Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Obama faces skepticism from Democrats on budget deal

President Barack Obama must work with a deeply skeptical partner as he tries to undo painful spending cuts and set U.S. finances on a more sustainable course: the liberal wing of his own party.

While Republicans have dug in their heels against further tax increases, many of Obama's fellow Democrats have refused to consider cuts to popular health and retirement programs that are projected to eat up a growing slice of the nation's resources.

As a result, the lion's share of deficit-reduction efforts so far - apart from tax increases - have come from cuts to military and domestic programs, including the $85 billion in reductions that went into effect last week. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that those "sequestration" cuts will eliminate 750,000 jobs.

Obama has said lawmakers in both parties will have to give ground to put an end to the budget wars that have slowed economic growth and dominated Washington for the past two years.

But many of his fellow Democrats already have ruled out the relatively modest changes the president has proposed to "entitlement" benefits such as the Social Security pension program and the Medicare health plan for the elderly.

"I am a supporter of the president, but me being a supporter of the president doesn't mean I'm a servant of the president," said U.S. Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a leader of the party's liberal wing in the House. "He and I don't agree on this, and I'm going to fight him tooth and nail on it."

Ellison and other liberals are not eager to compromise after last year's election, in which Obama defeated Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who called for further spending cuts and an overhaul of Medicare.

A majority of House Democrats signed a letter last month telling Obama they would not support cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits as part of a deal to help tame the U.S. government's debt, now more than $16 trillion. A majority of Senate Democrats signed a similar letter in December, rejecting cuts to Social Security.

Powerful labor unions and other outside liberal groups also are pushing Congress to leave benefits untouched.

That stance could complicate Obama's efforts to build what he has called a "caucus of common sense" that could pair modest benefit cuts with reduced tax breaks for the wealthy to try to reduce the annual budget deficit and start to control the national debt.

Republicans have controlled the House since 2011, but they have needed Democrats' support to pass budget deals.

'DRIVING DEFICITS, CRUSHING INVESTMENTS'

Democrats' reluctance to touch entitlement programs also means that their other priorities, from science to transportation programs, will bear the brunt of spending cuts.

According to the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, job losses from last week's "sequester" cuts will fall heaviest on scientists, engineers and construction workers - the type of workers whose labor is particularly important to boosting U.S. productivity.

"There is no doubt that to solve our budget problems more revenue is needed, but we cannot ignore that entitlements are also driving deficits and crushing investments in the next generation," Third Way policy adviser David Brown wrote in a report last week.

Social Security and Medicare are among the most popular services that the U.S. government provides.

As the automatic spending cuts loomed last month, the Pew Research Center found that only 10 percent of Americans would support scaling back Social Security and just 15 percent would back cuts to Medicare. By contrast, 48 percent said foreign aid should be cut.

But foreign aid and other programs that are funded annually by Congress are not the problem. Such "discretionary" spending is projected by the end of the decade to fall to its lowest level in 50 years as a share of the economy, because of spending caps put in place by a 2011 budget deal.

By contrast, Social Security, Medicare, and long-term care programs financed through Medicaid are projected to expand dramatically as the population ages in coming decades.

The Republican-controlled House twice has approved a budget plan that would try to rein in Medicare by offering participants a voucher to buy private coverage, but the measure failed to clear the Democrat-controlled Senate in 2011 and 2012.

The plan's author, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, is expected to unveil a new version on Wednesday aimed at achieving more dramatic savings.

Democrats, including Obama, have rejected Ryan's approach on the grounds that it would force retirees to shoulder more of the their healthcare costs.

They argue that retirees on fixed incomes who depend on Social Security and Medicare should not be forced to bear the brunt of deficit reduction.

TOUCHING ENTITLEMENTS 'A DEAL KILLER'

Obama has put other, more modest benefit cuts on the table.

Notably, he has proposed changing the way Social Security and other benefits are indexed to inflation to slow their growth over time, a concept known as "chained CPI" in Washington-speak.

The savings could be substantial: $340 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Obama has floated a modified version to shield the neediest beneficiaries that would save $130 billion over 10 years, but many of his fellow Democrats say they cannot support it because it would cut too deeply into retiree payments over time.

"I'm going to read anything that's sent over here, but it's a deal killer for me," said Ellison, the Democrat who co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus.

Obama also has proposed requiring wealthy retirees to pay more for their Medicare coverage, which would save about $35 billion over 10 years.

That may reflect the progressive notion that wealthier Americans should pay more for government services, but many liberal lawmakers and interest groups say it could undermine Medicare's financial health and political popularity if it leads affluent retirees to abandon the program.

They also say it would snare too many middle-income retirees in coming years because it would not be indexed to inflation.

"What we're really talking about ... is getting more money from middle-class people by asking them to pay higher premiums, and that's not progressive," said Kelly Ross, deputy policy director at the AFL-CIO federation of labor unions.

Analysts say Obama will have a hard enough time persuading Republicans to agree to any tax increases after he won $600 billion in more revenue in January.

If Obama is going to do so, he'll need to put entitlement cuts on the table, they say.

"It's astonishing that more people haven't pointed this out, that a balanced package would have to include something" on benefits, said Greg Valliere, an analyst with Potomac Research Group. "I think that's the only way we could break the logjam."

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Bad guy here is confidante who betrayed relation's trust

Two years ago, an acquaintance of mine - and friend of my sister-in-law, "Jane" - repeated to me Jane's ventings about our family. Our family only thinks highly of Jane; she has two special-needs children, and my brother, her husband, is controlling and not an easy person to live with. She is from another country and without benefit of her family nearby. My family hasn't always supported her as they wanted, but most of us had small children. My mother was the most helpful.

When this acquaintance shared all the failings of my family with me, I was stunned and said, "I know my family has issues." To which she replied, "I'll say." She has based all this on Jane's venting.

At the time I thought, Jane has a difficult life and we all need someone to vent to. I never told my family and don't plan to, since they love her.

However, two years later, I can't forget the way she spoke poorly and unfairly of my family, particularly my mother. Should I talk to Jane about it, or just chalk it up to her falling off the pedestal I put her on? I think she has noticed a little less warmth from me, but we are still friends.

- Anonymous

How about that indiscreet, judgmental, boundary-oblivious acquaintance of yours - do you have a little less warmth to send her way, too, these days?

Because she, not Jane, is the wolf in this fairy tale. Your initial, charitable take on Jane was the right one. She is stranded without her family, she is married to a difficult man, she does have a relentless set of responsibilities in her children's special needs, she does have reason to believe her husband's family hasn't been fully supportive and we all need someone to vent to. This is all drawn straight from your own words, and unless you've never ever been guilty of piling on during a vent session, each is a valid, extenuating circumstance in Jane's favor.

I'll go one further, though, and say that pedestals are lonely places. The lonely are quick to let their guard down, and so are particularly vulnerable to those who would abuse their trust - who would, say, leverage their private frustrations by blabbing them to the source.

Maybe this friend didn't intend to undermine Jane and instead thought she was helping - but still that's casting herself as the hero in a drama where she has no role. What a betrayal or what an ego, take your pick.
And look what it wrought: You've cooled on Jane and this mutual friend is unscathed.

Instead of distancing yourself, why not try to see the venting through Jane's eyes, and take it as constructive criticism? Yes, she should have spoken to your family directly and, yes, she confided in the wrong friend - but don't dismiss the message.

Dear Carolyn:

After graduating from art school in 2008, my daughter, now 26, worked an assortment of odd jobs before landing a job at an art gallery late last year. I've been giving her $2,500 a month to help cover her living expenses, but I feel like she should be able to shoulder more of her own expenses, given what she earns. There always seems to be some unexpected expense that crops up, though, preventing me from cutting back my support.

To make matters worse, she and a co-worker are fed up with the boss and now want to quit and open up their own art gallery. The co-worker apparently would be able to secure financial backing. My daughter would work as director.

I want to retire, but my retirement income would not be enough to support both me and my daughter. Meanwhile, I feel that after a lifetime of support, including college costs and a new car, I've done enough. But if she fails, then she might have to move back in with me, which would be an intolerable situation. So I feel stuck. Any suggestions?

- Sad Dad

Only one, since flicking you in the forehead is both impossible via typography and generally frowned upon: Cut this parasite off.

(Or, adopt me! I'd take $1,500 without a peep.)
When your daughter worked odd jobs, your enabling had the fig leaf of need. Now that she has steady employment, though, which she's poised to discard for something sexier, you have proof that you're not pre-empting poverty, you're insulating her from the cost of her choices.

Was it your parents' problem when you outspent your income, or did you have to manage? Why can't your educated adult daughter do that? Why infantilize her?

Sure, wean her instead of cutting her off abruptly - but finish the weaning by your preferred retirement date, and start today.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Genetic mutation linked to AMD

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) has been one of the leading causes of blindness on the planet for decades, severely impacting many people's quality of life.

However, the thousands of sufferers in the UK and the rest of the world may now have a ray of hope in the form of a study which has identified one of the causes of the conditions.

Research conducted by experts at Tufts Medical Center, Tufts University School of Medicine and Brigham and Women's Hospital and published in the journal Nature Genetics suggests that a genetic mutation is responsible for AMD.

Experts had previously identified several relatively common genetic variants which together predict a person's increased risk for AMD, though a significant number of people without the disease also have these variants.

Now, however, investigators have been able to clearly show a specific rare mutation called CFH R1210C, which predicts a very high risk of disease and is extremely uncommon among those who do not have the disease.

First author, Dr Soumya Raychaudhuri, a researcher in the Divisions of Genetics and Rheumatology at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said that although it is a rare variant, it is highly related to familial disease and earlier age of onset.

"Our paper shows that there is a genetic variant that confers high risk of the development of AMD; this finding not only clearly links CFH gene dysfunction to disease, but also might help to identify people who need to be screened more closely," she explained.

Before publication, it was known that genetic variation within the CFH gene influenced people's risk of AMD in individuals, so in this study, researchers conducted sequencing and genotyping of CFH in 2,423 AMD cases and 1,122 controls.

They identified a rare, high-risk mutation resulting in an arginine to cysteine substitution in the CFH protein, which is associated with loss of function of the CFH protein.

Its discovery suggests that loss of CFH function can drive AMD risk, explained senior author Dr Johanna Seddon, professor of ophthalmology at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Ophthalmic Epidemiology and Genetics Service at Tufts Medical Center.

She added that it was associated with advanced AMD and visual loss, while many of the patients also had numerous drusen, which are the early hallmarks of AMD.

"The discovery of this rare but penetrant variant strongly associated with disease also points the way to developing new and effective treatments for high risk individuals," the expert added. ADNFCR-1853-ID-800775733-ADNFCR

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What the White House Left on the Table

I wrote at length earlier Monday about why I think the proper characterization of the deal that President Obama struck with Republicans is “pretty bad” rather than “terrible.” (That’s from a Democratic point of view. For Republicans, I’d say the deal should be thought of as “quite good” rather than “awesome.”)

It seems as if the results of the House’s vote on Monday tend to back up that assertion. In the end, exactly half of the Democratic caucus members voted for the debt ceiling bill, which makes it hard to classify the deal as “terrible” from their point of view.

But almost three-quarters of Republicans voted in the affirmative. And even the Tea Party came around in the end. By 32-to-28, members of the Tea Party Caucus voted for the bill, despite earlier claims — which now look like a bluff — that they wouldn’t vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances.

These results seem to suggest that Mr. Obama left something on the table. That is, Mr. Obama could have shifted the deal tangibly toward the left and still gotten a bill through without too much of a problem. For instance, even if all members of the Tea Party Caucus had voted against the bill, it would still have passed 237-to-193, and that’s with 95 Democrats voting against it.

Specifically, it seems likely that Mr. Obama could have gotten an extension of the payroll tax cut included in the bill, or unemployment benefits, either of which would have had a stimulative effect. Some Republicans would have complained that the new deal expanded rather than contracted the deficit in 2012, and Mr. Obama would have lost some of their votes. But this stimulus spending wouldn’t have overtly violated their highest-priority goals (no new taxes, and a dollar in spending cuts for every dollar in borrowing authority). And Mr. Obama, evidently, had a few Republican votes he could afford to lose.

With that payroll tax cut, the deal becomes a much easier sell to Democrats — and perhaps also to swing voters, particularly given that nobody spent much time during this debate talking about jobs. Plus, it would have improved growth in 2012 and, depending on how literally you take the economic models, improved Mr. Obama’s re-election chances.

No, we can’t know this for sure. Voting during roll calls can be tactical, and the results may have been skewed by the heartwarming and unexpected return of Representative Gabrielle Giffords to the House chamber. But this is at least a little bit more tangible than simply asserting that Mr. Obama did as well as he could under the circumstances.

It wouldn’t have been a great deal for Democrats — still no tax increases, still lots of spending cuts, still buying into Republicans’ premise that the debt ceiling is an appropriate vehicle for fiscal reform. But it would have been a fair one, and better than what Mr. Obama got.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Obama threatens veto of FAA bill over labor provision

President Barack Obama would veto sweeping aviation legislation if Republicans in Congress succeed in gutting a rule favorable to airline and railroad union organizing, the White House said on Wednesday.

"The administration is committed to help working Americans exercise their right to organize under a fair and free process," the White House said in a statement on the multi-billion-dollar bill that lays out long term U.S. aviation priorities.

The centerpiece of the legislation would authorize funding of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic control operations and modernization of that system.

It is under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The chamber is expected to vote this week on an amendment to remove a provision in the bill eliminating an existing rule that makes it easier for unions in the airline and railroad industries to organize.

The National Mediation Board (NMB) last year upended long-standing policy that treated non-votes in union organizing elections as 'no' votes. Victory is now awarded to a majority of only those voting.

The change aligned representation elections at freight railroads and airlines -- covered under the same federal labor law -- with balloting guidelines in most other industries.

Labor and airlines have been lobbying hard for their respective positions ahead of the vote in the Republican-led House, which is expected to be very close.

Hoping to influence the outcome, Obama's aides said they would recommended a veto if the chamber votes to change the rule.

"The fairest and most effective way to determine the outcome of a union representation election is by the majority of votes cast," the White House statement said.

Major U.S. airlines are heavily unionized. But unions have failed in recent months to organize thousands of flight attendants and other workers at mainly non-union Delta Air Lines. New attempts are anticipated.

Labor would also like to organize workers at JetBlue Airways.

FAA legislation already approved in the Senate did not include the contentious labor provision. If it passes the House, the outcome would be determined by congressional negotiators from both chambers who would craft a final bill.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In Brazil, Obama will ask what S. American economy can do for U.S.

When top American officials have visited Brazil in the past, they often have asked what the United States can do to help Brazil’s economy, which has been buffetted by periodic financial crises.

But when President Obama visits this weekend, he’ll be asking what Brazil can do for the U.S. economy.

White House officials said Tuesday that Obama’s trip this weekend — the centerpiece of which will be a series of economic talks in Brazil — would focus on ways that rapid growth in Latin America’s largest economy can pay off for U.S. businesses.

“This trip fundamentally is about the U.S. recovery, U.S. exports and the critical relationship that Latin America plays in our economic future and jobs here in the United States,” said Michael Froman, national security adviser for international economic affairs.

As options to use taxpayer spending to bolster the economy have narrowed, Obama has emphasized the importance to the economic recovery of boosting exports by U.S. companies.

Brazil’s economy grew 7.5 percent last year and is expected to continue a brisk expansion this year. The seventh-largest economy in the world, it has become an important trading partner, with exports to Brazil doubling in the past five years, many of those gains coming in 2010.

White House aides noted Tuesday that this trend has benefited states as varied as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas.

Aides said that the two big opportunities they are targeting for U.S. businesses in Brazil are the energy sector and infrastructure and construction. Brazil is expected to spend up to $200 billion preparing to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

Obama is traveling to Brazil with a coterie of senior U.S. officials and is planning to give a major speech on U.S.-Brazil economic relations.

The trip comes at a sensitive moment, both domestically and in Brazil. The president is working to finalize and pass a trio of free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s government is upset about U.S. tariffs on sugar and sugar-based ethanol and concerned that its economy is beginning to import too much compared with how much it exports.

Froman said he does not expect an announcement on whether the United States will lower or eliminate ethanol tariffs, but he expects the issue to come up as part of a broader discussion on alternative forms of energy.

And he pointed out that the United States is also doing business in Brazil to allay fears about the nation’s growing budget deficit.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Game of Death Review

On the 10th December 2010 Prison inmate No. 43355-018, aka Wesley Snipes, reported to a Pennsylvanian prison to begin a three-year incarceration for tax evasion. However, before Snipes started his ‘bird’ – one which many feel has been totally blown out of proportion because of his celebrity status – he managed to squeeze in one quick release - enter Game of Death. In it, Snipes plays Secret Ops employee agent Marcus, a hit-man sent to take out an arms dealer and the mutual fund that is financing him. However, two of his fellow CIA operatives have other plans, and Marcus eventually becomes locked in a deadly game of cat and mouse with his former associates and their now corrupt CIA operation.

The premise of the film is this – Agent Marcus (Snipes) is a loyal, cold-blooded hitman for the CIA who has spent his life taking orders and killing as instructed. However, what sets him apart from his fellow agents is his underlying hint of conscious, one that ensures his total devotion and loyalty to whoever he is working for. So, despite working as a double-agent for the CIA when assigned as the bodyguard of arms dealer Frank Smith, Marcus still works on a premise of loyalty towards his weapon-dealing associate; and it is this devotion that makes him oblivious to the betrayal going on around him. When Frank has a heart attack, Marcus drives him – under gun fire from his former allies – to the hospital, the setting of the following siege and subsequent location of much of the film. Unfortunately, there are only so many necks Marcus can break and the substantial outnumbering soon leaves him unconscious and client-less. From here, Marcus sets off as a one man killing machine, determined to collect both his client and retribution for the betrayal he has suffered.

While the Game of Death may not live up to the standard of some of Wesley’s most memorable performances (see the Blade trilogy and Demolition Man), it does have a number of endearing qualities to it. First off is the presentation of the story from the film’s main protagonist, Marcus himself. Instead of simply running through, the story reveals itself within a confessional, after Marcus seeks the sanctuary of a catholic church. Struggling to come to terms with his now fugitive status, our lead is invited to seek repentance from the Lord. The interaction between Marcus and his priest of choice – played by Ernie Hudson – is sincere, if not a little far-fetched. I understand that there is little a priest will not have heard, but to sit through a confession that starts with “I am...a killer. I remember the first time I killed someone ...” and remain void of even the slightest amount of fear or judgement is somewhat hard to believe.

The film also benefits from more than a handful of impressive action montages, with Snipes successfully snapping, dislocating and wounding his way through his characters fairly frequent confrontations. While lacking the sort of budget required for the expensive explosions and CGI-based fight scenes that we - the consumers - have come to expect, Game of Death is littered with beautifully choreographed action scenes and does the basics as well as any other title from the action genre. I for one never knew there were some many different ways to break a man’s neck and, should this film find itself in financial turmoil, it may have great success as a Dummies guide to neck breaking.

Unfortunately, while harbouring a numbering of positives, the Game of Death repeatedly shoots itself in the foot, many of which could so easily have been avoided. For example, in a film that lasts a total of 122 minutes - with five of those minutes constituting to a full, 14-15 bullet shoot-out on a stairwell - Marcus reloads just once. Regardless of special effects or CGI, an action film must get the basics right, and it doesn’t come much more basic than knowing to reload a weapon when out of ammo. It’s frustrating more than anything because in scenes such as the stairwell shoot-out, you find yourself engrossed in the issue of unlimited ammo rather than the scene itself.

Secondly, the Game of Death regularly fails to explain its flashbacks. For instance, Marcus regularly appears to be suffering from a lack of concentration – occasionally becoming dizzy and disorientated - but, despite the suggestions of diabetes, the true diagnosis is never revealed. As if this wasn’t bad enough, we are left totally in the dark as to how the betrayal came to be. How was it organised? Who was involved? Why did the police never show up to arrest an unconscious Marcus, despite its corrupt chief sending all available squads to the hospital? – So many questions, all of which remain unanswered.

However, while these are certainly frustrating, it is the anticlimactic nature of this straight-to-DVD adventure that most irritates. Take the start of the film – we are thrown straight into a carefully coordinated, CIA assassination with a promising twist, all of which sets up an exciting opening. However, the next five minutes – as I noted when watching – is pointless crap, adding nothing to the opening minutes and condemning this film to mediocrity. Unfortunately, the film saves the worst till last – Marcus’ final stand off against his backstabbing protégé, Zander (Gary Daniels). For over an hour and a half, the film has been building up to this moment, the traditional battle of good versus evil; and yet the fight that follows is just five minutes long, most of which is dialect. They circle, they talk, and they throw a couple of big hits, all of which is leading up to a big finish...yes? Wrong. Instead, Marcus lands a handful of knocks before resorting to his beloved neck break...and that’s it. Disappointing is an understatement.

Like many before it, the Game of Death will inevitably become a bargain-bucket favourite, nestling amongst the likes of Zonad and 2010: Moby Dick, before fading into obscurity. However, this should not have been the case. Everything was there – a well-known cast, impressively choreographed stunts and more than a pinch of originality – but Game of Death stumbled at the most basic of requests. As a one-off watch, the film provides more than enough to warrant a suitably priced rental. However, do stick to renting this title, because Game of Death lacks the depth needed to justify a full purchase.