Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Can the US Win in Afghanistan?

President Barack Obama has ordered 17,000 more U.S. troops to help fight the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Can the U.S. prevail where others, including the Russians, have failed? (March 4)

Rihanna denies press assault charges against Chris

Singer Rihanna, who was allegedly attacked by Chris Brown and left with horrific injuries, is not ready to press assault charges against him. The ‘Umbrella’ hitmaker stopped co-operating in the investigation after she reunited with Brown, when he wished her on her birthday and lavished her with plenty of gifts.

“Rihanna says she doesn’t want to testify against him. She has had a change of heart and doesn’t want the case to proceed,” the Sun quoted a police source as saying. Despite the fact that Rihanna has decided not to testify against Brown, the police are still building up a case against him based on the statements Rihanna gave earlier.

“However detectives are still building their case based on what she originally told them and accounts of witnesses,” the police source said. “If the DA decides they have enough evidence, they can proceed without Rihanna’s testimony,” the source added.

Rihanna’s family is said to be unhappy with the duo’s reunion. “No one wants them back together. I don’t want her to make a mistake, and I don’t want her to ever go through this again,” one of Rihanna’s relative told US Weekly.

Forget Designer Baby Bags—Now There’s Designer Babies

During the last few decades, research in reproductive technology has been advancing at lightning speeds, and at each juncture along the way—the first “test tube” babies, donor eggs used in post-menopausal women, sperm sorting to choose a baby’s gender, embryo selection to provide donor material for an ill sibling, embryo selection to eliminate the possibility of inherited disease—the question is raised of how much is too much. What is “acceptable” science and medicine? Who decides?

These questions roared back into the headlines this week after the Los Angeles Fertility Institutes announced plans to allow prospective parents to choose the gender, eye, hair, skin color, and other physical traits of their babies. The service will cost $18,000 per baby and will be available only to couples seeking in-vitro fertilization. The clinic says they have already received five or six requests for the service and expect the first “designer baby” to be born next year.

Trait-selection will be based on a technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, created in the 1990s so that parents who carried genes for life-threatening diseases could be assured of having healthy children. Embryos created by IVF are tested at the three-day stage to see if they carry a particular disease, and only those free of that disease are implanted in the mother’s womb. Theoretically, one could look for any gene in those embryos.

A recent survey of 999 people who sought genetic counseling conducted by researchers at the New York University School of Medicine suggests the majority of people support the notion of building a better baby when it comes to eliminating serious diseases. The survey found that 56 percent supported using prenatal genetic tests to counter blindness and 75 percent for mental retardation. About 10 percent of respondents said they would want genetic testing for athletic ability, another 10 percent voted for improved height, and nearly 13 percent backed the approach to select for superior intelligence.

The clinic’s director, Jeff Steinberg, who played a key role in the birth of the world’s first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, in Britain in 1978, says his clinic uncovered the technology to characterize genetic traits like eye and hair color while trying to screen out albinism, a congenital disorder which leads to lack of melanin pigment in the eyes, hair and skin. “Of course, once I’ve got this science, am I not to provide this to my patients? I’m a physician. I want to provide everything science gives me to my patients,” Steinberg said.

However, other fertility specialists are outraged by the clinic’s proposal to offer trait selection. “It’s ridiculous and irresponsible,” said Mark Hughes, one of the pioneers of PGD. “There are thousands of desperate couples who have no hope of having healthy children without this technology, and here we are talking about this.”

“The concern is that we’ll be creating a society with new sorts of discrimination," said Marcy Darnovsky, director of the Center for Genetics and Society. “Now it’s eye and hair color. What happens if it’s height and intelligence? Some parents may have qualms, but still feel under pressure.”

Dr. Gillian Lockwood, a UK fertility expert and member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ ethics committee, told the BBC that she questions whether it is morally right to use science this way. “If it gets to the point where we can decide which gene or combination of genes are responsible for blue eyes or blonde hair, what are you going to do with all those other embryos that turn out like me to be ginger with green eyes,” she said. Lockwood said Steinberg’s clinics could lead to “turning babies into commodities that you buy off the shelf.”

Steinberg countered that reproductive technologies aren’t about to go away. “Genetic health is the wave of the future,” he said. “It’s already happening and it’s not going to go away. It’s going to expand. So if they’ve got major problems with it, they need to sit down and really examine their own consciences because there’s nothing that’s going to stop it.”

Rush as GOP's Leader? 81 % of Republicans Don't Think So.

While Democrats continue to assert that Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the GOP--and while Limbaugh himself seems to be embracing the notion--a new Rasmussen poll finds that 11 percent of Republicans nationwide agree. 81 percent, on the other hand, don't. (The poll does not say who those respondents do see as the GOP's leader.) Perhaps more significant for the Democratic message machine, 27 percent of independents do believe the claim: even if Republicans disagree, 27 percent of toss-up voters, according to the poll, might look at a ballot and see Republican Rep. X as taking political cues from the vociferously conservative Rush.

Spears returns in first concert tour in 5 years

Dressed as a sexy ringmaster and directing a colorful cast that included jugglers, acrobats and martial arts dancers, Britney Spears delivered a tightly choreographed, if perfunctory performance Tuesday night as she kicked off her first concert tour in five years.

The 27-year-old pop superstar's "Circus" tour kicked off in her home state of Louisiana at the New Orleans Arena before a nearly sold-out crowd that cheered on their idol as she gyrated and slithered across the stage while singing some of her biggest hits, from the recent "Womanizer" to her first and now classic song, "...Baby One More Time."

The wild applause has been largely absent from Spears' life since the last time she went on tour in 2004, as the singer endured a devastating downward spiral: Due largely to personal troubles, she went from one of pop music's most profitable, in-demand entertainers to an out-of-control tabloid persona who seemed to be on a path to destruction.

But over the last year, that path has been reversed, as she's embarked on a successful comeback that has seen her image, as well as her career, rehabilitated.

The "Circus" tour was another strong step in the right direction. Spears didn't interact much with the crowd — the only thing she uttered to the audience was "Thank you, New Orleans" at the end of the nearly two-hour show — and appeared at times to be lip-synching. But fans didn't seem to care, screaming wildly at the first sight of Spears, who descended from the ceiling on hoops suspended by wires, wearing a short red and black ringmaster ensemble.

Spears started the show with the title track to her new CD, "Circus," then went right into "Piece of Me," which she performed largely from a cage, part of the elaborate, grandiose stage backdrops.

Acrobats twirled from suspended fabric as Spears sang and danced, showing off her toned body with flirty, seductive moves. She got frisky with two male dancers as she performed "Touch of My Hand" while sporting a blindfold.

When Spears slowed down the show for "Everytime," the audience could be heard singing the lyrics — "everytime I try to fly I fall, without my wings I feel so small" — along with her.

"We're so happy she's back," said 16-year-old Justin Scarbrough of New Orleans, wearing a T-shirt he designed himself that bears Spears' image and the words "I Support Britney Spears."

In the past five years, Spears has gone through more tumult than many endure in a lifetime: She's been married and divorced, had two kids, gone to rehab, gone through a custody battle, found herself briefly committed, and been so out of control that her father, Jamie Spears, was appointed by a court to oversee his daughters' personal and professional affairs indefinitely.

But over the past year, Spears' life and career has rebounded. Her "Circus" CD, released in December, has already sold more than 1.3 million copies, and she's had two hits off the CD, the No. 1 "Womanizer" and the top five "Circus."

Tuesday's "Circus" tour, which takes Spears to 27 cities in the United States before heading to Europe in June, is the pop star's biggest opportunity to connect with her still formidable fan base.

"That was awesome," said 21-year-old Lauren Baudoin of Lafayette, La., after the show. Baudoin's sister, 18-year-old Lindsey Baudoin, said she liked that there were entertainers between the songs.

"It kept going," Lindsey Baudoin said. "It was nonstop."

Britain's Brown warns US against protectionism

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Wednesday an "economic hurricane" has swept the world and U.S. leaders shouldn't view the crisis as limited to America's borders.

In a formal address to a Joint Meeting of Congress, Brown said that U.S.-European relations were at an all-time high and that the two nations must seize on the opportunity to bring about change. He warned that protectionism ultimately makes every nation vulnerable because "a bad bank anywhere is a threat to good banks everywhere."

"No matter where it starts, an economic crisis does not stop at the water's edge," he said told lawmakers gathered in the cavernous House chamber. "It ripples across the world," declared Brown, whose speech was applauded on several occasions.

The prime minister was facing a U.S. Congress deeply divided on how to solve America's economic crisis, with Republicans sparring with President Barack Obama on whether more government intervention and money can salvage financial markets.

His remarks come as he is looking for a boost to his own political fortunes. In hard political times at home, he hopes to benefit from Britons' high regard for President Barack Obama and to demonstrate British leadership at a time of economic uncertainty.

Brown repeatedly spoke of Americans' optimism in the face of tough times with nods to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Ronald Reagan, as well as Obama. He referenced President George W. Bush once, briefly referring to Bush's work on Middle East peace talks.

Brown took a swipe at Bush's defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who once scoffed at European critics of the war, branding them "Old Europe."

"There is no old Europe, no new Europe," Brown declared. "There is only your friend Europe."

In light of this renewed relationship, Brown said the U.S. and Britain should work together to reduce interest rates worldwide and help emerging markets rebuild their banks. He said the international community must also agree to new standards for the banking system that would improve accountability and transparency.

"Just think how each of our actions, if combined, could mean a whole much greater than the sum of the parts," he said.

Brown was laying the groundwork for a G-20 economic summit of advanced and developing nations meeting in London next month. The summit, which Brown is chairing, is critical for improving global economic confidence as well as Brown's political prospects.

Brown has been falling significantly behind the conservative opposition in British opinion polls. Supporters hope an appearance with Obama and a leading role in next month's economic summit will change his fortunes.

In tackling the protectionist issue, the British leader seeks to present himself as a plain-speaking friend, not reluctant to question his trans-Atlantic ally like predecessor Tony Blair, whom critics dubbed Bush's poodle.

Brown met privately with Obama on Tuesday. The two were said to have discussed the economic meltdown, as well as the war in Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, global warming and other topics.

Britain has invested billions to bail out banks and boost the country's economy, while Obama has had a $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed in the United States.

Moving the Economy Ahead

Fourteen months ago, Vincent, a slim 46-year-old Black man with a youngish face and a pressed plaid shirt, worked as a maintenance technician in Detroit. He’d been with the company for almost three months, but five days before he would have become eligible for full-time hire and benefits, his employer ran a criminal background check, and told Vincent to pack up.

“A lot of times, they cut you out of the job before they hire you in [full time],” Vincent said, sitting at a diner near the temporary worker center where he waits for work from 8 am to 6 pm every day.

Vincent has had a few temporary jobs since but hasn’t found even a day of work in recent weeks. A breaking and entering conviction from 25 years ago follows him everywhere. “It’s real hurtful to know that your chances are so broke down to zero,” he said.

I met Vincent last month while traveling the country to explore the hidden impacts of the recession for my job at a racial justice think tank. Dozens of people told me how criminal background checks punish them indefinitely by imposing life-long barriers to successful employment and housing. The policies make reentry an uphill battle, negating the criminal justice system’s putative aim of rehabilitating prisoners. They also block our collective need to get people working in this economic crisis. Inequitable rates of joblessness and poverty are bad for all of us.

Millions of people leave jails and prisons every year and that number is about to grow. Citing unconstitutional health conditions, a panel of federal judges on Monday told the state of California to reduce prison overcrowding by 55,000 people, about a third of the total state prison population, over the next three years.

If the ruling holds up to appeal, tens of thousands of people, overwhelmingly Black and Latino, could return to their communities. But, like Vincent, these men and women will find themselves with no real chance of getting a job, having a place to live and supporting themselves—in short, the situation that Vincent is in.

The White House has appropriately put creating and saving jobs at the center of the stimulus plan. But for people with criminal records, the prospects of inclusion in the national recovery are dismal. It’s not enough to create a job when a quick criminal background check will result in so many people losing it or not getting it at all. Those with prior convictions will be excluded from the game before the starting whistle sounds.
Communities of color experience higher rates of joblessness.

This is due in part to the damning mix of the stigma of having a criminal record, the assumption that ex-prisoners can never redeem themselves, the ensuing ban on public employment for people with felony convictions and the practice of employers doing background checks.

According to Princeton sociologist Devah Pager, joblessness among former prisoners after a year is somewhere around 75 percent—three times the level among the same population before incarceration. The trend toward never-ending punishment, even after people have served their time, infects communities of color, especially Black people, with particular venom.

So why does it matter to white people in places like Orange County, California or Flint, Michigan that three quarters of formerly incarcerated people in places like Oakland or Detroit can’t get a job a year after prison?

Because racial inequity eventually hurts us all.

Consider, for example, the subprime mortgage crisis. It could not have occurred without a whole population of people of color whose economic and political vulnerability made them easy targets for exploitative loan products, which eventually spread out to other homeowners and took down the entire mortgage industry. And that kind of inequity is growing. In January Black and Latino unemployment was 12.6 and 9.7 percent respectively, compared to 6.9 percent for whites. Black and Latino poverty is close to 3 times that of whites. To get this economy moving again, we need people working, spending and paying taxes.

Fixing inequity is a prerequisite for constructing a healthy and just economy. As historians tell us, massive inequity preceded and contributed to the Great Depression. Removing concrete barriers to employment is one step in that direction. As we are implementing this stimulus plan, we should at the very least expunge the records of people with non-violent convictions, as the state of Illinois did in 2005. We should also severely limit employers’ rights to conduct criminal background checks, especially in situations like Vincent’s, whose employer routinely used them to keep the workforce temporary and insecure.

At the diner in Detroit, as the waitress dropped our check, Vincent said, “I look at myself every day that I get up and I actually wonder if it’s going to be the day that things totally fall apart.” It’s up to us to prevent that, starting with changing the rules that now sentence people to a lifetime of punishment.

Seth Wessler is a research associate at the Applied Research Center

We Can’t Afford the Death Penalty

From California to New York, dozens of newspapers are declaring that state governments can no longer afford the death penalty.

The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., recently reported that the death penalty is too costly. Maryland spent $37 million per execution in the past 28 years. In Florida, home to the second largest death row in the country, the cost estimates are $24 million per execution. California’s cost is $250 million per execution, according to a Los Angeles Times article cited in the report. These states are among 36 states that have the death penalty and, like nearly every state, are going through a financial crisis.

The outrageous price that taxpayers bear in order to kill a handful of prisoners has been thrown into sharp relief.

Legislators in New Mexico, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, Montana, New Hampshire, and Colorado are now calling for a repeal of capital punishment, not only to help balance budgets but as a necessary first step in redirecting scarce resources toward genuine public safety measures such as investigating unsolved homicides, community policing, modernizing crime labs, expanding mental health services and other more effective crime prevention programs.

As Martin O’Malley, the governor of Maryland, told the New York Times after showing that capital cases in his state cost three times as much as non-capital ones, "We can't afford that when there are better and cheaper ways to reduce crime."

Recognizing the grandstanding of so-called “tough on crime” politicians as hollow and self-serving, abolitionists have always been the foremost public safety advocates. The simplistic championing of the death penalty, they say, is not really about effective crime prevention, but more about political ambitions.

Jim Oppedahl, a former state court administrator of Helena, Montana, said recently: “There is simply no place for such an enormously expensive government program that accomplishes nothing. And on that criterion alone, the death penalty ought to die.”

From a global perspective, opposing the death penalty’s utter futility as a criminal justice tool is simply a matter of common sense. The majority of nations in the world have abolished the death penalty in law or practice, and no Western democracy except the United States still kills its prisoners.

Here at home, more than 80 percent of all executions take place in the South. Given the fact that the latest FBI Uniform Crime report shows the highest murder rate in the United States to also be in the South, the argument for deterrence as a justification for the death penalty goes begging.

“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility,” President Obama challenged us. And with that we are called upon to replace the politics of cynicism and fearmongering with courageous leadership and a politics of conscience. “We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” said President Obama. “Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.”

With these words resonating within us, we insist that those very ideals must apply to our criminal justice system as well.

It is utterly irresponsible to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to expand death rows when our schools, our health care, our environment, and everything we value in our communities face a slow painful demise. We must reject as false the choice between public safety and human rights. And we must not give up the ideal that justice without violence and revenge can be achieved in our lifetime.

Lance Lindsey is executive director of Death Penalty Focus.

Stimulus Includes Small Boost for Older Workers

Last year after her company eliminated her supervisory position, Wilma McGee was getting nowhere with online job applications.

“They don’t say it’s because of your age,” said McGee, 59, of Memphis. “You just don’t hear back from them.”

Today, thanks to a little-known employment program that is about to get a small boost from the federal economic stimulus package, McGee is back to work as a research-project interviewer at the University of Memphis.

The U.S. Department of Labor program that helped McGee is getting a shot in the arm -- $120 million. That translates into a 30 percent increase for the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), which helps low-income workers over 55 get job training and placement. Some 105,000 jobseekers could benefit from this sorely needed boost from Congress.

But labor experts say the raise is a small fraction of what’s really needed. In December alone, 1.4 million adults over 55 were unemployed, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many more were underemployed or have ceased looking for work, said Richard Johnson of the nonpartisan Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

“A good start would be $1 billion,” Johnson said.

As the population ages, it will be crucial for the U.S. economy to maximize employment among older workers in the coming years, according to a study released last fall by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

The center’s director, Andrew Sum, explained that the huge and aging boomer generation will account for most of the growth in the American civilian labor force --more than 90 percent--in the next decade. In fact, experts project U.S. labor shortages unless older adults continue working.

The Northeastern University study shows that the projected growth in the older labor force will likely intensify job competition for less-educated older workers. In calling for an expansion of SCSEP, Sum and his colleagues emphasize that a growing share of older workers will be “blacks and Hispanics, who face a higher incidence of income inadequacy problems.”

Increasing employment among low-income older workers is especially important; only one in eight SCSEP-eligible people is currently employed, either full or part time, according to the study.

That’s only one-quarter of the employment rate for the rest of the U.S. population over 55, according to a report prepared for the nonprofit Senior Service America, which manages SCSEP in several parts of the nation.

Still, SCSEP’s $120 million stimulus was welcome news for Clayton Fong, executive director of the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging (NAPCA) in Seattle.

“SCSEP has not seen a real increase in funding in the last decade,” Fong said. “As a result, we are serving fewer seniors because the funding levels stay the same, while the aging population increases.”

He added that one SCSEP “success” at NAPCA has been Prepedigma “Cora” McDonnell, who emigrated from the Philippines in 1985. Seven years ago, she found herself widowed and laid off. The 60-year-old mother of a teenage son had few job prospects.

McDonnell enrolled in computer and office management classes at NAPCA’s Seattle office. NAPCA subsidized a half-time job for her as an administrative assistant at its Chinese community center.

“It was a new environment for me,” she said. “The program was working with mostly new immigrants, who needed help in adjusting to this country.” NAPCA found McDonnell so effective it hired her full time as a receptionist and program assistant for one of its own programs, a job that allows her to help many older newcomers.

“When immigrants first come to America, they are in culture shock,” McDonnell said. “They find out it’s about having more opportunity. They need local experience, which SCSEP can give them in terms of on-the-job training.”

David Chen of the Chinese American Planning Council, who operates centers in Manhattan’s and Brooklyn’s Chinatowns, said he frequently finds a “diamond in the rough” among SCSEP applicants—a discovery only possible through one-on-one job counseling.

Chen recounted the case of an older man whom the program originally placed as a receptionist in a Chinese senior center. A discussion about the man’s employment history soon revealed that he had been the editor of a daily newspaper in Canton. When Chen discovered the now-elderly man’s capabilities, his program hired him for translation and other more sophisticated work.

“A lot of the time when you interview them, you start out thinking you can’t do much. It’s very hard. The person speaks no English. Nobody knows he has such a rich background until you get into it and you find out.”

Anthony Sarmiento, executive director of Senior Service America, stressed that SCSEP placement in local agencies and services does not merely provide jobs but promotes the well being of elders.

“The program enables them to be more engaged, to give back and build the social capital for the entire community,” Sarmiento said.

Treasury says mortgage plan may help 9 million

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- The Treasury Department said Wednesday that its new mortgage relief plan would help up to 9 million homeowners avoid foreclosure.
The agency released new details of the plan and said servicers could get to work immediately reducing mortgage payments.

"Today, we are providing servicers with the details they need to begin helping eligible borrowers," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in a statement.
The guidelines implement financial incentives for mortgage lenders to modify existing first mortgages and set standard industry practice.
There are also incentives for removing second liens on loans modified under this program.

Under one part of the plan, homeowners who have an existing mortgage owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac will be able to refinance even if their current loan-to-value ratio is above 80%. The department says that 4 to 5 million homeowners will be able to take advantage of this plan.
Under the new rules, mortgages with an unpaid principal balance of up to $729,750 are eligible for the program.
No investor-owned properties can participate.

The plan is scheduled to expire by the end of 2012. Servicers will receive an up-front fee of $1,000 for each modification, plus "pay for success" fees on still-performing loans of $1,000 per year.
If homeowners make their payments on time, they are eligible for up to $1,000 of principal reduction payments each year for up to five years.
There are bonus fees if modifications are made while a homeowner is still current on mortgage payments.

The Treasury plan includes a second program that it says will help up to four million homeowners who have seen their mortgage payments skyrocket but cannot sell their homes because prices have fallen so significantly.
Under the plan, lenders must reduce monthly payments on mortgages so that the borrower's payment is no greater than 38% of income.

The government will share the burden of reducing payments to 31% of income.
To reach the target, interest payments will first be reduced down to as low as 2%.
If the rate is still above 31%, then the life of the loan can be extended up to 40 years. Only then would the plan forbear principal at no interest to meet the target.

Oil futures soar 7% after inventories data

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Oil futures surged 7% Wednesday to near $45 a barrel, as government data showed a surprising decline in U.S. crude inventories and China, the world's second-biggest oil consumer, is expected to release a new stimulus plan.
Crude oil for April delivery gained $3.02, or 7.3%, to $44.64 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract plunged 10% Monday but has since recovered all of its losses.

U.S. crude inventories, excluding those in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, fell by 700,000 barrels in the week ended Feb. 27, the Energy Information Administration reported. Analysts surveyed by Platts had expected an increase of 2.2 million barrels.
Inventories at Cushing, Okla., the delivery point for Nymex crude futures, fell for a third straight week from their record high, down 500,000 barrels to 34 million.
The EIA also reported gasoline inventories rose by 200,000 barrels, and distillate stockpiles, which include diesel and heating oil, rose 1.7 million barrels. Analysts surveyed by Platts had expected a decline of 600,000 barrels in gasoline inventories and a drop of 1.5 million barrels in distillate stocks.
Total products supplied over the past four-week period have averaged 19.5 million barrels per day, down by 1.3% compared with the similar period last year, the EIA reported. Among them, motor gasoline demand has averaged 9 million barrels per day, up by 2.2% from the same period last year.
Tuesday, the American Petroleum Institute reported that crude supplies fell by 463,000 barrels in the week ended Feb. 27. The API also said that gasoline supplies dropped by 642,000 barrels, while distillate stocks rose by 1.64 million barrels.
The Washington-based API, a trade association of the oil and natural gas industry, calculates inventories based on criteria different from those used by the EIA.
On the Nymex Wednesday, April reformulated gasoline rose 3.3% to $1.3641 a gallon, and April heating oil gained 3% to $1.2145 a gallon. April natural-gas futures fell 2.9% to $4.157 per million British thermal units.
China stimulus plan
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is considering new stimulus measures, adding to a $585 billion spending plan to revive the country's economy, former statistics bureau chief Li Deshui said in Beijing ahead of Thursday's National People's Congress.
"Crude prices were higher on increased optimism the Chinese economy would recover swiftly from the current downturn," wrote Nimit Khamar, an analyst at Sucden Financial Research.

Asian stocks rallied after the news and European stocks also rose. Meanwhile, shares on Wall Street also rebounded from recent slumps.
China is also reportedly considering using its foreign reserves to increase its crude supplies. Read more on Chinese plans to buy oil.
The Chinese Purchasing Managers' Index, used as a gauge of the health of the manufacturing sector, rose to 49.0 for February, up from 45.3 in January, data released Wednesday showed. The index had plunged to a record low of 38.8 in November. Read more on China's industrial data.
However, there was more grim economic data from other parts of the world.
In the U.S., private-sector firms cut 697,000 jobs in February, according to the ADP employment index.

In Australia, the economy contracted for the first time in eight years during the October through December period. Gross domestic product shrank 0.5% in the fourth quarter compared with the third, according to data released Wednesday. Read more on Australia's economic data.
OPEC meeting

Energy traders were also watching for what might come next from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Libya's top OPEC official, Shokri Ghanem, said Tuesday that there is still excess crude in the world oil market, which the cartel needs to remove either through better compliance with already announced cuts or through a new output reduction, Reuters reported.
The oil cartel has already announced a reduction in output of 4.2 million barrels a day since September, equivalent to about 5% of global oil demand. OPEC members will meet on March 15 in Vienna.

China announces double-digit military spending boost

China will boost military spending by 14.9% this year despite the economic slowdown, continuing a run of double-digit increases that have unsettled the US and Asian neighbours.

The spokesman for the National People's Congress – China's rubber-stamp parliament, which begins its annual session tomorrow – told reporters it was a "modest" increase which would increase capabilities and improve conditions for the 2.3 million members of the world's largest army.

Li Zhaoxing said defence spending will reach 480.6bn yuan (£50bn), 62.5bn yuan more than 2008. But the rise is slightly below last year's 17.6% increase – and the total is still dwarfed by US military spending.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that even when comparative buying power is considered, China spent the equivalent of $140bn (£99bn) in 2007, to America's $547bn. The UK spent the equivalent of $54bn.

SIPRI suggests defence spending in China has risen threefold in real terms over the last decade.

Chinese officials argue that heavy investment is needed to modernise its military after years of financial neglect and in the light of other countries' increasing capabilities and China's growing responsibilities. It has begun contributing to peacekeeping efforts and recently sent ships to join the taskforce battling Somalian pirates.

Li said the rise would mainly go towards raising wages and conditions, improving the military's hi-tech ability and enhancing its emergency response capabilities in "disaster relief, fighting terrorism, maintaining stability and other non-warfare military operations".

The former foreign minister added: "China's limited military strength is to protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity and would not threaten any country."

A Japanese foreign ministry deputy spokesman, Takeshi Akamatsu, said there were "untransparent points" in the defence budget. Last year a Pentagon report suggested China's true budget was two to three times the official figure.

But Li insisted: "There is no such thing as so-called hidden military expenditure in China."

Rory Medcalf, of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia, told Reuters: "It is a bit surprising that they have maintained this level of spending despite the global economic crisis. Fifteen per cent is certainly not modest.

"There certainly is a sense of concern in countries like India, Japan, Vietnam, and even Australia about a much more powerful China and what this is going to mean in the future."

US national intelligence director Dennis Blair said last month that China's military budget increases "pose a greater threat to Taiwan". Although relations have improved, Beijing has warned it would use force to prevent Taiwan moving from de facto to formal independence.

Teng Jianqun, a retired colonel and now deputy secretary general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told the Associated Press that spending should go down, but predicted that "the double-digit rate will remain for at least a few years".

China observers are also watching closely this week for details of the 4tn yuan stimulus package announced in November. It aims to boost domestic consumption in the face of slumping exports, largely through spending on public works.

A group of respected Communist elders has written to the leadership supporting the plan but warning that corrupt officials could squander the money.

"We are very concerned that privileged and corrupt individuals may use this opportunity to enrich themselves, damaging relations between the party and the people and exacerbating social conflicts," said the letter, obtained by Reuters, and signed by a former secretary to Mao Zedong and other liberal elders.

Yan Yiming, a prominent Shanghai lawyer, has also filed two government information disclosure requests demanding more details.

China's growth fell to a seven-year low of 6.8% in the fourth quarter of 2008 and analysts say the government will struggle to meet its 8% target this year even with the package.

Standard Chartered economist Stephen Green suggested this week could see an announcement of further investment. He said in a report that officials had told him as much as 8tn to 10tn yuan in investment over two years was "possible, if not likely".

Sudan: ICC Arrest Warrant Major Step Toward Justice

press release

New York — The International Criminal Court's decision to issue an arrest warrant against President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan is a major step toward justice for the victims of Darfur and in the development of international justice, the International Center for Transitional Justice said today.

"The court made clear that heads of state are not beyond the reach of the law," said Juan E. Méndez, president of ICTJ. "It is telling the world that government leaders can and should be held accountable for their actions."

A three-judge panel issued the warrants at the request of the court's prosecutor, charging President Bashir with crimes against humanity and war crimes, for actions in Sudan's Darfur region. The United Nations Security Council in 2005 referred the Darfur situation to the court's prosecutor for investigation. In July 2008, the prosecutor requested an arrest warrant against President Bashir. The judges, rejecting one part of the prosecutor's request, decided against charging President Bashir with genocide.

"The first, necessary step toward peace in Darfur is to pay attention to victims' need for justice," Méndez said. "The arrest warrant -- and taking Bashir into custody and then bringing him to trial -- will show that Sudan's government cannot evade responsibility for its actions."

Sudan's government has wrongly argued in the past that actions by the ICC would undermine the Darfur peace process of put victims in greater jeopardy. "The reality about the peace process for Darfur is that no serious peace process exists," Méndez said. "We know from history that silence in the face of atrocities does not prevent further crimes. The warrant could be an opportunity for the first real progress in Darfur."

The government of Sudan must cooperate with the international community by protecting civilians, allowing humanitarian assistance as well as by entering into serious peace talks, ICTJ said.

Sudan's government should also fulfill its obligations to respect the life and liberty of Sudanese citizens who have cooperated with the ICC or believe the ICC should act in their country

U.S. Supreme Court hears Caperton v. Massey

March 4, 2009 · The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday morning in a West Virginia case that could set new ethical standards for judges across the country.
From the opening arguments, some legal oberservers believe this could be a split decision, perhaps even a 5-4 vote.

Coal company owner Hugh Caperton took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court after state justice Brent Benjamin refused to step down from a case between Caperton and A.T. Massey Coal Company.

The state high court voted 3-2 to overturn a jury verdict that awarded Caperton $50 million in a lawsuit.

Hugh Caperton’s attorney Ted Olson had barely begun laying out his argument Tuesday morning before Justice Antonin Scalia began peppering him with questions and comments.

It didn’t take long for Chief Justice John G. Roberts to chime in asking what percentage of bias a judge could or could not have.

Arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court at times seem more like spirited debate than a presentation with justices asking questions, making observation and citing case law.

Both attorneys faced a lively exchange as they tried to convince the nine justices to rule in their favor.

A-T Massey’s attorney Andy Frey argued that states, not the federal court, should set guidelines for when judges need to recuse themselves. Frey also told the justices that in this case, Justice Brent Benjamin did not need to step aside because he didn’t benefit from the money Don Blankenship spent during the 2004 election.

“Benjamin has done or said nothing that would lead you to think that he would be biased,” Frey said. “He doesn’t know Blankenship. He has no connection to Massey or indeed to Caperton, neither party.”

During oral arguments Frey told the justices that Benjamin had no control over how much Blankenship spent.

Frey says other factors also contributed to Benjamin’s win including bad publicity against his opponent Warren McGraw, endorsements for Benjamin from most of the state’s newspapers and support from the business community.

And Frey doesn’t believe campaign spending by one person or a group should be used to measure a judge’s impartiality.

“What difference does it make whether it’s one person or a group to whom you’re beholden?” Frey asked. “If you’re going to say that a judge is beholden to people who have provided substantial support for his election, then Justice McGraw is beholden to the plaintiffs’ lawyers and when those lawyers appear before him there’s every bit as much probability of bias.”

Frey maintains that states and not the Federal court should be responsible for making the rules.

“If they think there’s a problem they could pass a statute like Alabama has saying if you’ve received contributions of more than a certain amount, or if somebody has expended more than a certain amount, the judge has to recuse himself, or herself,” Frey said.

Caperton attorney Ted Olson disagrees.

“What we’re concerned about is that there’s the appearance of justice for sale,” Olson said.

Olson suggested that judges apply a simple test to determine whether they should recuse themselves from hearing a case.

“The test is, if you’re going to go into court against someone on the other side, and if they with their pocketbook are the one to put that judge, are you thinking that you are going to get a fair trial?” Frey asked. “Then it’s not a fair trial and due process is being violated,” he concluded.

Olson encouraged the Justices to set standards that guide judges in determining whether there’s an appearance of bias.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship did not attend the arguments.

But Hugh Caperton was there. Afterwards Caperton expressed concern about the increasing amount of money being spent in judicial races and the affect it might have on judges’ decisions.

“Well I’m concerned about the justice system if we lose,” Caperton said. “I think this is something that’s going to spiral out of control. It think it’s going to get worse and I think it’s basically going to tell judges and people that donate to their campaigns that its open season.”

It will be several months before the U.S. Supreme Court issues a decision. A transcript of Tuesday’s arguments is available on the U. S. Supreme Court web site.

Some legal observers believe Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito are likely to agree with Massey’s lawyers that a due-process test is unworkable and that individual states and judges should deal with recusals.

Meanwhile, Justice John Paul Stevens is likely to lead Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Souter in arguing for some sort of due-process test – a constitutional floor offering some guidelines to lower courts.

As in many cases, the swing vote may be Justice Anthony Kennedy, who asked tough questions of lawyers on both sides of the case.

Obama names Genachowski as FCC chair

Finally, it’s official: D.C. venture capitalist Julius Genachowski was nominated Tuesday by President Barack Obama to chair the Federal Communications Commission.

Genachowski’s ties to Obama go back to the Harvard Law Review, and he served as an adviser on technology policy during the 2008 campaign. He is cofounder and managing director of LaunchBox Digital, an early-stage investment firm in the District, and Rock Creek Ventures, a D.C. venture capital firm. He also worked as a senior executive for eight years at IAC/InterActiveCorp.

During the Clinton administration, Genachowski served as chief counsel to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt as well as special counsel to William Kennard, when Kennard served as general counsel.

“He will bring to the job diverse and unparalleled experience in communications and technology, “ Obama said.

Obama also named John Berry to be director of the Office of Personnel Management. Berry’s most recent task was fixing problems at the National Zoo. He also has served as director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and as an assistant secretary of the Treasury.

Clinton woos Syria in Mission Impossible

WASHINGTON, March 4 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has brought her usual limitless energy and commitment to revive the Middle East peace process, but the Israelis and the Palestinians, while disagreeing on everything else, are united only in rejecting everything she wants them to do.

Clinton hit the region in her usual whirlwind style. She held talks Wednesday with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, then with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Like Clinton, all three of them want to breathe new life and credibility into the moribund Israeli-Arab peace process. The only trouble is: Every one of them is a lame duck, and the rising, truly powerful forces in each community reject every core concession that Clinton wants them to make.

Clinton told Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement that rules Gaza and looks poised to win this year's municipal elections on the West Bank, that it had to recognize the existence of the state of Israel. "In the absence of Hamas agreeing to the principles that have been adopted by such a broad range of international actors, I don't see that we or they -- or anyone -- could deal with Hamas," she told CNN Tuesday.

However, the demand to annihilate Israel is ingrained in Hamas' charter and is repeated by all the organization's leaders on every occasion.

Ironically, while hanging tough against Hamas, Clinton is also trying to woo Syria, the historic main ally of Iran in the region for the past 30 years. She announced this week that the U.S. government would send two diplomats to Syria. Clinton's advisers see Syria as a linchpin in the Israeli-Palestinian question and as a valuable middleman in Washington's continued standoff with Iran over its nuclear development program.

The Obama administration also wants to avert any new clashes between Israel and Syria that could escalate into war. However, the likelihood of getting Syrian President Bashar Assad to mellow toward the United States appears highly unlikely. Even if Iran would permit Assad to defect from his loyal support and dependency on Tehran, Syria is also a sponsor of Hezbollah, the Shiite Party of God in southern Lebanon, and it provides for Khaled Meshaal, the fierce, uncompromising leader of Hamas, in Damascus.

Syria provided invaluable intelligence to the United States in helping fight al-Qaida and suppress it across the Middle East in the year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, but Assad suspended the cooperation in disgust at the refusal of the Bush administration to cut him any slack. Afterward, U.S.-Syrian relations continued to deteriorate.

To this day, Syria allows passage for mujahedin and supplies for Sunni Muslim insurgents who have been fighting U.S. forces in central Iraq for nearly six years. The United States recalled its ambassador to Syria in 2005 in protest of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Damascus is thought to have had a hand in the attack.

Nevertheless, Clinton and her Middle East peace envoys George Mitchell and Dennis Ross still think they can bring Syria into the peace discussions. This idea is certainly consistent with the Obama administration's diplomacy plans for the region, emphasizing the strategic principle of engagement, rather than isolation, with nations and parties in the region historically hostile to the United States. But that doesn't mean it's going to work.

Clinton is also determined to revive the viability of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the Palestinians currently have two states, not one. Clinton and her boss, U.S. President Barack Obama, have bet big that they can revive the credibility and attractiveness of tired, old PA President Abbas. But what little respect Abbas still had on the West Bank was washed away by his manifest inability to do anything whatsoever to come to the aid of the Gazans when they were hammered by the Israeli air force and army in three weeks of retaliatory attacks for Hamas' continual rocket bombardments of every Israeli settlement and town they could reach.

Abbas Wednesday demanded that Iran stop meddling in Palestinian affairs. That is like trying to make rain fall up instead of down. Iran is the main state supporter of Hamas in Gaza and funnels in as much financial support and weapons as it possibly can. It isn't going to stop doing that just because Abbas told it to.

Clinton is also fighting far more powerful political forces hostile to her in Israel. Livni and her Kadima Party edged out the right-nationalist Likud Party by a single seat to remain the largest party in the Knesset, the 120-seat Israeli parliament, in the Israeli general election on Feb. 10. However, the left-center parties in all took only 44 seats. Right wing, nationalist and conservative religious parties took 65 seats between them.

Also, fleeting Obama administration hopes that the right-wing bloc would splinter were dashed, in large part due to a bad miscalculation by Livni herself. She refused to serve under Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu without being assured a rotation slot as prime minister. Netanyahu promptly rejected that claim and proved ready to bury his differences and rivalry with rising nationalist star Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party is now the third-largest in the Knesset and looks set to play a key role in the coalition government Netanyahu is currently forming, and Lieberman has left no doubt he is determined to block any serious concessions to the Palestinians that Clinton might propose.

Still, it's always a mistake to count out Hillary Clinton. As first lady, U.S. senator, Democratic Party presidential candidate and now secretary of state, she has always shown herself resilient, determined and remorseless. The level of commitment she is bringing to resolve the Middle East conflict far exceeds that of her predecessors as secretary of state, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. If there is one thing she can be counted on doing, it is to try, try and try again.