Sunday, November 28, 2010

The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers

No 79: George Papandreou. for making the best of Greece's worst year.

rime minister | Greece
Even before the 2008 financial crisis, the Greek economy was running on borrowed time, an ossified system that predictably buckled under the weight of the crash. When George Papandreou took office as Greece's prime minister in October 2009, he found that the budget deficit was not 6 percent, as his predecessor had claimed, but 12.7 percent, four times that allowed by the eurozone's rules.
Papandreou has spent 2010 telling Greeks hard truths about the unsustainable nature of their welfare state -- and sounding an international warning that Greece is the canary in the European coal mine. The Minnesota-born son of a former socialist prime minister, he has rolled out an austerity plan that will raise taxes and rein in the bloated public sector, a package ambitious enough to convince Europe to keep Greece afloat even as it has provoked riots in Athens. And he has argued that the disaster should be a wake-up call for the threat sovereign debt poses far beyond Europe's borders. "It's not an issue of countries acting on their own," he said. "We need a more coordinated strategy not only in Europe but around the world."

Friday, November 19, 2010

Duke geneticist resigns as investigation continues


Troubled Duke geneticist Anil Potti has resigned, according to an email sent by the Director of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, Hunt Willard, and posted online by the Duke Chronicle today. Willard says that investigations into alleged research misconduct in Potti's work will continue. “He accepted full responsibility for a series of anomalies in data handling, analysis and management that have come under scrutiny in the past months,” he says.
Potti came under fire in July 2010 for allegedly puffing his resume. Duke halted clinical trials based on his research and opened a research misconduct investigation. The university restarted those trials in January 2010 after an earlier cessation caused by questions raised in 2009 by biostatisicians Keith Baggerly and Kevin Coombes of the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer in Houston. A key paper of Potti's was retracted earlier this week.
Update -- Statement from Duke
Duke now says that a second paper co-authored by Potti and published in Nature Medicine will also be retracted. "This process has been initiated due to concerns about the reproducibility of reported predictors, and their possible effect on the overall conclusions in this paper. Other papers published based on this science are currently being reviewed for any concerns," it says in a statement. It adds that the three suspended clinical trials have now been closed.

Friday, October 29, 2010

NASA Survey Suggests Earth-Sized Planets are Common

PASADENA, Calif. -- Nearly one in four stars similar to the sun may host planets as small as Earth, according to a new study funded by NASA and the University of California.

The study is the most extensive and sensitive planetary census of its kind. Astronomers used the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii for five years to search 166 sun-like stars near our solar system for planets of various sizes, ranging from three to 1,000 times the mass of Earth. All of the planets in the study orbit close to their stars. The results show more small planets than large ones, indicating small planets are more prevalent in our Milky Way galaxy.

"We studied planets of many masses -- like counting boulders, rocks and pebbles in a canyon -- and found more rocks than boulders, and more pebbles than rocks. Our ground-based technology can't see the grains of sand, the Earth-size planets, but we can estimate their numbers," said Andrew Howard of the University of California, Berkeley, lead author of the new study. "Earth-size planets in our galaxy are like grains of sand sprinkled on a beach -- they are everywhere."

The study appears in the Oct. 29 issue of the journal Science.

The research provides a tantalizing clue that potentially habitable planets could also be common. These hypothesized Earth-size worlds would orbit farther away from their stars, where conditions could be favorable for life. NASA's Kepler spacecraft is also surveying sun-like stars for planets and is expected to find the first true Earth-like planets in the next few years.

Howard and his planet-hunting team, which includes principal investigator Geoff Marcy, also of the University of California, Berkeley, looked for planets within 80-light-years of Earth, using the radial velocity, or "wobble," technique.

They measured the numbers of planets falling into five groups, ranging from 1,000 times the mass of Earth, or about three times the mass of Jupiter, down to three times the mass of Earth. The search was confined to planets orbiting close to their stars -- within 0.25 astronomical units, or a quarter of the distance between our sun and Earth.

A distinct trend jumped out of the data: smaller planets outnumber larger ones. Only 1.6 percent of stars were found to host giant planets orbiting close in. That includes the three highest-mass planet groups in the study, or planets comparable to Saturn and Jupiter. About 6.5 percent of stars were found to have intermediate-mass planets, with 10 to 30 times the mass of Earth -- planets the size of Neptune and Uranus. And 11.8 percent had the so-called "super-Earths," weighing in at only three to 10 times the mass of Earth.

"During planet formation, small bodies similar to asteroids and comets stick together, eventually growing to Earth-size and beyond. Not all of the planets grow large enough to become giant planets like Saturn and Jupiter," Howard said. "It's natural for lots of these building blocks, the small planets, to be left over in this process."

The astronomers extrapolated from these survey data to estimate that 23 percent of sun-like stars in our galaxy host even smaller planets, the Earth-sized ones, orbiting in the hot zone close to a star. "This is the statistical fruit of years of planet-hunting work," said Marcy. "The data tell us that our galaxy, with its roughly 200 billion stars, has at least 46 billion Earth-size planets, and that's not counting Earth-size planets that orbit farther away from their stars in the habitable zone."

The findings challenge a key prediction of some theories of planet formation. Models predict a planet "desert" in the hot-zone region close to stars, or a drop in the numbers of planets with masses less than 30 times that of Earth. This desert was thought to arise because most planets form in the cool, outer region of solar systems, and only the giant planets were thought to migrate in significant numbers into the hot inner region. The new study finds a surplus of close-in, small planets where theories had predicted a scarcity.

"We are at the cusp of understanding the frequency of Earth-sized planets among planetary systems in the solar neighborhood," said Mario R. Perez, Keck program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This work is part of a key NASA science program and will stimulate new theories to explain the significance and impact of these findings."

NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif., manages time allocation on the Keck telescope for NASA. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in Pasadena, manages NASA's Exoplanet Exploration program office. More information about exoplanets and NASA's planet-finding program is at .


Thursday, October 07, 2010

Greece: Funding Opportunities for Postdoctoral Research

The Greek Ministry of Education, Lifelong Learning and Religious Affairs invites all interested beneficiaries to submit proposal summaries for their inclusion in the Action "Support of Postdoctoral Researchers".

The aim of this Action is to facilitate the acquirement of new research skills by Postdoctoral Researchers (PR) that will promote their career development in any field and/or help them restart their careers after a leave of absence (but no more than seven (7) years following their doctorate conferment date). Emphasis will be given to the support of new scientists at the beginning of their career. The duration of the research projects should range from 24 to 36 months. Each candidate can submit only one (1) research proposal.

The total pubic cost of the present call is 30.000.000€ and it is co-financed by the ESF (European Social Fund). The maximum budget for each project is 150.000€. At least 60% of the total budget should be related to costs pertaining to activities undertaken by the PR and should include a monthly net allowance of 1.600€, subject to cost-of-living adjustments for different countries.

The potential beneficiaries of this call must be either

a) Greek or foreign nationals that have acquired their doctorate from a non-Greek University. These researchers should undertake their research in a University/Research Institution within Greece


b) Greek nationals that have acquired their doctorate from a Greek University. These researchers may undertake their research in a University/Research Institution either in Greece or abroad. In the first case the host Institution should differ from the University where the candidate PR obtained his/her doctorate and the PR should collaborate with a scientist other than his/her PhD supervisor. In the second case the PR should undertake the first 2/3 of his/her research in a University/Research Institution outside Greece and the final 1/3 in a University/Research Institution within Greece.

A two-stage submission procedure will be followed. Please, note that at this stage (i.e. 1st stage) the PRs are not required to have established cooperation with the host Institution. They only need to indicate where (University/Research Institution) and with whom (Faculty member or Research Scientist of a public Research Institution that holds a PhD degree) they would like to cooperate. If a proposal is positively assessed during the evaluation of summaries (1st stage), the respective PR will be asked to submit a full proposal (2nd stage) as well as contact the proposed host Institution to ensure collaboration.

All summaries (as well as the full proposals at the 2nd evaluation stage) will be reviewed by international experts. Further information for the 2nd submission stage will become available in the near future.

All interested beneficiaries should register at the following link:

and submit their summaries at:

The summaries submission deadline is November 20, 2010 at 22:00 GMT.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

UC Ph.D. programs rank high in National Research Council report

University of California doctoral programs rank among the best in the nation in a National Research Council report that universities consider the gold-standard assessment of Ph.D. studies. In its first comprehensive evaluation of university doctoral programs since 1995, the NRC reviewed 322 UC programs in science, math, engineering, social sciences and humanities.

In the report, released today (Sept. 28), 141 UC programs were ranked among the top 10 in their fields across a wide range of measures used by the NRC to assess quality.

"I am very proud UC campuses fare so well in these distinguished rankings," said UC President Mark Yudof. "It is clear that the University of California dominates in excellence across a wide range of disciplines. This performance is a function of our outstanding faculty and researchers, talented graduate students, and a diverse and gifted staff and student body."

The NRC, along with the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, make up the National Academies, which provide independent science, health and technology policy advice to the U.S. government. The NRC's periodic rankings of American doctoral programs are highly respected among academic institutions.

Program improvement and student guide

The assessment, according to the NRC, is designed to help universities improve the quality of their programs and to provide prospective graduate students with information to help them decide which programs may suit them best.

"The NRC and other ranking tools attest to the fact that UC is the finest public research university system in the nation, if not the world, and that we cannot let the threat of economic uncertainty diminish us in any way," said Yudof.

The new NRC report differs greatly from its previous version in 1995. That report was based mostly on a reputational assessment, with faculty across the United States rating each program, and it provided a top-to-bottom ranking of programs. The 2010 NRC version relies on data from 2005-06, collected from faculty and students. The report uses 20 different variables to rank programs, including research publications by faculty, percentage of students receiving financial support and their time to degree, and student and faculty diversity.

The NRC doesn't list a "best" program, but instead provides several ranges of rankings in which individual programs are likely to fall. A range, for example, can be second best to 12th best in the country.

Overall, the NRC ranked more than 5,000 doctoral programs at 212 U.S. universities.

Top of the class

At nine UC campuses, doctoral programs ranked at the top of their fields. UC's newest campus, UC Merced, was not included because data were collected in 2005-06, before its doctoral programs were fully established.

"The new NRC assessment validates what we and others who evaluate and rank programs have found about the excellence and quality of our graduate programs," said Steven Beckwith, UC vice president for research and graduate studies.

The NRC report is consistent with other recent findings about UC's graduate programs. A UC Office of the President's accountability report, which Beckwith recently presented to the UC Regents, highlighted the following:

  • In 2009, UC enrolled 26,117 doctoral students at its 10 campuses.
  • As the public institution with primary responsibility for granting doctoral degrees in California, UC awarded 63 percent of all academic doctoral degrees in the state. California led the nation with 5,923 doctorates awarded in 2007-08.
  • UC awarded 3,500 Ph.D.s a year — 7 percent of the nation's doctoral degrees.
  • In 2009, UC had 7 percent of all the graduate students in the United States, but they won 20 to 30 percent of the most competitive and prestigious fellowships in science, arts and humanities.

"Graduate students play an important role in conducting the research," said Beckwith. "They spark ideas, make discoveries, enrich the arts and work to solve some of society's most pressing problems as they push at the cutting edge of knowledge. They also play a key role in attracting and retaining faculty. Many of our top faculty come to UC because of the outstanding graduate students."

And the faculty themselves, he noted, are distinguished by the top awards and honors they consistently receive.

In the 2009 and 2010 classes elected to the National Academy of Sciences, for example, 66 of the 144 new members came from public universities, and 39 of these were from UC. "Put another way, more than half of the honored scientists from public universities teach and do research at UC," said Beckwith.

The full Data-Based Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States report is available online.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

International Advisory Committee for the Greek HE reforms

Some biographical information on the members of the advisory committee for the reform of Greek Universities.

David Naylor (Professor of Medicine), CANADA
David Naylor has been President of the University of Toronto since 2005. He earned his MD at Toronto in 1978, followed by a D Phil at Oxford where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar. Naylor completed clinical specialty training and joined the Department of Medicine of the University of Toronto in 1988. He was founding Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (1991-1998), before becoming Dean of Medicine and Vice Provost for Relations with Health Care Institutions of the University of Toronto (1999 - 2005). Naylor has co-authored approximately 300 scholarly publications, spanning social history, public policy, epidemiology and biostatistics, and health economics, as well as clinical and health services research in most fields of medicine. Among other honours, Naylor is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a Foreign Associate Fellow of the US Institute of Medicine, and an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Gavin Brown. (Professor of Mathematics), AUSTRALIA
Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney. (retired as Vice-Chancellor on 10 July 2008).
At the University of New South Wales, Brown held a number of academic administrative posts, including Head of the Department of Pure Mathematics, Head of the School of Mathematics, and Dean of the Faculty of Science. In 1992, he became the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Adelaide; later, in 1994, he became the Vice-Chancellor. He took up his final position as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney in 1996.
Brown was actively involved in the work of the Australian Research Council as a chairman of various funding committees from 1988-1993, and a member of the Council from 1992-1993.
Brown has authored more than a hundred research papers and he is on the board of several international journals. His research areas have been broad, including measure theory and algebraic geometry. He holds a Master of Arts degree (1st Class Honours and the Duncan Medal) from University of St Andrews (1963), a PhD from University of Newcastle upon Tyne (1966), an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of St Andrews (1997), and an honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Dundee (2004). In 2006, Brown was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia.

Gudmund Hernes (Professor of Social Science), DENMARK
President International Social Science Council (ISSC), a scholar at the Norwegian Institute for Labour and Social Research and a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.
He was the state secretary to the Secretariat for Long-Term Planning 1980-1981, Minister of Education and Research and Ministry of Church and Cultural Affairs (church affairs) 1990, Minister of Education, Research and Church Affairs 1991-1995 and Minister of Health and Social Affairs (health affairs) 1995-1996 and 1996-1997.
Hernes holds a PhD in Sociology from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He became a Professor of Sociology at the University of Bergen (Norway) in 1969, where he was also Chairman of the Sociology Department and Director of the University’s Centre for Advanced Training in Social Research. Later he became a Professor at the University of Oslo. He was a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, Palo Alto, during the 1974-75 semesters, and twice Visiting Professor at Harvard University, in 1986 and in 1990.

James J. Duderstadt (Professor of Science and Engineering), USA
President Emeritus, University Professor of Science and Engineering at the University of Michigan and Director, the Millennium Project.
A graduate of Yale (B.S.E. in electrical engineering) and Caltech (M.S. and Ph.D. in engineering science and physics), Dr. Duderstadt’s teaching, research, and publishing activities include nuclear science and engineering, applied physics, computer simulation, science policy, and higher education policy. He has served on and chaired numerous National Academy and federal commissions including the National Science Board; the National Academies' Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy; the DOE's Nuclear Energy Research Advisory Committee; and the NSF’s Advisory Committee on Cyberinfrastructure, and the Intelligence Science Board. He has received numerous awards including the E. O. Lawrence Award for excellence in nuclear research, the Arthur Holly Compton Prize for outstanding teaching, the Reginald Wilson Award for national leadership in achieving diversity, and the National Medal of Technology for exemplary service to the nation. He is currently co-director of the program in Science, Technology, and Public Policy in the Ford School and director of the Millennium Project, a research center exploring the impact of over-the-horizon technologies on society, located in the James and Anne Duderstadt Center on the University's North Campus.

Jozef Ritzen (Professor of Economics), NETHERLANDS
Jo Ritzen is the President of the Universiteit Maastricht, where he advanced the international position of the university (attracting now 50% of its students from abroad) and the education quality (through problem based learning).
Before assuming his current position in February 2003, Mr. Ritzen was Vice President of the World Bank’s Development Economics Department. He assumed this position in August 1999. In July 2001 he assumed the position Vice President of the World Bank's Human Development Network, which advises the institution and its client countries on innovative approaches to improving health, education and social protection. Mr. Ritzen joined the Bank as Special Adviser to the Human Development Network in September 1998.
Prior to coming to the Bank, he was Minister of Education, Culture, and Science of The Netherlands, one of the longest-serving Ministers of Education in the world. During his term, he enacted a series of major reforms throughout the Dutch education system. Mr. Ritzen has also made significant contributions to agencies such as UNESCO and OECD, especially in the field of education and social cohesion. Prior to his appointment as Minister in 1989, Mr. Ritzen held academic appointments with Nijmegen University and Erasmus University in The Netherlands, and the University of California-Berkeley and the Robert M. LaFollette Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States.
Mr. Ritzen obtained a master's degree in physical engineering in 1970 from the University of Technology in Delft, and a PhD in economics in 1977 from Erasmus University in Rotterdam. His dissertation on education, economic growth, and income distribution earned him the Winkler Prins prize.

John Sexton (Professor of law), USA

Sexton is the fifteenth President of New York University, having held this position since May 17, 2002, and is the Benjamin Butler Professor of Law at the NYU School of Law. From 1988 to 2002, he served as Dean of the NYU School of Law, which during his deanship became one of the top five law schools in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report. From January 1, 2003 to January 1, 2007, he was the Chairman of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; in 2006, he served as chair of the Federal Reserve System's Council of Chairs.
Sexton holds a B.A. in history (1963), an M.A. in comparative religion (1965), a Ph.D. in history of American religion (1978) from Fordham University, as well as a J.D. (1979) magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was Supreme Court Editor of the Harvard Law Review. He clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger.

During Sexton’s presidency, NYU has expanded its arts and science faculty by 20 percent; has opened a highly selective new campus in Abu Dhabi – “the world’s honor college” -- thereby becoming the first major US university to operate a comprehensive liberal arts abroad; has successfully concluded what was at the time the largest completed fundraising campaign in American higher education (over $3 billion); has increased the percentage of NYU students studying abroad to over 40 percent, opened several new Study Away academic centers, and been recognized by the Institute for International Education for sending more students abroad than any other US university.

Linda Katehi (Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering), USA
Linda Katehi became the sixth chancellor of the University of California, Davis, on August 17, 2009. As chief executive officer, she oversees all aspects of the university’s teaching, research and public service mission.
Chancellor Katehi (kah-TAY-hee) also holds UC Davis faculty appointments in electrical and computer engineering and in women and gender studies. A member of the National Academy of Engineering, she chaired until 2010 the President’s Committee for the National Medal of Science and the Secretary of Commerce’s committee for the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. She is a fellow and board member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of many other national boards and committees.
Previously, Chancellor Katehi served as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign; the John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University; and associate dean for academic affairs and graduate education in the College of Engineering and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan.
Since her early years as a faculty member, Chancellor Katehi has focused on expanding research opportunities for undergraduates and improving the education and professional experience of graduate students, with an emphasis on underrepresented groups. She has mentored more than 70 postdoctoral fellows, doctoral and master’s students in electrical and computer engineering. Twenty-one of the 42 doctoral students who graduated under her supervision have become faculty members in research universities in the United States and abroad.
Her work in electronic circuit design has led to numerous national and international awards both as a technical leader and educator, 17 U.S. patents, and an additional six U.S. patent applications. She is the author or co-author of 10 book chapters and about 600 refereed publications in journals and symposia proceedings.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the National Technical University of Athens, Greece, in 1977, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from UCLA in 1981 and 1984, respectively.
The University of California, Davis, is one of 10 UC campuses and one of a select group of 62 North American universities admitted to membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities.

Patrick Aebischer (Professor of Medical Science), SWITZERLAND
President of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.Patrick Aebischer was trained as an MD (1980) and a Neuroscientist (1983) at the University of Geneva and Fribourg in Switzerland.
From 1984 to 1992, he worked at Brown University in Providence (Rhode Island, United States), as an Assistant and then Associate Professor of Medical Sciences. In 1991, he became the chairman of the Section of Artificial Organs, Biomaterials and Cellular Technology of the Division of Biology and Medicine of Brown University. In the fall of 1992, he returned to Switzerland as a Professor and Director of the Surgical Research Division and Gene Therapy Center at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois (CHUV) in Lausanne.
In 1999, Patrick Aebischer was nominated President of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) by the Swiss Federal Council.
He took office as President on March 2000. Since then, he has significantly built EPFL’s reputation as one of Europe's foremost interdisciplinary scientific institutions. Patrick Aebischer's own current research at EPFL, where he teaches neurosciences, focuses on the development of cell and gene transfer approaches for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. He is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, a fellow of the Swiss Academy of Medicine and founder of three biotech companies.

Lap-Chee Tsui (Professor of Biology), HONG-KONG

Professor Lap-Chee Tsui is the fourteenth Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.
Prior to his present appointment in September 2002, Professor Tsui was Geneticist-in-Chief and Head of the Genetics and Genomic Biology Program of the Research Institute, at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
Born in Shanghai and awarded his bachelor and master's degrees from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Professor Tsui is a native of Hong Kong. He received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1979. After a brief training in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he joined the Department of Genetics at The Hospital for Sick Children. He received international acclaim in 1989 when he identified the defective gene that causes cystic fibrosis, which is a major breakthrough in human genetics. He has also made significant contributions to the study of the human genome, especially the characterization of chromosome 7, and, identification of additional disease genes. He has 300 peer-reviewed scientific publications and 65 invited book chapters and papers.
Professor Tsui has received numerous awards and honours for his outstanding work over the years. His honours include Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Fellow of the Royal Society of London, Fellow of Academia Sinica, Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), and Foreign Member, Chinese Academy of Sciences. In addition to many national and international prizes, he was awarded honorary doctoral degrees by University of King's College, University of New Brunswick, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, St. Francis Xavier University, York University, Tel Aviv University, University of Toronto, University of Aberdeen and King's College London and University of Edinburgh.
He is currently member of the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission, Executive Committee of the Commission on Strategic Development and the Advisory Committee on Corruption of the Hong Kong SAR Government. He received the Order of Canada (Officer), the Order of Ontario, Knight of the Légion d'Honneur of France, and the title of Justice of the Peace (HKSAR)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Plan after plan fails to make Oxbridge access fair

None of them work. The elaborate schemes supposed to widen access to the UK's top universities – the summer schools, the mentoring programmes, the taster days, the bursaries and scholarships – have failed. The proportion of poor students these universities accept has fallen over the past 15 years.

A new report by the Office for Fair Access (Offa) shows that intelligent children from the richest 20% of homes in England are seven times more likely to attend a high-ranking university than intelligent children from the poorest 40%. In the mid-1990s they were six times more likely. The better the college, the worse the figures become. The Higher Education Statistics Agency publishes the figures for individual universities. I've just been through the spreadsheets. In 2002-3, when the data begins, 5.4% of students at Cambridge and 5.8% at Oxford came from "low participation neighbourhoods". By 2008-9, the proportion had fallen to 3.7% and 2.7%. This has happened despite 13 years of a Labour government that listed its priorities as "education, education, education", and tens of millions spent – particularly by Oxford and Cambridge – on outreach and encouragement.

People of my social background (upper middle class, public school) dominate every economic sector except those – such as sport and hard science – in which only raw ability counts. Through networking, confidence, unpaid internships – most importantly through our attendance at the top universities – we run the media, politics, the civil service, the arts, the City, law, medicine, big business, the armed forces, even, in many cases, the protest movements challenging these powers. The Milburn report, published last year, showed that 45% of top civil servants, 53% of top journalists, 32% of MPs, 70% of finance directors and 75% of judges come from the 7% of the population who went to private schools. Even the beneficiaries should be able to see that this system is grotesque, invidious and socially destructive.

Children from privileged homes begin to creep ahead of their peers long before school begins: the link between background and attainment, Offa says, is evident at 22 months. But schooling widens the gap. By the time they sit GCSEs, the children of higher professionals are nearly three times as likely to get five good grades as the children of people in routine work. Fewer working-class children take A-levels, and those who do get lower scores. Pupils at private schools account for some 15% of entries but take around 30% of A grades.

But this isn't just about grades. Even when children from poorer homes do well, they are less likely to apply to the top universities. Going by grades alone, there's a shortfall of some 4,500 state sector pupils who should, all else being equal, enrol on the UK's top courses. These students aren't applying partly because their schools don't encourage them to do so; partly because they feel that the top universities aren't for the likes of them.

Private schools, by comparison, groom their pupils for Oxford and Cambridge. They pass from the quadrangles of Eton to the quadrangles of Oxford with a sense of entitlement. (Many of them spend the rest of their lives nannied in quadrangles, at the bar and the Palace of Westminster. They then instruct everyone else to stand on their own two feet). 


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Book chronicles how the Gov 2.0 movement is slowly becoming a reality

We’ve known for years how social media and Web 2.0 have been transforming the way political campaigns are run, the way we interact with big institutions, the way news is reported and distributed — indeed, practically all facets of modern society. So it comes as no surprise that social technologies are slowly transforming the way government works.
What is surprising is that editors Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma and O’Reilly Media have managed to make a potentially wonky topic like Government 2.0 accessible, fresh and actually interesting. Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice is a big (432 pages), beautiful book, from the gorgeous, sumptuous cover to the breadth of ideas and angles inside. In its collection of 34 essays written by thought leaders and practitioners in government reform, the book offers dozens of examples of a new approach to government: open, democratic, distributed, bottom-up, shareable, data-driven and focused on making “we the people” a reality again.
Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media — the best computer book publisher in the world — carried the same message in a webcast today that proved so popular my browser crashed four times. O’Reilly has been at the forefront of the open government movement and contributes the key second chapter, “Government as Platform.” O’Reilly Media co-produces the Gov 2.0 Expo, coming May 25-27, and Gov 2.0 Summit on Sept. 9-10, both in Washington, D.C.
In today’s “The Power of Platforms” webcast, O’Reilly touched on Apple’s iTunes Store, saying that Apple programmers had written only 15-20 apps for the launch of the iPhone but by opening up the platform (relatively speaking) to third-party developers, there are upwards of 200,000 apps in the store. “That’s the magic of the platform,” he said. He said governments need to take a similar approach, creating emergent platforms “instead of building finished solutions.”
O’Reilly cited a number of great examples (and the live chat contributed a few), ranging from Ushahidi in Haiti to the U.S. State Department on Twitter to the local businesses in Hawaii that decided to fix a key road themselves instead of waiting two years for government contractors. (I had already included a few of these examples in my upcoming Mobilize Your Cause Bootcamp at Personal Democracy Forum on June 2.) The webcast should be live soon — it’s worth a look

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Obama on Health Care in Portland, Maine April 1, 2010

April 1, 2010
Portland Expo
Portland, Maine
3:17 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Hello, Portland! (Applause.) Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you, Portland.
AUDIENCE: Yes we can! Yes we can! Yes we can!
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you, everybody.
Well, what a wonderful -- I guess when the sun comes out around here, everybody gets pretty excited. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: I love you back. (Applause.)
Now, I have to say, the last time I was in Maine was before the caucuses. (Applause.) It was a little cooler here -- (laughter) -- as I recall. But it is wonderful to be back. There are some people I want to say a few nice things about.
First of all, we could not have a better Small Business Administrator than your own neighbor, Karen Mills. And so please give her a huge round of applause. (Applause.) She's doing a great job. I think she has more than a few folks from Maine on her staff. She's kind of stocked them all over the place. And everybody is doing a great job over at the SBA. I want to thank --
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) I want to thank one of the finest governors in the country, John Baldacci, who is here. (Applause.) Thank you, John. Where is he? There he is right there. Thank you. (Applause.)
Your outstanding mayor Nick Mavodones is here. (Applause.) And we've got two great champions from Maine whose tireless efforts have helped working families all across this state and all across this country -- Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and Congressman Mike Michaud. (Applause.)
All right, it is good to be back in Maine. (Applause.) And I want everybody to remember, when I came here during the campaign, I made a promise. And it wasn't a promise about any particular issue. It was a promise that our government would once again be responsive to the needs and aspirations of working families, of America's middle class. It was a promise that Washington would concern itself not just with the next election, but with the next generation of Americans. (Applause.)
Now, keeping that promise is even more critical now, at a time when so many families and so many small business owners are still struggling here in Maine and all across the country. Every time I visit with workers in a factory, or families in a diner; every time I sit down and read letters from Americans across the country, I see and hear the same questions. Folks are asking, “How am I going to find a job when I've only known one skill my entire lifetime and I just got laid off and I'm in my fifties? How am I going to retire when I keep spending my savings just to get by, or trying to make sure that my kid can go to college and tuition keeps on going up? How am I going to make it when I'm stretched to the limits on my mortgage and on my bills?” Those are the questions that I hear.
And I want you to know we are working every single day to spur job creation and to turn this economy around. That's why we worked so hard over the last year to lift one of the biggest burdens facing middle-class families and small business owners, and that is the crushing cost of health care right here in America. (Applause.)
And Mainers, I want you to know that last week, after a year of debate and a century of trying, health insurance reform became the law of the land -- last week. (Applause.) Last week.
AUDIENCE: Yes we did! Yes we did! Yes we did!
THE PRESIDENT: Yes we did. Because of folks like Chellie and Mike, it happened. (Applause.) Because of people like you, it happened. It happened because people had the courage to stand up at town hall meetings and talk about how insurance companies were denying their families coverage because of a preexisting condition. It happened because folks wrote letters about how premiums have gone up 50 or 70 or 100 percent, in some cases, and it was forcing them to give up their insurance. It happened because countless small business owners and families and doctors shared stories about a health care system that was working better for the insurance industry than it did for American people.
And when the special interests sent an army of lobbyists to Congress and blanketed the airwaves with millions of dollars in negative ads, all of you mobilized and organized and you refused to give up. And when the pundits were obsessed over what the polls were saying and who was up and who was down, and what would this mean for Democrats or Republicans, you never lost sight of what was right and what was wrong. (Applause.) You knew it wasn't about the fortunes of one party, it was about the future of our country. (Applause.) And today, Portland, because of what you did, the future looks stronger and more hopeful than it has in some time.
Now, over the last year, there's been a lot of misinformation spread about health reform. There's been a lot of fear-mongering, a lot of overheated rhetoric. You turned on the news, you'd see that those same folks who were hollering about it before it passed, they're still hollering, about how the world will end because we passed this bill. (Laughter.) This is not an exaggeration. John Boehner called the passage of this bill --
THE PRESIDENT: -- no need to -- we don't need to boo, I just want to give the facts -- called this passage of this bill “Armageddon.” You had others who said this is the end of freedom as we know it.
So after I signed the bill, I looked around. (Laughter and applause.) I looked up at the sky to see if asteroids were coming. (Laughter.) I looked at the ground to see if cracks had opened up in the earth. You know what, it turned out it was a pretty nice day. (Laughter and applause.) Birds were still chirping. Folks were strolling down the street. Nobody had lost their doctor. Nobody had pulled the plug on Granny. (Laughter.) Nobody was being dragged away to be forced into some government-run health care plan.
But the thing is, though, you have to love some of the pundits in Washington. Every single day since I signed the reform law, there's been another poll or headline that said “Nation still divided on health care reform. Polls haven't changed yet.” Well, yeah. It just happened last week. (Laughter and applause.) It's only been a week. (Applause.)
Can you imagine if some of these reporters were working on a farm? (Laughter.) You planted some seeds, and they came out the next day, and they looked, and nothing's happened! (Laughter and applause.) There's no crop! We're going to starve! Oh, no! (Applause.) It's a disaster! (Laughter.)
It's been a week, folks. (Laughter.) So before we find out if people like health care reform, we should wait to see what happens when we actually put it into place. Just a thought. (Applause.)
Now, look, this reform is not going to solve every problem with our health care system. It is a huge, complicated piece of business -- a couple of trillion dollars, thousands of people affected, thousands of people working in the industry. It's not going to bring down the cost of health care overnight. We're going to have to make some adjustments along the way. But it represents enormous progress. It enshrines the principle that every American should have the security of decent care; and that nobody should go bankrupt because they've got a kid who's sick with a preexisting condition -- (applause) -- that small businesses shouldn't be burdened because they want to do the right thing by their employee. So now that this bill is finally law and all the folks who have been playing politics will finally have to confront the reality of what this reform is, they're also going to have to confront the reality of what it isn't.
They'll have to finally acknowledge that this isn't a government takeover of our health care system. They'll see that if Americans like their doctor, they will keep their doctor. And if you like your insurance plan, you will keep it. No one will be able to take that away from you. It hasn't happened yet. It won't happen in the future.
What this reform represents is basically a middle-of-the-road solution to a very serious problem. It's not single-payer. Some people wanted that, I understood that, but that is not -- (applause) -- see? But -- so it's not that. But it's also not what the Republicans were advocating for, which is essentially that you completely deregulate the insurance industry, you let them run wild, and that somehow you are going to benefit. That was their theory. It was called the “foxes guarding the chicken coop” health care plan. (Applause.)
So it's not the plan that some on the left supported in the past. It's not what some on the right supported, but it is a commonsense plan. This reform incorporates ideas from both Democrats and Republicans -– including, by the way, a number of ideas from your senator and somebody I consider a friend, Olympia Snowe, who spent many hours meeting with me on this bill. (Applause.)
And what this reform does is it builds on the system of private health insurance that we've already got, so that if you have insurance, this reform will make it more secure and more affordable. If you can't afford insurance or if you've been denied coverage, you're finally going to be able to get it. And over time, costs will come down for families, businesses, and the federal government, reducing our deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next two decades. That's what this reform will do. (Applause.)
Now, Portland, it will take about four years to implement this entire plan, because we've got to do it responsibly, we need to get it right. But there's also a set of reforms that will take effect this year. So I just want to -- I want everybody to understand what's going to happen this year.
Starting this year, millions of small business owners are going to be eligible for a tax credit that will help them cover the cost of insurance for their employees. (Applause.) And let me talk about -- let me talk about what this means for a small business owner like Bill Milliken. (Applause.) Bill, stand up. (Applause.) That's Bill right there. (Applause.) Now, I want to give a little plug to Bill here. (Laughter.) Bill owns Market House Coffee and the Maine Beer and Beverage Corporation, both here, right here in Portland. (Applause.) In exchange for this publicity, I hope that I'm going to get some samples of the beer. (Laughter and applause.) Okay. He nodded in the affirmative. (Laughter.)
Now, he wants to give his part-time employees health insurance and he wants to give them more hours, but he can't do both, he can't afford to do both. So this tax credit will make it easier for an employer like Bill who wants to do the right thing by his workers.
Starting now, small business owners like Bill will have the security of knowing that they can qualify for a tax credit that covers up to 35 percent, over a third of what they pay for their employees' health insurance. And starting now -- (applause) -- starting now, small business owners that provide health care for their workers can sit down at the end of the week, they can look at their expenses, and they can begin calculating how much money they're going to save. And for small business owners who don't currently provide health insurance, they're going to be able to factor in this new benefit when they're deciding to do so.
Now, it won't solve all our problems, but it means that employees that work for Bill have a better chance of keeping their health care or getting health care. And if they're already getting health care, it means Bill has got some extra money. That means he might hire that extra worker, right? (Applause.)
So this health care tax credit is pro-jobs, it's pro-business, and it starts this year. (Applause.) This month, we're going to be -- this month we're going to be sending out details on how to apply for this credit to millions of small businesses across the county, but if you want to learn about it today, we're going to put all the facts on our Web site, All right? So that happens this year.
Here's what else happens this year. Tens of thousands of uninsured Americans with preexisting conditions, and parents whose children have a preexisting condition, will finally be able to purchase the coverage that they need. That happens this year. (Applause.)
So last week, I met a man named David Gallagher, whose daughter Lauren had written me a letter last year. When Lauren's mom lost her job, their entire family lost their health insurance. When they tried to get new insurance, David was denied coverage because he once had a complication-free hernia surgery, but the insurance companies wanted to weed him out. They figured, well, the guy has been sick before; we don't want to have to cover him, we don't want to bear that risk. So Lauren has been worried sick about what would happen if her father became ill or injured. Now, because of this reform, David Gallagher can finally have access to health insurance again. That begins this year. That starts this year. (Applause.)
So that's just one of the insurance reforms that starts this year. Here's what else happens: Insurance companies won't be able to drop people's coverage when they get sick; or place lifetime limits or restrictive annual limits on the amount of care they can receive. (Applause.)
Now, this isn't some abstract concept. There was a story in a local paper this week about a woman named Theresa D'Andrea. And Theresa's husband --
THE PRESIDENT: D'Andrea, excuse me. Thank you. Where is she? Are you up there? Stand up. Stand up, Theresa. (Applause.) Now, Theresa's husband passed away recently from cancer, and before he died, he hit the lifetime cap on his insurance. As a result, Theresa has not only had to cope with the loss of her husband, but with $60,000 in medical bills –- and this is after she's already spent all of their retirement savings on medical care. Now, because of this reform, a situation like Theresa's won't happen again in the United States of America. And that's going to start this year. And we're inspired by stories like yours. (Applause.)
Starting this year, all new insurance plans will be required to offer free preventive care. And starting this year -- this may interest some of you here -- if you are a young person who doesn't have insurance or doesn't have a job that offers insurance, you're going to be able to stay on your parents' insurance policy until you're 26 years old, starting this year. Starting this year. (Applause.) So now --
THE PRESIDENT: You're welcome. (Laughter.) Thank Chellie and Mike. They voted for it. Thank them. (Applause.)
This year, seniors who fall into the coverage gap known as the doughnut hole -- some seniors probably know about that -- they're going to receive $250 to help pay for prescriptions, and that's just the first step, because what we're going to be doing is over the next several years closing that gap completely. And I want seniors to know -- (applause) -- I want seniors to know despite some of the stuff that's been said out there, these reforms don't cut into your guaranteed benefits. What they do is eliminate co-payments and deductibles for preventive care, like check-ups and mammograms. You will be getting those for free now. (Applause.)
This is why AARP supported this bill -- because it's good for seniors. It's the right thing to do. (Applause.) It's good for young people. It's the right thing to do. (Applause.) It's good for people who've hit these lifetime limits. It's good for people with preexisting conditions. All that -- all that happens this year.
And then, by 2014, each state will set up what we're calling a health insurance exchange, but it's basically just a competitive marketplace where uninsured people and small businesses, who right now are out there on their own trying to negotiate with insurance companies, they can now be part of a big pool -- millions of people coming together, leveraging their purchasing power, which is going to lower their rates. They'll get a better deal.
Walmart, the reason they are able to give you low prices is because they buy and they tell their suppliers, we're the biggest -- we're a 800-pound gorilla when it comes to whatever product you're talking about, so you've got to give better prices. Well, the same thing is true when it comes to the insurance markets. So everybody who can be part of this pool is going to get a better deal than they would otherwise get.
And by the way, members of Congress are going to be part of this pool. So you know it's going to be good because they're going to have to use it themselves for their own families. (Applause.)
So that'll happen in the next few years. And when this exchange is up and running, millions of people are also going to get tax breaks to help them afford coverage. So even though this pool will give you lower rates, you'll get a better deal, some folks still can't afford it. So we're going to give you tax credits to help you afford it. And that adds up to the largest middle-class tax cut in health care in history. That's what this bill is about. (Applause.)
So think about it. So think about it. That's what this is about. We're setting up a pool using the private market to give people a better deal. We're giving tax breaks to working people -- some of them working two, three jobs who still can't get insurance -- we're going to give them some help. We're going to give small businesses help so that they can help their workers and improve their bottom line. And we've got a whole bunch of insurance reforms so people like Theresa aren't going to be disadvantaged and taken advantage of when they need it most. That's what this bill is. And it's paid for. And it saves on our deficits. (Applause.)
Now, this is what everybody has been hollering about as the end of freedom. (Laughter.) And now that it's passed, they're already promising, we're going to repeal it.
THE PRESIDENT: They're going to run on a platform of repeal in November. And my attitude is, go for it. You try to repeal it. (Applause.)
I want these members of Congress to come out of Washington, come here to Maine, and tell Mr. Milliken there, you know what, we're going to take away your tax credits, essentially raise your taxes. If you want to -- if they want to do that, be my guest.
If they want to look at Lauren Gallagher in the eye and tell her they plan to take away her father's ability to get health insurance, that's their right. If they want to go tell Theresa that once again you could face a lifetime of debt if you lose a family member, they can run on that platform.
If they want to have a fight, I welcome that fight, because I don't believe the American people are going to put the insurance industry back in the driver's seat. I'm happy to have that argument. (Applause.) I'm happy to have that argument.
Now, in fairness -- and I want to be scrupulously fair -- some of them have now said, well, we want to repeal and replace this bill with our brand of insurance reform. But when you poke and prod and you ask them, well, what is it exactly you're going to replace it with, it turns out they want to deregulate the insurance market. We've already been there. We know what that's like. We're not going back. We're not going backwards. This country is ready to move forwards. Portland, Maine, is ready to move forward. (Applause.)
And while we're talking about moving forward, I just want to mention one thing. Kind of lost in the shuffle of all this health care debate is the fact that part of the bill that we signed, that I signed this week, is going to provide an additional $68 billion that used to go to banks and financial services companies, and that's now going to go to the student loan program to expand Pell Grants and to make sure that college is affordable for every young person in America. (Applause.) And I want to know, do they want to repeal that as well, because I'm happy to have that discussion. (Applause.)
Now, $68 billion -- $68 billion -- was going to banks and financial institutions. We've just taken that money from the banks, from the financial institutions, doubling Pell Grants, making sure that -- making sure that young people, if you've got debt when you go out of college -- and I know I did so you probably do, too -- that you will never have to pay more than 10 percent of your income in repayments -- (applause) -- so that you're not going broke because you decide to get a college education that makes our economy stronger, that makes America stronger. If they want to repeal that, too, we can have that discussion. (Applause.)
The road to this victory has been long. It has been -- it has been difficult. And it's absolutely true that because health care is such a complicated issue, a lot of people got worried. A lot of people got scared. And the misinformation seeped in. And then the process was ugly and everybody was arguing and there was all kinds of stuff going on in the Senate and the House, and everybody just said, ah, this looks like a mess.
I understand that. That's part of our democracy. This is a -- democracy is a messy business. It is the worst form of government except for all the other ones that have been tried. (Laughter and applause.) That's what Winston Churchill said. That's what Winston Churchill said -- he's absolutely right. It can be frustrating sometimes, but ultimately that's what makes our country so great, is because everybody is able to voice their opinions; everybody is able to get out there and organize. (Applause.) And you're free to call your President an idiot. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: No, that's a wonderful thing. As I was driving by, people were waving. Everybody was clapping. And then one guy's like “Eh.” (Laughter.) He saw me through the window, too, going, “Eh.” (Laughter.) I thought, that's a great thing about the country. (Applause.)
Look, but I want everybody to learn the lesson from this debate. In reaching this milestone, it doesn't represent the end of all our problems. We still have jobs to create and deficits to reduce. We still have children to educate. We still face enormous challenges in this country. Jobs haven't been returning fast enough, despite everything that we're doing. The economy is growing again, but people still haven't been hired back as fast as they need to. Small businesses are still having trouble getting credit out there. So there are all kinds of issues we're going to have to work on.
But what this fight has taught us about ourselves and about this country -- it's bigger than any one issue. It reminds us that change is never easy, but it's always possible. It reminds us that in the United States of America, we still have the power to shape our own destiny. And it reminds us that we, as a people, don't shrink from a challenge. We don't shirk our responsibilities. We embrace challenges. (Applause.) We don't fear the future. We shape the future. That's what we do. That's who we are. That's what you're about. That's why you're here. That's why I ran for President of the United States of America. That's what makes us the United States of America. (Applause.)
Thank you, Portland. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)

Here is the video.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Applications to Elite Universities Rise

(from the NYT)
Applications to elite private colleges rose again this academic year, despite the economic constraints on many families.
As a result, admission rates often fell to record lows. Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Cornell, Stanford, M.I.T. and Duke each reported sharp increases in applications this year compared with last year. Undergraduate applications to Harvard, for example, rose nearly 5 percent, to 30,489, said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid. Only 6.9 percent of those applicants, or 2,110, were admitted, Mr. Fitzsimmons said, down from 7.5 percent in 2009.
The admission rate to Stanford, which received 32,022 applications this year, was nearly identical to that at Harvard: 7.2 percent. (Over all, applications to Stanford climbed 5 percent, and the admission rate fell from 7.6 percent a year earlier.) The University of Pennsylvania, which had an 18 percent rise in applications this year — for a total of nearly 27,000 — admitted 14 percent of its applicants compared with 17.6 percent in 2009. At M.I.T., applications rose 6 percent to 16,632, while the admission rate fell to 10 percent from 10.7 percent.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

FBI raids California university

The FBI and California investigators raided the administrative offices of Sonoma State University yesterday morning to probe the possible misappropriation of federal grant money by a former university office, reports The Press Democrat.
“The investigation is focused on 20 grants originally awarded and administered by the California Institute of Human Services,” university president Ruben Arminaña says in a campus alert. “The University welcomes the investigation and is working in full cooperation with the task force.”
Founded in 1979, the institute tried to “to redress the lives of people suffering from domestic violence, individuals living with disabilities or facing debilitating economic disadvantage, immigrant populations who struggle against language barriers.” It was closed in 2007 and allegations made then included hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on unapproved labor costs, improper payments to administrators, and expenses that were improperly billed. A 2007 state audit said the institute piled up more than $2 million in questionable expenses.
“Tens of millions of federal funds are involved here and it will take a long time to unravel the voluminous number of documents involved,” Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua told The Press Democrat.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Crisis in a Stoic Land

From today's NYT

Published: February 13, 2010

Greece has entered the third millennium having survived many foreign occupations. The most trying was that of the Ottoman Empire, starting in 1453 when Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, from the Greek phrase meaning “going to the city.” Since our liberation from the Turks in 1821, we have suffered many dictatorships, the most recent following the coup d’état of 1967 and lasting seven years. But since then, Greece has entered its longest period of peace and democracy since it was constituted as an independent state.
Excuse me for this prologue, but it is indispensable in order to explain the present “crisis” over Greece’s exploding debt. This mess is actually a small problem by historic standards. Over the last two centuries my compatriots have survived much worse.
Historically, Greece has had three patrons: Britain, France and Russia. In the early days of the reborn Hellenic state, Germany was usually an unfriendly country; it became an ally of Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey and a foe in both world wars. Now we are facing the delicate situation of accepting the protection of a Germany that, along with France, dominates the euro zone. (Britain’s role as a patron was handed off to the United States with the Truman doctrine of 1947.)
Yet the vast majority of Greeks do not consider the European Monetary Union a threat to national sovereignty. On the contrary, we feel that the common currency offers valuable protection from the headwinds of the international economic crisis, and is thus an extra guarantee to national sovereignty.
A neighbor of mine, Yiannis, recalls the days of nonstop devaluations of the drachma, our national currency before the euro. If you wished to go to, say, Delphi by car, you would take a suitcase of drachmas to pay for fuel.
The first signs of our current fiscal derailment appeared in 2007 with the crashing of our own real estate bubble. Last October, Prime Minister George Papandreou was elected with a strong mandate to fight corruption and navigate the country through the fiscal storm.
The political and economic morass that our journalists call the “Greek tragedy” became an opportunity to push forward an unprecedented agenda of regulatory reform and policy initiatives to support a new model of sustainable, environmentally friendly development. And the Greek people gradually have come to understand that they themselves must help in creating a new model of economic development.
Therefore, we are for the most part reacting with stoicism to the government’s proposed austerity measures. The demonstrations by civil servants over the last few days got a lot of press coverage, but they were relatively modest, without the infamous “pulse” of earlier eras. They were much tamer than the December 2008 riots that followed the police shooting of a 15-year-old student.
I sense that the majority of Greek people seem to understand the urgency of the economic situation and are willing to accept sacrifices. They demand deep and radical change right now. Our politicians also appear united, a demonstration of cohesiveness in Greek society that may be without precedent, at least in the 35-year history of the Republic.
My cousin Stella, for example, was telling me she would be willing to sacrifice a part of her monthly income if that would help the country. But she thinks that burden-sharing needs to be fair and just for the measures to get broad social support. This is a major challenge for our top economic officials: to use the existing labyrinth of obsolete and inefficient bureaucracies and procedures to come up with a proposal for financial restoration that the public will accept.
The man in the street also feels more positively about the United States than ever before. Most Greeks think that on issues from foreign policy to restoring the social safety net, the Obama administration’s goals are in sync with their own. The Greek people also share President Obama’s anger and frustration over the behavior of bankers.
While the European Union last week promised “determined and coordinated action” on Greece’s debt problem, none of us is quite sure what that will amount to. The one thing I am certain of, however, is that my country will overcome the financial crisis with national pride and international dignity intact.
Vassilis Vassilikos is the author of “Z” and, most recently, “The Few Things I Know About Glafkos Thrassakis: A Novel.”

Wall St. Helped Greece to Mask Debt Fueling Europe’s Crisis

An interesting article in today's NYT.

Published: February 13, 2010
Wall Street tactics akin to the ones that fostered subprime mortgages in America have worsened the financial crisis shaking Greece and undermining the euro by enabling European governments to hide their mounting debts.

As worries over Greece rattle world markets, records and interviews show that with Wall Street’s help, the nation engaged in a decade-long effort to skirt European debt limits. One deal created by Goldman Sachs helped obscure billions in debt from the budget overseers in Brussels.
Even as the crisis was nearing the flashpoint, banks were searching for ways to help Greece forestall the day of reckoning. In early November — three months before Athens became the epicenter of global financial anxiety — a team from Goldman Sachs arrived in the ancient city with a very modern proposition for a government struggling to pay its bills, according to two people who were briefed on the meeting.
The bankers, led by Goldman’s president, Gary D. Cohn, held out a financing instrument that would have pushed debt from Greece’s health care system far into the future, much as when strapped homeowners take out second mortgages to pay off their credit cards.
It had worked before. In 2001, just after Greece was admitted to Europe’s monetary union, Goldman helped the government quietly borrow billions, people familiar with the transaction said. That deal, hidden from public view because it was treated as a currency trade rather than a loan, helped Athens to meet Europe’s deficit rules while continuing to spend beyond its means.
Athens did not pursue the latest Goldman proposal, but with Greece groaning under the weight of its debts and with its richer neighbors vowing to come to its aid, the deals over the last decade are raising questions about Wall Street’s role in the world’s latest financial drama.
As in the American subprime crisis and the implosion of the American International Group, financial derivatives played a role in the run-up of Greek debt. Instruments developed by Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and a wide range of other banks enabled politicians to mask additional borrowing in Greece, Italy and possibly elsewhere.
In dozens of deals across the Continent, banks provided cash upfront in return for government payments in the future, with those liabilities then left off the books. Greece, for example, traded away the rights to airport fees and lottery proceeds in years to come.
Critics say that such deals, because they are not recorded as loans, mislead investors and regulators about the depth of a country’s liabilities.
Some of the Greek deals were named after figures in Greek mythology. One of them, for instance, was called Aeolos, after the god of the winds.
The crisis in Greece poses the most significant challenge yet to Europe’s common currency, the euro, and the Continent’s goal of economic unity. The country is, in the argot of banking, too big to be allowed to fail. Greece owes the world $300 billion, and major banks are on the hook for much of that debt. A default would reverberate around the globe.
A spokeswoman for the Greek finance ministry said the government had met with many banks in recent months and had not committed to any bank’s offers. All debt financings “are conducted in an effort of transparency,” she said. Goldman and JPMorgan declined to comment.
While Wall Street’s handiwork in Europe has received little attention on this side of the Atlantic, it has been sharply criticized in Greece and in magazines like Der Spiegel in Germany.
“Politicians want to pass the ball forward, and if a banker can show them a way to pass a problem to the future, they will fall for it,” said Gikas A. Hardouvelis, an economist and former government official who helped write a recent report on Greece’s accounting policies.
Wall Street did not create Europe’s debt problem. But bankers enabled Greece and others to borrow beyond their means, in deals that were perfectly legal. Few rules govern how nations can borrow the money they need for expenses like the military and health care. The market for sovereign debt — the Wall Street term for loans to governments — is as unfettered as it is vast.
“If a government wants to cheat, it can cheat,” said Garry Schinasi, a veteran of the International Monetary Fund’s capital markets surveillance unit, which monitors vulnerability in global capital markets.
Banks eagerly exploited what was, for them, a highly lucrative symbiosis with free-spending governments. While Greece did not take advantage of Goldman’s proposal in November 2009, it had paid the bank about $300 million in fees for arranging the 2001 transaction, according to several bankers familiar with the deal.
Such derivatives, which are not openly documented or disclosed, add to the uncertainty over how deep the troubles go in Greece and which other governments might have used similar off-balance sheet accounting. 
The tide of fear is now washing over other economically troubled countries on the periphery of Europe, making it more expensive for Italy, Spain and Portugal to borrow.
For all the benefits of uniting Europe with one currency, the birth of the euro came with an original sin: countries like Italy and Greece entered the monetary union with bigger deficits than the ones permitted under the treaty that created the currency. Rather than raise taxes or reduce spending, however, these governments artificially reduced their deficits with derivatives.
Derivatives do not have to be sinister. The 2001 transaction involved a type of derivative known as a swap. One such instrument, called an interest-rate swap, can help companies and countries cope with swings in their borrowing costs by exchanging fixed-rate payments for floating-rate ones, or vice versa. Another kind, a currency swap, can minimize the impact of volatile foreign exchange rates.
But with the help of JPMorgan, Italy was able to do more than that. Despite persistently high deficits, a 1996 derivative helped bring Italy’s budget into line by swapping currency with JPMorgan at a favorable exchange rate, effectively putting more money in the government’s hands. In return, Italy committed to future payments that were not booked as liabilities.
“Derivatives are a very useful instrument,” said Gustavo Piga, an economics professor who wrote a report for the Council on Foreign Relations on the Italian transaction. “They just become bad if they’re used to window-dress accounts.”
In Greece, the financial wizardry went even further. In what amounted to a garage sale on a national scale, Greek officials essentially mortgaged the country’s airports and highways to raise much-needed money.
Aeolos, a legal entity created in 2001, helped Greece reduce the debt on its balance sheet that year. As part of the deal, Greece got cash upfront in return for pledging future landing fees at the country’s airports. A similar deal in 2000 called Ariadne devoured the revenue that the government collected from its national lottery. Greece, however, classified those transactions as sales, not loans, despite doubts by many critics.
These kinds of deals have been controversial within government circles for years. As far back as 2000, European finance ministers fiercely debated whether derivative deals used for creative accounting should be disclosed.
The answer was no. But in 2002, accounting disclosure was required for many entities like Aeolos and Ariadne that did not appear on nations’ balance sheets, prompting governments to restate such deals as loans rather than sales.
Still, as recently as 2008, Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, reported that “in a number of instances, the observed securitization operations seem to have been purportedly designed to achieve a given accounting result, irrespective of the economic merit of the operation.”
While such accounting gimmicks may be beneficial in the short run, over time they can prove disastrous.
George Alogoskoufis, who became Greece’s finance minister in a political party shift after the Goldman deal, criticized the transaction in the Parliament in 2005. The deal, Mr. Alogoskoufis argued, would saddle the government with big payments to Goldman until 2019.
Mr. Alogoskoufis, who stepped down a year ago, said in an e-mail message last week that Goldman later agreed to reconfigure the deal “to restore its good will with the republic.” He said the new design was better for Greece than the old one.
In 2005, Goldman sold the interest rate swap to the National Bank of Greece, the country’s largest bank, according to two people briefed on the transaction.
In 2008, Goldman helped the bank put the swap into a legal entity called Titlos. But the bank retained the bonds that Titlos issued, according to Dealogic, a financial research firm, for use as collateral to borrow even more from the European Central Bank.
Edward Manchester, a senior vice president at the Moody’s credit rating agency, said the deal would ultimately be a money-loser for Greece because of its long-term payment obligations.
Referring to the Titlos swap with the government of Greece, he said: “This swap is always going to be unprofitable for the Greek government.”

Saturday, February 13, 2010

2010 Quality of Life Index
France 55 81 69 72 100 100 92 100 87 82
Australia 56 82 71 76 100 87 92 100 87 81
Switzerland 41 86 79 78 100 95 96 100 77 81
Germany 54 82 71 83 100 89 90 100 79 81
New Zealand 62 82 65 77 100 88 70 100 84 79
Luxembourg 44 76 85 77 100 87 66 100 83 78
United States 56 79 67 62 92 78 100 100 84 78
Belgium 41 83 66 64 100 88 96 100 86 78
Canada 62 76 69 62 100 84 85 100 69 77
Italy 56 85 63 74 92 90 62 100 87 77
Netherlands 48 71 69 67 100 87 92 100 75 77
Norway 39 60 89 76 100 90 89 100 60 77
Austria 41 86 68 87 100 85 68 100 76 77
Liechtenstein 44 80 100 65 100 80 44 100 79 76
Malta 63 70 53 84 100 89 52 100 95 76
Denmark 33 88 69 84 100 86 72 100 78 76
Spain 56 68 63 75 100 90 65 100 79 76
Finland 39 93 66 68 100 81 76 100 76 75
Uruguay 60 72 52 72 100 76 64 100 93 75
Hungary 58 76 48 77 100 84 77 93 76 74
Portugal 55 72 52 74 100 86 56 100 83 73
Lithuania 63 68 48 81 100 80 56 100 79 73
Andorra 52 74 61 60 100 85 58 100 82 73
Czech Republic 48 78 52 74 100 82 78 100 67 73
United Kingdom 30 82 65 72 100 84 80 100 66 73
Argentina 61 67 52 71 83 82 56 100 91 72
Slovenia 53 69 56 74 100 72 56 100 83 72
Greece 52 64 58 70 92 84 64 100 79 72
Monaco 44 85 66 59 92 80 48 100 89 72
Sweden 0 94 68 75 100 82 92 100 68 71
Chile 60 67 54 71 100 73 73 100 59 71
Estonia 60 82 44 77 100 75 64 86 74 71
Costa Rica 62 64 53 78 100 78 48 93 79 71
Panama 62 63 52 77 92 72 74 93 69 71
Poland 51 74 52 72 100 80 64 86 76 71
Japan 24 92 51 71 92 89 64 100 84 70
Croatia 58 68 48 77 83 76 52 93 95 70
Brazil 64 58 65 71 83 73 59 83 82 70
Ecuador 72 60 45 93 75 69 45 86 96 70
Latvia 59 75 40 86 92 75 64 86 73 70
Ireland 28 81 60 70 100 79 72 100 65 70
Korea- South (Rep of) 39 82 56 68 92 81 52 93 83 69
Slovakia 48 60 52 71 100 79 68 86 77 69
Bulgaria 61 69 47 78 83 78 48 86 80 69
Cyprus (Greek) 48 65 58 62 100 85 36 100 76 68
Mexico 63 65 50 68 75 76 57 79 92 68
Israel 39 83 61 68 92 85 36 71 84 67
Iceland 36 85 40 74 100 86 48 86 74 67
Bermuda 25 57 89 41 92 73 64 100 66 66
Saint Kitts & Nevis 64 44 45 72 100 70 54 100 57 66
South Africa 59 60 45 75 83 57 44 86 98 66
Dominica 65 39 44 90 100 68 36 100 57 65
Romania 51 74 48 75 83 65 56 79 71 65
Cayman Islands 61 39 65 26 92 86 64 100 57 65
Moldova 69 86 45 75 50 67 56 71 70 65
Colombia 68 58 48 72 58 72 44 71 92 64
Taiwan 50 47 58 75 92 68 51 79 68 64
Bolivia 80 61 45 75 67 59 52 57 83 64
Macedonia 66 64 45 72 67 62 44 79 79 63
Barbados 35 78 48 72 100 62 40 100 57 63
Mauritius 65 61 47 74 92 72 32 93 42 63
Namibia 66 75 42 46 83 41 64 86 74 63
Belize 60 47 50 80 92 55 52 79 62 63
Paraguay 76 60 44 64 67 71 36 86 68 63
Albania 60 61 45 74 67 74 36 71 89 63
Bosnia-Herzegovina 73 65 45 70 58 67 40 71 82 63
Bahamas 28 67 56 74 100 62 32 100 65 63
Ukraine 49 61 42 74 75 68 60 71 78 62
Grenada 55 53 44 75 92 66 48 86 57 62
Singapore 51 71 68 39 42 74 69 100 39 61
Antigua & Barbuda 54 56 53 74 83 50 32 100 57 61
Turkey 49 60 45 68 67 76 40 86 73 61
Dominican Republic 58 47 45 81 83 69 40 79 57 61
Seychelles 59 58 48 78 67 52 36 100 55 61
Bhutan 80 28 58 83 42 27 40 100 79 61
Peru 66 53 50 70 75 56 32 64 80 60
Jamaica 58 44 40 77 75 71 52 79 57 60
Nicaragua 66 57 42 70 67 66 36 71 68 60
Botswana 70 40 45 78 83 35 44 79 65 60
Honduras 70 32 42 70 67 66 40 71 83 60
Suriname 65 44 47 78 83 59 59 64 39 60
Puerto Rico 55 43 45 42 100 72 36 100 45 59
Tunisia 63 61 45 68 17 73 36 86 85 59
Brunei 65 60 69 100 25 52 44 79 25 59
Malaysia 70 71 48 62 50 68 44 86 24 58
El Salvador 63 43 42 65 75 70 36 79 57 58
Guatemala 61 39 44 74 58 65 32 71 84 58
India 65 39 55 68 75 60 44 64 47 58
Venezuela 54 67 48 84 50 66 32 71 52 58
Cuba 63 75 44 77 8 79 56 57 63 57
Trinidad & Tobago 30 36 53 78 83 63 32 100 57 57
French Polynesia 44 56 45 33 92 60 44 100 55 57
Guyana 63 61 42 77 75 56 44 64 39 57
Tonga 70 25 40 65 50 66 36 100 63 57
Mongolia 68 60 47 70 83 56 52 64 14 57
Nauru 86 8 47 64 100 55 0 100 38 56
China 63 59 69 54 8 67 40 57 79 56
Georgia 56 38 40 80 50 62 48 57 79 56
Ghana 61 28 44 67 92 40 40 71 62 56
Maldives 63 63 45 36 50 66 32 100 49 56
Armenia 64 53 45 81 33 46 44 64 72 56
Lesotho 70 38 44 41 75 30 36 71 93 55
Martinique 63 36 47 38 92 64 4 100 57 55
Jordan 56 60 45 59 33 80 28 71 68 55
Philippines 69 60 42 68 58 46 36 71 45 55
Kuwait 46 60 74 42 50 70 56 71 18 55
Kiribati 75 13 42 57 100 54 12 100 38 55
French Guiana 49 33 47 29 92 54 66 100 28 55
Belarus 65 44 50 75 8 51 52 64 77 54
Thailand 68 65 44 61 42 63 32 71 43 54
Russia 29 67 53 71 42 71 48 57 64 54
Zambia 56 43 44 71 67 19 40 64 89 54
Lebanon 68 56 50 65 42 85 36 21 61 54
Palau 59 47 48 70 100 52 8 86 18 54
Malawi 60 40 45 68 50 32 40 64 89 54
Morocco 43 35 44 67 42 63 36 93 78 54
Samoa (Western Samoa) 55 22 39 68 83 68 46 79 35 54
Swaziland 56 51 42 81 17 27 40 86 91 54
Bahrain 59 67 61 64 33 43 32 86 30 54
Fiji 53 65 40 68 25 59 60 71 43 53
Sri Lanka 64 35 44 78 50 52 44 71 40 53
Madagascar 61 28 44 59 58 37 40 64 87 53
Tuvalu 80 4 42 30 100 75 20 100 17 53
Syria 69 49 44 61 8 68 44 71 60 53
Vietnam 54 53 44 71 33 58 36 64 67 53
Comoros 61 36 37 74 58 36 36 100 40 53
Nepal 73 19 42 68 50 42 36 64 71 52
Qatar 54 63 92 54 25 47 24 79 13 52
Indonesia 46 44 47 74 75 52 32 57 47 52
Macau 46 43 62 0 50 61 24 100 79 52
Vanuatu 54 36 45 33 83 51 40 79 49 52
Senegal 50 18 42 67 67 36 40 79 73 52
Solomon Islands 69 28 45 61 58 61 16 79 43 52
Tajikistan 74 25 45 67 25 50 40 50 79 51
Egypt 55 49 47 65 25 76 36 79 32 51
Benin 60 24 42 64 83 37 36 64 51 51
Kenya 51 46 39 62 58 32 32 57 88 51
Kyrgyzstan 59 42 45 70 42 58 32 64 47 51
Azerbaijan 48 60 50 71 25 40 40 64 62 51
Korea- North (DR of) 64 54 42 51 0 70 28 64 79 51
United Arab Emirates 49 53 76 16 25 76 58 79 10 50
Cape Verde 60 29 44 36 100 49 32 64 36 50
Marshall Islands 73 19 39 26 100 70 8 86 23 50
Tanzania 55 28 44 74 58 30 44 64 51 50
Bangladesh 65 30 42 62 50 36 52 57 49 50
Algeria 51 51 44 67 25 51 36 36 89 50
Uganda 54 33 44 61 42 33 36 64 80 50
Uzbekistan 70 52 47 62 0 62 44 57 40 49
Cambodia 61 53 42 77 25 30 40 64 47 49
Iran 65 54 50 71 17 69 40 0 64 49
Mozambique 65 4 44 70 67 12 32 64 76 49
Gambia 61 10 44 61 42 39 44 71 60 48
Papua New Guinea 54 22 45 64 58 36 40 57 55 48
Mayotte 79 4 40 17 92 40 0 100 46 48
Kazakhstan 50 43 44 65 25 60 52 64 27 48
Mali 61 13 42 62 75 25 32 64 50 48
Libya 29 50 52 51 0 71 44 71 67 48
Guinea-Bissau 65 21 40 64 50 31 36 64 47 47
Micronesia 59 36 40 42 100 66 0 71 5 47
Togo 54 43 39 64 33 33 36 64 58 47
Myanmar (Burma) 75 35 40 71 0 50 44 57 35 46
Turkmenistan 84 22 48 61 0 41 16 64 61 46
Ethiopia 55 11 48 67 33 13 40 57 86 46
Congo- Republic of 53 39 44 61 25 28 40 64 62 46
Rwanda 55 21 47 68 25 31 36 64 62 46
Nigeria 45 29 44 62 42 27 44 64 58 46
Gabon 46 14 45 65 33 44 52 64 49 46
Oman 50 44 53 62 25 56 44 64 2 45
Saudi Arabia 60 68 53 51 8 71 28 36 22 45
Iraq 100 49 45 41 17 55 36 0 38 45
Laos 68 19 45 74 8 30 40 57 51 45
Cameroon 50 29 42 65 17 30 36 64 66 45
Mauritania 56 13 40 58 25 34 36 71 64 45
Niger 61 3 45 64 58 21 40 57 42 44
Burkina Faso 61 6 42 65 50 27 28 64 48 44
Equatorial Guinea 41 46 58 75 0 28 36 50 55 44
Burundi 53 25 40 57 42 30 36 36 75 44
Pakistan 56 3 42 67 42 51 40 7 77 43
Haiti 60 19 39 61 42 39 36 36 53 43
Zimbabwe 33 58 0 77 8 37 44 57 100 43
Central African Republic 60 25 39 72 33 23 36 36 54 43
Cote d'Ivoire 55 25 40 67 25 37 32 43 55 43
Liberia 58 39 44 57 58 14 40 36 28 42
Congo- Democratic Republic of 35 29 42 58 17 26 44 64 62 42
Angola 43 36 52 67 25 1 36 57 52 42
Guinea 66 14 42 61 17 35 40 57 22 41
Eritrea 61 24 39 29 8 28 36 57 73 40
Djibouti 53 13 44 65 33 34 44 57 8 40
Sierra Leone 63 7 42 62 67 9 36 21 24 38
Afghanistan 88 7 40 77 8 0 32 0 58 37
Chad 45 10 37 68 8 14 36 36 50 34
Sudan 53 19 44 65 0 28 40 29 7 33
Yemen 58 21 40 19 33 38 52 21 0 33
Somalia 61 0 39 55 0 7 36 36 16 30
country 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0