Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Students: The latest casualty of war

In a move that shocked millions of California students, the UC Board of Regents voted to raise tuition 19 percent and threatened to increase tuition and fees, or what Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi called "student taxes," by 30 percent next summer if there are cuts to the education budget because of the war. The regents, who are mostly elderly and upper class, rejected proposals for capping fee increases on students and continued their support for costly nuclear weapons programs. Many students in the anti-war movement expressed their shock and disillusionment at the regents' decision to continue spending for weapons known to kill and injure innocent Iraqis while simultaneously increasing fees at home and cutting desperately needed educational services. Addressing a Tulsa Community College audience, legendary feminist activist Gloria Steinem stated that "tuition has gone up 30 percent under the Bush administration."

Author and scholar Naomi Wolf cites the growing crisis in education as symptomatic of the Bush administration's larger goal of closing down society through privatizing the public sector. "It's the vision of the hollow state," Wolf stated at a lecture in early 2008. She makes the case that just like pre-fascist Germany, Americans are letting the pillars of democracy crumble, such as public education. As American society becomes more privatized, the cost of necessities – like heating, oil, gas, education and health care – rises and only the richest can afford them. The cost to educate someone at UC Irvine is far more than what many students throughout Europe pay.

CampusProgress.org also detailed how spending less on education, due to an enormous war budget, has affected college students. For instance, over 6 in 10 college graduates are burdened with educational debt. Total student debt in the United States is more than $471 billion—and that's not including private loans. Between 2001 and 2010, two million academically qualified students will not go to college because they cannot afford it.

The average student today graduates with debt twice that of graduates a decade ago, and enters a job market where the average job pays less than it would have in 2000. College textbooks have tripled in price since 1986 and the average college senior now graduates with $3,200 in credit card debt and $18,900 in student loans. Graduates of public colleges and universities accumulate almost as much debt as their peers at private institutions.

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European banks start going belly up

The European Banking Sector suffered one of its worst days in recent times as a contagion of failure spread throughout the continent. U.K. mortgage lender Bradford & Bingley was nationalized over the weekend after the government was advised that the lender was no longer viable as a deposit-taking institution.

B&B's 21 billion-pound deposit book and its branch network will be sold to Spanish bank Santander (ticker: STD), the owner of Abbey National (and currently acquiring Alliance & Leicester). The government will take responsibility for B&B's mortgage book, over 85% of which consists of buy-to-let and self-certified mortgages. [U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer] Alistair Darling and his Treasury team appear to have learnt some of the lessons of Northern Rock and acted decisively.

Iceland's government has also been intervening. Glitnir Bank, long regarded as the weakest bank in a fragile domestic sector, was taken into "temporary" state ownership after it ran into funding difficulties. Glitnir relied on wholesale funding to a greater extent than the other two Icelandic banks, Kaupthing and Landsbanki. However, all of the firms have expanded rapidly in recent years, leaving them with weakened balance sheets. The sector, a perennial favorite of short sellers, is likely to come under further pressure, as is the sovereign. Iceland's spreads ballooned out today, reflecting the falling currency and concerns that it will struggle to recapitalize the banks.

Germany, despite its proclamations of pride in its model of capitalism, has not been unscathed by the financial crisis. IKB and Sachsen LB were saved from collapse last year, and Hypo Real Estate Holdings became the latest to seek government help. The commercial-property lender said that the government, along with a consortium of banks, will provide a total of 35 billion euros in credit guarantees to help it through a funding shortfall. Hypo, like IKB, had significant U.S. subprime exposure and was forced to take substantial write-downs earlier this year. Other German banks widened sharply on the news.

The Benelux countries are not immune, either. Fortis was partially nationalized over the weekend, with each of the Benelux governments acquiring 49% of Fortis' banking subsidiaries in their country in return for an 11.2 billion Euro capital injection.

Fortis problems stemmed from its acquisition of ABN Amro's Dutch consumer-banking division. Post-acquisition, Fortis was undercapitalized, and rumors began to emerge about liquidity problems. The governments stepped in, and the intervention has been praised by advocates of European cooperation. Fortis' spreads rallied after the announcement. RBS (RBS), the other main party in the ABN buyout, has widened sharply. Irish banks and [Belgian-French bank] Dexia -- rumored to be in trouble -- were also wider.

 
 
 

Ex-C.I.A. official admits corruption

Kyle D. Foggo, a former high-ranking official at the Central Intelligence Agency, pleaded guilty Monday to one felony corruption count, admitting that he had directed C.I.A. contracts to companies operated by a longtime friend.

Mr. Foggo's plea, entered in the Federal District Court in Alexandria, Va., was to a count of theft of his honest services, a charge centering mainly on his relationship with that friend, Brent R. Wilkes, a San Diego military contractor. In a statement of facts accompanying the plea, Mr. Foggo admitted that he had concealed the relationship from colleagues.

From 2004 to 2006, Mr. Foggo was the C.I.A.'s executive director, its third-ranking official. That post made him the agency's chief administrative officer, responsible for its contracts with outside vendors.

He and Mr. Wilkes had been friends in California since childhood — in fact, each had named a child after the other — and his indictment in February 2007 charged that Mr. Foggo had concealed that he had a standing offer of a high-paying job at one of Mr. Wilkes's companies.

In the statement of facts made public Monday, Mr. Foggo admitted hiding their friendship even as he steered contracts to Mr. Wilkes "through direct and indirect means."

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Central banks rally to ease market stress

The Federal Reserve on Monday prepared to pour an extra $630bn (€437bn, £350bn) into the global financial system in coordination with other central banks around the world, in a massive effort to curb extreme stress in international money markets.

The move is designed to reinforce the impact of the $700bn bail-out bill proceeding through the US Congress and directly relieve market stress in the near term, before the new government fund can start operating.

The huge increase in official sector lending is designed to neutralise rollover risk. The interbank money market is essentially paralysed, as no-one will lend for fear that the borrowing institution will not be able to roll over the rest of its outstanding funding.

This is putting extreme pressure on weak financial institutions – forcing the authorities to step in and rescue banks on both sides of the Atlantic – and threatens to intensify the credit squeeze in the real economy.

The coordinated move is intended to encourage banks to start lending again knowing that the borrowing bank will always be able to secure the remainder of its near-term funding needs from its central bank. The Fed said it would more than double the amount of dollars it provides to foreign central banks to distribute to banks abroad from $290bn to $620bn. The European Central Bank will now have $240bn to lend, the Bank of Japan $120bn, the Bank of England $80bn and the Swiss National Bank $60bn. Sweden's Riksbank, Australia's Reserve Bank and the Bank of Canada will have $30bn each, while Norway's Norges Bank and Denmark's Nationalbank will distribute $15bn.

The action reflects the US authorities' new crisis-fighting strategy of combining gigantic liquidity operations with large-scale fiscal intervention in troubled asset markets, while holding in reserve the possibility of further interest rate cuts.

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House rejects bailout package, 228-205; Stocks plunge

In a moment of historic import in the Capitol and on Wall Street, the House of Representatives voted on Monday to reject a $700 billion rescue of the financial industry. The vote came in stunning defiance of President Bush and Congressional leaders of both parties, who said the bailout was needed to prevent a widespread financial collapse.
 
The vote against the measure was 228 to 205, with 133 Republicans turning against President Bush to join 95 Democrats in opposition. The bill was backed by 140 Democrats and 65 Republicans.

Supporters vowed to try to bring the rescue package up again as soon as possible, perhaps late Wednesday or Thursday, but there were no definite plans to do so. A former Treasury Department official predicted that the administration would try to get another House vote before the end of the week, and with only "tiny tweaks" to the package, given the relative closeness of the vote.

Stock markets plunged as it appeared that the measure would go down to defeat, and kept slumping into the afternoon when that appearance became a reality. By late afternoon the Dow industrials had fallen more than 5 percent, and other indexes even more sharply. Oil prices fell steeply on fears of a global recession; investors bid up prices of Treasury securities and gold in a flight to safety.

The vote was a catastrophic political defeat for President Bush, who tried to muster national support for a recovery plan in a televised address last Wednesday, then lobbied wavering Republican legislators in intensely personal telephone calls on Monday morning.

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Rich land owners scoop up crock of gold from EU

The farm subsidy figures published yesterday show for the first time exactly how much taxpayers' money rich landowners and members of the royal family are receiving from the public purse.

It shows that large landowners receive hundreds of thousands of pounds from the taxpayer, while small farmers get very little. The 100 farmers at the bottom of the league received less than £25 in subsidy last year. The lowest was 31p, paid to a farmer known simply as M Kelman.

For decades, campaigners have pressed the government to publish details of how the subsidies - worth £ 1.7bn last year - were distributed to farmers.

Jack Thurston, of the thinktank, the Foreign Policy Centre, who also requested the information, said: "Farm subsidies are almost half the entire budget of the European Union and it is right that the public knows where its money is spent.

"For too long people have been misled to believe that farm subsidies are about protecting small and family farms. This data shows conclusively that most of the money goes to large agribusiness and wealthy landowners."

The top individual beneficiary from subsidies appears to be Sir Richard Sutton, whose estates in Berkshire and Lincolnshire received nearly £2.2m over the last two years.

The subsidies will be an underestimate because he also receives money from a Scottish estate and shareholdings in farm groups in Ireland where subsidy figures have not been released.

The second biggest beneficiary is the Vestey family, whose Thurlow Estates received £1.7m over the last two years.

Farmholdings in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire receive the next two biggest subsidies. Warter Priory Farms in the Yorkshire Wolds received £1.6m over two years. The farm is owned by three businessmen.

The Blankney Estate, a large cereal holding in Metheringham, Lincolnshire, owned by the Parker family, received £986,000 last year. The estate hosts the Blankney hunt and one member of the family, Ruth Parker, is reported in Horse and Hound as being keen on keeping meets going on in defiance of the hunting ban.

A Swedish couple, Nils and Lillemor Penser, owners of the Compton Beauchamp estate in Oxfordshire, received £1.2m over two years for a farming and racehorse business.

One large farm which is partly owned by the Duke of Marlborough garnered £1m in subsidies in the last two years. The mixed farm of arable and sheep, based at Blenheim, Oxfordshire, is estimated to be 1,600 hectares (3,954 acres).

A spokesman for the farm rejected criticism that the subsidies were too high. "This is quite boring. The subsidy is based on area. As it happens, those with the largest areas get the largest cheques".

Further down the list is the Earl of Plymouth, who, with Viscount Windsor and the Windsor-Clive family, owns estates in Oxfordshire and Oakley Park in Shropshire. He received almost £900,000 over two years.

Another big beneficary is the Earl of Radnor, whose big estate at Longford Farm received around £900,000 over two years.

One of Britain's richest men, the Duke of Westminster, has received £799,000 in subsidies in the last two years. The duke, who is worth £5bn, receives a subsidy on his 1,200-hectare farm near Chester.

The Duke of Bedford, owns more than 5,400 hectares around Woburn, of which half is used for arable farming. Over the two years, he has received a cheque from the taxpayer worth £ 702,000.

Lord Iliffe, who owns the Yattendon estate in Berkshire, has benefited from payments from the taxpayer totalling £649,000 in the last two years. Arable and cattle farming takes place on his estate.

The royals tend to receive less cash, but the figures do not include subsidies to royal estates in Scotland, or the rents received from tenant farmers who also get farm subsidies.

Rents can be higher for businesses and farms that receive large subsidies, merely because it makes them more profitable. One of the biggest examples of this is Duchy College Farm, which runs an equestrian business, and receives £1.5m.

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Attempt to reform EU farm subsidies founders

Britain failed to impose its vision of radical reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy yesterday when Brussels announced a watered-down review of the €40 billion scheme that will keep handouts flowing to farms for years to come.

Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, was rebuked by the European Commission for demanding much deeper cuts and an end to direct payments as it argued for continuing subsidies despite rising food prices.

Ministers now face a bruising battle over the next six months to preserve what they regard as the advances of yesterday's proposals in the face of determined opposition from France and Germany.

The review has exposed a deep split in the EU between countries such as France and Germany, which believe that food shortages make the argument for subsidies to keep farms in business, and those such as Britain, which regard rising food prices as an opportunity to scrap handouts. Final decisions will be made in December....

Britain’s Hell-Fire clubs had a fiendish reputation, but how much of it was true?

The Hell-Fire clubs that emerged at the start of the 18th century had disappeared by its close. Being clubbable was one of the tenets of an age that claimed sociability as a virtue. The Enlightenment saw the flowering of literary and scientific clubs, philosophical clubs, political clubs; there were decadent clubs such as the Society of Dilettanti and the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks, and serious clubs such as the Kit-Kat Club and the Lunar Society, which set out to change the world. The Hell-Fire clubs were a parody of the more earnest and improving societies: rather than discuss theology, their members would curse and blaspheme; instead of reading learned tomes they wrote lewd verses, and as Lord neatly puts it, "when scientific societies experimented with laboratory apparatus, the Hell-Fire clubs experimented with their own bodies". So elite were some that a certain Cambridge club, like the exclusive Junta dining club in Zuleika Dobson, had only one member.

Lord divides the "Hell-Fire genre" into three groups. First there were the gangs such as the Mohocks, a well-organised group that consisted of a few rich young men — one member was the son of the Earl of Sandwich — who rampaged through London in 1712, apparently attacking people at random and smashing the windows of houses. The hysteria surrounding the Mohocks' activities makes it difficult to get a real sense of the damage they caused, or even, according to some historians, whether they existed at all. The Spectator described them as "a Noctornal fraternity" ruled by a president with a "Turkish crescent engraven upon his forehead", whose object was to wage war against mankind.

The qualification for membership was to be able to drink beyond "reason or humanity", and one means of attack was "tipping the lion" — squeezing the nose flat to the face and boring out the eyes with a finger. Jonathan Swift wrote that the Mohocks "play the Devil about town every night, slit people's throats and beat them". Lady Strafford reported that they "put an old woman into a hogshead and rooled her down a hill, they cut off soms nosis, others hands and several barbarous tricks without any provocation". Lord wonders whether they were "asserting their masculinity through violence" or "exerting gentlemanly freedom in a society that was putting pressure on them to conform to a moral code?" I wonder what Ross Kemp, "TV hard man" and gang specialist, would have to say.

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