Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Coal Ash Spill Leads to Arsenic Warnings for Tennessee Wells

Is there really such a thing as "Clean" Coal?
How many more "accidents" do we need to destroy our resources before we see how safe wind and solar energy are?

Coal Ash Spill Leads to Arsenic Warnings for Tennessee Wells

By Alex Nussbaum

Dec. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Water samples near a billion-gallon spill of coal ash in eastern Tennessee have found levels of arsenic and other heavy metals higher than drinking-water standards, prompting a warning against using private wells in the area.

Samples taken at the site of the spill in Harriman, 35 miles southwest of Knoxville, “slightly exceed” the standards for some metals, according to a statement from the Tennessee Valley Authority, owner of the coal power plant where the Dec. 22 accident occurred. Results from well-water and air tests won’t be known until later this week, the utility said.

The spill at the utility’s Harriman Fossil Plant deluged more than 300 acres of rural Roane County, destroying three homes and damaging 42 other properties. In nearby Kingston, that raised fears of fouled water and air, while 13 families wait to see if their homes can be salvaged, said Carolyn Brewer, finance director for the city of 5,300.

“Some of them are staying with families; some are working with real estate agents, leasing homes, buying homes,” Brewer said in a telephone interview today. “There’s two or three that will just never be able to get back in their homes. They’re just destroyed.”

The sludge-like spill, a mixture of water and residue from burned coal, escaped from a 40-acre holding pond after a retaining wall burst last week. After repeatedly saying the spilled material isn’t toxic, the TVA cautioned residents in its latest statement against touching or stirring up the material.

Samples from the Tennessee River, near the intake for Kingston’s water plant, found no violations of drinking-water standards, and any harmful levels of arsenic likely would be removed by treatment, the TVA said in its statement, issued jointly with state and local authorities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The plant serves about 10,000 people in and around Kingston, Brewer said.

Well Warning

“Water from other sources that are not normally treated, such as private drinking wells or springs, may be contaminated if impacted by the release of the fly ash,” the agencies said in their news release. “These areas should not be used until they have been evaluated.”

Arsenic, a byproduct of coal burning that also occurs naturally, can cause a variety of ills when ingested, including nausea, numbness and partial paralysis, according to the EPA’s Web site. The metal has been linked to bladder, lung and kidney cancer in some studies, the EPA said.

Authorities are testing air quality in the area and “currently evaluating the potential for health effects,” the agencies said in the TVA’s statement. Anyone who touches soil, sediments or water affected by the spill should wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water and wash clothes separately from other items, according to the statement.

Generating Units Shut

The Kingston plant, completed in 1955, produces 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, enough to supply 670,000 homes. The authority said today that seven of the plant’s nine generating units had been shut down, calling that a result of reduced demand due to warm temperatures and not the ash spill.

The TVA is a federal corporation that was created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress in 1933. The public power company provides electricity to industry and about 9 million people in an area covering 80,000 square miles of the southeastern U.S., according to the TVA’s Web site.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Nussbaum in New York anussbaum1@bloomberg.net.

Ready to learn everything you need to know about the economy in the shortest amount of time?

Chris Martenson's Crash Course seeks to provide you with a baseline understanding of the economy so that you can better appreciate the risks that we all face. The Intro below is separated from the rest of the sections because you'll only need to see it once...it tells you about how the Crash Course came to be. (Takes 3 hours and 23 minutes to watch in full.)


The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems

As we look toward the new year, our economy is in crisis and our environment is in distress. What we need from our next president is a plan of action that simultaneously saves our planet from pollution and puts our economy back on track. What we need is a "green" solution.

White House Philosophy Stoked Mortgage Bonfire

December 21, 2008
The Reckoning

White House Philosophy Stoked Mortgage Bonfire

We can put light where there’s darkness, and hope where there’s despondency in this country. And part of it is working together as a nation to encourage folks to own their own home.” — President Bush, Oct. 15, 2002

WASHINGTON — The global financial system was teetering on the edge of collapse when President Bush and his economics team huddled in the Roosevelt Room of the White House for a briefing that, in the words of one participant, “scared the hell out of everybody.”

It was Sept. 18. Lehman Brothers had just gone belly-up, overwhelmed by toxic mortgages. Bank of America had swallowed Merrill Lynch in a hastily arranged sale. Two days earlier, Mr. Bush had agreed to pump $85 billion into the failing insurance giant American International Group.

The president listened as Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, laid out the latest terrifying news: The credit markets, gripped by panic, had frozen overnight, and banks were refusing to lend money.

Then his Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., told him that to stave off disaster, he would have to sign off on the biggest government bailout in history.

Mr. Bush, according to several people in the room, paused for a single, stunned moment to take it all in.

“How,” he wondered aloud, “did we get here?”

Eight years after arriving in Washington vowing to spread the dream of homeownership, Mr. Bush is leaving office, as he himself said recently, “faced with the prospect of a global meltdown” with roots in the housing sector he so ardently championed.

There are plenty of culprits, like lenders who peddled easy credit, consumers who took on mortgages they could not afford and Wall Street chieftains who loaded up on mortgage-backed securities without regard to the risk.

But the story of how we got here is partly one of Mr. Bush’s own making, according to a review of his tenure that included interviews with dozens of current and former administration officials.

From his earliest days in office, Mr. Bush paired his belief that Americans do best when they own their own home with his conviction that markets do best when let alone.

He pushed hard to expand homeownership, especially among minorities, an initiative that dovetailed with his ambition to expand the Republican tent — and with the business interests of some of his biggest donors. But his housing policies and hands-off approach to regulation encouraged lax lending standards.

Mr. Bush did foresee the danger posed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage finance giants. The president spent years pushing a recalcitrant Congress to toughen regulation of the companies, but was unwilling to compromise when his former Treasury secretary wanted to cut a deal. And the regulator Mr. Bush chose to oversee them — an old prep school buddy — pronounced the companies sound even as they headed toward insolvency.

As early as 2006, top advisers to Mr. Bush dismissed warnings from people inside and outside the White House that housing prices were inflated and that a foreclosure crisis was looming. And when the economy deteriorated, Mr. Bush and his team misdiagnosed the reasons and scope of the downturn; as recently as February, for example, Mr. Bush was still calling it a “rough patch.”

The result was a series of piecemeal policy prescriptions that lagged behind the escalating crisis.

“There is no question we did not recognize the severity of the problems,” said Al Hubbard, Mr. Bush’s former chief economics adviser, who left the White House in December 2007. “Had we, we would have attacked them.”

Looking back, Keith B. Hennessey, Mr. Bush’s current chief economics adviser, says he and his colleagues did the best they could “with the information we had at the time.” But Mr. Hennessey did say he regretted that the administration did not pay more heed to the dangers of easy lending practices. And both Mr. Paulson and his predecessor, John W. Snow, say the housing push went too far.

“The Bush administration took a lot of pride that homeownership had reached historic highs,” Mr. Snow said in an interview. “But what we forgot in the process was that it has to be done in the context of people being able to afford their house. We now realize there was a high cost.”

For much of the Bush presidency, the White House was preoccupied by terrorism and war; on the economic front, its pressing concerns were cutting taxes and privatizing Social Security. The housing market was a bright spot: ever-rising home values kept the economy humming, as owners drew down on their equity to buy consumer goods and pack their children off to college.

Lawrence B. Lindsey, Mr. Bush’s first chief economics adviser, said there was little impetus to raise alarms about the proliferation of easy credit that was helping Mr. Bush meet housing goals.

“No one wanted to stop that bubble,” Mr. Lindsey said. “It would have conflicted with the president’s own policies.”

Today, millions of Americans are facing foreclosure, homeownership rates are virtually no higher than when Mr. Bush took office, Fannie and Freddie are in a government conservatorship, and the bailout cost to taxpayers could run in the trillions.

As the economy has shed jobs — 533,000 last month alone — and his party has been punished by irate voters, the weakened president has granted his Treasury secretary extraordinary leeway in managing the crisis.

Never once, Mr. Paulson said in a recent interview, has Mr. Bush overruled him. “I’ve got a boss,” he explained, who “understands that when you’re dealing with something as unprecedented and fast-moving as this we need to have a different operating style.”

Mr. Paulson and other senior advisers to Mr. Bush say the administration has responded well to the turmoil, demonstrating flexibility under difficult circumstances. “There is not any playbook,” Mr. Paulson said.

The president declined to be interviewed for this article. But in recent weeks Mr. Bush has shared his views of how the nation came to the brink of economic disaster. He cites corporate greed and market excesses fueled by a flood of foreign cash — “Wall Street got drunk,” he has said — and the policies of past administrations. He blames Congress for failing to reform Fannie and Freddie. Last week, Fox News asked Mr. Bush if he was worried about being the Herbert Hoover of the 21st century.

“No,” Mr. Bush replied. “I will be known as somebody who saw a problem and put the chips on the table to prevent the economy from collapsing.”

But in private moments, aides say, the president is looking inward. During a recent ride aboard Marine One, the presidential helicopter, Mr. Bush sounded a reflective note.

“We absolutely wanted to increase homeownership,” Tony Fratto, his deputy press secretary, recalled him saying. “But we never wanted lenders to make bad decisions.”

A Policy Gone Awry

Darrin West could not believe it. The president of the United States was standing in his living room.

It was June 17, 2002, a day Mr. West recalls as “the highlight of my life.” Mr. Bush, in Atlanta to unveil a plan to increase the number of minority homeowners by 5.5 million, was touring Park Place South, a development of starter homes in a neighborhood once marked by blight and crime.

Mr. West had patrolled there as a police officer, and now he was the proud owner of a $130,000 town house, bought with an adjustable-rate mortgage and a $20,000 government loan as his down payment — just the sort of creative public-private financing Mr. Bush was promoting.

“Part of economic security,” Mr. Bush declared that day, “is owning your own home.”

A lot has changed since then. Mr. West, beset by personal problems, left Atlanta. Unable to sell his home for what he owed, he said, he gave it back to the bank last year. Like other communities across America, Park Place South has been hit with a foreclosure crisis affecting at least 10 percent of its 232 homes, according to Masharn Wilson, a developer who led Mr. Bush’s tour.

“I just don’t think what he envisioned was actually carried out,” she said.

Park Place South is, in microcosm, the story of a well-intentioned policy gone awry. Advocating homeownership is hardly novel; the Clinton administration did it, too. For Mr. Bush, it was part of his vision of an “ownership society,” in which Americans would rely less on the government for health care, retirement and shelter. It was also good politics, a way to court black and Hispanic voters.

But for much of Mr. Bush’s tenure, government statistics show, incomes for most families remained relatively stagnant while housing prices skyrocketed. That put homeownership increasingly out of reach for first-time buyers like Mr. West.

So Mr. Bush had to, in his words, “use the mighty muscle of the federal government” to meet his goal. He proposed affordable housing tax incentives. He insisted that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac meet ambitious new goals for low-income lending.

Concerned that down payments were a barrier, Mr. Bush persuaded Congress to spend up to $200 million a year to help first-time buyers with down payments and closing costs.

And he pushed to allow first-time buyers to qualify for federally insured mortgages with no money down. Republican Congressional leaders and some housing advocates balked, arguing that homeowners with no stake in their investments would be more prone to walk away, as Mr. West did. Many economic experts, including some in the White House, now share that view.

The president also leaned on mortgage brokers and lenders to devise their own innovations. “Corporate America,” he said, “has a responsibility to work to make America a compassionate place.”

And corporate America, eyeing a lucrative market, delivered in ways Mr. Bush might not have expected, with a proliferation of too-good-to-be-true teaser rates and interest-only loans that were sold to investors in a loosely regulated environment.

“This administration made decisions that allowed the free market to operate as a barroom brawl instead of a prize fight,” said L. William Seidman, who advised Republican presidents and led the savings and loan bailout in the 1990s. “To make the market work well, you have to have a lot of rules.”

But Mr. Bush populated the financial system’s alphabet soup of oversight agencies with people who, like him, wanted fewer rules, not more.

Like Minds on Laissez-Faire

The president’s first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission promised a “kinder, gentler” agency. The second was pushed out amid industry complaints that he was too aggressive. Under its current leader, the agency failed to police the catastrophic decisions that toppled the investment bank Bear Stearns and contributed to the current crisis, according to a recent inspector general’s report.

As for Mr. Bush’s banking regulators, they once brandished a chain saw over a 9,000-page pile of regulations as they promised to ease burdens on the industry. When states tried to use consumer protection laws to crack down on predatory lending, the comptroller of the currency blocked the effort, asserting that states had no authority over national banks.

The administration won that fight at the Supreme Court. But Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s attorney general, said, “They took 50 sheriffs off the beat at a time when lending was becoming the Wild West.”

The president did push rules aimed at forcing lenders to more clearly explain loan terms. But the White House shelved them in 2004, after industry-friendly members of Congress threatened to block confirmation of his new housing secretary.

In the 2004 election cycle, mortgage bankers and brokers poured nearly $847,000 into Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign, more than triple their contributions in 2000, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The administration did not finalize the new rules until last month.

Among the Republican Party’s top 10 donors in 2004 was Roland Arnall. He founded Ameriquest, then the nation’s largest lender in the subprime market, which focuses on less creditworthy borrowers. In July 2005, the company agreed to set aside $325 million to settle allegations in 30 states that it had preyed on borrowers with hidden fees and ballooning payments. It was an early signal that deceptive lending practices, which would later set off a wave of foreclosures, were widespread.

Andrew H. Card Jr., Mr. Bush’s former chief of staff, said White House aides discussed Ameriquest’s troubles, though not what they might portend for the economy. Mr. Bush had just nominated Mr. Arnall as his ambassador to the Netherlands, and the White House was primarily concerned with making sure he would be confirmed.

“Maybe I was asleep at the switch,” Mr. Card said in an interview.

Brian Montgomery, the Federal Housing Administration commissioner, understood the significance. His agency insures home loans, traditionally for the same low-income minority borrowers Mr. Bush wanted to help. When he arrived in June 2005, he was shocked to find those customers had been lured away by the “fool’s gold” of subprime loans. The Ameriquest settlement, he said, reinforced his concern that the industry was exploiting borrowers.

In December 2005, Mr. Montgomery drafted a memo and brought it to the White House. “I don’t think this is what the president had in mind here,” he recalled telling Ryan Streeter, then the president’s chief housing policy analyst.

It was an opportunity to address the risky subprime lending practices head on. But that was never seriously discussed. More senior aides, like Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s chief political strategist, were wary of overly regulating an industry that, Mr. Rove said in an interview, provided “a valuable service to people who could not otherwise get credit.” While he had some concerns about the industry’s practices, he said, “it did provide an opportunity for people, a lot of whom are still in their houses today.”

The White House pursued a narrower plan offered by Mr. Montgomery that would have allowed the F.H.A. to loosen standards so it could lure back subprime borrowers by insuring similar, but safer, loans. It passed the House but died in the Senate, where Republican senators feared that the agency would merely be mimicking the private sector’s risky practices — a view Mr. Rove said he shared.

Looking back at the episode, Mr. Montgomery broke down in tears. While he acknowledged that the bill did not get to the root of the problem, he said he would “go to my grave believing” that at least some homeowners might have been spared foreclosure.

Today, administration officials say it is fair to ask whether Mr. Bush’s ownership push backfired. Mr. Paulson said the administration, like others before it, “over-incented housing.” Mr. Hennessey put it this way: “I would not say too much emphasis on expanding homeownership. I would say not enough early focus on easy lending practices.”

‘We Told You So’

Armando Falcon Jr. was preparing to take on a couple of giants.

A soft-spoken Texan, Mr. Falcon ran the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, a tiny government agency that oversaw Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two pillars of the American housing industry. In February 2003, he was finishing a blockbuster report that warned the pillars could crumble.

Created by Congress, Fannie and Freddie — called G.S.E.’s, for government-sponsored entities — bought trillions of dollars’ worth of mortgages to hold or sell to investors as guaranteed securities. The companies were also Washington powerhouses, stuffing lawmakers’ campaign coffers and hiring bare-knuckled lobbyists.

Mr. Falcon’s report outlined a worst-case situation in which Fannie and Freddie could default on debt, setting off “contagious illiquidity in the market” — in other words, a financial meltdown. He also raised red flags about the companies’ soaring use of derivatives, the complex financial instruments that economic experts now blame for spreading the housing collapse.

Today, the White House cites that report — and its subsequent effort to better regulate Fannie and Freddie — as evidence that it foresaw the crisis and tried to avert it. Bush officials recently wrote up a talking points memo headlined “G.S.E.’s — We Told You So.”

But the back story is more complicated. To begin with, on the day Mr. Falcon issued his report, the White House tried to fire him.

At the time, Fannie and Freddie were allies in the president’s quest to drive up homeownership rates; Franklin D. Raines, then Fannie’s chief executive, has fond memories of visiting Mr. Bush in the Oval Office and flying aboard Air Force One to a housing event. “They loved us,” he said.

So when Mr. Falcon refused to deep-six his report, Mr. Raines took his complaints to top Treasury officials and the White House. “I’m going to do what I need to do to defend my company and my position,” Mr. Raines told Mr. Falcon.

Days later, as Mr. Falcon was in New York preparing to deliver a speech about his findings, his cellphone rang. It was the White House personnel office, he said, telling him he was about to be unemployed.

His warnings were buried in the next day’s news coverage, trumped by the White House announcement that Mr. Bush would replace Mr. Falcon, a Democrat appointed by Bill Clinton, with Mark C. Brickell, a leader in the derivatives industry that Mr. Falcon’s report had flagged.

It was not until 2003, when Freddie became embroiled in an accounting scandal, that the White House took on the companies in earnest. Mr. Bush decided to quit the long-standing practice of rewarding supporters with high-paying appointments to the companies’ boards — “political plums,” in Mr. Rove’s words. He also withdrew Mr. Brickell’s nomination and threw his support behind Mr. Falcon, beginning an intense effort to give his little regulatory agency more power.

Mr. Falcon lacked explicit authority to limit the size of the companies’ mammoth investment portfolios, or tell them how much capital they needed to guard against losses. White House officials wanted that to change. They also wanted the power to put the companies into receivership, hoping that would end what Mr. Card, the former chief of staff, called “the myth of government backing,” which gave the companies a competitive edge because investors assumed the government would not let them fail.

By the spring of 2005 a deal with Congress seemed within reach, Mr. Snow, the former Treasury secretary, said in an interview.

Michael G. Oxley, an Ohio Republican and then-chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, had produced what Mr. Snow viewed as “a pretty darned good bill,” a watered-down version of what the president sought. But at the urging of Mr. Card and the White House economics team, the president decided to hold out for a tougher bill in the Senate.

Mr. Card said he feared that Mr. Snow was “more interested in the deal than the result.” When the bill passed the House, the president issued a statement opposing it, effectively killing any chance of compromise. Mr. Oxley was furious.

“The problem with those guys at the White House, they had all the answers and they didn’t think they had to listen to anyone, including the Treasury secretary,” Mr. Oxley said in a recent interview. “They were driving the ideological train. He was in the caboose, and they were in the engine room.”

Mr. Card and Mr. Hennessey said they had no regrets. They are convinced, Mr. Hennessey said, that the Oxley bill would have produced “the worst of all possible outcomes,” the illusion of reform without the substance.

Still, some former White House and Treasury officials continue to debate whether Mr. Bush’s all-or-nothing approach scuttled a measure that, while imperfect, might have given an aggressive regulator enough power to keep the companies from failing.

Mr. Snow, for one, calls Mr. Oxley “a hero,” adding, “He saw the need to move. It didn’t get done. And it’s too bad, because I think if it had, I think we could well have avoided a big contributor to the current crisis.”

Unheeded Warnings

Jason Thomas had a nagging feeling.

The New Century Financial Corporation, a huge subprime lender whose mortgages were bundled into securities sold around the world, was headed for bankruptcy in March 2007. Mr. Thomas, an economic analyst for President Bush, was responsible for determining whether it was a hint of things to come.

At 29, Mr. Thomas had followed a fast-track career path that took him from a Buffalo meatpacking plant, where he worked as a statistician, to the White House. He was seen as a whiz kid, “a brilliant guy,” his former boss, Mr. Hubbard, says.

As Mr. Thomas began digging into New Century’s failure that spring, he became fixated on a particular statistic, the rent-to-own ratio.

Typically, as home prices increase, rental costs rise proportionally. But Mr. Thomas sent charts to top White House and Treasury officials showing that the monthly cost of owning far outpaced the cost to rent. To Mr. Thomas, it was a sign that housing prices were wildly inflated and bound to plunge, a condition that could set off a foreclosure crisis as conventional and subprime borrowers with little equity found they owed more than their houses were worth.

It was not the Bush team’s first warning. The previous year, Mr. Lindsey, the former chief economics adviser, returned to the White House to tell his old colleagues that housing prices were headed for a crash. But housing values are hard to evaluate, and Mr. Lindsey had a reputation as a market pessimist, said Mr. Hubbard, adding, “I thought, ‘He’s always a bear.’ ”

In retrospect, Mr. Hubbard said, Mr. Lindsey was “absolutely right,” and Mr. Thomas’s charts “should have been a signal.”

Instead, the prevailing view at the White House was that the problems in the housing market were limited to subprime borrowers unable to make their payments as their adjustable mortgages reset to higher rates. That belief was shared by Mr. Bush’s new Treasury secretary, Mr. Paulson.

Mr. Paulson, a former chairman of the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs, had been given unusual power; he had accepted the job only after the president guaranteed him that Treasury, not the White House, would have the dominant role in shaping economic policy. That shift merely continued an imbalance of power that stifled robust policy debate, several former Bush aides say.

Throughout the spring of 2007, Mr. Paulson declared that “the housing market is at or near the bottom,” with the problem “largely contained.” That position underscored nearly every action the Bush administration took in the ensuing months as it offered one limited response after another.

By that August, the problems had spread beyond New Century. Credit was tightening, amid questions about how heavily banks were invested in securities linked to mortgages. Still, Mr. Bush predicted that the turmoil would resolve itself with a “soft landing.”

The plan Mr. Bush announced on Aug. 31 reflected that belief. Called “F.H.A. Secure,” it aimed to help about 80,000 homeowners refinance their loans. Mr. Montgomery, the housing commissioner, said that he knew the modest program was not enough — the White House later expanded the agency’s rescue role — and that he would be “flying the plane and fixing it at the same time.”

That fall, Representative Rahm Emanuel, a leading Democrat, former investment banker and now the incoming chief of staff to President-elect Barack Obama, warned the White House it was not doing enough. He said he told Joshua B. Bolten, Mr. Bush’s chief of staff, and Mr. Paulson in a series of phone calls that the credit crisis would get “deep and serious” and that the only answer was big, internationally coordinated government intervention.

“You got to strangle this thing and suffocate it,” he recalled saying.

Instead, Mr. Bush developed Hope Now, a voluntary public-private partnership to help struggling homeowners refinance loans. And he worked with Congress to pass a stimulus package that sent taxpayers $150 billion in tax rebates.

In a speech to the Economic Club of New York in March 2008, he cautioned against Washington’s temptation “to say that anything short of a massive government intervention in the housing market amounts to inaction,” adding that government action could make it harder for the markets to recover.

Dominoes Start to Fall

Within days, Bear Sterns collapsed, prompting the Federal Reserve to engineer a hasty sale. Some economic experts, including Timothy F. Geithner, the president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank (and Mr. Obama’s choice for Treasury secretary) feared that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could be the next to fall.

Mr. Bush was still leaning on Congress to revamp the tiny agency that oversaw the two companies, and had acceded to Mr. Paulson’s request for the negotiating room that he had denied Mr. Snow. Still, there was no deal.

Over the previous two years, the White House had effectively set the agency adrift. Mr. Falcon left in 2005 and was replaced by a temporary director, who was in turn replaced by James B. Lockhart, a friend of Mr. Bush from their days at Andover, and a former deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration who had once run a software company.

On Mr. Lockhart’s watch, both Freddie and Fannie had plunged into the riskiest part of the market, gobbling up more than $400 billion in subprime and other alternative mortgages. With the companies on precarious footing, Mr. Geithner had been advocating that the administration seize them or take other steps to reassure the market that the government would back their debt, according to two people with direct knowledge of his views.

In an Oval Office meeting on March 17, however, Mr. Paulson barely mentioned the idea, according to several people present. He wanted to use the troubled companies to unlock the frozen credit market by allowing Fannie and Freddie to buy more mortgage-backed securities from overburdened banks. To that end, Mr. Lockhart’s office planned to lift restraints on the companies’ huge portfolios — a decision derided by former White House and Treasury officials who had worked so hard to limit them.

But Mr. Paulson told Mr. Bush the companies would shore themselves up later by raising more capital.

“Can they?” Mr. Bush asked.

“We’re hoping so,” the Treasury secretary replied.

That turned out to be incorrect, and did not surprise Mr. Thomas, the Bush economic adviser. Throughout that spring and summer, he warned the White House and Treasury that, in the stark words of one e-mail message, “Freddie Mac is in trouble.” And Mr. Lockhart, he charged, was allowing the company to cover up its insolvency with dubious accounting maneuvers.

But Mr. Lockhart continued to offer reassurances. In a July appearance on CNBC, he declared that the companies were well managed and “worsts were not coming to worst.” An infuriated Mr. Thomas sent a fresh round of e-mail messages accusing Mr. Lockhart of “pimping for the stock prices of the undercapitalized firms he regulates.”

Mr. Lockhart defended himself, insisting in an interview that he was aware of the companies’ vulnerabilities, but did not want to rattle markets.

“A regulator,” he said, “does not air dirty laundry in public.”

Soon afterward, the companies’ stocks lost half their value in a single day, prompting Congress to quickly give Mr. Paulson the power to spend $200 billion to prop them up and to finally pass Mr. Bush’s long-sought reform bill, but it was too late. In September, the government seized control of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

In an interview, Mr. Paulson said the administration had no justification to take over the companies any sooner. But Mr. Falcon disagreed: “They absolutely could have if they had thought there was a real danger.”

By Sept. 18, when Mr. Bush and his team had their fateful meeting in the Roosevelt Room after the failure of Lehman Brothers and the emergency rescue of A.I.G., Mr. Paulson was warning of an economic calamity greater than the Great Depression. Suddenly, historic government intervention seemed the only option. When Mr. Paulson spelled out what would become a $700 billion plan to rescue the nation’s banking system, the president did not hesitate.

“Is that enough?” Mr. Bush asked.

“It’s a lot,” the Treasury secretary recalled replying. “It will make a difference.” And in any event, he told Mr. Bush, “I don’t think we can get more.”

As the meeting wrapped up, a handful of aides retreated to the White House Situation Room to call Vice President Dick Cheney in Florida, where he was attending a fund-raiser. Mr. Cheney had long played a leading role in economic policy, though housing was not a primary interest, and like Mr. Bush he had a deep aversion to government intervention in the market. Nonetheless, he backed the bailout, convinced that too many Americans would suffer if Washington did nothing.

Mr. Bush typically darts out of such meetings quickly. But this time, he lingered, patting people on the back and trying to soothe his downcast staff. “During times of adversity, he bucks everybody up,” Mr. Paulson said.

It was not the end of the failures or government interventions; the administration has since stepped in to rescue Citigroup and, just last week, the Detroit automakers. With 31 days left in office, Mr. Bush says he will leave it to historians to analyze “what went right and what went wrong,” as he put it in a speech last week to the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Bush said he was too focused on the present to do much looking back.

“It turns out,” he said, “this isn’t one of the presidencies where you ride off into the sunset, you know, kind of waving goodbye.”

Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.

America’s Greediest: A 2008 Year-End Top Ten

America’s Greediest: A 2008 Year-End Top Ten

December 18th, 2008

Has any year ever showcased greed as dramatically as 2008? We sift through the avarice to bring you the highlights and lowlights — and a little hope for a less greedy 2009.

By Sam Pizzigati

This time of year always seems to bring a never-ending barrage of “top ten” lists. The year’s top ten movies, the top ten books, the top ten news stories, and on and on. We’ve decided to join in on the action — with our very own list of America’s top ten greediest.

We probably couldn’t have picked a better year than 2008 to so “honor” our most avaricious. This year’s stunning economic meltdown has fixed the attention of our entire nation — and world — on the grasping antics of those who yearn for ever more than they could rationally ever need.

But this year also presents enormous challenges for anyone bold enough to rank the greedy. With so much greed out there, how could we possibly limit our list to a mere ten?

The latest greed explosion to hit the headlines — the $50 billion Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme — illustrates just how difficult a task ranking the greedy can be.

To whom in this scandal should we award the most greed points? Bernie Madoff himself, the 70-year-old who scammed his wealthy friends and charities to keep up his credentials as a Wall Street investing “genius”— and maintain a $6 million pad in Manhattan, a waterfront mansion in Palm Beach, and a weekend getaway on Long Island?

Or should those greed points go instead to the ever-so-sophisticated hedge fund “middlemen” like Walter Noel, who built a five-manse fortune by steering clients to Madoff and charging them tens of millions in “due diligence” fees for the steering.

Or should the greed points go to Madoff’s investors themselves, the swells who pay $250,000 a year for the privilege of belonging to a swanky country club?

So many choices! How about James Cayne, the Bear Stearns CEO who rode toxic securities into billionairedom? Or Angelo Mozilo, who took the same ride at Countrywide Financial, spreading suffering to subprimed families all along the way?

In the end, we came to realize, the size of the fortune alone doesn’t determine greed. It’s the thought that counts. In that holiday spirit, we hope you find our top ten greedy list of some interest — and greed-busting inspiration.

10: Dwight Schar

Any list of 2009’s greediest has to start, of course, with the power-suits who pumped up — and profited ever so lavishly from — the now-burst housing bubble. In November, Wall Street Journal researchers scoured the records of firms that build and finance housing and found 15 top executives who have pocketed, “in cash compensation and proceeds from stock sales,” at least $100 million over the past five years.

Among the fortunate 15: Dwight Schar, the chair of homebuilding giant NVR Inc. The 66-year-old Schar has cleared $625 million since 2002. In 2004, he spent a good chunk of that buying an ocean-facing mansion in Florida’s Palm Beach for $70 million, the highest price up to then ever paid for a U.S. residential property. The seven-bedroom home came with a walk-in humidor for cigars.

Schar’s legal residence, a gated estate just north of Washington, D.C., sits on 10 acres overlooking the Potomac. NVR stock has dropped over 60 percent since its housing bubble peak, but neither of Schar’s two main residences figures to foreclose anytime soon.

9: Patrick Soon-Shiong

Why does health care in the United States cost so much? Maybe somebody should ask Patrick Soon-Shiong, the Los Angeles drug developer who this September saw his personal fortune — $3 billion last year — take a giant first step toward more than doubling.

Soon-Shiong came into 2008 as the chief executive of APP Pharmaceuticals. He stepped down as CEO in the spring, but the former surgeon still held 83 percent of the company’s shares. In July, he agreed to sell APP to a German firm. The sale finalized two months later for an initial $3.7 billion cash payment.

What made APP so attractive? The company is minting money. In 2007, notes the Los Angeles Business Journal, APP scored $253 million in adjusted earnings on just $647 million of sales. The firm started this year off on an equally profitable tear when a contamination scare in China left APP the only U.S. source of a widely used blood-thinner. That drug quickly doubled in price.

8: Richard Baker

This hasn’t been a great year for the hedge fund industry. The funds — largely unregulated investment vehicles open only to deep-pocket investors — are suffering their worst year ever, down 19 percent through November. But the industry has certainly been sweet this year to at least one lucky fellow, former Congressman Richard Baker from Louisiana.

Back in February, Baker gave up his House seat — and his $169,300 House salary — to become the president and CEO of the Managed Funds Association, the hedge fund industry’s trade association.

What led the 60-year-old Baker, a lawmaker since the age of 23, to give up his life of public service? Maybe the private gain. As the hedge fund trade group chief, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported earlier this year, Baker would be taking home a $1 million annual salary and benefits package.

What made Baker so attractive to America’s hedge fund billionaires? As the chair of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Capital Markets, the Center for Responsible Politics notes, Baker had been overseeing the very industry he would, as the hedge fund top gun, be representing.

7: James Mulva

Back last spring, with motorists turning purple with rage every time they pulled in for a fill-up, one Big Oil CEO tried to assure Americans he shared their pain. Declared ConocoPhillips chief exec Mulva: “High oil prices have not been our friend” — because, as he explained later to reporters, higher per-barrel prices for crude have resource-rich countries demanding more control over their own oil.

On the other hand, the run-up in crude oil prices over recent years hasn’t exactly left Big Oil broken-hearted. The industry’s profits, the Consumer Federation of America noted this fall, have soared over 600 percent since 2002.

Few have enjoyed more rewards for that success than the 62-year-old Mulva. He reaped a $50.5 million personal payoff in 2007, according to federal Securities and Exchange Commission figures. He’ll be collecting, when he retires, at least a $2.6 million annual pension.

6: Ralph Roberts

On January 1, 2008, the Comcast cable TV empire put into effect the ultimate in executive incentive pay plans: a new deal that guaranteed the company’s founder and executive committee chair, Ralph Roberts, $1.85 million in basic annual salary for five years after he dies, with the after-death payout going to whoever Roberts names as his beneficiary.

In 2007, Roberts, now 88, actually pocketed $24.7 million in total compensation. His son, current Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, collected $20.8 million.

Some shareholders, in early 2008, took a bit of umbrage to all this largesse. Some even began demanding Brian’s resignation. In February, under fire, the Roberts clan backed down. They agreed to ax Ralph’s death benefit and drop his annual salary to $1 a year. But Comcast will continue to pay Ralph’s various benefits, including his life insurance. In 2006, the premiums ran $10.5 million.

Meanwhile, in November, news reports revealed that federal and state cable TV regulators fear that Comcast, amid the consumer confusion over the transition to all-digital over-the-air broadcasts, is pushing low-income cable TV subscribers into more expensive monthly cable packages.

5: Steve Jobs

In 2008, once again, the most notable executive in America’s $1-a-year CEO club remained Steve Jobs, the chief exec at Apple Computer. Jobs has been collecting a mere $1 in annual salary ever since 1997. He has, to be sure, been collecting a few other rewards as well. He entered 2008 with about 5.5 million shares of Apple stock and a net worth not too far south of $6 billion.

This past March, to gain some input into any future rewards that might come their CEO’s way, Apple shareholders passed a resolution that gives them an advisory “Say on Pay” vote on executive compensation. Joked Jobs in response: “I hope ‘Say on Pay’ will help me with my $1 a year salary.”

Apple corporate directors aren’t waiting for any shareholder help. In the company’s 2008 proxy statement, they noted that they’re already “considering additional compensation arrangements” for Jobs, given the “critical” importance of his “continued leadership.”

Jobs himself told shareholders at this year’s Apple annual meeting that he “feels confident” that any number of the company’s top execs “could take his place.” Even so, he’s probably eager to see what sort of “additional compensation” Apple’s imaginative board might have in mind.

In 1999, the board gave Jobs a $90 million Gulfstream V jet — and agreed to pay Jobs for the cost of operating it. In 2007, that cost came to $776,000.

4: Robert Stevens

Peace on earth and good will toward everybody. But not too soon. That may be the motto this holiday season for Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest military contractor. Under CEO Robert Stevens, the company’s profit margins have nearly doubled, thanks in no small part to a 72 percent hike in U.S. defense outlays, after inflation, since the year 2000.

And the future looks equally bright, even with the war in Iraq winding down. Lockheed Martin, the 57-year-old Stevens noted last month, sees nothing but “continuous expansion” in its military hardware sales overseas. These sales can deliver sky-high returns, industry analysts point out, because U.S. taxpayers have already footed the bill for the hardware’s R&D.

Still, Stevens isn’t putting all his eggs in one basket. Lockheed Martin, he said last week, remains totally “unconstrained” by the credit crisis and is now investigating making corporate acquisitions in other fields — like health care.

The CEO’s personal financial health remains quite robust. Stevens pulled in $26 million last year. The most highly decorated general in the U.S. armed services would have to work over 130 years to make that much.

3: Larry Ellison

No state may be suffering from the bursting of the housing bubble more than California — and no Californian may be benefiting from that bursting more than billionaire Larry Ellison, the Oracle business software chief exec who currently occupies the three-spot on the latest Forbes list of America’s 400 richest.

Ellison spent nine years and $200 million building a lavish Northern California residential estate — in the flamboyant style of a 16th century Japanese emperor. In 2005, San Mateo County officials assessed the 23-acre property at $166.3 million. Ellison balked. A more accurate appraisal, his lawyers claimed, would run about $100 million less.

Early this spring, the San Mateo assessment appeals board came down on the side of Ellison’s lawyers. That decision handed Ellison a $3 million tax refund.

Local public schools are now bearing about half the burden that refund has generated. In future years, Ellison’s tax discount will cost Portola Valley schools an annual $250,000 or so, the cost of hiring and supplying three teachers.

Ellison, as Oracle’s top executive, takes home about that much every hour. This August, just before school started, Oracle pay filings revealed that Ellison collected $84.6 million in fiscal 2008 for his CEO labors. He also cleared another $544 million cashing in on a stash of his Oracle stock options.

2: John Thain

In high-finance circles, they called John Thain “Mr. Fix-It.” In 2004, the New York Stock Exchange hired Thain, a rising star at Goldman Sachs, to clean up the mess after NYSE CEO Dick Grasso departed with a scandalous $140 million retirement package. Then, in October 2007, Merrill Lynch asked Thain to pick up the pieces after Merrill’s board gave the heave-ho to CEO Stanley O’Neal, who left with $160 million.

Merrill paid fairly dearly to gain Thain’s services. Mr. Fix-It came on board with a $15 million signing bonus and a bundle of lush incentives that “would be considered excessive for any industry anywhere,” observed CEO pay expert Graef Crystal, “except on that tiny slice of Manhattan called Wall Street.”

With subprime-spooked financial giants starting to melt down all around him, Thain went to work wheeling and dealing — and assuring bystanders that all would be well. In July, he told investors he “felt comfortable with Merrill’s capital levels.” In August, Thain labeled his firm “well-positioned for the coming years.”

Well, maybe not that well-positioned. In September, as Reuters later reported, Merrill would come within moments of “total extinction” — only to be rescued, an hour before Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, when Bank of America agreed to swallow Merrill whole.

Merrill Lynch, Thain apparently believed, had been fixed, and, early this December, he let it be known that he expected up to $10 million in new bonus for his efforts — despite Merrill’s $12 billion in 2008 losses and a pending layoff of as much as a fifth of the firm’s workforce. On top of all that, Merrill’s new sugardaddy, Bank of America, was taking $25 billion in taxpayer bailout dollars.

Thain’s bonus request quickly became a public relations disaster. By mid-December, Merrill and Thain, under increasing pressure, would unrequest the bonus millions. The good news for Mr. Fix-It? He still may get a $5.2 million “change-of-control payment” for selling Merrill — and he still has a job.

Unlike average families who lost everything when Merrill’s subprime mortgage securities went sour, Thain still has a house, too. A nice one, a 14-bedroom palace north of Manhattan complete with tennis courts, swimming pools, and a fish-filled private lake.

1: Richard Gilman

The CEO of a small factory on Chicago’s North Side, by Fortune 500 standards, rates as distinctly small-time. But this particular CEO, Richard Gilman, helped make headlines — and history — in 2008. He fully deserves this year’s premier place in America’s top ten greediest.

Gilman started running Republic Windows and Doors, a modest, four-decade-old plant, in 2006. Layoffs soon followed, and, eventually, only about 240 workers remained from a unionized labor force once over 500 strong.

Those workers, earlier this fall, realized something even more ominous was coming at them. Equipment at the Chicago plant had started vanishing. What the workers didn’t know: Republic’s “deciders” had set up a new company and bought a nonunion window and door plant in Iowa.

Two days into December, Republic gave workers the bad news. The plant would shut down three days later. The workers would lose their earned vacation time and their health insurance — and not see any of the severance legally due them.

Just another typical assault on workers with a precarious foothold in the middle class. Or so things seemed. But the workers then did something extraordinary. Reviving memories of the Great Depression-era “sit-down” strikes, they occupied the plant — and captured America’s imagination.

The sit-down forced Gilman and his money pot, the Bank of America, to the bargaining table where a settlement soon took shape. But Gilman suddenly threw a monkey-wrench into the works — and gained a slot for himself in this year’s top ten greediest.

Gilman demanded that “any new bank loan to help the employees also cover” the lease of his Mercedes and BMW and eight weeks of his $225,000 salary.

The workers would have none of that. Gilman would drop his demand. The bank funding would come through. The workers had won. Greed had lost.

That hasn’t much over the last three decades. Maybe the greedy have finally gone too far. We may have reached the end of an era. America’s generation-long Great Greed Grab may soon be no more.

Bush Insider who Planned to testify About Stolen Election Killed

The Intriguing Death Of Top GOP Consultant Michael Connell

At 3:31 PM Friday, December 19, Michael L. Connell, a top Internet consultant for the Republican National Committee and for the Bush and McCain presidential campaigns, left Washington from the small airport in College Park, Md. Alone at the helm of a single engine Piper Saratoga, Connell's flight plan anticipated arrival at his hometown Akron-Canton Airport in a little over two hours, at 5:43 PM.

Instead, about three miles short of the Akron-Canton Airport, Connell's plane crashed to the ground in an upscale section of Lake Township, killing Connell instantly. "I was standing in the kitchen and I looked out the window and all I saw was fire," Taylor Fano told The Akron Beacon Journal. "It took out the flagpole and the cement blocks surrounding the flagpole . . . . It skidded across the driveway and right in-between a line of pine trees and a small fence around an in-ground pool."

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the accident and has not yet filed a report, but there was no immediate evidence of wrong-doing or sabotage.

Many in the blogosphere have called for further investigation of the crash, suggesting that Connell was about to provide crucial information in the case of alleged vote fraud in the 2004 Ohio presidential contest, and that that information would implicate Karl Rove and others in the Bush administration. [see update below]

Just last month, Connell was deposed in the ongoing case, King Lincoln Bronzeville Neighborhood Association v. Blackwell. According to accounts of the November 3rd deposition, Connell denied any knowledge of attempts to fraudulently manipulate 2004 Ohio vote counts.

There is, however, a more immediate and relevant question: How much will Connell's death, even if the accident was entirely without malfeasance, impede congressional committee investigations into the more controversial activities of the Bush administration over the past eight years - including the ongoing investigation into thousands of missing White House-RNC emails sent and received by some 22 White House political aides, including Rove. These emails are believed likely to shed light on the political firings of U.S. Attorneys, and to show if the White House had any role in controversial decisions to prosecute former Alabama Democratic Governor Don Siegelman.

After first emerging as a web consultant during the 1998 gubernatorial campaign of Jeb Bush, Connell quickly became a key member of the Republican brain trust and quickly became part of a small network of political consultants and lobbyists favored by Rove. He advised both Bush-Cheney campaigns, and was a regular consultant to the RNC and other GOP committees.

Connell, and his firms - New Media Communications, Govtech and Connell Donatelli Inc. - were part of a universe that included such other GOP operatives as Tony Feather and Jeff Larson of FLS Connect, Tom Synhorst of the DCI Group, and Jeff Averbeck of Smartech. Their companies have received millions of dollars from the Bush-Cheney campaign committees of 2000 and 2004 from the three major - national, congressional and senatorial - Republican Party committees; from such conservative interest groups as the National Rifle Association and Citizens Against Government Waste; from a host of corporations and trade associations seeking to remain in the administration's good graces; and from dozens and dozens of Republican House and Senate campaigns.

Story continues below

Two of Connell's firms received at least $8.78 million from the RNC from 2004 to 2008 and from the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign. FLS got $39.5 million between 2004 and 2008 from the RNC alone, and Smartech got $9.74 million from the RNC over the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

These revenue reports only touch the surface. Before his death, Connell's New Media listed 90 clients on its web site from the Alabama Republican Party to the Business Roundtable to the Free Enterprise Fund, to the Republican Jewish Coalition to USAID. The scope of Connell's client list is a reflection of the Midas touch of the Bush administration in signaling to prospective clients which firms were in good stead.

As it stands now, whatever Connell knew about the activities of Karl Rove and other Republican operatives will go with him to his grave at St. Hilary Catholic Church in Fairlawn, Ohio. His family released a statement on the New Media web site declaring, "Mike was a devoted husband and father, who, with his wife of 18 years, raised a family of four wonderful children. Mike was also a committed man of faith, who regularly worshipped with his family at St. Hillary's and who lived his faith through mission work to help the poor and less fortunate at home and around the world. Finally, Mike was an engaged citizen, who was actively involved at all levels of our political system."

In a telephone interview, Connell's wife Heather adamantly declared "he was a good man. He did nothing wrong. He wasn't about to talk, because there was nothing to talk about. Nobody did anything wrong. We won the elction fair and square. Deal with it." Asked if he ever spoke about the disputed emails, Heather Connell said "I have no clue about that. I just know it's not him."

A close friend who worked extensively with Connell in Republican politics said, however, that he believes Connell "was more involved in that than a lot of people were let to believe." This associate of Connell's, who first brought the accident to the attention of the Huffington Post, said Connell, who was deeply religious and firmly pro-life, may have been "developing second thoughts" after years of being convinced that "working for the Republican cause was doing God's work."

An earlier version of this story claimed: "Connell's death provoked a groundswell of commentary among conspiracy theorists on the web, including Larisa Alexandrovna, Raw Story, Velvet Revolution, ePluribus Media, and TheZoo."

To be fair: Larisa Alexandrovna acknowledged that suspicions that Connell's death was the result of sabotage were unproven, and she urged that empirical evidence be pursued. Her articles and those that she cites legitimately raised questions that in many cases are worthy of pursuit (See Alexandrovna's letter concerning this story here.) I regret using "conspiracy theorists" to describe Larisa Alexandrovna, Raw Story, and the others.

source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/12/25/the-intriguing-death-of-t_n_153518.html

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Good Life Doesn’t Have to Cost the Planet

YES! Magazine Winter 2009: Sustainable Happiness

The Good Life Doesn’t Have to Cost the Planet
by Andrew Simms and Joe Smith

What if you woke up one day to find that humans eventually did make the right decisions, and those decisions had all the right effects and, well, the world turned out to be a pretty cool place.

For a while, it looked as though everything would fall apart. There was the triple crunch of the global credit crisis, declining oil supplies, and the threat of runaway climate change driven by massive overconsumption by rich countries and the elites in poor countries.

In 2008, humanity overshot its global biocapacity on September 23. It was the world’s earliest “ecological debt day” since humanity first started going into the environmental red in the mid-1980s. We were pursuing economic growth for its own sake, but it was completely unsustainable, and the people it was most supposed to benefit —the poorest—were getting a shrinking slice of the benefits. Perversely, because of the way the world economy worked, to get tiny amounts of global poverty reduction required massive amounts of destructive overconsumption by those who were already rich.

In the face of inescapable economic chaos and ecological upheaval, we finally woke to find that we already had most of the solutions under our noses. This is what a day in our lives looks like now, after things turned out right.

On waking
With less time spent working, the choice is yours—sleep in, go for a run, read a novel. Having rediscovered the real meaning of a good life, previously overconsuming rich countries have now cured most cases of work addiction. In this “downshifted” world the phrase “rush hour” has become a half-remembered curio. Our society has begun to get the hang of how computing and IT can make for smart work, rather than generate slave work.

Those choosing the early morning run enjoy fresh air and clear paths as dramatic reductions in traffic have transformed city air and streets.

No need to sweat over every shopping decision: socially and environmentally sustainable trade are the (carefully checked) norm. The weekly food bill has gone up—but so has the quality, and the damaging consequences of cheap food systems have gradually been rolled back. This is sustainable consumption universalized—no more scanning labels. A few deft moves in boardrooms and government chambers helped to make food markets fair and sustainable.

For an international meeting—step onto your balcony: video-conferencing and networking are so slick and intuitive that you rarely need to travel for work. The hours gained, backache cured, and wrinkles postponed make you more effective and committed to the work you do. But these changes are about more than work. Social networking software has thrown you together with new people—your desktop gives you a global network, but also connects you in new—live—human ways to the community where you actually live.

Computer connections aside, there are plenty of benefits in the new sense of community that has evolved from the revival of local shops (where the shopkeepers actually remember who you are) and the way that residential streets and town centers have become people-friendly. Streets are safer, with some entirely car-free, and many towns have reclaimed central plots of land as public squares. A calmer environment and more opportunities for casual contact between neighbors means people gather and talk to each other more. Even in cities, people, and especially the elderly, feel less lonely.

Take some time out late morning to plan your long-awaited summer trip. While the big increases in the cost of fossil fuels have made international travel a rarer experience, it tends to be much better—and longer—when you do head off on your travels. In the bad old days you might have dashed off a postcard after thirty-six hours in a congested foreign capital. These days it is more a matter of picking out a few choice photos from the hundreds you’ll take on your once-in-a-lifetime three-month trip to India. Travel has returned to being a pleasure and an adventure.

With more leisure time and good cycle and public transport links, low impact local excursions are a much-loved part of life. But with our experience of both cities and countryside transformed by investment in really great public spaces, people feel less need to get away in order to unwind.

Need to get out of the house? Take a short stroll to one of the thousands of courtyard and street cafés that are enjoying the cleaner air and quieter streets. Plenty of these are cheap workplace and school cafés that have opened their doors to locals. The combination of a few familiar faces, a random mix of new ones, and a daily changing menu of fresh local food makes food a daily pleasure.

A journey to work? Problems are as big as you make them: it used to be said that people wouldn’t give up their cars. But instead of denying people their cars, the big breakthroughs were made by offering people really appealing alternatives. Some of these were alternatives to travel (like the conferencing tools). But we all want to move about.

So, by raising revenue from polluting and inefficient fossil fuel-run cars, governments completely transformed people’s experience of cities and towns. Owning and driving cars to meet most of your mobility needs has come to seem simply eccentric. Lifespan and quality of life have dramatically increased as a result of cities being redesigned around people—and walking and cycling—not cars. Transport options range from trains, streetcars, and quiet clean buses, to on-demand rural shared taxis and simple car-share schemes that meet the range of needs we have through a year. The common “ting” of the cycle bell is as much to say “hello,” as to remind you that you’re stepping across a cycle path. And when we do get in a car, the uncongested roads and beautifully designed hyperefficient vehicles remind us what a great invention these things can be.

Perhaps your office is one of the last bits of the building to have a green makeover. In hot weather you’ve got to turn the air conditioning on. It is not as wasteful as the old machines, but you know that some of the electricity is still going to be fossil fueled. You can comfort yourself with the knowledge that the increased costs brought about by carbon taxes have got your finance department talking to your building managers who are talking to the builders about natural ventilation systems. In the meantime the tax raised is salving all of your consciences.

In an idle moment you reflect on where this cash goes, and why that matters. One of a series of breakthrough climate deals between north and south ensures that the inhabitants of Brazil, especially those living in the Amazon, are directly rewarded for their stewardship of the ecological services that the rainforest provides to the whole planet. As we gradually descend from our carbon-fix high we can at least ensure that our habit is funding some security for us all by protecting these key carbon sinks. The bill for your air-conditioning that helps you cope with climate change in your office is, in effect, helping to pay the bill to keep the global air-conditioning running in the Amazon basin.

Time released from long working days, and the fact that fast food and ready meals have gone up in price now that they reflect their full ecological costs, has seen a revival of home cooking. With lots more single households there are some twists. More people get together to take turns to share informal meals in a neighborhood. There are delivery services providing decent food in returnable containers for people without the time or inclination for the kitchen or company.

Stories and music are as old as campfires. For a time we forgot it, but being actively involved in making entertainment made us feel much better than just passively watching others perform. One of the first things taught in school now is the medical evidence that watching TV induces a mental state almost identical to clinical depression. It’s now common in pubs, clubs, and in any available hall to find groups of friends showing films made by themselves on cheap, easy-to-use equipment, and putting on a wide range of music and other performances.

People are intrigued and drawn in by the fact that they can actually get to know the musicians and filmmakers, because they are likely to live in the area. Just as people are happier to go out more locally during the day, because towns have become more pleasant places to be, the same is true at night. In the early evening people of all ages take to strolling around town, just for the sake of it. The increase in spare time means people start reviving half-forgotten festivals and celebrations, as well as creating new ones to mark everything from important global events, to the seasons, local history, people, and important events. There is much more partying in general.

The good life is active, but it’s full in a good way. By pressing all the right buttons it creates its own energy to thrive. So, by the time evening turns to night, most people are still in the mood to press other right buttons on the one they love. Then we’ll settle, tired maybe, satisfied surely, to take stock of how things have gone, round off our day, look forward to the next one, and enjoy our sleep, deeply.

Andrew Simms and Joe Smith wrote this article as part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Andrew, pictured right, is policy director and head of the Climate Change Programme at nef (the new economics foundation); Joe Smith is a lecturer in the Geography Department at the Open University. They are co-editors of Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? (2008) Constable, London. This article is developed from the book.

AP study finds $1.6B went to bailed-out bank execs

By FRANK BASS and RITA BEAMISH, Associated Press Writers

Banks that are getting taxpayer bailouts awarded their top executives nearly $1.6 billion in salaries, bonuses, and other benefits last year, an Associated Press analysis reveals.

The rewards came even at banks where poor results last year foretold the economic crisis that sent them to Washington for a government rescue. Some trimmed their executive compensation due to lagging bank performance, but still forked over multimillion-dollar executive pay packages.

Benefits included cash bonuses, stock options, personal use of company jets and chauffeurs, home security, country club memberships and professional money management, the AP review of federal securities documents found.

The total amount given to nearly 600 executives would cover bailout costs for many of the 116 banks that have so far accepted tax dollars to boost their bottom lines.
Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services committee and a long-standing critic of executive largesse, said the bonuses tallied by the AP review amount to a bribe "to get them to do the jobs for which they are well paid in the first place.

"Most of us sign on to do jobs and we do them best we can," said Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat. "We're told that some of the most highly paid people in executive positions are different. They need extra money to be motivated!"
The AP compiled total compensation based on annual reports that the banks file with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The 116 banks have so far received $188 billion in taxpayer help. Among the findings:
  • The average paid to each of the banks' top executives was $2.6 million in salary, bonuses and benefits.
  • Lloyd Blankfein, president and chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, took home nearly $54 million in compensation last year. The company's top five executives received a total of $242 million.
This year, Goldman will forgo cash and stock bonuses for its seven top-paid executives. They will work for their base salaries of $600,000, the company said. Facing increasing concern by its own shareholders on executive payments, the company described its pay plan last spring as essential to retain and motivate executives "whose efforts and judgments are vital to our continued success, by setting their compensation at appropriate and competitive levels." Goldman spokesman Ed Canaday declined to comment beyond that written report.

The New York-based company on Dec. 16 reported its first quarterly loss since it went public in 1999. It received $10 billion in taxpayer money on Oct. 28.
  • Even where banks cut back on pay, some executives were left with seven- or eight-figure compensation that most people can only dream about. Richard D. Fairbank, the chairman of Capital One Financial Corp., took a $1 million hit in compensation after his company had a disappointing year, but still got $17 million in stock options. The McLean, Va.-based company received $3.56 billion in bailout money on Nov. 14.
  • John A. Thain, chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch, topped all corporate bank bosses with $83 million in earnings last year. Thain, a former chief operating officer for Goldman Sachs, took the reins of the company in December 2007, avoiding the blame for a year in which Merrill lost $7.8 billion. Since he began work late in the year, he earned $57,692 in salary, a $15 million signing bonus and an additional $68 million in stock options.
Like Goldman, Merrill got $10 billion from taxpayers on Oct. 28.

The AP review comes amid sharp questions about the banks' commitment to the goals of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), a law designed to buy bad mortgages and other troubled assets. Last month, the Bush administration changed the program's goals, instructing the Treasury Department to pump tax dollars directly into banks in a bid to prevent wholesale economic collapse.

The program set restrictions on some executive compensation for participating banks, but did not limit salaries and bonuses unless they had the effect of encouraging excessive risk to the institution. Banks were barred from giving golden parachutes to departing executives and deducting some executive pay for tax purposes.

Banks that got bailout funds also paid out millions for home security systems, private chauffeured cars, and club dues. Some banks even paid for financial advisers. Wells Fargo of San Francisco, which took $25 billion in taxpayer bailout money, gave its top executives up to $20,000 each to pay personal financial planners.

At Bank of New York Mellon Corp., chief executive Robert P. Kelly's stipend for financial planning services came to $66,748, on top of his $975,000 salary and $7.5 million bonus. His car and driver cost $178,879. Kelly also received $846,000 in relocation expenses, including help selling his home in Pittsburgh and purchasing one in Manhattan, the company said.

Goldman Sachs' tab for leased cars and drivers ran as high as $233,000 per executive. The firm told its shareholders this year that financial counseling and chauffeurs are important in giving executives more time to focus on their jobs.

JPMorgan Chase chairman James Dimon ran up a $211,182 private jet travel tab last year when his family lived in Chicago and he was commuting to New York. The company got $25 billion in bailout funds.

Banks cite security to justify personal use of company aircraft for some executives. But Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., questioned that rationale, saying executives visit many locations more vulnerable than the nation's security-conscious commercial air terminals.

Sherman, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, said pay excesses undermine development of good bank economic policies and promote an escalating pay spiral among competing financial institutions — something particularly hard to take when banks then ask for rescue money.

He wants them to come before Congress, like the automakers did, and spell out their spending plans for bailout funds.

"The tougher we are on the executives that come to Washington, the fewer will come for a bailout," he said.
On the Net:
SEC Filings & Forms: http://www.sec.gov
Emergency Economic Stabilization Act: http://www.treas.gov/initiatives/eesa/

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The War on Christmas or the war on acceptance

Bill O'Reilly and the other "Culture Warriors" want an excuse to hate Secular Progressives - they have coined the movement "the War on Christmas" - O'Reilly: "War" on Christmas part of "secular progressive agenda" that includes "legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage" Really, Bill? You get all of that out of people being accepting of cultures and religions other than Christianity?

When I wish someone a "Happy Holiday" it is because I do not assume their faith or beliefs. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. It is not in my power - or any one else's to force my beliefs on anyone else. For me, the phrase "Merry Christmas" makes me think of the commercialism that has hijacked the holiday - visions of the Santa Claus lie we teach our children, Black Friday horror stories, and the blatant greed of our society.

There are many other cultures coexisitng together in today's society. You can not assume anybody's beliefs or Faith - Remember "assume" makes and ass out of you and me. Check out this list of other winter holidays and festivals across other cultures:

A winter festival was the most popular festival of the year in many cultures. Reasons included the fact that less agricultural work needs to be done during the winter, as well as an expectation of better weather as spring approached.


  • Bodhi Day: December 8 - Day of Enlightenment, celebrating the day that the historical Buddha (Shakyamuni or Siddhartha Guatama) experienced enlightenment (also known as Bodhi).





  • Modranect: or Mothers' Night, the Saxon winter solstice festival.
  • Yule: the Germanic winter solstice festival


  • Navratri:Nine-day celebration worshipping female divinity, in October or November. Culminates in Dussehra.
  • Diwali:Known as the Festival of Lights, this Hindu holiday celebrates the victory of good over evil. The five-day festival is marked by ceremonies, fireworks and sweets. Women dress up and decorate their hands with henna tattoos for the melas, or fairs. Many different myths are associated with Diwali, one of which celebrates the return of Lord Rama after a 14-year exile and his defeat of the demon Ravana.
  • Bhaubeej


  • Hanukkah: Starting on 25 Kislev (Hebrew) or various dates in November or December (Gregorian) - eight day festival commemorating the miracle of the oil after the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus IV Epiphanes and his defeat in 165 BCE.
  • Tu Bishvat: New Year of the Trees occurring on the 15th of Shevat, January or February.
  • Purim: Occurring on 14th or 15th day of Adar, late February to March, commemorating the miraculous deliverance and victory of the Jews of the Persian Empire in the events recorded in the Book of Esther


  • Eid ul-Adha: Starting on the 10th of Dhul Hijja, a four day holiday commemorating the Prophet Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.
NOTE: The Islamic calendar is based on the moon and this festival moves with respect to the solar year. It is, however, falling in the winter in the first decade of the present [21st] Century of the common era.

Pagan and Neo-Pagan


  • Sadeh: A mid-winter feast to honor fire and to "defeat the forces of darkness, frost and cold". Sadé or Sada (Persian: سده) Jashn-e Sada/Sadé (in Persian: جشن سده), also transliterated as Sadeh, is an ancient Iranian tradition celebrated 50 days before nowrouz. Sadeh in Persian means "hundred" and refers to one hundred days and nights left to the beginning of the new year celebrated at the first day of spring on March 21st each year. Sadeh is a mid winter festival that was celebrated with grandeur and magnificence in ancient Iran. It was a festivity to honor fire and to defeat the forces of darkness, frost, and cold.
  • Yalda: The turning point, Winter Solstice (December 21). End of the longest night of the year (Darkness), and beginning of growing of the days (Lights). A celebration of Good over Evil. Shabe Yaldā (Persian: یلدا) or Shabe Chelle (Persian: شب چله) is an Iranian festival originally celebrated on the Northern Hemisphere's longest night of the year, that is, on the eve of the Winter Solstice.
  • Chahar Shanbeh Suri: Festival of Fire, Last Wednesday of the Iranian Calendar year. It marks the importance of the light over the darkness, and arrival of spring and revival of nature. Chahārshanbe-Sūri (Persian: چهارشنبه‌سوری), pronounced Chārshanbe-Sūri (Persian: چارشنبه‌سوری) is the ancient Iranian festival dating at least back to 1700 BCE of the early Zoroastrian era. The festival of fire is a prelude to the ancient Norouz festival, which marks the arrival of spring and revival of nature. Chahrshanbeh Soori, is celebrated the last Tuesday night of the year.





  • Karachun - the ancient Slavs polytheistic winter solstice festival

Just for fun, these are the fictional winter holidays:

  • Festivus: December 23 - quirky holiday invented on the television show Seinfeld
  • Festival of the Bells: Midwinter celebration in Fraggle Rock, also mentioned in A Muppet Family Christmas.
  • Decemberween: December 25 - A holiday in the Homestar RunnerHalloween. universe, occurring 55 days after
  • Hogswatchnight: December 32 - New Year's Eve/Christmas in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (plays on Hogmanay, Watch Night, and "hogwash")
  • Winterfair: from the Vorkosigan Saga of Lois McMaster Bujold; a Barrayarran cultural holiday
  • Chrismukkah: the modern-day merging of the holidays of Christianity's Christmas and Judaism's Hanukkah.
  • Chrismahanukwanzakah: the modern-day merging of the holidays of Christianity's Christmas, Judaism's Hanukkah, and the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa.
  • Hedgehog Day: February 2 - supposed archaic European version of Groundhog Day, dating back to Roman times.
  • Wintersday: The annual winter holiday in the MMORPG Guild Wars. This holiday is based on Christmas and Yule and one can get neat hats.
  • Starlight Celebration: The annual winter holiday based on Christmas/Yule/winter solstice in the MMORPG Final Fantasy XI (aka FFXI). Players can collect various holiday equipment, Mog house furnishings, fireworks, and food.
  • Shoe Giving: - quirky holiday famously invented on the show Hyperdrive (TV series)
  • Freezingman: - January 11- A Burning Man inspired event held in Colorado as a Winter Arts and Music Festival http://www.coloradofreezingman.com http://tribes.tribe.net/freezingman
  • Couch Burning: June 21 (Southern hemisphere Winter Solstice) - A couch is burnt on a bonfire on the 21st of June, inspired by the Burning Man festival and conducted by CouchSurfers.
  • Noob Day: December 26 - The day following Christmas when all the people who received online games as gifts go online for the first time and are killed off or mocked by veterans.
  • Feast of Winter Veil: December 15 to January 2 - holiday in the MMORPG World of Warcraft. This holiday is based on Christmas. Cities are decorated with christmas lights and a tree with presents. Also special quests, items and snowballs are available. It features 'Greatfather Winter' which is modeled after [Santa Claus].
So, does that mean wish a "Merry Christmas" to someone who is of Jewish faith mean you are instituting a "War on Hanukkah"? No, it means you assumed that the person was of the same Faith as you. Bad business decision. Wishing a "Happy Holiday", doesn't assume anything and still conveys your wish of merriment to the person you are greeting. Bill, pull your head out of your rear end long enough to realize your views are not the only ones out there.

Persecution begins with hate. Hate generally is bred from fear, fear generally comes from the unknown (failing to educate yourself), or an insecurity in your own self or beliefs that you are trying to overcompensate for. Or in extreme cases, possibly narcissism.
It is imperative for the free people of the world to defend the freedom of conscience, including freedom of religion, Faith, and other core beliefs irrespective of one's own personal belief. If this hate is left to fester and grow, we end up persecuting large groups of people based solely upon unfounded hate (remember the Jewish Holocaust?)

Back to the "War on Culture" - the Self-Righteous hiding behind the teachings of the Bible and breeding Hate amongst the members of society, remember: But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” —1 Samuel 16:7

If you would like to read more on the history of Xmas and it's origins, please, read below. And, it is not Secular to call it Xmas -
the term originated from the use of the Greek letter chi, Χ, as an abbreviation of Christ (Χριστός). So, Bill, go ahead and put that fact under your Christmas tree (which historically is an adaptation of pagan tree worship and what does the following bible scripture refer to: Jeremiah 10:2-4: "Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen....For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers, that it move not.".)

Happy Holidays to everyone I wish you all peace and happiness during this season, no matter how you celebrate!

In recent decades, during the annual approach to December 25, it is widely alleged that public, corporate, and government mention of the term "Christmas" is avoided and replaced with a generic term—usually "holiday" or "winter"—and that popular non-religious aspects of Christmas, such as secular Christmas carols and decorated trees are still prominently showcased and recognized, but are vaguely associated with non-specified "holidays", rather than with Christmas.

In the past, Christmas-related controversy was mainly restricted to concerns of a public focus on secular Christmas themes such as Santa Claus and gift giving rather than what is sometimes expressed by Christians as the "reason for the season"—the birth of Jesus. The term "Xmas", the subject of controversy during the mid-to-late 20th century, originated from the use of the Greek letter chi, Χ, as an abbreviation of Christ (Χριστός).

December 25 is not thought to be Jesus' actual date of birth, and the date may have been chosen to correspond with either a Roman festival, or with the winter solstice. As a way for the Cristian faith to covert the non-Christians by allowing them to continue their winter celebrations.

For many centuries, Christian writers accepted that Christmas was the actual date on which Jesus was born. However, in the early eighteenth century, some scholars began proposing alternative explanations. Isaac Newton argued that the date of Christmas was selected to correspond with the winter solstice, which in ancient times was marked on December 25. In 1743, German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski argued Christmas was placed on December 25 to correspond with the Roman solar holiday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and was therefore a "paganization" that debased the true church. In 1889, Louis Duchesne suggested that the date of Christmas was calculated as nine months after the Annunciation on March 25, the traditional date of the conception of Jesus.

The New Testament does not give a date for the birth of Jesus.Clement of Alexandria wrote that a group in Egypt celebrated the nativity on Pachon 25. This corresponds to May 20. Tertullian (d. 220) does not mention Christmas as a major feast day in the Church of Roman Africa. In Chronographai, a reference work published in 221, Sextus Julius Africanus suggested that Jesus was conceived on the spring equinox. The equinox was March 25 on the Roman calendar, so this implied a birth in December. De Pascha Computus, a calendar of feasts produced in 243, gives March 28 as the date of the nativity. In 245, the theologian Origen of Alexandria stated that, "only sinners (like Pharaoh and Herod)" celebrated their birthdays. In 303, Christian writer Arnobius ridiculed the idea of celebrating the birthdays of gods, which suggests that Christmas was not yet a feast at this time.

As was the case with other Christian holidays, Christmas borrowed elements from Pagan peoples, including yule logs, decorations such as candles, holly, and mistletoe. Christmas trees were sometimes seen as Pagan in origin. Cited as proof is Jeremiah, 10:3-4, which states, "For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan. People deck it with silver and gold they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move." The Advent period (originally a fasting period meant to point to the Second coming of Christ), and gift giving (invented by Martin Luther to counter St. Nicholas Day, 6th of December) were also often seen as Pagan in origin.

Christmas during the Middle Ages was a public festival that incorporating ivy, holly, and other evergreens. Christmas gift-giving during the Middle Ages was usually between people with legal relationships, such as tenant and landlord.

In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was overshadowed by Epiphany, which in the west focused on the visit of the magi. But the Medieval calendar was dominated by Christmas-related holidays. The forty days before Christmas became the "forty days of St. Martin" (which began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours), now known as Advent. Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 5); a time that appears in the liturgical calendars as Christmastide or Twelve Holy Days. In Italy, former Saturnalian traditions were attached to Advent. Around the 12th century, these traditions transferred again to the
By the High Middle Ages, the holiday had become so prominent that chroniclers routinely noted where various magnates celebrated Christmas. King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten. The Yule boar was a common feature of medieval Christmas feasts. Caroling "Misrule" — drunkenness, promiscuity, gambling — was also an important aspect of the festival. In England, gifts were exchanged on New Year's Day, and there was special Christmas ale. also became popular, and was originally a group of dancers who sang. The group was composed of a lead singer and a ring of dancers that provided the chorus. Various writers of the time condemned caroling as lewd, indicating that the unruly traditions of Saturnalia and Yule may have continued in this form.

The first documented Christmas controversy was Christian-led, and began during the English Interregnum (Reformation), when England was ruled by a Puritan Parliament. Puritans (including those who fled to America) sought to remove the remaining Pagan elements of Christmas . During this period, the English Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas entirely, considering it a popish festival with no biblical justification, and a time of wasteful and immoral behavior.

During the various Protestant reformations, these (real or supposed) paganizing elements were a source of controversy. Some sects, such as the Puritans, rejected Christmas as an entirely Pagan holiday. Others rejected certain aspects of Christmas as paganizing, but wanted to retain the "essence" of the holiday as a celebration of the Christ's birth. This tension put in motion an ongoing debate about the proper observance of Christmas.

Christmas fell out of favor in the United States after the American Revolution, when it was considered an English custom.

Prior to the Victorian era, Christmas in the United States was primarily a religious holiday observed by Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans.

By the 1820s British writers, including William Winstanly began to worry that Christmas was dying out. These writers imagined Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration, and efforts were made to revive the holiday. Charles Dickens's book A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, played a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion as opposed to communal celebration and hedonistic excess.

In America, interest in Christmas was revived in the 1820s by several short stories by Washington Irving which appear in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon and "Old Christmas", and by Clement Clarke Moore's 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (popularly known by its first line: Twas the Night Before Christmas). Irving's stories depicted harmonious warm-hearted holiday traditions he claimed to have observed in England. Although some argue that Irving invented the traditions he describes, they were widely imitated by his American readers. The poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas popularized the tradition of exchanging gifts and seasonal Christmas shopping began to assume economic importance. In her 1850 book "The First Christmas in New England", Harriet Beecher Stowe includes a character who complains that the true meaning of Christmas was lost in a shopping spree. Christmas was declared a United States Federal holiday in 1870, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant.

Historian Stephen Nissenbaum contends that the modern celebration in the United States was developed in New York State from defunct and imagined Dutch and English traditions in order to re-focus the holiday from one where groups of young men went from house to house demanding alcohol and food into one that was focused on the happiness of children. He notes that there was deliberate effort to prevent the children from becoming greedy in response.

Christmas is celebrated throughout the Christian population, but is also celebrated by many non-Christians as a secular, cultural festival. The holiday is celebrated around the world. Because gift-giving and several other aspects of the holiday involve heightened economic activity among both Christians and non-Christians, Christmas has become a major event for many retailers.

Certain Christian religions, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and some fundamentalist churches, continue to reject the holiday as well, citing its Pagan and/or Roman Catholic origins.

Modern customs of the holiday include gift-giving, church celebrations, and the display of various decorations—including the Christmas tree, lights, mistletoe, nativity scenes and holly. Santa Claus (also referred to as Father Christmas, although the two figures have different origins) is a popular mythological figure often associated with bringing gifts at Christmas. Santa is generally believed to be the result of a syncretization St. Nicholas of Myra and elements from pagan Nordic and Christian mythology, and his modern appearance is believed to have originated in 19th century media.

Originating from Western culture, where the holiday is characterized by the exchange of gifts among friends and family members, some of the gifts are attributed to a character called Santa Claus . The popular image of Santa Claus was created by the German-AmericanThomas Nast (1840–1902), who drew a new image annually, beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Nast's Santa had evolved into the form we now recognize. The image was standardized by advertisers in the 1920s.

Father Christmas, who predates the Santa Claus character, was first recorded in the 15th century, but was associated with holiday merrymaking and drunkenness. In Victorian Britain, his image was remade to match that of Santa. The French Père Noël evolved along similar lines, eventually adopting the Santa image. In Italy, Babbo Natale acts as Santa Claus, while La Befana is the bringer of gifts and arrives on the eve of the Epiphany. It is said that La Befana set out to bring the baby Jesus gifts, but got lost along the way. Now, she brings gifts to all children. In some cultures Santa Claus is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter. In other versions, elves make the toys. His wife is referred to as Mrs. Claus. Although many parents around the world routinely teach their children about Santa Claus and other gift bringers, some have come to reject this practice, considering it deceptive.

The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of paganevergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship. The English language phrase "Christmas tree" is first recorded in 1835 German language. The modern Christmas tree tradition is believed to have begun in Germany in the 18th century though many argue that Martin Luther began the tradition in the 16th century. From Germany the custom was introduced to England, first via Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and then more successfully by Prince Albert during the reign of Queen Victoria. Around the same time, German immigrants introduced the custom into the United States. Christmas trees may be decorated with lights and ornaments.

Both setting up and taking down a Christmas tree are associated with specific dates. In Europe, when the practice of setting up evergreen trees originated in pagan times, the practice was associated with the Winter Solstice, around December 21. Tree decoration was later adopted into Christian practice after the Church set December 25 as the birth of Christ, thereby supplanting the pagan celebration of the solstice.

Traditionally, Christmas trees were not brought in and decorated until Christmas Eve (24 December), and then removed the day after twelfth night (6 January); to have a tree up before or after these dates was even considered bad luck. Modern commercialisation of Christmas has resulted in trees being put up much earlier; in shops often as early as late October. Some households in the U.S. do not put up the tree until the second week of December, and leave it up until the 6th of January (Epiphany).

Since the 19th century, the poinsettia, a native plant from Mexico, has been associated with Christmas. Other popular holiday plants include holly, mistletoe, red amaryllis, and Christmas cactus. Along with a Christmas tree, the interior of a home may be decorated with these plants, along with garlands and evergreen foliage.

In Australia, North and South America, and to a lesser extent Europe, it is traditional to decorate the outside of houses with lights and sometimes with illuminated sleighs, snowmen, and other Christmas figures. Municipalities often sponsor decorations as well. Christmas banners may be hung from street lights and Christmas trees placed in the town square.

In the Western world, rolls of brightly colored paper with secular or religious Christmas motifs are manufactured for the purpose of wrapping gifts. The display of Christmas villages has also become a tradition in many homes during this season. Other traditional decorations include bells, candles, candy canes, stockings, wreaths, and angels.

Christmas is typically the largest annual economic stimulus for many nations. Sales increase dramatically in almost all retail areas and shops introduce new products as people purchase gifts, decorations, and supplies. In the U.S., the "Christmas shopping season" generally begins on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, though many American stores begin selling Christmas items as early as October. In Canada, merchants begin advertising campaigns just before Halloween (October 31), and step up their marketing following Remembrance Day on November 11.

An economists analysis calculates that Christmas is a deadweight lossmicroeconomic theory, due to the surge in gift-giving. This loss is calculated as the difference between what the gift giver spent on the item and what the gift receiver would have paid for the item. It is estimated that in 2001 Christmas resulted in a $4 billion deadweight loss in the U.S. alone. Because of complicating factors, this analysis is sometimes used to discuss possible flaws in current microeconomic theory. Other deadweight losses include the effects of Christmas on the environment and the fact that material gifts are often perceived as white elephants, imposing cost for upkeep and storage and contributing to clutter.

The concept of a modern-day "war on Christmas" only became widely discussed in the United States and Canada during the early-to-mid 2000s decade, credited particularly to an exposure of the issue by AmericanBill O'Reilly. commentator

The claim among Brimelow, O'Reilly, and later a variety of prominent media figures and others was that any specific mention of the term "Christmas" or its religious aspects was being increasingly censored, avoided, or discouraged by a number of advertisers, retailers, government (prominently schools), and other public and secular organizations.

So, Is the true meaning of Christmas now as clear as mud?