G. G. Bain Hudson-Fulton celebration. Union League Club. New York. 1909
The one area where the US sees actual growth.
• Our $58 Trillion Love Affair With Debt, In One Crazy Chart (CNBC)
Those having a hard time finding growth in the U.S. economy are looking in the wrong places. Forget about real estate, technology or manufacturing: The real American growth industry is debt. While gross domestic product has lingered in the 2 to 2.5% growth range for years, the level of debt as measured through credit market instruments has exploded. As the nation entered the 1980s, there was comparatively little debt—just about $4.3 trillion. That was only about 1.5 times the size of gross GDP. Then a funny thing happened. The gap began to widen during the decade, and then became basically parabolic through the ’90s and into the early part of the 21st century.
Though debt took a brief decline in 2009 as the country limped its way out of the financial crisis, it has climbed again and is now, at $58.7 trillion, 3.3 times the size of GDP and about 13 times what it was in 1980, according to data from the Federal Reserve’s St. Louis branch. (The total debt measure is not to be confused with the $18.2 trillion national debt, which is 102% of GDP and is a subset of the total figure.) Of the total debt, nonfinancial debt leads the way at $41.4 trillion, which breaks down as household and nonprofits holding just shy of $13.5 trillion, nonfinancial business debt at $12 trillion and total government debt at $15.9 trillion.
Growth, such as it is, has been present in all debt categories: In the fourth quarter of 2014, when GDP was growing at just a 2.2% rate, business debt jumped 7.2%, federal government debt surged 5.4% and household debt rose 2.7%, with overall domestic nonfinancial debt up 4.7. So while many economists have bemoaned the 0.2% GDP growth in the first quarter and the dimming prospects for growth the remainder of the year, the debt engine is keeping things humming along—until, of course, the next crisis comes and we start all over again.
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What was it? 0.2% GDP growth in Q1? That can’t be the reason. The Fed made up its mind a long time ago.
• Fed On Track To Hike Rates As Economic Headwinds Wane: Yellen (Reuters)
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen was clearer than ever on Friday that the central bank was poised to raise interest rates this year, as the U.S. economy was set to bounce back from an early-year slump and as headwinds at home and abroad waned. Yellen spoke amid growing concern at the Fed about volatility in financial markets once it begins to raise rates, and a desire to begin coaxing skeptical investors toward accepting the inevitable: that a 6-1/2-year stretch of near-zero interest rates would soon end. In a speech to a business group in Providence, Rhode Island, Yellen said she expected the world’s largest economy to strengthen after a slowdown due to “transitory factors” in recent months, and noted that some of the weakness might be due to “statistical noise.”
The confident tone suggested the Fed wants to set the stage as early as possible for its first rate rise in nearly a decade, with Yellen stressing that monetary policy must get out ahead of an economy whose future looks bright. While cautioning that such forecasting is always highly uncertain, and citing room for improvement in the labor market, the Fed chief said delaying a policy tightening until employment and inflation hit the central bank’s targets risked overheating the economy. “For this reason, if the economy continues to improve as I expect, I think it will be appropriate at some point this year to take the initial step to raise the federal funds rate target,” and begin normalizing monetary policy, Yellen told the Providence Chamber of Commerce.
In a speech in March, Yellen said only that a rate hike “may well be warranted later this year,” though the Fed was at the time giving “serious consideration” to making the move. Investors globally are attempting to predict when the Fed will modestly tighten policy. Most economists point to September, while traders in futures markets held firm on December. Ahead of a three-day U.S. holiday weekend, Treasury yields hit session highs after Yellen spoke on Friday, and short-term interest rate futures extended losses, hitting session lows. U.S. stocks were largely flat. “This is probably the most telegraphed Fed lift-off in some time,” said Bruce Zaro at Bolton Global. “I think they’re concerned about the market’s reaction – they don’t want to have a period of volatility that causes the market to react in a crash-type form.”
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At some point it will reach critical mass.
• BRICS To Establish New Multi-Currency Financial Order (RT)
The new BRICS initiatives break the monopoly of existing western institutions over the financial order – a very important symbolic change, as it’s the first time a global financial institution is led by developing countries, said experts to RT. “If the new development bank experiment succeeds, it will show the world that the emerging countries can do and manage a multilateral economic institution by themselves,” Akshay Mathur, geo-economic fellow head of research at the Indian Council on Global Relations, told RT at the BRICS academic forum. While talking about the bank’s challenge to western-dominated financial system, he said that one of its goals is to stimulate lending to countries in local currencies for the new projects in that region.
“Right now the bank has clauses in its charter to encourage lending in local currencies. It can do it for lending in the new projects in the East, for Russian projects in the ruble,” he said. BRICS has already employed tools to move away from US dollar dominance, believes H.H.S. Viswanathan, Distinguished Fellow at India’s Observer Research Foundation. “A lot of trade between China and Russia is already taking place in local currencies. As far as India is concerned, it’s not that advanced, but in some areas – yes, we are using local currencies,” he said adding that the main advantage of the banks’ moving away from the dollar is that trading in local currencies reduces the operational cost.
Akshay Mathur also pointed out the potential risks the bank may face, cautioning that China, the largest of the five BRICS economies, could end up dominating the new financial institution. China has already shown notable success in internationalizing yuan. It is issuing foreign loans in its national currency and has currency swaps with 21 countries. “China is lending now more than the World Bank and the IMF combined in Africa and Latin America. So, what I mean about the risk of Chinese financial architecture is that we want to move to a more multilateral multi-currency equitable architecture, because now we have been moving from the risks of one currency to the risks of another,” he said.
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“..math is central to everything that economists do. But the way math is used in macroeconomics isn’t the same as in the hard sciences..”
• How ‘Mathiness’ Made Me Jaded About Economics (Bloomberg)
Economics has a lot of math. In no other subject except mathematics itself will you see so many proofs and theorems. Some branches of econ, such as game theory, could legitimately be housed in university math departments. But even in fields such as macroeconomics, which ostensibly deal with real-world phenomena, math is central to everything that economists do. But the way math is used in macroeconomics isn’t the same as in the hard sciences. This isn’t something that most non-economists realize, so I think I had better explain.
In physics, if you write down an equation, you expect the variables to correspond to real things that you can measure and predict. For example, if you write down an equation for the path of a cannonball, you would expect that equation to let you know how to aim your cannon in order to actually hit something. This close correspondence between math and reality is what allowed us to land spacecraft on the moon. It also allowed engineers to build your computer, your car and most of the things you use. Some economics is the same way, especially in microeconomics, or the study of individuals’ actions — you can predict which kind of auction will fetch the highest prices, or how many people will ride a train. But macroeconomics, which looks at the broad economy, is different.
Most of the equations in the models aren’t supported by evidence. For example, something called the consumption euler equation is at the core of almost every modern macroeconomic model. It specifies a relationship between consumption growth and interest rates. But when researchers looked at real data on consumption growth and interest rates, they found that the equation gives exactly the wrong predictions! Yet it continues to be used as the core of almost every macro model. If you read the macro literature, you see that almost every famous, respected paper is chock full of these sort of equations that don’t match reality. This paper predicts that everyone will hold the same amount of cash. This paper predicts that people buy financial assets that only pay off if people are able to change the wage that they ask to receive.
These and many other mathematical statements don’t remotely correspond to observable reality, nor do they have any evidence in support of them. Yet they are thrown into big multi-equation models, and those models are then judged only on how well they fit the aggregate data (which usually isn’t very well). That whole approach would never fly in engineering. Engineering is something you expect to work. But macroeconomists often treat their models as simply ways, in the words of David Andolfatto, vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, to “organize our thinking” about the world. In other words, macroeconomists use math to make their thoughts concrete, to persuade others, and to check the internal consistency of their (sometimes preposterous) ideas, but not to actually predict things in the real world.
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So do I: .
• Jim Chanos Thinks China Could Be The Next Greece (MarketWatch)
China could be the next Greece and its debt woes may even exceed the European country’s in the next few years, predicts prominent hedge-fund manager Jim Chanos of Kynikos Associates. “I joke to my Chinese friends, somewhat half-seriously, another three-four years they are going to be like my homeland Greece,” said Chanos in an interview, which will air this weekend on Wall Street Week, a show hosted by Anthony Scaramucci, co founder of investment-management firm SkyBridge Capital. The perennial China bear pointed to China’s debt-to-GDP ratio of nearly 300% and projected that the ratio is likely to balloon to 400% over the next few years. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
“The problem is the credit story,” Chanos said. “China’s banking system is bloated and it’s basically taking on more and more leverage.” Chanos declined to elaborate further when contacted for comments but he has been an unabashed critic of China’s debt-fueled economic growth and has been sounding alarm bells of possible hard landing for the world’s second largest economy for several years. A so-called hard landing can refer to a rapid economic slowdown that occurs typically as a government’s central bank is attempting to tighten fiscal policy and combat inflation. China’s total debt hit $28.2 trillion in 2014, equivalent to 280% of its gross domestic product, according to The Wall Street Journal. Chinese monetary officials earlier this month lowered interest rates to combat a worse-than-expected economic slowdown as companies and governments struggled under heavy debt. China’s GDP rose 7% in the first quarter, slowing from the 7.3% growth in the fourth quarter, the National Bureau of Statistics said in April.
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As I predicted, the June 5 date is no longer a stumbling block. The 16th looks darker, though.
• Greece and Creditors Struggle for Elusive Deal (WSJ)
Greece and its lenders are casting around for ways to prevent the country from defaulting on debts to the International Monetary Fund in June, as negotiations to unlock bailout aid barely inch forward and the Athens government runs dangerously low on cash. Greece needs financial help in some form by mid-June in order to repay a series of IMF loans falling due, several officials from the country and its creditors said. The Greek government is expected to be able to cover pensions and public-sector wages in May, and it can probably scrape together enough cash to repay a €300 million IMF loan on June 5, these people said.
But three subsequent IMF payments totaling €1.25 billion due in mid-June pose a severe challenge to Athens’s bare treasury, the officials say, and could force the government to either take politically costly measures such as raiding pension funds or delay the payments and risk an unpredictable fallout at home and abroad. Missing an IMF payment would signal that Athens’s coffers are empty. That could spark heavy deposit withdrawals from Greek banks and force capital controls, deepening the country’s economic crisis, said Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
The looming IMF payments are putting massive pressure on the government, led by the left-wing Syriza party, to agree by early June to the economic-overhaul demands of its creditors. The IMF itself, which is withholding fresh loans pending a deal on policy measures, wants tough pension cutbacks and labor deregulation, without which it believes Greece can’t achieve sustainable growth or solvency. Those measures are anathema to Syriza, elected in January on an antiausterity platform, leaving Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras faced with only unappealing options. Signing the creditors’ terms and putting them to parliament could split his party. A referendum or elections would need time, which is fast running out, and could trigger uncertainty, bank runs and capital controls.
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The White House will be needed to get the IMF in line.
• Eurozone Says No Greek Deal Without IMF (FT)
European leaders have told Greece there will be no deal to release desperately needed bailout aid without approval from the more hardline IMF, setting up a stand-off that could leave cash-strapped Athens without funds well into June. The message, delivered by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to Alexis Tsipras, her Greek counterpart, at a private meeting in Riga, Latvia’s capital, as well as by lower-level European officials to their Greek interlocutors, comes as the IMF has been weighing whether to withhold its €3.6bn portion of the €7.2bn bailout tranche Athens needs to avoid default. Eurozone and Greek negotiators have been pushing to complete a deal by the end of the month to free up bailout funds before the first in a series of loan repayments owed the IMF totalling €1.5bn falls due June 5.
But securing IMF approval for a bailout deal significantly complicates that timeline. IMF officials believe Mr Tsipras’s government has reversed many of the economic reforms the IMF had agreed with previous Greek governments and do not feel Athens will be able to hit budget targets that would allow its growing debt pile to be reduced quickly. IMF staff have told their board they would not disburse aid without a “comprehensive” deal that started to lower debt levels. They also want EU assurances that Greece will be able to pay its bills for the next 12 months, a demand that could require eurozone governments to commit to another bailout programme. “It has to be a comprehensive approach, not a quick and dirty job,” Christine Lagarde, IMF chief, said at an event in Rio de Janeiro on Friday..
Greek officials have told their eurozone counterparts they are worried about the IMF’s hardline stance and have argued their conditions are politically undeliverable, especially when it comes to the pension reforms, which remain the biggest stumbling block. The IMF has clashed with the European Commission over how tough a line to take, with the commission going so far as to moot cutting the IMF out of a deal. But German officials have bristled at the commission’s interventions and have made clear all three bailout monitors — the IMF, the commission and the ECB — must approve any deal. “The deal must be concluded with the three institutions,” Ms Merkel said at a gathering of leaders from the EU and former Soviet states on Friday. “There is very, very intensive work to be done.”
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“..when close to a solution, the EU goes back to the table with demands that make no sense in the current context..”
• Yanis Varoufakis Is More Than His Clothes (AlJazeera)
As the media picked apart Varoufakis, from his smirk to his casual footwear, ugly stereotypes about Greeks resurfaced. In a German daily, the reporter wrote that while “the other finance ministers looked pale and tired, Varoufakis looked as if he had just come back from vacation.” The fallacy of hardworking northerners and lazy southerners should have been put to rest with the 20th century but is still around in 2015. The press briefings cited in most media — which come almost exclusively from unofficial, anonymous sources — said that the discussions that took place over the past few months were no better. They spoke of Greece having no viable proposals and of living in an alternative reality.
They accused Varoufakis of being an ideologue, as though German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s notion of “expansionary contraction,” which was used to justify the austerity dogma, wasn’t in and of itself an ideological intervention (let alone a contradiction in terms). They even complained that Varoufakis was lecturing them on macroeconomics. He was, in a way. “One of the great ironies of the Eurogroup is that there is no macroeconomic discussion. It’s all rules based, as if the rules are God given and as if the rules can go against the rules of macroeconomics,” Varoufakis said in The Irish Times, in response to a criticism by Ireland’s finance minister that he was “too theoretical.”
For now, Varoufakis, like Greece, enjoys too much unwanted attention. While support for Syriza is growing and the party is now leading with 21 percentage points over New Democracy, everyone from everyday supporters of the party (as recent polls have shown) to Greek businesses agrees that the negotiations have gone on too long. But it’s also becoming obvious that when close to a solution, the EU goes back to the table with demands that make no sense in the current context. Earlier this week The Wall Street Journal reported that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble “showed no willingness to compromise in the negotiations to unlock the final installment of Greece’s €245 billion bailout.”
And in late-night talks on Thursday, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met with his counterparts from France and Germany; the atmosphere, Bloomberg reported, was convivial, but the team failed to reach an agreement to release additional bailout funds. We’re running out of time, as we’re only a few weeks before Greece is forced to default on billions of euros in debt repayments. Europe and the international media should stop talking about its finance minister’s clothes and address his nation’s needs and the ideas that he is putting on the table.
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Wait, who said that before? “The Greek crisis was always as much about politics as economics. Now it is all about politics.” I sure didn’t use the same ‘logic’, however: Greece Is Now Just A Political Issue .
• How Politics Will Seal The Fate Of Greece (FT)
Forget debt ratios, fiscal balances, liquidity crunches and the rest. The EU and IMF technicians negotiating with Athens are going through the motions. The Greek crisis was always as much about politics as economics. Now it is all about politics. There are two theories of the Syriza government led by Alexis Tsipras. One presents a cast of bungling amateurs who have spent the past several months digging Greece into an ever deeper economic hole — all the while squandering the trust and goodwill of its eurozone partners. The other says the antics of Yanis Varoufakis, finance minister, are an elaborate political charade calculated to set Greece free from the shackles of merciless creditors.
The first hypothesis is the most popular. The preening and pirouetting, the interviews in glossy magazines, the undergraduate Marxism and love of the limelight — all point to a colossal failure on Mr Varoufakis’s part to grasp the depth of Greece’s plight or the sensitivities of its European partners. Along the way, tens of billions of dollars have drained from Greek banks as citizens stash their savings elsewhere. The conspiracy theory, though, also has its adherents. They start with the assumption that no one could be quite as witless as Syriza has often seemed. Mr Tsipras’s government knew from the outset that it could not reconcile its domestic promises with Greece’s international obligations.
The problem was that Greeks had voted at once for an end to austerity and to stay in the euro. A crisis had to be manufactured to show the government’s hand had been forced. By the Germans, of course. I lean towards the former theory, but it hardly matters. Even at this late hour it would be unwise to say that a deal with creditors is absolutely impossible. High-stakes politics occasionally demands that pigs are seen to fly. What strikes me, though, is how far the conversation in other capitals has moved on. The risk of contagion in the rest of the eurozone has long been discussed. The talk now is about the chaos that would descend on Greece after default and euro exit. Would it be manageable or would the EU be left with a failed state?
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More ‘logic’: “..in view of the long recovery the German economy already has behind it, it was normal that its growth rate would be weaker than the rest of the euro zone..”
• German Business Morale Weakens And Trade Dampens Q1 Growth (Reuters)
German business morale deteriorated slightly in May for the first time in seven months though it remained at a high level overall, a leading survey showed, adding to signs of softening in Europe’s largest economy. Although growth levels remain decent, separate data published on Friday showed the slowing of the German economy during the first quarter was down to a drag from foreign trade, which had propelled the economy for much of the past decade. The Munich-based Ifo think tank said its business climate index, based on a monthly survey of 7,000 firms, edged down to 108.5 in May from 108.6 in April. That was slightly above the Reuters consensus forecast for 108.3, sending the euro to a day’s high against the dollar.
It comes after ZEW’s survey this week showed investor sentiment weakening and a purchasing managers’ survey (PMI) showed private sector expansion slowing. “With today’s GDP data, yesterday’s PMIs and now the Ifo, new doubts about the strength of the German economy could emerge again,” said Carsten Brzeski, economist at ING. “Germany is at the end of a very positive reform-growth cycle, which is artificially extended by external tailwinds,” he said, adding that in view of the long recovery the German economy already has behind it, it was normal that its growth rate would be weaker than the rest of the euro zone. The Ifo survey showed companies were more optimistic about the current situation than at any point since June 2014 but they became slightly more pessimistic about their future prospects.
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Germany is not used to inequality.
• The Strikes Sweeping Germany Are Here To Stay (Guardian)
German strikes once seemed like German jokes: a contradiction in terms. But no more: this year, Europe’s largest economy is on course to set a new record for industrial action, with everyone from train drivers, kindergarten and nursery teachers and post office workers staging walkouts recently. The strike wave is more than a conjunctural blip: it is another facet of the inexorable disintegration of what used to be the “German model”. Good economic conditions play a part, but unions in the thriving export industries are not the ones that are striking these days. Strikes cluster in domestic services, especially the public sector, and indications are that they are here to stay.
In the old days, the powerful unions of the metalworkers set the pace for wage increases throughout the economy. But the last time IG Metall went on a nationwide strike was in 1984. In the 1990s, its members, in particular those in the large car factories, learned the hard way that manufacturing jobs could more easily than ever be moved abroad, to China or the formerly communist eastern Europe. International competition is now no longer just about market share, but also employment. It did not take long for the union leadership to notice this. Fear of unemployment, incidentally, accounts also for German manufacturing workers’ unwillingness to contribute to macroeconomic balance under European monetary union by pushing for higher wages in order to bring down the German export surplus.
Today, the action has shifted to services, where job export is more difficult. But other factors also account for the rise of industrial disorder. Since unification, public employers, in pursuit of fiscal consolidation, have broken up Germany’s peculiar public sector collective bargaining regime, which covered everyone from refuse collectors to professors and generated, essentially, the same yearly wage increases for all. Moreover, several occupations – including train drivers, teachers and postal workers – lost the uniquely German employment status of Beamter, of civil servants without a right to strike but with lifelong tenure and guaranteed pay raises in line with the rate of economic growth.
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How is this a big story? Of course the BoE studies Brexit.
• Bank Of England Secretly Investigates Financial Fallout Of Brexit (Guardian)
Bank of England officials are secretly researching the financial shocks that could hit Britain if there is a vote to leave the European Union in the forthcoming referendum. The Bank blew its cover on Friday when it accidentally emailed details of the project – including how the bank intended to fend off any inquiries about its work – direct to the Guardian. According to the confidential email, the press and most staff in Threadneedle Street must be kept in the dark about the work underway, which has been dubbed Project Bookend. It spells out that if anyone asks about the project, the taskforce must say the investigation has nothing to do with the referendum, saying only that staff are involved in examining “a broad range of European economic issues” that concern the Bank.
The revelation is likely to embarrass the bank governor, Mark Carney, who has overhauled the central bank’s operations and promised greater transparency over its decision-making. MPs are now likely to ask whether the Bank intended to inform parliament that a major review of Britain’s prospects outside the EU was being undertaken by the institution that acts as the UK’s main financial regulator. Carney is also likely to come under pressure within the Bank to reveal whether there are other undercover projects underway.
Officials are likely to have kept the project under wraps to avoid entering the highly charged debate around the EU referendum, which has jumped to the top of the political agenda since the Conservatives secured an overall majority. Many business leaders and pro-EU campaigners have warned that “Brexit” would hit British exports and damage the standing of the City of London.
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More cooperative criminals?!
• GM Inquiry Said to Find Criminal Wrongdoing (NY Times)
Justice Department investigators have identified criminal wrongdoing in General Motors’ failure to disclose a defect tied to at least 104 deaths, and are negotiating what is expected to be a record penalty, according to people briefed on the inquiry. A settlement could be reached as soon as this summer. The final number is still being negotiated, but it is expected to eclipse the $1.2 billion paid last year by Toyota for concealing unintended acceleration problems in its vehicles, said the people, who did not want to be identified because the negotiations weren’t complete. GM’s eagerness to resolve the investigation – a strategy that sets it apart from Toyota, which fought prosecutors – is expected to earn it so-called cooperation credit, one of the people said.
That credit could translate into a somewhat smaller penalty than if GM had declined to cooperate. Former GM employees, some of whom were dismissed last year, are under investigation as well and could face criminal charges. Prosecutors and GM are also still negotiating what misconduct the company would admit to. For more than a year, federal prosecutors in Manhattan and the F.B.I. have homed in on whether the company failed to comply with laws requiring timely disclosure of vehicle defects and misled federal regulators about the extent of the problems, the people who were briefed on the inquiry said. The authorities also examined whether GM committed fraud during its bankruptcy proceedings in 2009 by not disclosing the defect.
An agreement with the Justice Department, which could still fall apart, would represent a crucial step as GM tries to move past a scandal-laden year that tainted its reputation for quality and safety and damaged its bottom line. “We are cooperating fully with all requests,” the automaker said in a statement. “We are unable to comment on the status of the investigation, including timing.” In February 2014, the automaker began recalling 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars with faulty ignitions that could unexpectedly turn off the engine, disabling power steering, power brakes and the airbags. The switch crisis prompted a wave of additional recalls by GM for various safety issues. All told, GM recalled more than 30 million vehicles worldwide last year – a record for the automaker.
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Is there any other choice?
• Ireland Says Yes To Same-Sex Marriage By Up To 2:1 Margin (Ind.ie)
The same-sex marriage referendum will be comfortably passed, based on early tallies from across the country. The margin of victory is tipped to be heading towards a 2:1 majority. The high turnout favoured Yes campaigners as the efforts to get the vote out worked effectively, particularly among young voters. Few, if any locations, are showing a No vote winning the referendum. Even in traditionally conservative rural area, the vote is coming in at 50:50. Dublin will be strongly Yes, right across the city and county. But this trend is being matched in locations across the country.
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“Monsanto is a monopoly, and it’s acting like one. It’s basically controlling 90% of the seed market in the United States..”
• ‘March Against Monsanto’ in 38 Countries, 428 Cities (RT)
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in 428 cities are expected to turn out this weekend to protest agribusiness giant Monsanto. The third annual ‘March Against Monsanto’ seeks to highlight the company’s part in control of the food supply. The worldwide protest scheduled for May 23 is a continuation of growing awareness and opposition to industrial agriculture’s increasing consolidation of farming resources and methods, according to organizers. In 2013, the first March Against Monsanto garnered more than 2 million protesters in 436 cities across the world, according to a previous report by RT. Similar numbers were reported for last year’s demonstrations.
Monsanto’s track record has been scrutinized ever since it aided US warfare during the Vietnam war. Agent Orange was manufactured for the US Department of Defense primarily by Monsanto Corporation, the use of which is estimated to have killed and maimed around 400,000 while causing birth defects for 500,000 children. Scientific studies have linked the chemicals in Monsanto’s biocides to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and cancer. “People are fed up. We should break up Monsanto,” Adam Eidinger of Occupy Monsanto told RT. “Monsanto is a monopoly, and it’s acting like one. It’s basically controlling 90% of the seed market in the United States. We wouldn’t let one cell phone company control 90% of the cell phones. But for some reason we let food be controlled.”
As the most powerful multinational biotech corporation today, Monsanto has drawn the ire of those within the movement for its firm grip on the global food chain. The company’s control and advancement of genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds is of prime concern. “In polls conducted by the New York Times, Washington Post, Consumer Reports, and many others, over 90% of respondents were in support of national GMO labeling – an initiative that has been defeated time and time again at the state level thanks to heavy spending by Monsanto-backed lobbying groups,” wrote March Against Monsanto in a news release.
Amid a wave of concern over genetically engineered foods sweeping through the US and around the world, major agribusiness and biotechnology conglomerates like Monsanto have spent immense amounts of cash to cloud the ‘right-to-know’ movement in the US. According to the Center for Food Safety, dozens of US states have in recent years considered labeling legislation and ballot initiatives while a handful have passed laws mandating GMO transparency. Vermont’s governor signed the nation’s first clean GMO-labeling requirement into law in 2014, to take effect in 2016, but a coalition of biotech firms filed a lawsuit to prevent that from happening. Other states have passed labeling laws, but with strings attached.
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These are the people who are instrumental in creating the problem, and now want us to pay them for a solution.
• Bayer CEO: The World Needs An Antibiotics Bailout (Reuters)
German drugmaker Bayer expects the world’s largest economies to pool billions of euros in funding for the development of antibiotics against the growing threat of drug-resistant superbugs, its chief executive said on Friday. “I expect a multinational fund for antibiotics research. One country alone can’t shoulder it,” CEO Marijn Dekkers told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, according to an excerpt of an interview provided to Reuters on Friday. The funds were expected to be pledged during the June summit of the Group of Seven (G7) wealthy nations in Germany, he was quoted as saying. He mentioned reports that four new antibiotics would cost $22.4 billion to develop, saying that was “maybe a bit too much, but it will be really expensive”.
The World Health Organization has deemed the rising tide of drug-resistant bacteria, or so-called superbugs, as the “single greatest challenge in infectious diseases”. Germany’s health ministry has said Berlin would seek to address drug-resistant superbugs as part of the country’s presidency of the G7, leading up to the G7 summit in Bavaria in June. Governments should award development contracts for more antibiotics to pharmaceuticals companies, modelled on development contracts tendered to the defence industry, Dekkers told Der Spiegel. The pharma industry has argued that the private sector was being deterred from funding the development of new antibiotics because, to prevent the emergence of even more resistant bacteria, they would only be used when existing therapies have failed.
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A frist step. But nobody knows if it will be enough.
• California Accepts Offer By Farmers To Cut Water Usage By 25% (Guardian)
California’s drought has produced a plot twist too singular even for Chinatown: farmers volunteering to give up a quarter of their water. Scores of farmers in the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers made the unprecedented offer on Friday in a deal to stave off even steeper mandatory cuts. Agricultural players have fiercely guarded their water rights since the 19th century, rebuffing competing claims from cities and other rivals in the so-called water wars, a web of intrigues immortalised in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. The film’s fictional farmers never countenanced voluntarily cutting their water use but as California endures a fourth year of drought growers in the delta calculated it was the lesser evil.
By promising to forfeit a quarter of this season’s water – by fallowing land or finding other measures to cut usage – they have averted harsher restrictions from state authorities. The State Water Board had warned it was days away from ordering some of the first cuts in more than 30 years to senior water rights holders. “This proposal helps delta growers manage the risk of potentially deeper curtailment, while ensuring significant water conservation efforts in this fourth year of drought,” State Water Board chair Felicia Marcus said in a statement.
“It allows participating growers to share in the sacrifice that people throughout the state are facing because of the severe drought, while protecting their economic well-being by giving them some certainty regarding exercise of the State Water Board’s enforcement discretion at the beginning of the planting season.” The agreement applies only to so-called riparian rights holders – farmers with direct access to streams. Those who participate can opt to reduce water diversions from streams by 25%, or fallow 25% of their land. In both cases, the reductions will be from 2013 levels.
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They threaten my mental sanity, too.
• Attacks On The Last Elephants And Rhinos Threaten Entire Ecosystems (Monbiot)
Until 2008, conservationists, in some places at least, appeared to be winning. But in that year the number of rhinos killed in South Africa rose (from 13 in 2007) to 83. By 2011, the horrible tally had risen to 448. It climbed to 668 in 2012, 1004 in 2013 and 1215 in 2014. In the first four months of this year, 393 rhinos have been killed there, which is 18% more than in the same period last year. The reasons for this acceleration in the Great Global Polishing are complex and not always easy to tease out. But they appear to be connected to rising prosperity in Vietnam, the exhaustion of illegal stocks held by Chinese doctors and, possibly, speculative investment in a scarce and tangible asset during the financial crisis. Corruption and judicial failure help to keep the trade alive.
Already, the western black rhino is extinct (the declaration was made in 2011). The northern white rhino has been reduced to five animals: a male at the end of its anticipated lifespan and four females, scattered between Kenya, the US and the Czech Republic. Similar stories can be told about some populations of elephants – in particular the forest elephants of west and central Africa. It’s not just these wonderful, enchanting creatures that are destroyed by poaching, but also many of the living processes of the places they inhabit. Elephants and rhinos are ecological engineers, creating conditions that hundreds of other species have evolved to exploit. As the paper in Science Advances notes, the great beasts maintain a constantly shifting mosaic of habitats through a cycle of browsing and toppling and trampling, followed by the regrowth of the trees and the other plants they eat.
They open up glades for other herbivores, and spaces in which predators can hunt. They spread the seeds of trees that have no other means of dispersal (other animals are too small to swallow the seeds whole, and grind them up). Many trees in Africa and Asia are distributed exclusively by megaherbivores. They transport nutrients from rich places to poor ones and in some places reduce the likelihood of major bushfires, by creating firebreaks and eating twigs and leaves that would otherwise accumulate as potential fuel on the ground. Many animal species have co-evolved with them: the birds that eat their ectoparasites, the fish that feed on hippos’ fighting wounds (some of these species, I believe, are now used for fish pedicures), the wide range of life that depends on their dung for food and moisture, on their wallows for habitats, on the fissures they create in trees for nesting holes.
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Crumbling stability all around.
• Yet Another Antarctic Ice Mass Is Becoming Destabilized (WaPo)
The troubling news continues this week for the Antarctic peninsula region, which juts out from the icy continent. Last week, scientists documented threats to the Larsen C and the remainder of the Larsen B ice shelf (most of which collapsed in 2002). The remnant of Larsen B, NASA researchers said, may not last past 2020. And as for Larsen C, the Scotland-sized ice shelf could also be at potentially “imminent risk” due to a rift across its mass that is growing in size (though it appears more stable than the remainder of Larsen B). And the staccato of May melt news isn’t over, it seems.
Thursday in Science, researchers from the University of Bristol in Britain, along with researchers from Germany, France and the Netherlands, reported on the retreat of a suite of glaciers farther south from Larsen B and C along the Bellingshausen Sea, in a region known as the Southern Antarctic Peninsula. Using satellite based and gravity measurements, the research team found that “a major portion of the region has, since 2009, destabilized” and accounts for “a major fraction of Antarctica’s contribution to rising sea level.” The likely cause of the change, they say, is warmer waters reaching the base of mostly submerged ice shelves that hold back larger glaciers — melting them from below.
This has been a common theme in Antarctica recently — a similar mechanism has been postulated for melting of ice shelves in nearby West Antarctica (which contains vastly more ice, and more potential sea level rise, than does the Antarctic peninsula). “This is one of now three really quite substantial signals that we’ve seen from different parts of West Antarctica and the Antarctic peninsula that is all going in the same way,” said Jonathan Bamber of the University of Bristol, one of the paper’s authors. The other two are the losses of ice in the Larsen ice shelf region — where glaciers have sped up their seaward lurches following past ice shelf collapses — and in West Antarctica.
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