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Enterprise zone 'secrecy' claims

BBC UK Ed. - Tue, 2014-09-23 00:46
Ministers are accused of "shutting up shop" by not revealing how each of Wales' seven enterprise zones is performing.
Categories: MediaTorrent

Climate Protesters Flood Wall Street – And A Polar Bear Is Arrested

Informed Comment - Tue, 2014-09-23 00:21

AJ+

“Hundreds of people attended the #FloodWallStreet demonstration to protest the role big business plays in fueling climate change. The protest was largely peaceful, but police arrested a number of people by the end of the night, including a polar bear.”

AJ+ : “Protesters Flood Wall Street – And A Polar Bear Is Arrested”

Categories: IraqWire, Leftward Blogs

VIDEO: White House intruder 'had ammo'

BBC UK Ed. - Tue, 2014-09-23 00:16
US authorities say Omar Gonzalez, who broke into the White House on Friday evening, had 800 rounds of ammunition, a machete and two hatchets in his car.
Categories: MediaTorrent

China exporting 'tools of torture'

BBC UK Ed. - Tue, 2014-09-23 00:06
A growing number of Chinese companies are exporting "tools of torture" such as electric shock batons and spiked metal batons, Amnesty says.
Categories: MediaTorrent

Student Debt Factories: The Scandal of For-Profit Colleges

Informed Comment - Tue, 2014-09-23 00:04

By Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel via Tomdispatch.com

Imagine corporations that intentionally target low-income single mothers as ideal customers. Imagine that these same companies claim to sell tickets to the American dream — gainful employment, the chance for a middle class life. Imagine that the fine print on these tickets, once purchased, reveals them to be little more than debt contracts, profitable to the corporation’s investors, but disastrous for its customers. And imagine that these corporations receive tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to do this dirty work. Now, know that these corporations actually exist and are universities.

Over the last three decades, the price of a year of college has increased by more than 1,200%. In the past, American higher education has always been associated with upward mobility, but with student loan debt quadrupling between 2003 and 2013, it’s time to ask whether education alone can really move people up the class ladder. This is a question of obvious relevance for low-income students and students of color.

As Cornell professor Noliwe Rooks and journalist Kai Wright have reported, black college enrollment has increased at nearly twice the rate of white enrollment in recent years, but a disproportionate number of those African-American students end up at for-profit schools. In 2011, two of those institutions, the University of Phoenix (with physical campuses in 39 states and massive online programs) and the online-only Ashford University, produced more black graduates than any other institutes of higher education in the country. Unfortunately, a recent survey by economist Rajeev Darolia shows that for-profit graduates fare little better on the job market than job seekers with high school degrees; their diplomas, that is, are a net loss, offering essentially the same grim job prospects as if they had never gone to college, plus a lifetime debt sentence.

Much of the American public does not understand the difference between for-profit, public, and private non-profit institutions of higher learning. All three are concerned with generating revenue, but only the for-profit model exists primarily to enrich its owners. The largest of these institutions are often publicly traded, nationally franchised corporations legally beholden to maximize profit for their shareholders before maximizing education for their students. While commercial vocational programs have existed since the nineteenth century, for-profit colleges in their current form are a relatively new phenomenon that began to boom with a series of initial public offerings in the 1990s, followed quickly by deregulation of the sector as the millennium approached. Bush administration legislation then weakened government oversight of such schools, while expanding their access to federal financial aid, making the industry irresistible to Wall Street investors.

While the for-profit business model has generally served investors well, it has failed students. Retention rates are abysmal and tuitions sky-high. For-profit colleges can be up to twice as expensive as Ivy League universities, and routinely cost five or six times the price of a community college education. The Medical Assistant program at for-profit Heald College in Fresno, California, costs $22,275. A comparable program at Fresno City College costs $1,650. An associate degree in paralegal studies at Everest College in Ontario, California, costs $41,149, compared to $2,392 for the same degree at Santa Ana College, a mere 30-minute drive away.

Exorbitant tuition means students, who tend to come from poor backgrounds, have to borrow from both the government and private sources, including Sallie Mae (the country’s largest originator, servicer, and collector of student loans) and banks like Chase and Wells Fargo. A whopping 96% of students who manage to graduate from for-profits leave owing money, and they typically carry twice the debt load of students from more traditional schools.

Public funds in the form of federal student loans has been called the “lifeblood” of the for-profit system, providing on average 86% of revenues. Such schools now enroll around 10% of America’s college students, but take in more than a quarter of all federal financial aid — as much as $33 billion in a single year. By some estimates it would cost less than half that amount to directly fund free higher education at all currently existing two- and four-year public colleges. In other words, for-profit schools represent not a “market solution” to increasing demand for the college experience, but the equivalent of a taxpayer-subsidized subprime education.

Pushing the Hot Button, Poking the Pain

The mantra is everywhere: a college education is the only way to climb out of poverty and create a better life. For-profit schools allow Wall Street investors and corporate executives to cash in on this faith.

Publicly traded schools have been shown to have profit margins, on average, of nearly 20%. A significant portion of these taxpayer-sourced proceeds are spent on Washington lobbyists to keep regulations weak and federal money pouring in. Meanwhile, these debt factories pay their chief executive officers $7.3 million in average yearly compensation. John Sperling, architect of the for-profit model and founder of the University of Phoenix, which serves more students than the entire University of California system or all the Ivy Leagues combined, died a billionaire in August.

Graduates of for-profit schools generally do not fare well. Indeed, they rarely find themselves in the kind of work they were promised when they enrolled, the kind of work that might enable them to repay their debts, let alone purchase the commodity-cornerstones of the American dream like a car or a home.

In the documentary “College Inc.,” produced by PBS’s investigative series Frontline, three young women recount how they enrolled in a nursing program at Everest College on the promise of $25-$35 an hour jobs on graduation. Course work, however, turned out to consist of visits to the Museum of Scientology to study “psychiatrics” and visits to a daycare center for their “pediatrics rotation.” They each paid nearly $30,000 for a 12-month program, only to find themselves unemployable because they had been taught nearly nothing about their chosen field.

In 2010, an undercover investigation by the Government Accountability Office tested 15 for-profit colleges and found that every one of them “made deceptive or otherwise questionable statements” to undercover applicants. These recruiting practices are now under increasing scrutiny from 20 state attorneys general, Senate investigators, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), amid allegations that many of these schools manipulate the job placement statistics of their graduates in the most cynical of ways.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an organization that offers support in health, education, employment, and community-building to new veterans, put it this way in August 2013: “Using high-pressure sales tactics and false promises, these institutions lure veterans into enrolling into expensive programs, drain their post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits, and sign up for tens of thousands of dollars in loans. The for-profits take in the money but leave the students with a substandard education, heavy student loan debt, non-transferable credits, worthless degrees, or no degrees at all.”

Even President Obama has spoken out against instances where for-profit colleges preyed upon troops with brain damage: “These Marines had injuries so severe some of them couldn’t recall what courses the recruiter had signed them up for.”

As it happens, recruiters for such schools are manipulating more than statistics. They are mining the intersections of class, race, gender, inequality, insecurity, and shame to hook students. “Create a sense of urgency. Push their hot button. Don’t let the student off the phone. Dial, dial, dial,” a director of admissions at Argosy University, which operates in 23 states and online, told his enrollment counselors in an internal email.

A training manual for recruiters at ITT Tech, another multi-state and virtual behemoth, instructed its employees to “poke the pain a bit and remind them who else is depending on them and their commitment to a better future.”  It even included a “pain funnel” — that is, a visual guide to help recruiters exploit prospective students’ vulnerabilities. Pain was similarly a theme at Ashford University, where enrollment advisors were told by their superiors to “dig deep” into students’ suffering to “convince them that a college degree is going to solve all their problems.”

An internal document from Corinthian Colleges, Inc. (owner of Everest, Heald, and Wyotech colleges) specified that its target demographic is “isolated,” “impatient” individuals with “low self-esteem.”  They should have “few people in their lives who care about them and be stuck in their lives, unable to imagine a future or plan well.”

These recruiting strategies are as well funded as they are abhorrent. When an institution of higher learning is driven primarily by the needs of its shareholders, not its students, the drive to get “asses in classes” guarantees that marketing budgets will dwarf whatever is spent on faculty and instruction. According to David Halperin, author of Stealing America’s Future: How For-Profit Colleges Scam Taxpayers and Ruin Student’s Lives, “The University of Phoenix has spent as much as $600 million a year on advertising; it has regularly been Google’s largest advertiser, spending $200,000 a day.” 

At some schools, the money put into the actual education of a single student has been as low as $700 per year. The Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee revealed that 30 of the for-profit industry’s biggest players spent $4.2 billion — or 22.7% of their revenue — on recruiting and marketing in 2010.

Subprime Schools, Swindled Students

In profit paradise, there are nonetheless signs of trouble. Corinthian College Inc., for instance, is under investigation by several state and federal agencies for falsifying job-placement rates and lying to students in marketing materials. In June, the Department of Education discovered that the company was on the verge of collapse and began supervising a search for buyers for its more than 100 campuses and online operations. In this “unwinding process,” some Corinthian campuses have already shut down. To make matters worse, this month the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced a $500 million lawsuit accusing Corinthian of running a “predatory lending scheme.”

As the failure of Corinthian unfolds, those who understood it to be a school — namely, its students — have been left in the lurch. Are their hard-earned degrees and credits worthless?  Should those who are enrolled stay put and hope for the storm to pass or jump ship to another institution? Social media reverberate with anxious questions.

Nathan Hornes started the Facebook group “Everest Avengers,” a forum where students who feel confused and betrayed can share information and organize. A 2014 graduate of Everest College’s Ontario, California, branch, Nathan graduated with a 3.9 GPA, a degree in Business Management, and $65,000 in debt. Unable to find the gainful employment Everest promised him, he currently works two fast-food restaurant jobs. Nathan’s dreams of starting a record label and a music camp for inner city kids will be deferred even further into some distant future when his debts come due: a six-month grace period expires in October and Nathan will owe $380 each month on Federal loans alone. “Do I want to pay bills or my loans?” he asks. Corinthian has already threatened to sue him if he fails to make payments.

Asked to explain Corinthian’s financial troubles, Trace Urdan, a market analyst for Wells Fargo Bank, Corinthian’s biggest equity investor, argued that the school attracts “subprime students” who “can be expected — as a group — to repay at levels far lower than most student loans.” And yet, as Corinthian’s financial woes mounted, the corporation stopped paying rent at its Los Angeles campuses and couldn’t pay its own substantial debts to lenders, including Bank of America, from whom it sought a debt waiver.

That Corinthian can request debt waivers from its lenders should give us pause. Who, one might ask, is the proper beneficiary of a debt waiver in this case? No such favors will be done for Nathan Hornes or other former Corinthian students, though they have effectively been led into a debt trap with an expert package of misrepresentations, emotional manipulation, and possibly fraud.

From Bad Apples to a Better System, or Everest Avenged

As is always the case with corporate scandals, Corinthian is now being described as a “bad apple” among for-profits, not evidence of a rotten orchard. The fact is that for-profits like Corinthian exemplify all the contradictions of the free-market model that reformers present as the only solution to the current crisis in higher education: not only are these schools 90% dependent on taxpayer money, but tenure doesn’t exist, there are no faculty unions, most courses are offered online with low overhead costs, and students are treated as “customers.”

It’s also worth remembering that at “public” universities, it is now nearly impossible for working class or even middle class students to graduate without debt. This sad state of affairs — so the common version of the story goes — is the consequence of economic hard-times, which require belt tightening and budget cuts. And so it has come to pass that strapped community colleges are now turning away would-be enrollees who wind up in the embrace of for-profits that proceed to squeeze every penny they can from them and the public purse as well. (All the while, of course, this same tale provides for-profits with a cover: they are offering a public service to a marginalized and needy population no one else will touch.)

The standard narrative that, in the face of shrinking tax revenues, public universities must relentlessly raise tuition rates turns out, however, to be full of holes. As political theorist Robert Meister points out, this version of the story ignores the complicity of university leaders in the process. Many of them were never passive victims of privatization; instead, they saw tuition, not taxpayer funding, as the superior and preferred form of revenue growth.

Beginning in the 1990s, universities, public and private, began working ever more closely with Wall Street, which meant using tuition payments not just as direct revenue but also as collateral for debt-financing. Consider the venerable but beleaguered University of California system: a 2012 report out of its Berkeley branch, “Swapping Our Futures,” shows that the whole system was losing $750,000 each month on interest-rate swaps — a financial product that promised lower borrowing costs, but ended up draining the U.C. system of already-scarce resources.

In the last decade, its swap agreements have cost it over $55 million and could, in the end, add up to a loss of $200 million. Financiers, as the university’s creditors, are promised ever-increasing tuition as the collateral on loans, forcing public schools to aggressively recruit ever more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuitions, and to raise the in-state tuition relentlessly as well, simply to meet debt burdens and keep credit ratings high.

Instead of being the social and economic leveler many believe it to be, American higher education in the twenty-first century too often compounds the problem of inequality through debt-servitude. Referring to student debt, which has by now reached $1.2 trillion, Meister suggests, “Add up the lifetime debt service that former students will pay on $1 trillion, over and above the principal they borrow, and you could run a very good public university system for what we are paying capital markets to fund an ever-worsening one.”

You Are Not a Loan

The big problem of how we finance education won’t be solved overnight. But one group is attempting to provide both immediate aid to students like Nathan Hornes and a vision for rethinking debt as a systemic issue. On September 17th, the Rolling Jubilee, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, announced the abolition of a portfolio of debt worth nearly $4 million originating from for-profit Everest College. This granted nearly 3,000 former students no-strings-attached debt relief.

The authors of this article have both been part of this effort. To date, the Rolling Jubilee has abolished nearly $20 million dollars of medical and educational debt by taking advantage of a little-known trade secret: debt is often sold to debt collectors for mere pennies on the dollar. A medical bill that was originally $1,000 might sell to a debt collector for 4% of its sticker price, or $40. This allowed the Rolling Jubilee project to make a multi-million dollar impact with a budget of approximately $700,000 raised in large part through small individual donations.

The point of the Rolling Jubilee is simple enough: we believe people shouldn’t have to go into debt for basic needs. For the last four decades, easy access to credit has masked stagnating wages and crumbling social services, forcing many Americans to debt-finance necessities like college, health care, and housing, while the creditor class has reaped enormous rewards. But while we mean the Jubilee’s acts to be significant, we know it is not a sustainable solution to the problem at hand. There is no way to buy and abolish all the odious debt sloshing around our economy, nor would we want to. Given the way our economy is structured, people would start slipping into the red again the minute their debts were wiped out.

The Rolling Jubilee instead raises a question: If a ragtag group of activists can find a way to provide immediate relief to even a few thousand defrauded students, why can’t the government?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s lawsuit against Corinthian Colleges, Inc. is a good first step, but it only applies to specific private loans originating after 2011, and it will likely take years to play out. Until it’s resolved, students are still technically on the hook and many will be harassed by unscrupulous debt collectors attempting to extract money from them while they still can. In the meantime, the Department of Education (DOE) — which has far greater purview than the CFPB — is effectively acting as a debt collector for a predatory lender, instead of using its discretionary power to help students. Why didn’t the DOE simply let Corinthian go bankrupt, as often happens to private institutions, and so let the students’ debts become dischargeable?

Such debt discharge is well within the DOE’s statutory powers. When a school under its jurisdiction has broken state laws or committed fraud it is, in fact, mandated to offer debt discharge to students. Yet in Corinthian’s opaque, unaccountable unwinding process, the Department of Education appears to be focused on keeping as many of these predatory “schools” open as possible.

No less troubling, the DOE actually stands to profit off Corinthian’s debt payments, as it does from all federally secured educational loans, regardless of the school they are associated with. Senator Elizabeth Warren has already sounded the alarm about the department’s conflict of interest when it comes to student debt, citing an estimate that the government stands to rake in up to $51 billion dollars in a single year on student loans. As Warren points out, it’s “obscene” for the government to treat education as a profit center.

Can there be any doubt that funds reaped from the repayment of federally backed loans by Corinthian students are especially ill-gotten gains? Nathan Hornes and his fellow students should be the beneficiaries of debt relief, not further dispossession.

Unless people agitate, no reprieve will be offered. Instead there may be slaps on the wrist for a few for-profit “bad apples,” with policymakers presenting possible small reductions in interest rates or income-based payments for student borrowers as major breakthroughs.

We need to think bigger. There is an old banking adage: if you owe the bank $1,000, the bank owns you; if you owe the bank $1 million, you own the bank. Individually, student debt is an incapacitating burden. But as Nathan and others are discovering, as a premise for collective action, it can offer a new kind of leverage. Debt collectives, effectively debtors’ unions, may be the next stage of anti-austerity organizing. Collective action offers many possibilities for building power against creditors through collective bargaining, including the power to threaten a debt strike. Where for-profits prey on people’s vulnerability, isolation, and shame, debt collectives would nurture feelings of strength, solidarity, and outrage.

Those who profit from education fear such a transformation, and understandably so. “We ask students to make payments while in school to help them develop the discipline and practice of repaying their federal and other loan obligations,” a Corinthian Colleges spokesman said in response to the news of CFPB’s lawsuit.

It’s absurd: a single mother working two jobs and attending online classes to better her life is discipline personified, even if she can’t always pay her loans on time. The executives and investors living large off her financial aid are the ones who need to be taught a lesson. Perhaps we should collectively demand that as part of their punishment these predators take a course in self-discipline taught by their former students.

Hannah Appel is a mother, activist, and assistant professor of anthropology at UCLA. Her work looks at the everyday life of capitalism and the economic imagination. She has been active with Occupy Wall Street since 2011.

Astra Taylor is a writer, documentary filmmaker (including Zizek! and Examined Life), and activist. Her book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Metropolitan Books), was published in April. She helped launch the Occupy offshoot Strike Debt and its Rolling Jubilee campaign.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.

Copyright 2014 Hannah Appel and Astra Taylor

Mirrored from Tomdispatch.com where you can read Tom Engelhardt’s important information.

——

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Late Show with David Letterman: “Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the Bank Bailouts and Student Loans”

Categories: IraqWire, Leftward Blogs

Tesco turmoil and 'Breaking Bad' plot - papers

BBC UK Ed. - Tue, 2014-09-23 00:04
Supermarket Tesco's suspension of four executives over overstated profit guidance leads several papers, while others focus on claims of a Breaking Bad-style murder plot.
Categories: MediaTorrent

Ray Ozzie's new app reengineers the phone call

BoingBoing - Mon, 2014-09-22 23:52

Ex-Microsoft software genius Ray Ozzie's new mobile app Talko is all about reinventing telephony—voice messages and (gasp) conversations—as a collaborative tool; Steven Levy has the story at Medium.

Categories: Crunknet

The Syrian Maelstrom: How Repression, Drought & Climate Change Drove the Civil War

Informed Comment - Mon, 2014-09-22 23:31

By Tareq Ramadan

Long before March of 2011, when Syrian demonstrations calling for reform and in some cases, regime change, morphed into a full-blown military conflict that has transformed into a supranational bloodbath, the economic and political policies of Bashar Al-Assad’s Baa’thist regime undoubtedly fomented major discontent among various segments of Syria’s population. While both formal and informal opposition to the current regime has been active since Bashar Al-Assad took power via presidential referendum in 2000 after the death of his father and late President Hafez Al-Assad, events in the south-Syrian bordertown of Dera’a would forever change the socio-political dynamics of a nation ruled by the iron fists of the Al-Assad clan for more than four decades. Upon assuming the mantle of power in Syria, Syrians hopeful of political and economic liberalization under the modern, western-educated ophthalmologist-turned-president Bashar Al-Assad were mainly met with disappointment.

However, in a nation where the mukhabarat (secret police informants/intelligence agents) have long infiltrated all segments of society and institutions, a general aura of fear, suspicion, and paranoia persisted well into Bashar’s reign. I witnessed this first-hand when I visited and stayed in Dera’a for a few days with family friends several years before the uprising and recall the kind of vexing stares I received from some of those whom I attempted to raise the issue of Syrian politics with. I was a bit naïve and so I, more than anything, wanted to know if the stories I had heard about Syrian fears of the regime were legit. They were.

During the same year Bashar Al-Assad took power, ninety-nine Syrian intellectuals, writers, and critics crafted and signed the “Statement of 99” calling for an end to emergency rule/martial law that had been in place since 1963, for the state to pardon political dissidents detained, imprisoned, deported, or exiled by his father’s regime, formal recognition and implementation of freedom of assembly, press, and expression, as well as an end to the surveillance of its citizens by the secret police and security forces [1]. The movement behind the statement was composed of both anti-regime hardliners as well as moderates who collectively sought political reform. The result of long-festering political and economic dissent among Syrians, the “Statement of 99” was a brow-raising announcement that, at minimum, made the regime slightly uncomfortable. The formation of various think-tanks, organizations, and social and political ‘parties’ coincided with Bashar’s takeover of Syria- all of which were critical of the regime’s political and economic monopolies on the country caused the regime to crack down on dissenters. The following year, in 2001, one thousand academics, critics, and activists launched the “Statement of 1,000” which expanded on the previous statement’s tenets and called for a multi-party democracy to supplant the one-party Baa’thist state. This was met with another, albeit harsher, government crackdown [2].

The rise of social media was particularly worrisome for the regime as many officials viewed it as a possible platform for dissenting Syrians to collectively voice and spread their opposition to fellow citizens around the country. In 2007, in an attempt to thwart such possibilities, the Assad regime banned Facebook from Syria but on the grounds that social media could be manipulated by the Israelis for subversive purposes [3]. Facebook was joined by frequent bans on Microsoft Hotmail and other internet services that the regime deemed to be potential conduits for engaging in and propagating political dissent [4]. Government control over the media was incredibly tight under Assad who, in 2001, passed the Press Law that which subjected all (even posters) printed media materials to government censorship and control which was condemned in a memorandum to the Syrian Government by human rights groups (Decree No. 50/2001: Human Rights Concerns) [5]. Clearly, the regime was desperate to quell unfavorable opinions about the regime in any and all forms and was willing to undermine civil society for ‘national security’ concerns through their unreasonable policies- policies which only increasingly infuriated Syrians. A 2006 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) placed Syria among the top-ten most censored countries in the world, as did a 2006 report published by Reporters without Borders who claimed that it was common for Syrian security forces to arrest, interrogate, or try individuals for attempting to either view, download, or write on forbidden topics or issues (e.g. uploading or sharing images of police brutality or criticizing a regime official or regime policy) [6].

Nonetheless, while civil rights were systematically and successfully suppressed by the regime, the Syrians also faced an intolerant dictatorship that was inefficient and corrupt. The continued kleptocratic behavior of regime officials and relatives of the president had begun to exacerbate Syrian resentment towards the regime. For example, individuals like Al-Assad’s maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf, one of Syria’s most powerful men as well as being its wealthiest, with an estimated worth of $5 billion, and who has stakes in and in some cases, a monopoly over, some of Syria’s key economic sectors including telecommunications, oil, real estate, duty-free stores, and television and is believed to control a large portion (some say up to half) of country’s economy through an array of lucrative business dealings [7/8]. For many Syrians, Makhlouf was the quintessential graftocrat, using his family ties to build a fortune while most Syrians struggled to make a living. The U.S. even placed sanctions on him three years before the start of the Syrian uprising, accusing him of ‘public corruption’, which although a politicized move, was still rooted in some reality [9]. Tarnishing his image even more, he claimed he would relinquish some of his holdings and donate some of his wealth to Syrian charities to help the displaced, which according to many Syrians was laughable considering where the money came from in the first place [10]. Before the war, about 30% of Syrians lived in poverty despite having an unemployment rate under 10% [11].

Moreover, the regime’s disastrous mismanagement of water resources during a drought between 2006 and 2010 compounded Syrian economic woes and led to increased gaps between socioeconomic classes in Syria as farmers were unable to make a living due to the desertification of their agricultural lands [12]. Agriculture made up 22% of Syria’s economy before the uprising and subsequent war, and therefore had a wide-reaching impact on the country as a whole when farms began to vanish [13]. This led to frustration with the regime, who then initiated the cancellation of important subsidies which facilitated farming as well as social unrest for the inhabitants of rural communities who had to leave and find work elsewhere, according to Dutch environmentalist Francesca de Châtel [14]. 1.5 million Syrians (mainly from farming families) were forced to find work, at times, far away from home [15]. While the drought was obviously not the fault of the regime, its past policies and lack of foresight contributed to the crumbling of one of its most viable economic sectors which led to major financial stress for millions of Syrians.

All of these grievances began to fester when anti-regime protests began in early 2011. While initially limited to small demonstrations calling on the lifting of the Emergency Laws and better economic policies, the government was able to contain them with relative ease. When they grew as they did in Dera’a in March of that year, the government’s crackdowns intensified and greater numbers of Syrians became disillusioned by the regime’s insincerity in addressing and implementing political, social, and economic reforms. The zero-tolerance policies of the Assad regime only sought to radicalize some already, economically and politically disenfranchised segments of the Syrian population, some of which had been subdued by his father in previous years and had since been boiling with discontent.

Frequent political miscalculations by the regime alongside growing internal dissent caught Al-Assad by surprise as he and his party were unequipped and unprepared for the situation that ensued. It is on these grievances and frustrations that not just Syrian, but regional and extra-regional actors sought/seek to bank on and exploit Syria’s political fragility. When it was realized that the indigenous uprising was not going to lead to regime change, several local and global powers (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait, the U.S., and militant organizations like I.S.) maneuvered to increase the pressure on Al-Assad by providing money and arms as well as technical and logistical support to Syrian and non-Syrian armed factions, groups, organizations, and militias to upset the balance of power. On the other side of the equation, Syria’s allies including Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and Iraq have been actively involved on the side of the regime in an attempt to preserve the status quo- that is, to maintain power through a corridor of states whose regimes (or major non-state political actors) share economic, geo-political, religious and ideological ties and interests. Today, and as a result of politico-economic competition and hegemonic ambitions by a number of regional and more global powers , Syria is politically fragmented and partially decentralized, its population splintered, and its borders blurred as it continues to burn in an uncontrollable proxy war that has fomented major regional instability and has led to the deaths of nearly 200,000 Syrians and counting [16].

Tareq Ramadan is a PhD Candidate specializing in Arab and Islamic Studies and teaches courses on contemporary Arab society and Middle East political history.

Sources

1. Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire Flynt Lawrence Leverett, p. 91 (2005)

2. Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire Flynt Lawrence Leverett, p. 207 (2005)

3. http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/11/23/us-syria-facebook-idUSOWE37285020071123

4. http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/11/23/us-syria-facebook-idUSOWE37285020071123

5. http://www.hrw.org/legacy/backgrounder/mena/syria/

6. https://opennet.net/studies/syria2007

7. http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/07/meet-syrias-wealthiest-and-most-elusive-man/

8. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/16/us-syria-tycoon-idUSTRE75F7Z420110616

9. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/16/us-syria-tycoon-idUSTRE75F7Z420110616

10. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/16/us-syria-tycoon-idUSTRE75F7Z420110616

11. http://www.dw.de/civil-war-shatters-syrian-economy/a-17196882

12. http://ens-newswire.com/2014/02/28/assad-regimes-drought-response-triggered-syrian-war/

13. http://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/alarabiya-studies/2013/04/01/Syria-s-frail-economy-before-and-after-the-revolution.html

14. http://ens-newswire.com/2014/02/28/assad-regimes-drought-response-triggered-syrian-war/

15. http://thebulletin.org/climate-change-and-syrian-uprising

16. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/08/22/united-nations-syria-death-toll/14429549/

Tareq Ramadan is a PhD Candidate specializing in Arab and Islamic Studies and teaches classes on Middle East History and Contemporary Arab Society at Wayne State University in the U.S.
——–

Related video added by Juan Cole

Reuters: “Islamic State fighting rages in Syria as world heads to United Nations”

Categories: IraqWire, Leftward Blogs

'They Made Us Take the Seat of Death'

ForeignPolicy blog - Mon, 2014-09-22 23:27
Meet a man executed by the Islamic State -- who survived.
Categories: GlobalWire

Puffball Thingy

Minnesota Flickr - Mon, 2014-09-22 23:26

barbroehler posted a photo:

Categories: Minnesnota

13 Years after US started Bombing it, Afghanistan Still Unstable

Informed Comment - Mon, 2014-09-22 23:26

News Analysis: Afghan Deal Leaves Room For National Disunity

By Frud Bezhan via RFE/RL

After months of wrangling and high tension, Afghanistan has finally named a president-elect. 

Ashraf Ghani's name was officially entered into the books as the winner of the highly contentious, fraud-marred contest, shortly after he and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, signed a power-sharing deal. 

The developments signal an important breakthrough and spell the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history. But important questions remain over the mechanics of the compromise deal.

Who Gets What?

Abdullah, or his choice for the post, will assume the position of chief executive under the agreement. The newly created role has been compared to that of a prime minister, and the agreement allows for a possible parliamentary system in the future, but for now power ultimately rests with the president.​

Under the terms of the power-sharing agreement, the new government will have a cabinet — including the chief executive and his two deputies. Emphasis is placed on "parity" when it comes to deciding on leadership positions in ministries relating to security and the economy. The two sides will be "equally represented at the leadership level." 

Lower-level appointments will be "equitably" distributed, meaning there will not be a one-for-one handout of jobs. This could be a source of disagreement, seeing as Ghani has stressed a "merit-based" mechanism for appointing officials.

Srijoy Bose x

Srijoy Bose

"A merit-based system would be one effective way to undo the present clientelist system — and it is precisely for this reason that key actors will be apprehensive," says Srijoy Bose, a researcher at Australian National University who served as an international observer during the June 14 runoff. "They will continue to coerce their patrons into acquiescing to their demands. The challenge, then, will be how the president and CEO accommodate each other's vast networks without coming to blows."

Technically, the president will lead the cabinet, while the chief executive will oversee its implementation of government policies and will be "answerable to the president." The chief executive will also chair regular meetings of a new "council of ministers," which will take care of the day-to-day administration. 

While an agreement has been signed, details must still be sorted out. Upon taking office, Ghani must issue a presidential decree outlining the specific "responsibilities, authorities, and honors" of the chief-executive position. With the president having final say over the extent of the chief executive’s authority, there is much room for disagreement over the interpretation of the document. 

In that event, the president and chief executive are committed to working out their differences in the spirit of "partnership, collegiality, collaboration, and most importantly, responsibility to the people of Afghanistan."

What Comes Next?

The chief executive is intended to be a temporary fix, eventually giving way to a prime minster. A Constitutional Loya Jirga, a traditional gathering of tribal elders, would be convened in about two years to hammer out the details.

As president, Ghani can create the post of chief executive by decree, but the constitution would have to be amended to establish a prime-minister position that has teeth and cannot be dissolved by the president. The Constitutional Loya Jirga would have to define and ratify those changes, after which parliament would need to sign off.

Here, the current presidential system carries significant influence. The president has the ability to hand-pick attendees of the jirga, potentially shaping the outcome of the gathering and helping determine what powers are conceded to the prime minister. 

Complicating matters is that a Constitutional Loya Jirga can only convene when there are elected district councils. In the document signed by Ghani and Abdullah, both committed to holding elections that would establish such councils "as soon as possible." 

Can They Coexist?

The big question is whether Kabul is big enough for two powerful figures. 

The international community has expressed hope that the compromise deal will usher in stability in the country. Washington said that "respect for the democratic process" was the only viable path forward for Afghanistan, while regional heads of state offered votes of confidence about the agreement and the end of the election crisis. 

The Taliban, meanwhile, slammed the deal as a "sham."

"Installing Ashraf Ghani and forming a bogus administration will never be acceptable to the Afghans," Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said in a statement e-mailed to journalists. 

The reaction of election-weary Afghans was muted. There were no large-scale celebrations on the streets of Kabul, but there were no orchestrated protests either. 

Anger was evident, however, over the failure by election officials to release the final results — reportedly out of concerns that doing so could inflame ethnic tensions. 

"It signals that people's votes do not actually matter and highlights the fact that politics in Afghanistan is about deal-making and negotiations," Bose says. "As one expert has put it, allowing the votes to be 'discarded' not only robs the candidates of legitimacy but also ensures that such crises will recur in the future."

After millions of Afghans defied Taliban threats to cast their ballots in April and June, the murky outcome raised questions of whether their votes had counted. 

Mirrored from RFE/RL

Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

—–

Related video added by Juan Cole:

PBS NewsHour: “Will Afghanistan’s power-sharing deal last?”

Categories: IraqWire, Leftward Blogs

Woman has third breast implanted

BoingBoing - Mon, 2014-09-22 23:25

Jasmine Tridevil, a massage therapist in Tampa, Florida, claims that she had a third breast implanted to get famous, land a reality show, and become "unattractive to men" because she doesn't "want to date anymore." Read the rest

Categories: Crunknet

Either With Us or Against Us

ForeignPolicy blog - Mon, 2014-09-22 23:18
As Turkey's ruling party consolidates its power, the space for free expression narrows. The third in our series of Lab Reports on Turkey.
Categories: GlobalWire

MSUM Homecoming Block Party

Minnesota Flickr - Mon, 2014-09-22 23:08

RickAbbott posted a photo:

Categories: Minnesnota

MSUM Homecoming Block Party

Minnesota Flickr - Mon, 2014-09-22 23:08

RickAbbott posted a photo:

Categories: Minnesnota

STOP

Minnesota Flickr - Mon, 2014-09-22 23:08

blue corgi posted a photo:

A little late night shooting...

Categories: Minnesnota

The BagNewsSalon – Photoville 2014: Reading the Key News Pictures of the Year

BAGNewsNotes - Mon, 2014-09-22 23:06

Slideshow

(photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images caption: Israelis gathered on a hilltop outside the town of Sderot on Monday to watch the bombardment of Gaza.)

(photo: Glenna Gordon caption: The photographer Glenna Gordon met relatives of some of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. She realized that while she could not photograph the girls themselves, she could photograph their personal possessions and present the items — dresses, notebooks, letters — as nicely as possible. The families sent their daughters’ belongings by bush taxi and bus. Here, school uniforms.)

(photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images caption: Rio's iconic Maracana Stadium is lit at dusk behind a favela on December 10, 2013 in Rio de Janeiro .)

(photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images caption: A man sleeps on a sidewalk in Copacabana while dressed in Brazil colors in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.)

(photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images caption: Gabrielle Walker, 5, protests the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Despite the Brown family's continued call for peaceful demonstrations, violent protests have erupted nearly every night in Ferguson since his death.)

(photo: John Moore—Getty Images caption: A Liberian health worker speaks with families in a classroom now used as Ebola isolation ward on Aug. 15, 2014 in Monrovia.)

(photo: Todd Heisler/The New York Times caption: Emilio Garibaybartolo, 15, center, gathers with his family for a Saturday night feature of Godzilla at The Last Drive-In Picture Show in Gatesville, Texas. His father is a Mexican immigrant who became a citizen while serving in the US military.)

(photo: Todd Heisler/The New York Times caption: In South Texas, the Rio Grande’s twists and turns — at some points 180 degrees — make it very difficult for the United States Border Patrol to monitor for illegal crossings. Here, Texas is on the left and right; Mexico is in the middle.)

(photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images caption: A group of miners search a field for debris and human remains from an Malaysia Airlines plane on July 18, 2014 in Grabovka, Ukraine.)

Talking about photos is not the same as giving them a close read, drawing out their effects and their impact in the media, the social media and the social and political sphere. The BagNewsSalon brings together the eyes and voices of leading photojournalists, editors, visual analysts and informed observers to do something that is highly valued but never happens enough — looking deeply at and discussing individual photos.

Not only are we excited about the panel we have brought together for Photoville, we believe it’s a rare opportunity to address what these pictures have to say about the current practice of photojournalism, the current state of media and social media, and how they shape and impact the most critical issues of the times. Our distinguished Photoville panel will discuss ten key images that have appeared in 2014, including photos by Todd Heisler on immigration from “The Way North” and Mario Tama on his extensive coverage of Brazil and the World Cup. If you are near Brooklyn this coming weekend, we hope you will join us. Otherwise, we will be posting the full video and edited highlights here in the coming weeks.

When:

Sunday 9/28/2014
5:00 – 7:00pm (before the festival’s closing night party)

Where: Photoville

Photoville is located on the uplands of Pier 5 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The talks take place at One Brooklyn Bridge Park storefront (at the intersection of Joralemon and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Greenway).

  • Panelists

  • David Campbell Independent writer, researcher, lecturer and producer who analyzes visual storytelling and creates new visual stories
  • Meg HandlerBagNews Editor-at-Large
  • Todd Heisler Staff photographer for The New York Times
  • Robert Mackey New York-based foreign correspondent for The New York Times
  • Mario Tama Staff photographer, Getty Images
  • Jamie Wellford, Photo Editor/Curator
  • Michael Shaw Publisher – BagNewsNotes

Shock & Awe In Syria: It never Works

Informed Comment - Mon, 2014-09-22 23:05

By Juan Cole

The London pan-Arab daily “Hayat” [Life] reports this morning on the air strikes conducted on ISIL positions in Raqqah, Syria, by the United States and several Arab allies.

The Syrian government acknowledged that the US gave fair warning it would bomb Raqqah to the Syrian ambassador to the UN. That is, the US may not militarily be coordinating with Syria, but it does inform the regime of enough information to avoid a shoot-down.

Not only ISIL positions but also some targets of the Jabhat al-Nusra or Succor Front (the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria) were struck by the US and its allies. Once you enter a war, it doesn’t stay limited.

The US deployed not only fighter jets but also drone strikes and Tomahawk missiles, presumably fired from a destroyer from the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. It targeted suspected arms depots, the mayor’s mansion (used by ISIL as its HQ in Raqqah), and checkpoints, among other things. Dozens of ISIL fighters were said to be killed and more wounded.

Jim Sciutto tweeted,

Saudi Arabia, Jordan and UAE all taking part alongside US in air strikes tonight against #ISIS in #Syria No European nations

— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) September 23, 2014

Louisa Loveluck also weighed in:

#pt US officials say airstrikes not unilateral – backed by coalition of Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

— Louisa Loveluck (@leloveluck) September 23, 2014

Apparently “backed by” does not mean “joined in the bombing” in the cases of Bahrain and Qatar. Qatar may have flown escort, but word is that it didn’t actually drop bombs.

Some 80% of Raqqah’s 240,000 inhabitants, i.e. about 190,000 people, are said to have remained after ISIL took over the city, despite its harsh and arbitrary rule. It is inevitable that US and allied bombing on important Raqqah military targets will kill a certain number of civilians. That is, Raqqah is roughly the size of Grand Rapids, Michigan or Salt Lake City, Utah. Imagine if fighter-jets were dropping bombs on targets within those small cities?

The some 22 sorties flown on Monday will have killed some ISIL terrorists, blown up some weapons warehouses, and destroyed some checkpoints. But ISIL are guerrillas, and they will just fade away into Raqqah’s back alleys. The US belief in air power is touching, but in fact no conflict has ever been quickly brought to an end where US planes have been involved.

The ISIL guerrillas will fade away, perhaps inside the city, where you can’t bomb them without killing a lot of civilians (and they will video the victims for you). Then there will just be occasional drone strikes of the sort that were relatively ineffectual in Afghanistan and FATA in Pakistan.

The US dropped enormous numbers of bombs on Iraq since 2003, and in the end its sponsored government lost 40% of the country to ISIL. Bombing positions in Syria in the absence of an allied ground force is highly unlikely to be decisive in and of itself.

——

Related video:

CBS Evening News: “U.S. begins airstrikes against ISIS inside Syria”

CBS Evening News [Verified]

Categories: IraqWire, Leftward Blogs

MSUM Homecoming Block Party

Minnesota Flickr - Mon, 2014-09-22 22:50

RickAbbott posted a photo:

Categories: Minnesnota

MSUM Homecoming Block Party

Minnesota Flickr - Mon, 2014-09-22 22:50

RickAbbott posted a photo:

Categories: Minnesnota
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