Up From the Depths

•November 27, 2006 • Leave a Comment

Social Security reform may be back on the agenda.

THE BUSH administration has signaled that it wants to discuss Social Security reform with the incoming Democratic majority in Congress. This may sound quixotic: President Bush failed to secure reform when his own party controlled the legislature, so what hope does he have now? But the president’s top economic advisers, including his Treasury secretary, his chief of staff and his budget director, appear ready to drop what Democrats call privatization — the diversion of payroll tax revenue into personal retirement accounts. Unless they want to define themselves as unbendingly partisan, the Democrats should accept the administration’s invitation to discuss reform.

Democrats who want to avoid such talks will assert that the administration is not acting in good faith. In a news story in Wednesday’s Post, Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), the incoming chairman of a House subcommittee on Social Security, cited the nomination of Andrew G. Biggs, a proponent of personal accounts, to the No. 2 slot at the Social Security Administration. “The president is sending signals that what he’s really after is privatization,” Mr. Levin asserted. “And that’s just a non-starter.” But Mr. Biggs is respected and liked by Democratic economists, who have no trouble discussing reform ideas with him. The administration has recently acquired a pragmatic, deal-oriented Treasury chief. Refusing even to discuss reform with him would be to pass up an opportunity to fix a pressing problem.

Some Democrats dispute the urgency of the problem, arguing that the notional assets in the Social Security trust fund are sufficient to pay all the benefits promised to retirees for the next 40 years. But a retirement system needs to make credible promises that last longer than that: A worker who is 30 can’t entrust her retirement to a program that will run short of money as she turns 70. Moreover, a solvency fix for Social Security requires a long lead time. Cuts in benefits must be signaled years ahead so that workers have time to plan for them. Any increase in the payroll tax needs to be implemented soon in order to keep the size of the increase to an acceptable level.

Another argument against addressing Social Security is that health care is more pressing. It’s true that the budget challenge Social Security presents, which is the result of the retirement of the baby boomers plus rising life expectancy, pales next to the budget challenge Medicare presents, which is the result of those two factors multiplied by galloping inflation in health-care costs. But it makes sense to start with whichever part of the entitlement problem can be tackled most readily, and that is likely to mean Social Security. The administration has indicated that it is ready to do a deal on the retirement system, and much of the technical groundwork has been done. There is nothing to stop Democratic leaders from advancing health proposals too, but for the moment neither they nor the administration have a plausible blueprint for reining in Medicare costs.

If the Democrats engage on Social Security, they may find themselves discussing some form of personal retirement accounts. This should not be confused with “privatization”: Personal accounts that are added to the Social Security system are different from ones that are funded with money carved out from existing payroll revenue. Creating such add-on accounts could boost national savings, allow workers to build nest eggs and cushion them from the benefit cuts that are inevitably part of a reform. As they respond to the administration’s overtures, Democrats should not foreclose this option.

The Washington Post, Monday, November 27, 2006

Mystery surrounds Litvinenko’s murder

•November 26, 2006 • 1 Comment

TORONTO: Just who fatally poisoned former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko in London remains unknown. The victim had no doubt. He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of giving the order to kill him. ‘Those bastards have got me’ he said on his deathbed. The favoured weapons of Soviet “wet affairs” assassination units were undetectable poisons developed by Moscow’s top secret “Lab X” that made victims appear to have died from natural causes.

Ukraine’s nationalist leader Viktor Yushchenko, Chechen independence fighter Khattab and now Litvinenko were all victims of untraceable poisons. PLO leader Yasser Arafat may also have been victim of a similar toxin.

Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov was poisoned in London in 1978. In 2004, exiled Chechen president Salim Yandarbiyev was murdered by Russian agents in Qatar.

Archives of Bulgaria’s intelligence service – which often performed “wet affairs” for the KGB are due to be opened shortly. Three senior archivists of these files have “committed suicide”, two recently.

The Litvinenko affair is incredibly murky and just as fascinating. To understand it, go back to 1989.

As the Soviet Union began crumbling, I was the first western journalist given access to KGB’s top brass, headquarters, and archives. “KGB is a powerful force behind modernisation and reform”, I reported from Moscow that year, adding that KGB’s brightest officers from the elite First Chief Directorate had decided to abandon the communists and seize control of business and government.

The First Directorate’s agents, including up-and-comer Vladimir Putin, were Russia’s best-educated, most sophisticated citizens. They knew communism had wrecked Russia. KGB chiefs told me in 1989 they wanted a “Russian Pinochet” – a strongman who would bring in capitalism and make Russia and Russians work.

Today, two decades later, former KGB officers run the Kremlin, Russia’s government, and much of its industry.

As the USSR collapsed, a group of financial opportunists now known as the “oligarchs” grabbed control of its industries and resources. Led by Boris Berezhovsky, they formed the core support for Boris Yeltsin’s stumbling regime – with huge amounts of covert US finance.

The KGB – which divided in 1991 into the foreign SVR and internal FSB – viewed Berezovsky and other oligarchs as traitors and foreign agents

In 1991, the Chechens, who had battled Russian colonial rule for 300 years, demanded independence from Russia like its other former republics. Berezovsky backed their calls.

In 1994, Yelstin provoked a war and sent his army to crush Chechen independence. Savage Russian bombing and shelling killed up to 100,000 Chechens.

In a military miracle, Chechen fighters defeated Russian forces and drove them out. In 1997, Yeltsin signed a peace treaty granting Chechnya independence.

But the “siloviki” – Russia’s security and military apparatus – were outraged and vowed revenge. They discredited Yeltsin as a drunken buffoon.

During 1999, Moscow and a provincial city were hit by a wave of apartment building bombings that killed 300 people. Panic swept Russia. The bombings were blamed on “Chechen Islamic terrorists”. But Moscow police caught a team of SVR agents red handed planting explosives in a residential building.

This awkward fact was hushed up. Then Prime Minister Putin called for total war “to wipe out Chechen terrorism”. Outraged Russians rallied behind him. Yeltsin was subsequently replaced by then little-known prime minister.

Putin used the bombings as a pretext to send his army to invade and re-conquer Chechnya. Russians gave him a huge electoral mandate in 2000 effectively endorsing one-man rule.

The parallels to the 9/11 attacks on American a year later were uncanny.

Lt Col Alexander Litvinenko wrote a book claiming his own agency, FSB, staged the apartment bombings, and allied himself to Berezhovsky, who had emerged as Putin’s principal rival for power. In 1998, Litvinenko publicly claimed the secret police planned to kill Berezovsky.

Litvinenko was jailed, then fled into exile in Britain. Berezovsky, charged with fraud, later followed him to exile in London where he continues plotting to overthrow Putin.

Shortly before Litvinenko was poisoned, he was investigating last month’s murder in Moscow of crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. She had courageously exposed Russian criminality and rights abuses in Chechnya. Politkovskaya told me she was marked for death by ‘silovoki’ and Russian gangsters. Litvinenko and Berezovsky accused Putin of authoring Politkovskaya’s murder. The Kremlin strongly denied it.

Both crimes have further damaged Russia’s image, and tarnished President Putin’s image as a strong but law-abiding leader. Yet one wonders why the Kremlin would risk igniting such a storm just to silence a minor figure whose accusations went largely unheeded.

Perhaps some thin-skinned ‘siloviki’ in Moscow reverted to old Soviet ways. The Kremlin blames a feud among Russian exiles. But the blood spots connect right to Moscow. One feels a chilly breeze from the days of the Cold War.

–By Eric S Margolis Special for the Gulf Times

Gulf Times, Sunday,26 November, 2006

Let’s iron out the woes ahead of VMY 2007

•November 26, 2006 • Leave a Comment

THE tourism industry has become a massive revenue earner for many countries. For some, it is the number one source of government revenue.  In a world that’s “shrinking” with easier and faster modes of travelling, many people are willing to spend to see other parts of the world.

The direct and indirect benefits derived from focusing on this trade are immense, to say the least. The spin-offs are a major source of national and transnational investment, which help to a great extent in providing employment at all levels and keep several large and small industries ticking.

No one can deny that Visit Malaysia Year 2007 could not have been better timed, with it coinciding with the 50th National Day celebrations next year.

The Tourism Ministry has already started its push through our missions abroad and Tourism Malaysia offices in several parts of the world. We have spent millions of ringgit to announce to the world that we are ready for the influx. The target: about 20 million arrivals.

But the big question is: “Are all Malaysians ready to help make the visitors’ stay a pleasant experience so that they will carry happy tales to tell their relatives and friends back home?”

If you may recall, the first question you ask your friend or relative when they return from a trip abroad is “How’s the country? Did you enjoy your stay?”

Just like when we are overseas for a holiday, those who come here, especially budget travellers, want fairly clean hotels that are not over-priced. We do not want complaints of bug-infested bed and breakfast lodges with filthy toilets in the cities to be a subject of discussions over the Internet.

With five weeks left before 2007, the licensing and enforcement authorities have a task on their hands to flush out these dirty toilets.

And beware of zealots who, in the name of religion and morality, could chase potential tourists away.

Let us also make it easy and safe for tourists to travel here. The touts at the airports and unscrupulous cabbies must be taken off the road or we will pay dearly for this.

Some time ago, The Star reporters on an undercover assignment proved that some of them charge as high as RM400 for a trip to Kuala Lumpur from KLIA. Although action is being taken, such activities are still going on. It has to be instilled on everyone that VMY 2007 is not about making a fast buck. It’s about getting tourists to come back to Malaysia a second time, or even more.

The last thing anyone wants to experience during a holiday is being mugged or becoming a snatch theft victim.

In this regard, perhaps the police should have a special VMY 2007 team to ensure security is adequate in popular tourist destinations.

VMY 2007 is going to be a 12-month affair, so let us show the nicer side of ourselves. Our show of hospitality at all levels will determine where we stand in the eyes of the world. This will be the finer touch to the tangible achievements that we so proudly shout about.

Are you ready?

The Star,

Mr. Rangel Wants A Debate

•November 26, 2006 • Leave a Comment

U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel’s proposal to reinstate the military draft is an idea that for political reasons hasn’t gained traction. But a national debate about sharing sacrifice in time of war would be healthy nonetheless.

Members of Congress of both parties are voicing opposition to conscription, which was dropped in 1973 in favor of volunteering as a means of filling the ranks.

Mr. Rangel, a New York Democrat, has been arguing throughout the conflict in Iraq that a war’s burden should be shared by all elements of society. He says the sacrifice now falls disproportionately on the poor and members of minority groups who flock to the military because they can’t find jobs.

But that’s always been the case. The armed forces have traditionally been a magnet for frustrated job-seekers of all races and kids who need structure and discipline, as well as those who are simply motivated by patriotism to serve no matter their race or class.

The socioeconomic makeup of the military today is not dramatically different than it was in the past – although on average those serving are better educated now, the services rely slightly less on minority groups and the troops are a little older.

Mr. Rangel also asserts that U.S. leaders wouldn’t be so quick to go to war if the children of the elites were subject to being drafted. That doesn’t appear to be the case, however. In America’s experience, the draft hasn’t been a great democratizer; at least it wasn’t in this nation’s last big war – Vietnam – until the lottery was introduced.

While some children of the “elites” volunteered for service in Vietnam or didn’t try to beat the draft, deferments for college and marriage, medical exemptions, and assignments to Guard and Reserve units spared many young men of privileged backgrounds from going to the front. Poor and minority youth were spared, too, but not in as great a proportion. A draft would have to be iron-clad if it were to catch equally all elements of society – and that would be hard to guarantee.

As to Mr. Rangel’s argument that a draft would restrain a government’s appetite for war, where’s the history? During the Vietnam War, the draft produced an endless supply of cannon fodder. Public opposition finally stopped that misguided and costly adventure, but only after more than a decade of fighting.

Mr. Rangel is right, however, when he talks about the concept of a mandatory national service commitment. Young Americans would have the option of choosing either the military or non-military roles – joining the Peace Corps or its domestic equivalents. National service could turn out generations of committed young citizens.

Another way to widely share the burden in time of war is to pay for it through a broad-based tax.

The Iraq war, now in its fourth year, coupled with the war in Afghanistan, has cost some $500 billion so far – in contrast to early estimates of a measly $60 billion. There is no end in sight.

A recent study by Harvard and Columbia University academics projects that the ultimate bottom line for the war in Iraq could reach a staggering $2 trillion when such factors as the long-term care of psychologically and physically wounded veterans are added.

But there has been no tax increase to pay for the war. The cost is just being added to the national debt. The Bush administration is simply printing money to pay for this costly, draining quagmire. The war is being fought by volunteers on future generations’ dime.

That’s the ultimate passing of the buck.

The Hartfoed Courant, November 26, 2006

Well-paid fear-mongering

•November 26, 2006 • 1 Comment

Richard Clarke, the former U.S. anti-terrorism official who has been going around as a very well-paid consultant warning about the dangers posed by shipping liquefied natural gas, should consider in public — as politically unpopular as that might be among the many millions of beneficiaries of LNG imports — how safe the importation of this fuel actually is.

Earlier this month, on the same day that Mr. Clarke was terrifying members of the Boston City Council about the city’s imminent incineration, Suez LNG, which brings the fuel to the terminal in Everett, next to Boston, announced that the 1,000th cargo loaded at its LNG facility in Trinidad had arrived in Boston. It was the 174th trip to the Hub for the tanker Suez Matthew since it went into service, seven years ago. Boston’s LNG terminal has received almost 750 LNG shipments without incident since its startup, 35 years ago.

The Trinidad-Everett link is a critical way for New England to receive natural gas. The fossil fuel meets some 20 percent of the region’s natural-gas demand, and is used for home heating, industrial use and electricity generation. The fuel has had increased demand in recent years because it is much cleaner-burning than coal and oil.

Mr. Clarke bases his objections on the potential of a terrorist attack on the facility in Everett, or on the Suez Matthew while transiting Boston Harbor, or going up the Mystic River. Since 9/11, visits by the ship have been attended by increased security, including armed surveillance on bridges and, indeed, elsewhere along its route.

Last year, Mr. Clarke made presentations in Rhode Island and in Fall River, where LNG terminals have been proposed. These were used by such politicians as Fall River’s mayor, Edward Lambert, to whip up opposition to the proposals.

In fact, the region needs more LNG, and more LNG terminals, which Mr. Clarke effectively acknowledges: His presentation in Boston was as a paid consultant for the developers of a proposed LNG facility on one of Boston Harbor’s outer islands — a very good idea in itself.

Nothing in human affairs is utterly without any risk but Mr. Clarke’s well-compensated fear-mongering, without any balancing facts, ill serves the region. Meanwhile, in Europe and Asia, LNG shipments continue to go into some of the world’s biggest ports.

The Providence Journal, Sunday, November 26, 2006

Design review is the way to go

•November 26, 2006 • Leave a Comment

Quality courthouse at stake

Denver wasted no time in naming a high-level architectural peer review panel for the new courthouse that will be part of the Justice Center complex. It was the wise thing to do given public concern about the design once the original lead architect, Steven Holl, jumped ship and left the project in the hands of the local partner, klipp Architecture.

The courthouse will be one of the enduring buildings that help define the city. So it’s of great importance for its design to be successful in its own right while complementing the other buildings in the complex and enhancing the Colfax Avenue corridor. The panel will include three other architects who are working on the Justice Center: David Owen Tryba, who is the master urban design architect; Lee Becker, lead architect for the detention facility; and Ranko Ruizic, a lead designer with the firm responsible for the post office and parking garage building. They’ll be joined by three distinguished architects independent of the project, and the panel will be overseen by Peter Park, the city’s manager of Community Planning and Development.

Such review panels are commonly used on major projects, including federal courthouses. Federal guidelines say the purpose “is not to mandate solutions but to highlight opportunities to strengthen the design and fulfill project requirements.”

James Mejia, the project’s policy manager, said panel members “should have an interest in assisting the design process, rather than merely critiquing it.”

They’ve already begun. The courthouse plan is about halfway through the “schematic” phase, in which the basic outlines of the building are set, and it works well with the detention center, Mayor John Hickenlooper said. The city has solicited the first round of comments, and there will be several more, as well as workshops and on-site visits, by the time the process wraps up toward the end of January.

Hickenlooper praised Brian Klipp of klipp Architecture for his effective collaboration with the panel. He too recognizes the importance of the project.

It looks more likely than it did just a few weeks ago that Denver will get the kind of building it deserves. Keeping faith with the public, Hickenlooper said, means delivering what voters were promised when they approved the justice center, and delivering it on time and on budget.

If the review panel can contribute to that outcome, the city made a wise move in bringing it into the process.

Rocky Mountain News, November 26, 2006

An American schizophrenia

•November 26, 2006 • Leave a Comment

If only our nation’s foreign policy dilemmas would sit still and keep quiet, we could confront them, or avoid them, as we please.

Our most treacherous quandaries, though, erupt without warning around the globe. Fifty years ago this autumn, a bold and heart-rending revolt in the streets of Budapest, Hungary, forced Americans to deal with one perennial dilemma head-on: Should our nation pay the price of planting freedom and democracy in lands oppressed by tyrants? Or should we instead preserve our blood and treasure, and let people of other lands fight their own way to freedom?

Those two questions go to the heart of how a nation forged by revolution 230 years ago sees its role in a world that could use more revolutions. Right now, in fact, those questions echo in our disputes over U.S. efforts to expand liberty in the Middle East and South Asia.

Some among us want an America that transplants individual freedoms and liberal democracies to monarchies, theocracies and thugocracies. Others among us see that instinct as noble, perhaps, but costly and unnecessary.

These divisions in our political culture–in America’s ranks of patriots, really–afflict us with what many outsiders see as an American schizophrenia. Hungary offered the rest of the world one opportunity, but certainly not the last opportunity, to make that diagnosis:

– When freedom-minded Cuban exiles prepared for the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, would the U.S. go beyond organizing the exiles and throw its military might into a full-scale attack on Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba?

– When Kurds and Shiites sought to oust Saddam Hussein after the Persian Gulf war of 1991, would the U.S. only encourage them, or overtly help shut down Iraq’s slaughterhouse regime?

In those two cases, as with the earlier revolt in Hungary, the calculated answer was no. America arguably had inspired all three uprisings, then had watched from orchestra seating as they played out on stage.

All three failed.

– – –

Hungary cast the mold: The U.S. first stoked hopes of freedom, then abandoned the courageous Hungarians who rose up to demand it.

During the decade after World War II, once proud nations of Eastern Europe had chafed at playing the role of Kremlin puppet states.

Then, in the autumn of 1956, Washington was faced with a terrible choice: Should the U.S. assist the restive people of Hungary–and run the risk of catalyzing World War III?

Earlier that year, a Polish workers’ challenge to Soviet domination had emboldened the equally resentful Hungarians. On Oct. 23, Budapest students gathered at the Parliament building to express national grievances against Moscow. Other citizens joined them by the thousands. After perhaps half of the 200,000 congregants left the square for the streets, authorities fired shots into at least two of the surging crowds.

With that, a demonstration morphed into a fledgling revolution. Fighting escalated, a statue of Josef Stalin fell. At 4 a.m. on Oct. 24, the first Soviet tanks rolled into the capital. Days of fighting followed, with outnumbered but heavily armored Russians battling poorly armed students and workers.

An upstart new government tried to declare Hungary a neutral nation, free of the Soviet yoke. But Russia’s military crushed the rebellion in November. Strikes and protests continued into January of 1957, when another Russian crackdown ended the revolt. Soviet savagery–killings, rapes, tortures, deportations to gulags–had dimmed, although not extinguished, Hungary’s spirit of independence.

Through it all, America … watched and did nothing. Early on, Radio Free Europe led the Hungarian people to believe help was en route: On Nov. 4, 1956, RFE said a “practical manifestation of Western sympathy is expected at any hour.” This as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who had preached opposition to Soviet dominion in Eastern Europe, was quashing that very hope of U.S. intervention. The U.S. didn’t see Hungary as a potential military ally, so America would fight Soviet dominion there with sympathy and little else. In short: Good luck, pals, you’re on your own.

By valuing stability over the spread of freedom, the Eisenhower administration essentially ceded future control of Eastern Europe to the Soviets. Hungarians paid the price of that decision, as did citizens of other Iron Curtain nations.

– – –

Should America have backed Hungary’s freedom fighters in 1956?

As Iraq proves in each day’s headlines, U.S. interventions overseas cost American lives and dollars. The rewards may not come for decades, if at all.

Alternately, though, our isolationism can condemn freedom fighters of other lands to subjugation–and plague us with ongoing crises that demand even greater investments. Imagine how the late 20th Century might have played out if the U.S. had forcefully told an initially confused Kremlin regime to back away from Hungary.

Hungary did puncture the Kremlin’s myth that East Bloc masses embraced communism; that revelation angered and dispirited western Marxists. But Hungary’s greatest impact was within the East Bloc. The revolution of 1956 lived on in the hearts of millions of people in neighboring lands until, after three-plus decades of push and pull, the Berlin Wall finally fell.

Will Iraq have a similar effect on the greater Middle East? Regardless of Americans’ differences on how to end the war there, prosecuting it has disrupted chronic suppression that long masqueraded as regional stability. There can be no unbreaking of the china. In another 50 years, we’ll know whether American intervention in Iraq helped transform the dangerous political culture of the greater Middle East.

These regional freedom fights tend to be long hauls. That’s neither a reason for Americans to join the battle or to look the other way.

Hungary, though, has spent 50 years teaching us one uncomfortable lesson: Not standing with those who stand up for freedom also has its costs.

Chicago Tribune, November 26, 2006