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WEEKLY WONK

Originally Published: 11/30/2013

NSA Spying:  The NY Times has disclosed a February 2012 paper, written as a mission statement, that lays out “the 4-year strategy for the NSA’s signals intelligence operations, which include the agency’s eavesdropping and communications data collection around the world.” The paper clearly marks the NSA’s goal of “maintaining its dominance in intelligence collection” and exposes its pledge “to expand its surveillance powers.” The document also declares that existing American laws are not “adequate to meet the needs of the NSA to conduct broad surveillance.” The paper lays out a priority of “defeating the cybersecurity practices of adversaries in order to acquire the data the agency needs from ‘anyone, anytime, anywhere.’” Yeah. Read that again. You think that now that their shenanigans are well known they’ve lessened their ambitions a bit? Not a chance.

 

Iran:  The U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China (Guardian) reached a 6-month agreement with Iran “that would temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear program and lay the foundation for a more sweeping agreement.” This 6-month agreement will give international negotiators “time to pursue a more comprehensive pact that would ratchet back much of Iran’s nuclear program and ensure that it could be used only for peaceful purposes.” Iran has agreed to stop enriching uranium beyond 5%, “a level that would be sufficient for energy production but that would require further enrichment for bomb-making. To make good on that pledge, Iran will dismantle links between networks of centrifuges.” Iran already has a stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%, close to weapons-grade, and it will be diluted or converted into oxide so that it can’t readily be used for military purposes. Iran has agreed not to install any new centrifuges or start up any that are not already operating or building any new enrichment facilities. Obama agreed to provide $6 billion to $7 billion in sanctions relief, $4.2 billion of this coming from oil revenue that has been frozen in foreign banks. “The limited sanctions relief can be accomplished by executive order, allowing the Obama administration to make the deal without having to appeal to Congress.” (NY Times) Israel calls the deal an “historic mistake.” (Washington Post) Somebody likes it. It’s already lowered the price of oil. (Reuters) And cooperation has already begun. “Iran has invited UN inspectors to visit its Arak heavy-water production plant on December 8.” (Reuters)

 

IMF:  We’ve been seeing a change of direction from the International Monetary Fund lately. (TWW, World Wealth, 10/12/13) But this really surprised me. It is “convinced that Europe erred in forcing debtor countries like Greece and Portugal to bear nearly all the pain of recovery on their own” and is now “pushing hard for a plan that would impose upfront losses on bondholders the next time a country in the euro area requests a bailout.” Great. They’ve destroyed millions of lives and now say “Oops. Sorry.” They are now trying to come up with a better policy. (NY Times) They probably will support a more fair policy now that their financial buddies have been bailed out and avoided any responsibility for the catastrophe they created.

 

Hawaii:  The state legislature has banned all open-air growing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the Big Island of Hawaii. “The bill exempts papayas and other GMO crops currently being cultivated and includes fines of $1,000 a day for violators.” There is no indication as yet from the governor whether he will sign it or not. (EcoWatch)

 

Maryland:  Prince George’s County Council “unanimously approved” mandates for all new governmental buildings - they must incorporate renewable energy into their designs. They must have 1 kilowatt of solar, wind, or geothermal energy for every 1,000 square feet of gross floor space. This also applies to structures being renovated by 50% or more. (EcoWatch)

 

Vermont:  It passed its own single-payer universal healthcare law for residents, thanks to a clause in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that allows states to do this. Called “Everybody in, nobody out,” it should be fully operational by 2017. It will be funded by Medicare, Medicaid, federal money for the ACA given to Vermont, and a slight increase in taxes. “Everyone will be able to go to any doctor or hospital in the state free of charge. No plans to figure out, no insurance forms to sweat over, no gotchas.” An economist estimated that Vermont will save 25% per capita over the current private insurance system. (MinnPost)

 

Blue Slips:  We thought that Senate Dems had finally gotten a chance to get judicial nominees approved when Harry Reid exercised the “nuclear option.” (TWW, Going Nuclear, 11/23/13) But no, the Republicans have another way of blocking nominees. It’s called “blue slips,” and it’s an old tradition - going back to at least 1917. Here’s how it works. “When a judge is nominated, the Judiciary Committee sends a ‘blue slip’ to home state senators seeking their approval. If they sign off, the committee moves forward with the nomination. If one or both of them disapproves or withholds the blue slip, the nomination tends to grind to a halt.” (Talking Points Memo)

 

IRS Rules:  The Treasury Department is proposing new IRS rules that would “curb political activity by tax-exempt non-profit organizations, with potentially major ramifications for some of the biggest and most secretive spenders in American politics.” The new rules would clarify the definition of political activity and set amounts for how much a non-profit organization can spend on it. “The proposal covers not just television advertising, but bread-and-butter political work like candidate forums and get-out-the-vote drives.” (NY Times) I suppose this has come out of the IRS craziness earlier this year. (TWW, IRS-gate, 6/22/13)

 

Pope Frank:  Pope Francis just released his Evangelii Gadium, or Joy of the Gospel, “attacking capitalism as a form of tyranny and calling on church and political leaders to address the needs of the poor.” He “made it clear that he shares little in common with U.S. conservatives.” (Raw Story) Considering that 6 of our 9 Supreme Court justices are Catholic, including the most conservative - Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas - I wonder if this will have any impact on their decisions. I’m not counting on it though. For these people their religion is much more about money than Catholicism.

 

Navy Contractors:  The Navy has suspended Inchcape Shipping Services, a ship-supply contractor, “for significantly overcharging” on its contract. Inchcape is owned by Istithmar World, a Dubai-based company. Guess we couldn’t find any American companies to supply our ships. Inchcape mainly supplied ships in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The Navy is already investigating its main supplier in the Pacific, Glenn Defense Marine Asia, “whose owner, Leonard Glenn Francis, was arrested in September on charges of conspiring to bribe Navy officials with prostitutes and gifts.” (NY Times) Geez. I can’t even comment.

 

Healthcare Costs:  “Real per capita healthcare spending has grown at an estimated average annual rate of just 1.3% over the 3 years since [passage of ACA]. This is the lowest rate on record for any 3-year period and less than one-third the long-term historical average stretching back to 1965.” Healthcare price inflation is at its lowest rate in 50 years. This according to a report just released by President Obama’s office.

 

Obamacare:  Want to know what went wrong with the Affordable Care Act website? The NY Times has an explanation. It’s inexcusable. But, due to all the problems, they’ve given a 1-year delay for small businesses to buy insurance. Business can still buy insurance but the mandate doesn’t kick in for another year. (NY Times)

 

Fracking:  A new report has been issued by the Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative about fracking in the 6 states encompassed by the Marcellus and Utica shale formations - New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. They found that “Industry supporters have exaggerated the jobs impact in order to minimize or avoid altogether taxation, regulations, and even careful examination of shale drilling.” (EcoWatch)

 

Housing:  Not good news. Housing sales for previously-owned homes fell for the 5th straight month, hitting a 10-month low in October. (Reuters) And borrowers are increasingly missing payments on their home equity lines of credit. (Reuters) Frankly, I don’t believe we ever pulled out of the Great Republican Recession of 2008. We’ve just been in a lull and we’re going to get hit again. This may indicate the beginning.

 

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