Thursday, November 30, 2006

Iraq and timetables--a tale of two stories here

Talk about irony here! I found these two stories on the front page of the Washington Post's website. Let's start with the first story, titled Iraq Study Group to Recommend Withdrawing Most Troops by 2008:

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group plans to recommend withdrawing nearly all U.S. combat units from Iraq by early 2008 while leaving behind troops to train, advise and support the Iraqis, setting the first goal for a major drawdown of U.S. forces, sources familiar with the proposal said yesterday.

The commission plan would shift the U.S. mission in Iraq to a secondary role as the fragile Baghdad government and its security forces take the lead in fighting a Sunni insurgency and trying to halt sectarian violence. As part of major changes in the U.S. presence, sources said, the plan recommends embedding U.S. soldiers directly in Iraqi security units starting as early as next month to improve leadership and effectiveness.

The call to pull out combat brigades by early 2008 would be more a conditional goal than a firm timetable, predicated on the assumption that circumstances on the ground would permit it, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the commission's report will not be released until next week. But panel members concluded that it is vital to set a target to put pressure on Iraqi leaders to do more to assume responsibility for the security of their country.

"It's really about transitioning from a combat to a support role, and basically making very clear that this is no longer an open-ended commitment and we're going to get this done whether the Iraqis like it or not," said one of the sources. "Everybody understands that we're at the end of the road here."

The choice of early 2008 as a goal could also, intentionally or not, change the nature of the debate over the war at the height of the U.S. presidential primary season. If the commission's plan is successful, the war might recede as an issue, as many strategists in both parties hope. But if U.S. commanders do not meet that goal, or if they do but violence only escalates, it may inflame the struggles for both parties' nominations.

You've got to love the marketing spin on the panel's part--it is all about transitioning from a combat to a support role. It is about changing the U.S. role from fighting the insurgents to training the Iraqi security forces so they can fight the insurgents. And the leak of the timetable is meant to “put pressure on Iraqi leaders to do more to assume responsibility for the security of their country.” It is all about forcing the Iraqis to stand up so that we can stand down. Of course, the ulterior motive that no one wants to talk about is the 2008 presidential elections. If U.S. troops are still fighting in Iraq come November 2008, you can bet that the war will become an even bigger liability for the Republican Party, since it was the Republican Party under President Bush that got us into this war in the first place. It is especially interesting how Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that he believed Iraqi security forces would be ready to take full control of the security in Iraq by June 2007. If Maliki's government can take control of Iraq's security by June 2007, this gives the U.S. six months to a year for initiating a withdrawal timetable for removing combat troops from Iraq just before the two political parties go into their conventions. Of course, there are some big "ifs" here; if Maliki's government can maintain control of security in Iraq; if anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is willing to accept this, knowing how weak Maliki is with a fractured Iraqi security force whose soldiers are more loyal to tribal leaders rather than to the state, while Sadr himself has been growing powerful in both political and military terms; if the long-simmering ethnic violence and hatred can be contained and reduced between the Shiites and Sunnis. It is almost like there is some serious political timing for the Republican Party's benefit--first Maliki says that Iraq can stand up in maintaining security in the country, which allows the Iraq Study Group to leak a story recommending the U.S. to stand down and withdrawal combat troops before the 2008 presidential elections.

Now we come to this Washington Post story, titled Bush Rejects Troop Reductions, Endorses Maliki:

AMMAN, Jordan, Nov. 30 -- President Bush on Thursday dismissed calls for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq as unrealistic, saying American forces would "stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."

Speaking after a summit meeting here with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush also offered a strong endorsement of the embattled Iraqi leader, calling him "the right guy for Iraq."

[....]

In the news conference that followed, Bush sought to preempt a growing clamor to start a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, a proposed policy shift that has gained traction as a result of the Nov. 7 congressional elections and that is expected to be endorsed by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). The United States has more than 140,000 troops in Iraq.

Although the president was not asked directly about the panel's recommendations, which will be made public next week but which were partially leaked to reporters late Wednesday, he did say that "this business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever."

Later, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters aboard Air Force One that Bush would start making changes in his Iraq policy soon after receiving the study group's recommendations and the reports of other high-level review panels. "There is a real sense of urgency, but there is not a sense of panic," Hadley said, according to the Reuters news agency.

We've got some doublespeak coming out of Washington here. The Iraq Study Group is leaking recommendations that the Bush administration should start pulling out U.S. troops before the 2008 presidential elections start up, or risk a Republican "thumping" in the White House, while President Bush is saying that the U.S. will stay in Iraq "to get the job done, so long as the [Iraqi] government wants us there." In other words, Bush is rejecting the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, at the possible expense of having the Republican Party losing the White House in 2008. Even more so, the Iraq Study Group is going along with the Bush administration’s continued insistence on staying in Iraq until the U.S. “gets the job done.” The Iraq Study Group’s call to pull out U.S. combat troops in 2008 is a “conditional goal” rather than an actual timetable. You have to wonder who is going to determine the metrics for achieving this conditional goal, which would allow the U.S. to start pulling out the troops from Iraq—President Bush? To make matters worst, this whole ISG recommendation for a withdrawal in 2008 is conditional--based on lofty assumptions the circumstances in Iraq will shift perfectly in the U.S. favor. In other words, the sun, moon, stars, and planets will need to align with the Bush White House before the troops can be withdrawn from Iraq. And finally, while this fracas is going on, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley is also talking from both sides of his mouth, claiming "there is a real sense of urgency" regarding Iraq--but don't panic! Talk about contradictions here--these guys can't even keep their story straight!

I think now is a good time to start panicking....

Wal-Mart's decline unsettles retail sector

This is off MSNBC News:

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. unsettled the retail industry Thursday, reporting a sales decline for the first time in 10 years and warning that its holiday sales would be disappointing. The discounter’s news, coupled with a jump in unemployment benefit claims, raised concerns about the strength of the retailing sector at a critical time of the year.

Wal-Mart’s confirmation of weak November sales and its announcement that its December same-store sales gain would be no better than 1 percent came as the nation’s retailers reported an overall mixed performance for the month. Same-store sales reflect business at stores open at least a year and are the industry standard for measuring a company’s strength.

Wal-Mart’s disappointment was a sharp contrast with results from discount rival Target Corp., which beat Wall Street forecasts, and Federated Department Stores Inc., which far exceeded expectations. Other retailers had mixed sales; J.C. Penney Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp. both fell short of Wall Street projections.

Industry analysts generally believed the world’s largest retailer is struggling with its own internal problems, not an industry-wide malaise. Still, the discounter’s woes raised the possibility that it would incite increasingly aggressive price wars this season that would slice into retail profits. And a Labor Department report Thursday that showed a surprising increase in claims for jobless benefits last week added uncertainty to the outlook for holiday sales.

The timing of Wal-Mart’s news couldn’t have been worse, coming just after most consumers started holiday shopping. While many retailers had a strong Thanksgiving weekend, Wal-Mart warned Saturday that its November sales would be weaker than expected.

Wal-Mart’s 0.1 percent dip in same-store sales for the month is in line with the reduced forecast from analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial, which forecast unchanged growth.

Including a drop in gasoline revenues from its Sam’s Club division, which Wal-Mart did not include in its calculation, same store-sales fell 0.3 percent.

Wal-Mart has struggled in recent months with a mix of problems, including the fact that its lower-income customers were hurt by soaring gas prices. But the company’s lackluster sales have persisted even as the cost of gas eased, an indication that there are other factors that are dragging down Wal-Mart’s results.

“This is pretty discouraging,” said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics LLC, a research company in Swampscott, Mass. But he added that Wal-Mart’s weak sales “will not be a harbinger of a broad-based weakness across the retail sector.”

I think one of the big problems that Wal-Mart has is in its image. Wal-Mart caters to the lower-income customers by providing some of the cheapest quality merchandise for the cheapest prices. I've browsed through Wal-Mart stores and I'll admit that a lot of their merchandise is low quality crap. The stores are dirty, crowded, and very much disorganized as consumers have picked through and placed mis-matched products on any shelf space they can find. And the Wal-Mart stores here in San Jose, Milpitas, or even in Gilroy have a customer base that is predominantly Hispanic. Yes, Wal-Mart has some of the lowest prices for their merchandise. But their merchandise just isn't buying in terms of quality--not when I've seen some better quality stuff over at Target for about the same price. So I do find it interesting how Target sales have actually increased by 5.9 percent in November:

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Target Corp. (NYSE:TGT - news) said on Thursday that November sales rose 5.9 percent at stores open at least a year, helped by strong demand for electronics, health-care products and baby clothes.

Analysts, on average, expected the discount retailer to report a 5.8 percent increase, according to estimates gathered by Reuters. The company had forecast 4 percent to 7 percent growth.

Total sales for the four-week period that ended on November 25 rose 11.7 percent to $5.12 billion.

On a recorded message detailing its sales performance, Target reported an increase in both the number of shoppers and the average amount spent.

Rival Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT - news), which posted its first monthly same-store sales decline in more than a decade, said its store traffic declined in November.

Target said its inventory was in "very good" condition at the end of the period, and for December, it expects same-store sales growth in the range of 3.5 percent to 5.5 percent.

Target has always marketed itself as a "cheap chic" department store, over that of Wal-Mart's "always low prices" slogan. In terms of prices, there really isn't much of a difference between Target and Wal-Mart. In terms of quality and selection, Target seems to have better merchandise than Wal-Mart. I'll admit that this is subjective, and that I may have a bias towards Target over that of Wal-Mart. But how do you explain Target's 5.9 percent increase in sales, over that of Wal-Mart's 0.1 percent decline in sales? I'm wondering if the lower-income consumers have enough money to spend for Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart. Take this Bloomberg story on unemployment benefits:

Nov. 30 (Bloomberg) -- The number of U.S. workers filing first-time applications for state unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week to the highest in more than a year.

Initial jobless claims increased by 34,000 to 357,000 in the week that ended Nov. 25, the highest since October 2005, the Labor Department said today in Washington. The four-week moving average, a less volatile measure, rose to 325,000 from 317,750.

Weekly claims figures were distorted by seasonal adjustments and temporary layoffs associated with the start of the holiday season, a Labor Department spokesman said. Claims may creep higher in coming weeks as builders, mortgage brokers and other housing-related businesses cut staff in a slumping real-estate market.

``Even considering that the number might have been exaggerated by the seasonals, we believe this is starting to show the cooling in labor-market conditions,'' Elisabeth Denison, economist at Dresdner Kleinwort in New York, said in an interview.

Economists had forecast initial jobless claims would decline to 315,000 from the originally reported 321,000 for the prior week, according to the median of 34 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey. Estimates ranged from 310,000 to 330,000.

A separate report today showed personal spending in the U.S. rebounded last month, fueled by income growth. The 0.2 percent rise in spending followed a 0.2 percent decrease in September, the Commerce Department said today in Washington. Incomes rose 0.4 percent, and the Federal Reserve's preferred measure of inflation increased 0.2 percent for a second month.

Just last month, we've seen a major slowdown in the housing market:

The Commerce Department said Friday [November 17, 2006] that construction of new single-family homes and apartments dropped to an annual rate of 1.486 million units last month, down a sharp 14.6% from September.

The decline, bigger than expected, was the largest percentage drop in 19 months and pushed total activity down to the lowest level since July 2000.

The level of building activity in October was 27.4% below October 2005, biggest year-over-year decline since March 1991.

Applications for new building permits, seen as a sign of future plans, fell for an eighth month, declining 6.3% to an annual rate of 1.535 million units.

Construction of single-family homes fell 15.9% in October from the seasonally adjusted September level, dropping to an annual rate of 1.177 million units. Construction of multi-family units dropped 9.1% to an annual rate of 309,000 units.

The drop in construction was led by a 26.4% decline in the South. Construction fell 11.7% in the Midwest and 2.1% in the West.

The collapse in housing is certainly going to cause some serious job losses within the construction, mortgage, and home-building sectors. I'm wondering if we're just now starting to see the start of a new recession here--the housing slowdown in October has forced home-builders, construction firms, and the mortgage industry to start laying off workers, causing the sudden increase in unemployment claims "by 34,000 to 357,000 in the week that ended Nov. 25." I'm wondering if a good chunk of these unemployment claims is actually coming from the construction industry, which could employ not just construction workers, but also the day laborers that work in building homes. Such laborers could be in the lower-income brackets, and perhaps be the major shoppers at Wal-Mart. These shoppers are cutting back on their spending at Wal-Mart, resulting in Wal-Mart's decrease in sales forecasts. Are we starting to see a ripple effect starting from lower-income consumers, which could then move up into the higher income brackets? I would certainly be curious to see what December retail sales forecasts are going to be for the major department stores. Because if we are heading in to a recession as a result of the housing slowdown in September/October, then we could start seeing the effects of this slowdown on consumer spending within three to six months—perhaps between late December to March.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Colin Powell says Iraq in a 'civil war'

This is off CNN.com:

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (CNN) -- Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday that Iraq's violence meets the standard of civil war and that if he were heading the State Department now, he might recommend that the administration use that term.

Many news organizations and analysts are calling the Sunni-Shiite sectarian warfare that exploded this year, killing thousands and causing widespread displacement, a civil war.

Powell's comments -- made in the United Arab Emirates at the Leaders in Dubai Business Forum -- are significant because he backed the war and was the top U.S. diplomat when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

Well, this certainly isn't good for the Bush administration--when their former secretary of state is now saying that Iraq is in a civil war. Of course, even the Bush White House itself can't decide what situation Iraq is currently in--it is just not in a civil war. Continuing with the CNN story:

Bush has avoided using the term "civil war" to describe the situation in Iraq.

Tuesday, he called the latest violence in Iraq "part of a pattern" of attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq to divide Shiites and Sunnis and vowed, again, he won't support the removal of U.S. troops "before the mission is complete."

"There's a lot of sectarian violence taking place, fomented in my opinion because of the attacks by al Qaeda, causing people to seek reprisal," he said. (Full story)

White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley also dismissed the notion that civil war has begun in Iraq.

"The Iraqis don't talk of it as a civil war. The unity government doesn't talk of it as a civil war," Hadley said Monday. "You have not yet had a situation also where you have two clearly defined and opposing groups vying not only for power but for territory."

But he added: "We're clearly in a new phase characterized by an increase in sectarian violence that requires us to adapt to that new phase," according to The Associated Press.

You just have to love Hadly's quotes here--Iraq is "in a new phase characterized by an increase in sectarian violence that requires us to adapt to that new phase...." This is how you say Iraq is in a civil war without using the two words "civil" and "war" together.

War is peace--peace is war....

An Ancient Computer Surprises Scientists

Fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism, left, have now been examined with the latest in high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography. School of Physics and Astronomy, Cardiff University

This is a fascinating article off The New York Times:

A computer in antiquity would seem to be an anachronism, like Athena ordering takeout on her cellphone.

But a century ago, pieces of a strange mechanism with bronze gears and dials were recovered from an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Greece. Historians of science concluded that this was an instrument that calculated and illustrated astronomical information, particularly phases of the Moon and planetary motions, in the second century B.C.

The Antikythera Mechanism, sometimes called the world’s first computer, has now been examined with the latest in high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography. A team of British, Greek and American researchers was able to decipher many inscriptions and reconstruct the gear functions, revealing, they said, “an unexpected degree of technical sophistication for the period.”

The researchers, led by Tony Freeth and Mike G. Edmunds, both of the University of Cardiff, Wales, are reporting the results of their study in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature.

Talk about your ancient computer here. I sort of wonder whether the gear functions were created by Microsoft, or if the computer had a "Press Any" key on it. And if the computer operators didn't have to constantly upgrade their hardware, or even their entire machines, for calculating the phases of the moon and planetary motions--what a savings that would be! Continuing with this Times article:

They said their findings showed that the inscriptions related to lunar-solar motions and the gears were a mechanical representation of the irregularities of the Moon’s orbital course across the sky, as theorized by the astronomer Hipparchos. They established the date of the mechanism at 150-100 B.C.

The Roman ship carrying the artifacts sank off the island of Antikythera around 65 B.C. Some evidence suggests that the ship had sailed from Rhodes. The researchers speculated that Hipparchos, who lived on Rhodes, might have had a hand in designing the device.

In another article in the journal, a scholar not involved in the research, Fran├žois Charette of the University of Munich museum, in Germany, said the new interpretation of the Antikythera Mechanism “is highly seductive and convincing in all of its details.” It is not the last word, he concluded, “but it does provide a new standard, and a wealth of fresh data, for future research.”

Historians of technology think the instrument is technically more complex than any known device for at least a millennium afterward.

The mechanism, presumably used in preparing calendars for seasons of planting and harvesting and fixing religious festivals, had at least 30, possibly 37, hand-cut bronze gear-wheels, the researchers reported. An ingenious pin-and-slot device connecting two gear-wheels induced variations in the representation of lunar motions according to the Hipparchos model of the Moon’s elliptical orbit around Earth.

The functions of the mechanism were determined by the numbers of teeth in the gears. The 53-tooth count of certain gears, the researchers said, was “powerful confirmation of our proposed model of Hipparchos’ lunar theory.”

The detailed imaging revealed more than twice as many inscriptions as had been recognized from earlier examinations. Some of these appeared to relate to planetary as well as lunar motions. Perhaps, the researchers said, the mechanism also had gearings to predict the positions of known planets.

Dr. Charette noted that more than 1,000 years elapsed before instruments of such complexity are known to have re-emerged. A few artifacts and some Arabic texts suggest that simpler geared calendrical devices had existed, particularly in Baghdad around A.D. 900.

It seems clear, Dr. Charette said, that “much of the mind-boggling technological sophistication available in some parts of the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman world was simply not transmitted further,” adding, “The gear-wheel, in this case, had to be reinvented.”

Or perhaps this first computer is akin to the Apple Computer, before "Apples" were invented....

Leaked memos and postponed meetings--Why did Bush even go to Jordan?

It never ceases to amaze me at how screwed up the Bush administration's damage-control spin on Iraq has become. Okay, let's start with this first little story from The New York Times, titled Bush Aide’s Memo Doubts Iraqi Leader:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 28 — A classified memorandum by President Bush’s national security adviser expressed serious doubts about whether Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki had the capacity to control the sectarian violence in Iraq and recommended that the United States take new steps to strengthen the Iraqi leader’s position.

The Nov. 8 memo was prepared for Mr. Bush and his top deputies by Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, and senior aides on the staff of the National Security Council after a trip by Mr. Hadley to Baghdad.

The memo suggests that if Mr. Maliki fails to carry out a series of specified steps, it may ultimately be necessary to press him to reconfigure his parliamentary bloc, a step the United States could support by providing “monetary support to moderate groups,” and by sending thousands of additional American troops to Baghdad to make up for what the document suggests is a current shortage of Iraqi forces. (Text of the Memo)

The memo presents an unvarnished portrait of Mr. Maliki and notes that he relies for some of his political support on leaders of more extreme Shiite groups. The five-page document, classified secret, is based in part on a one-on-one meeting between Mr. Hadley and Mr. Maliki on Oct. 30.

“His intentions seem good when he talks with Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shia hierarchy and force positive change,” the memo said of the Iraqi leader. “But the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action.”

An administration official made a copy of the document available to a New York Times reporter seeking information on the administration’s policy review. The Times read and transcribed the memo.

A couple of items here. First, the memo was prepared by Bush's National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley--did Hadley himself, or someone within the Bush administration leak this memo? It is rather ironic how this memo had been leaked just before President Bush's meeding with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki. Which comes to my second question of why was this memo leaked? To have such a rather unflattering portrait of the Iraqi leader created by the Bush administration, and publicly leaked just before President Bush is to meet with that leader is a perfect means to sabotage the talks between Bush and al-Maliki. Did the Bush administration sanction this leak? After all, such a leak could be a perfect political scapegoat for the administration to blame the violence of Iraq on al-Maliki and pull out the U.S. troops there. But even if that is correct, then the Bush administration would have known back in October, or even earlier, that Iraq is a lost cause. And that is certainly a contradiction, since President Bush has publicly stated that Iraq is not in a state of civil war:

(CBS/AP) President Bush said Tuesday that the sectarian violence rocking Iraq is not civil war but part of an al Qaeda plot to use violence to goad Iraqi factions into repeatedly attacking each other.

"No question it's tough, no question about it," Mr. Bush said at a news conference with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. "There's a lot of sectarian violence taking place, fomented in my opinion because of the attacks by al Qaeda causing people to seek reprisal."

Mr. Bush, who travels to Jordan later in the week for a summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said the latest cycle of violence does not represent a new era in Iraq. The country is reeling from the deadliest week of sectarian fighting since the war began in March 2003.

"We've been in this phase for a while," he said.

The White House doesn't want to use the term "civil war," because it's the next category of chaos, CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports. There's also a huge difference between U.S. troops engaged in a noble mission like bringing democracy to a region and being caught in another country's civil war.

And by the way, how is the Bush administration spinning this latest leak? Here's more from the Times article:

Aides to President Bush, who was attending a NATO summit today in Riga, Latvia, scrambled to put the best face on the memo.

“The president has confidence in Prime Minister Maliki,” the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, told reporters, adding that the administration “is working with the prime minister to improve his capabilities in terms of dealing with the fundamental challenges in Iraq.”

You have to marvel at the comedic incompetence of this administration. President Bush has confidence in Maliki, even though his administration is leaking memos that say that Maliki has pretty much lost control of Iraq. But it gets better here. Because now the meeting between Bush and Maliki has been postponed. According to this New York Times article, titled Bush-Maliki talks are postponed:

AMMAN, Jordan, Nov. 29 —The first meeting in a scheduled two-day summit between President Bush and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of Iraq was canceled at the last minute today, against the backdrop of threats by a radical Shiite cleric to boycott the Maliki government and the disclosure of a classified White House memo that was highly critical of Mr. Maliki.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Maliki still intend to have breakfast together here Thursday morning, and to hold a much-anticipated joint press conference afterward.

But a joint session planned for this evening with their Jordanian host, King Abdullah II, was abruptly called off while Mr. Bush was in the air, flying to Amman from Riga, Latvia.

Mr. Bush’s counselor, Dan Bartlett, told reporters who traveled with the president that there turned out to be no need for the planned three-way session, since Mr. Maliki and King Abdullah had already met earlier in the day and Mr. Bush and King Abdullah were planning dine together privately later in the evening.

Mr. Bartlett said the cancellation had nothing to do with disclosure of the classified memo, reported in today’s issue of The New York Times. “No one should read too much into this, except for the fact that they had a good meeting,” Mr. Bartlett said, referring to Mr. Maliki and the king.

The postponement of these three-ways talks between Bush, Maliki and Jordan's King Abdullah had nothing to do with the leaked White House memo trashing Maliki. Is it me, or am I getting dizzy from all this spin? And while we're at it, I'm sure that this New York Times story didn't have anything to do with the Bush-Maliki meeting:

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 29 — Legislators and cabinet officials loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr said today that they had suspended their participation in the Iraqi government because Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki had ignored their request to cancel his meeting with President Bush in Jordan.

The departure of the Sadr followers from the halls of power here — 30 parliamentarians and six ministers — raises questions about the viability of the fragile coalition government, made up of feuding blocs of religious Shiites, religious Sunni Arabs, Kurds and secularists.

It is unclear what immediate effect Mr. Sadr’s boycott will have on Mr. Maliki and the government. At the urging of senior ayatollahs, the religious Shiite bloc that dominates the government is expected to stay together despite the walkout, though the balance of power within it would change drastically if Mr. Sadr were to prolong his boycott. An extended absence by Mr. Sadr could ignite a bitter struggle for leadership among the top Shiite politicians.

Bahaa al-Aaraji, a leader of the Sadr legislators, said the Sadr organization had two conditions for rejoining the government: That Mr. Maliki wrest more control of the Iraqi security forces from the Americans and increase their number, and that the government provide more electricity, gas and other basic services to the people.

That places more pressure on Mr. Maliki to win concessions on the security issue from President Bush at their planned meeting in Amman, which was postponed until Thursday. Command of the Iraqi forces is a point of conflict between Mr. Maliki and the Americans. Mr. Maliki, who flew into Jordan on Wednesday, has said the Americans need to cede more operational control to the Iraqis.

So what is the bottom line on all this mess? Iraq is a complete disaster! Nothing will come from these postponed talks between Bush and Maliki, except for some press photo ops and a few useless quotations to be spun around the mainstream media's heads. Maliki is a puppet--a figurehead--in a castrated Iraqi government that is unable to quell the sectarian violence of this civil war that is raging in Iraq. President Bush has also become something of a figurehead within the U.S. government, since it was the president himself who made the case for going to war with Iraq, for continually advocating the "stay the course" policy in Iraq--even when Iraq was breaking apart in a civil war--and President Bush is even now still refusing to believe that his administration has lost this war in Iraq. The Bush administration's case for continuing the war in Iraq has also been shattered by the Republican's loss of control of Congress to the Democrats. Iraq is a shattered state--divided into three regions defined by ethnicity. The real question that the Bush administration should be debating is when do we start pulling the troops out of Iraq?

It is a question that the president still refuses to accept.

Monday, November 27, 2006

President Bush and the Iraq Study Group--A disaster looming?

There are a couple of stories here that really inter-connect with each other and show another view of the growing disaster we have in the Bush White House. I'm going to start with this New York Times article, Panel to Weigh Overture by U.S. to Iran and Syria:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 26 — A draft report on strategies for Iraq, which will be debated here by a bipartisan commission beginning Monday, urges an aggressive regional diplomatic initiative that includes direct talks with Iran and Syria but sets no timetables for a military withdrawal, according to officials who have seen all or parts of the document.

While the diplomatic strategy appears likely to be accepted, with some amendments, by the 10-member Iraq Study Group, members of the commission and outsiders involved in its work said they expected a potentially divisive debate about timetables for beginning an American withdrawal.

In interviews, several officials said announcing a major withdrawal was the only way to persuade the government of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, to focus on creating an effective Iraqi military force.

Several commission members, including some Democrats, are discussing proposals that call for a declaration that within a specified period of time, perhaps as short as a year, a significant number of American troops should be withdrawn, regardless of whether the Iraqi government’s forces are declared ready to defend the country.

Among the ideas are embedding far more American training teams into Iraqi military units in a last-ditch improvement effort. While numbers are still approximate, phased withdrawal of combat troops over the next year would leave 70,000 to 80,000 American troops in the country, compared with about 150,000 now.

Now there are some interesting details here regarding the Iraq Study Group's report. The big news here is that the study group is recommending a combination of negotiations with Syria and Iran--possibly to help reduce the level of ethnic violence raging in Iraq--along with a phased withdrawal of American troops while handing over greater security responsibilities to the Iraqi government, whether they are ready or not. In one sense, this does sound like the old Vietnamization strategy, or Nixon Doctrine, which was adopted by the Nixon administration as a means to end the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. And this doesn't surprise me. If Vietnamization worked in pulling American troops out of Vietnam, then why not adopt the strategy to pull American troops out of Iraq?

But now look at this initial response by the Bush White House on the Iraq Study Group's report:

President Bush is not bound by the commission’s recommendations, and during a trip to Southeast Asia that ended just before Thanksgiving, he made it clear that he would also give considerable weight to studies under way by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his own National Security Council.

Last Monday in Bogor, Indonesia, he said he planned to make no decisions on troop increases or decreases “until I hear from a variety of sources, including our own United States military.”

But privately, administration officials seem deeply concerned about the weight of the findings of the Baker-Hamilton commission.

“I think there is fear that anything they say will seem like they are etched in stone tablets,” said a senior American diplomat. “It’s going to be hard for the president to argue that a group this distinguished, and this bipartisan, has got it wrong.”

[....]

Mr. Bush spent 90 minutes with commission members in a closed session at the White House two weeks ago “essentially arguing why we should embrace what amounts to a ‘stay the course’ strategy,” said one commission official who was present.

Officials said that the draft of the section on diplomatic strategy, which was heavily influenced by Mr. Baker, seemed to reflect his public criticism of the administration for its unwillingness to talk with nations like Iran and Syria.

But senior administration officials, including Stephen J. Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, have expressed skepticism that either of those nations would go along, especially while Iran is locked in a confrontation with the United States over its nuclear program. “Talking isn’t a strategy,” he said in an interview in October.

There is controversy brewing over this report. First, President Bush is not bound by the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group's report--he can basically shove the report in the trash if he doesn't like it. And there are some major differences between the Bush administration and the Iraq Study Group. The real big one is U.S. negotiations with Syria and Iran. Jim Baker wants the U.S. to negotiate with Syria and Iran. The Bush administration--as expressed in the Times story by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley--is pretty much refusing to engage in such talks. You could say that there is a serious philosophical difference with Jim Baker's real politik's approach clashing with the Bush administration's neoconservativism. Any U.S. negotiations with Syria and Iran would rip to shreds the Bush administration's arguments that both Syria and Iran have been aiding terrorists--including Iraqi insurgents. The Iraq Study Group's recommendation for the U.S. to negotiate with Syria and Iraq would also discredit and destroy the PNAC neocon's ambitions for U.S. military imperialism in the Middle East, since both Syria and Iran would certainly demand the removal of U.S. troops out of Iraq--say goodbye to those permanent U.S. bases that have already been constructed there.

The real danger for the Bush administration here is that the Iraq Study Group's recommendations could become "etched in stone tablets," thus forcing the administration to accept policy changes that are unacceptable to the neocons, but may have support from the American public. Thus, we have the president arguing with the Iraq Study Group for 90 minutes about how the U.S. should continue his "stay the course" strategy. In fact, to further complicate the messy debate going on in Washington, President Bush has also initiated study groups on the Iraq problem by both the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Council. You can bet that the National Security Council will adopt the Bush White House talking points on Iraq, when they release their study group findings. The Joint Chiefs study group might take a more muddled approach of maintaining the status quo while increasing the training of Iraqi security forces. Both of these reports could take away the initiative that the Iraq Study Group may have in influencing a change of U.S. policy towards Iraq.

Then there is this second New York Times story, titled In Need of New Moves, but in Which Direction:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 26 — President Bush leaves for Europe on Monday uncertain of the Washington he will return to, or even his place in it.

Certainly the pressure is on for Mr. Bush to right a presidency mired in low poll ratings, beset by an unpopular war and claiming few domestic accomplishments in his second term. And the moment would seem to call for something drastic.

But official Washington remains unsure of which way he may go in trying to salvage his legacy. Will he continue on as if nothing has changed, pursuing conservative policies he believes history will smile upon later, even if it means getting nothing past a Democratic Congress here and now? Or will he move to the political center and seek deals with Democrats that will sour conservatives but leave him with a longer list of accomplishments?

As his top aides meet to plan their first moves of the new year with a new Congress — focusing acutely on his State of the Union address — Mr. Bush seems to be hemmed in from both sides.

For all of their talk about bipartisanship, the newly elected Democrats still have fresh memories of six years of presidential attacks painting them as “wrong on taxes” and “weak on defense.” Already they are talking about investigations into the administration’s domestic wiretapping and terrorist detainee programs and the vice president’s consultations with energy officials, among other things.

The president’s own party remains angry with him for his handling of the war, the delayed ouster of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the low presidential approval ratings that contributed to this fall’s Republican wipeout.

Senior Republican staff members in Congress have voiced the fear that Mr. Bush will now put his legacy over the party’s immediate future, and take his cues from President Bill Clinton by “triangulating” when opportunity strikes — that is, making deals with Democrats, over Republican objections, on immigration, health care or Social Security.

“While the White House is trying to define their legacy, they’ll try to triangulate us,” said one senior Republican leadership aide who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “There is no sense of wanting to defend the Bush administration right now.”

What we have here is a president who has suddenly become concerned with "his legacy," with two years left in his term. President Bush has angered the Democrats with his shoving an extreme conservative agenda down the castrated Democrats throats for the past six years while attacking them with some of the harshest language ever. The Republicans are certainly angry with President Bush regarding his mis-handling of the Iraq war and the ouster of Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld. And now the Republicans in Congress fear that President Bush will start putting his own "legacy" interests above that of the Republican Party by cutting deals with the Democrats on policy issues.

So what does this story have to do with the Iraq Study Group? The dominating issue right now is the war in Iraq. The problem for President Bush here is that he has no room for negotiation regarding Iraq. Over the past month, the war has deteriorated so badly that Great Britain will start reducing its troops over the next year. Poland and Italy will also withdrawal their remaining troops as well. Sectarian violence has been exploding throughout Iraq as Sunnis and Shiites battle each other in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. Both MSNBC News and the Los Angeles Times are labeling Iraq as a "civil war." In fact, the events taking place in Iraq right now may have rendered the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group obsolete. The fast moving events of violence and anarchy that are taking place in Iraq have paralyzed this Bush administration almost to the point of helplessness. That is scary, because if President Bush is so constrained by the events of Iraq, there is a possibility that he may just impulsively lash out--against the Democrats, the Iranians, the Syrians, Jim Baker, the "liberal media," or whomever else. There certainly could be something drastic in the works.

But also in this story, the Republican Party has sealed its fate with President Bush in supporting the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Now that the Bush administration has found itself sunk into the disaster of Iraq, so has the Republican Party--and no talk of triangulation or Bush cutting deals with the Democrats on minimum wage or immigration is going to save the Republicans from Iraq. Iraq is the issue that will dominate the American political scene for the next two years, just as it will dominate George Bush's legacy as president. The problem here is that Iraq requires extreme, drastic changes for both President Bush and the Republicans in Congress. These are changes that perhaps both the president and the Republicans do not have the willingness to accept. The big question for the Republicans will be if they are willing to use the findings in the Iraq Study Group to force President Bush to change his Iraq policy so that the United States can extricate itself out of Iraq, or are the Republicans willing to "stay the course" and risk a major White House defeat in 2008?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

U.S. Finds Iraq Insurgency Has Funds to Sustain Itself

This is just crazy. From the New York Times:

BAGHDAD, Nov. 25 — The insurgency in Iraq is now self-sustaining financially, raising tens of millions of dollars a year from oil smuggling, kidnapping, counterfeiting, corrupt charities and other crimes that the Iraqi government and its American patrons have been largely unable to prevent, a classified United States government report has concluded.

The report, obtained by The New York Times, estimates that groups responsible for many of the insurgent and terrorist attacks are raising $70 million to $200 million a year from illegal activities. It says that $25 million to $100 million of the total comes from oil smuggling and other criminal activity involving the state-owned oil industry aided by “corrupt and complicit” Iraqi officials.

As much as $36 million a year comes from ransoms paid to save hundreds of kidnap victims in Iraq, the report said. It estimates that unnamed foreign governments — previously identified by senior American officials as including France and Italy — paid Iraqi kidnappers $30 million in ransom last year.

A copy of the report was made available to The Times by American officials in Iraq, who said they acted in the belief that the findings could improve American understanding of the challenges the United States faces in Iraq.

To be honest, I really don't know what I can say in terms of an analysis of this story--the numbers are just mind-boggling! It doesn't matter whether you choose to accept the $70 million or the $200 million figure here. The insurgency groups have a steady source of funds to conduct military operations against both the American occupation forces, or even amongst themselves and the Iraqi government with the civil war. The one number that I find especially telling is the ransom figure--$36 million a year paid out by "unnamed foreign governments" to free kidnapped victims in Iraq. It is ironic that the report singled out France and Italy as two of the governments responsible for paying $30 million in ransom last year. Even if you accept that $36 million ransom payment, that makes up over half of low estimate of $70 million that the terrorists and insurgents are raising for their war effort. Where's the other half coming from? Most likely oil smuggling:

The oil ministry in Baghdad, for example, estimated earlier this year that 10 percent to 30 percent of the $4 billion to $5 billion in fuel imported for public consumption in 2005 was smuggled back out of the country for resale. At that time, the finance minister estimated that close to half of all smuggling profits was going to insurgents. If true, that would be $200 million or more from fuel smuggling alone.

Even if the insurgents are able to smuggle out 10 percent of the $4 billion in fuel imported into Iraq, that gives the insurgents $400 million worth of fuel sold. A ten percent profit margin on $400 million sale of fuel oil gives $40 million in profits--I'm just doing back of the envelope calculations here. If the insurgents are smuggling out 30 percent of up to $5 billion in fuel oil imported into Iraq, then the insurgents are taking in $1.5 billion in fuel oil sales. The numbers here are astounding. And what is more, the insurgents can still use up what they took from Saddam's leftover armories before they start purchasing newer weapons.

One final little detail to reflect on from the Times story:

If the $200 million a year estimate is close to the mark, it amounts to less than what it costs the Pentagon, with an $8 billion monthly budget for Iraq, to sustain the American war effort here for a single day.


What a waste.

Wal - Mart Sees Weak Sales as Holiday Season Starts

This story really caught my eye here. From The New York Times:

CHICAGO ( Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT.N) predicted a rare decline in monthly sales on Saturday, even as U.S. bargain-hunters jammed stores in search of gifts at the start of the crucial holiday shopping season.

Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, sounded a cautious note for retailers as they began a second day of Thanksgiving weekend sales with deep discounts and early bird specials on items ranging from cashmere sweaters to plasma televisions.

Wal-Mart estimated that November sales fell 0.1 percent at its U.S. stores open at least a year -- a closely watched retail measure known as same-store sales.

The retailer will provide a final monthly sales report on Thursday, when most other major chain stores report their November figures. This would mark Wal-Mart's first monthly same-store sales decline since April 1996.

Wal-Mart had expected same-store sales to be flat compared with the same period last year, which many Wall Street analysts had viewed as disappointing. Wal-Mart's four-week November sales period ended on Friday.

Wal-Mart had a same-store sales decline of 0.1 percent for the month of November--and this includes the Black Friday sales. This is a disturbing figure since consumer spending represents about two-thirds of the economy. The Times story goes on to report:

[Tthe] November-December holiday season makes up anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent of retailers' annual sales.

The National Retail Federation trade group expects holiday sales growth of about 5 percent, which would be a slowdown from last year's surprisingly strong 6.1 percent gain.

I found a second interesting story off MSNBC which is reporting consumer sentiment:

NEW YORK - U.S. consumer sentiment ended weaker in November than October, a private survey showed on Wednesday, as consumers pared their view of current and future financial conditions.

The University of Michigan's final reading on consumer sentiment in November was 92.1, down from October's 93.6 final, said sources who saw the subscription-only report.

The median forecast of Wall Street economists polled by Reuters was for a reading of 93.1.

University of Michigan's preliminary November gauge on consumer sentiment was 92.3.

Although lower than their October levels, the November University of Michigan figures were not too far below their highs of the year.

So what do these two stories mean? The one concern that I have is when will consumer spending start to drop? We've seen enough stories over the past year about the housing slowdown and the low wage growth. But these stories have yet to shock the consumer spending--at least until now. Wal-Mart is the world's biggest retailer. How Wal-Mart performs during this holiday season is certainly one indication of how the American consumer will be spending, and ultimately will provide another snapshot of how the U.S. economy is performing. And yet even with all the stories in the media about the Black Friday Christmas rush, we also get this hard statistic regarding a drop in Wal-Mart's same-store sales for the month of November. And to make matters worst, the University of Michigan's consumer sentiment has also dropped slightly.

Are we going to see a blue Christmas for retailers this year?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Friday Fun Stuff: Holiday travel blues....

In a security camera photo released by New Jersey Transit, a flock of wild turkeys stands on the platform at the Ramsey train station in Ramsey, N.J., Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2006. NJ Transit spokesman Dan Stessel says the turkeys flew away after this video image was taken and it is unknown where they came from. (AP Photo/NJ Transit)

I found this through Yahoo News:

RAMSEY, N.J. - Some wild turkeys, it appears, were trying to get out of New Jersey before Thanksgiving Day. A spokesman for the NJ Transit said train officials reported a dozen or so wild turkeys waiting on a station platform in Ramsey, about 20 miles northwest of New York City, on Wednesday afternoon. The line travels to Suffern, N.Y.

"For a moment, it looked like the turkeys were waiting for the next outbound train," said Dan Stessel, a spokesman for NJ Transit. "Clearly, they're trying to catch a train and escape their fate."

Transit workers followed the bird's movements on surveillance cameras. "I have no idea how they got there," Stessel said.

A Ramsey police dispatcher said the department had received three calls about the traveling turkeys who also were blamed for causing morning rush hour traffic problems on a roadway.

"From time to time, I've heard calls that there are turkeys on the loose," said Erik Endress, president of the Ramsey Rescue Squad, a volunteer group. "Maybe they're trying to make a break."

So the big question to ask here is whether these turkeys were trying to catch the last "Gravy Train" out before Thanksgiving, or were they trying to get an early head start for the Black Friday Christmas shopping at the local mall?

We may never know.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Bloom County by Berkeley Breathed

Hope you all have a Happy Turkey Day--don't stuff yourselves too much with turkey and dressing. And while you're at it, try not to goo too overboard in your prayers of thanksgiving as Milo did in this classic Bloom County comic strip by Berkeley Breathed--one of my all-time favorite comic strips.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Olbermann: Lessons from the Vietnam War

I know this Special Comment from Keith Olbermann has been around for a couple of days, however the comparisons between Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam and George Bush's war in Iraq are so chilling and true. President Bush decided to visit Vietnam last week as part of a six-day East Asia trip to attend a summit meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Now as for the summit meeting--well, that's all political where national leaders will get together for photo ops, while pretending to play the game of negotiations. It is more flash, than substantial negotiations here.

But what is especially interesting is the Vietnam trip. It appears that President Bush hasn't read much of the Vietnam War history. Here is the MSNBC News story on Bush's trip to Vietnam:

HANOI, Vietnam - President Bush said Friday the United States’ unsuccessful war in Vietnam three decades ago offered lessons for the American-led struggle in Iraq. “We’ll succeed unless we quit,” Bush said shortly after arriving in this one-time war capital.

[....]

The president said there were lessons to be learned from the divisive Vietnam war — the longest conflict in U.S. history — as the United States wages the unpopular war in Iraq, now in its fourth year.

“We tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take awhile,” the president said. He called the Iraq war a “great struggle” and said, “It’s just going to take a long period of time for the ideology that is hopeful — and that is an ideology of freedom — to overcome an ideology of hate.”

[....]

The collision of past and present seemed to affect Bush.

“Laura and I were talking about how amazing it is that we’re here in Vietnam,” the president said.

“My first reaction is history has a long march and societies change and relationships can constantly be altered to the good,” Bush said.

Bush said that “the world that we live in today is one where they want things to happen immediately and it’s hard work in Iraq.”

Bush said he assured Howard that “we will get the job done” and will stand with the embattled government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“We’ll succeed unless we quit,” Bush said. “The Maliki government is going to make it unless the coalition leaves before they have a chance to make it.”

[....]

“We hear voices calling for us to retreat from the world and close our doors to these opportunities,” the president said in a speech at the National University of Singapore. “These are the old temptations of isolationism and protectionism, and America must reject them.”

That is what President Bush said regarding the lessons of Vietnam. Now here is what Keith Olbermann said regarding Bush's lessons of Vietnam. This is through YouTube:



Here are the lessons from Olbermann:

The primary one — which should be as obvious to you as the latest opinion poll showing that only 31 percent of this country agrees with your tragic Iraq policy — is that if you try to pursue a war for which the nation has lost its stomach, you and it are finished. Ask Lyndon Johnson.

The second most important lesson of Vietnam, Mr. Bush: If you don’t have a stable local government to work with, you can keep sending in Americans until hell freezes over and it will not matter. Ask Vietnamese Presidents Diem or Thieu.

The third vital lesson of Vietnam, Mr. Bush: Don’t pretend it’s something it’s not. For decades we were warned that if we didn’t stop “communist aggression” in Vietnam, communist agitators would infiltrate and devour the small nations of the world, and make their insidious way, stealthily, to our doorstep.

The war machine of 1968 had this “domino theory.”

Your war machine of 2006 has this nonsense about Iraq as “the central front in the war on terror.”

The fourth pivotal lesson of Vietnam, Mr. Bush: If the same idiots who told Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to stay there for the sake of “peace With honor” are now telling you to stay in Iraq, they’re probably just as wrong now, as they were then ... Dr. Kissinger.

And the fifth crucial lesson of Vietnam, Mr. Bush — which somebody should’ve told you about long before you plunged this country into Iraq — is that if you lie your country into a war, your war, your presidency will be consigned to the scrap heap of history.


Olbermann is spot-on regarding these five Vietnam lessons that Bush failed to heed when he invaded Iraq. What is even more insane is that President Bush and his advisors, some of whom were also involved in the Nixon administration during the Vietnam War--can you say Cheney and Rumsfeld, had failed to even understand the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, or even understand the parallels between the Russian war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The president and his men were blind to these parallels and worst-case scenarios that have now become so true in Iraq. And even now with the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq staring right in their faces--especially in light of the Republican Party's "thumping" in the congressional midterms, they still remain blind--We’ll succeed unless we quit?

Don't know much about history....

Bush, as well as Barney, spare turkey

U.S. President George W. Bush (R) pats 'Flyer' after pardoning the turkey before the Thanksgiving holiday in the Rose Garden of the White House November 22, 2006. Holding the bird is Lynn Nutt, of Springfield, Missouri. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES)

Okay, after looking at the photo here, the big question I would have to ask is, "Who's the turkey?"

This is from Yahoo News:

WASHINGTON — He was going to pardon the National Thanksgiving Turkey anyway, but
President Bush figured he really owed the bird this time. His dog had just scared the stuffing out of it.

Bush spared the turkey — named "Flyer" in an online vote — during a Rose Garden ceremony on Wednesday. The backup bird, "Fryer," was also pardoned but nowhere to be seen on this raw day.

The president explained that his Scottish Terrier, Barney, got involved this year. The presidential dog typically gets his exercise by chasing a soccer ball around the Rose Garden.

"He came out a little early, as did Flyer," Bush said. "And instead of chasing the soccer ball, he chased the bird. And it kind of made the turkey nervous. See, the turkey was nervous to begin with. Nobody's told him yet about the pardon I'm about to give him."

Bush announced that the birds would be sent off to Disneyland in California to be the honorary grand marshals of a Thanksgiving Day Parade, just like their predecessors a year ago.

At one point, Bush moved in for a closer look at Flyer, a well-behaved bird raised in Missouri. He petted the turkey's head and back before inviting a couple dozen Girl Scouts to come up and join him.

"It's a fine looking bird, isn't it?" Bush said.

The popular pardon ceremony dates to the days of President Harry Truman in 1947.

Now on a slightly lighter note, I found these interesting graphics regarding Turkey Day. It is certainly getting a little more expensive having a Thanksgiving feast:

>The cost of a Thanksgiving dinner has increased slightly from 2005. (AP Graphics)

The Yahoo story also reports that "the typical American consumes more than 13 pounds of turkey a year, with a good serving of it coming at Thanksgiving." That's a lot of turkey.

And finally, here is the politically correct way to carve up all that turkey tomorrow:

>Master carvers prefer the technique shown in this illustration for cutting Thanksgiving turkeys. (AP Graphics)

Have a Happy Turkey Day tomorrow!

U.N.: 3,709 Iraqis slain in Oct.; highest toll yet

I found this small MSNBC News story here:

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The United Nations said Wednesday that 3,709 Iraqi civilians were killed in October, the highest monthly toll since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The violence has been a combination of bombings and shootings by Sunni insurgents, and slayings by Shiite and Sunni death squads.

U.N. officials blamed the increase on the growing influence of armed militias and rampant torture “despite the government’s commitment to address human rights abuses.”

“Hundreds of bodies continued to appear in different areas of Baghdad handcuffed, blindfolded and bearing signs of torture and execution-style killing,” the officials quoted the report as saying. “Many witnesses reported that perpetrators wear militia attire and even police or army uniforms.”

The toll came in the latest U.N. report on human rights in Iraq, covering September and October, according to Said Arakat, spokesman for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq. The new toll exceeds the previous monthly high, of 3,590 in July. That earlier figure, an average of more than 100 a day, was termed “unprecedented” by the U.N.

According to past U.N. reports, 710 civilians were killed in January, 1,129 in April, 2,669 in May, 3,149 in June, and 3,009 in August.

At the heart of the U.N. findings are casualty figures that combine two counts: from the Ministry of Health, which records deaths reported by hospitals; and the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad, which tallies the unidentified bodies it receives.

The U.N. said the report “paints a grim picture virtually across the board, from attacks on journalists, judges and lawyers and the worsening situation of women to displacement, violence against religious minorities and the targeting of schools.”

The toll for both September and October was 7,054 civilians killed, including 351 women and 110 children, it said.

The big comment I would have to make here is that both the October 2006 Iraqi casualty list and the October 2006 U.S. casualty list are the highest monthly death toll since the start of the U.S. invasion. October was a month of death in Iraq.

And I don't believe there is going to be any improvement.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Albanian offers heirloom mini-Koran for sale

Skender Halim Prushi holds a small Koran, measuring 26.8 mm long by 21.6 mm wide, with thickness of 10.9 mm and weighing 5.2 grams, in his hand at his home in the northern Albania town of Lac some 55 km (34 miles) from Tirana November 15, 2006. The tiny Koran has been with the Prushi family for generations, but now he wants to sell it to a museum either in the Arab world or the West. REUTERS/Arben Celi

This is a rather unusual story through Yahoo News. It is an interesting religious artifact--if you can call it an artifact. What I will say is that someone took a lot of time and effort to create a the Koran this small. Wait a minute--does Christianity have a tiny Bible as well?

LAC, Albania (Reuters) - Skender Prushi always keeps the tiny Koran in his trouser pocket for safekeeping. Before opening it, he washes his hands and puts the book on his forehead and on his heart.

The book, which is 2.68 cm long, 2.16 cm wide and 1.09 cm thick, has been in his family for generations. Now 64 years old, Prushi wants to keep a promise he gave his father 26 years ago and send the Koran to a museum worthy of its holiness and value.

"Men in my family never lived past 70, and my children and my brother's children did not come under the full influence of religion," said the chain-smoking Prushi.

"So I am ready to sell the Koran at an auction. I'd be happy if it went to a museum either in the Arab or the Western world."

The book is held in small blackened silver case with a miniature magnifying glass on one side.

Visitors who come to this impoverished industrial town to see it are gently asked to wash their hands with raki, the Albanian brandy, before leafing through the gold filigree cover.

Prushi's Koran has 418 pages and is less than half the size of a matchbox. The smallest Koran, according to the website of the Guinness World Records, was published in Cairo in 1982 and measures 1.7 cm by 1.28 cm by 0.72 cm and has 571 pages.

Prushi said there are two legends about the book's origin. The first speaks of a relative who was a soldier schooled in Arabia and brought the book back in the 17th century.

The other says that Prushi's forefathers, then Catholics, were digging the foundations for a new house in the Djakovica region, in present-day
Kosovo, when they found the perfectly preserved body of a man buried there.

"They found the Koran over his heart," Prushi said, "I'm telling it as I heard it".

UNDERGROUND HIDING PLACE

Since then, the family converted to Islam, producing several high ranking Muslim clerics. Skender Prushi's father Halim, an officer of Albania's King Zog in the 1930s, knew Arabic.

He kept the book on himself as a talisman, reading from it to family and trusted friends even after the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha banned religion in the late 1960s.

After his father's death in 1980, Prushi became the Koran's guardian. He had to smuggle it out of Albania two years later, after he showed it to an Iranian couple working for the Persian service of Radio Tirana, the country's world-wide service.

"I told them I had a small-sized Koran. The man kissed it, put it to his heart and told me it belonged to the Arab world, not Albania. He said I did not know what immense value it had and that I would never have to work in my life if I gave it up," Prushi said.

He says the conversation must have been watched by Hoxha's notorious Sigurimi secret service. A month later four men knocked on his door, saying they wanted to buy the Koran and put it in a museum.

He denied its existence, and the next day jumped on a relative's coal truck heading for the Kosovo border. By midnight, the Koran was in safe hands in the Teke (Islamic monastery) in the historic Kosovo town of Prizren.

A day later, the secret police stormed Prushi's house looking for the book.

For the next two decades the Koran was stored underground. It was spared the violence that tore through Kosovo in the wars of the 1990s and was later dug out and kept with other valuable manuscripts in the Teke's library.

Prushi went to Prizren for the book last month and is now pondering its fate. Sitting in his modest living room, the only picture on the walls a magazine cutout of a young bride, he said selling the book would set him up for life.

"I don't know its value, but I have read in a book that it's one of only five copies in the world," Prushi said.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

UCLA student tasered multiple times by police

I found this through Americablog, and it is just outragious. I'm going to start with this video here from YouTube:



Now here is the UCLA Daily Bruin story on the video:

UCPD officers shot a student several times with a Taser inside the Powell Library CLICC computer lab late Tuesday night before taking him into custody.

No university police officers were available to comment further about the incident as of 3 a.m. Wednesday, and no Community Service Officers who were on duty at the time could be reached.

At around 11:30 p.m., CSOs asked a male student using a computer in the back of the room to leave when he was unable to produce a BruinCard during a random check. The student did not exit the building immediately.

The CSOs left, returning minutes later, and police officers arrived to escort the student out. By this time the student had begun to walk toward the door with his backpack when an officer approached him and grabbed his arm, at which point the student told the officer to let him go. A second officer then approached the student as well.

The student began to yell "get off me," repeating himself several times.

It was at this point that the officers shot the student with a Taser for the first time, causing him to fall to the floor and cry out in pain. The student also told the officers he had a medical condition.

KABC 7 News has some further details on this story. The student's name is Mostafa Tabatabainejad of Los Angeles. Here is what KABC 7 says about the story:

According to a UCLA police sergeant, the student was identified as Mostafa Tabatabainejad of Los Angeles.

He was given a citation for obstruction/delay of a peace officer in the performance of duty and then released from custody, the sergeant said.

The sergeant said he saw Tabatabainejad after it happened and that he did not appear to have suffered serious injury.

"If he was able to walk out of here, I think he was OK," the sergeant said.

You know what surprises and angers me? Here this student Tabatabainejad sitting in the back of the computer lab, basically minding his own business. And both the library security and cops demand that Tabatabainejad produce ID during this "random check performed by community service officers." I'd say there is nothing "random" about it, but rather Tabatabainejad was racially targeted by the community service officers because he looked like a terrorist. Tabatabainejad was a UCLA student, and he looked like a terrorist. Therefore, we should question him. After that, it went downhill with the UCLA cops using brute force first with multiple taser attacks on Tabatabainejad, and then ask questions later.

And the Daily Bruin has even more about the story:

Video shot from a student's camera phone captured the student [Tabatabainejad] yelling, "Here's your Patriot Act, here's your fucking abuse of power," while he struggled with the officers.

As the student [Tabatabainejad] was screaming, UCPD officers repeatedly told him to stand up and said "stop fighting us." The student [Tabatabainejad] did not stand up as the officers requested and they shot him with the Taser at least once more.

"It was the most disgusting and vile act I had ever seen in my life," said David Remesnitsky, a 2006 UCLA alumnus who witnessed the incident.

As the student [Tabatabainejad] and the officers were struggling, bystanders repeatedly asked the police officers to stop, and at one point officers told the gathered crowd to stand back and threatened to use a Taser on anyone who got too close.

Laila Gordy, a fourth-year economics student who was present in the library during the incident, said police officers threatened to shoot her with a Taser when she asked an officer for his name and his badge number.

Gordy was visibly upset by the incident and said other students were also disturbed.

"It's a shock that something like this can happen at UCLA," she said. "It was unnecessary what they did."

A UCLA police officer threatened to taser another student for asking for his name and badge number? So now it is a crime to ask for an officer's name and badge number? This is even more disturbing, when you university cops operating above the law in threatening young college students for the cops own incompetence in allowing this situation go completely out of control. This is certainly beyond outragious.

Welcome to the new United States--America, you wanted a fascist police state? Well, you've got one now!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Housing: What the brokers are saying

Okay, this is going to be fun. From MSNBC News:

As the National Association of Realtors opened this fall's gathering in New Orleans last weekend, the mood was decidedly different. The much-celebrated real estate boom has officially ended; nationally, economists now say, the housing market peaked in August 2005. For 2006, the industry expects existing-home sales to fall by 9 percent, and new-home sales to decline 17 percent. In some markets, prices have begun to fall, too.

So the mood is rather glum for the real estate brokers. The real estate boom has officially ended and we're currently in a real estate bust. Because of the double-digit price increases in home sales over the years, the demand for housing started drying up, causing an increasing supply of houses on the market, and thus forcing prices down on housing. And because of this housing market bust, we've got uncertainty in the market. Now here is what MSNBC had to say about the uncertainty:

That uncertainty stems from the fact that the current housing slowdown isn't like the more typical real estate busts of the early 1980s or early 1990s. Those downturns followed a traditional pattern: mortgage rates rose, job growth faded and the economy weakened, pinching people's ability to buy homes. Today, in contrast, mortgages are still near 45-year lows and unemployment is down, yet many buyers are reluctant to make offers. [Chief economist David] Lereah attributes this to high prices reducing the number of people who can afford homes, falling demand by investors and the public's psychological shift from celebrating the boom to worrying about a bubble. Those forces make this slowdown an anomaly, which makes it hard to predict where things will head next. Says Lereah: "You'd have to go back to the Great Depression to find a housing period that is this unique."

Now this is an interesting situation. Instead of the standard boom/bust of the housing markets, we have a situation where the public is worried about the housing bubble/bust even though both interest rates and unemployment are both low. Lereah calls this a psychological shift in the public's perception of the housing market, citing the Great Depression as an example.

And what caused this psychological shift? Here's what the real estate brokers say:

Few of the 30,000 agents and brokers in attendance—making this the biggest post-hurricane Katrina convention to visit New Orleans so far—were there for the economic forecasts....[Many] crowded into the convention center to attend seminars on how to adapt to the slowdown. In nearly every session, speakers spent a few minutes blaming the media for hurting the market. All those headlines about a bursting real estate bubble have a lot of potential buyers really freaked out, industry officials say, which is one reason they've begun running full-page newspaper ads reminding would-be sellers that despite slowing sales, conditions aren't really so bad.

YES! It's the media's fault! If the media had not reported all those statistics pointing to the slowdown in the housing market, then Americans would not have been psychologically spooked into this housing bust, and thus causing this entire housing bust for which the brokers are complaining about.

What these real estate brokers should be looking at are a combination of the nation's job statistics, the income inequality gap, and the disappearance of the U.S. middle class. While the brokers, economists, and politicians love to tout the low 4.4 percent U.S. unemployment rate, the real estate brokers should be asking why employers added only 92,000 new jobs, instead of the economist's expectations of 125,000 jobs. The brokers should also be asking where those jobs are increasing, and where the jobs are disappearing from in the U.S. labor market. Because if the American jobs are increasing in the low-wage retail sector (i.e. Wal-Mart), then you can bet that those Americans employed in the retail industry will not be able to purchase the $217,000 median price of a U.S. home--let alone for the $733,500 median price for a home in Santa Clara County, California.

The real estate brokers should also be taking a hard look at income inequality. According to this January 2006 Boston.com news report:

PORTLAND, Maine --The disparity between rich and poor is growing in America and in Maine as the federal minimum wage has remained flat for years, union membership has declined and industries have faced global competition, according to a new study.

The report, released Thursday by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute, both liberal-leaning think tanks, found the incomes of the poorest 20 percent of families nationally grew by an average of $2,660, or 19 percent, over the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, the incomes of the richest fifth of families grew by $45,100, or nearly 59 percent, the study by the Washington-based groups said. Families in the middle fifth saw their incomes rise 28 percent, or $10,218.

[....]

The poorest one-fifth of families nationwide had an average income of $16,780 in 2000-03, while the top fifth of families had an average income of $122,150 -- more than seven times as much, the report said. Middle-income families' average income was $46,875.

Here again, when you have some of the poorest families earning $16,780 in 200-03, then those families are never going to be able to become homeowners, no matter how low the mortgage rates will go. But the real scary number here is the gap between the rich and the poor, where the lowest one-fifth of American families found their incomes increase by $2,660 over the past twenty years, verses the top one-fifth of American families seeing increases of $45,100 in the past twenty years. When you have such an income inequality gap growing, you're going to see a number of potential homeowners getting priced out of the market--in other words, you have customers who will never be able to purchase homes because of the stagnating income. And there are only so many homes that the upper rich Americans are willing to purchase as second, third, or vacation homes. This is a problem, since the bread-and-butter home ownership is the middle class. And the middle class is getting squeezed here. According to this June 22, 2006 Washington Post article:

INDIANAPOLIS -- Middle-class neighborhoods, long regarded as incubators for the American dream, are losing ground in cities across the country, shrinking at more than twice the rate of the middle class itself.

In their place, poor and rich neighborhoods are both on the rise, as cities and suburbs have become increasingly segregated by income, according to a Brookings Institution study released Thursday. It found that as a share of all urban and suburban neighborhoods, middle-income neighborhoods in the nation's 100 largest metro areas have declined from 58 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2000.

Widening income inequality in the United States has been well documented in recent years, but the Brookings analysis of census data uncovered a much more accelerated decline in communities that house the middle class. It far outpaced the decline of seven percentage points between 1970 and 2000 in the proportion of middle-income families living in and around cities.

Middle-income neighborhoods -- where families earn 80 to 120 percent of the local median income -- have plunged by more than 20 percent as a share of all neighborhoods in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. They are down 10 percent in the Washington area.

It's happening, too, in this prosperous, mostly white middle-income Midwestern city where unemployment is low and a vibrant downtown has been preserved. As poor and rich neighborhoods proliferate, the share of middle-income neighborhoods in greater Indianapolis has dropped by 21 percent since 1970.

"No city in America has gotten more integrated by income in the last 30 years," said Alan Berube, an urban demographer at Brookings who worked on the report.

"It means that if you are not living in one of the well-off areas, you are not going to have access to the same amenities -- good schools and safe environment -- that you could find 30 years ago," he said.

This is a serious problem for middle-class neighborhoods. As middle-class neighborhoods decline into lower, poorer-class neighborhoods, you're certainly going to see both a decline in the quality of schools and education within those neighborhoods, as well as an increase in crime and drug abuse there. With the increase in both rich and poor neighborhoods, a new problem enters into this declining middle-class--segregation:

The decline of middle-income neighborhoods may also be a consequence of increased economic opportunity and residential mobility, especially for upper-income minorities, said Joel Kotkin, an urban historian and senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

"This is about upward mobility and class. Until the 1970s, middle-class blacks and other minorities often had little choice about where they could live," said Kotkin, the author of "The City: A Global History." He added: "They usually had to live close to lower-income people of their own race. Now, if they can afford it, they can move to higher-income neighborhoods. Dollars trump race. Many choose not to live around poor people."

The Brookings study says that much more research is needed to better understand why middle-income neighborhoods are vanishing faster than middle-income families. But it speculates that a sorting-out process is underway in the nation's suburbs and inner cities, with many previously middle-income neighborhoods now tipping rich or poor.

[....]

The Brookings study says that increased residential segregation by income can remove a fundamental rung from the nation's ladder for social mobility: moderate-income neighborhoods with decent schools, nearby jobs, low crime and reliable services.

The increase in residential segregation by the two extremes results in the loss of social mobility for those in the lower rungs of America's economic classes. Middle-class neighborhoods contain decent schools, low crime and reliable social services to allow poor people to move up the economic ladder. With this declining middle-class neighborhood, poor neighborhoods end up with high crime and lower-performing schools. Poor neighborhoods are caught in a downward spiraling cycle. Over time, the combination of the increasing income inequality gap, the decline of the middle-class neighborhoods and the increased segregation between rich and poor neighborhoods can cause havoc in the housing market as Americans face the problems of both class warfare, and watching the American dream of owning a home fade away. It is these Americans who are the potential customers for the real estate brokers.

There is so much more here I could say about stagnating wages, globalization and the outsourcing of both manufacturing and professional jobs, the decline of unions, the gap between wages and productivity, or even the gap between the American company CEOs and the average American worker. All of these problems can tie into American’s inability to purchase affordable housing. In addition, there is the issue of sub-prime mortgages and adjustable rate mortgages being sold to lower-income Americans who could easily lose their homes if they lose their jobs to outsourcing and globalization. This is also a problem that the real estate brokers seem to ignore. There are long-term structural trends in the U.S. economy, the labor market, and even the housing market that these brokers do not have a clue as to an understanding. I’m not sure I understand them completely myself.

But I fear that they will become a problem over time.

Historian says peak oil production is still a quarter-century away

McClatchy graphics

This is off McClatchy Washington Bureau:

WASHINGTON - Far from being a nearly exhausted resource, the world's oil reserves are three times bigger than what some popular estimates state, and peak global oil production is still about a quarter-century away, according to a new study by Pulitzer Prize-winning oil historian Daniel Yergin.

The remaining oil resource base is about 3.74 trillion barrels, according to a report released Tuesday by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, which Yergin runs. That's more than three times the 1.2 trillion barrels that "peak-oil" theorists suggest.

CERA's report, titled "Why the Peak Oil Theory Falls Down," challenges an increasingly popular view that the world is about to run out of oil. On the contrary, CERA argues that the world is likely to begin running out of oil between 2030 and the middle of the century. Even so, CERA says, efforts are needed now to push that date back, such as new oil field discoveries, new technologies, energy conservation and alternative energy sources.

This is certainly a fascinating study where more details can be found in the press release. But the CERA report will cost you quite a few barrels of oil--priced at $1,000 for each 16-page report. This debate has been going on for years between the energy conservationists, who use the peak oil theory as evidence for demanding a reduction of U.S. foreign oil imports while increasing renewable energy sources and conservation, and the Big Oil companies intent on drilling everywhere for energy (Can you say ANWR?). In reality, both sides are wrong. I doubt that the world is going to run out of oil, as the peak oil theorists predict with gloom and doom. The CERA report shows that the peak oil theorists failed to include the incorporation of new technologies into their theory--technologies "that permit drilling more than 7,000 feet below the ocean's surface or extracting oil from tar-like deposits in sandy soil found in western Canada." We certainly do not know where future oil supplies may exist on the deep ocean floor, or in unexplored areas throughout the world. But that doesn't mean that the conservationists' calls for renewal energy production and conservation should be discarded--if anything, the United States should embark on a program to reduce its imports of foreign oil through conservation and renewed energy sources. Because there certainly is one argument to show why the U.S. should reduce its addiction to foreign oil, and that argument is Iraq.

At the same time, this report isn't the magic bullet for Big Oil. Increasing oil production isn't the magic cure-all for America's energy problems. One prime example is that for all the marketing spin showing how many steps Big Oil can take in protecting the environment, money and economics will always trump the environment for Big Oil. British Petroleum had to shut down its Prudhoe Bay operations due to pipeline corrosion. What is more, federal investigators have turned up documents showing that BP knew about the pipeline corrosion problems for years, and failed to do anything about the problem. In other words, cost-cutting on maintenance and repairs in order to increase profits were more important to BP than maintaining the environment surrounding the pipelines. In Canada, oil companies plan to strip-mine 50 percent of the entire 3,450-square-kilometer McClelland Lake Wetland Complex for oil and tar sands. The McClelland Lake Wetland Complex " is home to numerous rare plants, including five insect-eating species." This type of energy mining is already creating controversy between the oil companies and environmentalists. More than 7 million gallons of oil were spilled in 44 oil spills,ranging from industrial plants, oil storage depots, and other facilities in Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. These are just a few of the problems between the oil companies and their environmental record. There are also problems of corruption within the oil companies, where oil and energy companies have even scammed the federal government out of energy royalties, while the Bush administration has turned a blind eye away from regulation and enforcement. And there are certainly other examples of corruption within U.S. oil companies here, here, and here. Power corrupts.

So what does this report mean? It means that while the world may not run out of oil until 2030, the United States still has a problem with its dependence upon foreign oil. It has been our addiction to foreign oil that has caused us to become involved in a disastrous war in Iraq. We are going to have to find a way to balance the development of renewable energy sources, conservation, and the exploration of new oil reserves in order to resolve our energy problems. And right now, I don't see that happening for a long time.