News & Current Affairs

September 9, 2008

Economic battle is joined in US race

Economic battle is joined in US race

Jobseekers at a jobs fair in California. File photo

Unemployment is rising in the US as the credit crunch hits home

With just two months to go before the US presidential election, the state of the economy is far and away the biggest concern for most US voters.

The credit crunch has inflicted severe damage on Wall Street, left millions at risk of losing their homes, and millions more in negative equity.

Unemployment has risen above 6% while high petrol prices and rising inflation have squeezed household budgets to the limit.

Things are unlikely to get any better soon. Most economic forecasts suggest that the economy will slow sharply in the rest of 2008. The first official figures will be published in late October – on the very eve of the election.

TOP ISSUES
Economy: 39%
Iraq: 14%
Gas prices: 4%
Source: Washington Post/ABC News telephone poll, 19-22 August 2008, sample size 1108, margin of error +/- 3%

This is the background for a battle over economic policy that has so far been dominated by two issues – energy prices and taxes.Senator McCain made headlines by calling for a temporary suspension of federal gasoline taxes over the summer. He favors a major expansion of nuclear power and further drilling for oil on the US continental shelf. His running mate Sarah Palin, meanwhile, is a strong advocate of further development of Alaskan oil and gas reserves.

Mr Obama has called Mr McCain’s proposals “the same old gimmicks” though he has recently softened his outright opposition to drilling.

His energy plan calls for a big effort to shift the US towards cleaner energy, a windfall tax on oil companies, and a $50bn government investment plan to promote “energy independence”.

Tax cuts

To boost the economy, Senator Obama and many Democrats in Congress would like another stimulus package, worth around $50bn – following on from the $168bn package already put into effect – and more aid to help people at risk of foreclosure to stay in their homes.

But the growing size of the government’s budget deficit, which is expected to more than double to $400bn next year, limits the scope for further action of this kind.

It’s the size of that deficit that has put taxes at the heart of the economic debate between the two candidates.

Mr Obama wants to repeal the “tax cuts for the rich” of the Bush administration, and use the money to give further tax breaks to the “middle class” (all taxpayers earning less than $250,000), including special tax relief for college education.

He also has ambitious plans to use the tax system to boost jobs, provide subsidies for healthcare, and help redistribute income to the working poor.

PORK- BARREL POLITICS
Commerce: $9bn
Defence: $9bn
Military construction: $6.6bn
Energy: $4.6bn
Transportation: $3.2bn
Foreign aid and exports: $14bn
Congressional earmarks in FY 2005. Source: Congressional Research Service

Senator McCain, however, reversing his earlier position, wants to keep the Bush tax cuts, which he argues will help small businessmen and lead to more job creation, while balancing the federal budget by eliminating wasteful spending.He has attacked “earmarks”, the system of “pork-barrel” politics where individual Congressmen and Senators get extra spending projects for their districts by attaching riders to important bills.

The most infamous of these pork-barrel projects was the $400m “bridge to nowhere” – which would have linked the 7,000 people in Ketchikan , Alaska, with their airport on Gravina island, replacing a three-minute ferry ride – promoted by the now-disgraced Alaska Republican Senator Ted Stevens.

It was Sarah Palin’s role as governor of Alaska in ultimately blocking this project which first brought her to the attention of Senator McCain.

But earmarks make up only $50bn of the $2,000bn Federal budget, according to the Congressional Research Service, and two-thirds of them relate to military spending or foreign aid, which Mr McCain has pledged to preserve.

Balancing acts

The ability of both candidates to project bold economic policy initiatives has been limited by disagreement within their own camps.

Manhattan street scene - file image

Wall Street wants a fiscal conservative – but small businessmen want tax cuts

Mr Obama’s economic instincts appear to lie with the moderate wing of the Democratic party, to judge from his appointment of Jason Furman, a close associate of former US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin as his economic advisor.These “Rubin” Democrats persuaded the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, that balancing the budget was more important for long-term economic growth than new spending programs.

Senator Obama has emphasized “nudge” economics, where the government tries to encourage individuals to take out private pensions and healthcare, rather than big new government programs.

But he faces pressure from the Democratic base, which is expecting him to tackle the lack of healthcare coverage for one in six Americans, and from the unions, which want him to do more to protect American jobs from “unfair” foreign competition.

Expanding health coverage to all children, as he has proposed, could cost at least $100bn a year.

And his support for renegotiating trade talks to include clauses recognising workers’ rights has worried businessmen.

Senator McCain, meanwhile, also has to appease two conflicting constituencies.

Many traditional Republicans share Mr McCain’s original beliefs in small government, low taxes and a balanced budget – as, mostly, does Wall Street, the US financial centre.

However, the Republican Party in power increased spending, especially on defence, while cutting taxes, leading to growing deficits.

Mr McCain backs higher defense spending, and in recent months he has increasingly leaned to the “supply-siders”, Republicans who believe that tax cuts are more important than balancing budgets – a view many small businessmen on Main Street, struggling in the economic downturn, would endorse.

Empathy

Both parties are also divided on how far the government should go in bailing out homeowners and banks who are the victims of the credit crunch.

Many Main Street Republicans are outraged by the idea that people who undertook irresponsible home loans, when they knew they could not afford them, should be bailed out – a view Mr McCain sometimes reflects.

And many left-leaning Democrats believe that the big banks and their shareholders who irresponsibly promoted sub-prime lending should be allowed to fail, rather than being bailed out by the US Treasury – as happened with Wall Street investment bank Bear Stearns and now the government-sponsored giant mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The policy solutions so far put forward to ease the credit crunch have been agreed on a bipartisan basis between Congress and the Bush administration.

WHO DO YOU TRUST MORE TO HANDLE THE ECONOMY?
Barack Obama: 50%
John McCain: 39%
Neither/None: 9%
Source: Washington Post/ABC News telephone poll, 19-22 August 2008, sample size 1108, margin of error +/- 3%

But voters have consistently expressed more confidence in the Democrats’ ability to handle the economy than the Republicans’ – so it’s a puzzle why this has not translated into a decisive poll lead for Senator Obama.

This may be because the battle is really over perception – which candidate has more empathy for the economic plight of ordinary Americans.

The choice of Sarah Palin as Mr McCain’s vice-presidential candidate was partly an attempt to put an “ordinary hockey mom” at the heart of his campaign.

Senator Obama, for his part, devoted much of his speech at the Democratic convention to the difficulties faced by hard-working Americans – perhaps hoping to banish the memory of his comments in March about “bitter” small-townspeople.

“It’s not because John McCain doesn’t care – it’s because John McCain doesn’t get it,” he said.

If Americans are persuaded that one candidate both understands their problems and can fix them, that could be the key to an election victory.

So far there is still everything to play for.

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September 6, 2008

When sex becomes an addiction

When sex becomes an addiction

(Expressyoureself) — “Californication” star David Duchovny made headlines for voluntarily entering rehab last week. But it wasn’t for drugs or alcohol. It was for another dependency, one that affects millions of Americans but is seldom discussed: sex addiction.

While sex can be healthy for a relationship, some people develop an addiction to porn, affairs, and other behaviors.

While sex can be healthy for a relationship, some people develop an addiction to porn, affairs, and other behaviors.

Sex addiction, also called compulsive sexual behavior, is like a gambling compulsion or alcoholism: It’s about devoting your free time to a behavior that you cannot stop, even if you damage relationships or prompt other negative consequences. That could mean extensively using pornography, having affairs, sleeping with prostitutes, and masturbating excessively, to the point where such behaviors get out of control.

If you think it’s just about primal desire, think again. For many addicts, sex becomes a way to numb out painful feelings, kill time or stop feeling lonely, says Kelly McDaniel, licensed professional counselor in San Antonio, Texas, and author of “Ready to Heal: Women Facing Love, Sex and Relationship Addiction.”

“Most people I talk to get to the point where they don’t even like sex,” said McDaniel, who has no connection to David Duchovny and did not speculate about his specific situation.

Who are sex addicts?

Sex addiction is estimated to affect 3 to 6 percent of adults in the United States, according to the Mayo Clinic, but the American Psychiatric Association has not classified the condition in its diagnostic handbook. Sexhelp.com, run by psychologist Patrick Carnes, provides an online test to help people determine if they have a problem.

The Internet, providing endless opportunities for porn-watching and cybersex, has fueled a surge in cases of sex addiction, experts say.

“We’re seeing it with epidemic proportions now, particularly with regards to cybersex,” said Mark Schwartz, psychologist and former director of the Masters and Johnson Institute in St. Louis, Missouri. “There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t get two calls” about sex addiction.

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Therapists have recently seen more women with the condition in connection with Internet porn, which has become a “gender-neutral” addiction, McDaniel said. Before, female sex addicts generally tended to have affairs or become sex workers, she said.

Experts acknowledge that people who have affairs or use pornography are not necessarily sex addicts. Such pastimes form an addiction when they generate negative consequences for a person’s relationships, take over free time and become impossible to quit.

Where does it come from?

About 80 percent of sex addiction cases have sexual abuse or emotional trauma in their backgrounds, said Doug Weiss, therapist and executive director of the Heart to Heart Counseling Center. Schwartz also noted that huge numbers of people coming forward as sex addicts have been abused, assaulted or raped.

“When you have abuse in your background, you’re less likely to trust people, [and] you’re more likely to turn to something like sex addiction as a manifestation,” Schwartz said.

Feelings of neglect as a child — whether from divorced parents or parents who both worked and didn’t spend a lot of time with their kids — may also lead to sex addiction, Schwartz said.

Research into the neuroscience of sex addiction has not been conclusive, the Mayo Clinic said. Naturally occurring chemicals in the brain such as dopamine and serotonin do contribute to sexual functioning, but it’s not clear how they are related to sex addiction. McDaniel said these two chemicals are lower in the brains of children who have suffered abuse, which may explain why some of them use their own bodies — or, in other cases, food — to increase dopamine and serotonin levels.

A lot of teenagers develop their sexuality with pornography, and then find that relational sex isn’t as satisfying, Weiss said. Porn gives them a “very strong chemical hit,” and alters ways of thinking about sex, somewhat like the classic “ring the bell, feed the dog” stimulus-response mechanism. Addicts thus learn to become sexually attached to objects, and have trouble getting the same kind of satisfaction from sex in a relationship, he said.

For many people, especially women, sex addiction occurs in tandem with another problem such as an eating disorder, drug or alcohol addiction, McDaniel said.

How does treatment work?

A good treatment center will review the reasons why the addiction has come about, along with the brain chemistry of it, McDaniel said. A premier rehabilitation facility would have a combination of individual and group therapy, 12-step support, and possibly psychiatric medications such as antidepressant medications if necessary.

Health Library

  • MayoClinic.com: Compulsive sexual behavior

The 12-step programs, which have components that parallel Alcoholics Anonymous, are the most widely used form of treatment, said Sam Alibrando, therapist and consultant in Pasadena, California. They involve having a sponsor and being available for others in the group at any time. Anecdotally, however, they work less well than AA because sex is harder to give up, said Alibrando, author of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road: How to Change for the Better When Life Gives You Its Worst.”

“Treatment is long-term, and it’s not easy,” McDaniel said. “I really recommend that a woman or a man find someone who’s trained and understands that sex addiction is a brain disease and does not further the shame that comes with this disease.”

Unlike drugs or alcohol, the goal of sex addiction therapy is usually not abstinence, but rather learning to have sex in a relationship, experts say. Similarly, someone who recovers from an overeating disorder does not stop eating entirely but learns how to manage diet. Marriage counseling often becomes part of the treatment, Weiss says.

The goals of recovery vary for different people, says Alibrando. He’s currently treating a couple in which the wife cannot tolerate her husband even looking at other women. On the other end of the spectrum, he has treated couples in which a woman will buy her boyfriend pornography.

“The spectrum is so wide in terms of where people draw the line,” says Alibrando.

Some recovering addicts join support groups requiring that members only have sex with their partners, even prohibiting masturbation.

What’s after recovery?

Weiss considers himself a former sex addict, having recognized his problem in his early 20s. Women weren’t making him happy; he was using pornography and felt “in conflict” about it.

Now, he runs a resource Web site for recovery at sexaddict.com, along with three-day intensive workshops to jump-start recovery for sex addicts.

Weiss said he’s proud of Duchovny for voluntarily seeking help, apparently without prodding from press reports or lawsuits.

“This kind of person who decides to get recovery for themselves without getting exposed” is “likely to get better,” he said. “People who voluntarily get better have a much better chance of staying well.”

September 3, 2008

Bush backs McCain for president

Bush backs McCain for president

President George W Bush has praised John McCain’s service and leadership in a speech to the Republican convention.

Speaking via video-link from the White House, he told delegates in St Paul, Minnesota, that Mr McCain was “a great American and the next president”.

Mr McCain is due to be nominated on Thursday as the party’s presidential candidate for November’s election.

The main talking point so far has been the news that the teenage daughter of Mr McCain’s running mate is pregnant.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, chosen as the vice-presidential nominee last week, announced on Monday that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, would have the baby and marry her boyfriend.

In his eight-minute address, Mr Bush described Mr McCain as a president ready to make the tough decisions needed “in a dangerous world”.

John McCain’s life is a story of service above self
President George W Bush

“John McCain’s life has prepared him to make those choices. He is ready to lead this nation,” Mr Bush said.

He also spoke of Mr McCain’s life as “a story of service above self” and emphasized the “independence and character” he showed in backing the administration’s “surge” strategy of pouring more forces into Iraq.

Former Senator Fred Thompson, who ran against Mr McCain in the party’s primaries, opened a lively speech with criticism of the Democrats and the media for their scrutiny of Mrs Palin and her family.

He also spoke of Mr McCain’s military service, his courage while a prisoner of war in Vietnam and his commitment to reform in Washington.

Mr Thompson went on to attack the Democrats and their record since taking control of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections.

Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat who was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, spoke of Mr McCain as “the best choice to bring our country together and lead our country forward”.

Gustav appeal

Most of the first day’s political events were suspended out of respect for communities affected by Hurricane Gustav.

Instead, Mr McCain’s wife, Cindy, and First Lady Laura Bush made calls to support those under threat.

Mrs Bush told delegates that such events transcended party politics and reminded people that they were Americans first.

Gustav was downgraded to a tropical storm after making landfall on Monday west of New Orleans, where hundreds of thousands of people had been evacuated.

The storm came three years after Hurricane Katrina struck, killing more than 1,800 people and resulting in huge damage to the city and its surrounding area. President Bush was strongly criticised over his handling of the crisis.

Palin talking point

The Republican Party convention is now getting down to work after the uncertainty brought on by Hurricane Gustav.

Tuesday’s events are focusing on Mr McCain, a concentrated piece of political image building with a keynote speech from Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent senator, who has decided to support the party’s candidate, our correspondent says.

John McCain and Sarah Palin (31 August 2008)
Sarah Palin’s announcement has so far overshadowed the convention

President Bush cancelled his planned opening night speech amid concerns that overt political campaigning would play badly with voters at a time of potential crisis.

But many Republicans will be glad he is not here in St Paul in person, our correspondent says, and much of this week will be about defining Mr McCain as very different to his unpopular predecessor.

Meanwhile, media attention has continued to focus on Mrs Palin, who is facing an ethics investigation in her home state and whose daughter’s pregnancy made headlines on Monday.

The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that Bristol’s boyfriend, named as 18-year-old Levi Johnston, would be joining the Palin family at the convention in Minnesota.

The AP quotes Mr Johnston’s mother, Sherry, as saying he had been put under no pressure to marry and that the pair had been planning to wed before they knew she was pregnant.

Our correspondent says Mrs Palin’s selection as vice-presidential candidate has caused great excitement among social conservatives and evangelical Christians here.

But across the broader Republican Party there seems to be some unease – she is an unknown quantity, and when she is finally brought out on to the convention stage on Wednesday, many McCain supporters will be crossing their fingers and hoping she performs, he adds.

The 72-year-old Arizona senator is expected to formally accept his candidacy in a prime-time speech on Thursday evening.


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August 8, 2008

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

KABUL, Afghanistan – The deadliest three months for American forces in Afghanistan have pushed the U.S. death toll to at least 500, forcing a war long overshadowed by Iraq back into the headlines.

Larger, more sophisticated militant attacks have also caused a sharp rise in Afghan civilian deaths — at least 472 in the first seven months of the year, most in suicide bombings, according to an Associated Press count.

In all, at least 600 Afghan civilians were killed from January through July, a 30 percent increase from the same period last year, according to AP figures compiled from coalition and Afghan officials. That includes at least 128 killed by U.S. or NATO forces.

There are about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the highest since the war began, meaning more troops than ever are patrolling this country’s mountainous terrain and exposed to ambushes and roadside bombs.

The U.S. military suffered 65 deaths in May, June and July, by far the deadliest three-month period in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. The previous deadliest three-month period was in the spring of 2005, with 45 U.S. deaths.

In July, more U.S. troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq for the month, for the first time since the Iraq war started in 2003. In all, 92 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan this year, a pace that would surpass last year’s death toll of 111.

The spike in violence is forcing U.S. leaders, including the presidential candidates, to call for still more troops here.

More than ever, the U.S. government recognizes the situation Afghanistan “is serious and needs to be dealt with,” said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the RAND Corp., a Washington-based think tank that often does studies for the Pentagon.

“I think it is an important step that … the gravity of the situation has been recognized and that there are some steps in place to turn the tide in Afghanistan,” he said. “Whether that is successful or not is of course an open question.”

Overall, at least 500 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Qatar and United Arab Emirates in support of the Afghan mission, according to an AP analysis based on Defense Department press releases.

“In terms of milestones, it’s important to point out that no casualty is more significant than any other,” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Wright. “Each service member is equally precious, and each loss of life is equally tragic.”

The AP count is based on information from U.S., NATO or Afghan officials, often impossible to independently verify because of the remote or dangerous locations of the incidents.

The Defense Department count often lags by several days. The most recent Defense Department count, issued Saturday, showed 496 U.S. troop deaths in and around Afghanistan.

Counting coalition troops, Taliban militants and Afghan civilians, more than 3,000 people have died in violence this year, according to the AP count.

In the past, the Taliban appeared to try to minimize civilian casualties by launching its large-scale attacks primarily against U.S., NATO or Afghan troops.

But this year a February bombing at a dog fighting competition in Kandahar killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians. An attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last month killed more than 60.

Steven Simon, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the recent attacks with high civilian death tolls reflect a migration of both tactics and fighters from Iraq to Afghanistan.

“The reported presence in Afghanistan of the head of al-Qaida in Iraq underscores the extent to which blowback from Iraq is being felt in Afghanistan,” Simon said in an e-mail. “At this point, al-Qaida’s leadership seems to be looking at the Afghan theater as the next big thing.”

Afghan and U.S. officials say a big reason for the spike in violence is because militaries use sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan where they can arm and train fighters who launch attacks across the border on U.S. and Afghan forces. More al-Qaida fighters have been using the region to launch attacks than in previous years, U.S. officials say.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, blamed the rise on violence principally on two factors: a peace agreement earlier this year between the Pakistan government and some militants in its tribal areas near the Afghan border, and support given by Pakistan’s intelligence agency to Taliban fighters.

Pakistan denies it is helping Taliban fighters or that it has entered into peace agreements with militants who launch attacks in Afghanistan.

Insurgent attacks have jumped by 50 percent in the first half of 2008, according to data from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a Kabul-based group paid for by Western donors that advises relief groups on security.

In a report last week, ANSO said it logged 2,056 insurgent attacks in the first half of the year, a 52 percent increase from the same period last year.

The group said violence was up sharply in relatively peaceful northern and western Afghanistan and the region surrounding Kabul.

Both major presidential candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, have called for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan. President Bush has said more troops will be dedicated to the Afghan fight in 2009 but has not said how many.

U.S. military officials have said the Afghan effort needs three more brigades of troops, or about 10,500 forces.

Any new forces sent here can expect to face vicious attacks from an increasingly brazen Taliban force. Last month more than 200 militant fighters attacked a remote U.S. outpost in a dangerous and mountainous region of northeastern Afghanistan. Nine U.S. troops were killed and 15 wounded.

Even local Afghan civilians joined in on the attack, a sign the U.S. and NATO face steep challenges in their bid to win the population over to the side of the Afghan government.

“The size of the operation and the ability of the group to get support within the town was somewhat alarming, and it shows that there is clearly some concern with local Afghans, and that’s a concern because civilians are the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency,” said Jones. “The dangerous message is that there was involvement by the civilians.”

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