon Matthews

Mr Matthews said he would give most of the money to charity

A Buckinghamshire man diagnosed with terminal cancer is to collect a second winning payout of £5,000 after betting he would stay alive.

Jon Matthews, 59, from Milton Keynes, was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer linked to asbestos, in 2006 and told he had months to live.

He placed two bets, each with a £100 stake at odds of 50/1, that he would be alive in June 2008 and in June 2009.

A third wager will earn him a further £10,000 if he lives until 1 June 2010.

The widower will collect his second lot of £5,000 winnings on Monday.

Mr  Matthews said: “I think I’m the first person in the world to bet on my own life.

“When I was diagnosed I was told mesothelioma was a death sentence.

“I wasn’t that fussed because everyone has to die some time.

“But the interesting thing for me was how long it would take – would it take weeks or years?”

Mr Matthews said he planned to give away most of his winnings to charities, including the cancer charity Macmillan.

William Hill spokesman Graham Sharpe said: “We had never been asked to accept a bet of this nature before.

“But as Jon approached us directly and was adamant that it would give him an additional incentive to battle his illness, we offered him the bets he wanted.

“Never in 30 years in the business have I been so pleased to pay a winning client £10,000, with, I trust, a further £10,000 to come next year.”

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Full article and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/beds/bucks/herts/8075288.stm

‘Lost’ music instrument recreated

New software has enabled researchers to recreate a long forgotten musical instrument called the Lituus.

The 2.4m (8ft) long trumpet-like instrument was played in Ancient Rome but fell out of use some 300 years ago.

Bach’s motet (a choral musical composition) “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht” was one of the last pieces of music written for the Lituus.

Now, for the first time, this 18th Century composition has been played as it should have been heard.

Researchers from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the University of Edinburgh collaborated on the study.

Performed by the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (SCB) the Lituus produced a piercing trumpet-like sound interleaving with the vocals.

Until now, no one had a clear idea of what this instrument looked or sounded like.

But researchers at Edinburgh University developed a system that enabled them to design the Lituus from the best guesses of its shape and range of notes.

The result was a 2.4m (8ft) -long thin straight horn, with a flared bell at the end.

Hard to play

It is an unwieldy instrument with a limited tonal range that is hard to play. But played well, it gives Johann Sebastian Bach’s motet a haunting feel that couldn’t be reproduced by modern instruments.

The software was originally developed by a PhD student Dr Alistair Braden to improve the design of modern brass instruments.

But Dr Braden and his supervisor Professor Murray Campbell, were approached by a Swiss-based music conservatoire specialising in early music, the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, to help them recreate the Lituus – even though no one alive today has heard, played or even seen a picture of this forgotten instrument.

SCB gave the Edinburgh team their expert thoughts on what the Lituus may have been like in terms of the notes it produced, its tonal quality and how it might have been played.

They also provided cross-section diagrams of instruments they believed to be similar to the Lituus.

Lituus being played (EPSRC)

The reconstruction could have been manufactured in Bach’s time

“The software used this data to design an elegant, usable instrument with the required acoustic and tonal qualities,” says Professor Campbell.

“The key was to ensure that the design we generated would not only sound right but look right as well.”

He added: “Crucially, the final design produced by the software could have been made by a manufacturer in Bach’s time without too much difficulty.”

SCB has now used Edinburgh’s designs to build two identical examples of the long-lost instrument.

Both were used in an experimental performance of “O Jesu Christ, meins lebens licht” in Switzerland earlier this year.

Written by Bach in the 1730s, it is thought that this is now the only piece of music in existence that specifies the use of the Lituus – and has almost certainly not been performed using this instrument since Bach’s time.

“Sophisticated computer modelling software has a huge role to play in the way we make music in the future,” comments Professor Campbell.

The software also opens up the possibility that brass instruments could be customised more closely to the needs of individual players in the future – catering more closely for the differing needs of jazz, classical and other players all over the world.

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Audio: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8075321.stm

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Full article and photo: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8075223.stm

Berlusconi wins party photos ban

Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi said the images intruded on his guests’ privacy

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi has succeeded in blocking the publication of potentially embarrassing photos of young women at his new year’s party.

Mr Berlusconi, 72, is under pressure to explain his relationship with 18-year-old Noemi Letizia, who was among the guests. He denies having an affair.

Local media say some of the photographs show young women in bikinis or topless.

Prosecutors ordered the seizure of about 700 images in total, taken at the new year’s party and other occasions.

The pictures were taken from outside Mr Berlusconi’s villa on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia by a Sardinian photographer, Antonello Zappadu, using a powerful lens.

In a letter to the Italian data protection agency, Mr Berlusconi complained that the photographer had intruded on his guests’ privacy.

Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Serra described some of the images as showing “bikini-clad or topless girls” relaxing in the gardens or taking showers.

Noemi Letizia
Ms Letizia was among the guests at Mr Berlusconi’s last new year’s party

In a letter published in the paper, Mr Zappadu denied violating the guests’ privacy, saying his pictures were taken while they were outside in the villa’s grounds.

Mr Berlusconi’s personal life has been under scrutiny since his wife, Veronica Lario, announced earlier this month that she was divorcing him after it was reported that he had attended Ms Letizia’s 18th birthday party in April and given her an expensive necklace.

“I cannot remain with a man who consorts with minors,” she said then.

Mr Berlusconi has confirmed that Ms Letizia, an aspiring model, has stayed at his villa in Sardinia and attended a new year’s party there but has denied any improper relationship with her.

Speaking to reporters in Rome on Thursday, he said he would resign if he was caught lying about it.

The age of consent in Italy is 16, but people under 18 are considered minors.

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Full article and photos: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8075276.stm

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Ex of Teen in Berlusconi Scandal Apologizes

The ex-boyfriend of an 18-year-old woman at the heart of a scandal involving Premier Silvio Berlusconi has apologized for having fueled speculation about a presumed relationship between the two.

Italian daily Corriere della Sera on Sunday ran what it said was a letter from the ex-boyfriend, Gino Flaminio, in which he said there never could have been a sexual relationship between Berlusconi and Noemi Letizia ”knowing Noemi and her values.”

Last week, the left-leaning daily La Repubblica quoted Flaminio as saying Berlusconi had invited Letizia and several other young women to his Sardinian villa for a week over New Year’s. He described what he said were phone calls between Berlusconi and Letizia that he listened in on, saying the premier asked her in one call about her schooling, her interests and what her parents do.

The interview fueled speculation about a possible relationship between Letizia and the premier, particularly after Berlusconi’s wife cited the premier’s presence at Letizia’s 18th birthday party in announcing a few weeks ago she was divorcing the 72-year-old.

The conservative premier has denied any scandalous relationship and said he knows Letizia’s father through decades-old Socialist Party circles. He has said he attended the birthday party because he happened to be in Naples that day.

Letizia’s father announced he would sue Repubblica and Flaminio for defamation, and Berlusconi’s aides have accused the center-left opposition of grabbing onto gossip to try to discredit him and his party before European Parliament elections this weekend.

Flaminio didn’t say he was misquoted by Repubblica in his letter to the rival publication Corriere, only that he felt used by people who wanted to hurt Berlusconi.

”I’m sorry for what happened, which I never could have imagined,” Flaminio wrote, according to Corriere. ”I publicly ask for forgiveness from Noemi and everyone, for the clamor that ensued from our love story, and I hope for a world of good for everyone.”

”Isn’t it possible that the (premier) could have a private life?” Flaminio wrote. ”What’s wrong with being friends with a normal family?”

On Saturday, Rome prosecutors seized hundreds of photos of the New Year’s party in question after Berlusconi moved to block their publication. They also placed the Sardinian photographer who took them under investigation for alleged violation of privacy laws and fraud, stemming from his efforts to sell the photos to magazines, news reports said Sunday.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/05/31/world/AP-EU-Italy-Berlusconi-Teenager.html?ref=global-home

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The pictures vetoed by Berlusconi

Berlusconi june 5 

EL PAÍS publishes the pictures taken by Antonello Zappadu in Villa Certosa in May 2008. The faces of the protagonists were blurred by the author except that of the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. Last week, ‘Il Cavaliere’ sued Zappadu alleging privacy violations and attempt to scam. The pictures show a view of what’s going on in Villa Certosa, Berlusconi’s residency in Sardinia. Berlusconi is facing an investigation about the use of official airplanes for private matters, one of them the transportation of his guests to a party in Villa Certosa.

The photographer claims that “every weekend” official flights were carrying friends, artists, dancers and velins (TV hostess) of the prime minister to Costa Esmeralda airport. In August 2008, Berlusconi changed the law to allow his private guests to use official flights. The photographs show that four months before the legal change, Berlusconi had already travelled with his friend Mario Apicella and a flamenco dancer.

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Full article and photo: http://www.elpais.com/articulo/internacional/The/pictures/vetoed/by/Berlusconi/elpepuint/20090605elpepuint_3/Tes

Dream over: Boyle finishes 2nd in reality show

boyle may 30

Anthony McPartlin, left, and Declan Donnelly with Susan Boyle at the finals of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ television program in London. Boyle finished in second place on the reality show.

She gave a final curtsey, a shimmy of her hips, and walked off stage, leaving the winners to perform an encore. But it’s unlikely that finishing second on “Britain’s Got Talent” Saturday night to a dance troupe called “Diversity” will be the end of Susan Boyle’s showbiz dream.

The 48-year-old church volunteer became an Internet phenomenon after she auditioned for the television talent show, her show-stopping voice combining with her frumpy appearance to make her a must-see on YouTube.

For the finals, she returned to the song that made her famous, “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical “Les Miserables.” She wore a glamorous but modest sparkly floor-length dress, and her once-grey frizzy hair was a soft brown halo.

She appeared more polished and animated than in previous performances, but seemed uncomfortable during banter with the judges after her song. Judge Simon Cowell said Boyle had a rough brush with fame, but that she was “a nice, shy person who wants a break.”

The week leading up to Saturday’s performance had been a tumultuous one for Boyle. She lost her cool during a confrontation with two reporters, and the police intervened. Another contest judge said Boyle had contemplated pulling out of the program to soothe her frazzled nerves.

“A lot of people said you shouldn’t even be in this competition, that you weren’t equipped to deal with it,” Cowell said. “I totally disagree with that.

“You had the guts to come back here and face your critics and you beat them.”

Asked about her career plans after the show, Boyle told broadcaster ITV that she hoped to get an album out, and will “just play it by ear.”

Millions tuned in to the live program and voted by telephone afterward.

Boyle’s hometown of Blackburn, Scotland _ a working-class village about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Edinburgh _ rallied round her, stringing up signs declaring their support. Her defeat was greeted with shouts of “no” and gasps of disbelief at the Happy Valley Hotel, where neighbors and friends had gathered to watch the program.

“She lost because people didn’t bother voting for her because they thought she was going to win it,” lamented 21-year-old Gordon Mackenzie. “I didn’t vote for her because I thought everyone else would.”

Boyle was up against a host of everyman acts determined to find stardom on reality television, including a 12-year-old whose voice was compared to Michael Jackson’s, an 11-year-old body-popping dancer, and a grandfather-grandaughter singing duo.

Winning group “Diversity” are a 10-person dance troupe who range in age from 12 to 25-years-old. Their act won praise throughout the competition, but they weren’t seen as front-runners. Their victory earned them 100,000 pounds ($159,000), and the right to perform for Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Variety Show in December.

It was Boyle who had always been expected to win, and British bookmaker William Hill offered 10-11 odds on her victory Saturday. The betting service had briefly lowered its odds when the reports of erratic behavior seemed to show “there might be a chink in her armor,” according to spokesman Rupert Adams. But he said William Hill “got absolutely hammered” with bets and quickly went back to predicting a Boyle victory.

Boyle’s entree into the limelight has been viewed millions of times, the fifth-most watched clip in history on YouTube. And it was a moment that has become reality show history.

She introduced herself on camera as someone who lived alone with her cat, Pebbles _ neighbors and relatives were taking turns looking after the feline while Boyle was in London for the show _ and who had never been kissed.

Those details combined with her matronly appearance sent the audience into titters when she walked on stage.

But then she began to sing. And as Boyle hit a high note at the end of her song’s first line, Cowell’s eyebrows rose along with her voice.

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Full article and photo: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/30/AR2009053000235.html?hpid=artslot

Once Again, British Ruling Class Stirs a Revolt

Every so often, Britons in large numbers seem to rally around a common theme, a newly coined orthodoxy that brooks no dissent and rudely demands change. And, as events over the years — indeed the centuries — have shown, their leaders ignore such junctions in the nation’s history at their peril.

It happened, perhaps mawkishly, when Princess Diana died in 1997 and the royal family — perceived as stuffy and unresponsive, remote and unfeeling — seemed to disdain its subjects’ communal grief. Only when Queen Elizabeth II addressed the nation, descending from her palace to street level to bow — however discreetly — at Diana’s funeral cortege, was the monarchy redeemed.

It happened again in 2003 when over a million people took to the streets of London to tell the then-prime minister, Tony Blair, that they did not want their soldiers to fight in the American-led invasion of Iraq. But Mr. Blair did send his troops to war and became embroiled in the acrimonious debates over Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction that undermined his every justification for doing so.

It is often argued that the beginnings of his ouster in 2007 were rooted in those passionate days in 2003 when he lost the people’s trust at one of those moments when the British stiff upper lip turns into a mastiff’s snarl.

And it is happening again, in 2009. With shared fury, Britons have rounded on those who represent them at the Mother of Parliaments, scenting something rotten in this cradle of democracy as their legislators are caught out in tawdry manipulation of their expense accounts.

The instances of straight cheating and more ambiguous rule-bending are now legend. The public purse, it seems, financed the cost of cleaning a moat, of purchasing a home for pet ducks, of paying off non-existent mortgages, of buying manure, crackers and dog food. Legislators have been caught using public funds to sponsor relatives’ accommodation, renovate homes, hire unauthorized spin doctors and evade taxes.

By the standards of chief executives’ or investment bankers’ bonuses, the amounts were generally modest. Members of Parliament earn £64,766 a year, or about $104,000, and are permitted expenses including office costs and an extra £24,000 for running a second home — either to be near their constituents or to be near their colleagues on the green benches of Westminster. And, true enough, not all legislators have been found morally deficient.

But day after day for over three weeks, The Daily Telegraph has mined a trove of legislators’ expense accounts, stoking its readers’ revulsion at an aloof ruling class depicted as milking the public purse. (In 1997, it was the tabloid press that heaped pressure on the royals to change their ways.)

Usually, The Daily Telegraph is seen as speaking to, and for, the Conservative right of British politics, but the stain of its campaign has spread beyond its traditional targets.

Legislators from both main parties have been forced to quit, some in the face of angry public encounters with constituents whose sense of betrayal is personal. Still more will not be permitted to run for office again. The Parliament speaker, Labor’s Michael Martin, announced tersely and testily that he would resign in June. As if to escape a British equivalent of the French revolutionary tumbrel, politicians of all stripes are vying with one another to promise a new beginning.

“It’s been a terrible few weeks for politics,” David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservatives, said with rare understatement. People have come to believe “that the state is their enemy, not their ally.”

Some of those passions and perceptions have been magnified by the prospect of elections across the Continent next week to the European Parliament — a ballot most Britons generally greet with indifference.

“Fewer people voted to decide who should represent them in the glass house in Brussels than did to choose who should stay in the Big Brother house on television,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a historian and columnist.

But the European ballot has been used in the past by some Britons as a vehicle of protest. For the British establishment, the fear now is that, out of disaffection and spite, the voters will give an undeserved and embarrassing electoral boost to the anti-immigrant British National Party, punishing the mainstream by rewarding the extremes.

Such are the worries that the Church of England, often remote from politics, became embroiled in a somewhat undignified exchange with Nick Griffin, the National Party’s leader.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, used a joint statement to tilt against political parties exploiting Britain’s malaise to conjure “fear and division within communities, especially between people of different faiths or racial background.” In response, Mr. Griffin told the clerics it was time they “grew up.”

In Britain, the European ballot is no more than a bellwether. The fight for the real prize is at the British national elections within 12 months. Before the scandal over expenses erupted, the Conservatives seemed confident front-runners. Now the question is whether Prime Minister Gordon Brown will risk an earlier vote — and whether the political system will endure as it has in the past.

Some close watchers of politics have their suspicions that the British elite will survive the shocks of 2009 — emerging as a phoenix in newer plumage, but the same creature at heart.

Britons may well hear promises of renewal from their leaders, Mr. Garton Ash wrote in The Guardian. But then, the promise of change will give way to “the long slow disappointment as the new masters behave like the old, exploiting all the powers and privileges of an over-mighty executive in an over-centralized state.”

Others have reached far into history to seek a parallel, settling on the bloody example of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. At that time, rebellious serfs marched on London to challenge the feudal authority of an elite around the young King Richard II. Buildings burned. Heads rolled. And the rulers broke promises made to defuse the revolt.

“What irks voters, taxpayers and shareholders is what angered medieval peasants — that the ruling class regards us with contempt,” the columnist Carl Mortished wrote in The Times of London. “Meanwhile we must fight their wars, fill their castles with food and pay the taxes they impose.”

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/30/world/europe/30iht-letter.html?ref=world

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Beneath a British Scandal, Deeper Furies

https://abluteau.wordpress.com/2009/05/24/beneath-a-british-scandal-deeper-furies/

What a Member of Parliament Deserves

https://abluteau.wordpress.com/2009/05/26/what-a-member-of-parliament-deserves/

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In Britain, Scandal Flows From Modest Request

martin may 30

The House of Commons speaker, Michael Martin, standing in robe, speaking Tuesday about new proposed rules over expenses.

It began modestly enough back in 2005, when an American freelance writer and journalism teacher living in London, Heather Brooke, entered a request under Britain’s newly promulgated freedom of information act for details of the expense claims of British members of Parliament.

Ms. Brooke’s initiative to expose the politicians’ greed, now led by one of the country’s principal newspapers, The Daily Telegraph, has led to the biggest scandal to hit the House of Commons in decades. On Tuesday, the affair claimed its biggest victim yet when the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, became the first man to be ousted from that job in more than 300 years.

At one level, the scandal is a rich tale of politicians exploiting a lax system of expenses to claim a mind-boggling array of benefits. The claims have centered on so-called second-home allowances, which have allowed some members of Parliament to use nearly $40,000 a year in taxpayers’ money to renovate and even sell properties for profit, while others have claimed monthly payments for mortgages that had already been paid off. Still others claimed “necessities” like the clearing of a country house moat, an electrical massage chair and even a Kit Kat bar.

At another level, it is a story of a newspaper, The Telegraph, which broke with a reputation as a stuffy publication favored by retired army colonels and blue-rinsed widows to seize what has turned out to be one of Britain’s greatest scoops. As it has done so, it has stolen a march on its rivals in an overcrowded market where vanishing profits have intensified an already brutal rivalry.

The Telegraph’s editors, with daily banner headlines pummeling members of Parliament like a boxer raining blows on a helpless opponent, have declined to comment on reports that they paid about $140,000 for computerized disks containing more than a million individual expense claims by members of Parliament over the past over the past four years. An unidentified whistleblower is said to have approached at least one of The Telegraph’s rival publications, The Times of London, with an initial demand for $380,000.

The timing of the scandal has played its part in fostering a public outcry with few precedents in parliamentary history. With Britain mired in its deepest recession since the 1930s, and tens of thousands losing jobs every month, it is hard to imagine a less auspicious moment, for the parliamentarians, to have their expenses exposed to public scrutiny.

In response, they have made groveling apologies, waved reimbursement checks before television cameras and pledged to restore “respect for Parliament.”

For the time being, the scandal has overwhelmed every other story in Britain’s media. The country’s main television news channels offer live coverage of every twist and turn, while members of Parliament with dubious expense claims elbow their way past television crews and newspaper reporters mounting vigils outside their homes. Almost every hour brings new attempts to save careers with hand-on-heart apologies, tortuous explanations and promises of unrelenting modesty in future claims on the public purse.

The two main political protagonists in the affair, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, leader of the Labor Party, and David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservatives, have escalated their responses to the scandal day by day. Both have pledged that no member of Parliament shown to have made improper expense claims will be allowed to run as a candidate in a general election that must be held before June 2010. With at least 80 Parliament members already named by The Telegraph in its serialized chronicle of abuses, that could result in dozens of sitting members being denied the chance to run for re-election.

Some have already decided to jump before they are pushed. Just as Mr. Martin was announcing his decision to quit Tuesday, the man who seems likely to become the unhappy icon of the scandal, Douglas Hogg, announced he would quit Parliament, and politics, at the end of its current term. Mr. Hogg, 64, a former Conservative cabinet minister and an aristocratic grandee, was the man who included a $3,400 claim for the clearing of his country house moat on a list of his expenses.

When The Telegraph first made the moat claim public, Mr. Hogg provided one of the more farcical moments of the scandal, leading a BBC television crew on a fast-paced march from his London home to the House of Commons. Wearing a flat cap of a kind favored at country steeplechases, and trying breathlessly to explain the bureaucratic intricacies of the expenses system, he avoided, for several minutes, responding directly to the BBC reporter’s insistent questions about the moat. A few days later, under pressure from Mr. Cameron, he announced that he would repay the money claimed for the moat.

Ms. Brooke, who entered the original request for the details of the expenses, has been a largely unheralded figure as the scandal has unfolded. She worked as an investigative reporter in Washington State and South Carolina before moving about 10 years ago to Britain, her parents’ birthplace. Her request led to a protracted battle by the Labor majority in Parliament to get a statutory exemption for their expense claims from the freedom of information act, a bid abandoned only in January.

The blustering efforts of Mr. Martin, the 63-year-old speaker, to block the publication of the expenses, and his announcement last week that he had asked Scotland Yard to open a criminal investigation into the leak to The Telegraph, appeared to have contributed to the decision by Mr. Brown to pressure him into resigning. That made him the first speaker forced out since 1695. Scotland Yard chose the moment of Mr. Martin’s resignation to announce that it would not be investigating the leak.

The expenses were to have been made public anyway by the House of Commons in July, after detailed redacting by officials that would have disguised some of the members’ more controversial practices. One of these would have been the so-called flipping from one house or apartment to another in second-home claims, which enabled some members to buy and improve properties at the expense of the taxpayers and then sell them for handsome profits.

For readers of The Telegraph, many of them staunch Conservatives, the revelations have carried an irony of their own. The day-by-day exposures have raised questions about the integrity of many Conservatives, as well as members of Labor and the Liberal Democrats, the third major party in the Commons, making for what some commentators have called an “equal opportunity” scandal.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/20/world/europe/20britain.html?scp=4&sq=Speaker%20Commons&st=cse

Driving the Bond Markets to Ruin

GENERAL MOTORS bondholders have until 5 p.m. on Saturday to accept a parsimonious offer to exchange their loans for stock and warrants. Most likely, enough of the creditors will say no to force G.M. into bankruptcy. But there is no escaping the long-term damage that has been inflicted on credit markets by the Obama administration’s attempts to reward the United Auto Workers, one of the president’s strongest supporters in the last election, while trampling decades of legal precedent regarding owners of corporate debt.

The G.M. debacle is déjà vu all over again. In the Chrysler bankruptcy arranged by the government in April, bondholders also got short shrift, while the union, which might have received little or nothing in a normal bankruptcy, was awarded 55 percent of the company.

What’s my interest in this? I head a nonprofit group that encourages developing nations to adopt policies that will lead to prosperity — starting with transparency and the rule of law — and hold up America as a model. Yet in its high-handed dealings with Chrysler and G.M., the Obama administration reminds me of an irresponsible third-world regime, skirting the law and handing economic prizes to political cronies.

Under the complicated G.M. plan, bondholders — ranging from large institutions to low-income retirees — would receive just 10 percent of the reorganized company, plus warrants that would enable them to get 15 percent more should the company’s value reach certain levels, in return for their $27 billion in loans. The government, which could end up putting $70 billion into G.M., would initially get 72.5 percent of the company.

In return for money G.M. owes its health trust, the auto workers’ union would get 17.5 percent of its stock, warrants to raise that share to 20 percent, along with a $2.5 billion cash payout over eight years and $6.5 billion in preferred stock paying a 9 percent dividend. I agree with bondholders who feel the union is getting at least four times as much of G.M. in return for claims that are, at best, equal to those of the creditors.

Even if the courts were to reject the plans for G.M. and Chrysler, the administration’s actions in trying to force the deals may damage the credit markets for years to come. The treatment of the bondholders is a warning to investors that the federal government won’t hesitate to push them aside in a crisis.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in the wake of the Chrysler deal we have seen a decline in prices for long-term Treasury bonds and a sinking dollar. The Chinese, for example, could view things this way: If the United States is willing to skirt the law to help some of the president’s closest political supporters gain large pieces of two of the world’s biggest companies, will Washington necessarily stand behind any Treasury securities we own when it becomes politically inexpedient?

The hardball tactics, furthermore, are unlikely to save G.M. In a normal bankruptcy, the company’s assets pass from weak hands to strong. In 2008, a terrible year for the auto industry, G.M. sold 8.4 million vehicles worldwide, collecting revenues of $148 billion that placed it third among non-energy companies on the Fortune 500.

G.M. is a global business, with two-thirds of its revenues coming from outside the United States. While sales last year dropped 21 percent in North America, they rose 30 percent in Russia, 10 percent in Brazil and 9 percent in India. In 2008, G.M. sold more than one million vehicles in China, up 6 percent over 2007.

(The value of its global operations was made clear on Friday when the company reached a tentative deal to sell G.M. of Europe.)

Of course, the company’s problem is that its expenses exceed its revenues. But in strong hands, G.M. could be a going concern. Unfortunately, the new owners, with about nine-tenths of the shares, will be the government and the U.A.W. These are the same hands that shaped much of G.M.’s trouble in the first place. With substantial union co-ownership, labor costs won’t be contained; and with the government as the boss, politics may trump markets in decisions on such matters as where to put plants and whether to build big cars or small ones.

The deal would also put G.M.’s competitors at a serious disadvantage in the short run. Ford, which has been building better cars lately, prudently raised cash against a decline in demand, playing the ant to G.M.’s grasshopper. Now, Ford will face a G.M. buoyed by taxpayer dollars both for manufacturing and for cheap consumer and dealer financing.

The same holds true for the manufacturers that hold the key to future auto-making jobs: well-managed, foreign-based companies like Toyota and Honda, which, according to the automotive analysts at CSM Worldwide, will build more cars in the United States next year than G.M., Chrysler and Ford combined.

What lesson does federal favoritism toward Chrysler and G.M. teach other businesses that play by the rules? How will our trade negotiators keep a straight face when complaining about subsidies to Airbus or Chinese steel makers? The government should have stepped aside earlier and allowed a normal bankruptcy that would have treated the union and the debt-holders fairly. Fortunately, if the bondholders stand firm, we’re likely to see that process begin on Monday.

James K. Glassman, who was under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in the George W. Bush administration, is the president of World Growth, a nonprofit economic-development group.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/30/opinion/30glassman.html?ref=opinion

Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader

I’ve always admired my friends who are wide readers. A few even pride themselves on never reading a book a second time. I’ve been a wide reader at times. When I was much younger, I spent nearly a year in the old Reading Room of the British Museum, discovering in the book I was currently reading the title of the next I would read.

But at heart, I’m a re-reader. The point of reading outward, widely, has always been to find the books I want to re-read and then to re-read them. In part, that’s an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that no matter how long and how widely I read, I will only ever make my way through a tiny portion of the world’s literature. (The British Museum was a great place to learn that lesson.) And in part, it’s a concession to the limits of my memory. I forget a lot, which makes the pleasure of re-reading all the greater.

The love of repetition seems to be ingrained in children. And it is certainly ingrained in the way children learn to read — witness the joyous and maddening love of hearing that same bedtime book read aloud all over again, word for word, inflection for inflection. Childhood is an oasis of repetitive acts, so much so that there is something shocking about the first time a young reader reads a book only once and moves on to the next. There’s a hunger in that act but also a kind of forsaking, a glimpse of adulthood to come.

The work I chose in adulthood — to study literature — required the childish pleasure of re-reading. When I was in graduate school, once through Pope’s “Dunciad” or Berryman’s “The Dream Songs” was not going to cut it. A grasp of the poem was presumed to lie on the far side of many re-readings, none of which were really repetitions. The same is true of being a writer, which requires obsessive re-reading. But the real re-reading I mean is the savory re-reading, the books I have to be careful not to re-read too often so I can read them again with pleasure.

It’s a miscellaneous library, always shifting. It has included a book of the north woods: John J. Rowlands’s “Cache Lake Country,” which I have re-read annually for many years. It may still include Raymond Chandler, though I won’t know for sure till the next time I re-read him. It includes Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” and lots of A.J. Liebling and a surprising amount of George Eliot. It once included nearly all of Dickens, but that has been boiled down to “The Pickwick Papers” and “Great Expectations.” There are many more titles, of course. This is not a canon. This is a refuge.

Part of the fun of re-reading is that you are no longer bothered by the business of finding out what happens. Re-reading “Middlemarch,” for instance, or even “The Great Gatsby,” I’m able to pay attention to what’s really happening in the language itself — a pleasure surely as great as discovering who marries whom, and who dies and who does not.

The real secret of re-reading is simply this: It is impossible. The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does. Pip is always there to be revisited, but you, the reader, are a little like the convict who surprises him in the graveyard — always a stranger.

I look at the books on my library shelves. They certainly seem dormant. But what if the characters are quietly rearranging themselves? What if Emma Woodhouse doesn’t learn from her mistakes? What if Tom Jones descends into a sodden life of poaching and outlawry? What if Eve resists Satan, remembering God’s injunction and Adam’s loving advice? I imagine all the characters bustling to get back into their places as they feel me taking the book down from the shelf. “Hurry,” they say, “he’ll expect to find us exactly where he left us, never mind how much his life has changed in the meantime.”

Verlyn Klinkenborg, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/30/opinion/30sat4.html?ref=opinion

The GM Quagmire

gm may 30

Congress should question the need for nationalization.

IN MARCH, we cheered President Obama when he extended a federal lifeline to General Motors and Chrysler. He was risking a fair bit of tax dollars — $6 billion, on top of $17.5 billion in emergency loans tendered since December — but he said he was setting tough conditions for anything beyond that. “We cannot make the survival of our auto industry dependent on an unending flow of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “These companies — and this industry — must ultimately stand on their own, not as wards of the state.”

So how did we get from there to here? Here, according to media accounts this week, is an imminent transformation of General Motors into a government-owned company, infused with upward of $50 billion in federal money. The United States will accept stock in lieu of the cash the company owes, and Washington — that is, you, the taxpayer — will become the owner of 70 percent of the new GM. When might the company stand on its own, to paraphrase Mr. Obama? When would the government exit the stage? The Post reports today that administration officials hope to depart within five years, but the truth is that nobody knows when or whether taxpayers would recover their investment. If you think the federal government is well equipped to manage a failing automobile manufacturer into profitability, you should jump at this deal.

The bailouts were distasteful from the beginning, in December, but with the economy so fragile, a GM implosion might have been calamitous. Dealerships and auto-parts suppliers would have followed the once-mighty manufacturer into bankruptcy, taking a huge toll on employment. Even today, with the economy looking less shaky, that logic may still hold. Economists have warned against assuming too soon that the recession is waning. It could be too dangerous even now to leave GM to its own devices.

But is a massive, unbounded federal commitment to a company that evidently still can attract no private capital really the only option? It doesn’t take much imagination to forecast the political pressures that will buffet the government-as-auto-executive. We’ve seen one effect already in the preferential treatment of the autoworkers’ union at the expense of private creditors. The government sweetened its offer to creditors in the past couple of days, but they’re still getting less return on their debt than the union is. Meanwhile, the union can boast that it has been promised no loss in “base hourly pay, no reduction in . . . health care, and no reduction in pensions.” Influential members of Congress will insist on jobs in their districts; environmentalists will want electric cars; overseas sourcing will be frowned upon. How such decisions affect profits could become secondary.

In an essay this week, federal Judge Richard A. Posner argued that a further bailout may be justified — if GM’s failure to attract private investment stems from continuing problems in the overall credit market and not its own inefficiencies. If so, he wrote, the aid should take the form of additional loans, not ownership. “We should be concerned lest GM become a kind of economic Vietnam, where the federal government throws good money after bad, year after year, in a vain quest for victory.”

When the Bush administration first assessed its unpalatable options, Congress played an active and constructive role. Where are the legislators now? They should at least be pressing the administration to explain why nationalization is the best option.

Editorial, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/29/AR2009052903327.html?nav=hcmoduletmv

Photo: http://correspondents.theatlantic.com/richard_posner/2009/05/the_general_motors_reorganization_and_the_federal_government.php

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See also:

The General Motors Reorganization and the Federal Government

It now seems certain that General Motors will declare bankruptcy on Monday, that the federal government will as part of the reorganization in bankruptcy acquire more than 50 percent of the common stock of the reorganized company, and that the government will invest perhaps $30 billion in the new company, bringing the total cost of the GM bailout to a shade under $50 billion.

These developments raise three questions:

1. Should GM have received any government money?

2. Should the government acquire common stock in GM?

3. Should it invest in GM?

My answer to 1 is a qualified–an importantly qualified–yes. My answer to 2 and 3 is no.

Government bailouts of failing private companies are in general a very bad thing. They weaken the discipline of the market and penalize successful firms by subsidizing their inefficient competitors. But that is in general and there is a case for bailouts in times of national economic emergency, and it is on this ground that I have defended the initial bailout of General Motors and Chrysler, last December. Last December, with the economy in a tailspin that was beginning to remind observers of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the bankruptcy of the two firms would have been experienced as a dangerous shock to the economy. The firms might have had to liquidate (see below), which would at a stroke have increased the unemployment roles by hundreds of thousands, as well as causing ripple effects throughout the chain of distribution of motor vehicles, which includes not only the manufacturers but also the parts suppliers, who supply more than 50 percent of the components of the motor vehicle, and the auto dealers. The effect on employment and therefore on incomes and business and consumer confidence would probably have been profound–and wholly negative. In short, the costs of the initial bailout were outweighed by the costs of doing nothing.

That was the macroeconomic justification for the bailout. There was another, though closely related, justification. As a result of the near collapse of the banking industry, and of financial intermediation generally, last September, lending was severely constrained for some months (it still is severely constrained, though less so). That would have made a reorganization in bankruptcy of the auto manufacturers, as distinct from a liquidation, very difficult to pull off. Bankruptcy is designed to eliminate a crushing debt, but it does not eliminate the bankrupt firm’s need for money if it is to continue in business. To acquire the necessary money, the reorganized firm typically obtains what are called “debtor in possession” loans (because in a reorganization the debtor–that is, the bankrupt–remains in possession of the firm’s assets), and the lenders are given priority over the old debtholders. GM and Chrysler would have needed tens of billions of dollars of such loans to keep operating, and that money would not have been available, other than from the government, in December; indeed, it seems not yet to be available.

That was a liquidity problem, rather than an allocative-efficiency problem. To understand this, one must distinguish between average and marginal cost. The average cost of producing a car is the total cost incurred by the manufacturer, including interest on its debts, divided by the number of cars it produces. That cost exceeded, and still exceeds, the price at which GM can sell an appreciable number of its vehicles. GM’s marginal cost, however, is the addition to its total costs of producing one more vehicle. That cost does not include interest on existing debt, because the interest is a fixed amount rather than varying with how many cars GM builds and sells. (It is the fixity of its debt that made GM insolvent when the demand for its vehicles plummeted last fall.) As long as GM’s marginal cost is less than the price it can get for its product, it is efficient that it should remain in business. So if it cannot get the cash that it requires to be able to remain in business, then an efficient production process will be shut down, and that is an inefficient result. It therefore made sense, regardless of macroeconomic consequences, for the government to step in and take the place of the temporarily constrained banks, and become GM’s (and Chrysler’s) banker. 

But that was then. Five months later, credit is less constrained, and so GM’s inability to obtain debtor in possession financing (if indeed it is unable to do so, as I shall assume) may reflect not a liquidity problem but a judgment by the financial industry that GM has no long-run future and therefore could not repay a debtor-in-possession loan large enough to keep the company going. Moreover, these five months have seen a partial, and because gradual an orderly partial, liquidation of GM and Chryster, which has diminished the shock value of their declaring bankruptcy; and they also seen a reduction in panic as the economic situation has stabilized. Not that it has fully stabilized–indeed, it may not really have stabilized; but there is no doubt that business and consumer confidence has increased, and so bankruptcies that would have been real shockers five months ago can now perhaps be taken by the economy in stride. That certainly has been true with respect to the Chrysler bankruptcy, though Chrysler is a much smaller company than GM and the government was able to coerce the agreement of virtually all the creditors, so that the bankruptcy proceeding has proceeded at a lightning pace.

Having already shrunk a good deal, GM might if the government washed its hands of it be able to obtain enough private money to keep going. Or perhaps not; and if not, and liquidity is still a factor (that is, if lending is still inefficiently constrained because the banking industry is still undercapitalized), there is an argument for a further bailout, on the ground that without it GM might liquidate entirely and the effect on employment in both GM and its satellite firms might deal a body blow to what we hope is an incipient recovery from the depression. I am skeptical, but will assume for the sake of argument that there is a convincing case for a further bailout.

It should not, however, take the form of cash for common stock that makes the government the owner of GM. It should be a loan in exchange for preferred stock with cumulative dividends (so that it does not affect GM’s current cash flow) and no fixed date of maturity (so that it does not enable the government to step ahead of other creditors). For the government to own an automobile manufacturer doesn’t make any sense, for reasons too obvious to dwell on.

The government says that it’s not going to interfere in management decisions. I don’t believe that. Quite apart from the political pressures that the United Auto Workers, and other entities that have a financial stake in General Motors, can be expected to exert on members of Congress and on the President, the Administration seems determined to preserve General Motors in order to (1) affirm the nation’s commitment to remaining a major manufacturer of motor vehicles and (2) advance the Administration’s goal of reducing oil consumption and (relatedly) carbon emissions. Achieving these goals will require the Administration to intervene, directly or indirectly, in the design and production and even marketing decisions of GM’s management.

Goal (1) is ridiculous. Nowhere is it written that the United States shall produce motor vehicles, any more than that it shall produce television sets, which it no longer does. If other countries, such as Japan, produce better motor vehicles (from the standpoint of price and quality–and of the health of the environment and of reducing our dangerous dependence on oil produced by unstable or hostile foreign countries) than the United States, we should import them, and reallocate the resources that go into the manufacture of motor vehicles to other productive activities.

But what makes goal (1) particularly ridiculous is that even if GM (and Chrysler) liquidated, there would be a thriving U.S. automobile industry. There would be Ford”s production, and there would be the foreign cars that are manufactured in the United States. Toyota and the other foreign producers that have factories in the United States are part of the American automobile industry; their ownership by foreigners has no significance at all.

Goal (2)–operating GM in accordance with the environmental and foreign-policy goals of the Administration (which I happen to agree with)–confuses regulation with ownership. The government can without owning the manufacturers require them to comply with rules designed to make driving less harmful to the environment and to our need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. All that the government’s owning GM will accomplish is to make the company a political plaything.

And then there is the $30 billion that the government apparently is planning to pour into GM so that it won’t just limp along but will become a vibrant, revitalized producer. We are becoming accustomed to thinking of anything less than a trillion dollars as small change. But as the government’s loans, investments, and guaranties mount into the stratosphere, the danger of the “depression aftershock” that I emphasized in my book and in a number of my blog entries grows, and a further $30 billion expenditure deserves critical scrutiny. We should be concerned lest GM become a kind of economic Vietnam, where the federal government throws good money after bad, year after year, in a vain quest for victory.

Richard A. Posner, The Atlantic

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Full article: http://correspondents.theatlantic.com/richard_posner/2009/05/the_general_motors_reorganization_and_the_federal_government.php

Health Reform’s Savings Myth

“Health-care reform is entitlement reform” has become a mantra of the Obama administration. The idea is that Congress can add a massive health-care program this year — covering the uninsured — and use the same measures that pay for the health reform to fix the broader budget problems. If that sounds too good to be true, there’s a reason.

Expanding insurance to cover the 46 million Americans who are uninsured would probably cost more than $100 billion a year — more than the federal government spends on education, training, employment and social services combined. It is an immense undertaking at a time when the budget is under terrible strain. So it’s no surprise that Democrats and the Obama administration do not want to portray it simply as another big entitlement program.

Some argue that universal coverage would decrease costs by expanding the risk pool (bringing healthy young people into the system) and by decreasing emergency room costs, because more people would get care before their illnesses become acute. There’s truth to both, but the savings are vastly outweighed by the costs of treating so many people who today get little or no care. Expanding insurance coverage would increase health-care spending by those who acquire insurance and add to overall health cost inflation.

Well, then, perhaps expanding coverage can be justified as the necessary “sweetener” in a package of tough measures to control costs? It’s true that Congress doesn’t much like all-pain-and-no-gain policies. But the administration’s proposal, even before Congress gets to work, is to spend $100 billion more on coverage while finding cost-saving measures worth only about a third as much. Another third would be paid for by tax increases. The last third, so far, isn’t paid for at all. That’s three times as much sweetener as medicine, in other words — and Congress will be tempted to jettison some of the savings and all of the tax increases.

You doubt Congress would pass a bill that isn’t fully paid for and that would make the fiscal situation drastically worse? Just remember the Medicare prescription drug bill, for which Congress and the Bush administration teamed up to add a huge new entitlement without fixing any existing problems in the Medicare system. Even if Congress paid fully for this latest entitlement, it seems exceedingly unlikely that it would do much to improve the longer-term deficit situation. Health-care costs grow at a faster rate than the economy by two percentage points per year. So it’s true that if we could get them back in line with overall economic growth, government spending on health care would be so much lower than projected over time that long-term budget woes would ease.

Unfortunately, though many ideas are tossed around, no one really knows how to slow that cost growth. Health information technology, better disease management and preventive care are all good ideas that would almost certainly improve the quality of health care, but they are less certain to slow cost growth. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office has pointed out that each of these would either drive up government costs or have to be paired with other policy changes to create any federal savings.

Two cost-saving measures hold the most promise. First, what’s known as comparative effectiveness research, which tracks what works and what doesn’t, would also require outside boards directing doctors and hospitals about what procedures they could and couldn’t use. Policymakers have tended to dance around the second part of the equation. Second, eliminating the tax break for employer-provided health care could generate a good deal of savings and help bring down health-care inflation. But, again, there’s a political challenge; President Obama would have to admit that Sen. John McCain, his GOP opponent in the presidential campaign, was right on this idea.

Here is the bottom line: Most health-care inflation is the result of new technologies. Bending the curve enough to help balance the budget means walking away from some of the new technologies and devices that people want when they are sick. It also means improving consumer cost-consciousness through insurance reform and higher deductibles and co-payments. For most of us, that means paying more, not less. Even then, it is unlikely to be enough to get costs under control.

Health-care reform will have to be an incremental process: Try some things now, and try more in a few years. Maybe we will choose to spend a good deal more on health care, but if so, even more will have to be done to fix the rest of the budget. As much as we might wish it were so, creating an expensive plan to expand coverage, with some measures to get us started on bringing down costs, will not be sufficient to improve America’s fiscal health anytime soon — let alone fix the federal budget.

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/29/AR2009052903235.html?nav=hcmoduletmv

‘Shock And Awe’ Statism

Epiphanies are a dime a dozen among congressional Democrats as they discover urgent new reasons to experience the almost erotic pleasure of commandeering other people’s money. For example, freshman Rep. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat whose district includes Disney World, was recently there and was inspired.

The world, he realized, would be a sweeter place if Congress mandated that all companies with 100 or more employees provide a week of paid vacation to those who work at least 25 hours a week. After three years, they would be entitled to two weeks, and companies with more than 50 employees would have to start providing a paid vacation week. Grayson would not mandate that paid vacations be spent at Disney World.

With the welfare state approaching insolvency and businesses sagging, this is an odd time to augment Americans’ entitlement mentality. But the travel and tourism industries think that Grayson’s idea is neat.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus want the Treasury Department to subsidize minority owners of broadcasting properties. The broadcasters are not “too big to fail” and so do not pose a “systemic risk,” but, the representatives say, failures of minority broadcasters would diminish diversity.

Such government micromanagement of the economy is everywhere. The Post recently reported that Richard Wagoner, the former CEO of General Motors who was removed by the government, remains on GM’s payroll “because senior Treasury officials have yet to decide whether he should get the $20 million severance package that the company had promised him.” His 2009 compensation — $1 — is payable Dec. 31. The $20 million promised to him includes contractual awards, deferred compensation and pension benefits accrued over 32 years with the company. Promise-keeping, including honoring contracts, is the default position of a lawful society. But suddenly, many citizens’ legal claims are merely starting points for negotiations with an overbearing government.

State governments, too, are expected to accept Washington’s whims, but plucky Indiana is being obdurate. Gov. Mitch Daniels, alarmed by what he calls the Obama administration’s “shock-and-awe statism,” is supporting state Treasurer Richard Mourdock’s objection to the administration’s treatment of Chrysler’s creditors, which include the pension funds for Indiana’s retired teachers and state police officers and a state construction fund. Together they own $42.5 million of Chrysler’s $6.9 billion (supposedly) secured debt.

Compliant, because dependent, banks bowed to the administration’s demand that they accept less than settled bankruptcy law would have given them as secured creditors. Next, the president denounced as “speculators” remaining secured creditors, who then folded and accepted less on the dollar than an unsecured creditor — the United Auto Workers union — is getting. This raw taking of property from secured investors penalized those “speculators” — retired Indiana teachers and state police officers who, Mourdock says, are being “ripped off by the federal government.”

He is asking a court to declare that the Obama administration’s actions have violated “more than 100 years of established law by redefining ‘secured creditors’ to mean something less” and that the actions violate the Fifth Amendment protection against the seizure of private property. Furthermore, he says, the government is guilty of “misuse” of the Troubled Assets Relief Program, which gives the Treasury authority only to aid financial institutions, not industrial companies.

One New Deal improvisation not yet emulated by the Obama administration is the September 1933 slaughter — while the unemployment rate was 25 percent and millions were hungry — of 6 million young pigs. The purpose was to raise the price of pork by reducing the supply of it. But the “cash for clunkers” idea is a cousin of that.

The Wall Street Journal’s Joseph B. White reports that proposals percolating in Congress would further subsidize Detroit — and chill the planet, of course — by bribing people to turn in old cars and trucks (dealers have 400,000 unsold large pickups) and buy vehicles that get better gas mileage. In one plan, if the new truck gets one mile per gallon more than the old truck, the buyer would get $3,500; a two-mpg improvement would be worth $4,500.

Such a policy would counteract the president’s environmentally harmful policy of forcing Detroit to quickly produce cars that are much more fuel-efficient — meaning light, cramped and dangerous. Such products will be powerful incentives for Americans to continue driving their old, more polluting and less fuel-efficient cars. This will deprive Detroit of some customers, but surely the government has thought this through.

George F. Will, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/29/AR2009052902671.html?nav=hcmoduletmv

Be Chill Ye Bleating Pundits

First came the breaking-news e-mail alert: President Obama would appoint Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Within minutes, a dozen other e-mails tumbled through the hatch enumerating all the reasons Sotomayor was a terrible pick: affirmative action, identity politics, the Ricci case, double standards, racism, sexism. Boom shacka-lacka-lacka . . .

You could practically hear the clattering of bullet points ricocheting through the blogosphere.

Even without the help of all those foot soldiers who blast out late-night memos, any sentient being could have predicted the reaction. A brilliant white Protestant heterosexual man with one wife, two children and a record so clean he squeaks when he walks would have been viewed with skepticism if Obama had chosen him.

In partisan warfare, it’s never too soon to open fire.

Let’s give our trigger fingers a rest and clear some underbrush. Yes, of course, Sotomayor is a political pick aimed at consummating the Democratic Party’s romance with what has been the fastest-growing demographic in the country. Unprecedented.

When Republicans appoint justices (seven of the nine currently serving), they’re merely brilliant men who happen to be Italian American or African American — without any political or identity considerations whatsoever.

Then again, perhaps Sotomayor is an experienced jurist who happens to be a woman (check) and a Latina (check), who also happens to have the qualities Obama prefers, plus a spiffy résumé: Princeton University Pyne Prize winner, Yale Law Journal editor, 17 years on the federal bench. Some call that a trifecta. Yet, you’d think from the onslaught that she runs a chain of abortion clinics.

Although her judicial record has raised some legitimate concerns, Sotomayor isn’t so easily characterized as the radical liberal that some on the right have suggested. She has ruled favorably toward abortion protesters and unfavorably toward minority plaintiffs.

Nevertheless, most criticism has been aimed at perceived racist-sexist remarks from a 2001 diversity speech in which Sotomayor suggested that she, as a Latina, could be more qualified than a white guy. Pause: Don’t most women think they’re more qualified than most men when it comes to making wise decisions? Kidding, kidding.

What she said: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” Sotomayor may be misguided, but she isn’t necessarily a sexist-racist. I say this as a mother of white males (perfect in every way) and author of “Save the Males.” Notwithstanding the preceding, I see her point.

Could a white man get away with saying something comparable about a Latina? Of course not. After Latinas have run the world for 2,000 years, they won’t be able to say it ever again either.

Finally, context. Sotomayor’s point was that the ethnicity and sex of a judge “may and will make a difference in our judging.” Who doesn’t believe that?

Just for fun, I might argue that Sotomayor is a conservative inasmuch as she implicitly recognizes that men and women are different and bring different perspectives to bear. Radical-liberal types tend to fantasize that sex is not a difference that matters. It also can’t be denied that one’s racial or ethnic background is profoundly significant, though we all pretend otherwise as convenient. The broader concern, obviously, is that such considerations not interfere with how Lady Justice, her blindfold securely fastened, interprets the law. Hence questions about Sotomayor’s role in the now suddenly famous Ricci v. DeStefano case. To think, a few days ago, only seven people outside of New Haven, Conn., knew the name Frank Ricci. Today, rumor has it that Tom Cruise is considering playing Ricci as soon as Joe the Plumber writes the script.

Briefly, Ricci is a white firefighter who performed well on a promotion-related exam. But because minorities didn’t do as well — and therefore couldn’t be promoted — the city tossed the test. Ricci and 19 other firefighters sued.

The pinch for Sotomayor is that she and the other two appellate panelists affirmed a lower-court ruling favoring the city’s decision — without evidence of having grappled with the legal issues. Thus, a legitimate question for anyone: What was she thinking?

By the time Sotomayor comes up for a vote, we’ll know everything but her ring size.

For now, the hot winds of punditry could use a little chill.

Calling Sotomayor a sexist and racist, far from being fair, is an irrational rush to judgment unbecoming ladies, gentlemen, scoundrels and scholars.

Kathleen Parker, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/29/AR2009052902673.html?nav=hcmoduletmv

The Tough Question of What Not to Disclose

In the 1952 movie classic “Deadline-U.S.A.,” a crusading editor played by Humphrey Bogart is on the phone with a gangster who warns him: “Print that story, and you’re a dead man.”

A defiant Bogart, holding the receiver so the presses can be heard in the background, tells the bad guy: “That’s the press, baby. The press. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!” For many, that’s the enduring perception of those of us in the press. Plead all you want, but we’re going to give readers the news, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

In truth, sometimes you can do something.

Post readers — from presidents to peons — routinely make appeals for information to be withheld. Most are denied. But a few are granted.

If you want to block publication of the sale price of your home or a DUI arrest, forget it. Those are public records. But if there’s a threat to personal safety, you’ve got a chance.

Virginia Editor Mike Semel recalls a case in which federal authorities expressed fear that a planned Post story would elevate death threats against a law enforcement figure. The story ran, but only after it was edited with a special sensitivity to language that might heighten the threats.

On other occasions, The Post has agreed to delay publication of stories that might jeopardize a criminal investigation.

The names of witnesses to crimes have been withheld after The Post agreed that disclosure would endanger their lives. Likewise, The Post deleted the name of a purchaser from its weekly home sales listings after she expressed fear that it might be noticed by a man who was stalking her.

When fancy homes are featured in photo spreads, editors routinely mask the precise location — often without being asked — so burglars won’t have a road map. Post policy is to print a street address only when it’s essential to the story.

But obituaries editor Adam Bernstein denies requests from relatives of the deceased who don’t want references to previous marriages or the cause of death. Likewise, The Post’s Web site denies requests to delete archival stories of those whose convictions have been expunged by a court.

But The Post has on occasion agreed to help those who faced criminal charges that were later dropped. The Web site has been willing to “redirect” search rankings so that the first archived story to appear will include the dismissal, not the arrest.

The stakes are high when the government asks The Post not to publish material that it thinks will harm national security.

Longtime executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. said The Post agreed a “very few” times to scrap entire stories during his quarter century as a top editor at the paper. Last fall he handed the reins to Marcus Brauchli, who said he has not received a government request to withhold national security information. “We killed a story of mine after CIA officials made their case,” said national security reporter Dana Priest. “It was a very easy decision once we understood their rationale.”

In 2005, the Bush administration sought to limit disclosures in another Priest story revealing secret CIA interrogation sites in Eastern Europe. Before publication, Downie was summoned to the White House, where the president, Vice President Dick Cheney and Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte made their case.

The story, which won a Pulitzer Prize, was published. But it noted that The Post had agreed not to identify the countries participating in the covert program because “senior U.S. officials” had “argued that the disclosure might disrupt counterterrorism efforts in those countries and elsewhere and could make them targets of possible terrorist retaliation.”

Government leaders often assert that disclosures would damage national security.

But University of Chicago legal scholar Geoffrey R. Stone, an authority on the subject, said, “There is no clear example of any instance in which the press has published classified information where the publication has caused direct, immediate and grave harm to the United States.”

Downie said his meetings with top-level officials about sensitive national security information were civil and rarely “melodramatic.”

“We always listened carefully” to the appeals, he said, “but that doesn’t mean we agreed all the time.”

“We take these decisions very seriously. We lose sleep over them,” he said, adding that the decision on whether to publish is seldom clear-cut.

“These are not 90-10 decisions,” he said. “Sometimes, they’re 51-49.”

Andrew Alexander, Ombudsman, Washington Post

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Full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/29/AR2009052902686.html

Holding On to Our Humanity

Overload is a real problem. There is a danger that even the most decent of people can grow numb to the unending reports of atrocities occurring all around the globe. Mass rape. Mass murder. Torture. The institutionalized oppression of women.

There are other things in the world: a ballgame, your daughter’s graduation, the ballet. The tendency to draw an impenetrable psychic curtain across the worst that the world has to offer is understandable. But it’s a tendency, as Elie Wiesel has cautioned, that must be fought.

We have an obligation to listen, for example, when a woman from a culture foreign to our own recalls the moment when time stopped for her, when she was among a group of women attacked by soldiers:

“They said to us: ‘If you have a baby on your back, let us see it.’ The soldiers looked at the babies and if it was a boy, they killed it on the spot [by shooting him]. If it was a girl, they dropped or threw it on the ground. If the girl died, she died. If she didn’t die, the mothers were allowed to pick it up and keep it.”

The woman recalled that in that moment, the kind of throbbing moment when time is not just stopped but lost, when it ceases to have any meaning, her grandmother had a boy on her back. The grandmother refused to show the child to the soldiers, so both she and the boy were shot.

A team of female researchers, three of them physicians, traveled to Chad last fall to interview women who were refugees from the nightmare in Darfur. No one has written more compellingly about that horror than my colleague on this page, Nick Kristof. When I was alerted to the report that the team had compiled for Physicians for Human Rights, my first thought was, “What more is there to say?”

And then I thought about Mr. Wiesel, who has warned us so eloquently about the dangers inherent in indifference to the suffering of others. Stories of atrocities on the scale of those coming out of Darfur cannot be told too often.

The conflict has gone on for more than six years, and while the murders and mass rapes have diminished, this enormous human catastrophe is still very much with us. For one thing, Sudan has expelled humanitarian aid groups from Darfur, a move that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently told Mr. Kristof “may well amount to genocide by other means.”

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict and the systematic sexual attacks on Darfuri women have been widely reported. Millions have been displaced and perhaps a quarter of a million Darfuris are living in conditions of the barest subsistence in refugee camps along the Chad-Sudan border.

The report by Physicians for Human Rights, to be released officially on Sunday, focuses on several dozen women in the Farchana refugee camp in Chad. The report pays special attention to the humanity of the women.

“These are real people with children, with lives that may have been quite simple, but were really rich before they were displaced,” said Susannah Sirkin, a deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.

The conditions in the refugee camps are grim, made worse by the traumas that still grip the women, many of whom were witnesses — or the victims — of the most extreme violence.

“I don’t think I was prepared for the level of just palpable suffering that they are continuing to endure,” said Dr. Sondra Crosby, one of the four interviewers. “Women were telling me they were starving. They’re eating sorghum and oil and salt and sugar.”

Dr. Crosby and her colleagues had a few crackers or cookies on hand for the women during the interviews. “I don’t think I saw even one woman eat the crackers, even though they were hungry,” she said. “They all would hide them in their dresses so they could take them back to their children.”

The women also live with the ongoing fear of sexual assault. According to the report, rape is a pervasive problem around the refugee camps, with the women especially vulnerable when they are foraging for firewood or food.

“It is so much easier to look away from victims,” said Mr. Wiesel, in a speech at the White House in 1999. “It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes.”

But indifference to the suffering of others “is what makes the human being inhuman,” he said, adding: “The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.”

Bob Herbert, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/30/opinion/30herbert.html

In Alaska, a Wilderness to Call Your Own

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While the Inside Passage in southeastern Alaska is a popular route for cruise ships, there are still portions where civilization only exists on the fringes of the backcountry. Left, the Three Lakes Loop Road in the Tongass National Forest.

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Cascade Creek in Tongass National Forest. This part of Alaska gets more than 100 inches of rain annually.

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On the waterfront in Petersburg, a fishing town on the northern end of Mitkoff Island, in the Inside Passage of Alaska.

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Nestled in Tongass National Forest, Cascade Creek Cabin offers access to a hiking trail, waterfalls, a whitewater canyon and pristine lakes.

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Nestled in Tongass National Forest, Cascade Creek Cabin offers access to a hiking trail, waterfalls, a whitewater canyon and pristine lakes.

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Full article and photos: http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/travel/31alaska.html

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See also:

In Alaska, a Wilderness to Call Your Own

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With Baird Glacier in the background, kayakers cross Thomas Bay.

AS I lifted my kayak paddle out of the waters of Thomas Bay in Southeast Alaska, I paused for a moment to listen to the soft susurration of rain on the surface of the water. Gossamer veils of fog lay over the dark spruce and hemlock hills that disappeared in the mist above me. In the background, the roar of Cascade Creek provided a constant backbeat, a reminder that this part of Alaska really is a rain forest, getting more than 100 inches of rain annually.

It’s a good climate for ducks, and later, back at our cabin perched on the pebbled beach of the bay, I watched a line of waterfowl paddle by, diving under the water then coming up with fish in their beaks. Tilting their heads back, they slid their catch down their long necks.

My husband, my son and I had arrived at the cabin earlier that day, on a water taxi out of Petersburg, a fishing town on the northern tip of Mitkoff Island, in the Inside Passage of Alaska, about 16 air miles southwest of our destination. Air or boat was the only way to get there, which was just the way we wanted it. In planning my family’s trip, I had been looking to get off the grid, somewhere without roads or electricity or other tourists, so that we might really experience Alaska on its own terms. But with a 9-year-old whose camping experience was limited to a few nights in a tent in our front yard, backpacking into the wild seemed impractical.

Then, browsing online one night, I’d stumbled across the idea of renting a public-use cabin. These are simple backcountry accommodations offered by various state and federal agencies in Alaska at bargain rates — about $35 a night. A cabin, unlike a tent, has a roof. And a wood stove by which to dry our supposedly waterproof boots. And hooks to hang all our newly purchased L. L. Bean rain gear. The one that caught my eye, Cascade Creek Cabin, was in the Tongass National Forest, a swath of 17 million largely roadless acres. The online description promised “Berry picking and wildlife viewing,” plus a hiking trail with “access to waterfalls, a whitewater canyon, pristine lakes and alpine areas frequented by mountain goats.” I signed us up.

And so, at 8 a.m. on a misty August morning, the three of us headed out for our two-night adventure. We were toting sleeping bags and pads, a camp stove and cooking gear, food for three days — including halibut we’d caught on a fishing expedition the previous afternoon — and a supply of fresh water. On top of the boat were the two kayaks we had rented for our stay. Scott Roberge of Tongass Kayak Adventures, who had rented us the gear and who was dropping us off at the cabin, added to our pile a bag of spray skirts, life vests and other kayaking supplies, including an emergency kit and a radio we could use if disaster struck.

Like hotels, cabins have check-in times, and we pulled into Thomas Bay well before our scheduled noon arrival. As we motored up, we could see the trim brown cabin sitting at one end of a half moon of pebble beach; at the other end, Cascade Creek tumbled into the glacial gray waters of the bay. A skiff was moored in the water out front, and smoke curled from the chimney. The previous night’s guests were still in possession, so we dropped our bags outside and decided to check out the Cascade Creek Trail at the opposite end of the beach.

As we walked along the beach, a pair of bald eagles flew out of the trees and over the bay. The sleek head of a seal bobbed to the surface to get a better look at us. According to a book of hiking trails I had picked up in Petersburg, the first mile of the trail was rated “easiest,” and we happily made our way along, first on a softly padded trail that led past moss- and lichen-covered tree trunks, and then on a series of boardwalks installed by the Forest Service. Stretched over the boards was a black plastic mesh for traction. That seemed like overkill until we crossed the wooden bridge over a waterfall, where the trail took a sharp turn upward.

It was raining by that point, and the trail alternated between steep sets of log stairs — the Forest Service seems to have been conducting a contest on how many ways you can turn logs into steps — puddles and slick muddy trails that sucked at our boots. My son’s feet were quickly soaked, and at one point I fell and hit my elbow so hard that my entire hand went numb for a good 10 minutes.

After an hour of hiking we hit a big blow-down area, with tree trunks scattered like pick-up sticks across the trail. Gingerly we climbed over the fallen trunks, trying to keep the outline of the trail in sight.

According to the trail description, about two and a half miles in we would reach a junction that would take us to Falls Lake. There we’d find a rowboat that we could take to yet another trail, which would eventually lead us to Swan Lake.

But among the scattered trees, it was hard to know how far we had come — or how much farther we had to go — and our determination was faltering. With the rain coming down harder, we decided to turn back.

By the time we made it back down to the beach, it was a little after noon, and we were greeted by the putt-putt of the outboard motor as the previous night’s tenants headed home. The cabin was ours. We quickly reconnoitered the place: Inside were two sets of bunks — one single, one double — a table and benches, a work counter and a wood stove (there was also a diesel stove, which we left untouched). A small cache box on the exterior wall provided safe storage for food. The front porch looked out over Thomas Bay and the beach.

An outhouse and a woodshed stocked with logs and axes were out back, connected to the cabin by a boardwalk. Blueberry bushes surrounded us. A small stream rushed along to the bay.

We settled in, getting the wood stove going and then propping our boots around it to dry. Earlier tenants had left behind a miscellany of items, among which we discovered a trivia game called Alaska Wild Card. Over lunch, the three of us competed to answer questions about the 49th state and its flora and fauna. “In Southeast Alaska, approximately 80% of bald eagles nest in which kind of tree?” (Sitka spruce.) “What does Denali mean?” (The High One.)

A key source of entertainment was the guest register, which had entries dating back decades. Flipping through it, we soon learned that we were hardly the only people to find the Swan Lake trail too daunting. And, as the rain kept coming, varying from a fine mist that barely kissed our faces to a downpour that turned the nearby streams into gushing faucets, we discovered that we weren’t the first to experience that aspect of the Alaskan climate firsthand either. “Rained every day,” wrote one correspondent, who had visited the cabin 20 years ago.

It was hard to know how seriously to take some of the entries. One writer claimed to have found a bear in the lower bunk. A member of the Harr family from South Dakota noted that they had “caught dolly varden, cod and some other fish but no salmon or halibut. Jerry got a bear that I skinned for him. Fun.”

And what had happened to the fur trapper who, in 1997, recorded a tale of woe, with his boat engine quitting, his food supplies and cigarettes gone and no way of letting the outside world know? “I will never leave town again without letting people know where I am going,” he’d vowed.

After our afternoon paddle, we cooked dinner, grilling our fresh halibut fillets over a wood fire that we battled to keep going in the rain.

As a kind of cabin-warming gift, our Petersburg travel agent had given us a slim volume entitled “The Strangest Story Ever Told” by Harry D. Colp. Mr. Colp had been a gold prospector in the area in the early part of the 20th century, and in the 1930s he had written up his experiences, but put them aside and never published them. In the 1950s, his wife discovered the manuscript in a box and had it published in a small edition.

AS the long Alaskan summer evening waned — we were getting about 16 hours of daylight — we retreated to our bunks, and I put on a headlamp and read aloud from the memoir. As it turned out, our peaceful spot was known by the locals as the Bay of Death because a landslide had wiped out a village of 500 Tlingit people here in 1750. And their unquiet ghosts had seemingly haunted the place. In each chapter, Mr. Colp told of prospectors who had come to the area to search for gold and how they’d seemingly been driven mad by malevolent spirits. In one, a grubstaker named Charlie is set upon by “the most hideous creatures. I couldn’t call them anything but devils, as they were neither men nor monkeys — yet looked like both. They were entirely sexless, their bodies covered with long coarse hair, except where the scabs and running sores had replaced it.”

Charlie, understandably, had hightailed it out of there.

We, on the other hand, were visited only by a small cruise boat that motored through the bay, seemingly on its way to somewhere else, and by a set of porpoises that gracefully curved through the water. Even the porcupine that we’d been told had been plaguing the cabin stayed away. Maybe he was trying to keep out of the rain, too.

Things were so quiet, in fact, that we slept in the next morning, then foraged for blueberries in the bushes around the cabin to make blueberry-studded pancakes. The boys chopped wood, splitting the enormous logs in the woodshed into manageable pieces. I read. My son read. We went out for a paddle up the coast headed toward Scenery Cove and Baird Glacier, at the northern edge of the Stikine Ice Field, a remnant of the once vast ice sheets that covered much of North America in the Pleistocene Epoch. If the previous day had been rainy, this one seemed record-breaking, with water falling straight out of the sky and the pure aquatic rush down mountains providing a constant soundtrack.

That night we sautéed the halibut with some white wine and read about more spooky doings on our peaceful bay.

The last morning after breakfast, the skies lightened, so we went out for a paddle to Ruth’s Island nearby. As we approached the rocky point at the island’s southern tip, a group of curious seals appeared, popping their heads out of the water just feet away from the kayaks and then making a big show of splashing into the bay behind us.

The water taxi was coming back to pick us up at about noon, and as we paddled back we saw that the cruise boat that had motored through the bay the night before was now moored at the far end of the beach near Cascade Creek. As we were loading our kayaks onto the boat for the trip back to Petersburg, a floatplane suddenly came roaring overhead, skimming above the treetops as it came in for a landing on a nearby bay. Moments later it reappeared and taxied up to the cruise ship, no doubt letting off a new group of guests for an Alaskan adventure. That was fine, I thought, but it really didn’t beat a cabin and a wood stove and the soft sound of rain on the roof.

WHERE CIVILIZATION EXISTS ON THE FRINGES OF THE BACKCOUNTRY

When I started planning my family’s trip to Alaska I knew I wanted to spend part of our stay somewhere truly remote, unreachable by road and far from other people. Backpacking into the wilderness seemed daunting (I had read “Into the Wild,” Jon Krakauer’s account of Christopher McCandless’s death in the Alaskan wilderness), but using a cabin as a base seemed to provide the right mixture of getting away from it all and relative comfort.

It was relative, though: While cabins are a step up from tents, they generally have no electricity, indoor plumbing or heat other than a wood or oil stove. They do have bunks, but no mattresses, cooking stoves or utensils. Plan on bringing sleeping bags, pads, a cookstove and cooking gear, and all necessary food and drinking water (or a water purifier). Firewood is usually available, but not guaranteed.

At www.recreation.gov you can search by location, dates available or special features, and the Web site is a good place to start looking for a public-use cabin. It includes cabins and campsites on federal lands throughout the United States. There are also cabins on state land available from the Alaska Department of Parks and Outdoor Recreation (dnr.alaska.gov/parks/cabins/index.htm).

I began with some basic parameters: We were planning to be in Alaska in early August, wanted to travel part of the Inside Passage by ferry and wanted a site with hiking trails nearby. I quickly closed in on the Cascade Creek site, which was within the Tongass National Forest, and booked it after setting up the required free account on recreation.gov. Our cabin was $35 a night, and because I ended up changing our dates slightly, I also had to pay a $10 rebooking fee. Rules put in effect this year allow only one change of date.

Many of the bigger towns along the Inside Passage (again, bigger is a relative term) are served by Alaska Airlines with service from Juneau or Anchorage and with connecting flights to Seattle. Flights between Juneau and Petersburg are $198 each way. The more scenic way to travel is by the Alaska Marine Highway (www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs) , the state’s ferry service. The fast ferry, the Fairweather, sails every Tuesday and Friday from Juneau to Petersburg, leaving at 8 a.m. and reaching Petersburg by noon. The adult one-way fare is $66. Children 6 to 12 are half price. Children under 6 travel free.

Dealing with the logistics of travel within Alaska can be confusing and difficult from afar, so we used an Alaska-based travel agency to book our connections and accommodations other than the cabin. We used Viking Travel, which happens to be based in Petersburg and specializes in custom Alaska tours (800-327-2571; www.alaskaferry.com). They build all your choices into one package, to which they add a 10 percent fee.

We found that extra expense worth it, since Anne Volk, our agent, knew the ferry and flight schedules and was able to do things like line up a water taxi ride to the cabin and back. The outfitter she used was Tongass Kayak Adventures (www.tongasskayak.com; 907-772-4600). For clients who are arranging their own travel, the owner Scott Roberge charges $200 each way for locations within an hour of Petersburg. He also rents kayaks, $60 a day for a double; $50 for a single. They come with life jackets, spray skirts and an emergency kit, including flares and a radio in case something goes seriously wrong. That last bit of equipment was particularly welcome, as there was no cellphone coverage anywhere near our cabin — which was exactly how I’d planned it.

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Full article and photo: http://travel.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/travel/31alaska.html

Chávez Seeks Tighter Grip on Military

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President Hugo Chávez, left, in 2004 with Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, who is now a critic of Mr. Chávez and a prisoner.

They say prison life can be lonely, but not for Raúl Isaías Baduel, Venezuela’s former army chief and once one of President Hugo Chávez’s confidants, who was detained last month.

Among his cellmates in the Ramo Verde military prison here are a former admiral, Carlos Millán, and Wilfredo Barroso, a onetime general arrested along with Mr. Millán on charges of conspiring to oust Mr. Chávez.

Since February, Mr. Chávez has moved against a wide range of domestic critics, and his efforts in recent weeks to strengthen his grip on the armed forces have led to high-profile arrests and a wave of reassignments.

These are seen here as part of a larger effort by Mr. Chávez to cement loyalty in the military, where some officers are growing resentful at what they see as his micromanagement and politicizing of a proud and relatively independent institution.

“Chávez does not have the support he thinks he has in the armed forces,” Mr. Baduel, 53, said in an interview in the cell that has become his home since agents from the military intelligence service arrested him, shoving him into a vehicle and holding a pistol to his temple.

In March, Mr. Chávez replaced the chiefs of the army, the air force and the Bolivarian Militia, a Cuban-inspired reserve force created to repel what Mr. Chávez repeatedly raises as the threat of an invasion by the United States.

During the same wave of dismissals, Mr. Chávez also cashiered his defense minister, Gen. Gustavo Rangel Briceño. On Thursday night, intelligence agents detained another former officer, Otto Gebauer, a retired captain who was ordered to hold Mr. Chávez during a brief coup in April 2002. Mr. Gebauer, who had angered Mr. Chávez by saying the president cried during the 48-hour coup, was accused of violating the terms of his house arrest, his wife said.

The authority of as many as 800 military officers was stripped away last year after doubts surfaced over their loyalty to Mr. Chávez, according to news reports. The officers were said to have been angered by favoritism shown to pro-Chávez officers, as well as by revelations of the military’s close ties to leftist Colombian guerrillas and by infiltration of the military by Cuban intelligence, civilian experts on Venezuela’s military said.

In recent months, the crackdown has been extended to the civilian arena. Manuel Rosales, the president’s opponent in the 2006 elections, sought asylum in Peru after being faced with corruption charges, and Mr. Chávez handpicked a new mayor for Caracas after legislators eliminated most of the budget of the elected mayor, Antonio Ledezma.

The government even singled out smaller targets, like an outspoken biologist critical of Mr. Chávez who was fired from his tenured post at the Institute of Advanced Studies, a state-run scientific research group.

Mr. Chávez has asked officials to investigate Globovisión, a television news network that is often critical of him, over claims of disrupting public order that the station’s owner calls baseless. The National Assembly is considering giving Mr. Chávez’s government control over financing for nongovernment organizations.

The arrest of Mr. Baduel is a reflection of how much has changed in Venezuela, especially since oil prices plunged last summer. A few years ago, a rift between Mr. Chávez and him would have seemed unimaginable.

Mr. Baduel was long a member with Mr. Chávez of a secret cell of leftist officers that conspired to seize power. A coup failed in 1992 but thrust Mr. Chávez, then a lieutenant colonel, into the spotlight. In 2002, Mr. Baduel led a paratrooper operation that returned the elected Mr. Chávez to power after the April coup.

But after retiring as defense minister, Mr. Baduel broke with Mr. Chávez in 2007. He publicly criticized the president’s proposal to overhaul the Constitution and transform Venezuela into a socialist state with greatly expanded presidential authority. The measure was rejected by voters in December 2007, and Mr. Baduel emerged as a prominent voice of dissent.

Then, as often happens with Mr. Chávez’s critics, Mr. Baduel found himself under the scrutiny of the justice system. A military prosecutor said he was responsible for about $14 million that disappeared during his tenure as defense minister, and the military intelligence directorate sent agents to follow his every move. Mr. Baduel says he is innocent.

His protestations are echoed by his fellow inmates at the Ramo Verde prison, in this city on the outskirts of Caracas.

“The plot is a concoction, an amateurish fable,” said Mr. Millán, the former admiral. He questioned why he and Mr. Barroso were still detained when no proof of the supposed conspiracy had surfaced beyond crackling taped phone conversations played on state television that were attributed to him and others.

Mr. Millán, who was detained in September, and Mr. Baduel said they had been denied their due-process rights in a “witch hunt” among former officers.

Whether or not the charges are false, reports of quiet discontent within the military seem to be well founded. There is resentment over a policy shift that speeds promotions of pro-Chávez noncommissioned officers, over a decline in bonus pay for soldiers as oil revenues fell and over Mr. Chávez’s order that soldiers use the Cuban-style pledge, “Fatherland, socialism or death,” according to active and retired officers.

“On the one hand we have officers who believe in the military’s institutional independence, and on the other the Praetorians who prop up the government,” said Hernán Castillo, a political scientist at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas.

Mr. Baduel is believed to wield influence among the non-Praetorians. Asked about the possibility that such discontent could foster an armed conspiracy against the government, as has happened at least three times in the past two decades, Mr. Baduel demurred.

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence,” said Mr. Baduel, quoting from Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist. “I was trained for decades in the administration of violence, but I personally think that violence is not the answer to our dilemma.”

Instead, Mr. Baduel suggests convening an assembly to rewrite Venezuela’s Constitution as a step toward reintroducing checks on Mr. Chávez’s power.

Meanwhile, the armed forces seem increasingly weakened and divided as they come further under Mr. Chávez’s thumb.

Notwithstanding the quiet deference to Mr. Baduel by his military jailers, he says he has no option but to wait. He has a routine. He prays each morning. He meditates after reading from “Tao Te Ching,” Lao Tzu’s Chinese text. And bides his time.

“I won’t leave this prison,” Mr. Baduel said, “until Chávez leaves the presidency of Venezuela.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/30/world/americas/30venez.html?hp

Today in History-May 30

Today is Saturday, May 30, the 150th day of 2009. There are 215 days left in the year.

Today’s Highlight in History

On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc, condemned as a heretic, was burned at the stake in Rouen, France.

On this date:

In 1854, the territories of Nebraska and Kansas were established.

In 1883, 12 people were trampled to death when a rumor that the recently opened Brooklyn Bridge in New York was in imminent danger of collapsing triggered a stampede.

In 1909, the ”king of swing,” Benny Goodman, was born in Chicago.

In 1911, Indianapolis saw its first long-distance auto race; Ray Harroun was the winner.

In 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington in a ceremony attended by President Warren G. Harding, Chief Justice William Howard Taft and lawyer Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd.

In 1937, 10 people were killed when police fired on steelworkers demonstrating near the Republic Steel plant in South Chicago.

In 1943, American forces secured the Aleutian island of Attu from the Japanese during World War II.

In 1958, unidentified American service members killed in World War II and the Korean War were interred in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

In 1959, Louisiana Gov. Earl K. Long was committed to a psychiatric center in Galveston, Texas, after apparently suffering a mental breakdown.

In 1971, the American space probe Mariner 9 blasted off from Cape Kennedy, Fla., on a journey to Mars.

Ten years ago: Astronauts from the space shuttle Discovery rigged cranes and other tools to the exterior of the international space station during a spacewalk; then, the astronauts entered the orbiting outpost for three days of making repairs and delivering supplies. Kenny Brack won the crash-marred Indianapolis 500, driving a car owned by racing legend A.J. Foyt.

Five years ago: Saudi commandos drove al-Qaida militants from a housing complex in the kingdom’s oil hub, ending a shooting and hostage-taking rampage that had left 22 dead, most of them foreigners. Gunmen in Pakistan killed a senior pro-Taliban Sunni cleric (Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai), sparking riots. Ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide left Jamaica for South Africa, saying it would be his ”temporary home” until he could return to Haiti. Buddy Rice won the Indianapolis 500 in the rain.

One year ago: A construction crane snapped and smashed into an apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, killing two workers in the city’s second such tragedy in 2 1/2 months. Diplomats from 111 nations meeting in Dublin formally adopted a landmark treaty banning cluster bombs. (The United States and other leading cluster bomb makers — Russia, China, Israel, India and Pakistan — boycotted the talks.) Lorenzo Odone, whose parents’ battle to save him from the rare nerve disease ALD inspired ”Lorenzo’s Oil,” died in Fairfax, Va., a day after his 30th birthday.

Today’s Birthdays

Country musician Johnny Gimble is 83. Actor Clint Walker is 82. Actor Keir Dullea is 73. Actress Ruta Lee is 73. Actor Michael J. Pollard is 70. Rock musician Lenny Davidson (The Dave Clark Five) is 65. Actor Stephen Tobolowsky is 58. Actor Colm Meaney is 56. Actor Ted McGinley is 51. Actor Ralph Carter is 48. Actress Tonya Pinkins is 47. Country singer Wynonna Judd is 45. Rock musician Tom Morello (Audioslave; Rage Against The Machine) is 45. Movie director Antoine Fuqua is 44. Rock musician Patrick Dahlheimer (Live) is 38. Actress Idina Menzel is 38. Actor Trey Parker is 37. Rapper Cee-Lo is 35. Rapper Remy Ma is 29. Actor Blake Bashoff is 28. Christian rock musician James Smith (Underoath) is 27.

Thought for Today

‘It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do.” — Jerome K. Jerome, English author and humorist (1859-1927).

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/05/30/us/AP-History.html