U.S.A. ranks 41 in Freedom of Press

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When it comes to Freedom, we think about U.S.A. as the Land of the Free. Liberty has always been a major point in our lives and we believe our Country is the most privileged of all.

Well, maybe in the past. Nowadays we must realise that things have changed, many countries can be considered as free, independent, democratic. What about freedom of press? Well, we rank only 41, behind countries as Germany, Portugal, Chile or Spain… and only one above Burkina Faso. Let’s take a look:

https://rsf.org/en/ranking

Impressive. Amazing. Disappointing. We should maybe re-think about what the United States of America have become or our Lady Liberty won’t be proud of us at all.

Nevertheless, don’t worry, we are in good company: France, Japan and Italy rank even lower.

Source: Reporters without borders.

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New Evidence Suggests That Limbs and Fins Evolved From Fish Gills

New Evidence Suggests That Limbs and Fins Evolved From Fish GillsImage: Andrew Gillis/University of Cambridge
Jennifer Ouellette, Gizmodo

Over a century ago, scientists discarded a proposed theory that human limbs evolved from gills, given the lack of evidence in the fossil record. That theory is being revisited in light of new genetic results just published in the journal Development.

Human beings inherited many features from creatures that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, and we still carry those genetic imprints. Our hands, for instance, evolved from prehistoric fish fins, and scientists can trace our skin and teeth to prehistoric reptiles. Now scientists at the University of Cambridge have performed experiments on the embryos of skates that point to a possible evolutionary connection between the gills of those fish and our limbs.

Skates are “cartilaginous fish,” along with sharks and rays, which means their gills are protected by skin flaps. Those flaps in turn are held up by arches made out of cartilage. And a key feature of those arches are appendages called branchial rays that fan out much like fingers.

 Back in 1878, a German anatomist named Karl Gegenbaur speculated that paired fins (and, ultimately, limbs) evolved through a gradual transformation of the gill arch—much like the vertebrae in the human backbone, each of which is a little bit different, but nonetheless based on a common ground plan. It made sense, but nothing in the fossil record lent support to his hypothesis, so it was summarily discounted.
New Evidence Suggests That Limbs and Fins Evolved From Fish GillsKarl Gegenbaur’s sketch of corresponding parts of the human hand to forelimbs (1870). Public domain.

The Cambridge researchers approached the question from a different angle. Whereas Gegenbaur based his conclusions on anatomical analysis, they focused on what the underlying molecular mechanisms might be for such a connection. “Gegenbaur speculated that gill arches and fins/limbs were evolutionarily related because they appear to be built according to a common ground plan,” lead author Andrew Gillis told Gizmodo. In contrast, “We’ve identified a molecular feature that could be a key part of that ground plan.”

That key is a gene colorfully dubbed Sonic hedgehog, known to play an important role in determining the form and number of digits, and making sure everything is in the right place. Early on in the developmental stage of mammalian embryos, it’s the Sonic hedgehog gene that helps determine where the thumb and pinky finger will be on the hand, for instance. As the embryo grows, Sonic hedgehog makes sure everything keeps growing until it reaches full size.

New Evidence Suggests That Limbs and Fins Evolved From Fish GillsImage: Andrew Gillis/University of Cambridge

That’s how it works in mammals, anyway. But how does the gene function in skate embryos? To find out, Gillis et al. tweaked the gene to inhibit its expression at various stages of development.

The result: Disrupt the gene expression early on, and you’ll get those finger-like branchial rays forming on the wrong side of the skate embryo’s gill arch. Inhibit it later in development, and they’ll form in the right spot, but there are fewer of them.

In other words, the underlying mechanism seems to be the same.

“The extent of the similarities here is compelling,” University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin (author of Your Inner Fish) told Gizmodo. “Those rays are really behaving like digits developmentally. Essentially what [Gillis] is seeing is that some of the genetic processes that build and pattern gill rays are fundamental to the formation of limbs with fingers and toes. That is a very interesting insight.”

So does this mean that Gegenbaur was right all along? It’s not quite that cut-and-dried, according to Gillis. Perhaps fins and the branchial rays of gills evolved independently, but use the same underlying mechanism. Alternatively, fins and gills might be completely unrelated, and just happen to use a couple of the same genes. Gillis is hopeful that his research will help distinguish between these two scenarios, as we learn more about the genes involved in the development of shark and skate gills—and how they interact with, and regulate, each other.

Or maybe it’s time to give Gegenbaur his due and accept that fins (and, ultimately, our own limbs) did evolve from gills. In that case, uncovering evidence in the fossil record is the only way to know for sure. And as Shubin observed, “A fossil with transitional morphologies between gills and limbs would be quite amazing to see.”

Breivik just won part of a human-rights case against the government

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Business Insider

Breivik, a Norwegian mass murderer has won part of a human-rights case against the government.

The right-wing extremist who was responsible for the deaths of 77 people in Norway in July 2011, sued the Norwegian government after his arrest and imprisonment for having violated his human rights.

An Oslo district court has now ruled that the Norwegian government did indeed violate Breivik’s rights as they breached an article prohibiting degrading treatment of prisoners under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ruling cited that authorities did not give enough attention to Breivik’s mental health when determining his conditions in prison. The court also ordered the Norwegian government to pay Breivik’s legal costs of $41,000 (331,000 kroner).

During his 2011 killing spree, Breivik detonated a bomb in Oslo and then went on a shooting spree on a nearby island in which dozens of teenagers at a camp were killed.

Breivik claimed during his initial trail in 2012 that he was “a military commander in the Norwegian resistance movement and Knights Templar Norway.”

His attacks were aimed at stopping the spread of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration into the country.

skienReutersGeneral view of a cell inside Skien prison, south of Oslo, February 12, 2016.

After his initial trial in 2011, Breivik has been held in isolation in a luxurious prison cell.

According to Agence France Presse, Breivik’s cell has three rooms, “one for living, one for studying, and a third for physical exercise — as well as a television, a computer without internet access and a game console. He is able to prepare his own food and do his own laundry.”

However, Breivik and his lawyer are suing Norway, claiming the state has violated two clauses of the European Convention on Human Rights, thus violating his human rights in prison.

skienReutersGeneral view of the gym at Skien prison, south of Oslo, February 12, 2016.

Breivik maintains that Oslo’s treatment of him violates the clauses against “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” and also the clauses guaranteeing prisoners the right to respect for “private and family life” and “correspondence,” AFP notes.

A Norwegian court supported Breivik’s case of suffering under “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” but the court dismissed his claim or having his right to see and correspond with his family as having been violated.

As Fusion notes, his complaints stemmed from the fact that Breivik is essentially being kept in isolation. His cell is set off from the rest of the prison complex, isolating him from the other prisoners. He also infrequently has guests, causing his main human interaction to be with his guards. His mail is also censored.

This isolation has apparently taken a psychological toll on him, Breivik’s lawyer told AFP.

Breivik has previously stated that he has been forced to strip 880 times in total while a prisoner, Reuters reports.

skienReutersGeneral view of a cell inside Skien prison, south of Oslo, February 12, 2016.

However, Breivik has had a history of complaining about his life in prison. As The New Yorkerreported in 2015, Breivik has complained about everything in prison, ranging from how his room had a PlayStation 2 instead of a PlayStation 3 and the quality of the rubber pen he is allowed to write with in his cell.

Breivik’s complaints, including his near complete isolation, would be hard to square with the American view of prisons. Prisons in Norway are nearly unimaginably luxurious, with the aim being rehabilitation instead of penalization. The prisons include vocational classes, video-game consoles, well-prepared kitchens, and in some cases even recording studios with instruments.

Many of these luxuries are unavailable to Breivik, however. Still, he is currently serving only a 21-year sentence for his crime, which is the maximum sentence under Norway’s penal system.

In 2033, at the end of his sentence, Breivik will be evaluated to see if rehabilitation has been successful. If it is judged to have not been, his sentence can be extended for five-year increments indefinitely.

How America has waged an eternal war in the Middle East

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Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Week

Every year the United States seems to be torn between further retreat from the Middle East and deeper military involvement in it.

Over the past four decades, America has bombed pharmaceutical plants in Sudan and cars from Yemen to Afghanistan. It has promoted democracy in the Palestinian territories, then subterfuge and civil war in Syria. In Iraq alone, it has tried war, sanctions, no-fly zones, shock-and-awe, regime change, withdrawal, and, now, bombing again.

Instead of seeing these and other conflicts as numerous and distinct, former U.S. Army Colonel and current professor emeritus at Boston University Andrew J. Bacevich describes it as a unified four-decade-plus struggle in his new book. In America’s War for the Greater Middle East,Bacevich covers the military failures and the near-successes as a military historian. But he engages the entirety of Middle East policy as something of a prophet, where the power fantasies of America’s elite and American society’s decadence are as much to blame for military failure as bad planning.

In Bacevich’s telling, our long war in trying to shape the Middle East was precipitated by the oil shocks of the ’70s, the Iranian Revolution, and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter, looking at Soviet power just a few hundred miles from the Strait of Hormuz, announced that “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Perhaps more darkly, this war has been impelled by a concept of freedom that has gripped American thought, one that identifies America’s existence almost exclusively with power, riches, and consumption.

Bacevich casts a dark eye on American policymakers, blinded by their own ideological priors about American power and the direction of world history. America’s elite have tried to “shape” parts of the Islamic world according to American notions. American policy is made by leaders who share a view that history has an ineluctable direction, toward American-style freedom and managed market economies, who believe that America’s system of meritocracy and America’s preeminent military power empower them with the wisdom and wherewithal to shape events on a global scale. And perhaps most fatally:

A final assumption counts on the inevitability of America’s purposes ultimately winning acceptance, even in the Islamic world. The subjects of U.S. benefactions will then obligingly submit to Washington’s requirements and warmly embrace American norms. If not today, then surely tomorrow, the United States will receive the plaudits and be granted the honors that liberators rightly deserve. Near-term disappointments can be discounted given the certainty that better outcomes lie just ahead. [America’s War for the Greater Middle East]

The word for this is hubris. And hubris, along with a cultivated lack of America’s sustained public interest in this ongoing conflict, has led to chaos and indecision. In contrast to the victory and unconditional surrender effected by WWII, or the long-term effect of the Cold War military buildup that kept the Soviet Union contained, Andrew Bacevich concludes that the U.S. has tried multiple military strategies in the Middle East, most without a rational basis:

In the War for the Greater Middle East, the United States chose neither to contain nor to crush, instead charting a course midway in between. In effect, it chose aggravation. With politicians and generals too quick to declare victory and with the American public too quick to throw their hands up when faced with adversity, U.S. forces rarely stayed long enough to finish the job. Instead of intimidating, U.S. military efforts have annoyed, incited, and generally communicated a lack of both competence and determination. [America’s War for the Greater Middle East]

Bacevich’s book has an almost Solomonic authorial voice. America’s Warcan feel at times like a book written 50 years from now and narrated by a historian from a country that has succeeded America in world pre-eminence. He covers each discreet conflict and the illusions that impelled it or were birthed from it with an exacting and grave precision. Like John Quincy Adams, Bacevich longs for a doctrine that rationalizes America’s power and its purposes in the world. But like the famous Cold War diplomat George Kennan, there is something of a prophetic small-r Republican kicking around in Bacevich’s critique, a desire for an America with a truly engaged and self-governing citizenry.

And although the book is sweeping in its scope and gains a towering moral authority by its conclusion, Bacevich stops short of making any direct plea for the kind of introspection and even spiritual renewal that would lead to a different foreign policy, perhaps by cultivating a different ethic in the American people and their leadership class. Instead he points out that while the Middle East will still be an irritant to America for some time to come, the energy that the world depends on is now found in abundance in the Western hemisphere and the balance of economic power is shifting dramatically to Asia. The unstated and perhaps morally unsatisfying conclusion is that while America’s expansive military policy in the Middle East may reveal itself to be a bad deal in the near future, geopolitical forces may conspire to push America to move on without ever truly reckoning the cost of its folly.

Photo: Scott Nelson/Getty Images

This week’s best financial advice

“Where is the most efficient place to stash that three to nine months of living expenses” you are supposed to have socked away? asked Kathleen Elkins at Business Insider. With savings, checking, and money market accounts yielding next to nothing, some advisers suggest moving your emergency savings to a short-term bond fund. The top short-term bond funds have 10-year annualized returns of 1.7 percent to 3.6 percent, according to Investopedia, compared with the 0.01 percent yields from savings accounts at most big banks. And unlike with some other investments, “you can withdraw your funds instantly.” Short-term bond funds are only “slightly riskier” than traditional savings accounts, but if you’re worried about price fluctuations, a money market fund is a good alternative.

When the IRS comes calling
Don’t panic if you can’t pay your tax bill in full come April 15, said Caitlin Kelly at Reuters. Your best option for staying on the right side of the Internal Revenue Service is to pay as much as possible by the deadline. In about six weeks, the IRS will send a letter explaining that you only paid part of your bill. “If you have the balance by then, write the check. If you do not have the balance, send as much as you can.” If you owe less than $25,000 at this point, it’s possible to sign up for a payment plan that will give you up to 60 months to repay, using Form 9465. In addition to a $120 sign-up fee, the IRS will levy a fee of 0.5 percent interest per month on the balance until it is settled.

New love for reverse mortgage
“Reverse mortgages have earned a bad rep, thanks to smarmy TV ads and fears that borrowers could easily lose their home to the bank,” said Pat Mertz Esswein at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. But new federal rules that reduce the risks for borrowers have financial advisers giving such loans a second look as a way to help make other retirement resources last. Reverse mortgages, officially known as home equity conversion mortgages, allow homeowners who are at least 62 years old to covert their home’s equity into a lump sum or a line of credit without having to make a monthly mortgage payment. Borrowers are now required to undergo a financial assessment to ensure that they have enough money to pay ongoing costs, such as mortgage insurance and upkeep. Before the rules changed, as many as 10 percent of these loans went into default.

Economic Collapse Is Erupting All Over The Planet As Global Leaders Begin To Panic

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by Michael Snyder, The Economic Collapse

Mainstream news outlets are already starting to use the phrase “economic collapse” to describe what is going on in some areas of our world right now.  For many Americans this may seem a bit strange, but the truth is that the worldwide economic slowdown that began during the second half of last year is starting to get a lot worse.  In this article, we are going to examine evidence of this from South America, Europe, Asia and North America.  Once we are done, it should be obvious that there is absolutely no reason to be optimistic about the direction of the global economy right now.  The warnings of so many prominent experts are now becoming a reality, and what we have witnessed so far are just the early chapters of a crushing economic crisis that will affect every man, woman and child in the entire world.

Let’s start with Brazil.  It has the 7th largest economy on the entire planet, and it is already enduring its worst recession in 25 years.  In fact, at the end of last year Goldman Sachs said that what was going on down there was actually a “depression“.

But now the crisis in Brazil has escalated significantly.

I want to share with you an excerpt from a recent article entitled “Brazil: Economic collapse worse than feared“.  I know, that title sounds like it comes directly from The Economic Collapse Blog, but I didn’t write it.

It actually comes from CNN

Amid political chaos, Brazil’s economic collapse is worse than its government once believed.

In the midst of rising calls to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s central bank announced Thursday that it now expects the country’s economy to shrink 3.5% this year.

That’s worse than the central bank’s previous estimate for a 1.9% contraction. The darker forecast matches what the International Monetary Fund projected for Brazil — Latin America’s largest country — and what many independent economists have suspected.

It is one thing for Michael Snyder to tell you that Brazil is in the midst of “economic collapse”, but it is another thing entirely for CNN to say it.

And of course I have been warning about the crisis down in Brazil for quite some time now.  For much more on this, please see my previous article entitled “The Economic Collapse Of South America Is Well Underway“.

Meanwhile, things are actually much worse in Venezuela than they are in Brazil.  Food and basic supplies are in short supply, the inflation rate has hit 720 percent, and crime is completely out of control.

The following is from an article in the Independent entitled “Venezuela is on the brink of complete economic collapse“…

The only question now is whether Venezuela’s government or economy will completely collapse first.

The key word there is “completely.” Both are well into their death throes. Indeed, Venezuela’s ruling party just lost congressional elections that gave the opposition a veto-proof majority, and it’s hard to see that getting any better for them any time soon — or ever.

Incumbents, after all, don’t tend to do too well when, according to the International Monetary Fund, their economy shrinks 10 percent one year, an additional 6 percent the next, and inflation explodes to 720 percent. It’s no wonder, then, that markets expect Venezuela to default on its debt in the very near future. The country is basically bankrupt.

Once again we see a very respected mainstream publication using the phrase “economic collapse” to describe what is happening in South America.

You can find some stunning video of the “economic Armageddon” that is taking place in Venezuela right here.  I would encourage you to watch that video, because what is happening down there will eventually be happening here.

Meanwhile, over in Europe the collapse of the Italian banking system has entered a disturbing new chapter.  Italy’s finance minister has called a meeting in Rome for Monday that will be focusing on a “last resort” bailout plan for the troubled banks…

Finance minister Pier Carlo Padoan has called a meeting in Rome on Monday with executives from Italy’s largest financial institutions to agree final details of a “last resort” bailout plan.

Yet on the eve of that gathering, concerns remain as to whether the plan will be sufficient to ringfence the weakest of Italy’s large banks, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, from contagion, according to people involved in the talks.

Italian bank shares have lost almost half their value so far this year amid investor worries over a €360bn pile of non-performing loans — equivalent to about a fifth of GDP. Lenders’ profitability has been hit by a crippling three-year recession.

As Italy descends into financial chaos, the rest of the continent better be paying attention.

Do you remember how hard it was for the rest of Europe to rescue Greece?

Well, Greece has the 44th largest economy on the planet.

Italy has the 8th.

It would be hard to overstate the seriousness of what is going on over in Europe, and it is not just Italy we are talking about.  All over the continent major banks are in deep trouble, and the chairman of France’s second largestretail bank recently told reporters that “I am much more worried than I was in 2009“.

And there is very good reason for concern.  On Sunday, we learned that a major “bail-in” had just been announced for one of Austria’s most prominent banks.  The following comes from Zero Hedge

And then today, following a decision by the Austrian Banking Regulator, the Finanzmarktaufsicht or Financial Market Authority, Austria officially became the first European country to use a new law under the framework imposed by Bank the European Recovery and Resolution Directive to share losses of a failed bank with senior creditors as it slashed the value of debt owed by Heta Asset Resolution AG.

The highlights from the announcement:

Today, the Austrian Financial Market Authority (FMA) in its function as the resolution authority pursuant to the Bank Recovery and Resolution Act (BaSAG – Bundesgesetz über die Sanierung und Abwicklung von Banken) has issued the key features for the further steps for the resolution of HETA ASSET RESOLUTION AG. The most significant measures are:

  • a 100% bail-in for all subordinated liabilities,
  • a 53.98% bail-in, resulting in a 46.02% quota, for all eligible preferential liabilities,
  • the cancellation of all interest payments from 01.03.2015, when HETA was placed into resolution pursuant to BaSAG,
  • as well as a harmonisation of the maturities of all eligible liabilities to 31.12.2023.

According to the current resolution plan for HETA, the wind-down process should be concluded by 2020, although the repayment of all claims as well as the legally binding conclusion of all currently outstanding legal disputes will realistically only be concluded by the end of 2023. Only at that point will it be possible to finally distribute the assets and to liquidate the company.

The dominoes are starting to fall in Europe, and I would expect even bigger announcements in the weeks and months to come.

Over in Asia, economic chaos is beginning to prevail as well.

In China, the stock market is already down more than 40 percent from the peak, Chinese exports were down 25.4 percent on a year over year basis in February, and Chinese economic numbers overall have not been this poor since the depths of the last global recession.

At the same time, the Japanese economy is really struggling right now.  As I wrote about the other day, Japanese GDP has shrunk for two out of the last three quarters, we just saw Japanese industrial production experience the biggest one month decline that we have witnessed since the tsunami of 2011, and business sentiment has fallen to a three year low.  The Nikkei has dropped by about 5,000 points from where it was last summer, and some analysts believe that Japanese markets “are being destroyed” due to massive intervention by the Bank of Japan.

Here in the United States, we haven’t been hit quite as hard as the rest of the world just yet, but there are lots of very disturbing warning signs all around us.

At the end of last week, we learned that it is being projected that U.S. GDP will have grown by just 0.1 or 0.2 percent during the first quarter of 2016.  And on Monday corporate earnings reporting season begins, and it is expected to be a very, very bad one.  The following comes from Business Insider

We are about to get confirmation that earnings growth for America’s biggest companies was negative in the first quarter, compared to the same period a year ago.

When aluminum giant Alcoa releases its results on Monday, it will mark the unofficial start of the heaviest reporting season for S&P 500 companies.

The final scoreboard is expected to show a 9.1% earnings drop for the quarter, according to FactSet senior earnings analyst John Butters.

If these projections turn out to be accurate, it will be the fourth quarter in a row of earnings declines.  This is something that we never see outside of a recession.

And for a whole bunch more numbers which indicate that the U.S. economy is in very serious trouble, please see my previous article entitled “19 Facts That Prove Things In America Are Worse Than They Were Six Months Ago“.

Of course I am just another voice in the crowd when it comes to predicting that the U.S. economy is headed for rough times.  For example, just check out what Societe Generale economist Albert Edwards is saying

A tidal wave is coming to the US economy, according to Albert Edwards, and when it crashes it’s going to throw the economy into recession.

…the profit recession facing American corporations is going to lead to a collapse in corporate credit.

“Despite risk assets enjoying a few weeks in the sun our fail-safe recession indicator has stopped flashing amber and turned to red”

He continued:

Whole economy profits never normally fall this deeply without a recession unfolding. And with the US corporate sector up to its eyes in debt, the one asset class to be avoided — even more so than the ridiculously overvalued equity market — is US corporate debt. The economy will surely be swept away by a tidal wave of corporate default.

As you can see, it isn’t just one nation or one region of the world that we need to be concerned about.

Economic chaos is erupting literally all over the planet, and global leaders are starting to panic.

Unfortunately, they have had seven years to try to fix things since the last global recession, and they didn’t get the job done.  Anyone that believes that by some miracle they will be able to pull us out of the fire this time and that everything will somehow be okay is simply engaged in wishful thinking.

by Michael Snyder, The Economic Collapse

Mainstream news outlets are already starting to use the phrase “economic collapse” to describe what is going on in some areas of our world right now.  For many Americans this may seem a bit strange, but the truth is that the worldwide economic slowdown that began during the second half of last year is starting to get a lot worse.  In this article, we are going to examine evidence of this from South America, Europe, Asia and North America.  Once we are done, it should be obvious that there is absolutely no reason to be optimistic about the direction of the global economy right now.  The warnings of so many prominent experts are now becoming a reality, and what we have witnessed so far are just the early chapters of a crushing economic crisis that will affect every man, woman and child in the entire world.

Let’s start with Brazil.  It has the 7th largest economy on the entire planet, and it is already enduring its worst recession in 25 years.  In fact, at the end of last year Goldman Sachs said that what was going on down there was actually a “depression“.

But now the crisis in Brazil has escalated significantly.

I want to share with you an excerpt from a recent article entitled “Brazil: Economic collapse worse than feared“.  I know, that title sounds like it comes directly from The Economic Collapse Blog, but I didn’t write it.

It actually comes from CNN

Amid political chaos, Brazil’s economic collapse is worse than its government once believed.

In the midst of rising calls to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s central bank announced Thursday that it now expects the country’s economy to shrink 3.5% this year.

That’s worse than the central bank’s previous estimate for a 1.9% contraction. The darker forecast matches what the International Monetary Fund projected for Brazil — Latin America’s largest country — and what many independent economists have suspected.

It is one thing for Michael Snyder to tell you that Brazil is in the midst of “economic collapse”, but it is another thing entirely for CNN to say it.

And of course I have been warning about the crisis down in Brazil for quite some time now.  For much more on this, please see my previous article entitled “The Economic Collapse Of South America Is Well Underway“.

Meanwhile, things are actually much worse in Venezuela than they are in Brazil.  Food and basic supplies are in short supply, the inflation rate has hit 720 percent, and crime is completely out of control.

The following is from an article in the Independent entitled “Venezuela is on the brink of complete economic collapse“…

The only question now is whether Venezuela’s government or economy will completely collapse first.

The key word there is “completely.” Both are well into their death throes. Indeed, Venezuela’s ruling party just lost congressional elections that gave the opposition a veto-proof majority, and it’s hard to see that getting any better for them any time soon — or ever.

Incumbents, after all, don’t tend to do too well when, according to the International Monetary Fund, their economy shrinks 10 percent one year, an additional 6 percent the next, and inflation explodes to 720 percent. It’s no wonder, then, that markets expect Venezuela to default on its debt in the very near future. The country is basically bankrupt.

Once again we see a very respected mainstream publication using the phrase “economic collapse” to describe what is happening in South America.

You can find some stunning video of the “economic Armageddon” that is taking place in Venezuela right here.  I would encourage you to watch that video, because what is happening down there will eventually be happening here.

Meanwhile, over in Europe the collapse of the Italian banking system has entered a disturbing new chapter.  Italy’s finance minister has called a meeting in Rome for Monday that will be focusing on a “last resort” bailout plan for the troubled banks…

Finance minister Pier Carlo Padoan has called a meeting in Rome on Monday with executives from Italy’s largest financial institutions to agree final details of a “last resort” bailout plan.

Yet on the eve of that gathering, concerns remain as to whether the plan will be sufficient to ringfence the weakest of Italy’s large banks, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, from contagion, according to people involved in the talks.

Italian bank shares have lost almost half their value so far this year amid investor worries over a €360bn pile of non-performing loans — equivalent to about a fifth of GDP. Lenders’ profitability has been hit by a crippling three-year recession.

As Italy descends into financial chaos, the rest of the continent better be paying attention.

Do you remember how hard it was for the rest of Europe to rescue Greece?

Well, Greece has the 44th largest economy on the planet.

Italy has the 8th.

It would be hard to overstate the seriousness of what is going on over in Europe, and it is not just Italy we are talking about.  All over the continent major banks are in deep trouble, and the chairman of France’s second largestretail bank recently told reporters that “I am much more worried than I was in 2009“.

And there is very good reason for concern.  On Sunday, we learned that a major “bail-in” had just been announced for one of Austria’s most prominent banks.  The following comes from Zero Hedge

And then today, following a decision by the Austrian Banking Regulator, the Finanzmarktaufsicht or Financial Market Authority, Austria officially became the first European country to use a new law under the framework imposed by Bank the European Recovery and Resolution Directive to share losses of a failed bank with senior creditors as it slashed the value of debt owed by Heta Asset Resolution AG.

The highlights from the announcement:

Today, the Austrian Financial Market Authority (FMA) in its function as the resolution authority pursuant to the Bank Recovery and Resolution Act (BaSAG – Bundesgesetz über die Sanierung und Abwicklung von Banken) has issued the key features for the further steps for the resolution of HETA ASSET RESOLUTION AG. The most significant measures are:

  • a 100% bail-in for all subordinated liabilities,
  • a 53.98% bail-in, resulting in a 46.02% quota, for all eligible preferential liabilities,
  • the cancellation of all interest payments from 01.03.2015, when HETA was placed into resolution pursuant to BaSAG,
  • as well as a harmonisation of the maturities of all eligible liabilities to 31.12.2023.

According to the current resolution plan for HETA, the wind-down process should be concluded by 2020, although the repayment of all claims as well as the legally binding conclusion of all currently outstanding legal disputes will realistically only be concluded by the end of 2023. Only at that point will it be possible to finally distribute the assets and to liquidate the company.

The dominoes are starting to fall in Europe, and I would expect even bigger announcements in the weeks and months to come.

Over in Asia, economic chaos is beginning to prevail as well.

In China, the stock market is already down more than 40 percent from the peak, Chinese exports were down 25.4 percent on a year over year basis in February, and Chinese economic numbers overall have not been this poor since the depths of the last global recession.

At the same time, the Japanese economy is really struggling right now.  As I wrote about the other day, Japanese GDP has shrunk for two out of the last three quarters, we just saw Japanese industrial production experience the biggest one month decline that we have witnessed since the tsunami of 2011, and business sentiment has fallen to a three year low.  The Nikkei has dropped by about 5,000 points from where it was last summer, and some analysts believe that Japanese markets “are being destroyed” due to massive intervention by the Bank of Japan.

Here in the United States, we haven’t been hit quite as hard as the rest of the world just yet, but there are lots of very disturbing warning signs all around us.

At the end of last week, we learned that it is being projected that U.S. GDP will have grown by just 0.1 or 0.2 percent during the first quarter of 2016.  And on Monday corporate earnings reporting season begins, and it is expected to be a very, very bad one.  The following comes from Business Insider

We are about to get confirmation that earnings growth for America’s biggest companies was negative in the first quarter, compared to the same period a year ago.

When aluminum giant Alcoa releases its results on Monday, it will mark the unofficial start of the heaviest reporting season for S&P 500 companies.

The final scoreboard is expected to show a 9.1% earnings drop for the quarter, according to FactSet senior earnings analyst John Butters.

If these projections turn out to be accurate, it will be the fourth quarter in a row of earnings declines.  This is something that we never see outside of a recession.

And for a whole bunch more numbers which indicate that the U.S. economy is in very serious trouble, please see my previous article entitled “19 Facts That Prove Things In America Are Worse Than They Were Six Months Ago“.

Of course I am just another voice in the crowd when it comes to predicting that the U.S. economy is headed for rough times.  For example, just check out what Societe Generale economist Albert Edwards is saying

A tidal wave is coming to the US economy, according to Albert Edwards, and when it crashes it’s going to throw the economy into recession.

…the profit recession facing American corporations is going to lead to a collapse in corporate credit.

“Despite risk assets enjoying a few weeks in the sun our fail-safe recession indicator has stopped flashing amber and turned to red”

He continued:

Whole economy profits never normally fall this deeply without a recession unfolding. And with the US corporate sector up to its eyes in debt, the one asset class to be avoided — even more so than the ridiculously overvalued equity market — is US corporate debt. The economy will surely be swept away by a tidal wave of corporate default.

As you can see, it isn’t just one nation or one region of the world that we need to be concerned about.

Economic chaos is erupting literally all over the planet, and global leaders are starting to panic.

Unfortunately, they have had seven years to try to fix things since the last global recession, and they didn’t get the job done.  Anyone that believes that by some miracle they will be able to pull us out of the fire this time and that everything will somehow be okay is simply engaged in wishful thinking.

Here’s the latest travesty of secrecy from the NSA

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David W. Brown, The Week

The National Security Agency has never been particularly forthcoming. But its latest tight-lipped refusal to share information with the public is egregious, even for the NSA.

Now, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the National Security Agency is withholding its own ethical and legal guidelines, calling them “top secret.” This is ridiculous.

This all began with a 2013 press release issued by the agency, in which it sought to “clarify” troubling issues swirling around XKEYSCORE, a secret spy tool first revealed by Marc Ambinder and me, and later confirmed by the Edward Snowden documents. XKEYSCORE is basically the NSA’s Google, used for searching through the agency’s myriad databases and servers. Because of the sheer volume of data collected by the agency, the program is enormously flexible and allows data to be sliced and cross referenced with other agency tools.

The potential for abuse of such a system is obvious, and amid such Snowden revelations in 2013 as LOVEINT, a practice by some NSA employees in which the awesome power of the “panopticon” is used to spy on ex-lovers, the agency sought to set the record straight.

“Allegations of widespread, unchecked analyst access to NSA collection data are simply not true,” wrote the agency. “Access to XKEYSCORE, as well as all of NSA’s analytic tools, is limited to only those personnel who require access for their assigned tasks. Those personnel must complete appropriate training prior to being granted such access — training which must be repeated on a regular basis. This training not only covers the mechanics of the tool but also each analyst’s ethical and legal obligations.”

 

If those claims to such rigorous training are true, that would be a very good thing. And so Jeff Stein, a national security correspondent at Newsweek, had a simple question: What kind of legal and ethical training do NSA employees receive? Through his attorney, Kel McClanahan of National Security Counselors, a non-profit law firm that specializes in issues of privacy and government secrecy, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the agency, and waited. Almost three years after he filed the paperwork, the NSA finally had an answer.

The material responsive to your request has been reviewed by this Agency . . . and remains classified TOP SECRET as provided in Section 1.2 of Executive Order 13526. The documents are classified because their disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security. [NSA]

“The funniest part of this entire thing,” said McClanahan, “is that they put out a press release saying, ‘We obey all laws and ethical obligations,’ and then you ask them which laws and ethical obligations and they say, ‘We can’t tell you.'”

If XKEYSCORE were so highly classified that the NSA couldn’t even acknowledge its existence, then its response would at least be defensible. Discussing the ethical guidelines related to a program would imply that the program is real. This line of argument was first put forth by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1975, when it rejected a request for records on Project Azorian, claiming that any response to the request would imply the existence of something it could “neither confirm nor deny.” But that’s not the case of XKEYSCORE. The program has not only been extensively covered, but revealed and explained by the National Security Agency in apress release.

There is no reason to believe that NSA guidance to employees on the handling of XKEYSCORE data should be inextricably intertwined with operational details of XKEYSCORE (which they might legitimately withhold), McClanahan says. “Ethical and legal guidelines are broad stroke authorities or statements that say, ‘Don’t disseminate this outside your office,’ or ‘Don’t use this for personal reasons.’ Or ‘Be aware that the Fourth Amendment applies.’ If they’re really saying that the ethical and legal limitations they place on their analysts are classified, then that’s really bizarre.”

If the agency is correct in its assertion that revealing its employees’ knowledge of ethics and how to obey the law will cause grievous injury to national security, then it is necessary to ask why that is.

The NSA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The possible explanations for the NSA’s refusal to disclose the sort of information one might expect them to be positively eager to discuss are troubling at best. Is it not the nature of the limitations, but the number? Are so few legal and ethical limitations placed on analysts that the agency fears disclosure of this might spark calls for tighter regulation?

“A lot of people are worried about the idea of ‘secret law,'” said McClanahan. “What if there is an executive order out there that nobody knows about because it’s classified? What if that is the legal obligation the NSA is talking about? If so, then by all accounts, technically speaking, the ethical obligation training would be classified.” The documents related to ethics and legal guidelines were not heavily redacted, page after page of solid black lines; they were withheld in their entirety. Not one syllable of their ethical obligations were deemed safe for public consumption.

“You’re telling me the only training that these people are being given on legal and ethical obligations is set forth in a classified piece of law?” McClanahan said. “There are no other legal obligations? There are no other ethical obligations that are not classified? That’s huge if that is the case.”

Indeed, just as scientists can only infer the existence of new planets by discovering tiny gravitational anomalies, the limits of a hypothetical secret law might be discovered only by records requests such as this one, and by the concerted efforts of sunlight activists like McClanahan and his colleagues. Something big is certainly orbiting the sun of the government secrecy apparatus. Remember, the NSA is directly stating that its ethics and legal guidelines are top secret because “their disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security.” That sounds pretty big to me.

When people worry about NSA analysts using the agency’s capabilities for questionable reasons, the NSA brags about how super-trained its analysts are about their ethical and legal obligations. But revealing those ethical and legal obligations would devastate national security. Why?