Monthly Archives: August 2009

Ducking the Deficit Issue

Democrats and Republicans are united in their unwillingness to debate it.

The problem of the burgeoning government debt is mainly political, but the adverse consequences may be economic. The trouble is that we don’t know what those consequences may be, when they may occur or even whether they will occur. Without some impending calamity, politicians of both parties recoil from doing anything unpopular that might bring the budget into balance over, say, the next six or seven years. The idea of anticipating and preempting future problems is not on their agenda.

Although the recent surge of budget deficits—the annual gaps between outlays and revenue, resulting in more federal debt—reflects the savage recession, the true cause is political. Deficits allow liberals and conservatives to maintain self-serving public positions. Liberals claim we can have more government (more health care, more education, more transportation) without taxing anyone but “the rich.” Conservatives promise that taxes can be cut without depriving anyone (retirees, veterans, cities and states) of existing government benefits.

Neither claim is remotely believable under the assumption that, over the long run, government benefits and programs ought to be paid for with taxes. The truth is that government, again under both parties, has promised far more in benefits than can be covered by existing taxes. Only borrowing could reconcile the rhetorical claims with underlying economic realities. There have been 43 deficits in the past 48 years.

Until recently, the borrowings, though usually undesirable, were not alarming. But the recession and an aging population signify that we have crossed a threshold where actual and prospective borrowings are so huge that no one can foresee the consequences. The best measure of debt burden is its relation to the nation’s annual income, or gross domestic product. The same approach applied to a household with $25,000 of debt and $50,000 of income would produce a debt-to-income ratio of 50 percent.

In 1946, after World War II, the ratio of publicly held federal debt to GDP was 108.6 percent. Since then, the economy (our income) has generally grown faster than the debt. In 1974, the debt-to-GDP ratio reached a post-World War II low of 23.9 percent, and even in 2007, it was only 36.9 percent. That was manageable.

By contrast, today’s prospective colossal borrowings dwarf likely economic growth. The Obama administration’s latest projections, released last week, show nearly $11 trillion of borrowing from 2009 to 2019. In 2019, the debt-to-GDP ratio would be 76.5 percent. This could be too optimistic, because it assumes some spending restraint and tax increases. A projection by the Concord Coalition, a watchdog group, adds about $5 trillion in borrowing in that period. In 2019, the debt-to-GDP ratio could be roughly 100 percent.

Because such borrowings would be unprecedented in peacetime, they might go badly. It’s easy to imagine problems. Some might become full-blown crises. It might be impossible to refinance maturing federal debt (average maturity: 51 months) except at much higher interest rates. The Federal Reserve might be pressured to inflate away the debt by buying boatloads of Treasury bonds; high inflation would be ruinous, as it was in the 1970s. The mere fear of uncontrolled deficits might trigger a flight away from the dollar on stock, bond and foreign exchange markets.

But none of these calamities has yet occurred. Precisely the opposite. Low interest rates on 10-year Treasury bonds, about 3.5 percent, suggest ample investors. Though huge deficits pose long-term hazards, cutting them sharply now might threaten economic recovery. Any action—spending cuts or tax increases—ought to be prospective. Facing few insistent pressures to confront deficits, politicians don’t.

What unites Democrats and Republicans is an unwillingness to have a serious debate about how big government should be. Spending is the crucial issue, because it determines taxes and deficits. If they become too large, the resulting depressed economy may make paying for government even harder. Ideally, liberals would see that spending needs to be cut substantially; if it isn’t, tomorrow’s tax increases or deficits will be horrendous. Ideally, conservatives would accept that taxes must ultimately rise; no plausible spending cuts can bridge the gap between government’s promises and its tax base.

There is no sign of this. Liberals and conservatives agree to evade. Spending for the elderly dominates the federal budget, but no one discusses who among retirees deserves government subsidies and at what age. Liberals would increase spending (a.k.a., President Obama’s health proposal) even before addressing existing deficits. President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans could have curbed spending. But they increased it even while cutting taxes, and Obama would keep most tax cuts except for people making over $250,000.

Placid deficits have abetted all these evasions and inconsistencies. As the path of least resistance, they encouraged permissiveness. But with deficits swelling, this easy road may soon close. We may learn how much debt is too much.

http://www.newsweek.com/id/214487

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CDC States H1N1 Vaccine May Maim and Kill 30,000 Americans, FDA Requires Minimal Efficacy

CDC says to assume 1 in every 100,000 vaccine recipients will suffer serious side effects, FDA only requires vaccine be effective.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has officially stated that there will be as many as 30,000 serious, potentially lethal adverse reactions to the novel H1N1 vaccine, while the FDA guidelines for the novel H1N1 vaccine only require that it work in 3 out of every 10 recipients.

Last Saturday, I attended one of 10 “public engagement” meetings the CDC is holding across the country, utilizing a new model of public engagement designed to provide a public viewpoint or societal perspective on the topic at hand (mass vaccination) to the sponsor (in this case, the CDC).

Part of the process entails the sponsor (CDC) providing the following: “Information on the many sides of an issue is provided to the participants in a fair and balanced manner so that all participants become well-informed, and the overall group process is convened and managed in a neutral, respectful fashion.”

This requirement is met by providing an oral presentation in easy to understand language, a booklet summarizing the key facts needed and a discussion guide summarizing the choices faced.

The assembled group of 80 participants was shown a video, given a brief oral presentation and a printed discussion guide. We were asked to accept several assumptions in considering the topic. We were asked to assume that the severity would be similar to what had already been observed in the spring of 2009; we were told to assume that the vaccination program would be voluntary, not mandatory; we were told to assume that initial vaccine supplies will be available in October but supply would be limited through February 2010.

The most disturbing assumption we were asked to accept dealt with the safety of the novel H1N1 vaccine. In the video, the CDC spokesperson explained that during the 1976 mass vaccination campaign, 1 in every 100,000 recipients of the vaccine developed Guillain Barré syndrome (GBS), a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system often leading to paralysis and death. There is no known cure for GBS.

In 1976 roughly 40 million Americans received the vaccine and some 4,000 developed GBS.

The printed material that was distributed reiterated these horrific statistics and we were asked to accept the assumption that, “the estimated risk for more serious reactions (e.g. Guillain Barré syndrome) is between 1-10 per million persons vaccinated”.

This is a less direct way of stating that the risk is about the same as existed during the 1976 mass vaccination attempt and that as many as 1 in every 100,000 recipients will develop GBS or some other serious adverse reaction. The CDC is setting up a new intensive surveillance system with which to monitor and track GBS cases that result from the novel H1N1 vaccine.

Merriam-Webster defines assumption as a fact or statement taken for granted and assumed to be true. If we accept the documented assumption presented by the CDC, we are to consider it a fact that 1 in every 100,000 vaccine recipients will suffer a serious adverse effect such as GBS.

This means that if the entire U.S. population is vaccinated (a stated goal of the CDC), we are to assume as a fact that 30,000 Americans will suffer debilitating or lethal side effects. Apparently the CDC considers this an acceptable level of collateral damage.

As unthinkable as this is (destroying or ending the lives of as many as 30,000 Americans), that is only part of the story.

The novel H1N1 vaccine being developed must adhere to guidelines set forth by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has announced that a vaccine will be accepted if it creates antibodies in 4 out of 10 recipients (40%), with at least 70 percent of those 4 achieving an antibody level believed to provide benefit. This means that an acceptable vaccine candidate would provide “protection” for 28% of vaccine recipients (70% of the 40%), or less than 3 in 10 recipients. The requirement drops to 18% efficacy for those over 65 years of age (60% of 30%).

So here are the facts, as documented by the CDC and the FDA:

As many as 30,000 Americans will be harmed by the novel H1N1 vaccine.

The vaccine may be ineffective in more than 7 out of 10 recipients.

And in case you think I am alone in my concerns, here is what several vaccine experts associated with the CDC and the U.S. government say on the subject.

“I am very skeptical of finishing vaccine before we know the appropriate dose to be included in each inoculation, before immunogenicity studies are complete, or before safety assessments have been finished,” William Schaffner, MD, Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University and a member of the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), wrote in an recent e-mail.

“We have assured both the profession and the public that the H1N1 vaccine will be evaluated with the same rigor that is applied to seasonal vaccine. We should NOT make vaccine available before the trials are complete and the results carefully assessed.”

Others are worried about a repeat of the last swine flu “pandemic,” now regarded as a public health and public relations debacle.

“I fear that a rush towards vaccinating the population without completing trials risks leading to the harmful outcome that we witnessed during the 1976 swine flu scare, where the government advocated rapid production and vaccination of the population without adequate safeguards, which led to an unexplained increase in cases of Guillain Barré syndrome (GBS), amongst other complications, and massive liability for the government,” wrote Amir Afkhami, MD, PhD, of George Washington University, an international expert on the 1918 Influenza pandemic and an advisor to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. military, and the World Bank on issues pertaining to infectious diseases, public health and, mental health.

“I think in this regard, we must learn from lessons of the past and be mindful of not jumping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire by putting people’s health at risk without adequate production and safety monitoring of the vaccines.”

http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=14950

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Was Russia’s ‘Hijacked’ Ship Carrying Missiles to the Mideast?

In July, the Russian-manned cargo ship the Arctic Sea disappeared on its way to take timber from Finland to Algeria, sparking reports of the first incident of piracy in European waters since the days of the buccaneers. Experts and observers weighed in with their theories: the ship had been snatched in a commercial dispute; it was being used to run drugs; it was carrying something more precious — or dangerous — than timber.

Since then, the Russian navy has found the ship, and the alleged hijackers who boarded it on July 24 have been charged with kidnapping and piracy. The ship’s captain, his crew and whatever cargo the ship was carrying have also been detained. An initial search of the hull turned up nothing suspicious, and now Russia’s official explanation of what happened will likely become the final one — this was a hijacking thwarted by its navy without a shot being fired. But there are baffling details still left unexplained, leading some experts to claim that the truth is much more sinister: the Arctic Sea, they say, was intercepted by Israel as it carried a secret cargo of weapons to the Middle East. (See pictures of dramatic pirate-hostage rescues.)

The highest-ranking official to put forward this version of events is the European Union’s rapporteur on piracy and former commander of the Estonian armed forces, Admiral Tarmo Kouts. In an interview with TIME, he says only a shipment of missiles could account for Russia’s bizarre behavior throughout the month-long saga. “There is the idea that there were missiles aboard, and one can’t explain this situation in any other way,” he says. “As a sailor with years of experience, I can tell you that the official versions are not realistic.”

Kouts says that an Israeli interception of the cargo is the most likely explanation. But this theory, which some Russian analysts have put forward in the days since the Arctic Sea was rescued and which Kouts agreed with in his interview with TIME, has been vehemently denied by Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, who says Kouts should stop “running his mouth.” (Read “Girding for the Pirates’ Revenge.”)

The official explanation coming out of Moscow is simple enough: The Arctic Sea set sail from Finland under a Maltese flag on July 22, manned by a Russian crew and destined for Algeria, carrying less than $2 million worth of timber. Then a group of eight Russian and former Soviet hijackers boarded the ship on July 24. The ship’s tracking device was disabled in the last days of July, as it passed through the English Channel into the Atlantic, and the ship disappeared. On Aug. 12, the Russian navy sent out a search party. A week later, Russia declared that the ship and its crew had been rescued. (Read “Has Piracy Spread to Europe’s Waters?”)

But as details of the hijacking emerged, the tale got murkier, and Moscow’s explanation does little to clear things up. Why, with so many other ships carrying much more valuable cargo, would the hijackers target the Arctic Sea and its small load of timber? How come the ship never sent out a distress signal? Why did Israeli President Shimon Peres pay a surprise visit to Russia one day after the ship was rescued? Why did Russia wait so long to send its navy to find the ship? And what did the brother of one of the alleged hijackers, Dmitri Bartenev, mean when he told Estonian TV on Aug. 24 that his brother and the other suspected pirates had been “set up … They went to find work and ended up in a political conflict. Now they are hostage to some kind of political game?” Bartenev’s lawyer tells TIME that his client was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

There are also questions surrounding the Arctic Sea‘s rescue. On orders from the Kremlin, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov sent a completely disproportionate force, including destroyers and submarines, to look for the vessel. It took five days for them to find it, the defense ministry said, even though the foreign ministry later announced that it was fully aware of the Arctic Sea‘s coordinates the entire time. To fly the alleged pirates and the crew back to Moscow — a group of only 19 men — Russia dispatched two enormous military cargo planes. And then on their arrival, the ship’s crew was detained along with the alleged hijackers for days of questioning, with no access to their families or the media.

“Even from the basic facts, without assumptions, it is clear that this was not just piracy,” says Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the Russian maritime journal Sovfrakht, which has been tracking unusual incidents on the high seas for decades. “I’ve never seen anything like this. These are some of the most heavily policed waters in the world. You cannot just hide a ship there for weeks without government involvement.”

Read: “Russia’s Moves Raise Doubts About Obama’s ‘Reset’.”

See pictures of Somali pirates.

According to Voitenko and other experts, a secret cargo could have been hidden inside the ship during the two weeks it spent in Kaliningrad for repairs, just before it picked up its Finnish haul of timber. Not contiguous with the rest of Russia, Kaliningrad is the country’s westernmost enclave on the coast of the Baltic Sea, and is known as a hub for Russian smugglers. “Personally, I don’t care about any missiles,” Voitenko tells TIME. “I care about what they’re doing with those sailors.”

There are many governments, however, that would be more concerned about a possible missile shipment, especially if it were destined for the Middle East. Chief among them is Israel. In recent years, the Israeli government has consistently raised alarms about Russia’s plans to sell MiG-31 fighter planes to Syria, and its construction of a nuclear power station in southwestern Iran. Negotiations with Moscow have been tough on these issues and relations often icy, as the Israeli president pointed out during his visit to Russia on Aug. 18, just as the mysteries behind the Arctic Sea‘s disappearance began to unfold. (Read “Medvedev and Obama: Sunshine in Moscow.”)

“The most likely explanation is that the Israelis intercepted this cargo, which had been meant for Syria or Iran,” says Yulya Latynina, a prominent political commentator and radio host on Echo of Moscow, a station owned by state-controlled gas giant Gazprom. “They will now use the incident as a bargaining chip with Russia over weapons sales in the region, while allowing Russia to save face by taking its empty ship back home.” When contacted by TIME, both the Israeli Prime Minister’s office and Mossad, Israel’s secret service, declined to comment. (See pictures of 60 years of Israel.)

But in an Aug. 18 statement, the Israeli foreign ministry said that Peres had discussed “the sale of Russian weapons and military hardware to countries hostile to Israel” with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, on that day during four hours of closed-door talks in the Russian city of Sochi. According to the statement, Peres “stressed that Israel has concrete proof of Russian weapons being transferred to terrorist organizations by Iran and Syria, especially to Hamas and Hizballah.” A spokeswoman for the Israeli president declined to elaborate on any connection with the Arctic Sea. In a parallel statement, the Kremlin did not mention weapon sales, saying only that after the meeting, “We more clearly and precisely understand each other’s positions.”

But Russia’s chief investigator, Alexander Bastrykin, told official state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta that a band of new-age pirates, possibly in connivance with the crew, is all that lies behind the Arctic Sea mystery. He did concede, though, that there are still questions that need answering. “We don’t rule out the possibility that [the ship] was carrying more than just timber,” he said, without elaborating further.

Speaking to TIME, NATO envoy Rogozin backed up the investigator’s statement: “The cargo has to be checked to see if there was something illegal, something being smuggled.” But he declined to comment on the theory of Israeli interception. “This is no longer a question for diplomats or for the military,” he said. “It is now a question for the investigators, and they are carrying on with their work. We are also very curious to hear their findings.” (See pictures of the face of modern piracy.)

When asked by TIME about the possibility that the Arctic Sea may have been carrying a secret cargo, Vladimir Voronov, deputy head of Oy Solchart Management, the Helsinki-based, Russian-run company that operates the ship, replied: “I don’t know anything about a secret cargo. We’re just a simple shipping firm and from what we understand, our ship was hijacked.”

According to investigator Bastrykin, a full search of the vessel will be carried out when the ship arrives at a Russian port in the next few weeks. But observers don’t expect any revelations. “The versions we are getting from the Russian government do not fit into any logical parameters, and I don’t think that will change,” commentator Latynina says. “When people lie, they tend to lie consistently.”

http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1919342,00.html?xid=rss-topstories

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Michael Jackson hoax was ‘experiment,’ broadcaster says

BERLIN, Germany (CNN) — A hoax video purporting to show Michael Jackson hopping out of a coroner’s van alive was produced by a German television station as an experiment, the broadcaster told CNN Monday.

It was made to show how easy it is to spread rumors online, said Heike Schultz, a spokeswoman for RTL, the leading private broadcaster in Germany.

“We sent out a press release before we did the video to alert everyone that it was fake, but once posted it spread really fast,” she said.

More than 880,000 people have clicked on the most popular version of the video on YouTube, posted by a user using the name “michaeljacksonhoax” under the title “Michael Jackson alive?! Seen coming out of coroner’s van!” Nearly 3,600 people have commented on the video.

“All the moves, his posture, the stepping out of the van, looks like MJ. He steps out very cautious, like a moonwalk. Also the slowly walking is just like Michael did,” one user wrote.

“I really hope he’s still alive….I could never forgive him for scaring me like that, but I could never hate him… :),” another said. Click here to watch the bogus clip

Not everyone was fooled.

“I would forgive Michael for anything because he is so super sexy but seriously guys he has passed,” one user wrote. “MJ has passed so leave him alone this movie is fake. R.I.P. Michael I love and miss u.”

A second version of the video, posted and annotated by “MUZIKfactory2” to show inconsistencies, has been seen more than 329,000 times. Both versions were posted on August 25.

RTL produced the video for its daily magazine “Explosive” to tell people not to take information at face value, the station’s representative said.

“This was so obviously fake, in the case of Michael Jackson, it just was not possible,” Schultz said.

According to Schultz, some viewers have been happy that the magazine showed them how easy it was to fake information online. Others who were Michael Jackson fans have told RTL that this was the wrong topic to do this kind of experiment on.

“It was not a bad thing, since it was so obviously a fake. But it is now in our poison wardrobe and it won’t be revived again,” Schultz said.

RTL said it removed the video from the Internet, but it can still be seen on YouTube.

New of Jackson’s death on June 25 sparked something of a feeding frenzy on the Web, as many news Web sites struggled to cope with the sheer volume of traffic.

With that came rumors that dragged in other celebrities completely unconnected to the “King of Pop’s” death.

One Wikipedia prankster wrote that Jackson had been “savagely murdered” by his brother Tito, who had strangled him “with a microphone cord.” Soon rumors spread online that movie star Jeff Goldblum had fallen from the Kauri Cliffs in New Zealand while filming his latest movie.

On several search engines, “Jeff Goldblum” soon became the only non-Jackson-related term to crop up in the top 10. The rumors forced Goldblum’s publicist to issue a statement to media outlets, saying: “Reports that Jeff Goldblum has passed away are completely untrue. He is fine and in Los Angeles.”

At the same time, Harrison Ford was also rumored to have fallen from a yacht off the south of France.

http://www.cnn.com/2009/SHOWBIZ/Music/08/31/michael.jackson.hoax/index.html?eref=rss_topstories

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Ousted Illinois Gov. Blagojevich explains himself, pick for Obama’s Senate seat in new book

CHICAGO (AP) — Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich says in a new book that White Housechief of staff Rahm Emanuel wanted his help in arranging to leave the Obama administration after two years to reclaim his seat in Congress.

Blagojevich writes in “The Governor” that Emanuel spoke with him about whether it was possible to appoint a “placeholder” to the congressional seat Emanuel was giving up so that he could win back the seat in 2010 and continue his efforts to become speaker some day.

“As we have done for many months, we will continue to decline comment,” Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg said in an e-mail Monday.

Blagojevich also admits that he wanted something in exchange for appointing President Barack Obama’s replacement in the Senate, but it wasn’t the deal described in federal corruption charges against him.

The Chicago Democrat says that the night before his arrest in December, he had launched a plan to appoint Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to the Senate seat because he hoped to cut a deal on pet projects with her father, powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

That plan was ruined by his arrest. Blagojevich writes that he eventually appointed Roland Burris, in part because of Burris’ famously big ego. No one else but Burris would accept the appointment and fight to be seated under the circumstances, Blagojevich says.

The ex-governor’s 264-page book, published by Phoenix, comes out Sept. 8. It offers a benign picture of events surrounding Blagojevich’s arrest in a corruption scandal thatU.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said would make Abraham Lincoln “roll over in his grave.”

The scandal cost Blagojevich his job when lawmakers impeached and threw him out of office in January. The once-rising political star is scheduled to stand trial next year. Blagojevich, who has pleaded not guilty, repeatedly asserts his innocence in the book.

He says his discussions about Obama’s possible successors amounted to “ordinary and routine politicking.”

But federal authorities cast it in a much different light, alleging Blagojevich was caught on FBI wiretaps discussing what he could get in exchange for the seat, from jobs to campaign contributions.

Blagojevich says that story is “upside down” and that he never asked for, or raised the subject of, campaign contributions in exchange for the Senate seat.

Others approached his administration with offers of campaign money, he says in “The Governor” without naming names. “If anyone should have been charged with a crime for this, it should have been them and not me,” he writes.

When Blagojevich talked to Emanuel after the election about the Senate pick, Obama’s right-hand man “did not lobby for anyone in particular,” according to the book.

Blagojevich says Emanuel was interested in his own career because he had to give up his congressional seat to work in Obama’s White House. Blagojevich writes that Emanuel dreamed of being speaker of the U.S. House and wanted to know if Blagojevich would work with him to name a successor to “hold” his seat until he wanted it back.

Blagojevich says he told Emanuel he didn’t think he could do that and the House vacancy would have to be filled by special election. But Emanuel reportedly told him “his lawyers thought there was a way.”

Blagojevich writes that he struggled with the idea of appointing Lisa Madigan to the Senate. The prospect “repulsed” him because of bad blood with her father.

But in the end, Blagojevich saw it as a way to entice Michael Madigan to support legislation he wanted, including a long-stalled statewide construction program that he said would create jobs and expand health care access for families.

Blagojevich says he told his chief of staff, John Harris, to begin working on a deal to appoint Lisa Madigan. The deal was halted when both Blagojevich and Harris were arrested the next day, Dec. 9, 2008.

“Mr. Fitzgerald didn’t stop a crime spree. He stopped me from doing a lot of good for a lot of people,” Blagojevich writes.

Harris has since agreed to testify against Blagojevich after pleading guilty and admitting that he repeatedly talked to the then-governor about ways he could profit from his authority to appoint Obama’s successor.

It’s unclear if the Madigans were aware of Blagojevich’s intentions. Lisa Madigan said last November she thought there was a “less than zero” chance Blagojevich would appoint her.

Madigan’s spokeswomen, Robyn Ziegler, said the attorney general hasn’t read the book and doesn’t intend to.

Madigan was widely seen as a potent challenge to Blagojevich if he ran for a third term in 2010. After he was arrested, Blagojevich writes, he was a “political leper.”

He decided to fill the Senate vacancy by appointing Burris, the former state comptroller and attorney general and the first black man to hold a major statewide office in Illinois. Blagojevich said Burris was qualified and had the self-confidence to accept the appointment despite the scandal.

“It was that self-esteem that I was counting on to be able to withstand the storm of protest that was inevitably going to come,” he said.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/sns-ap-us-blagojevich-book,0,6208878.story?track=rss

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VA won’t pay benefits to Marine whose injuries came from vaccine

WASHINGTON — It wasn’t a bullet or roadside bomb that felled Lance Cpl. Josef Lopez three years ago after nine days in Iraq.

It was an injection into his arm before his unit left the states.

The then 20-year-old Marine from Springfield, Mo., suffered a rare adverse reaction to the smallpox vaccine. While the vaccine isn’t mandatory, the military strongly encourages troops to take it.

However, it left Lopez in a coma, unable for a time to breathe on his own and paralyzed for weeks. Now he can walk, but with a limp. He has to wear a urine bag constantly, has short-term memory loss and must swallow 15 pills daily to control leg spasms and other ailments.

And even though his medical problems wouldn’t have occurred if he hadn’t been deployed, Lopez doesn’t qualify for a special government benefit of as much as $100,000 for troops who suffer traumatic injuries.

The hangup? His injuries were caused by the vaccine.

“I could have easily died, or not been able to walk because of that,” Lopez said. “It destroyed my world. It was pretty traumatic to me.”

Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees the benefit program, said they’re following what the agency has determined to be Congress’ intent.

“It’s for traumatic injury, not disease; not illness; not preventive medicine,” said Stephen Wurtz, deputy assistant director for insurance at the VA. “It has nothing to do with not believing these people deserve some compensation for their losses.”

The VA was unable to say how many claims have been rejected because of vaccine-related injuries. Wurtz and others familiar with the program said it probably wasn’t a large amount.

As of July 1, the traumatic injury program has granted nearly 6,700 claims, a 63 percent approval rate, and paid $394 million in compensation, Wurtz said.

A representative for the Military Vaccine Agency, which oversees the vaccination of troops for smallpox, anthrax and other diseases, couldn’t be reached for comment, despite repeated attempts.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and a member of the Armed Services Committee, drafted a bill named after Lopez to widen the program to include vaccine-related injuries.

She became aware of his plight when he and his mother stopped in her Senate office last year looking for help. Lopez had come to Washington to compete in the wheelchair portion of the Marine Corps Marathon.

“The program was created with a broad mandate to provide financial assistance to folks with serious injuries and given to VA to determine the outlines,” said Stephen Hedger, McCaskill’s legislative director and an Army veteran of Iraq. The VA “took a narrower approach and defined in greater detail what injuries and illnesses qualified for payment. Our view is it was way too narrow.”

Lopez’s health insurance through the military has covered all his medical expenses. The VA has paid for his medical costs since he was discharged in June.

What he didn’t get were benefits from a program called TSGLI, or Traumatic Servicemember Group Life Insurance. Congress created it in 2005 to provide short-term financial help to severely injured service members until their disability benefits could kick in. The compensation is retroactive to injuries suffered since Oct. 1, 2001.

It’s intended to cover expenses such as the costs of having a family member temporarily relocate while an injured service member receives treatment at a military hospital. Another might be the costs of retrofitting a service member’s home to accommodate a wheelchair or other medical equipment.

The injuries don’t have be the result of combat, however. Service members could be eligible because of a car accident on the way to the grocery store. The fee is an additional $1 each month on top of their regular military life insurance premium.

Lopez seemed to fit the profile. His injuries affected his normal daily activities, one of the criteria to obtain coverage. His family also met another: financial hardship.

His mother, Barbara Lopez, took a leave from her job as a high school secretary to move to Maryland to be with him while he spent six weeks at the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda. She also had to give up her second job, a part-time position as a cashier.

They’d to build a ramp and widen a door to accommodate his wheelchair at her home in Springfield, where he spent his recovery.

Barbara Lopez said she heard about TSGLI from families of other injured troops at Bethesda. Yet unlike many of them, whose wounds were obvious, her son’s application was turned down. She still can’t fathom it.

“In his spinal column, he has quite a bit of permanent scarring,” Barbara Lopez said. “He takes medication to help his legs. He can walk unassisted, but never far, and he can’t stand for very long. I kind of feel Joe was out there fighting the same fight they were. He should be just as eligible.”

The military began the smallpox vaccination program in 2003 because of post-9/11 fears that terrorists might attack the U.S. with germ warfare. Plans for the invasion of Iraq were also under way. The military was concerned that Saddam Hussein might use biological weapons against American troops.

Smallpox is contagious and can be fatal. It has no known cure. However, on rare occasions, as in Lopez’s case, the vaccine can be as dangerous as the disease. Side effects can range from a simple rash to swelling around the brain and heart, and even death.

Like the inoculation for anthrax, another pre-combat injection, troops are supposed to be informed of the side effects and told that taking the vaccine was optional. Many have said that it was made abundantly clear that refusing wasn’t a good idea.

“No one said ‘No,'” Lopez said. “I had no qualms. I had no reason not to.”

http://www.mcclatchydc.com/226/story/74566.html

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As Internet turns 40, barriers threaten its growth

NEW YORK — Goofy videos weren’t on the minds of Len Kleinrock and his team at UCLA when they began tests 40 years ago on what would become the Internet. Neither was social networking, for that matter, nor were most of the other easy-to-use applications that have drawn more than a billion people online.

Instead the researchers sought to create an open network for freely exchanging information, an openness that ultimately spurred the innovation that would later spawn the likes of YouTube, Facebook and the World Wide Web.

There’s still plenty of room for innovation today, yet the openness fostering it may be eroding. While the Internet is more widely available and faster than ever, artificial barriers threaten to constrict its growth.

Call it a mid-life crisis.

A variety of factors are to blame. Spam and hacking attacks force network operators to erect security firewalls. Authoritarian regimes block access to many sites and services within their borders. And commercial considerations spur policies that can thwart rivals, particularly on mobile devices like the iPhone.

“There is more freedom for the typical Internet user to play, to communicate, to shop – more opportunities than ever before,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor and co-founder of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “On the worrisome side, there are some longer-term trends that are making it much more possible (for information) to be controlled.”

Few were paying attention back on Sept. 2, 1969, when about 20 people gathered in Kleinrock’s lab at the University of California, Los Angeles, to watch as two bulky computers passed meaningless test data through a 15-foot gray cable.

That was the beginning of the fledgling Arpanet network. Stanford Research Institute joined a month later, and UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah did by year’s end.

The 1970s brought e-mail and the TCP/IP communications protocols, which allowed multiple networks to connect – and formed the Internet. The ’80s gave birth to an addressing system with suffixes like “.com” and “.org” in widespread use today.

The Internet didn’t become a household word until the ’90s, though, after a British physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, invented the Web, a subset of the Internet that makes it easier to link resources across disparate locations. Meanwhile, service providers like America Online connected millions of people for the first time.

That early obscurity helped the Internet blossom, free from regulatory and commercial constraints that might discourage or even prohibit experimentation.

“For most of the Internet’s history, no one had heard of it,” Zittrain said. “That gave it time to prove itself functionally and to kind of take root.”

Even the U.S. government, which funded much of the Internet’s early development as a military project, largely left it alone, allowing its engineers to promote their ideal of an open network.

When Berners-Lee, working at a European physics lab, invented the Web in 1990, he could release it to the world without having to seek permission or contend with security firewalls that today treat unknown types of Internet traffic as suspect.

Even the free flow of pornography led to innovations in Internet credit card payments, online video and other technologies used in the mainstream today.

“Allow that open access, and a thousand flowers bloom,” said Kleinrock, a UCLA professor since 1963. “One thing about the Internet you can predict is you will be surprised by applications you did not expect.”

That idealism is eroding.

An ongoing dispute between Google Inc. and Apple Inc. underscores one such barrier.

Like some other mobile devices that connect to the Internet, the iPhone restricts the software that can run on it. Only applications Apple has vetted are allowed.

Apple recently blocked the Google Voice communications application, saying it overrides the iPhone’s built-in interface. Skeptics, however, suggest the move thwarts Google’s potentially competing phone services.

On desktop computers, some Internet access providers have erected barriers to curb bandwidth-gobbling file-sharing services used by their subscribers. Comcast Corp. got rebuked by Federal Communications Commission last year for blocking or delaying some forms of file-sharing; Comcast ultimately agreed to stop that.

The episode galvanized calls for the government to require “net neutrality,” which essentially means that a service provider could not favor certain forms of data traffic over others. But that wouldn’t be a new rule as much as a return to the principles that drove the network Kleinrock and his colleagues began building 40 years ago.

Even if service providers don’t actively interfere with traffic, they can discourage consumers’ unfettered use of the Internet with caps on monthly data usage. Some access providers are testing drastically lower limits that could mean extra charges for watching just a few DVD-quality movies online.

“You are less likely to try things out,” said Vint Cerf, Google’s chief Internet evangelist and one of the Internet’s founding fathers. “No one wants a surprise bill at the end of the month.”

Dave Farber, a former chief technologist at the Federal Communications Commission, said systems are far more powerful when software developers and consumers alike can simply try things out.

Farber has unlocked an older iPhone using a warrantee-voiding technique known as jail-breaking, allowing the phone to run software that Apple hasn’t approved. By doing that, he could watch video before Apple supported it in the most recent version of the iPhone, and he changed the screen display when the phone is idle to give him a summary of appointments and e-mails.

While Apple insists its reviews are necessary to protect children and consumer privacy and to avoid degrading phone performance, other phone developers are trying to preserve the type of openness found on desktop computers. Google’s Android system, for instance, allows anyone to write and distribute software without permission.

Yet even on the desktop, other barriers get in the way.

Steve Crocker, an Internet pioneer who now heads the startup Shinkuro Inc., said his company has had a tough time building technology that helps people in different companies collaborate because of security firewalls that are ubiquitous on the Internet. Simply put, firewalls are designed to block incoming connections, making direct interactions between users challenging, if not impossible.

No one’s suggesting the removal of all barriers, of course. Security firewalls and spam filters became crucial as the Internet grew and attracted malicious behavior, much as traffic lights eventually had to be erected as cars flooded the roads. Removing those barriers could create larger problems.

And many barriers throughout history eventually fell away – often under pressure. Early on, AOL was notorious for discouraging users from venturing from its gated community onto the broader Web. The company gradually opened the doors as its subscribers complained or fled. Today, the company is rebuilding its business around that open Internet.

What the Internet’s leading engineers are trying to avoid are barriers that are so burdensome that they squash emerging ideas before they can take hold.

Already, there is evidence of controls at workplaces and service providers slowing the uptake of file-sharing and collaboration tools. Video could be next if consumers shun higher-quality and longer clips for fear of incurring extra bandwidth fees. Likewise, startups may never get a chance to reach users if mobile gatekeepers won’t allow them.

If such barriers keep innovations from the hands of consumers, we may never know what else we may be missing along the way.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/08/30/as-internet-turns-40-barr_n_272241.html

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