Entries from November 2010

Obama Plans Fed Worker Pay Freeze

November 29th, 2010 at 11:19 am 29 Comments

The AP reports:

President Barack Obama will announce a two-year pay freeze for federal employees that the White House says is necessary to put the country on sound fiscal footing.

The White House said Monday that the freeze would apply to all civilian federal employees, including those working at the Department of Defense, but would not affect military personnel. The freeze will save $2 billion during fiscal year 2011, according to the White House.

Obama is expected to announce the pay freeze at the White House later Monday.

The chairman of Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission has proposed a three-year freeze in pay for most federal employees as part of its plan to reduce the nation’s growing deficit. The commission’s final report is due to be released later this week.

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WikiLeaks Reveals American Citizen’s Escape from Iran

November 29th, 2010 at 11:14 am 1 Comment

The New York Daily News reports:

A 75-year-old Los Angeles dentist, mind held against his will in Iran for seven months, made an extraordinary escape on horseback, the secret WikiLeaks cables revealed.

Hossein Ghanbarzadeh Vahedi, an American of Iranian descent whose sons rep popular Persian pop singers, had his passport confiscated in May 2008 when he arrived at the Tehran airport to visit the graves of his parents.

After seven months of daily appeals to the revolutionary courts, Vahedi decided to escape.

He paid two drug smugglers $7,500 to be his guides, mounted a horse and made the harrowing three-day journey that included a 14-hour overnight ride across the freezing mountains of northwestern Iran into Turkey.

Vahedi, who is on heart medications, trained for weeks by climbing in the hills north of Tehran.

The old man planned everything well except his wardrobe. At points during the zero-degree ride, “the escorts had to physically hug him to keep him warm,” the cable says.

Vahedi showed up at the U.S. Consulate in Ankara on Friday, Jan. 9, 2009, asking for help getting home.

“Although suffering some aches and pains, he appeared to be in good health,” diplomatic staff wrote with some wonder in a February 2009 cable.

“Although visibly shaken, Vahedi said he had no major physical problems, but he did break down a few times when explaining his ordeal.”

The Turks initially tried to return Vahedi to Iran, but changed their minds under pressure from the U.S. Embassy.

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Tough Times for Iran’s Nuke Scientists

David Frum November 29th, 2010 at 10:51 am 37 Comments

Seems another Iranian nuclear scientist has passed away unexpectedly.

Assailants on motorcycles attached bombs to the cars of two nuclear scientists as they were driving to work in Tehran Monday, killing one and wounding the other, state media and officials said.

Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the man killed was involved in a major project at the country’s chief nuclear agency, though he did not give specifics. Some Iranian media reported that the wounded scientist was a laser expert at Iran’s Defense Ministry and one of the country’s few top specialists in nuclear isotope separation.

State TV swiftly blamed Israel for the attacks. At least two other Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in recent years in what Iran has alleged is part of a covert attempt by the West to damage its controversial nuclear program. One of those two was killed in an attack similar to those on Monday.

Perhaps Iranian parents should be advising their science-minded youngsters to consider a less hazardous specialty.

A History Lesson for Palin

David Frum November 29th, 2010 at 9:04 am 28 Comments

Historian Mark Byrnes expands on the narrowness of mind revealed by Sarah Palin’s new book.

David Frum on his blog recently criticized this comment from Sarah Palin’s forthcoming book:

But from what I’ve read, family life at the time of the founding was a lot like family life for Americans today: full of challenges, sure, but also full of simple pleasures.

Frum’s point is that Palin basically defines African-American slaves out of the picture. That’s true enough, but I think the problem with Palin’s statement goes far deeper.

Unless she means it in the most general sense possible (i.e., there were moms and dads and sons and daughters then, too!), this assertion is simply ridiculous.  It represents an utter failure to imagine any experience significantly different from one’s own. That, by the way, is one of the most compelling reasons to study history—the past, as the saying goes, is another country.  Good historians teach their students that history is both continuity and change over time.  Certainly some things remain constant. But we should never let those similarities blind us to how different the past was. …

In the early 1800s, a typical white American woman would give birth to 7 children; today the number is barely more than 2.  Due to the extremely high infant mortality rate, however, average life expectancy would have been anywhere between the mid-20s and the low-40s, depending on race and region.  As late as 1850, more than 1 in 5 white infants died, and it was 1 in 3 for black children.  Today, the number is less than 6 per thousand for whites, and 14 per thousand for blacks.

Think about that for a moment.  Medical issues that today are often resolved with over-the-counter medicine or a quick trip to the doctor would then end in death.  The terrible trauma of a child’s death was not an atypical experience for women in that era.  Neither was the death of a spouse or parent at a young age.  Both of those things must have had enormous effects on family dynamics.

Can any reasonable person know all of that and conclude, as Palin so blithely does, that it was all basically the same as today?   The answer is obvious.  So why do it?

Politics, of course.  The Tea Party has this obsession with returning to the ways of the founding generation, to the “original” Constitution.  The obvious response to this ignorant nostalgia is that we do not live in the late 18th century.  Times change, conditions change, society changes, and so government must change along with them.  Since the Tea Partiers reject that conclusion, it makes sense to also reject the premises.  So we end up with someone with aspirations to presidential power making the ridiculous claim that family life has not changed much in the last 230 years.

This is the epitome of indifference to historical reality.  We do not honor Americans of the founding generation when we reduce the travails and tragedies of their lives to characters playing dress-up on a modern-day movie set for the benefit of our amusement—and political agenda.

Christie 2012? Forget About It

November 29th, 2010 at 8:51 am 12 Comments

It’s clear that the conservative fascination with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been rising over the past few months. But despite the enthusiasm for a 2012 presidential bid, sale Christie should sit this race out.

It’s easy to understand Christie’s popularity with the conservative grassroots. He’s battled the teachers’ union, unhealthy cut a reported $13 billion in government spending in his first eight weeks in office, vetoed a “millionaire’s tax,” and capped annual property increases at 2.5% in a state with a $10.7 billion projected deficit that is, relative to the size of the budget, the highest in the country. His most recently publicized gesture was to cancel a tunnel between New York and New Jersey, which had a projected cost of $8.7 billion—an episode that reveals, if anything, the alarming complacency we have with deficit spending, as proponents of the plan found the excuse that “we don’t have the money,” entirely insufficient. These policies, along with his confrontational and candid behavior, have allowed him to commandeer more of the media spotlight than would typically be granted to a governor still in his first year in office.

All of this has provoked talk of a potential presidential run, as many conservatives believe that Christie fills the “anti-Obama” role that many believe could be the key to a Republican victory in 2012. An overweight white guy from New Jersey vs. a skinny African-American from Hawaii? Try to imagine a bolder contrast.

Christie has indeed displayed an ability to be an effective Republican chief executive in a typically liberal state. A recent Zogby poll showed him as the leading contender for the nomination amongst Republican voters. A “Draft Christie” movement recently launched. Most importantly, however, is that his approval rating in the state is still above 50%, despite the funding cuts listed above. Considering all this, it’s tempting to imagine Christie taking the oath of office on January 20, 2013.

With that said, however, it’s too soon. He has been in office for less than one year, which would make him—at the time he would presumptively declare his candidacy in 2011—the least experienced candidate in high office among a list of potential contenders that includes Mike Huckabee (10 years as governor), Tim Pawlenty (8 years), Haley Barbour (7 years), Mitch Daniels (6 years), John Thune (6 years as senator), Mitt Romney (4 years as governor), Newt Gingrich (4 years as Speaker), and even Sarah Palin (a little over 2 years as governor).

Considering that Republicans made such a large issue of Obama’s lack of experience, this could pose problems for a potential Christie run. Furthermore, history isn’t exactly on his side, as Christie would be the only governor to abandon the governorship during his first term to ascend to higher office since Theodore Roosevelt (who acceded to the vice presidency). Since the formal primary process began in 1972, Jerry Brown is the only governor to run for president while still in his first term (he ran in 1976).

Christie’s biggest problem would be translating his success at a state level onto the national stage. The budgetary problems most states face these days are rooted in public pensions, or, as in the case of New Jersey, generous compensation to specific constituencies—New Jersey ranks fourth in the percentage (66) of unionized public employees—such as teachers’ unions and other state employees. For this reason, it’s a bit easier for governors to trim budgets early on, as singling out particular groups—sometimes justifiably, sometimes not—as a cause of the state’s financial problems is politically palatable.

Unfortunately, lone constituencies aren’t the cause of the budget problems that the country faces; they’re caused by universal entitlements. Although the main beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare are typically seniors, they are entitlements we all pay for and expect to receive when the time comes. That is why cutting them will prove difficult, and while Christie has been successful railing against groups in New Jersey that are typically enemies of Republicans, it might prove much harder to tell the entire country that it’s time for tough love. Although he did make cuts to government departments, the three major programs that Christie decided not to freeze or reduce spending for were funding for hospitals, children’s health care, and—wait for it—senior citizen access to prescription drugs. Even Chris “The Wrecking Ball” Christie has been reluctant to trim universal benefits for seniors.

The other problem for Christie is that he would be facing multiple governors who already have significant executive experience. Huckabee, Daniels, Barbour, and Romney all come to mind, and it’s difficult to point out what Christie has done that Daniels has not—other than provoke unions—an issue that would unify and energize the most effective part of the Democratic base come general election time. Daniels, meanwhile, who now has a supermajority in the Indiana state legislature, boasts a 75% approval rating and might be an even more effective governor over the next two years as a result.

The good news for Christie—if he does have presidential ambitions—is that he has more than enough time to turn New Jersey around, close the budget gap over the next few years, and build up an impressive resume to run on. He’ll need to find some more creative ways of closing the deficit that extend beyond targeting unpopular funding, and he’ll probably have to raise taxes eventually—another potential case study for gauging an electorate’s response. Should his current record continue, he‘d be in prime position to make a successful run in the future.

Christie has unequivocally stated that he will not run in 2012. Although he did spend this recent election season campaigning for other candidates, he has not taken the steps necessary for potential presidential contenders, so it appears we can take Christie at his word. As for the possibility of a potential vice presidential bid, I wouldn’t bet on it. Although potential candidates often declare that their priority is their home state without meaning it, I take Christie at his word; he’s well aware of the monumental obstacles that his state still has to overcome, and he seems determined to finish what he started.

The 2016 election, meanwhile, is only a few short years away.

Bomb Kills Iranian Nuke Scientist

November 29th, 2010 at 8:13 am 4 Comments

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Two separate explosions killed a nuclear scientist and injured another in the Iranian capital Monday morning, official news outlets reported.

Both scholars’ wives and a driver were also injured in the attacks, according to the news agencies. The slain scientist, Majid Shahriari, was a member of the nuclear engineering team at the Shahid Behesti university in Tehran, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA.

No one claimed responsibility for the attacks and no arrests have been made, Iranian officials said. But they prompted a stern warning by the normally cool-headed head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, who described Shahriari as a former student.

“Do not play with fire,” he said, according to IRNA. “There is a limit to the Iranian nation’s patience and if we run out of patience the enemy will suffer adverse consequences. Of course we still maintain our patience.”

The injured scholar, Fereydoun Abbas, also taught at Shahid Beheshti, one of Iran’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

The assassins, riding motorcycles, tossed bombs at — or attached them to — vehicles of the two Shahid Behesti University professors as they drove with their spouses en route to work between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m..

“A Pulsar motorbike drove close to Dr. Shahriari’s car and stuck a bomb on his car which after a few seconds exploded,” Tehran police chief Hossein Sajednia was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.

“Experts are examining the incidents,” Sajednia said. “The type of the bombs and explosive materials and the extent of damage have not been determined yet.”

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Retailers Report Black Friday Sales Boost

November 29th, 2010 at 8:08 am 1 Comment

The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Black Friday shopping weekend signaled a rosier holiday season than last year, with early figures showing higher traffic and sales at stores and websites.

Retailers extended the shopping blitz from a day to an entire week, offering “door buster” promotions in the days leading up to the Thanksgiving weekend. And deals for “Cyber Monday,” typically the first Monday after Thanksgiving, began showing up online earlier as well.

The string of promotions appeared to have succeeded in getting consumers to open their wallets. Roughly 212 million shoppers visited a store or website over the weekend, an increase of 8.7% from last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Retail consulting firm ShopperTrak, which uses monitoring devices to count shoppers, said sales rose only slightly on Black Friday itself. But the firm said the sales still set a record.

The early estimates can be an imperfect read on the weekend’s results, however. The Washington-based NRF bases its data on a survey of consumer actions and intentions, the latter of which could change. ShopperTrak provides data used widely by the industry. But the firm’s traffic counters mostly are in malls—just one slice of the shopping landscape. A more detailed accounting will come Thursday, when more than two dozen retailers report monthly sales. Government data are due midmonth.

Some executives nevertheless pointed to a return of holiday cheer, an about-face from the gloomy tone of the previous two holiday seasons. “People seemed happier this weekend, while last year they were more desperate, feeling they had to get the bargains,” said Gerald Storch, chief executive of Toys “R” Us Inc.

The optimism revealed itself in consumers shopping for themselves. Chevara Gureu, a 19-year-old student from Los Angeles, passed by the 40%-60% off deals at Saks Inc.’s Saks Fifth Avenue flagship in Manhattan and paid full price—$900—for a St. John jacket with a fur collar. She said her family’s finances have improved from last year. “My mother sent me some money and said, ‘Go buy yourself a Christmas present,’ ” Ms. Gureu said Sunday.

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Clinton Looks to Repair Wikileaks Damage

November 29th, 2010 at 7:50 am 2 Comments

Reuters reports:

Amid a global uproar over WikiLeaks’ release of sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton begins a trip to Central Asia and the Middle East on Monday, during which she may personally feel some heat from affronted allies.

The State Department on Sunday formally announced Clinton’s trip, which takes take her first to Kazakhstan where world leaders including Russian President Dmitry Medevedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are also expected to attend a summit of the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

In an illustration of the potential awkwardness, one cable is reported by Britain’s Guardian newspaper as describing Medvedev as being in a partnership with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in which he “plays Robin to Putin’s Batman.”

Other documents cited by German news weekly Der Spiegel describe Merkel as someone who “avoids risk and is seldom creative” and her foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, as arrogant, vain and critical of America.

From Kazakhstan, Clinton travels to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, two other former Soviet republics in Central Asia which have been targets of criticism in the past, before heading to Bahrain to deliver a speech on the U.S. security role in a region jittery over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Clinton’s November 30-December 3 trip was planned before Sunday’s release of sensitive U.S. diplomatic communications provided by whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, which revealed sensitive U.S. views on foreign leaders, terrorism and nuclear proliferation in an embarassing blow to U.S. diplomacy.

The U.S. government, informed in advance of the contents, has contacted governments around the world, including in Russia, Europe and the Middle East, to try to limit damage.

But the release nevertheless promises to complicate Clinton’s mission, already overshadowed by the crisis on the Korean peninsula following North Korea’s artillery attack on a South Korean island last week.

Among the revelations highlighted by the New York Times, one of five media organizations given early access to the Wikileaks material, were reports that Saudi King Abdullah has repeatedly urged the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear program, and China directed cyberattacks on the United States.

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Rangel Asks House for Mercy

November 29th, 2010 at 7:46 am 1 Comment

The New York Times reports:

Hoping to avoid the lasting stain of Congressional censure and the indignity of the public scolding that accompanies it, order Representative Charles B. Rangel has embarked on a last-ditch campaign to convince colleagues that he deserves the far less serious punishment of a reprimand for his ethics violations, thumb according to two people close to Mr. Rangel.

Mr. Rangel, 80, who may face censure in front of the full House as early as this week, is arguing that the punishment — a move short of expulsion — is reserved for violations more grave than those he committed. To make that case, his staff has prepared a 10-point chart to distribute to other members of Congress, along with a history of punishments meted out before.

Point 4 on the chart notes that Mr. Rangel, a Democrat who has represented Harlem for four decades, “did not take bribes,” and Point 8 says his violations did not involve personal financial gain. Point 5 says his violations “did not involve sexual misconduct.”

The chart also cites cases in which representatives were reprimanded for violations that, it says, were more serious than those committed by Mr. Rangel.

Mr. Rangel has also asked Representative Zoe Lofgren, the chairwoman of the House ethics committee, which recommended censure, for time to make his case on the floor of the House, according to the people close to Mr. Rangel, who said they would discuss Mr. Rangel’s efforts only if granted anonymity, because the matter was still being decided.

It was not immediately clear how widely Mr. Rangel had appealed to colleagues, or whether his efforts had any real chance of success. Representative Peter T. King, a Republican member of the New York delegation who has spoken highly of Mr. Rangel in the past, released a tepid statement through a spokesman when asked about the prospects of downgrading Mr. Rangel’s punishment.

“I am studying the record and have made no decision yet,” Mr. King said.

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