Thursday, February 19, 2009

Charli Rose: Daily Highlights Monday February 16, 2009

Daily Highlights Monday February 16, 2009 with Dexter Filkins, Martha Raddatz, Craig Mullaney; Michael Kirk

Yes, We Still Need Black History Month

“What the advocates of dumping Black History Month miss is that watching Tiger sink a 20-foot putt or Oprah cooking with Rachael Ray doesn't exactly teach the kiddies about the Tuskegee Airmen or the Middle Passage or Plessy v. Ferguson.”

So it's February. That means school kids across America are learning that George Washington Carver didn't actually invent the peanut, and a black man did invent the stoplight. And while the kids are learning, February by February, grown-ups are asking if maybe it's time to retire Black History Month.

This year, one op-ed writer flat-out said Black History Month "has come to seem quaint, jarring, anachronistic" and "robs blacks of [their] part in U.S. history."

The country is for sure in a different place than it was when historian Carter G. Woodson originated "Negro History Week" in 1926. Most obvious, of course, is that 83 years later we have a black man in the White House. Beyond that, black American history is now seemingly cranked out on a regular basis. Eric Holder becomes the first black attorney general. Mike Tomlin becomes the second black coach to win a Super Bowl championship in three years. The Republican National Committee is so desperate for relevance it elects Michael Steele as its chairman, and does so over Katon Dawson, who until last September belonged to a whites-only country club. Somewhere Strom Thurmond is doing about 8,000 rpms in his grave.

So, clearly, a nation whose icons are the likes of Tiger Woods, Oprah and Barack Obama doesn't need a Black History Month.

Yeaaaah, no.

What the advocates of dumping Black History Month miss is that watching Tiger sink a 20-foot putt or Oprah cooking with Rachael Ray doesn't exactly teach the kiddies about the Tuskegee Airmen or the Middle Passage or Plessy v. Ferguson. That's kind of like saying you can get a master class in Hispanic heritage by watching an episode of Ugly Betty.

Now, I happen to agree that Black History Month is a set-aside. But the reason it's set aside is because even in 2009, most schools do a poor job of integrating black history -- or Hispanic history or Asian-American history -- into their yearly curriculum. Are kids really taught about the Nisei brigade or Executive Order 9066, the Trail of Tears or the National Farm Workers Association?

This isn't the history of one ethnicity. It's our history. And until our history is fully explored throughout the school year, then Black History Month remains relevant.

Arod's 'cousin' identified

As far back as anyone can remember, Yuri Sucart was always by Alex Rodriguez's side.

Sucart would tell anyone who would listen he was Rodriguez's cousin. But he was also Rodriguez's best friend, confidant and personal protector.

On Tuesday, when Rodriguez said in a nationally televised news conference from New York Yankees spring training in Tampa, Fla., that it was his cousin who provided and injected him with performance-enhancing drugs, it was Sucart to whom Rodriguez was referring, Sucart's wife, Carmen, confirmed to ESPN on Wednesday night.

Well... that didn't take long. This is the reason why people lie or tell half-truths to the media - because they'll hunt down any people that might be associated with a story.

- Baseball Analysts updated their recent study of the top 'peripheral' pitchers in the game by adding walk rates to strikeouts and grounders. It meant a drop for AJ Burnett, who walks a few too many, but an increase for CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, who both placed among the top 10 (with Sabathia at the very top). Pettitte was that unlucky last year. (Bear in mind this study does not adjust for league or homepark, though that would probably work in Pettitte's favor anyway.)

- Hank Steinbrenner denounced Larry Lucchino's desire for a salary cap:

Along with a few other teams, we're basically baseball's stimulus package...

As long as we're doing that and giving all this money to other teams in revenue sharing, a staggering amount, we should be able to spend on salaries what we want to. Because of revenue sharing and because of the popularity nationwide, the Yankees are critical to baseball.

Say what you will about Hank, he's always good for a quote.

Kyrgyzstan parliament votes to close key U.S. base

02/19/09: CNN reports that the Kyrgyzstan parliament has voted to close a base the U.S. military uses as a route for troops and supplies heading into Afghanistan. The Manas air base outside Bishkek is the Americans' only base in Central Asia and is a major resupply hub for the war in Afghanistan. Its closing could deal a significant blow to the U.S. military effort there, especially following President Barack Obama's announcement of additional troops to halt a resurgence of the country's former Taliban rulers.

02/10/09: An International Herald Tribune opinion piece discusses the recent decision by President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan to close the U.S. military base in the small Central Asian country. The article concludes that given the importance of the economic dimension to the Kyrgyz, it is hardly surprising that Bakiyev's cash-strapped government was finally swayed to break its agreement with the United States when the Russian Federation promised even greater benefits.

02/04/09: The New York Times, CNN and Le Monde (French language) report that president of Kyrgyzstan stated that "all due procedures" are being initiated to close the Manas Air Base, which provides the US with a launching point to provide supplies to Aghganistan. General David Petraeus was in Kyrgyzstan last month, partly to lobby the government to let the US keep using the base. The US pays about $63 million a year for use of the base; Russia has reportedly offered a $300 million payment, and a write off of $180 million of Kyrgyzstan's debt.

President Obama arrives in Ottawa

OTTAWA: U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Ottawa Thursday ahead of a day of meetings, including talks with Prime Minister Stephen Harper about trade and environmental issues.

Obama emerged from Air Force One, which touched down at Ottawa International Airport's Hangar 11 shortly before 10:30 a.m. ET., and was greeted on the tarmac by Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean and Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.

As Obama and Jean walked into the airport, Obama smiled and waved at reporters.

The president, on his first foreign trip since taking power, and Jean are holding a brief meeting in the Billy Bishop Room at the airport before he heads to Parliament Hill.

On the Hill, thousands of well-wishers have gathered, hoping to get a glimpse of the new president.

Inside, Obama will have a 10-minute one-on-one meeting with Harper followed by a "restricted" meeting with senior staff and then a working lunch with officials -- featuring a main course of apple wood smoked Plains Bison.

Obama and Harper are expected to discuss trade issues and start the framework for negotiations for a North American environmental and energy accord.

Assessing the President's Mortgage Plan

Judicial 'cramdowns' could roil the markets.

The president's new mortgage-relief plan contains clever elements that might indeed help homeowners. However, the superfluous threat of inviting judges to rewrite contracts must dilute the collateral behind troubled mortgage-backed securities. That, in turn, would jeopardize the endangered capital of banks, pension funds and other holders of such securities, including the Federal Reserve, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The simplest yet arguably most potent part of the strategy is the plan to allow Fannie and Freddie to refinance conforming loans (up to $729,750) without the quaint requirement that the refinanced loan be no larger than 80% of the value of the house. This change provides access to today's low mortgage rates even to "underwater" borrowers -- those who owe more that their houses are worth. Although such borrowers have no skin in the game, President Obama assumes or hopes that their reduced payments will result in fewer defaults.

A second part of the plan provides standardized rules for modifying mortgages (obligatory for banks that accepted Troubled Asset Relief Program money). Participating lenders would first have to cut interest rates sufficiently to limit mortgage payments to 38% of gross income -- something more likely for those now paying 39%-40% than for those paying much more. The government would then match further interest-rate reductions to push mortgage payments all the way down to 31% of pretax income. In order to cut mortgage payments to 31% from 38%, $75 billion in taxpayer subsidies will be available to lenders to cover half the cost. Some will pay more in taxes so that others can pay less for housing. This is redistribution based on debt rather than income.

The plan also provides small bribes to mortgage servicers and borrowers for every assisted borrower who does not end up defaulting again (a big problem with past loan modification schemes). Treasury would also establish an insurance fund to protect participating lenders if house prices fell further.

Subsidizing select mortgages poses a fundamental rationing problem: Demand for subsidies rises to meet the available supply. If Joe and Sally get federal subsidies to cut their mortgage payments to 31% of their income, their neighbors will want subsidies too. To keep the expenses from ballooning well beyond $75 billion, there may have to be stern but arbitrary "means testing" to decide who is most deserving of a taxpayer-supported mortgage. And that will likely provoke resentment about how winners and losers are picked.

The third part of the plan is to get Fannie and Freddie to buy more mortgages with the hope of keeping mortgage rates down. Never mind that both organizations were considered insolvent last fall, when they held far fewer dubious IOUs than they do now. The plan instructs the Treasury -- which is also getting skeptical reviews from Moody's -- to invest another $200 billion in Fannie and Freddie preferred shares.

Last and least helpful, the president's proposed "cramdown" would "allow judicial modification of home mortgages for borrowers who have run out of options." That would require federal legislation, and Congress would be well advised to put that plan aside in order to give the president's new options a fair chance.

Any plan that compels mortgage holders to reduce the amount of money they are owed must in turn reduce the value of mortgage-backed securities held by banks, insurance companies, pension funds, Fannie and Freddie, and the Fed. By injuring the balance sheets of potential lenders, a cramdown would also injure potential borrowers.

The needless threat of inviting judges to rewrite mortgage contracts at whim helps explain why bank stocks generally fell on the plan's announcement, while financial shorts rose.

In sum, allowing conforming loans to be refinanced without a big equity position seems promising. Trying to bribe lenders to trim monthly mortgage bills to 31% of income would help those lucky enough to get in on the deal before the money runs out. But all of this potential good could be undone by the systemic risks to mortgage-backed securities caused by the unpredictable legal risks of a judicial cramdown.

Mr. Reynolds is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of "Income and Wealth" (Greenwood Press, 2006).

Affleck Raises Money for Congo Aid

Ben Affleck spreads the word on the plight of victims of the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo at one of the week's first glitzy pre-Oscar parties. (Feb. 19)

Obama names urban affairs director

President: Carrion will bring long overdue attention to urban areas

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Thursday named a New York City politician to a new White House post coordinating urban affairs.

Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion's appointment as White House director of urban affairs "will bring long overdue attention to the urban areas where 80 percent of the American people live and work," Obama said in announcing the selection.

"Vibrant cities spawn innovation, economic growth and cultural enrichment. The urban affairs office will focus on wise investments and development in our urban areas that will create employment and housing opportunities and make our country more competitive, prosperous and strong," the president said.

Terrence Howard's Past Domestic Assault Towards Wife Exposed

Chris Brown might not want Terrence Howard in his peanut gallery.

Police and court records show that the Hustle & Flow star, who backtracked last week on initially supportive remarks he made about Brown's situation, was arrested in 2001 in Pennsylvania on suspicion of assaulting his wife, Lori McCommas.

When confronted by police, he confessed to hitting her, according to documents obtained by the Smoking Gun.

The duo had been estranged for more than two years when Howard, fuming after a contentious phone conversation, broke down the front door of McCommas' house, states a Whitemarsh Police Department report dated Sept. 17, 2001.

Per the report, Howard told McCommas at the end of their argument, "Don't disrespect me by hanging up on me or I'll come over and hurt you." She called 911 and, while she was talking to the dispatcher, Howard arrived and tried to get in.

He "broke the front door down and ran through the screen door in the kitchen. Howard then grabbed the victim's left arm and punched her twice with a closed fist in the left side of the face," the report states.

Howard, who, according to police confessed at the scene to breaking the door and hitting his wife, was booked on suspicion of simple assault, making terroristic threats, harassment and stalking, and disorderly conduct.

He was freed from custody after posting $20,000 bail and pleaded guilty in 2002 to disorderly conduct.

The actor and McCommas divorced in 2003 but then remarried in 2005. The duo, who have three children together, are currently separated.

A rep for Howard declined to comment when contacted Tuesday by E! News.

Last week, as all eyes turned to what happened between Brown and his girlfriend Rihanna just hours before the Grammys on Feb. 8, Howard told a pack of paparazzi that Brown is "a great guy."

"He'll be all right," Howard said. "And Rihanna knows he loves her. She'll be all right. Just everybody's got to get out of their way."

The Oscar-nominated thesp followed in a regretful T.I.'s footsteps the following day, however, issuing a statement explaining he didn't know exactly what he was talking about when he spoke to the shutterbugs.

"When they asked me about Chris Brown the other day, I was in no way aware of what he had been accused of," Howard said. "Had I known, I would have never had said something so insensitive."

He neglected to mention that he understood what Brown was going through. The 19-year-old R&B star has been booked on suspicion of making criminal threats.

Going Home: Ken Griffey Jr. Returns to Seattle

Smell that? That’s nostalgia in the air.

Ken Griffey Jr. has decided to reject the offer from the Atlanta Braves to return where he started it all. In Seattle.

Griffey has signed a one-year deal with the Seattle Mariners for $2 million, with more money to be in earned in incentive bonuses and attendances. Griffey would platoon in left field and could also serve as a designated hitter. Something he couldn’t do in Atlanta since they play in the National League.

Lets hope that Griffey’s second tour in Seattle will bring back the home runs and excitement, rather than pulled hamstrings and broken wrists.


Another con man on the run? Stanford charges spark run on banks in Antigua

On the run: 'Sir' Allen Stanford. The Securities and Exchange Commission accused the Texan-born billionaire and his close staff of misleading investors and falsely claiming their money was safely invested and delivering healthy returns.
The criminal investigation into the business empire of the cricket tycoon Sir Allen Stanford sowed panic in the Caribbean and Latin America yesterday as governments and investors scrambled to uncover the extent of the alleged $8bn fraud.

The prime minister of Antigua warned of "catastrophe" for the nation, depositors rushed to withdraw funds in bank branches around the region, and authorities in Colombia, Panama, Peru and Venezuela began their own investigations into the Texas billionaire's financial dealings.

Last night, US television channels reported that Stanford had attempted to leave the country by private jet from Houston to Antigua, but the plane leasing company refused his credit card.

On Tuesday the US securities and exchange commission accused Stanford of fraudulently selling $8bn (£5.6bn) in high-yield certificates of deposit. It sought to freeze assets and appoint a receiver. But the tycoon himself was nowhere to be found and US marshals were reportedly unable to serve him with court orders.

Sources at the SEC confirmed they were searching for the billionaire, who has not been seen in public since news of alleged fraud broke. Stanford International Bank has 30,000 clients in 131 countries, as well as advisers in 30 US offices.

Antigua, a sleepy island with a population of 70,000, forming half of a Caribbean nation with Barbuda, risks being the worst hit. It was here that Stanford set up his headquarters in a 30,000 sq ft Georgian-style hilltop building.

The Stanford Investment Bank looked outwardly calm yesterday. Its giant mahogany doors were shut and security guards turned reporters away from the elegant compound lush with flowering bougainvillea and palm trees. But a steady stream of wealthy investors could be seen seeking to withdraw their fortunes.

Gonzalo Gonzalez had flown from Venezuela. He had been told he could not take any money out and was anxiously awaiting a meeting with management.

A British expatriate who asked not to give her name said she feared she had lost her entire savings of $500,000. She first became concerned about the bank last week when a brother-in-law in Canada warned her that trouble was brewing and she immediately put in for a total withdrawal. But it takes five working days for the notice to come through; her deadline is today, which is likely to be too late.

Educated in Roehampton, and having lived in Antigua for the past 12 years, she said her lifestyle in retirement with her husband was now in tatters. "We will have to work out how much we have left."

Stanford is the island's biggest investor and private employer. He has lived there for more than 20 years and holds dual US-Antiguan citizenship. He was the first American to receive a knighthood from the island's government.

"The fall-out threatens catastrophic and immediate consequences ... There is no need for panic," Baldwin Spencer, the prime minister said on television. He said he was working on a contingency plan with the six-nation eastern Caribbean central bank and Antigua's central bank.

The affair has invited comparisons with the events surrounding the Wall Street investment manager Bernard Madoff, who is suspected of a $50bn fraud.

In Venezuela, hundreds of depositors tried for a second day to withdraw savings in the Caracas branches of Stanford International. Venezuelans have about $2.5bn invested in the bank, the country's regulator said. The government tried to calm clients of a Venezuelan sister firm whose assets were not linked to the business.

The fallout shook English cricket. Giles Clarke was urged to consider his position as the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board.

U.S. AG: Americans are a nation of cowards on race discussion

United States, Attorney General Eric Holder Wednesday said we're all afraid to discuss race in the U.S. during a talk at the Justice Department yesterday in honor of Black History Month. I think people are more inclined discuss race issues when some controversial news story pops up.

Attorney General Eric Holder: "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.

"We average Americans simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation's history, this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us.

"As a nation we have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace. We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race.

"And yet even this interaction operates within certain limitations. We know, by 'American instinct' and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one's character. Share your thoughts on Holder's statement

"And outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some 50 years ago. This is truly sad.

"This will be, at first, a process that is both awkward and painful, but the rewards are, I believe, potentially great. The alternative is to allow to continue the polite, restrained mixing that now passes as meaningful interaction, but that in reality accomplishes very little."

A-Rod, Banking Bailouts and Public Policy

A familiar theme emerged during Alex Rodriguez’s ESPN interview about his use of performance-enhancing drugs as a member of the Texas Rangers from 2001 to 2003. Although A-Rod acknowledged his use of the substances, he repeatedly indicated that it was part of the culture at the time. As if to somehow excuse his actions, over the course of the interview, he made statements such as:

• “Back then, it was a different culture. It was very loose.”

• “It was such a loosey-goosey era.”

• “The culture, it was pretty prevalent. There were a lot of people doing a lot of things.”

• “It comes back to the culture was much different.”

Rodriguez’ comments may have had a familiar ring because officials from the banking industry employed a similar rationale when they attempted to explain why – after receiving huge government bailouts -- they were still treating their employees to bonuses and trips to lavish resorts.

“Recognition events are still part of our culture,” Wells Fargo spokeswoman Melissa Murray said in defense of an all-expense paid Las Vegas casino junket for its employees. The bank, which received $25 billion in taxpayer bailout money, eventually cancelled the trip in the wake of heavy criticism from lawmakers and consumer groups. But the Bank of America went through with a $10 million Super Bowl party, an event that spokesman Lawrence DiRita described as “part of our traditional banking business.”

In all of these cases, people were justifying their actions by claiming they were common practice. Try using that logic the next time a police officer pulls you over for speeding.

On a broader scale, this is a troubling pattern that has the potential to impact public policy – both in our state and in our nation.

Do we want lawmakers who are reluctant to get to the roots of the problems that confront us because they are just part of an entrenched culture? Or do we want people who are leaders and will challenge the status quo? It is a question that is very relevant during African American History Month. Where would America be today if our nation had been willing to accept racism and discrimination as part of its culture?

Here in New Jersey, there are many roadblocks standing in the way of change. For example, it is a common belief that towns will not consolidate because of home rule; pension reform will not occur because the unions will resist it; lawmakers will not increase the gas tax because of the political consequences, and so on. It is a list that is long and continues to grow. None of these roadblocks will be hurdled if lawmakers are willing to accept them as the status quo.

As members of the public, we have a similar responsibility. How often do we hear, “It doesn’t matter who I vote for; things will never change” or “You can’t fight City Hall”? The truth is if we don’t vote and we don’t voice our opinions, that is a sure way to guarantee that our desire for change will never be realized.

The solutions to New Jersey’s problems will not be easy. In fact, they may be painful and politically unpopular. But if we are to move forward in the 21st Century, we cannot succeed if we are content to dismiss our problems as just another part of our culture.

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Richard A. Lee is communications director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy-New Jersey. A former journalist and deputy communications director for the governor, he also teaches courses in media and government at Rutgers University, where he is completing work on a doctorate in media studies.