They use to refer to John Kerry as a flip flopper when he was running against George W. Bush for the presidency. Now both Bush and Ben Bernanke, in a matter of a week, change their stance on the state of the American economy. Only last Friday did the two come to terms with a reality the rest of the United States was living.

President Bush on Friday acknowledged more starkly than ever that the economy has slipped into trouble, dogged by falling home prices and turmoil in financial markets.

“Our economy obviously is going through a tough time,” the president told the Economic Club of New York in a morning speech at a Midtown Manhattan hotel.

Shortly after Mr. Bush spoke, Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, issued fresh warnings about the gathering wave of home foreclosures while pledging new regulations to limit the impact and crack down on predatory mortgage lending.

“Foreclosure rates have increased substantially,” Mr. Bernanke said during a speech in Washington before a meeting of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

“Behind these disturbing statistics are families facing personal and financial hardship and neighborhoods that may be destabilized by clusters of foreclosures,” Mr. Bernanke said. (NYT)

I’ve never expected anything from our president. As Maureen Dawd points out, “Boy George crashed the family station wagon into the globe and now the global economy. Yet the more terrified Americans get, the more bizarrely carefree he seems.”

But Bernanke is someone I respected. He doesn’t come from a family that made most money by owning oil companies, like the man who appointed him. And he is an intelligent individual that understands, and has always been fascinated with, economic depression and the Fed”s role during these times. He wrote “Essays on the Great Depression“.

One would think Bernanke would be more in tune with the struggles of middle and lower class American families. But we’ve yet to see him take any real action to slow down their affliction. Instead, he bails out rich douche bags breaking his own conservative rule about the Fed interfering too much in the financial markets.

The Federal Reserve seemed to toss out the rule book altogether when it assumed the role of white knight, temporarily bailing out Bear Stearn.

Mr. Bernanke has become Wall Street’s most important and most powerful friend. Many executives are praising him for his creativity and willingness to act boldly. (NYT)

Back in 1998, when the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund required a Fed-arranged bailout, Bear Stearns refused to join the rescue effort. Jimmy Cayne, then chief executive at the firm, told the Fed to take a hike. (NYT)

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Don’t believe any comment is necessary from my part. What do you think?

“The Federal Reserve is not currently forecasting a recession,” Bernanke said. “We are forecasting slow growth.” (MSNBC)

On one issue particularly worrisome to American consumers, there are indications that paying $4 for a gallon of gasoline is not out of the question once the summer driving season arrives. Asked about that, Bush said “That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that. … I know it’s high now.” (AP)

“I would say, by any commonsense definition, we are in a recession,” Buffett said.(AP)

Home foreclosures hit new highs and the amount of equity in homes reached new lows as the housing crisis escalated across the country in 2007, new figures showed Thursday.

The number of foreclosures was at the highest level since the Mortgage Bankers Association began keeping records in the 1970s. (LAT)

A jobs report yesterday showed that employers nationwide slashed 85,000 jobs since the beginning of the year, in the clearest sign yet that the economy has entered or is verging on recession. (WashingtonTimes)

The dollar sank to a new low Friday against the euro, which extended its first-ever rise above $1.54 after data showed U.S. job cuts hitting the biggest monthly number in five years.(SOS)

With prices continuing to march higher for commodities ranging from corn to wheat, food companies are cutting costs, raising prices and otherwise adjusting to tighter margins for the long haul.

For consumers, it means higher grocery bills and restaurant tabs. Consumer food prices are expected to increase 3% to 4% this year, on top of the 4% increase in 2007, according to the Agriculture Department. (WSJ)

houseINhandsAs houses foreclose in many parts of the country faster than they are sold, many homeowners struggling to make their mortgage payments find that it is much easier to simply walk out of their homes. Since their property values are only going down, the option to refinance is not possible. So their resolution seems more logical than to continue to barely make payments in order to delay the inevitable.

Late, but eventually, many policy makers have realized that the cause of the deteriorating American economy is due in great part to subprime borrowing and predatory lending. And in order to avoid the looming recession, there have been many attempts to keep the troubled homeowners to stay in their homes.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and banks representing half the U.S. mortgage market agreed to offer 30-day freezes on foreclosures, acknowledging the need for a stronger response to the worst housing slump in a generation. (Bloomberg)

The 30-day freeze program, dubbed Project Lifeline, is an effort to give the distressed borrowers additional time to modify their loans with their loan servicer to a more affordable monthly payment.

But the attempts proves to be futile. And the foreclosure rates continue to climb at record high levels.

During January, it was reported this week by RealtyTrac, there were 153,745 initial foreclosure notices sent out in the United States. That dwarfed the 43,000 total sales of newly built single-family homes and amounted to nearly half the total sales figure, which includes sales of existing homes and condominiums. (NYT)

But one of the latest proposals could very well be the light at the end of the tunnel. Office of Thrift Supervision Director John Reich proposes the most viable plan yet yesterday on Capitol Hill.

Under the OTS proposal, homeowners would be able to refinance their mortgages at the current market values, with the lenders getting “negative-equity certificates” to be redeemed once the home is sold.

Negative-equity certificates may help servicers limit their losses and avoid an “avalanche of borrowers who choose to walk away from the mortgage,” Scott Polakoff, the OTS senior deputy director, said yesterday. The Federal Housing Administration could help homeowners refinance, he said. (Bloomberg)

Essentially, the troubled borrower can refinance his or her house at current market value — which likely is lower than when the house was initially purchased — during which time the OTS will agree to cover the difference. The difference is what is here being referred to as “negative-equity certificates.”

When it eventually comes time to sell the home — ideally when the home value rises above the initially bought price — the negative-equity certificates will be redeemed by the OTS.

This plan seems to be the most viable of all laid out on a grand scale. It’s not a hand out, because it’s not asking the government to purchase the mortgage directly. It simply allows the homeowners to modify their loan while remaining in their homes with dignity.

The plan is at its infancy stage and only time will tell if it’ll come to fruition over the course of the next few weeks.

 

I believe that the only folks that are still arguing if we are in a recession or not are those that are not affected by it. For the rest of us in the lower/middle class, recession is already a reality. Many of us feel the effects by realizing the cost of living going up; barely making car, college and mortgage bills every month; working extra hard to not lose our jobs (if we haven’t already); and simply put: struggling to get by.

I’ve never been more aware of how much things cost than lately. No matter how much I cut back on leisure — mostly going out and shopping — I am not able to save money. So any chance I get to cut corners, I do.

I’ll use any coupons I can get my hands on when buying groceries. I don’t drive to friends’ house as often if they live too far away. I also pack my own lunch in the morning as opposed to buying it at work. But the bills pile up too much for these tactics to make any difference.

Because I simply couldn’t afford it, today I was again forced to break the appointment with my mechanic to get the fluids changed in my car. I don’t have $170 just laying around. But I definitely knew I shouldn’t put off the matter another day. I drive under constant fear during my hour-long commute to work. You would to if you heard of the firework noises coming from under my hood.

So I decided to consult the car’s manual to see if I could perform the necessary fluid maintenance myself. Turned out that besides the appropriate liquids you must purchase from you local auto body shop, all you need additionally is a rag and a funnel. This alone allowed me to address all my 98 Honda Accord’s fluid needs for fraction of the cost to have someone else do it.

Despite the fact that it is absurdly simple, I am not going to pretend to be an expert and teach you how to do it in a step by step process. Today being my first time and all. But I will link to sites that do so.

I can’t urge you enough to give it a shot yourself. It both saves you a lot of money and you car will run a lot smoother. Also, the high that you get from the sense of accomplishment is unparalleled.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask. Best of luck!

A U.S. commander said Tuesday he is “deeply ashamed” by the Marine killings of Afghan civilians in March and reported that the American military has made condolence payments to their families.

“Today we met with the families of those victims: 19 dead and 50 injured,” said Col. John Nicholson, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, deployed in eastern Afghanistan. “We made official apologies on the part of the U.S. government” and payments of about $2,000 for each death. (AP via USA Today)

Old news, but I only came to learn of it during my commute back from work on NPR two days ago. Turns out the U.S. military makes condolences payments — officially called “solatia” payments (unofficially also “martyr” payments) — to the families of those accidentally killed during combat fire.

The Pentagon has set $2,500 as the highest individual sum that can be paid. Most death payments remain at that level, with a rough sliding scale of $1,000 for serious injury and $500 for property damage. Beginning in April of last year, payments of up to $10,000 were possible for “extraordinary cases” but only with a division commander’s authorization.

The report, titled The Department of Defense’s Use of Solatia and Condolence Payments in Iraq and Afghanistan (pdf),” offers a particularly coldblooded example of how payments are estimated, drawn from CERP‘s operating procedures: “Two members of the same family are killed in a car hit by U.S. forces. The family could receive a maximum of $7,500 in CERP condolence payments ($2,500 for each death and up to $2,500 for vehicle damage).”(WaPo, 06/18/07)

Some pics of these condolences payments being made from this article that makes it sound okay:

I’m frankly at loss for words. Can’t figure out what aspect to begin commenting on first. I don’t believe monetary apology to be valid after any wrongdoing. But let’s suppose that your life situation is desperate, and you make the trip to the official place to get ‘reimbursed,’ how far does $2,500 really go? Take any of the following scenario for instance, what do you suppose the money given to the victim’s family could most effectively be used for?

Approximately $8,000 was paid by the Pentagon to two children who lost their mother when the taxi in which she was traveling came under fire. The vehicle was said to have run a checkpoint. The children were alongside their mother when she died and were also injured. A measly “condolence” payment of $500 was paid to the family of a deaf man shot outside a museum in Samarra and a larger condolence payment of $2,500 was granted to the parents of a 4-year-old girl who died when a bullet fired from a Humvee struck her.

In what the U.S. military said “negligent fire,” an Iraqi ambulance driver was shot dead on his way to a bomb scene by a coalition soldier. The dead man’s family was paid $2,500. (AmericanFreePres)

Iraq Body Count, a Web site that reputedly maintains most accurate account of casualties of the war, reveals more instances where American military has put a supposedly justified price on lives or limbs lost. Please also read these two articles on the NYT, and listen to a report on NPR to learn more.

Lastly, I don’t mean to compare but, I would like to point out the amount given to the families of victims who lost their lives on the space shuttle Columbia in 2003: $26 million. This is far too sad for me to disrespectfully end the post with the usual clever comment. Because even these families likely are not satisfied, and would much rather have their loved ones returned, instead.

A Dominican nun, a freelance writer and a principal of a prestigious school founded the International Community School in DeKalb County, Georgia to address the cultural and language barrier that many children of the refugee immigrants faced after arriving there in the late 1990’s.

In the last ten years, thousands of refugee children have come to DeKalb County, bringing not only gifts and talents but also the deep physical and spiritual wounds of war. Today the county is home to the highest percentage of refugees in the southeastern United States. (ICS)

Student population here represents over 40 nation and over 50 languages are spoken in the hallways. But children of refugees only compose half of all pupils. The other half is diverse in a socio-economic manner.

Parents from low-income families tend to choose the school over other nearby public schools because it is safe and has small classes. More affluent parents seek it for the potential benefits of exposure to so many cultures. Most of the middle- and upper-middle-class parents are social progressives from Decatur, a liberal enclave. (NYT)

Understandably, the community school faces expected challenges specific to each refugee student’s experience from the emigrated country.

Two sisters from Afghanistan seemed terrified as they arrived each day. As refugees in Pakistan, the children had worked making carpets. Exhausted, they regularly dozed at school, which drew beatings. The sisters had assumed such beatings were standard at every school.

A Sudanese girl was so traumatized from war and relocation that she insisted on sitting on the floor beneath her desk each day.

Fortunately, the school staff is as diversely represented as the student body. Which helps faculty understand or, in some cases, relate to their students.

Naza Orlovic, a teacher’s assistant from Bosnia, said her experience as a refugee allowed her to recognize and to soothe hurt feelings that frequently arose out of cultural misunderstandings.

“I constantly remind them how lucky we are,” said Hodan Osman, 27, a tutor separated from her parents at age 10 during the civil war in Somalia.

“We could have been killed,” she said, “and not only are we here, but we’re in a place where we’re celebrated. I tell them they can take everything away from you, but your knowledge is in your head, and it makes you brave.”

Presently, there are strong plans to add a middle school to the institution. And a founder desires to open a health clinic for the refugees there.

Maybe not apparent at first glance, but the location of the school is a bit ironic.  The region used to be a Ku Klux Klan haven.

I live in one of the more diverse state in the United States — New Jersey. And the creed of many my acquaintances reflect the same. I won’t lie to you. The conversation on the topic of religion more often than not actually ends on an uncomfortable note. We can’t agree on origin of life, we argue if certain actions are moral or immoral, and, of course, we believe our God(s) is more powerful than the others’.

The funny thing about these disagreements during our talks is that none of us are truly that religious to begin with. We just argue for argument sake — you know, to fill the time gap between downing “Coors Light.”

Regardless, though, of whatever religion we identify ourselves with, we usually don’t squabble about Karma — what goes around comes around. E.g.: do good for others, good things will happen to you, and vice versa.

But such a basic similarity of all beliefs creates doubt in my mind of existence of God (or necessity of religion) when I hear news of model citizens facing acts of violence from complete strangers. According to the rules of Karma, these unselfish individuals’ actions deserves the very opposite of such horrendous outcomes.

Take for example the case of psychologist Susan Barron, who was stabbed multiple times by a deranged man when she was walking her dog.

Screaming at her, the man chopped, hacked and stabbed her head and arms, straddling her after she fell to the street, picking up a new knife when he lost one from the force of his blows.

To those who witnessed it, the violence seemed to be a crime of toxic passion; they could not fathom the truth, that one total stranger had simply and suddenly set upon killing another. (NYT)

Of course, no one deserves this treatment. I wouldn’t want that to be a punishment for the terrible of crimes. But you will agree Barron, of all people, should be regarded as a saint on earth.

She was a fixer — the friend who hunted down a kidney for someone in need of a transplant, mentor to a man starting his own therapy practice, regular volunteer on winter coat drives and at holiday soup kitchens. “That Jimmy Stewart character in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ had nothing on her,” said one friend, a self-described cynic.

A case in the same sense takes place in Fort Qu’Appelle, Canada. Where 61-year-old Christina Cook gets shot at by young men when she attempted to dial 911. Only to witness her husband of 17 years catch the bullet on the face and chest when shielding his wife.

With a calmness that belies the calamity of the night and the enormity of her loss, a woman who would often open her home to troubled young people recalled Thursday how her companion of 17 years took a bullet she figures was destined for her and died while shielding her on the floor.

“I don’t know where my hubby came from, but he took me and he threw me on the floor and put his whole body over me. Next thing I know, he was gone,” Cook said. (CP)

The funny thing is that neither Cook nor Barron become bitter after the incidents.

“I just hope that they can find a solution to stop this gang violence or whatever the violence is that’s causing this because the children are lost,” Cook said.

“They need love and understanding and that’s what I’ve always tried to do with my life – make room for the kids.”(CP)

“Yes, I feel what happened to me is pretty terrible. People can complain about the smallest things, but that is their pain. Hopefully, they will never have something terrible happen to give them context,” Barron said. (NYT)