Saturday Pension Ripoff Reading

Wall Street is Taking Over America’s Pension Plans
By Murtaza Hussain

November 21, 2014 “ICH” – “The Intercept” – Coverage of the midterm elections has, understandably, focused on the shift in political power from Democrats toward Republicans. But behind the scenes, another major story has been playing out. Wall Street spent upwards of $300M to influence the election results. And a key part of its agenda has been a plan to move more and more of the $3 trillion dollars in unguarded government pension funds into privately managed, high-fee investments — a shift that may well constitute the biggest financial story of our generation that you’ve never heard of.

Illinois, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island all recently elected governors who were previously executives and directors at firms which managed investments on behalf of state pension funds. These firms are now, consequently, in position to obtain even more of these public funds. This alone represents a huge payoff on that $300M investment made by the financial industry, and is likely to result in more pension money going into investments which offer great benefits for Wall Street but do little for the broader economy.

But Wall Street’s agenda goes beyond any one election cycle. It has been fighting to turn public pensions into private profits for quite some time, steering retirement nest eggs into investments that are complex, charge hefty fees, and that generate big profits for management firms. And it has been succeeding. Of the $3 trillion in public assets currently in pension funds throughout the country, almost a quarter of that has already found its way into so-called “alternative investments” like hedge funds, private equity and real estate. That translates to roughly $660 billion of public money now under private management, invested in assets that are often arcane and opaque but that offer high management and placement fees to Wall Street financiers.

Our recent financial crisis demonstrated just how risky and potentially destructive these types of assets can be — so the question becomes, why is so much money going into them?


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Putin in Your Thursday


The new US ambassador to Moscow presented his credentials to Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, less than a day after the Russian president declared the US “wants to subjugate us” but would never succeed.

Ambassador John Tefft met Putin in a slightly awkward ceremony during which new international envoys showed the president their credentials. Perhaps reflecting the frosty state of affairs between Washington and Moscow, the men said little to each other as they shook hands in a huge gilded hall at the Kremlin. Putin did however offer a typically stern proposal of rapprochement.

“We are ready for practical cooperation with our American partners in different sectors – on the principles of mutual respect for each others’ interests, fairness and non-interference in internal affairs.”

“We proceed from the fact that Russia and the US bear special responsibility for supporting international peace and stability, and for counteracting global challenges and threats.”

Tefft, a career diplomat who has served as envoy to Ukraine and ambassador to Georgia, takes on his new role with US-Russian relations at their worst point since the cold war. Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March prompted rounds of sanctions from the US and EU, against major banks, industries and prominent Russians. Tefft’s predecessor, Michael McFaul, left Russia after two years of harassment and ridicule by state media.

Only a day before the new ambassador’s meeting with Putin, the president told a televised forum that Americans “don’t want to humiliate us, they want to subjugate us”.


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Molecular Wednesday

Merry Cometary Christmas!!

Merry Cometary Christmas!!

The Philae lander has found organic molecules – which are essential for life – on the surface of the comet where it touched down last week.

The spacecraft managed to beam back evidence of the carbon and–hydrogen–containing chemicals shortly before it entered hibernation mode to conserve falling power supplies.

Although scientists are still to reveal what kind of molecules have been found on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the discovery could provide new clues about how the early chemical ingredients that lead to life on Earth arrived on the planet.

Many scientists believe they may have been carried here on an asteroid or comet that collided with the Earth during its early history.

The DLR German Aerospace Centre, which built the Cosac instrument, confirmed it had found organic molecules.


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Oil Soaked Tuesday


When Lynn Buehring leaves her doctor’s office in San Antonio she makes sure her inhaler is on the seat beside her, then steers her red GMC pickup truck southeast on U.S. 181, toward her home on the South Texas prairie.

About 40 miles down the road, between Poth and Falls City, drilling rigs, crude oil storage tanks and flares trailing black smoke appear amid the mesquite, live oak and pecan trees. Depending on the speed and direction of the wind, a yellow-brown haze might stretch across the horizon, filling the car with pungent odors. Sometimes Buehring’s eyes burn, her chest tightens and pain stabs at her temples. On those days, she touches her inhaler for reassurance.

In another five miles Buehring, 58, passes into Karnes County, where she was born and once figured on living out her retirement, surrounded by a calm broken only by an occasional thunderstorm.

Today, however, the ranch-style house she shares with her 66-year-old husband, Shelby, is at the epicenter of one of the nation’s biggest and least-publicized oil and gas booms. With more than 50 wells drilled within 2.5 miles of their home, the days when the Buehrings could sit on the deck that Shelby built and lull away an afternoon are long gone. The fumes won’t let them.

Known as the Eagle Ford Shale play, this 400-mile-long, 50-mile-wide bacchanal of oil and gas extraction stretches from Leon County, Texas, in the northeast to the Mexico border in the southwest.

Since 2008, more than 7,000 oil and gas wells have been sunk into the brittle, sedimentary rock. Another 5,500 have been approved by state regulators, making the Eagle Ford one of the most active drilling sites in America.


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Flame Retardant Monday

Is your furniture killing you?

Is your furniture killing you?

For the first time in decades, furniture free of toxic flame retardants is becoming widely available to consumers. That’s because what’s become the de facto national standard for flame resistance in furniture has changed after a public outcry.

Still, consumers will need to request furniture that’s completely free of chemical flame retardants at the many retailers offering it, such as IKEA and Williams-Sonoma.

A new peer-reviewed study (link is external) we conducted, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), provides even more evidence that it’s worth it for consumers to do so. We’ve long known about the presence in people of certain flame retardants, such PBDEs, but our concern about contamination from a broader number of the chemicals has been confirmed.


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Sunny Sunday

Woof, Woof, said the Sun Dog

Woof, Woof, said the Sun Dog

RADS ON A PLANE: On Nov. 11th, Tony Phillips of flew from California across the USA to attend a science communications meeting in Washington DC. As an experiment, he decided to take a radiation sensor onboard the plane. The results were eye-opening. During the apex of his flight to DC, cruising 39,000 feet above the desert between Reno and Phoenix, he recorded a dose rate almost 30 times higher than on the ground below.


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