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Armaments manufacturers push for more wars

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After the Great War (aka WW I), there was much talk and writing of how manufacturers of armaments and ammo had profited from the war, and strong suspicion that they had pushed for the war in order to increase their profits.

Nowadays, the push from armaments manufacturers—the military-industrial complex—is much more overt and brazen: they want war because that will make money for them. Lee Fang reports in The Intercept:

Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security — a new group led by former government officials with ties to the military contractors — is expandinginto South Carolina as the organization seeks to press presidential candidates to adopt more hawkish positions.

As we reported earlier this month, APPS was launched this year to encourage candidates to embrace “American engagement” abroad on a range of issues the group presents as dangerous threats to national security. The group is led by former Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who served as chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Many of the people on its board work for major military and homeland security corporations.

On Wednesday, APPS announced a new chapter in South Carolina and its intent to sponsor a candidate forum next month.

Jonathan Hoffman, a former border security official in the George W. Bush administration, will serve as the executive director of the South Carolina chapter. Hoffman previously ran for Congress and worked as a consultant to the Chertoff Group, the homeland security-focused consulting firm founded by former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.

The South Carolina chapter will be advised by a local board that includes former Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., now an adviser to a lobbying group representing the shoe industry and Van D. Hipp Jr., the chair of a lobbying firm that represents drone-maker General Atomics as well as General Dynamics, L-3 Communications, Northrop Grumman, Leidos and Raytheon.

The group continues to expand. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 May 2015 at 8:28 am

Paul Krugman points out the sleazy sales job Obama is doing on TPP

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Paul Krugman writes in the NY Times:

One of the Obama administration’s underrated virtues is its intellectual honesty. Yes, Republicans see deception and sinister ulterior motives everywhere, but they’re just projecting. The truth is that, in the policy areas I follow, this White House has been remarkably clear and straightforward about what it’s doing and why.

Every area, that is, except one: international trade and investment.

I don’t know why the president has chosen to make the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership such a policy priority. Still, there is an argument to be made for such a deal, and some reasonable, well-intentioned people are supporting the initiative.

But other reasonable, well-intentioned people have serious questions about what’s going on. And I would have expected a good-faith effort to answer those questions. Unfortunately, that’s not at all what has been happening. Instead, the selling of the 12-nation Pacific Rim pact has the feel of a snow job. Officials have evaded the main concerns about the content of a potential deal; they’ve belittled and dismissed the critics; and they’ve made blithe assurances that turn out not to be true.

The administration’s main analytical defense of the trade deal came earlier this month, in a report from the Council of Economic Advisers. Strangely, however, the report didn’t actually analyze the Pacific trade pact. Instead, it was a paean to the virtues of free trade, which was irrelevant to the question at hand.

First of all, whatever you may say about the benefits of free trade, most of those benefits have already been realized. A series of past trade agreements, going back almost 70 years, has brought tariffs and other barriers to trade very low to the point where any effect they may have on U.S. trade is swamped by other factors, like changes in currency values.

In any case, the Pacific trade deal isn’t really about trade. Some already low tariffs would come down, but the main thrust of the proposed deal involves strengthening intellectual property rights — things like drug patents and movie copyrights — and changing the way companies and countries settle disputes. And it’s by no means clear that either of those changes is good for America.

On intellectual property: patents and copyrights are how we reward innovation. But do we need to increase those rewards at consumers’ expense? Big Pharma and Hollywood think so, but you can also see why, for example, Doctors Without Borders is worried that the deal would make medicines unaffordable in developing countries. That’s a serious concern, and it’s one that the pact’s supporters haven’t addressed in any satisfying way.

On dispute settlement: a leaked draft chapter shows that the deal would create a system under which multinational corporations could sue governments over alleged violations of the agreement, and have the cases judged by partially privatized tribunals. Critics like Senator Elizabeth Warren warn that this could compromise the independence of U.S. domestic policy — that these tribunals could, for example, be used to attack and undermine financial reform.

Not so, says the Obama administration, with the president declaring that Senator Warren is “absolutely wrong.” But she isn’t. The Pacific trade pact could force the United States to change policies or face big fines, and financial regulation is one policy that might be in the line of fire. As if to illustrate the point, Canada’s finance minister recently declared that the Volcker Rule, a key provision of the 2010 U.S. financial reform, violates the existing North American Free Trade Agreement. Even if he can’t make that claim stick, his remarks demonstrate that there’s nothing foolish about worrying that trade and investment pacts can threaten bank regulation.

As I see it, the big problem here is one of trust.

International economic agreements are, inevitably, complex, and you don’t want to find out at the last minute — just before an up-or-down, all-or-nothing vote — that a lot of bad stuff has been incorporated into the text. So you want reassurance that the people negotiating the deal are listening to valid concerns, that they are serving the national interest rather than the interests of well-connected corporations.

Instead of addressing real concerns, however, the Obama administration has been dismissive, trying to portray skeptics as uninformed hacks who don’t understand the virtues of trade. But they’re not: . . .

Continue reading.

It’s pretty rich for Obama to say “Trust me” after all the times he’s betrayed that trust.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 May 2015 at 7:58 am

Matt Taibbi: World’s Largest Banks Admit to Massive Global Financial Crimes, But Escape Jail (Again)

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There seems to be a rule that a banker or financier, regardless of the financial crimes committed, cannot be indicted, much less go to jail. (Bernie Madoff is a notable exception.) Democracy Now! has a video interview (with transcript) of Matt Taibbi on the recent government action that once again let bankers walk free—and not even suffer financial penalties, since the bank itself picks up the tab for the fines. Their blurb:

Five of the world’s top banks will pay over $5 billion in fines after pleading guilty to rigging the price of foreign currencies and interest rates. Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland pleaded guilty to conspiring to manipulate the price of U.S. dollars and euros exchanged in the $5 trillion FX spot market. UBSpleaded guilty for its role in manipulating the Libor benchmark interest rate. No individual bank employees were hit with criminal charges as part of the settlements. We are joined by Matt Taibbi, award-winning journalist with Rolling Stone magazine.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 May 2015 at 12:02 pm

Productive role for small drones in fight of private citizens against large corporations

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Emiko Jozuka reports at Motherboard:

For hobbyists and activists, drones can be used for everything from vandalism tosaving lives. For the Wapichana community living in a remote village in southern Guyana, they’re also potentially a powerful tool against the threats of mining and deforestation.

The Wapichana are an indigenous group who live in the southern Rupununi savannas of Guyana, bordering Brazil. There are an estimated 6,000 Wapichana living in an area of rainforest and savannah spanning roughly seven million acres. Facing threats such as illegal logging, mining, and cattle rustling, the Wapichana are hoping that they’ll be able to use drones to map and monitor land aerially.

“Sometimes when you walk in the gold mines it can be frightening if there are illegal miners there from Brazil,” Timothy Isaacs, a member of the Wapichana monitoring team, told me. “We can also risk our lives monitoring along the border because there are rustlers there with high-powered rifles, whereas we have no weapons to defend ourselves.”

The Wapichana claims to regain their ancestral lands have been outstanding since 1969. To date, most is still classified as government land, open to mining, logging and cattle ranching.

According to Isaacs, who spends time monitoring both the gold mines and lands bordering Brazil, deploying drones as aerial monitors can cut risks faced by those exploring the area. The drones can monitor remote areas from above, and provide images back to the monitoring team’s computer in real-time.

Collaborating with Washington-based non-profit Digital Democracy, the Wapichana monitoring team kickstarted their drone mapping and monitoring project back in October, building and flying their first UAV. Just last month, they completed the second phase of their project, which supported further flight tests. The project aims to not only bring drone tech to the Wapichana community, but also ensure that they can use and control the tech confidently themselves.

“We chose this area to experiment with using UAV technology because of the need to monitor and document deforestation activities in remote areas difficult to access by foot, but also because of the technical skills and dedication of the Wapichana monitoring team,” explained Digital Democracy’s program director, Gregor MacLennan, over email.With MacLennan heading up the workshops, the local Wapichana monitoring team learned how to build a fix-winged drone from scratch. The team then mounted a GoPro onto the drone, which shot around 500 images of the Shulinab village along a pre-programmed flight path. Using Pix4Dmapper automatic imaging software, the team were then able to recreate a 3D model of their village from the images. The aim, explained MacLennan in a blog post, is to “create high-resolution up-to-date imagery at a fraction of the cost of satellite imagery.”

The drone currently stays up in the air for about 30 to 45 minutes, and is capable of covering a distance of 50 miles before its battery life cuts out. Isaacs hopes that in the future, it will be able to stay in the air longer and cover greater distances.

The current drone project builds on past monitoring and mapping projects in the area. In 2013, Digital Democracy collaborated with the Wapichana on a project using smartphones and an open source application called Open Data Kit, which is like a digital data collection form that allows the Wapichana to document any abuses that take place on their land digitally. It lets them provide maps to the villages to help with land management discussions, and collect more data for when they take complaints to the police or the government.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 May 2015 at 11:57 am

Bankers commit crimes, banks pay their fines: No prison time for anyone

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Once more we see how bankers enjoy a special immunity for committing financial crimes that net them billions. They steal billions, they pay some fines, and everyone goes free. This story, by Michael Corkery and Ben Protess in the NY Times, is somewhat unusual in that some few bankers lost their jobs. But prison time? or even indictments? Never. Bankers are allowed to commit crimes and reap the profits, return a fraction of the profit as a fine. (It’s probably just coincidental that banks and bankers are very generous campaign contributors.)

Adding another entry to Wall Street’s growing rap sheet, five big banks have agreed to pay more than $5 billion and plead guilty to multiple crimes related to manipulating foreign currencies and interest rates, federal and state authorities announced on Wednesday.

The Justice Department forced four of the banks — Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland — to plead guilty to antitrust violations in the foreign exchange market as part of a scheme that padded the banks’ profits and enriched the traders who carried out the plot. The traders were supposed to be competitors, but much like companies that rigged the price of vitamins and automotive parts, they colluded to manipulate the largest and yet least regulated market in the financial world, where some $5 trillion changes hands every day, prosecutors said.

Underscoring the collusive nature of their contact, which often occurred in online chat rooms, one group of traders called themselves “the cartel,” an invitation-only club where stakes were so high that a newcomer was warned, “Mess this up and sleep with one eye open.” To carry out the scheme, one trader would typically build a huge position in a currency and then unload it at a crucial moment, hoping to move prices. Traders at the other banks agreed to, as New York State’s financial regulator put it, “stay out of each other’s way.”

The banks also misled their clients about the price of currencies, the federal and state authorities said, imposing “hard mark-ups,” which one Barclays employee described as the “worst price I can put on this where the customers decision to trade with me or give me future business doesn’t change.” Or, to put their mission in the starkest of terms, the employee said: “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”

As part of the criminal deal with the Justice Department, a fifth bank, UBS, will plead guilty to manipulating the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor, a benchmark rate that underpins the cost of trillions of dollars in credit cards and other loans. Federal prosecutors had previously agreed not to prosecute the Swiss bank over the Libor scheme. But in a rare stand against corporate recidivism, the Justice Department voided that non-prosecution agreement after UBS was accused of taking part in the effort to manipulate currency prices.

The guilty pleas, which the banks are expected to enter in federal court later on Wednesday, represent a first in a financial industry that has been dogged by numerous scandals and investigations since the 2008 financial crisis. Until now, banks have either had their biggest banking units or small subsidiaries plead guilty.

That result represents a victory for a Justice Department, which has faced criticism for going too soft on big banks, whose size and significance to the global economy had rendered them — in the minds of some regulators and politicians — too big to jail.

For the banks, though, life as a felon is likely to carry more symbolic shame than practical problems. Although they could be technically barred by American regulators from managing mutual funds or corporate pension plans or perform certain other securities activities, the banks have obtained waivers from the Securities and Exchange Commission that will allow them to conduct business as usual. In fact, the cases were not announced until after the S.E.C. had time to act.

And at least for now, the Justice Department did not indict any traders or sales employees whose errant instant messages underpin the criminal cases against the banks. The banks long ago dismissed most of the employees suspected of wrongdoing, though the New York State financial regulator, Benjamin M. Lawsky, forced Barclays to dismiss eight additional employees thought to be at the center of the scheme. . .

Continue reading.

And in fact, no one was jailed. They’re bankers. They’re allowed to steal.

The story does not include details, but generally the fines are (a) overstated in terms of what the banks actually end up having to pay, and (b) represent significantly less than the profits realized. And all those traders who got bonuses for their crimes? They keep the bonuses.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 May 2015 at 8:34 am

Everyone in Tech Hates the Idea of Ruining Encryption

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Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reports in Motherboard:

For months, government officials have railed against encryption technology that protects user data from being stolen by hackers but also makes it difficult for cops to access or intercept. On Tuesday, the tech industry is saying “enough.”

A letter signed by pretty much everyone in Silicon Valley, including Google, Apple, Yahoo, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as dozens of security and privacy experts and many civil liberties organizations, urges President Barack Obama to say no to any proposal that would force companies to weaken the security of their products so that law enforcement authorities can access customer data.

The plea comes after months of public debate over encryption, which was sparked when Apple announced that data on the new iPhone would be encrypted by default and that even the company wouldn’t be able to access to it. After that announcement, FBI Director James Comey has been urging companies to backtrack and give law enforcement a way in, because otherwise widespread encryption will “lead us all to a very dark place” where authorities can’t get key evidence when they need it.

Despite these complaints, the FBI and other government agencies have failed to put forward a concrete proposal that would give consumers strong encryption while also providing cops and feds a way in. Experts have accused the officials of asking for backdoors, which are intentional vulnerabilities designed to give access to otherwise secure systems, while officials have defended their requests saying they simply want legal “frontdoors.”

“Whether you call them ‘frontdoors’ or ‘backdoors,’ introducing intentional vulnerabilities into secure products for the government’s use will make those products less secure against other attackers,” the letter reads.

The letter goes on to argue that not only backdoors aren’t technically feasible, but they’re a bad idea because if the US gets them, then other government will feel legitimized to demand them too, which will “undermine human rights and information security around the globe.”

“The result will be an information environment riddled with vulnerabilities that could be exploited by even the most repressive or dangerous regimes,” the letter reads. “That’s not a future that the American people or the people of the world deserve.”

Another issue, the letter continues, is that it will hurt American companies operating abroad, as consumers and businesses will turn to other companies offering products that have stronger protections.

A White House spokesperson declined to comment.

The letter was sent by . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 May 2015 at 2:33 pm

Wonderful restaurant review of NYC Javelina: (Very) Damning with faint praise

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A terrific review of an abysmal restaurant, all done in the guise of praise.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 May 2015 at 11:53 am

Posted in Business, Food

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