2016 Presidential Candidates

November 2016 seems like a long time off, but presidential election campaigns take a long time these days and interest is already building in who’ll be running for the White House this time round. At this early stage the field is still wide, with the serious candidates sharing the headlines with a long list of stalking horses, novelties and no-hopers. As of right now there are over 20 people who’ve either publicly expressed interest or already filed their application to run. Naturally some of these are less serious, and plenty more don’t have any real chance of winning a party nomination. On the other hand there are a few with realistic prospects of being the next president of the United States. Let’s look at the leading contenders on all sides.

The Republican Party has the greatest number of hopefuls. In all nineteen prominent members or supporters have mentioned that they’re thinking of running although not all are realistic choices. There are a few who stand out though.

  • Maybe the top choice is Jeb Bush. His family needs no introduction, as one of the emerging dynasties of US politics, and GW’s younger brother is definitely keen to have a shot at being the third Bush in the White House. Socially he’s a conservative – among his acts as Florida governor was to sign the anti-assisted-dying Terri’s Law – but fiscally in the middle ground of the GOP.
  • New Jersey governor Chris Christie was looking like another serious candidate until recently, but his administration has suffered a couple of scandals. Christie is a popular figure among the center and moderate wings of the Republican Party, and probably has the broadest electoral appeal of any GOP contender. However revelations that he messed up traffic access to Fort Lee to retaliate against the mayor have seriously dented his chances.
  • Ted Cruz has more appeal to the right wing of the party. Strongly pro-life and socially very conservative, he’s well placed for a run at the White House but his half-Cuban background might not satisfy the Birther tendency.

Other Republicans who’re keen to throw their hat in the ring include Marco Rubio, Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. However most of them have limited appeal with the broader public and aren’t likely to do well at the primaries.

The Democratic Party has a much shorter list right now, although more candidates will probably step forward over the next few months. The big names are probably the current vice president and the former secretary of state.

Joe Biden, as the occupant of the #2 role in the present administration, is a natural candidate for 2016. Biden is a centrist Democrat on most issues, generally liberal socially. His big advantage is an established reputation in high office.

Hillary Clinton, wife of former president Bill, narrowly lost to Obama for the 2008 Democratic nomination and is widely expected to run again. She has a high profile but remains a controversial figure, and there’s some resistance to the idea of a Clinton dynasty. On most issues she’s slightly to the left of Biden but tends to be hawkish on foreign policy.

Other possible Democrat runners include actor George Clooney and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, but right now Biden and Clinton look the most credible.

There are a few third party possibilities as well. Rand Paul might run for either the Republicans or Libertarians. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is contemplating standing as an independent, TV personality Roseanne Barr might represent the Peace and Freedom Party and veteran candidate Jill Stein is in the running for the Greens. The eccentric Transhumanist Zoltan Istvan may have a shot a swell. However the real action as the election approaches will be between the heavy hitters of the two main parties.

Ebola in The USA

The Ebola outbreak ravaging West Africa continues to make the headlines. Official figures from the World Health Organization currently put the number of infections at just under 14,000, with almost 5,000 dead. The CDC think the true number could be three times as high. In the last few weeks the health services in the worst affected countries, which weren’t all that great to begin with, have started to break down. About ten percent of the fatalities have been medical staff, and shortage of doctors and nurses could ultimately cause more deaths from other causes than are killed by the epidemic itself. The response from the United Nations has been poor – the WHO’s contingency fund for dealing with the outbreak contains just $100,000, while the organization has just blown $20 MILLION on an anti-tobacco junket in Moscow. This isn’t just failing the people of West Africa; it’s risking lives everywhere in the world.

Ebola virus disease was first seen in Africa in the 1970s, but for the first time it’s reached the USA. So far it looks like it’s been contained but there’s now a real worry more cases could appear, and even that the infection could break out into the general population. What’s most worrying of all is the competence of the people we rely on to protect us is in serious doubt.

The first case of Ebola ever diagnosed in the USA was a Liberian citizen, Thomas Eric Duncan, who flew from Liberia via Brussels and arrived in Dallas on September 20. There are checks in operation at al airports in the epidemic area, but Duncan was able to easily lie his way past them and claim he hadn’t been exposed to the disease. In fact he had – he’d taken a dying woman to hospital – but this level of check isn’t adequate anyway. After all many victims won’t know they’ve been exposed until they become ill.

Duncan did become ill, and went to Dallas Presbyterian on September 24. At first he was diagnosed with a minor infection – at least partly because the doctor didn’t know he’d come from Liberia – and sent home with some antibiotics. Four days later he was back, badly sick by this point, and finally someone realized what might be happening. He was diagnosed with Ebola on September 30, and died on October 8. That meant he’d been in the hospital, suffering from projectile vomiting, for two whole days before the medical staff treating him were ordered into biohazard suits. And by then two of them were already infected as well.

It looks like the nation has managed to dodge this time, because despite one of the nurses flying to Ohio and back after she had already shown symptoms nobody else seems to have become infected. The only active case in the USA right now is a doctor who contracted the disease in Africa and is now being treated in New York. However we need more than luck to prevent more outbreaks, and it’s not clear we’re getting it. First of all the WHO’s measures to contain the disease in Africa are clearly failing; there is no way Duncan should have been able to board a flight so easily. Secondly, the CDC itself has performed very poorly so far. It looks like bad guidance was given to Dallas Presbyterian on how to handle Duncan, and that might have contributed to the nurses being infected. Secondly, the nurse who flew to Ohio called CDC several times to check if she was allowed to fly; although she reported suffering from a slight fever – a classic symptom of Ebola – they told her it was fine.

Well, it wasn’t fine. Any of the dozens of people who shared the flights with her could have been infected, especially if she’d become more drastically ill en route. The CDC has taken on immense powers over the last few decades, always with the explanation that they need this to protect us. It’s time they started doing a better job.

Gold Since 2011

Over the past few weeks metals investors have been watching gold fall to levels it hasn’t touched in four years. There are signs that this long decline might be ending, leaving an opening for smart buyers to get in at a bargain price, but what can we expect in the future? Is past performance a reliable enough guide?

Looking back over the last five years, what really stands out is the heights gold reached in the late summer of 2011. Following the 2008 financial crisis many investors moved money to gold as share prices plummeted. It didn’t take long for the Dow to start regaining the lost ground – by the middle of 2009 it was back on an upward trajectory – but the recovery wasn’t robust and there were frequent dips. With all the major economies struggling to pull themselves out of recession the markets were painfully aware prices could fall back at any time, so a safe haven like gold saw strong demand. By mid-September 2011 it was trading at $1,860 per ounce and looked set to keep going to the $2,000 mark. Then, on September 23, it abruptly fell by more than $100 in a single day.

The usual reason for a sharp fall in gold – a jump in stocks – doesn’t apply here. In fact the Dow had lost nearly 500 points the day before and was showing no sign of recovery. Many analysts blame gold’s losses on the CME Group raising margin requirements by 21 percent; the previous time they did this it triggered a similar drop in gold prices. Whatever the cause there was a strong adjustment downwards, with gold falling to $1,600 by the beginning of October. It then rallied and made its way back to $1,800 by the end of that month, and fluctuated between $1,500 and $1,800 until October 2012. That’s when it started the downward trend that, hopefully, is bottoming out right now.

That trend hasn’t been an even one; there have been several points when it looked like reversing . Most of the drop happened between October 2012 and June 2013, when the spot price touched the $1,200 barrier for the first time since 2010. Then it climbed back to $1,400, dropped all the way back again by the start of this year and started climbing once more. It reached its 2014 high of $1,382 in late February and it’s been mostly downhill from there.

Overall the decline of gold can be linked to the recovery in the equities markets. Both the Dow and the FTSE 100 have been ratcheting up since 2009, and inevitably that’s going to slowly rebuild confidence in stocks. Because lack of that confidence is what drives investors to gold in the first place, as it returns they’re going to sell metals and make their way back to shares. However what we might be seeing now is the pendulum starting to swing back; the rise of equities has stumbled a couple of times recently and while the main indexes haven’t lost any ground it doesn’t look safe to assume they’re going to keep rising in the short to medium term. Gold price charts for the last two weeks seem to show more interest in a reliable hedge against a bear market, so while we don’t think gold will be back above $1,800 any time soon a return to $1,400 is a different story.

WHO – World Health Organization

The World Health Organization is currently holding its sixth Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, or COP 6. The conference is taking place in Moscow and its declared aim is to agree more steps to reduce tobacco consumption worldwide. However there are alarming stories emerging from the conference, and now it’s being widely reported that following the expulsion of all public and media observers the delegates are planning a sweeping new worldwide tax on anything even slightly related to tobacco.

COP 6 was mired in controversy long before it even began, after the WHO took the startling decision to bar the global police agency Interpol from sending observers. This set alarm bells ringing among pro-democracy campaigners, because if the conference was really about passing worldwide laws then Interpol is the agency that would be called on to enforce them. Bizarrely, the WHO justified this move by claiming that Interpol is part of the tobacco industry.

The conference opened on Monday, October 13, with delegates from 175 countries. For once the US government showed some backbone and refused to send delegates, on protest against the WHO holding the event in a quasi-totalitarian state that currently has its troops fighting an illegal war on the territory of its neighbour Ukraine. Canada also refused to take part. Unfortunately it seems the WHO has been infected by the Stalinist ethos of the Putin regime, because the banning of Interpol was just the first stage in a very sinister series of events.

Despite being the world’s leading public health organization the WHO has never been too keen on letting the actual public see what they’re doing, so they make it as difficult as possible for ordinary people to get in to their conferences. The press can reserve places in advance but the public can’t. The only way to get in is to turn up on the day; a limited number of seats are available on a first come, first served basis. In theory.

The event had barely started when delegates from a few countries that don’t exactly have a great record of good government started complaining about ordinary people being allowed to sit quietly at the back and watch. Libya’s Mohammed Dagani – a former member of the Gadaffi regime – announced that “We don’t need the public here” and was quickly backed up by delegates from Uganda and a few other borderline dictatorships. A vote was called, and within minutes the public had been ordered out of their seats and expelled from the hall.

Obviously this didn’t go down well with the media observing the event, and on Monday evening stories began to appear criticizing the heavy-handed tactics. Incredibly the WHO didn’t reconsider the expulsion; instead, when the media reps arrived on Tuesday morning they were met by guards borrowed from Putin’s notorious Interior Ministry and told that, accreditation or no, they were being excluded from the event.

Now that witnesses have been removed the delegates are discussing a massive tax that WHO will try to force on every government in the world despite the people never having had a chance to vote on it. For now the US government wants nothing to do with COP 6, but it may be time to look into other WHO activities and decide how we want to deal with this secretive and totalitarian body in the future.

Executive Order 12333

Have you ever heard of Executive Order 12333? There’s a good chance you haven’t – the federal government doesn’t exactly advertise its existence. It’s been on the books for a long time, and when it was first introduced it was easy enough to make a case for it being necessary, but under the new model of government that’s increasingly being imposed on us it has mutated into a deeply sinister piece of legislation that threatens every American’s liberties.

EO 12333 was signed on December 4, 1981 by President Ronald Reagan. It was the height of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, faced with determined opposition from Regan and his ally Margaret Thatcher, was pushing aggressively through military confrontation and a higher pace of espionage and terrorism directed at the west. Reagan wanted to make it easier for the CIA to collect evidence about Soviet activity, by increasing their powers so they could ask for information from other federal agencies.

What Reagan couldn’t foresee was how his successors would use those increased powers to start monitoring the American people. In 1991, with the Soviet Union already collapsed, the powers allocated under the order were expanded even more and that process has been repeated several times since. In 2004 and 2008 further orders were signed expanding the intelligence agencies’ ability to snoop far beyond what Reagan had ever imagined.

The original meaning of EO 12333 – enhanced cooperation with the CIA – has now expanded to mean that any federal agency can carry out intelligence gathering pretty much anywhere as long as it gets clearance to do it. We haven’t heard many cases where that clearance has been refused, but plenty where it’s been granted. The most egregious offender has to be the National Security Agency, which for years now has been electronically vacuuming up just about every message sent, anywhere. Every time you pick up the phone the NSA note who you called and how long you spoke for. Every email, text message or fax is intercepted and stored – although the NSA doesn’t define this as “collecting” unless it actually reads the message.

Officially your Fourth Amendment rights aren’t being violated, because the NSA targets its activities against foreigners who might be a threat to US interests. Of course that means thousands of messages between foreigners and US citizens are intercepted, a process that’s brushed off as “incidental” collection, but even if you don’t ever talk to foreigners your communications aren’t safe. Most people have now heard of ECHELON, a joint electronic intelligence operation among the “Five Eyes” community of the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The intelligence agencies of these five countries routinely share the data they’ve collected and out of the five, four aren’t bound by the Fourth Amendment at all.

The Commonwealth members of the Five Eyes community are all US allies, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have ears turned in our direction. Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters rivals the NSA in its ability to intercept electronic communications and there’s nothing to stop them listening to US citizens – the Constitution doesn’t apply to them. And most of what they collect gets shared with the NSA…

Even without the Soviet Union the world is a dangerous place, as the rise of ISIS shows. We need strong, effective intelligence services and we need to cooperate with our allies. But we also need to stand up for our rights, which is why the steady expansion of the EO 12333 snooper’s charter has to be stopped now.

Major US banks & Derivatives

When people talk about huge and worrying numbers in finance the one they focus on most is the US national debt. At $17 trillion that’s a number too big for most people to comprehend. The odds of it ever being paid back are remote, and eventually it’s going to reach a size where just trying to cover the interest will bankrupt the nation. Believe it or not, though, in the big scheme of things it’s pocket change.

We’ve all heard of banks that are too big to fail. There used to be four of them in the USA; now there are five. The expression isn’t exaggerated; every one of those five banks is exposed to the mood of the global financial market on a scale that dwarfs the national debt. Yes, it really does. The total size of that exposure is difficult to work out because it’s such a complicated web, but by picking out one strand of it we can get an idea of how big the problem really is. That strand is derivatives.

If you’re looking for secure investments you need to buy things that are real, that have actual inherent value and that somebody will want to buy. Gold is the classic one; it’s what used to back up the US dollar as well as the other major currencies. The value of the bills in your wallet was backed up by a stockpile of real gold in a vault. Oil is another. It’s valuable, there’s a limited supply and if you have some to sell, somebody’s going to buy it. You don’t even need to stash the barrels in your basement – the markets give you plenty ways to invest your money in oil. The key thing is that you’ve bought something real and you can sell it again, hopefully at a profit. Whatever price you get, though, your asset – gold, oil, palladium, whatever – is real. But derivatives are different.

Derivatives aren’t backed up by real assets. They might be deals about assets that will exist in the future, or contracts based on predictions about the way prices will go – bets, in other words. The futures market is basically just a huge casino, and as the 2008 financial crisis showed it’s such a complex one that when an asset turns out to be worthless nobody can really tell who owns it. Remember all those sub-prime mortgages? Worthless “assets” that had been chopped, mixed up, reformed and sliced like cheap hamburger, then sold all over the world. Nobody who’d bought a package of mortgage debt as an investment knew how much of it was good loans and how much was junk. The result was the whole lot became a toxic product.

Imagine another crisis, another supposed asset being revealed as worthless. Exactly the same will happen again. It’s so complicated that by the time the markets have figured out who owns the good investments and who owns the dreck, confidence in the whole system will have been shaken and fortunes will be lost across the board. And before you start thinking that only affects rich bankers who brought it on themselves, no it doesn’t. The value of every trust fund, every pension scheme, every saving plan for the kids’ college fund, is tied up in this mess of opaque deals.

How big is the problem? It’s huge. Enormous. Too big for words to do it justice. But every single one of those five big banks has at least $40 trillion tied up in derivatives. Between them, in total, the figure is $280 trillion. If those banks go down the economy goes with them. The national debt is bad enough, but this mess is unsustainable. Someone needs to bring some clarity and transparency back into the system before the next disaster strikes.