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May 2012

May 1  The economist Nouriel Roubini describes the eurozone crisis as a "slow-motion train wreck." In the eurozone, debt in many cases is still growing and economies are not. Recession has returned to Spain, Italy and Britain. Revolts against austerity are gathering force. Economists are saying that austerity is making the debt crisis worse by holding back growth, and some are saying there is no alternative to austerity.

May 2  After its meeting with President Abdullah Gul, Turkey's National Security Council announced yesterday that it is obligatory to end the bloodshed in Syria as soon as possible. By now, many observers see Kofi Annan's peace plan as fantasy, but Turkey's Security Council said: "We have drawn attention to the obligation to fulfil all requirements of the six-point Annan plan." This coincides with Jackson Diehl's comment yesterday in the Washington Post that a "gloomy defeatism has infected European and Arab diplomats working on Syria. They shrug and say there are no solutions, that not much can be done to stop the fighting and that there's no way to build an international consensus for stronger measures."

May 3  Last night the Assad regime extended its attempt at control through terror by storming student dormitories at a university in the city of Aleppo, killing at least four students and wounding several others. More than 50 students are reported as having been arrested. Today the university is shut down. A typical response to government attacks against university students is an increase in their militancy. How many students will drop out and move from peaceful protests to the Free Syrian Army is anyone's guess. Another guess is the attack on students has added no greater control by pro-Assad forces over Syria's population.

May 4  The austerity debate continues. The boom, not the slump, is the time for austerity, says Paul Krugman, quoting or paraphrasing John Maynard Keyes. Instead, we had go-go years when our president was touting economic growth and urging people to spend, a time of consumer and government borrowing and reduced taxation that raised the deficit when we should have been reducing debt. And now, when we're economically down and need to spend in order to grow and need growth to pay down the debt, we have conservatives (who dislike Keynes) arguing for austerity.

May 5  Japan shuts down its last working nuclear reactor. Reactors are to be restarted if they pass new tests. Hundreds of people march through Tokyo, waving banners to celebrate what they hope will be the end of nuclear power in Japan. Businesses warn that severe consequences will result for manufacturing if no nuclear plants are allowed to re-start.

May 5  In Cairo, a march yesterday against the Defense Ministry resulted in one soldier killed and hundreds of people hurt. The army had warned protesters during a news conference on May 3rd that it would not tolerate threats to any of its installations. Undeterred, protesters calling for the military to give up power attacked anyway. Reports describe public frustration with the protesters. Authorities have detained 300 people whom they say will be be held for 15 days pending investigations into yesterday's events.

May 6  Brazil is cracking down on drug smuggling, gold mining and illegal deforestation in the Amazon. Soldiers are being sent to porous border areas. The operation has detected 10 clandestine airstrips in the state of Roraima that were being used for illegal mining operations on indigenous territory. The operation is expected to last several more weeks.

May 7  Yesterday Francois Hollande beat Nicolas Sarkozy in a run-off election, winning 52% of the vote. He will be France's first Socialist head of state in 17 years. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti tells Hollande of the Italian government working with France, and Europe, to create "an ever more efficient and growth-driven union."

May 8  The anti-austerity push continues in Europe. Following May 6 parliamentary elections in Greece, the leader of the political bloc Syriza, to the left of the center-left Pasok party, is trying to form a coalition that he says will "tear up" the European Union's "austerity deal." Syriza won 52 seats in parliament. Pasok won 33, the Communist Party won 26 and the xenophobic rightist party, Golden Dawn (also opposed to the Enlightenment) won 21 seats. Greece's Communist Party is refusing to join a coalition with Syriza. It takes 151 seats in parliament to constitute a majority. Meanwhile predictions rise that sometime next year Greece is likely to leave the euro, and Gideon Rachman (whom I distrust) writes in the Financial Times that there is "No Alternative to Austerity".

May 9  Some complain about a lack of determination by Europeans to go forward with needed austerity measures. Larry Summers writes for Reuters of an opposing view "that seems to be taking hold among the European electorate." Summers writes that "Much of what is being urged on and in Europe is likely to be not just ineffective but counterproductive to maintaining the monetary union, restoring normal financial conditions and government access to markets, and re-establishing economic growth." He writes that European Central Bank's commitment to provide funding to resolve the money crisis has "proved little more than a palliative" – inadequate.

May 10  Should people too fat to ride in an ambulance or a public bus be accommodated with new transport facilities? Where should we draw the line in helping people survive? "Years ago," said a doctor interviewed on the News Hour (May 8), "we wouldn't have patients over 300, 400 pounds very often. Now we're seeing them daily. And it's become an operational problem at times." Cities are building new ambulances and busses to accomodate the super-fat. According to the News Hour, research has tried to measure in dollars the transportation and medical costs, lost productivity and increased absenteeism at work, and one estimate puts it at $190 billion a year.

May 11  Yesterday's bomb attack in Syria killed 55 and wounded 372. No one is taking credit for the bombing, but bomb attacks are now a regular occurrence in the Syria's civil war. Al Arabiya headlined an April 30 article "Outgunned Syrian opposition forces make shift to homemade bombs." The target of the bombing was Assad's intelligence agency, which helps hunt down Assad opponents. The UN and others condemn yesterday's bombing, while each of the two sides in the war are passionately fighting for survival, leaving Kofi Annan's peace plan described as "in tatters" and media anti-escalation punditry as irrelevant. The bombing appears to be a counter step to Assad's tanks and artillery.

May 12  The Islamist group, al-Nusra, takes credit for recent bombings in Syria. Their video describes the bombing as a response to attacks on neighborhoods by forces loyal to Assad. The video states that if the Assad regime doesn't stop its massacres against the Sunni people it "will bear the sin of the Alawites" (the offshoot of Shia Islam to which the Assad family and many regime leaders and military belong). Al-Nusra has been described as having originated in the Syrian city of Homs in 2011.

May 14   Anti-austerity demonstrations occurred in several debt-strapped European countries over the weekend. And yesterday Fareed Zakaria spoke of Europeans he had talked to last week as understanding the argument for stimulating the economy now and making cuts later in good times. "But," says Zakaria, "many in Europe, especially in Germany, believe that later will never come." This isn't an argument against Keynesian economics. It's a belief that "In reality, governments spend in bad times and then spend more in good times." It's a claim about an incapability of politicians.

May 15  The Islamist group, al-Nusra, claims that the video of them taking reponsibility for bombing in Damascus (that killed 55 people) was "fabricated" and "full of errors" and that they were not behind the bombing.

May 15  Naval forces belonging to the European Union attack pirate bases in Somalia and destroy several boats.

May 16  Some in the US complain that banks are still out of control. Some wanting a return to commercial banking separate from investment banking accuse JPMorgan Chase of gambling in its loss of at least two billion dollars in recent market transactions. Those resisting separation deny that lax regulation is to blame for JPMorgan's loss. They support banks being able to make market plays to cover possible financial loss rather than just finding safety in sound commercial lending. (Carlson cartoon)

May 17  Yesterday, Syria's President Assad put his character on display, bringing to mind Muammar Gaddafi during his last year in power. Assad told Russian television that Syria is losing the information war. He accused his detractors of having "outplayed us," of having "at the very beginning of the crisis - invented stories... These lies, or rumours, or false accusations - call them what you will - all these are soap bubbles," he said. "They have a short life." "The main thing," he added, "is to win in real life," and this is what we "place our reliance on." He described most Syrians as supporting his regime and the Free Syrian Army as "a group of criminals who have for years broken the law and received convictions."

May 18  Europe's economic and euro problem summarized without emphasis on profligate spending: A wave of optimism followed invention of the euro in 1992. "Money poured into Spain and other nations, which were now seen as safe investments; this flood of capital fueled huge housing bubbles and huge trade deficits. Then, with the financial crisis of 2008, the flood dried up, causing severe slumps in the very nations that had boomed before." At that point, Europe's monetary union without a political union "became a severe liability." So writes Paul Krugman, who adds that austerity measures "deepened the depression in Europe's troubled economies, which both further undermined investor confidence and led to growing political instability."

May 20  The 300-member Syrian National Council, outside Syria and center of opposition to the Assad regime, is reported to be divided to the point of "complete disarray," making international help for those fighting the Assad regime within Syria more difficult.

May 21  From the NATO summit in Chicago comes an endorsement of President Obama's strategy of shifting responsibility for military matters in Afghanistan fully to Afghan forces by the middle of next year. Then, by the end of 2014, most of NATO's remaining 130,000 combat troops are to be withdrawn. France's new president, François Hollande, offers an exception. He vows to stick by his pledge to withdraw French troops by the end of this year.

May 21  Former Rutgars student, Dharun Ravi, is sentenced to 30 days in prison plus serve a three-year period of probation and complete 300 hours of community service – for indiscriminate use of a webcam and tweeting bias intimidation. (See Mar 17)

May 22  Norway's parliament moves to abolish the Church of Norway – established in 1536-37. The Norwegian state is no longer to engage in religious activities and will instead treat all religions and philosophies equally. All political parties represented in parliament, including the Conservative Party, support the move.

May 23   Dishonesty in the distribution of goods and services has invaded the effort against malaria around the world and the manufacture of aircraft. Researchers from the Fogarty International Center at the National Institute of Health have estimated that a third of the malaria drugs used around the world are counterfeit. The US Senate Committee on Armed Services has released a report of a flood of counterfeit parts, overwhelmingly from China, in US military aircraft.

May 24  With stem cells – which have the ability to become different cell types – scientists manage to create heart muscle from skin. They hope that using a heart patient's own skin will eliminate the problem of tissue rejection.

May 24  Syria will overcome its crisis "thanks to the strength of its people and commitment to unity and independence," President Assad said today. Also today, a UN-commission report describes his army as using torture and summary executions. The Assad regime's strategy has been to help the unity of the Syrian people with military intervention.

May 28  After almost three months of pleas, UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan continues with his "Peace Plan" as he goes to Damascus to plead again with the Assad regime. He calls on "every individual with a gun" to lay down their arms" and says "I am personally shocked and horrified by the tragic incident in Houla" (described by others as a massacre). Many observers inside and outside of Syria see Annan's Peace Plan as dead, as failure – this on top of Annan's failure in 1994 during the Rwandan genocide when he held back UN troops from intervening militarily. Annan appears to dislike military solutions no matter what. And many agree with that.

May 29  Sheila Bair, veteran finance analyst and former chairwoman of the FDIC tells Peter S. Goodman, Business Editor of the Huffington Post, that "Banks ought to stick to taking deposits and making loans, while setting dollars aside to cover the possibility that some of those loans will not get paid back." She describes JPMorgan's recent losses as a result of gambling.

May 30  Egypt's presidential candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, says that if elected president he will support women's rights and freedom of expression and that Coptic Christians would be his "partners" in building the country. He says he is committed to a system of checks and balances where powers are separated. "We want a democratic, national state with a separation of powers," he adds, claiming that his goal is to "build a free and democratic Egypt that will enjoy social justice." Mr Morsi studied engineering in the United States and is the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party.

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Copyright © 2012 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.