Tuesday, May 4, 2010
By Scott Burns
Q. How about a column on bad times? What happens to different investments if our country goes bankrupt? Or if terrorists do something really bad in a major city? I am 78 years old and want my investments to be as safe as possible.—J.P., by email from Amarillo, TX
A. Most people think the recent bear market was about as close to truly bad times as they want to contemplate. Stocks fell about 50 percent. Lots of debt went bad. Yields on everything secure fell to nearly zero. And it is difficult to sell a house, car, or boat. The current recession beats everything in living memory except for the worst years of the Great Depression.
That's pretty terrible.
In spite of that, most people still own their homes; most people still have jobs, and retirees still have Social Security and Medicare. People are still eating in restaurants and going to movies. Yes, they aren't eating out as much, and lots of purchases are being deferred.
Some deferral is obvious, such as cars. Some is subtle. Recently, an oral surgeon told me that people who would normally have had corrective procedures were electing to defer operations.
Of course, it could get worse.
The question is whether it is possible to protect yourself from truly bad times. Even the highest quality railroad bonds wouldn't have protected your future in Czarist Russia before Lenin. And the French have good reason to prefer gold over paper money. Extremes, however, are extreme— a portfolio designed for an improbable event may serve you well for a 5 percent probability event, but it will fail miserably the other 95 percent of the time.
The world is also filled with mixed signals. The dollar may fall against gold, but it may rise against the Euro. Remember, they've forgotten to have children in Europe. And some European governments are even more profligate than ours is, witness Greece. Not to mention Spain and Italy.
The best we can do is prepare on two levels.
Level one is to adjust our living to a world of increasing dysfunction. This requires paying off debt and increasing savings. It also requires broad diversification of financial assets. It means being flexible and"at the ready" It means facing every day with your feet planted for action, as though you were a constable serving an arrest warrant on a large, sullen stranger.
Level two is to prepare for chaos. This means being prepared with emergency food, water, fuel, and other supplies as though you were going to live through a major disaster like hurricane Katrina. Significantly, the last two years have seen a growing number of books devoted to exactly how to do such preparation, and it can be done with a relatively small"investment"
US Sen. Carl Levin. (Photo: Matt Hampel / flickr)
Sen. Carl Levin pretty much had Goldman Sach's (GS) Lloyd Blankfein dead in a casket with that now-notorious email from GS's head of sales and trading, Tom Montag, describing one of their billion-dollar investment "products" as "one shitty deal." Levin seemed to delight in crossing the boundary into the realm of the unspeakable, knowing that even the so-called "family" newspapers and cable TV networks would have to report it. And just to make sure nobody missed the point, the senator repeated that phrase at least 20 times before the day was over. It was like the climactic scene in that old Hammer Films classic, "The Horror of Dracula," where Professor Van Helsing moves from coffin to coffin pounding stakes through the hearts of Drac and all his fellow bloodsuckers.
It's hardly the climax of our story, though. Ours has barely started. It seems to me, lately, that the crack up we've entered is liable to play out more gruesomely for our privileged elites than the orgy of bloodletting that attended the French Revolution. That historical moment was a sharp transition between old, settled, social relations and the new political realities of imminent industrialization and a rising middle class. The elites in charge of things to that moment, an ossified aristocracy, responded to rising discontent with utter feckless stupidity. To make matters worse, a great many of them were hunkered down in the fantasy-land royal palace of Versailles, enjoying what was for practical purposes a nonstop, mega house party. They must have thought they were safe 12 miles outside Paris.
The French Revolution actually got off to a better start than the way for which it is remembered. A progressive opposition put together a new legislature, the National Assembly. They undertook the writing of a constitution. But it all fell apart rather quickly, since the dim-witted king and his cohorts didn't really get into that old changing-times spirit and their lack of cooperation - not to mention their decadence - provoked the more violent factions of the common people to form that kraken of politics, the mob. What a goddamned mess it turned into - a revolving cast of mob masters, each worse than the last, whipping up the crowds to ever more horrible enormities of human vivisection - a political process that had gone hopelessly out of control. Despite the agile precedent of their friend, the new USA, quickly resolving its own rebellion into a functioning government of law, France opted for a bloody cluster fuck - which went on for eight more years.
The France of 1789 and the USA of today have a few important elements in common: a striking inability to sort out any national problems, an arrogant, depraved, ruling elite resistant to reform and an intellectual underclass motivated by blind fury.
The Committee on Science Integration for Decision Making is still working on its investigation, but has quietly posted draft summaries on the agency's Web site of 73 interviews with 450 EPA employees -- an unusual bottom-up examination that could bring sweeping changes to the 40-year-old federal agency. Some staffers traced the problems in the agency to the Bush administration, while others said the obstacles are longstanding and continue to this day.
EPA has an enormous mandate -- protecting air, water, land and human health from environmental pollutants. While some staffers gave the agency high marks, the interviews overall portray an organization that has been hobbled by political pressure to avoid damaging industry; has lacked sufficient scientists in regional offices; has been slow to act against known hazards, and has had a tendency to let products with harmful pollutants enter the marketplace and the environment without first ensuring their safety.
The review of the EPA followed accusations by a former agency official that President George W. Bush had pressured agency employees to water down concerns of global climate change, a Government Accountability Office report criticizing the agency's toxic chemical review process, and stern recommendations by the National Research Council, a division of the National Academy of Sciences.
The bulk of the president's czars are exempt from oversight
Adolfo Carrion, Aneesh Chopra, Ear; Devamey, Kenneth Feinberg, Carol Browner, Ed Montgomery, Todd Stern, Cass Sunstein, Ron Bloom, and John Brennan. If none of them ring a bell, it is because they and others are all part of a shadow government of some thirty "czars"; advisers to President Obama who did not submit to the Senate confirmation process and are exempt from Congressional oversight.
Article 2, Section 2, U.S. Constitution, an excerpt: He (the President) shall have power, by and with the advice and Consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States whose appointments are not herein provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or the heads of departments."
The Constitution creates two types of positions in the executive branch: principal officers and inferior officers. The first of these are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The latter are not subject to this process.
The Obama administration began with a series of nominations that were found to be tax cheats and forced to withdraw before Senate confirmation. One of them, Van Jones, put in charge of "green jobs" was forced to resign when it became known that he was a self-identified communist. Carol Browner, responsible for environmental and energy issues, was on the board of the Commission for a Sustainable Society, the action arm of the Socialist International.
In the case of "special envoys" George Mitchell, Richard Holbrooke, and Dennis Ross, they all engage in ambassadorial duties, representing the nation to foreign entities and are responsible only to the president. Key elements of the nation's foreign policy, particularly as regards the Middle East, remain hidden from the public, except in terms of the president's public pronouncements.
All of the president's cabinet secretaries in charge of various departments and agencies of the government are vested with administrative powers and all must be confirmed by the Senate. By virtue of the Administrative Procedure Act, these offices must hold public hearings and maintain records when decisions are made, thus creating a paper trail. All of these offices must have separate lines in Congress's annual appropriations bills.
The bulk of the president's czars are exempt from such oversight. They advise and answer directly to the president and a number of them exercise control over the decisions made by cabinet secretaries and agency directors, most of whom have been reduced to a role of carrying out their decisions, their agenda.
The U.S. government is being run out of the White House by a cohort of czars/advisers who do not answer to the American people and operate in the dark.
The world may be on the brink of biological disaster after news that a third of US bee colonies did not survive the winter
by Alison Benjamin
Disturbing evidence that honeybees are in terminal decline has emerged from the United States where, for the fourth year in a row, more than a third of colonies have failed to survive the winter.
The decline of the country's estimated 2.4 million beehives began in 2006, when a phenomenon dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD) led to the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of colonies. Since then more than three million colonies in the US and billions of honeybees worldwide have died and scientists are no nearer to knowing what is causing the catastrophic fall in numbers.
The number of managed honeybee colonies in the US fell by 33.8% last winter, according to the annual survey by the Apiary Inspectors of America and the US government's Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
The collapse in the global honeybee population is a major threat to crops. It is estimated that a third of everything we eat depends upon honeybee pollination, which means that bees contribute some £26bn to the global economy.
Potential causes range from parasites, such as the bloodsucking varroa mite, to viral and bacterial infections, pesticides and poor nutrition stemming from intensive farming methods. The disappearance of so many colonies has also been dubbed "Mary Celeste syndrome" due to the absence of dead bees in many of the empty hives.
US scientists have found 121 different pesticides in samples of bees, wax and pollen, lending credence to the notion that pesticides are a key problem. "We believe that some subtle interactions between nutrition, pesticide exposure and other stressors are converging to kill colonies," said Jeffery Pettis, of the ARS's bee research laboratory.
A global review of honeybee deaths by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) reported last week that there was no one single cause, but pointed the finger at the "irresponsible use" of pesticides that may damage bee health and make them more susceptible to diseases.
Obama Admin Warned by NOAA It Was Underestimating Offshore Drilling Risks-- To Be Expected Given Big Money
image from Moveon.org ad calling for stop to all new offshore drilling
The admin was warned but it had a political agenda and a government infrastructure still primarily made up of Bush appointees who earned their jobs by blocking regulations
When the Obama administration was developing its new policy on offshore drilling, it was warned by NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) officials that the risks were being underestimated, Dan Froomkin of the Huffingtonpost reports, NOAA is the nation's lead ocean resource agency, and the warnings came in its response to a draft of the Obama Administration's offshore oil drilling plans. The comments were Web-published in October by the whistle-blowing group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
NOAA also wrote that the administration's "analysis of the risk and impacts of accidental spills and chronic impacts are understated and generally not supported or referenced, using vague terms and phrases such as 'no substantive degradation is expected' and 'some marine mammals could be harmed.'"
Froomkin cites PEER whistleblower group head, Jeff Ruch,
that as in many other regulatory agencies, Obama political appointees in the Interior Department's notoriously troubled Minerals Management Service (MMS) have not taken enough steps to reverse the anti-environmental and anti-science policies of the Bush years.
"For the most part, the Obama team is still the Bush team," Ruch told HuffPost, noting that beyond a thin layer of political appointees, offices like MMS are run by managers who were "promoted during the Bush years -- In many instances, promoted for basically violating the law. And from what we can tell, their conduct hasn't changed."
Futhermore, Ruch said, Obama "sees environmental issues as a political bargaining chip."
Indeed, Obama's decision to increase offshore drilling was widely seen as a way of getting some Republican support for the administration's climate change bill.
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