Monday, April 30, 2012
The under-construction One World Trade Center building, known as Freedom Tower, just surpassed the Empire State Building to become the tallest building in New York City. Still unfinished, the building now stands at 1,250 feet high, which is about level with the Empire State Building's observation deck. Empire State is still taller, however, if you count the spire. The "do you count the spire or not" question is one that always causes heated debate among whatever people sit around discussing which building is the tallest in the world. The new building is expected to be completed sometime next year and will be the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and the third tallest building in the world. Spire and all, Freedom Tower will stand at 1776 feet, forever symbolizing the year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Unless the U.S. suddenly makes a switch to the metric system; in that case, the building will be 541 meters tall, which would be much less symbolic.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
On July 1, the interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford student loans are set to jump from 3.4 to 6.8 percent. Since 7.4 million Americans currently hold such loans, this could be a bit of a problem. This week, President Obama brought attention to the issue through a now controversial tour of college campuses, something Speaker of the House John Boehner calls "pathetic." Obama and Democrat lawmakers have proposed extending the low rate and offset the costs by eliminating some tax loopholes, including some subsidies for oil companies. Caught a bit flat-footed initially, Republicans came to agree that the rates shouldn't go up and Boehner made his own proposal to keep the rates low. However, like most legislation proposed in the House, it carries riders completely unacceptable to the other side of the aisle. The Republican version funds itself by cutting funds from the health care law, including money set aside for women's health research and screenings for breast and cervical cancer. Once again, it's the old oil companies vs. cancer prevention debate. Democrats have vowed to fight the proposal and the state is set for still another contentious battle over a basic issue that everyone agrees on but can't possibly agree on.
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Following Mitt Romney's commanding five-state sweep in Tuesday's primaries, Newt Gingrich has decided to "suspend his campaign," which is apparently this election cycle's semantic code for "quit" or "stop running for president." Gingrich, who after a week of success on the trail back in December boldly proclaimed that he would be the nominee, has seen his poll numbers and donations plummet since January. Though always highly critical of his rival Romney, Gingrich is expected to endorse him in short order. In a drama-filled Republican primary, Gingrich always managed to set a new bar for instability with his grandiose comments about moon bases and student janitors, as well as his propensity to lose his entire campaign staff in multiple exoduses. Where he goes from here is a fair question, since he has burned bridges with both the Republican establishment and his old employers at FOX News and Fannie and Freddie Mac. His failure to gain traction certainly must come as a disappointment, but Gingrich may take heart that in politics, as in marriages, if at first you don't succeed, try again...and again...and again...and who knows, maybe again.
Tuesday, April 24, 2012
For the first time since the Great Depression, the net number of Mexicans immigrating to the U.S. has dropped to near zero. Essentially, the amount of Mexican people crossing into the U.S. equals the amount of people leaving the U.S. for Mexico. A number of factors are thought to contribute to this drop, including the fact that the economic and job situation in Mexico is improving while things continue to be a struggle in the U.S. Increased border enforcement, tough talk of electrified border fences and aggressive laws like those those passed in Arizona and Alabama also are thought to have played a role. This data may cast a new light on the state laws coming up for discussion in the Supreme Court and the sure-to-be-heated immigration debate in the upcoming election. With the number of illegal immigrants at historic lows, it may become harder for people to blame all the nation's ills on them.
Monday, April 23, 2012
Global retail juggernaut Wal-Mart faces falling stock prices and the looming threat of a federal investigation over claims that its Mexican business unit (cleverly called "Wal-Mart de Mexico) engaged in systemic bribery, paying upwards of $24 million to secure construction permits. Wal-Mart is cooperating in the investigation, being conducted by both U.S. and Mexican officials. So which is more shocking: that Wal-Mart might have engaged in some shady business practices or that bribery takes place on construction projects in Mexico? Answer: it's a tie because neither is the least bit shocking. In any case, this does amount to a dose of bad PR for Wal-Mart, who has spent millions to rehabilitate its image as an unscrupulous corporate monster. Maybe the company can slide a few bucks to U.S. Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission to make the whole thing go away.
In the first round of voting for the country's presidential election, French President Nicolas Sarkozy came in second to Socialist Party candidate Francois Hollande. Sarkozy, who belongs to the center-right UMP party, has seen his popularity suffer during the ongoing Eurozone crisis, is the first incumbent to lose the first round of a French presidential election in more than 50 years. The far-right National Front's candidate, Marine Le Pen, also made a very strong showing, coming in with 20 percent of the votes. Financial markets worldwide reacted negatively to fears that a Socialist Party win in France could add still more instability to the European economy. Between now and the final election on May 6, Sarkozy will face the difficult task of reaching out and appealing to both center and far-right voters in a battle for his political future. In the U.S., one way to appeal to both of these voter blocks is to trash-talk France, but in Sarkozy's case, this might not be the best idea.
Friday, April 20, 2012
Starbucks has announced it will discontinue the use of cochineal extract, which is made from crushed beetles, in the red dye used to make some of its specialty drinks and foods. The ubiquitous coffee purveyor bowed to pressure from consumers, ranging from upset vegans who protested on ethical grounds all the way to non-vegans who just found it gross that their drink contained mashed bugs. The new and improved dye will replace the insects with lycopene, which is extracted from tomatoes. Considering the PR troubles this created, Starbucks will certainly think twice before using Soylent Green to color its Green Tea Frappuccino.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Once again proving that Congress's job now appears to be shuffling around highly partisan excuses for bills that don't have a prayer of actually being passed, the House of Representatives today passed a Republican proposed 20 percent tax cut for small businesses. The bill passed 253 to 173 on a mostly party-line vote, which feels redundant to even write since that is the only kind of voting that currently takes place. While Republicans claim the bill will free up businesses to create jobs, Democrats and other critics of the bill point out it would immediately add $46 billion to the deficit, would unfairly benefit the wealthiest companies, and doesn't carry any provision that these businesses would actually have to hire anyone to receive this huge tax benefit. To the surprise of no one, the bill has already drawn a veto threat from President Obama and is most likely doomed to fail in the Senate, which is currently considering it's own small business relief that would give tax cuts to businesses who hire new employees and invest in something other than bonuses for top execs. Following in the footsteps of the equally partisan and quickly shot-down Buffet rule, it's been another productive week on Capitol Hill.
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Rocker, former star of VH1 reality show Surviving Nugent and self-proclaimed "Motor City Madman" Ted Nugent caught the attention of the media and authorities by expressing what we would describe as a mild disagreement with the current administration...if we were celebrating National Massive Understatement Day. A guy whose temperament and passion for firearms makes Yosemite Sam look like a pacifist hippie by comparison, Nugent spoke to the NRA Convention in St. Louis on Saturday, declaring, "If Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will be either dead or in jail by this time next year." He then went on to describe the liberal justices of the Supreme Court and other members of the Obama Administration as "vile" and "America-hating" and encouraged the crowd to "chop their heads off in November." While this does rank as about the 493rd craziest thing Ted Nugent has ever said, encouraging physical violence against the President and other public officials in front of a huge crowd at a firearms convention does possibly hint at a verbal threat, so the Secret Service is actually monitoring the situation. Democrats are jumping on the statements, calling Nugent a "Romney surrogate" and calling the violent rhetoric unacceptable. Romney's campaign, which has been endorsed by Nugent but has no actual connection to him, has responded by saying the candidate "believes everyone needs to be civil." Nugent, having learned his lesson, responded to the controversy on a radio show by saying, "I will stand by my speech. It was 100 percent positive." He then said stuff even crazier than the original statement (seriously). With all the talk about the level of discourse in Washington, speeches like do remind us that the rhetoric can always be worse.
Under constant pressure to address rising gas prices, President Obama has turned his attention to Wall Street oil speculators, proposing new measures to shed more light on their practices and stiffen penalties for illegal market manipulation. The proposals would require oil traders to put up more of their own money in transactions, would increase fines by as much as 10 times, and would provide more funding to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to provide a higher level of enforcement. This is the latest volley in a battle of scapegoating from both parties that likes to blame the President, oil speculators, a perceived lack of domestic drilling, or anything other than actual market factors like skyrocketing global demand, tensions with Iran, or production issues in Canada that are really causing the increase in prices. The oil trading market, like many financial markets, is murky and many feel that unfair practices and profiteering do take place. Of course, since the President's proposals need to be approved by Congress, we know they won't actually come to pass. And if enforcement does get stepped up, speculators will find ways to adjust. As famous oilman Jed Clampett once said, "Us foxes is trap-shy, especially when the bait comes lookin' for us."
Monday, April 16, 2012
The first of four hearings in the House and Senate examining the wasteful spending at the U.S. General Services Administration took place Monday. Known as the U.S. government's landlord, the GSA is the real estate agency for the federal government. Two top officials, Bob Peck and Steven Leeds, were fired and the head of the agency, Martha Johnson, resigned when stories of out of control spending, including an opulent Las Vegas convention, came to light. The first day of testimony included a good amount of finger pointing, an apology from former GSA head, Johnson, and the silent treatment from one of the key figures under investigation. Jeff Neely, who had been in charge of planning the now infamous Las Vegas conference, at first refused to testify. When compelled to attend the hearing by subpoena, Neely plead the Fifth. His silence indicates a noble adherence to the sacred code that what happens in Vegas, does indeed stay in Vegas.
Friday, April 13, 2012
North Korea's much publicized rocket launch went off with a bang. And a boom. The controversial launch went forward in spite of protest from the international community. Before a festive, nationalist crowd filled with press, the rocket took off...and then exploded and crashed into the ocean. Though the launch flopped, the United Nations called the act "deplorable" and the UN Security Council is meeting to discuss what everyone except North Korea sees as a test of a long-range missile. The failure is seen as a major embarrassment to new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and many expect the pariah nation will follow this up with a nuclear test or other show of power to save face. Scientists are investigating a number of factors that may have lead to the rocket's failure, but they might begin with the fact that it was built in North Korea.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
With the Republican primary all but decided in Mitt Romney's favor, Newt Gingrich continues to press onward in the face of increasingly pesky obstacles. Perhaps most noteworthy among the obstacles are the fact that it is a near mathematical impossibility that he could gain the necessary delegates to win the nomination. Also worth mentioning is that is campaign is $4.5 million in debt and just bounced a $500 check to get on the ballot in Utah. Still, Gingrich presses on with his positive, ideas-based message, blaming his failing campaign on his belief that his former employer, Fox News has always been biased in favor of Romney. Gingrich also announced that he would turn down any offers to serve on Romney's cabinet. To further address jobs he hasn't been offered, we expect Gingrich would also turn down any offers to serve as the CEO of Apple, as an outside linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or as a member of the Justice League of America.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
After a long and increasingly bitter struggle with primary rival Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum announced Tuesday that he is suspending his campaign and pulling out of the race. It is thought Santorum made the decision in the face of increasingly impossible delegate math, his falling poll numbers in his home state's upcoming primary, and the added pressure of his daughter's health challenges. He thanked his supporters but did not offer an endorsement of Romney, who is now the clear front runner in the race. Religious conservatives were sad to see their candidate go, but others expressed joy in the polarizing figure's exit from the campaign. It is expected that many of Santorum's supporters will grudgingly find their way to the Romney camp. Among the first to move his moral and monetary support to Romney is millionaire inventor Foster Friess, who in February suggested that women put aspirin between their knees to save on contraception costs. This should be a boon to Romney's efforts to improve his standing with women voters.
Monday, April 9, 2012
It's been hot, hot, hot. Data in a new report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) shows that the U.S. just had the warmest March since records began in 1895. It was also the warmest first quarter on record, with average temperatures across the country from January to March coming in 6 degrees above average. January and February were toasty, but March was the real sizzler with 25 states setting a new March record and another 15 experiencing a top ten warmest March in their history. These trends have many scientists nervous that these early summer-like temperatures are an indicator of climate change. Others have blamed the record-breaking temperatures on the La Nina weather pattern or on an attempted power grab by the villainous Heat Miser.
Finally following the example set by its competitors years ago, telecommunications giant AT&T unloaded its yellow pages directory business. In a move akin to Sony shutting down its 8-track manufacturing facilities, AT&T sold off its majority stake in the directory to Cerberus Capital Management for $950 million. The move is seen to be part of an initiative to shed business units that are holding back revenue growth. Though print directories have lost massive amounts of ad revenue in the past decade due to subtle factors like the Internet and smart phones, the industry still prints 422 million directories each year, presumably so each residence in the U.S. can have a stack of seven enormous bound books show up on their doorstep each year before being lugged and tossed, unopened, into the trash.
Saturday, April 7, 2012
In a shocking blow to romantics and believers of true love everywhere, it has been announced Jordan Powers and Christopher James Hooker have broken up. The Modesto, Calif. couple, who declared to national audiences that they were truly in love and recently moved in together, stirred some controversy simply because Powers, age 18, happened to be a student of Hooker, age 41, and Hooker also happened to be married and the father of three children. Power dropped out of school and the couple claimed there was no hanky panky before she turned 18, but questions have resurfaced and Hooker got the boot from his teenage girlfriend when he was arrested for allegedly having an inappropriate physical relationship with another underage student a decade earlier. Powers was said to have broken up with Hooker when he called from jail, and is moving out of their shared apartment. While the young woman tries to put her life back together, it would seem that, with the kinds of charges leveled against him, Mr. Hooker may soon find himself experiencing an entirely different kind of inappropriate physical relationship.
Friday, April 6, 2012
Mixed messages were sent in a March jobs report that, while showing a decrease in overall unemployment and the addition of 120,000 new jobs, still rates as disappointing. The number of new jobs added is only about half the number added the previous month, indicating continued frustrating slow growth. Because the news is mixed, so are the politics around it, with Republicans citing it as evidence of a failing recovery, and Democrats saying that any positive growth is still a good thing. While the news comes as a mild surprise and disappointment to many, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke had warned of a possible slowdown and many speculate about what actions, if any, the Fed may take. Retail jobs took a particularly tough hit in March, demonstrating that consumers might be cutting back on their St. Patrick's Day shopping, leaving tons of novelty leprechaun top hats and shamrock headbands on the shelves.
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Scientists have discovered evidence that humans may have manipulated and used fire more than 300,000 years earlier than previously thought. Burned ash and bone found at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, a site known to have been inhabited by humans and their ancestors for a up to 2 million years, indicates that cooking with fire could have been going on about a million years ago. Impressive as this cooking debris is from an archaeological perspective, the fact that scientists are cleaning up the remnants of a meal nearly a million years after it was prepared could also indicate that this cave was home to humanity's first slacker roommate.
Monday, April 2, 2012
One of the winners of last week's Mega Millions jackpot has already become the center of controversy. What is clear is that Mirlande Wilson bought one of the winning tickets at a Maryland 7-Eleven and split a $656 million jackpot with three other winning tickets. What is not so clear is whether her ticket was part of a pool of tickets she bought with her McDonald's co-workers, or whether the winning ticket is, as Wilson claims, one she bought for herself. Wilson has said she has no intention of sharing the winnings with her co-workers. Having each paid Wilson $5 (nearly a full hour's McDonald's wage) to enter the pool, her co-workers feel they are entitled to shares of the jackpot and are apparently a little miffed. Lessons here: 1.) McDonald's may not inspire quite the esprit de corps among its employees that one would think, and 2.) nearly 50 years after the release of the cautionary film, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Word, we still haven't learned that money makes people crazy.
After a few days of fielding contentious discussions over the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court got back to business this week by backing the use of strip searches for any offense. On a 5-4 party line vote that drew lines between privacy rights and security concerns, the Court refused to limit the rights of jails and police to search anyone coming into a jail for reason whatsoever. The case was brought up by a New Jersey man who was strip searched twice after being pulled over on a traffic stop and arrested for an unpaid fine, that later turned out to have been paid after all. With the recent controversy over airport body scanners, it would appear that Americans' rights to be seen with clothes on are quickly fading. If there are lessons to be learned here, they are to always keep your receipts for paid fines and always be sure to wear clean underwear. You just never know.