News Round-Up

How Berlusconi survived his scandals: “In some ways, Berlusconi is the Italian political equivalent of Bank of America or AIG: he is simply too big to fail. Too many who have carved out their slice of power would risk losing it all in the monumental shakeout that would follow Berlusconi’s exit from politics. And even in that unlikely scenario, the Prime Minister would have his ownership of the nation’s major private television networks to fall back on” [We doubt his statement that he is the best Prime Minister in Italy’s 150-year history, but we have to agree that he is the most influential Italian of his generation.]

Tom Friedman is (again) on alternative energy: Applied Materials is one of the most important U.S. companies you’ve probably never heard of. It makes the machines that make the microchips that go inside your computer, and it maintains a real-time global interaction with all 14 solar panel factories it’s built around the world in the last two years, none in the U.S.: five are in Germany, four are in China, one is in Spain, one is in India, one is in Italy, one is in Taiwan and one is even in Abu Dhabi. Germany now generates almost half the solar power in the world today and, as a byproduct, is making itself the world-center for solar research, engineering, manufacturing and installation. With more than 50,000 new jobs, the renewable energy industry in Germany is now second only to its auto industry. AM’s biggest U.S. customer is a German-owned company in Oregon. [Usual Friedman Soundbite: So, if you like importing oil from Saudi Arabia, you’re going to love importing solar panels from China.]

…meanwhile, environment gets ignored (again): Carbon cap-and-trade bill, the legislation to limit national greenhouse-gas emissions, passed the House in June. However, Senate majority leader Harry Reid told reporters that the Senate might have to wait to act on cap and trade until after tackling health care and banking reform. Given how controversial cap and trade remains (the bill was weak but a bill nonetheless) even among many Democrats in the Senate — Republicans remain almost unanimously opposed — action in the election year of 2010 might be even tougher. The White House has taken  unilateral steps— like the move to place the first-ever national limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles — but that might not be enough.

Why the Illegal Immigrants should have healthcare: Insuring undocumented workers is ethically murky and politically impossible. If we’re hiring illegals, we have a moral obligation to care for them. Given that illegal immigrants have broken our laws, it makes sense that large numbers of upstanding citizens oppose any measure that would encourage more foreigners to sneak into America or make their lives easier once they’re here. However, American Journal of Public Health, contends that immigrants typically arrive in America during their prime working years and tend to be younger and healthier than the rest of the U.S. population. As a result, health-care expenditures for the average immigrant are 55 percent lower than for a native-born American citizen with similar characteristics. So if you add cheaper people to cover to the pool, you reduce the average cost. If illegals were covered, this hidden tax (on free emergency and charitable care) would decrease. Employers  have an incentive to hire undocumented immigrants because they don’t require coverage, thus giving illegal immigrants an unfair advantage in competing for jobs. Also, many undocumented workers leave the country before they’re old enough to require much medical care.

A Hope for Peace in Somalia? President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, who became president in February, is a former high school teacher, who became president in February. His moderate Islamist government is widely considered to be Somalia’s best chance for stability in years, which included 21 years of dictatorship and the 18 years of chaos that followed. Ahmed has both widespread grass-roots support inside the country and extensive help from outside nations, who are counting on Sheik Sharif to tackle piracy and beat back the spread of militant Islam. After years of ambivalence about Somalia, the United States is playing an increasingly active role here, and recently shipped 40 tons of weapons to Somalia to keep Sheik Sharif’s government alive. This week, American commandos killed a Qaeda agent in southern Somalia in a daylight helicopter raid. However, Ahmed has a disarrayed armed force–many of his commanders still have ties to the Shabab, the Islamist insurgents working with Al Qaeda. If not for the 5,000 African Union troops guarding the port, airport and Villa Somalia–the presidential villa–his government would quickly fall. (The Shabab and their insurgent brethren now control most of Mogadishu and much of the country).

Meanwhile, we continue to exploit Africans: A British oil trading giant, Trafigura, has agreed to a multimillion-pound payout to settle a huge damages claim from thousands of Africans who fell ill from tonnes of toxic waste dumped illegally in one of the worst pollution incidents in decades. Trafigura, one of the world’s largest oil traders, allowed contaminated sludge from a tanker ship was fly-tipped under cover of darkness near Ivory Coast in August 2006. The incident caused at least 100,000 residents from the west African country’s most populous city, Abidjan, to flood into hospitals and clinics although Trifigura has always insisted the foul-smelling slurry, dumped without its knowledge by a sub-contractor, could not have caused serious injury or illness. [Trafigura, a privately-owned multinational which has 1,900 staff working in 42 offices around the world, last year claimed a turnover of $73bn (£44bn), a figure double the entire GDP of Ivory Coast]. Internal Trafigura emails, obtained by Greenpeace, show that Trafigura struck a series of bargains on the international markets in 2005 and early 2006 to buy cheap and dirty petroleum, called coker gasoline, and rather than send the oil to a refinery, Trafigura used a tanker as a floating processing plant creating toxic sludge on the high seas.

And the French won the Cold War for us? In new documentary movie, L’Affaire Farewell, the French claims that a French mole in the KGB leaked information so devastating that it hastened the implosion of the Soviet Union. The CIA’s website still carries a compelling essay, declassified in 1996, by Gus Weiss, who wrote, “[The] Farewell dossier… led to the collapse of a crucial [KGB spying] programme at just the time the Soviet military needed it… Along with the US defence build-up and an already floundering Soviet economy, the USSR could no longer compete.” The French taupe, or mole, was Colonel Vladimir Vetrov of Directorate T (codename Farewell), the industrial spying arm of the KGB. In 1981-82, he gave French intelligence more than 3,000 pages of documentss, the names of more than 400 Soviet agents posted abroad and the successful Soviet strategies for acquiring, legally and illegally, advanced technology from the West. His expose of the abject failure of the Communist system to match rapid Western advances in electronic micro-technology influenced President Ronald Reagan’s decision to launch the “Star Wars” programme in 1983: a hi-tech bluff which would drag the USSR into an unaffordable, and calamitous, attempt to keep up with the democratic world. Vetrov never asked for money or for a new life in the West. He was an “uncontrollable man, who oscillated between euphoria and over-excitement”,  who was later executed for stabbing his mistress and killing a policeman in a Moscow park in February 1982.The detractors, however, say that the whole affair, they said, had been concocted by the CIA to test the loyalty to the West of the Socialist president, François Mitterrand, after he was elected in May 1981 and to sound out jealousy among competing French spy services. Farewell was “run” – at the mole’s own insistence – by a relatively small, French counter-espionage agency, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), which was not supposed to operate abroad.

Debutantes debut again in London: For the first time since 1997, young women dress in virginal white, curtsey to a minor royal and partake of a giant cake at Queen Charlotte’s Ball. Queen Charlotte’s Ball – originally started in 1780, as a birthday whim for George III’s consort – acted as the starting point of the Season for centuries. Once held in May, it began the Season, a six-month whirl of parties and events to launch young ladies, aged 17 to 18, of certain wealth and/or breeding on to the marriage market. Before 1958, the debutantes (debs as they were called) were presented to Buckingham Palace too, but Queen Elizabeth halted the practice not because it was anachronistic but because, as Princess Margaret put it, “every tart in London was getting in.” Today, the ball is held in September, rather than May – which is considered too close to exam time, but it, as it always has, now raises funds for the west London maternity hospital and research centre that bears Queen Charlotte’s name.

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