Posts Tagged ‘Government’


>Incredible!!! as if they had nothing more important to do!!!! – And anyways, if bake sales are the most popular way to raise money, it must be that it is the only one that works!!!  Fools!!

Hold the brownies! Bill could limit bake sales

WASHINGTON – Don’t touch my brownies! A child nutrition bill on its way to President Barack Obama — and championed by the first lady — gives the government power to limit school bake sales and other fundraisers that health advocates say sometimes replace wholesome meals in the lunchroom.
Republicans, notably Sarah Palin, and public school organizations decry the bill as an unnecessary intrusion on a common practice often used to raise money.
“This could be a real train wreck for school districts,” Lucy Gettman of the National School Boards Association said Friday, a day after the House cleared the bill. “The federal government should not be in the business of regulating this kind of activity at the local level.”
The legislation, part of first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to stem childhood obesity, provides more meals at school for needy kids, including dinner, and directs the Agriculture Department to write guidelines to make those meals healthier. The legislation would apply to all foods sold in schools during regular class hours, including in the cafeteria line, vending machines and at fundraisers.
It wouldn’t apply to after-hours events or concession stands at sports events.
Public health groups pushed for the language on fundraisers, which encourages the secretary of Agriculture to allow them only if they are infrequent. The language is broad enough that a president’s administration could even ban bake sales, but Secretary Tom Vilsack signaled in a letter to House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., this week that he does not intend to do that. The USDA has a year to write rules that decide how frequent is infrequent.
Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says the bill is aimed at curbing daily or weekly bake sales or pizza fundraisers that become a regular part of kids’ lunchtime routines. She says selling junk food can easily be substituted with nonfood fundraisers.
“These fundraisers are happening all the time,” Wootan said. “It’s a pizza sale one day, doughnuts the next… It’s endless. This is really about supporting parental choice. Most parents don’t want their kids to use their lunch money to buy junk food. They expect they’ll use their lunch money to buy a balanced school meal.”
Not all see it that way.
Palin mocked the efforts last month by bringing a plate of cookies to a school speech in Pennsylvania. Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said the federal government “has really gone too far” when it is deciding when to hold bake sales.
Some parents say they are perplexed by what the new rules might allow.
In Seminole, Fla., the Seminole High Warhawks Marching Band’s booster club held a bake sale to help send the band’s 173 members to this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York. One of the bake sale’s specialties: New York-style cheesecake, an homage to the destination they’d pursued for 10 years.
“Limiting bake sales is so narrow-minded,” said Laura Shortway, whose 17-year-old daughter, Mallory, is a drummer in the band. “Having bake sales keeps these fundraisers community based, which is very appealing to the person making the purchase.”
Several school districts and state education departments already have policies suggesting or enforcing limits on bake sales, both for nutritional reasons and to keep the events from competing for dollars against school cafeterias. In Connecticut, for instance, about 70 percent of the state’s school districts have signed on to the state education department’s voluntary guidelines encouraging healthy foods in place of high-sugar, high-fat options.
Under those rules, bake sales cannot be held on school grounds unless the items meet nutrition standards that specifically limit portion sizes, fat content, sodium and sugars. That two-ounce, low-fat granola bar? Probably OK, depending what’s in it. But grandma’s homemade oversized brownie with cream cheese frosting and chocolate chips inside? Probably not.
One loophole in Connecticut: The nutritional standards apply if the food is being sold at a bake sale, but not if it’s being given away free, such as by a parent for a child’s birthday.
“If a mom wants to send in cupcakes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, that would not be subject to the state guidelines,” said Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for the state’s education department.
In New York City, a rule enacted in 2009 allows bake sales only once a month, and they must comply with nutritional standards and be part of a parent group fundraiser.
Wootan says she hopes the rules will prompt schools to try different options for fundraising.
“Schools are so used to doing the same fundraisers every year that they need a strong nudge to do something new,” she says. “The most important rebuttal to all of these arguments is that schools can make money other ways — you don’t have to harm kids health.”
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Associated Press writer Stephanie Reitz contributed to this report from Hartford, Conn.

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Welcome to the Mania!
Submitted by Jeff Clark of Casey Research
With gold punching the $1,300 mark, thoughts of what a gold mania will be like crossed my mind. If we’re right about the future of precious metals, a gold rush of historic proportions lies ahead of us. Have you thought about how a mania might affect you? Not like this, you haven’t…

You log on to your brokerage account for the third time that day and see your precious metal portfolio has doubled from last week. Gold and silver stocks have been screaming upward for weeks. Everyone around you is panicking from runaway inflation and desperate to get their hands on any form of gold or silver. It’s exhilarating and frightening in the same breath. Welcome to the mania.

Daily gains of 20% in gold and silver producers become common, even expected. Valuations have been thrown out the window – this is no time for models and charts and analysis. It’s not greed; it’s survival. Get what you can, while you can. Investors clamor to buy any stock with the word “gold” in its title. Fear of being left behind is palpable.

The shares of junior exploration companies have gone ballistic. They double and triple in days, then double and triple again. Many have already risen ten-fold. You have several up 10,000%. No end is in sight. Your portfolio swells bigger every day. Your life is changing right in front of you at warp speed.

Every business program touts the latest hot gold or silver stock. It’s all they can talk about. Headlines blare anything about precious metals, no matter how trivial. Weekly news magazines and talk-radio hosts dispense free stock picks. CNBC and Bloomberg battle to be first with the latest news. Each tick in the price of gold and silver flashes on screen, and interruptions offering the latest prediction seem to happen every fifteen minutes. Breathy reporters yell above the noise on the trade floor about insane volume, and computers that can’t keep up. Entire programs are devoted to predicting the next winner. You watch to see if some of your stocks are named. You can’t help it.

The only thing growing faster than your portfolio is the number of new “gold experts.” It’s a bull market in bull.

You can feel the crazed mass psychology all around you. Your co-workers know you bought gold some time ago and pepper you with questions seemingly every hour, interrupting your work. They ask if you heard about the latest pick from Fox Business. They want to know where you buy gold, who has the best price, and, by the way, how do I know if my gold is real? They all look at you differently now. Women smile at you in the hallway. You worry someone may follow you home.

Your relatives once teased you but now hound you with questions at family get-togethers – what stocks do you own? What’s that gold newsletter telling you? Where can I keep my bullion? You don’t want to be the life of the party, but they force it – it’s all anyone wants to talk about. Your brother tells you he dumped his broker and is trading full-time. Another relative shoves his account statement in front of you and wants advice. You sense someone will ask for a loan. You don’t know what to tell people. The attention is discomforting, and you feel the urge to escape.

At first it was exciting, then breathtaking. Now it’s scary. You’re drowning in obscene profits but are becoming increasingly anxious about how long it can last. Worry replaces excitement. You don’t know if you should sell or hold on. Nobody knows what to do. But the next day, your portfolio screams higher and you feel overwhelmed once again.

You grab the local paper and read the town’s bullion shop had a break-in last night. They hired a security company and have posted several guards outside and inside the store. Premiums have skyrocketed, but lines still form every day. The proprietor hands out tickets when locals arrive: your number will be called when it’s your turn… the wait will be long… please have your order ready… yesterday we ran out of stock at 11am.

You begin to worry about the security of your own stash of bullion – those clever hiding spots don’t feel quite as secure as you first thought they’d be. Is the bank safe deposit box really secure? Shouldn’t they hire a security guard? Should I move some of it elsewhere? Is there anywhere truly safe? You find yourself checking gun prices online.

And it’s all happening because the dollar is crashing and inflation has scourged every part of life. You curse at those who said this couldn’t happen and mock past assurances from government. Cash is a hot potato, and spending it before it loses more purchasing power is a daily priority. Everyone is clamoring to get something that can’t lose value, but mostly gold and silver.

Your wife calls and says the $100 you gave her that morning isn’t enough to buy groceries for dinner. Prices change often on everything. She urges you to get some bread and milk before the stores raises the price again. You suddenly remember you’re low on gas and make plans to leave work early to beat others to the filling station. Restaurants and small businesses post prices on a chalkboard and update them throughout the day. Employers scramble to work out an “inflation adjustment” for salaries. 

On your way home, the radio broadcaster reports the government has convened an emergency summit of all heads of state. They’re working urgently on the problem, and all other agendas have been tabled. Outside experts have been called in. We’re going to solve this rampant flood of inflation for the American people, they say. In your gut you know there’s nothing they can do.

You change the channel and hear about the spike in arrests of U.S. citizens at the Canadian border. Scads of people are caught trying to sneak bullion and stock certificates out of the country – from airports to rail stations. Violence at borders has escalated, and stories of bloodshed are getting common. The White House ordered heightened security at all U.S. borders, with the media reporting it can take days to cross. Foreign governments offer meaningless help, others mock U.S. leaders for their shortsightedness. Their countries are suffering, too.

You think about the gains in your portfolio and wince at the taxes you’ll pay when you sell. Nothing has been indexed to inflation, so everyone has been pushed into higher tax brackets. Citizens are furious with government. Agencies have been swarmed with bitter taxpayers and revolting benefit recipients. One government office was set on fire. A riot erupted in Washington, D.C. last week and martial law was temporarily declared. It’s too dangerous to travel anywhere.

As crazy as things are, it’s hard not to smile. You’re in the middle of a mania. Your life has changed permanently. You’re part of the new rich. You can quit work, live off your investments. Your wife is ecstatic, and you both feel as if it’s your second honeymoon. Your kids are amazed and gaze at you with the same awe they did when they were children.

You’re thankful you bought gold and silver before the mania, along with precious metal stocks. You daydream of where you might go, what you might buy. New options open up daily. You realize you’ll need to meet with your accountant, maybe hire a second one to protect your sudden wealth. You wonder what you’ll invest in next. You ponder what charities are worthwhile. Better meet with the attorney to redraft the will.

As night settles and your house quiets, you log on to your brokerage account one last time. Even though you’re ready for it, your mouth drops when you see your account balance. It is truly overwhelming. You think of others who own gold and silver stocks and wonder if any have sold yet. Has Doug Casey exited?

You stare at the blinking screen, hand on the mouse, the cursor hovering on the sell button…

View article…


In a Computer Worm, a Possible Biblical Clue

September 29, 2010
Deep inside the computer worm that some specialists suspect is aimed at slowing Iran’s race for a nuclear weapon lies what could be a fleeting reference to the Book of Esther, the Old Testament tale in which the Jews pre-empt a Persian plot to destroy them.
That use of the word “Myrtus” — which can be read as an allusion to Esther — to name a file inside the code is one of several murky clues that have emerged as computer experts try to trace the origin and purpose of the rogue Stuxnet program, which seeks out a specific kind of command module for industrial equipment.
Not surprisingly, the Israelis are not saying whether Stuxnet has any connection to the secretive cyberwar unit it has built inside Israel’s intelligence service. Nor is the Obama administration, which while talking about cyberdefenses has also rapidly ramped up a broad covert program, inherited from the Bush administration, to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. In interviews in several countries, experts in both cyberwar and nuclear enrichment technology say the Stuxnet mystery may never be solved.
There are many competing explanations for myrtus, which could simply signify myrtle, a plant important to many cultures in the region. But some security experts see the reference as a signature allusion to Esther, a clear warning in a mounting technological and psychological battle as Israel and its allies try to breach Tehran’s most heavily guarded project. Others doubt the Israelis were involved and say the word could have been inserted as deliberate misinformation, to implicate Israel.
“The Iranians are already paranoid about the fact that some of their scientists have defected and several of their secret nuclear sites have been revealed,” one former intelligence official who still works on Iran issues said recently. “Whatever the origin and purpose of Stuxnet, it ramps up the psychological pressure.”
So a calling card in the code could be part of a mind game, or sloppiness or whimsy from the coders.
The malicious code has appeared in many countries, notably China, India, Indonesia and Iran. But there are tantalizing hints that Iran’s nuclear program was the primary target. Officials in both the United States and Israel have made no secret of the fact that undermining the computer systems that control Iran’s huge enrichment plant at Natanz is a high priority. (The Iranians know it, too: They have never let international inspectors into the control room of the plant, the inspectors report, presumably to keep secret what kind of equipment they are using.)
The fact that Stuxnet appears designed to attack a certain type of Siemens industrial control computer, used widely to manage oil pipelines, electrical power grids and many kinds of nuclear plants, may be telling. Just last year officials in Dubai seized a large shipment of those controllers — known as the Simatic S-7 — after Western intelligence agencies warned that the shipment was bound for Iran and would likely be used in its nuclear program.
“What we were told by many sources,” said Olli Heinonen, who retired last month as the head of inspections at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, “was that the Iranian nuclear program was acquiring this kind of equipment.”
Also, starting in the summer of 2009, the Iranians began having tremendous difficulty running their centrifuges, the tall, silvery machines that spin at supersonic speed to enrich uranium — and which can explode spectacularly if they become unstable. In New York last week, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shrugged off suggestions that the country was having trouble keeping its enrichment plants going.
Yet something — perhaps the worm or some other form of sabotage, bad parts or a dearth of skilled technicians — is indeed slowing Iran’s advance.
The reports on Iran show a fairly steady drop in the number of centrifuges used to enrich uranium at the main Natanz plant. After reaching a peak of 4,920 machines in May 2009, the numbers declined to 3,772 centrifuges this past August, the most recent reporting period. That is a decline of 23 percent. (At the same time, production of low-enriched uranium has remained fairly constant, indicating the Iranians have learned how to make better use of fewer working machines.)
Computer experts say the first versions of the worm appeared as early as 2009 and that the sophisticated version contained an internal time stamp from January of this year.
These events add up to a mass of suspicions, not proof. Moreover, the difficulty experts have had in figuring out the origin of Stuxnet points to both the appeal and the danger of computer attacks in a new age of cyberwar.
For intelligence agencies they are an almost irresistible weapon, free of fingerprints. Israel has poured huge resources into Unit 8200, its secretive cyberwar operation, and the United States has built its capacity inside the National Security Agency and inside the military, which just opened a Cyber Command.
But the near impossibility of figuring out where they came from makes deterrence a huge problem — and explains why many have warned against the use of cyberweapons. No country, President Obama was warned even before he took office, is more vulnerable to cyberattack than the United States.
For now, it is hard to determine if the worm has infected centrifuge controllers at Natanz. While the S-7 industrial controller is used widely in Iran, and many other countries, even Siemens says it does not know where it is being used. Alexander Machowetz, a spokesman in Germany for Siemens, said the company did no business with Iran’s nuclear program. “It could be that there is equipment,” he said in a telephone interview. “But we never delivered it to Natanz.”
But Siemens industrial controllers are unregulated commodities that are sold and resold all over the world — the controllers intercepted in Dubai traveled through China, according to officials familiar with the seizure.
Ralph Langner, a German computer security consultant who was the first independent expert to assert that the malware had been “weaponized” and designed to attack the Iranian centrifuge array, argues that the Stuxnet worm could have been brought into the Iranian nuclear complex by Russian contractors.
“It would be an absolute no-brainer to leave an infected USB stick near one of these guys,” he said, “and there would be more than a 50 percent chance of having him pick it up and infect his computer.”
There are many reasons to suspect Israel’s involvement in Stuxnet. Intelligence is the single largest section of its military and the unit devoted to signal, electronic and computer network intelligence, known as Unit 8200, is the largest group within intelligence.
Yossi Melman, who covers intelligence for the newspaper Haaretz and is at work on a book about Israeli intelligence over the past decade, said in a telephone interview that he suspected that Israel was involved.
He noted that Meir Dagan, head of Mossad, had his term extended last year partly because he was said to be involved in important projects. He added that in the past year Israeli estimates of when Iran will have a nuclear weapon had been extended to 2014.
“They seem to know something, that they have more time than originally thought,” he said.
Then there is the allusion to myrtus — which may be telling, or may be a red herring.
Several of the teams of computer security researchers who have been dissecting the software found a text string that suggests that the attackers named their project Myrtus. The guava fruit is part of the Myrtus family, and one of the code modules is identified as Guava.
It was Mr. Langner who first noted that Myrtus is an allusion to the Hebrew word for Esther. The Book of Esther tells the story of a Persian plot against the Jews, who attacked their enemies pre-emptively.
“If you read the Bible you can make a guess,” said Mr. Langner, in a telephone interview from Germany on Wednesday.
Carol Newsom, an Old Testament scholar at Emory University, confirmed the linguistic connection between the plant family and the Old Testament figure, noting that Queen Esther’s original name in Hebrew was Hadassah, which is similar to the Hebrew word for myrtle. Perhaps, she said, “someone was making a learned cross-linguistic wordplay.”
But other Israeli experts said they doubted Israel’s involvement. Shai Blitzblau, the technical director and head of the computer warfare laboratory at Maglan, an Israeli company specializing in information security, said he was “convinced that Israel had nothing to do with Stuxnet.”
“We did a complete simulation of it and we sliced the code to its deepest level,” he said. “We have studied its protocols and functionality. Our two main suspects for this are high-level industrial espionage against Siemens and a kind of academic experiment.”
Mr. Blitzblau noted that the worm hit India, Indonesia and Russia before it hit Iran, though the worm has been found disproportionately in Iranian computers. He also noted that the Stuxnet worm has no code that reports back the results of the infection it creates. Presumably, a good intelligence agency would like to trace its work.

Ethan Bronner contributed reporting from Israel, and William J. Broad from New York.

 In a Computer Worm, a Possible Biblical Clue – NYTimes.com

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H.P.’s Foreign Entanglement

September 13, 2010, 11:30 am


hewlett

Peter J. Henning follows issues involving securities law and white-collar crime for DealBook’s White Collar Watch.
The last month or so has not been very pleasant for Hewlett-Packard.
The company’s recent 10-Q disclosed that the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission have expanded an investigation of possible bribe payments in connection with contracts the company obtained in Russia. Such payments may violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (F.C.P.A.), an area where the federal government has investigated more aggressively over the last few years.
This disclosure comes on top of other recent legal problems at H.P. Joe Nocera’s recent column in The New York Times described H.P.’s directors as “the most inept board in America” for its lawsuit against its former chief executive, Mark V. Hurd. On Aug. 30, the Justice Department announced a $55 million settlement of a civil fraud claim against H.P. for paying “influencer fees” — in other words, kickbacks — in return for favorable recommendations to the federal government to buy the company’s products.

About White Collar Watch
Peter J. Henning, writing for DealBook’s White Collar Watch, is a commentator on white-collar crime and litigation. A former lawyer at the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division and then a prosecutor at the Justice Department, he is a professor at the Wayne State University Law School. He is currently working on a book, “The Prosecution and Defense of Public Corruption: The Law & Legal Strategies,” to be published by Oxford University Press.

As Mr. Nocera pointed out, H.P. is unlikely to succeed in its legal battle with Mr. Hurd, but that is more of a distraction than anything else. A widening F.C.P.A. investigation, on the other hand, may end up costing the company millions of dollars in legal fees as it deals with demands for documents while conducting its own internal inquiry. And any settlement with the government would likely involve both criminal fines and civil monetary penalties, along with other remedial measures, ratcheting the price up further.
The bribery investigation began in Russia in connection with a contract with a former German subsidiary of H.P. that involved the installation of a computer network in, of all places, Russia’s chief prosecutor’s office. Russian and German prosecutors are looking into the transaction, which took place from 2002 to 2006, and have requested documents from the company.
In its 10-Q, H.P. notes for the first time that the investigation is not limited to that one contract in Russia: “The U.S. enforcement authorities have recently requested information from H.P. relating to certain governmental and quasi-governmental transactions in Russia and in the Commonwealth of Independent States subregion dating back to 2000.”
It is not clear how many contracts or transactions may be involved, but the expanded time frame and geographic scope probably means the inquiry will be an extended one, rather than something H.P. can wrap up quickly. As sometimes happens, once one part of a multinational company is scrutinized for bribery, problems in other areas can pop to the surface.
The recent settlement by Siemens of overseas bribery charges shows how corruption can spread throughout a company. Subsidiaries operating in France, Argentina, Turkey and the Middle East were found to have paid bribes to obtain contracts, and Siemens paid $800 million in criminal fines to the Justice Department and disgorgement to the S.E.C. as part of the settlement.
The F.C.P.A. is part of the federal securities laws, and most cases involve the S.E.C. along with the Justice Department because one part of the act requires corporations to maintain proper books and records, something that is rarely done when a bribe is paid. The Justice Department has become much more aggressive in pursuing foreign bribery cases, including conducting an undercover sting operation that resulted in more than 20 people being arrested on charges of offering bribes to participate in a fictitious security contract with an African nation.
The recent addition of enhanced whistle-blower rewards in the Dodd-Frank Act authorizes the S.E.C. to pay 10 percent of any recovery realized, up to a maximum of 30 percent, to those who provide valuable information related to any type of securities fraud. F.C.P.A. cases are very likely to be among the most common instances for whistle-blowing by corporate employees.
F.C.P.A. charges are also very difficult to defend once the government obtains evidence that payments were made to foreign officials “in obtaining or retaining business” in that country. The act recognizes two defenses to a charge, first the payment was lawful under the laws of the country where it was made, and second the expenses were reasonable for the promoting the product or implementing the contract.
Neither defense has been successfully offered in court to this point. Even worse, according to an article by Kyle Sheahen that will be published shortly in the Wisconsin International Law Journal, “the defenses are virtually useless in practice.”
Even if H.P. is found to have violated the F.C.P.A., that does not mean the company’s ability to win government contracts would be at risk. Professor Mike Koehler, who analyzes these issues on the FCPA Professor blog, noted that the Siemens settlement did not seem to have any real effect on the company’s relationship with the federal government. “One of the unfortunate beauties of engaging in bribery the U.S. government terms ‘unprecedented in scale and geographic scope’ is no slowdown in U.S. government contracts in the immediate aftermath of the enforcement action,” he noted.
The impact from any F.C.P.A. violation may change, however, under a bill under consideration in Congress. The legislation, called the Overseas Contractor Reform Act and passed by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in July, requires debarment from future government contracts for any person or company found in violation of the F.C.P.A. The bill states the policy that “no Government contracts or grants should be awarded to individuals or companies who violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.”
Whether the House and Senate will pass the legislation remains to be seen, but corporate integrity is, like mom and apple pie, not easily opposed. While the current aversion to corporate America may be abating, this is the type of reform that may well take hold to put some more bite into the F.C.P.A.
For H.P., a burgeoning foreign bribery investigation is not good news because of the costs and uncertainly it engenders. If the Overseas Contractor Reform Act becomes law, it will make it even more imperative that the company try to avoid any finding of a violation of the F.C.P.A., perhaps through a deferred or non-prosecution agreement that can let it avoid a finding of a violation.
Peter J. Henning
The Overseas Contractor Reform Act
H.P.’s Foreign Entanglement – NYTimes.com

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this is the CNBC video of Erin Burnett’s spat with Michael Pento of Euro Pacific Capital on the merits of US Treasuries.

Looks like someone doesn’t like it when you poke a hole in their fantasy world…

The best part of the video, however, is not that.

It is when the other guest, Joseph Balestrino of Federated Investors, says:

Nothing is in a bubble when people want to buy it..”!!!  

Go tell that to the guys that were buying the NASDAQ/loading up on tech stocks  in January 2000 or (and, as they were probably the same old fools) buying/flipping homes in California, Florida, etc during 2007!!

Airtime: Tues. Sept. 7 2010 | :40:0 10 ET

http://plus.cnbc.com/rssvideosearch/action/player/id/1585891838/code/cnbcplayershare

Is U.S. Debt Junk? – CNBC.com

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Lunch with the FT: Tony Blair

By Philip Stephens

Published: September 10 2010 18:54 | Last updated: September 10 2010 18:54

An illustration of Tony BlairI had hoped I might meet Tony Blair at one of London’s more bustling venues – mainly, I confess, because I wanted to measure the reaction of the throng. But the rules of Lunch with the FT leave the choice with the guest. So, after a certain amount of cloak and daggery, insisted upon by the police protection officers who still accompany him everywhere, I arrive at Blair’s local Italian, Locanda Locatelli.

It is one of those restaurants comfortable with celebrity. On a weekday lunchtime most tables seem to be occupied by business types but Madonna is said to be among the evening regulars. Our corner booth offers a panoramic view of polished wood, fabric wall coverings and soft leather banquettes. A head or two turns discreetly as Blair enters. No one is impolite enough to stare.

Britain’s former prime minister presents a conundrum. His memoir has invited torrents of invective from enemies (critics is much too soft a word) among metropolitan elites. Yet copies of A Journey are flying off the shelves as “real people” open their wallets to read Blair’s version of events. He did, after all, win three elections and put Britain back on the international stage. Then again, he also stood shoulder to shoulder with George W Bush in Iraq.

I am getting ahead of myself. The Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli is around the corner from Blair’s central London home. Its proprietor-chef Giorgio Locatelli, I will discover, is an exquisite cook. But first I concentrate on my guest. Blue suit, white shirt and no tie (I had worn one for the occasion), he is visibly at ease. The slings and arrows of media outrage don’t seem to have left any scars. He has just cancelled a signing at a bookstore in London because of promised disruption by protesters. But he’s still getting all those clicks on Amazon.

It cannot feel very nice, though, to have people call you a war criminal? Blair doesn’t blink. “I’ve always had a, I mean truthfully, a better relationship with the country than with the media because the media divides into a left and right of a pretty traditional sort. And the left always regard me as not sufficiently left and the right hate me because I win. Or I won.”

The style of, and reaction to, the book mirrors the division of opinion between liberal intelligentsia and voters. It’s racy. In places, it badly mangles the English language; the colloquialisms sometimes slip into cringe-making confessionals. We really don’t need to know about that night of unbridled passion with his wife Cherie. The book is everything, in other words, that the chatterati don’t like about Blair.

Yet it carries the reader along. There is plenty about politics and policy – more than in many political memoirs. He is way ahead on some things – particularly on what progressive politicians have to do to adapt to change; and, to my mind, profoundly mistaken on others, as in his reading of the struggle against violent Islamism. But A Journey reads as a story, not a chore.

“I wanted to write it in a different way and I wanted to write it in a way that is more open.” It was time for someone to explain that politicians are also human beings. “One of the worst things happening in politics today is this assault on politicians when they get … they do something that’s wrong or people think it wrong, or whatever, and yet no one actually sees it from the other side.”

He warms to the theme. “If you’re not careful what happens is your political leaders have to be all sort of buttoned up; meanwhile they’re subject to a degree of intrusion that in times gone by was completely unknown. I think it’s therefore quite helpful … to understand that they are human beings and to understand things from their point of view.” That’s why he has now owned up to the inner fears that had often lain behind the apparently supreme confidence.

There is more to this than artifice dressed up as candour, or indeed the desire to speak directly to people over the head of a hostile media. He thinks he has something important to say about the tumultuous pace of change in the world, the west’s response to the rise of Asia, the future of centre-left politics.

“I want people to read me unmediated rather than mediated because I think if they read it they will at least understand what I’m trying to say and it’s very much a book that’s prospective in a sense, because a lot of what I’m saying … is about where are we now and where we need to be.”

As we talk I am nibbling on Parmesan-infused grissini and picking small pieces from a basket of freshly baked bread. Blair resists the temptation. He likes to keep in shape. I have long abandoned such fantasies. Meanly, I take private satisfaction that the price he pays for keeping his weight down is to look his age.

The antipasti arrive. Blair has the salad of broad beans, rocket and ewe cheese. I hesitate before opting for the green bean salad with potato and truffle. The truffle always tips it. Mine is scrumptious. His salad likewise, says Blair. The plates go back scraped clean to Locatelli’s kitchen. “Local Italian” no longer seems an apt description of the cuisine on offer here.

We are sticking to sparkling water – a cue to tease my guest. He has admitted that as prime minister he fretted that an habitual whisky or gin followed by a couple of glasses of wine (sometimes even half a bottle!) over dinner left him close to the edge of alcohol dependency.

Guffaws all round. “All my friends have been saying it was quite the most pathetic and sad admission they’d ever come across. John Reid’s [a former cabinet colleague] comment was the best. Did you hear that? He said, ‘Where I come from in Glasgow they give more than that to the budgie.’”

There are moments in the book when Blair sounds almost melancholic. Politics, he explains, is lived backwards. Leaders are at their most powerful when they are least practised. Time brings experience but it also drains political capital.

He would have stayed on as prime minister had Gordon Brown, his chancellor and bitter rival, not forced the timing of his departure. Yet he bridles at the idea that he is now a lost soul. “That’s true … I do say [I would have stayed] because I have the confidence to say it – without actually spending my life desperately troubled I’m not still there.” So he has gotten over not being prime minister? Yes. “I really don’t miss it. The only time I missed it was during the global financial crisis.” Ah yes, that would have been a moment for him to stride the world stage again. As it was, Brown got quite a lot of credit.

But, he says, “I’m happy to go out there doing the things I’m doing … I’m fascinated by the Middle East peace process and I want to work on it. And my faith foundation is now operating in 15 different countries, I’ve got the Africa governance initiative, that’s operating in three African countries.” Then, of course, there are the speeches, the advisory work for a bank and the consultancy contracts for Tony Blair Associates.

Once during the lunch I think I off-balance him. I remind him that Peter Mandelson, a co-conspirator in the modernisation of his party, had once observed that New Labour was “intensely relaxed” about people becoming “filthy rich”. So how does Blair feel about living in private jets? Hasn’t he been seduced by the bling?

This evokes a pained frown. Most of his time, he protests, is spent on unpaid work – the role of Middle East envoy that a few days earlier had taken him to Barack Obama’s White House, his faith foundation, the work on governance in Africa and the rest. The speeches and the consultancy pay the bills for the pro bono.

“I would have been happy to carry on with being prime minister; I’ve been in public service for 25 years. I would have been happy taking the European job and going on a European salary … I’d be happy to go back to a public service job one day but if I don’t I’ve got the ability to make money, and I make it, and I provide for my family and I can do the things that I believe in doing.” The proceeds of the book – something upwards of £4m – have been pledged to a military charity helping the casualties of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stuffy people like me are troubled by the idea of former prime ministers trading off their political careers. But Blair has a point. The flip-side of political leaders getting younger is that they retire in their prime. Can we really insist that fit fifty-somethings disappear into retirement or accept a cap on their earnings?

In any event, I don’t think the money is the motivation. What Blair really wants is to remain at the centre of things; to be a player. Wealth is an adjunct.

By now, we are finishing our main courses. I have opted for the day’s special – a sublime ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta. Blair nods approvingly at his char-grilled squid with chilli and garlic. Trying to trip him up reminds me why he was so good. When he was prime minister I used to see quite a lot of him. Before each encounter I would tell myself that this time I would not be bamboozled. Maddeningly, 20 minutes into the conversation, I would be thinking “Well, maybe he’s right after all.”

Blair told visitors to Downing Street what they wanted to hear – sometimes, as he admits in the book – bending the truth to that aim. I remember a colleague remarking that he “always believed what he said at the moment he said it”. So, you could add, did the visitors.

His gift, though, is about more than charm and the emotional intuition of a natural communicator. The big thing about Blair is that he knows how to frame an argument. Most politicians get lost in the foothills of tactics. He has a strategic brain – a view of the world – and the self-belief to follow it through.

The self-belief bit, of course, turned out to be his weakness as well as his strength. I would like to say that when the conversation turned to Iraq, I succeeded in pushing Blair up against a wall until he repented. I didn’t. Partly because I was ambivalent about the war at the time – I always thought getting rid of Saddam Hussein was rather a good thing. And partly because I deprecate the implicit assumption of many of the anti-war crowd that the world would be such a great place if Iraq and Iran were still fighting themselves to a standstill.

In any event he has heard the charges too many times to change his answers now: “We acted on the information that we had at the time; we also acted with a certain sense of urgency after September 11. I think people forget that.”

Yes, of course, he regrets the loss and damaged lives of the war but he is not going to say he regrets the decision to go to war. “We used to have a policy of supporting Saddam, to be a brake on Iran, and look what happened: it didn’t work, in the same way we actually armed some of the Mujahaddin in order to take on the Russians – it didn’t work, let’s learn the lesson.”

You could say Iraq tested to destruction his doctrine of liberal interventionism. On the other hand, are we to conclude that everything will be hunky-dory if only we leave the tyrants alone?

We opt for coffee rather than dessert, but it comes with a small selection of home-made sorbets and petit fours. This time I consider my waistline and stick, like Blair, with the sorbet.

Time is passing. Blair’s account of his titanic struggle with Gordon Brown grabbed even more headlines than Iraq. Some consider his description of his former colleague to be overly harsh; others wonder why he admits that, as prime minister, he did not feel strong enough to sack him.

The only point he makes now is that the struggle was more about the direction of the New Labour government than about who should be prime minister. “I think you need to make it clear there was a policy disagreement. People used to write this whole relationship up as if it was just a personal spat about a job – it wasn’t for me at all,” he says.

Our chef stands by the front desk as we leave. It’s my first lunch with a politician for a long time where the food has left a real impression. Usually it gets in the way.

Back in the office I pick up The New York Times to read the columnist Maureen Dowd’s take on the memoir. It seems I had been lunching with a delusional maniac. The thought occurs that perhaps I should have carted him off to Guantánamo. That’s the thing, though, about Blair. He awakens in many liberals the unhinged rage that Barack Obama draws from America’s Tea Party crowd. What to do, though, about all those people who are buying – even enjoying – his book?

Philip Stephens is the FT’s chief political commentator

…………………………………………..

Locanda Locatelli

8 Seymour Street, London W1

Contribution to charity £1

Bottle sparkling water £3.50

Broad beans, rocket and ewe cheese salad £9.50

Green bean salad, potato and black truffle £16.50

Char-grilled squid, chilli and garlic £28

Ravioli with ricotta and spinach £12.50

Espresso x 2 £5

An assortment of sorbets and petit fours (on the house)

Total (including optional service) £90

…………………………………………..

How successful has Blair been as Middle East envoy?

Of the many jobs and functions that Tony Blair has taken on since leaving 10 Downing Street, only one has provided the former British leader with any kind of international clout: his role as Middle East envoy, writes Tobias Buck.

Qadoura Mousa, Tony Blair and Silvan Shalom
Blair with Jenin governor Qadoura Mousa, left, and Israeli vice prime minister Silvan Shalom, 2009

Blair was appointed representative of the Middle East Quartet – the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia – almost immediately on leaving office in 2007. The post meant returning to a region where he is remembered, above all, for his role in the deeply unpopular invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time, a number of analysts and diplomats cautioned that this association made him an improbable figure to advance peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours. That concern was gradually dispelled once Blair set up his office in Jerusalem’s famous American Colony Hotel. He made an early impression on his Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors, who noted both his dedication and easy-going charm (a rare commodity in Middle Eastern political circles).

More importantly, it soon became clear that Blair had not arrived with the intention of remaking the Middle East. He was, in fact, never supposed to play the role of peacemaker: his Quartet mandate spells out clearly that his primary task is to help improve the governance of the Palestinian territories and boost the Palestinian economy. According to his advisers, this was the mandate Blair himself wanted, believing that economic growth and good governance were a crucial – and previously overlooked – part of the strategy to end decades of bloody conflict.

What it means in practice is that Blair has been engaged above all in unglamorous aspects of Middle East politics: persuading Israel to lift a checkpoint in the West Bank; getting the Israeli army to approve the shipment of sewage pipes to the Gaza Strip; or calling on Gulf sheikhs to increase their funding for the Palestinian Authority.

There is no doubt that both the Palestinian economy and the quality of Palestinian governance have improved drastically since Blair entered the arena. However, many observers say most of the credit for the recent upswing goes to Salam Fayyad, the US-educated economist who serves as Palestinian prime minister. Blair has certainly contributed, in his role as a facilitator and mediator between the two sides, to the economic and political improvements in the West Bank but it is not easy to quantify how influential his actions have been.

“It is hard to say,” replied one senior adviser to the Palestinian Authority when asked about Blair’s contribution. “Many people work on many issues, but every word helps. Blair has tried his best to be successful but it is not always easy.”

Tobias Buck is the FT’s Jerusalem bureau chief

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America’s public servants are now its masters

By Mort Zuckerman

Published: September 9 2010 22:49 | Last updated: September 9 2010 22:49

There really are two Americas, but they are not captured by the standard class warfare speeches that dramatise the gulf between the rich and the poor. Of the new divisions, one is the gap between employed and unemployed that President Barack Obama seeks to close with yet another $50bn stimulus programme. Another is between workers in the private and public sectors. No guesses which are the more protected. A recent study by the Mayo Research Institute found that “private-sector workers were nearly three times more likely to be jobless than public-sector workers”.

Political tension is bound to grow when jobs disappear faster in the private than the public sector, just as compensation in the former is squeezed more. There was a time when government work offered lower salaries than comparable jobs in the private sector, a difference for which the public sector compensated by providing more security and better benefits. No longer. These days, government employees are better off in almost every area: pay, benefits, time off and security, on top of working fewer hours. Public workers have become a privileged class – an elite who live better than their private-sector counterparts. Public servants have become the public’s masters.

Take federal employees. For nine years in a row, they have been awarded bigger average pay and benefit increases than private-sector workers. In 2008, the average wage for 1.9m federal civilian workers was more than $79,000, against an average of about $50,000 for the nation’s 108m private-sector workers, measured in full-time equivalents. Ninety per cent of government employees receive lifetime pension benefits versus 18 per cent of private employees. Public service employees continue to gain annual salary increases; they retire earlier with instant, guaranteed benefits paid for with the taxes of those very same private-sector workers.

More troubling still is the inherent political corruption. Elected officials tend to be accommodating when confronted by powerful constituencies such as the public service unions that agitate for plush benefits and often provide (or deny) a steady flow of cash to election campaign funds. Their successors will have to cope with the inherited debt burden – and ultimately the nation’s taxpayers are stuck with the bill.

As Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has pointed out, spending on retirement benefits for California’s state employees is growing at three times the rate of state revenues, now exceeding $6bn annually and growing at the rate of 15 per cent a year. In other states, however, the politics of public pensions appear to be changing. In Michigan, Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, recently enacted a teacher pension reform that should save about $3bn over 10 years by increasing the amount workers must contribute. Illinois raised its retirement age for newly hired public workers from as low as 55 to 67. Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, decided that even if it took bruising clashes with public worker unions, public service compensation reform was essential for the fiscal health of the state. His stance surprised many, but it made him a national figure.

There is no quick fix to deal with the billions in unfunded liabilities. Public service employees are almost impossible to fire, except after a long process and only for the most grievous offences. What is more, the courts have ruled in many states that pension increases granted by elected bodies are vested benefits that must be paid no matter what, precluding politicians from going back and changing past agreements.

The only fair solution is to take the politicians out of the equation and have fully independent commissions in charge, fixing the scale of salaries and benefits for public-service workers and establishing an affordable second retirement tier for new employees. More reasonable retirement ages should be in order, such as 65 for general employees and 55 for public safety employees. This would take nothing away from the existing benefits of current employees.

A fundamental rethinking of the public workforce is necessary. Americans cannot maintain their essential faith in government if there are two Americas, in which the private sector subsidises the disproportionate benefits of this new public sector elite.

The writer is editor in chief of US News & World Report and chairman and co-founder of Boston Properties

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