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12 February 2009

Former Speaker of the Israeli Parliament Avraham Burg: “The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise From Its Ashes”

And it's about fucking time, IMO. Burg urges full withdrawal from the OTs to the '67 border "yesterday"; urges talking to Hamas; excoriates the AIPAC-led American Jewish right (even if they style themselves "liberals"), calling AIPAC a third entity with its own foreign policy unrelated to the interests of either Israel or the US; and much more.

Burg is clearly another psychologically deranged self-hater, as is obvious from his CV:

  • Former Speaker of the Israeli Parliament
  • Former Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel
  • Former Chairman of the World Zionist Organization

Ann Wright on her Gaza Trip

The Recovery Plan From Hell: What Wall Street Wants, Michael Hudson, Counterpunch

Tuesday’s announcement of the Obama-Geithner recovery plan is basically an extension of the Bush-Paulson plan – yet more giveaways to financial insiders, with a view to concentrating the U.S. banking system into a cartel of just a few large banks. This is not altogether bad news for the still relatively healthy part of the banking system (healthy in the sense of still avoiding negative equity). Smaller, less troubled banks will be bought out by the large “troubled” ones, to the personal financial benefit of their stockholders. This cannot solve today’s financial problem: the fact that the debt overhead far exceeds the economy’s ability to pay. In fact, it will spread the distortions that the large banks have introduced, until the entire system presumably looks like Citibank, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo.

But this clearly is only Stage One of a two-stage plan that has not yet been announced, although the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page has provided enough hints trickling out for the past three months to tip the hand of Wall Street’s “dream recovery plan.”

It is not exactly what most people are hoping for. In fact, it threatens to be a nightmare scenario for the economy at large. Watch for the magic phrase: “equity kicker,” first heard in the S&L mortgage crisis of the 1980s.

The first question to ask about the Recovery Program is, “recovery for whom?” The answer is, for the people who design the Recovery Program and their constituency, the bank lobby. The second question is, what is it they want to recover? The answer is, another Bubble economy, having seen the Greenspan Bubble make them so rich with his particular kind of “wealth creation”: wealth in the form of indebtedness of the “real” economy at large to the banking system, and unprecedented capital gains to be made by riding the wave of asset-price inflation.

For the financial elites, the problem is that it is not possible to inflate another bubble from today’s debt levels, widespread negative equity, and still-high level of real estate, stock and bond prices. No amount of new credit or capital for the banking system will induce banks to provide credit to real estate that already is over-mortgaged, or to individuals and corporations already over-indebted. All professional observers have forecast property prices to keep on plunging for at least the next year, which is as far as the eye can see in unstable conditions such as we are experiencing today.

While the Obama administration’s financial planners wring their hands in public and say “We feel your pain” to debtors at large, they also recognize that the past ten years have been a golden age for the banking system and Wall Street. The wealthiest 1 per cent of the population has raised its share of the returns to wealth – dividends, interest, rent and capital gains – from 37 per cent of the total ten years ago to 57 per cent five years ago, and an estimated 70 per cent today. Over two-thirds of the returns to wealth now go to the wealthiest 1 per cent of the population. This is the highest on record. We are approaching Russian kleptocratic levels.

Yet the financial Hard Right of the political spectrum – the lobbyists now in control of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the Justice Departments for starters – repeats the new Big Lie: that it is the poor who have brought the system down, “exploiting” the rich by trying to ape their betters and live beyond their means. Subprime families have taken out subprime loans, the lying poor have signed documents to obtain “liars’ loans,” as Alt-A, no-documentation loans are called in the financial junk-paper trade.

I learned the reality a few years ago in London, talking to a commercial bank strategist there. “We’ve had an intellectual breakthrough,” he said. “It’s changed our credit philosophy.”

“What is it?” I asked, imagining that he was about to come out with yet a new junk mathematics formula?

“The poor are honest,” he said, accompanying his words with his jaw dropping open as if to say, “Who could have guessed?”

The meaning was clear enough. The poor pay their debts as a matter of honor, even at great personal expense. Unlike Donald Trump, the poor are less likely to walk away from their homes when market prices sink below the mortgage level. In today’s neoliberal Chicago School language, the poor behave “uneconomically.” That is, they make choices that do not make economic sense, but rather reflect a group morality. This sociological gullibility is what made them rich pickings for predatory lenders such as Countrywide, Wachovia and Citibank.

As I said above, it was a golden age. The financial and real estate bubble is the world that America’s financial power elite would love to recover. The problem for them is how to start a new bubble and make yet another fortune. The alternative would be to keep what they have taken and run – not so bad, but a scenario that perhaps they can improve on.

Discussions about emergency bailouts have focused on putting in place enough new lending capacity by the banking system to start inflating prices on credit once again. But a new bubble can’t be started from today’s asset-price levels. This week’s $2 trillion or so in new bailout money for the banks (“capital,” and specifically finance capital, not to be confused with industrial capital) will only be lent out once prices fall by another 30 to 50 percent. So this can represent only Stage 1.

The question for Stage 2 is, how can the $10 to $20 trillion capital-gain run-up of the Greenspan years been repeated in an economy that is “all loaned up”?

One thing Wall Street knows is that to make money, you not only need asset prices to rise, they have to go down again – and up again, and down again. Without going down, after all, how can they rise up? The more frenetic the price fibulation, the easier it is for computerized buy-and-sell programs to make money on options and derivatives. What is being planned today looks like a similar up-and-down movement in real estate.

The first trick is to preserve the wealth of the creditor class – Wall Street, the banks and the other financial vehicles that enrich the wealthiest 1 per cent and indeed, the richest 10 per cent of the population. Stage One involves buying out their bad loans at a price that saves them from taking a loss. This is done by shifting the loss onto the “taxpayers” – labor, onto whose shoulders the tax burden has been shifted steadily, step by step since 1980, with the Greenspan Commission imposing an onerous Social Security tax on the middle class and using the proceeds to slash taxes on the higher brackets. Next comes an “aggregator” bank (sounds like “alligator,” from the swamps of toxic waste) to buy the bad debts and put them in a public agency. The government calls this the “bad” bank. But it does good for Wall Street – by buying loans that have gone bad – or perhaps nearer the truth, loans that never were good in the first place.

The harder part is to revive opportunities for creditors to make a new killing. (And it’s the economy that’s being killed.) Here’s how I imagine the plan might work.

Suppose a recent buyer has purchased a home for $500,000, with a $500,000 adjustable-rate mortgage scheduled to reset at 8 per cent. Suppose too that the current market price has fallen to $250,000 – a loss of 50 per cent by the end of 2009. After all, there needs to be enough time for prices to decline. Otherwise, there would be no economy to “rescue.” Mr. Geithner and Summers need to “feel your pain” to come out with the package that I’m describing. The government will swap “cash for trash,” printing new Treasury bonds (interest to be paid by “the taxpayer) in exchange for the $500,000 mortgage that is going bad, heading toward only a $250,000 market price.

The “Bad” bank that the Obama plan decided was not quite ready to be created this week will take the form of a public/private partnership (PPP), of the sort that Tony Blair made so notorious in Britain. It will be financed with private funds – in fact, with the funds now being given to re-capitalize America’s banks (headed by the Wall St. banks that have done so poorly). Banks will use the money they receive from the Treasury for selling their junk mortgages at par – along with other bailout funding – to buy shares in a new $5 trillion institution. Something like Fanny Mae or Freddie Mac will be created and its bonds guaranteed (that’s the “public” part – “socializing” the risk). The PPP institution will start with, say, $3 trillion in funds, and will have the power to buy and renegotiate the mortgages that have passed into the hands of the government and other holders. This “Middle Class Homeowner Recovery Trust” will use its private funding for the “socially responsible” purpose of “saving the taxpayer” and homeowners by renegotiating the mortgage down from its original $500,000 to the new $250,000 price.

Here’s the patter talk you can expect, with the usual Orwellian euphemisms. The “rescue the homeowners” PPP, a veritable Savior Bank, will go to a family strapped by its home mortgage debt and feeling more and more desperate as the price of its major asset plummets deep into Negative Equity territory. An offer will be made: “We’ve got a deal to save you. We’ll renegotiate your mortgage down to $250,000, the current market price, and we’ll also lower your interest rate to just 5.50 per cent. This will cut your monthly debt charges by nearly two thirds. You will escape from negative equity, and you can afford to stay in your home.”

The family probably will say, “Great.”

But they will have to make a concession. That’s where the new public/private partnership makes its killing. Its Savior Bank, funded with private money that is to take the “risk” (and also the rewards) will say to the family that agrees to renegotiate its mortgage: “Now that the government has taken a loss while we’ve let you stay in your home, we need to recover the money that’s been lost. So when the time comes for you to sell, or to renegotiate your mortgage, our Savior Bank will receive the capital gain up to the original amount written off. If we’ve made you whole, we want to be made whole too.”

In other words, if the homeowner sells the property for $400,000, the Savior Bank will get $150,000 of the capital gain. If the property sells for $500,000, the bank will get $250,000. And if it sells for more, thanks to some new clone of Alan Greenspan acting as bubblemeister, the capital gain will be split in some way. If the split is 50/50, then if the home sells for $600,000, the owner at that time will split the $100,000 further capital gain with the Savior Bank. The Savior Bank will thus make much more through its share of capital gains than it extracts in interest!

This plan will be even better for Wall Street than the Greenspan bubble was! Last time around, it was the middle class that got the gains. To be sure, it really was the bank that got the gains, because mortgage interest charges absorbed the entire rental value. But at least homeowners had a chance at the free ride, if they didn’t squander their money in refinancing their mortgages. And many did use their homes “like a piggy bank” to support their living standards.

But this time around, Wall Street is not obliged to make its money by making middle class homeowners rich. Debt-strapped homeowners are willing to settle merely for a plan that leaves them in their homes! It can get for itself the capital gains that have been the driving force of U.S. “wealth creation,” Alan Greenspan bubble-style.

The irony is that the only kind of policies that are politically correct these days are those that make the situation worse: yet more government money in the hope that banks will create yet more credit/debt to raise house prices and make them even more unaffordable; to inflate a new bubble; to give what really should be called the “bad banks” – the Big Four or Five where the junk mortgages, junk CDOs and junk derivatives resulting from junk mathematics are concentrated – yet more money to buy out smaller banks that have not yet been infected with reckless financial opportunism.

And by the same token, lobbyists for these bad banks are screaming at the top of their voices that all solutions to the problem are politically incorrect: debt writedowns to bring the debt burden within the ability to pay. That is what the market is supposed to do – by bankruptcy in an anarchic collapse, if not by reasoned government policy. The bad banks, after demanding “free markets” all these years, have stopped the free market when it comes anywhere near them and their bonuses. For them, markets are free of regulation against predatory lending; free of taxing the wealthy so as to shift the burden onto labor; free for the financial sector to wrap itself around the “real” economy like a parasitic vine around a tree and extract the entire surplus in the form of financial engineering.

This is a travesty of freedom. But worst of all is the “freedom” of today’s economic discussion from the wisdom of classical political economy and from the experience of economic history regarding how societies have coped with the debt overhead through the ages.

An alternative policy to save the economy from being “rescued” by Wall Street

There is an alternative to ward all this off. A debt writedown, followed by a land tax so that the “free lunch” (what John Stuart Mill called the “unearned increment” of rising land prices, a gain that landlords made “in their sleep”) would serve as the tax base rather than labor and industry being burdened with an income tax.

One move would be to prevent banks from lending against the land’s value. They could lend against buildings, but not land. This would cut the maximum permissible loan to 50 to 60 per cent of the total property price – unless the government did what classical economists advocated and tax the land’s market price (its rental value) as the tax base, shifting the tax back off of labor. This would achieve the kind of free markets that Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Alfred Marshall described, and which the Progressive Era aimed to achieve with America’s first income tax in 1913.

A land tax would prevent housing prices from rising again. This would save homeowners from taking on so much debt in order to obtain housing. And it would save the economy from seeing “wealth creation” take the form of the “unearned increment” being capitalized into higher bank loans with their associated carrying charges (interest and amortization). The key to real estate bubbles is to inflate site valuations.

Michael Hudson is a former Wall Street economist. A Distinguished Research Professor at University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC), he is the author of many books, including Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (new ed., Pluto Press, 2002) He can be reached via his website, mh@michael-hudson.com

11 February 2009

Petraeus Leaked Misleading Story on Pullout Plans

Analysis by Gareth Porter*


WASHINGTON, Feb 9 (IPS) - The political maneuvering between President Barack Obama and his top field commanders over withdrawal from Iraq has taken a sudden new turn with the leak by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus - and a firm denial by a White House official - of an account of the Jan. 21 White House meeting suggesting that Obama had requested three different combat troop withdrawal plans with their respective associated risks, including one of 23 months.

The Petraeus account, reported by McClatchy newspapers Feb. 5 and then by the Associated Press the following day, appears to indicate that Obama is moving away from the 16-month plan he had vowed during the campaign to implement if elected. But on closer examination, it doesn't necessarily refer to any action by Obama or to anything that happened at the Jan. 21 meeting. 

The real story of the leak by Petraeus is that the most powerful figure in the U.S. military has tried to shape the media coverage of Obama and combat troop withdrawal from Iraq to advance his policy agenda - and, very likely, his personal political interests as well. 

This writer became aware of Petraeus's effort to influence the coverage of Obama's unfolding policy on troop withdrawal when a military source close to the general, who insisted on anonymity, offered the Petraeus account on Feb. 4. The military officer was responding to the IPS story 'Generals Seek to Reverse Obama Withdrawal Decision' published two days earlier [link below]. 

The story reported that Obama had rejected Petraeus's argument against a 16-month withdrawal option at the meeting and asked for a withdrawal plan within that time frame, and that Petraeus had been unhappy with the outcome of the meeting. 

It also reported that Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and retired Army general Jack Keane, a close ally of Petraeus, had both made public statements indicating a determination to get Obama to abandon the 16-month plan. 

The officer told IPS that, contrary to the story, Petraeus had been "very pleased" with the direction of the discussions. He said that there had been no decision by Obama at the meeting and no indication that Obama had a preference for one option over another. 

The military source provided the following carefully worded statement: "We were specifically asked to provide projections, assumptions and risks for the accomplishment of objectives associated with 16-, 19- and 23-month drawdown options." That was exactly the sentence published by McClatchy the following day, except that "specifically" was left out. 

The source also said Petraeus, Odierno and Ambassador Ryan Crocker had already reached a "unified assessment" on the three drawdown options and had forwarded them to the chain of command. 

But a White House official told IPS Monday that the Petraeus account was untrue. "The assessments of the three drawdown dates were not requested by the president," said the official, who insisted on not being identified because he had not been authorised to comment on the matter. "He never said, 'Give me three drawdown plans'." 

McClatchy's Nancy Youssef reported a similar account from aides to Obama. "Obama told his advisors shortly after taking office that he remained committed to the 16-month timeframe," Youssef wrote, "but asked them to present him with the pros and cons of that and other options, without specifying dates." 

That suggests that the only specific plan for which Obama requested an assessment of risks was the 16-month plan, but that he agreed to look at other plans as well. 

The sentence given to this writer as well as to McClatchy bore one obvious clue that the request for the assessments of three drawdown plans did not come from Obama: the sentence used the passive voice. It also failed to explicitly state that the request in question was made during the meeting with Obama. 

Petraeus did not respond to a request through the intermediary to say who requested the studies and whether they had been proposed by the military commanders themselves. McClatchy's Youssef also noted that it is "unclear who came up with the idea..." of the 19- and 23-month withdrawal plans. 

By implying that Obama had requested the three plans without saying so explicitly, the sentence leaked by Petraeus seems to have been calculated to create a misleading story. 

One of Petraeus's objectives appears to have been to counter any perception that he is seeking to undermine Obama on Iraq policy. Petraeus wishes to remain out of the spotlight in regard to any conflict regarding withdrawal over the Iraq issue. "He has been very careful to keep a very low profile," said the military officer close to Petraeus, "because this is a new administration." 

But the Petraeus leak also serves to promote the idea that Obama is moving away from his campaign pledge on a 16-month combat troop withdrawal, which has already been the dominant theme in news media coverage of the issue. That idea would also justify continued sniping by military officers at the Obama 16-month plan as too risky. 

In a new book, 'The Gamble', to be published Tuesday, Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks confirms an earlier report that in his initial encounter with Petraeus in Baghdad last July, Obama had made no effort to hide his sharp disagreement with the general's views. Obama interrupted a lecture by Petraeus, according to Ricks, and made it clear that, as president, he would need to take a broader strategic view of the issue than that of the commander in Iraq. 

Ricks, who interviewed Petraeus about the meeting, writes that Obama's remarks "likely insulted Petraeus, who justly prides himself on his ability to do just that..." That strongly implies that Petraeus expressed some irritation at Obama over the incident to Ricks. 

On top of the interest of Petraeus and other senior officers in keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for as long as possible, Petraeus has personal political interests at stake in the struggle over Iraq policy. He has been widely regarded as a possible Republican Presidential candidate in 2012. 

Petraeus evidently believed the White House was promoting a story that made him look like the loser at the Jan. 21 meeting. "I imagine the White House is not too happy that this information is out there," said the military source, referring to the Petraeus account he had provided to IPS. 

Obama is obviously treading warily in handling Petraeus. His concern about Petraeus's political ambitions may have been a factor in the decision to bring four-star Marine Corps Gen. James Jones in as his national security adviser. 

"I've been told by a couple of people that one of the reasons for Jones being chosen was to have him there as a four-star to counter Petraeus," says one Congressional source. 

*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006. 

Economic crisis ten years of hell?, F. William Engdahl

Mickey Z: Myth America

10 February 2009

Catastrophic Fall in 2009 Global Food Production, Eric deCarbonnel

After reading about the droughts in two major agricultural countries, China and Argentina, I decided to research the extent other food producing nations were also experiencing droughts. This project ended up taking a lot longer than I thought. 2009 looks to be a humanitarian disaster around much of the world

To understand the depth of the food Catastrophe that faces the world this year, consider the graphic below depicting countries by USD value of their agricultural output, as of 2006.



Now, consider the same graphic with the countries experiencing droughts highlighted.



The countries that make up two thirds of the world’s agricultural output are experiencing drought conditions. Whether you watch a 
video of the drought in China, Australia, Africa, South America, or the US, the scene will be the same: misery, ruined crop, and dying cattle.

China

The drought in Northern China, the worst in 50 years, is worsening, and summer harvest is now threatened. The area of affected crops has expanded to 161 million mu (was 141 million last week), and 4.37 million people and 2.1 million livestock are facing drinking water shortage. The scarcity of rain in some parts of the north and central provinces is the worst in recorded history.

The drought which started in November threatens over half the wheat crop in eight provinces - Hebei, Shanxi, Anhui, Jiangsu, Henan, Shandong, Shaanxi and Gansu.

Henan
China's largest crop producing province, Henan, has issued the highest-level drought warning. Henan has received an average rainfall of 10.5 millimeters since November 2008, almost 80 percent less than in the same period in the previous years. The Henan drought, which began in November, is the most severe since 1951.

Anhui
Anhui Province issued a red drought alert, with more than 60 percent of the crops north of the Huaihe River plagued by a major drought.

Shanxi
Shanxi Province was put on orange drought alert on Jan. 21, with one million people and 160,000 heads of livestock are facing water shortage.

Jiangsu
Jiangsu province has already lost over one fifth of the wheat crops affected by drought. Local agricultural departments are diverting water from nearby rivers in an emergency effort to save the rest.

Hebei
Over 100 million cubic meters of water has been channeled in from outside the province to fight Hebei’s drought.

Shaanxi
1.34 million acres of crops across the bone-dry Shanxi province are affected by the worsening drought.

Shandong
Since last November, Shandong province has experienced 73 percent less rain than the same period in previous years, with little rainfall forecast for the future.

Relief efforts are under way. The Chinese government has allocated 86.7 billion yuan (about $12.69 billion) to drought-hit areas. Authorities have also resorted to cloud-seeding, and some areas received a sprinkling of rain after clouds were hit with 2,392 rockets and 409 cannon shells loaded with chemicals. However, there is a limit to what can be done in the face of such widespread water shortage.

As I have previously written, 
China is facing hyperinflation, and this record drought will make things worse. China produces 18% of the world's grain each year.

Australia

Australia has been experiencing an unrelenting drought since 2004, and 41 percent of Australia's agriculture continues to suffer from the worst drought in 117 years of record-keeping. The drought has been so severe that rivers stopped flowing, lakes turned toxic, and farmers abandoned their land in frustration:

A) The Murray River stopped flowing at its terminal point, and its mouth has closed up.
B) Australia’s lower lakes are evaporating, and they are now a meter (3.2 feet) below sea level. If these lakes evaporate any further, the soil and the mud system below the water is going to be exposed to the air. The mud will then acidify, releasing sulfuric acid and a whole range of heavy metals. After this occurs, those lower lake systems will essentially become a toxic swamp which will never be able to be recovered. The Australian government's only options to prevent this are to allow salt water in, creating a dead sea, or to pray for rain.

For some reason, the debate over climate change is essentially over in Australia.

The United States

California
California is facing its worst drought in recorded history. The drought is predicted to be the most severe in modern times, worse than those in 1977 and 1991. Thousands of acres of row crops already have been fallowed, with more to follow. The snowpack in the Northern Sierra, home to some of the state's most important reservoirs, proved to be just 49 percent of average. Water agencies throughout the state are scrambling to adopt conservation mandates.

Texas
The Texan drought is reaching historic proportion. Dry conditions near Austin and San Antonio have been exceeded only once before—the drought of 1917-18. 88 percent of Texas is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, and 18 percent of the state is in either extreme or exceptional drought conditions. The drought areas have been expanding almost every month. Conditions in Texas are so bad cattle are keeling over in parched pastures and dying. Lack of rainfall has left pastures barren, and cattle producers have resorted to feeding animals hay. Irreversible damage has been done to winter wheat crops in Texas. Both short and long-term forecasts don't call for much rain at all, which means the Texas drought is set to get worse.

Augusta Region (Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina)
The Augusta region has been suffering from a worsening two year drought. Augusta’s rainfall deficit is already approaching 2 inches so far in 2009, with January being the driest since 1989.

Florida
Florida has been hard hit by winter drought, damaging crops, and half of state is in some level of a drought.

La Niña likely to make matters worse
Enough water a couple of degrees cooler than normal has accumulated in the eastern part of the Pacific to create a La Niña, a weather pattern expected to linger until at least the spring. La Niña generally means dry weather for Southern states, which is exactly what the US doesn’t need right now.




South America

Argentina
The worst drought in half a century has turned Argentina's once-fertile soil to dust and pushed the country into a state of emergency. Cow carcasses litter the prairie fields, and sun-scorched soy plants wither under the South American summer sun. Argentina's food production is set to go down a minimum of 50 percent, maybe more. The country's wheat yield for 2009 will be 8.7 million metric tons, down from 16.3 million in 2008. Concern with domestic shortages (domestic wheat consumption being approximately 6.7 million metric ton), Argentina has granted no new export applications since mid January.

Brazil
Brazil has cut its outlook for the crops and will do so again after assessing damage to plants from desiccation in drought-stricken regions. Brazil is the world's second-biggest exporter of soybeans and third-largest for corn.
 

Brazil's numbers for corn harvesting:

Harvested in 2008: 58.7 million tons
January 8 forecast: 52.3 million tons
February 6 forecast: 50.3 metric tons (optimistic)
Harvested in 2009: ???

Paraguay
Severe drought affecting Paraguay's economy has pushed the government to declare agricultural emergency. Crops that have direct impact on cattle food are ruined, and the soy plantations have been almost totally lost in some areas.

Uruguay
Uruguay declared an "agriculture emergency" last month, due to the worst drought in decades which is threatening crops, livestock and the provision of fresh produce.
The a worsening drought is pushing up food and beverage costs causing Uruguay's consumer prices to rise at the fastest annual pace in more than four years in January.

Bolivia
There hasn’t been a drop of rain in Bolivia in nearly a year. Cattle dying, crops ruined, etc…

Chile
The severe drought affecting Chile has caused an agricultural emergency in 50 rural districts, and large sectors of the economy are concerned about possible electricity rationing in March. The countries woes stem from the "La Niña" climate phenomenon which has over half of Chile dangling by a thread: persistently cold water in the Pacific ocean along with high atmospheric pressure are preventing rain-bearing fronts from entering central and southern areas of the country. As a result, the water levels at hydroelectric dams and other reservoirs are at all-time lows.

Horn of Africa

Africa faces food shortages and famine. Food production across the Horn of Africa has suffered because of the lack of rainfall. Also, half the agricultural soil has lost nutrients necessary to grow plant, and the declining soil fertility across Africa is exacerbating drought related crop losses.

Kenya
Kenya is the worst hit nation in the region, having been without rainfall for 18 months. Kenya needs to import food to bridge a shortfall and keep 10 million of its people from starvation. Kenya’s drought suffering neighbors will be of little help.

Tanzania
A poor harvest due to drought has prompted Tanzania to stop issuing food export permits. Tanzania has also intensified security at the border posts to monitor and prevent the export of food. There are 240,000 people in need of immediate relief food in Tanzania.

Burundi
Crops in the north of Burundi have withered, leaving the tiny East African country facing a severe food shortage

Uganda
Severe drought in northeastern Uganda's Karamoja region has the left the country on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. The dry conditions and acute food shortages, which have left Karamoja near starvation, are unlikely to improve before October when the next harvest is due.

South Africa
South Africa faces a potential crop shortage after wheat farmers in the eastern part of the Free State grain belt said they were likely to produce their lowest crop in 30 years this year. South Africans are "extremely angry" that food prices continue to rise.

Other African nations suffering from drought in 2009 are: 
Malawi, Zambia, Swaziland, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tunisia, Angola, and Ethiopia.

Middle East and Central Asia

The Middle East and Central Asia are suffering from the worst droughts in recent history, and food grain production has dropped to some of the lowest levels in decades. Total wheat production in the wider drought-affected region is currently estimated to have declined by at least 22 percent in 2009. Owing to the drought's severity and region-wide scope, irrigation supplies from reservoirs, rivers, and groundwater have been critically reduced. Major reservoirs in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria are all at low levels requiring restrictions on usage. Given the severity of crop losses in the region, a major shortage of planting seed for the 2010 crop is expected.

Iraq
In Iraq during the winter grain growing period, there was essentially no measurable rainfall in many regions, and large swaths of rain-fed fields across northern Iraq simply went unplanted. These primarily rain-fed regions in northern Iraq are described as an agricultural disaster area this year, with wheat production falling 80-98 percent from normal levels. The USDA estimates total wheat production in Iraq in 2009 at 1.3 million tons, down 45 percent from last year.

Syria
Syria is experienced its worst drought in the past 18 years, and the USDA estimates total wheat production in Syria in 2009 at 2.0 million tons, down 50 percent from last year. Last summer, the taps ran dry in many neighborhoods of Damascus and residents of the capital city were forced to buy water on the black market. The severe lack of rain this winter has exacerbated the problem.

Afghanistan
Lack of rainfall has led Afghanistan to the worst drought conditions in the past 10 years. The USDA estimates 2008/09 wheat production in Afghanistan at 1.5 million tons, down 2.3 million or 60 percent from last year. Afghanistan normally produces 3.5-4.0 million tons of wheat annually.

Jordan
Jordan's persistent drought has grown worse, with almost no rain falling on the kingdom this year. The Jordanian government has stopped pumping water to farms to preserve the water for drinking purposes.

Other Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations suffering from drought in 2009 are: 
The Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Israel, Bangladesh, Myanmar, India, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Cyprus, and Iran.


Lack of credit will worsen food shortage

A lack of credit for farmers curbed their ability to buy seeds and fertilizers in 2008/2009 and will limit production around the world. The effects of droughts worldwide will also be amplified by the smaller amount of seeds and fertilizers used to grow crops.

Low commodity prices will worsen food shortage

The low prices at the end of 2008 discouraged the planting of new crops in 2009. In Kansas for example, farmers seeded nine million acres, the smallest planting for half a century. Wheat plantings this year are down about 4 million acres across the US and about 1.1 million acres in Canada. So even discounting drought related losses, the US, Canada, and other food producing nations are facing lower agricultural output in 2009.

Europe will not make up for the food shortfall

Europe, the only big agricultural region relatively unaffected by drought, is set for a big drop in food production. Due to the combination of a late plantings, poorer soil conditions, reduced inputs, and light rainfall, Europe’s agricultural output is likely to fall by 10 to 15 percent.

Stocks of foodstuff are dangerously low

Low stocks of foodstuff make the world’s falling agriculture output particularly worrisome. The combined averaged of the ending stock levels of the major trading countries of Australia, Canada, United States, and the European Union have been declining steadily in the last few years:

2002-2005: 47.4 million tons
2007: 37.6 million tons
2008: 27.4 million tons

These inventory numbers are dangerously low, especially considering the horrifying possibility that 
China’s 60 million tons of grain reserves doesn't actually exists.


Global food Catastrophe

The world is heading for a drop in agricultural production of 20 to 40 percent, depending on the severity and length of the current global droughts. Food producing nations are imposing food export restrictions. Food prices will soar, and, in poor countries with food deficits, millions will starve.

The deflation debate should end now

The droughts plaguing the world’s biggest agricultural regions should end the debate about deflation in 2009. The demand for agricultural commodities is relatively immune to developments in the business cycles (at least compared to that of energy or base metals), and, with a 20 to 40 percent decline in world production, 
already rising food prices are headed significantly higher.

In fact, agricultural commodities NEED to head higher and soon, to prevent even greater food shortages and famine. The price of wheat, corn, soybeans, etc must rise to a level which encourages the planting of every available acre with the best possible fertilizers. Otherwise, if food prices stay at their current levels, production will continue to fall, sentencing millions more to starvation.

Competitive currency appreciation

Some observers are anticipating “competitive currency devaluations” in addition to deflation for 2009 (nations devalue their currencies to help their export sector). The coming global food shortage makes this highly unlikely. Depreciating their currency in the current environment will produce the unwanted consequence of boosting exports—of food. Even with export restrictions like those in China, currency depreciation would cause the outflow of significant quantities of grain via the black market.

Instead of “competitive currency devaluations”, spiking food prices will likely cause competitive currency appreciation in 2009. 
Foreign exchange reserves exist for just this type of emergency. Central banks around the world will lower domestic food prices by either directly selling off their reserves to appreciate their currencies or by using them to purchase grain on the world market.

Appreciating a currency is the fastest way to control food inflation. A more valuable currency allows a nation to monopolize more global resources (ie: the overvalued dollar allows the US to consume 25% of the world's oil despite having only 4% of the world's population). If China were to selloff its US reserves, its enormous population would start sucking up the world's food supply like the US has been doing with oil.

On the flip side, when a nation appreciates its currency and starts consuming more of the world’s resources, it leaves less for everyone else. So when china appreciates the yuan, food shortages worldwide will increase and prices everywhere else will jump upwards. As there is nothing that breeds social unrest like soaring food prices, nations around the world, from Russia, to the EU, to Saudi Arabia, to India, will sell off their foreign reserves to appreciate their currencies and reduce the cost of food imports. In response to this, China will sell even more of its reserves and so on. That is competitive currency appreciation.

When faced with competitive currency appreciation, you do NOT want to be the world’s reserve currency. The dollar is likely to do very poorly as central banks liquidate trillions in US holdings to buy food and appreciate their currencies.

'This is the worst recession for over 100 years', Independent

Ed Balls, the PM's closest ally, warns that downturn is ferocious and says impact will last 15 years

By Nigel Morris, Deputy Political Editor, and Sean O'Grady, Economics Editor

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Britain is facing its worst financial crisis for more than a century, surpassing even the Great Depression of the 1930s, one of Gordon Brown's most senior ministers and confidants has admitted.

In an extraordinary admission about the severity of the economic downturn, Ed Balls even predicted that its effects would still be felt 15 years from now. The Schools Secretary's comments carry added weight because he is a former chief economic adviser to the Treasury and regarded as one of the Prime Ministers's closest allies.

Mr Balls said yesterday: "The reality is that this is becoming the most serious global recession for, I'm sure, over 100 years, as it will turn out."

He warned that events worldwide were moving at a "speed, pace and ferocity which none of us have seen before" and banks were losing cash on a "scale that nobody believed possible".

The minister stunned his audience at a Labour conference in Yorkshire by forecasting that times could be tougher than in the depression of the 1930s, when male unemployment in some cities reached 70 per cent. He also appeared to hint that the recession could play into the hands of the far right.

"The economy is going to define our politics in this region and in Britain in the next year, the next five years, the next 10 and even the next 15 years," Mr Balls said. "These are seismic events that are going to change the political landscape. I think this is a financial crisis more extreme and more serious than that of the 1930s, and we all remember how the politics of that era were shaped by the economy."

Philip Hammond, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said Mr Balls's predictions were "a staggering and very worrying admission from a cabinet minister and Gordon Brown's closest ally in the Treasury over the past 10 years". He added: "We are being told that not only are we facing the worst recession in 100 years, but that it will last for over a decade – far longer than Treasury forecasts predict."

The minister's comments came as the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, admitted the global economy was "seeing the most difficult economic conditions for generations". Writing in today's Independent, Mr Darling said his plans for shoring up Britain's finances included "measures to insure against extreme losses" as well as separating out impaired assets into a "parallel financial vehicle". Unemployment figures out tomorrow are expected to show the number of people out of work has passed two million. The Bank of England's quarterly inflation report, also released tomorrow, is expected to include a gloomy forecast for economic growth.

Yesterday, the Financial Services Authority warned that the recession "may be deeper and more prolonged than expected", adding that the global financial system had "suffered its greatest crisis in more than 70 years".

Speaking to Labour activists in Sheffield, Mr Balls conceded that the Government must share some of the blame because it had failed properly to control the banks. But he accused the Tories of blocking Labour's attempts to tighten financial rules.

He said: "People are quite right to say that financial regulation wasn't tough enough in Britain and around the world, that regulators misunderstood and did not see the nature of the risks of the dangers being run in our financial institutions – absolutely right."

The other great depressions
  • Long Depression, 1873–96
Precipitated by the "panic of 1873" crisis on Wall Street and a severe outbreak of equine flu (Karl Benz's first automobile did not chug on to the scene until 1886), it was remarkable for its longevity as well as its global reach. In Britain, it was the rural south rather than the rich cities of the north that suffered. The UK ceased to be a nation that relied in any way on farming for its livelihood.
  • Great Depression, 1930s
The "Hungry Thirties" were rough on many, at a time when welfare systems were rudimentary. The worst period was from the Wall Street Crash of 1929 to about 1932, but in places such as Jarrow, the unemployment rate hardly dipped below 50 per cent until the economy was mobilised in 1940. However, for many in the south and for the middle classes, the times were relatively prosperous.

Fed Lends Two Trillion Without Oversight

William Greider on the Democrats' Money Dilemma

09 February 2009

Amy Goodman Interviews Noam Chomsky, 2004

Won't embed for some reason; good interview.