Friday, February 10, 2012


They're back: Social issues trump economic policy in American politics, at least for now

WASHINGTON (AP) -- All of a sudden, abortion, contraception and gay marriage are at the center of American political discourse, with the struggling -- though improving -- economy pushed to the background.

Social issues don't typically dominate the discussion in shaky economies. But they do raise emotions important to factors like voter turnout. And they can be key tools for political candidates clamoring for attention, campaign cash or just a change of subject in an election year.

"The public is reacting to what it's hearing about," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. In a political season, he said, "when the red meat is thrown out there, the politicians are going to go after it."

The economy still tops the list of voters' concerns and probably will still shape this presidential election. For now, at least, the culture wars of the 1990s are back. It's not clear which party will benefit because the same group of voters that opposes abortion might split over gay marriage or whether cancer research should be immune from politics. And it's not yet known to what extent, if at all, social issues will influence voters on Election Day.

Jobs, jobs, jobs -- it's been the governing mantra of both parties since the economic bust of 2008, through President Barack Obama's sweeping overhaul of health insurance and the 2010 elections that returned control of the House to Republicans. Since then, voters have turned angry while remaining anxious over the economy's crawl toward stability. Republicans have been keen to blame the slow-motion progress on Obama in their drive to deny him a second term.


Syrian state TV says 25 killed, 175 wounded in blasts targeting security compounds in Aleppo

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian state television says 25 people were killed and 175 wounded in two explosions that targeted security compounds in the northern city of Aleppo.

The station is blaming "terrorists" for Friday's blasts, touting the regime line that armed groups looking to destabilize Syria are behind the uprising.

Opposition activists accused President Bashar Assad's regime of setting off the explosions.

The blasts were the first significant violence in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, which has largely stood by President Bashar Assad during the nearly 11-month-old uprising against his rule.

The TV cites the Health Ministry in giving the casualty figures.


Greek unions launch two-day strike, plan protests as bailout deal in limbo

ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- Unions in Greece launched a two-day general strike against planned austerity measures Friday, a day after the country's crucial international bailout was put in limbo by its partners in the 17-nation eurozone.

Frustrated by days of dithering, bailout creditors have given Greece until the middle of next week to fully meet demands for new harsh cutbacks, on top of already-agreed measures, including a hugely controversial 22 percent cut in the minimum wage. Otherwise, the debt-crippled country will lose its rescue loan lifeline, go bankrupt next month and likely leave the euro.

"We are experiencing tragic moments," Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos told Parliament Friday. "These days are the last acts of a drama that we all hope will lead to a happy conclusion with a voluntary reduction in our public debt and implementation of a framework by 2015 that will allow the economy to stabilize."

The Greek coalition government, led by Prime Minister Lucas Papademos had hoped some of the heat had been taken out of the crisis after leaders agreed Thursday to a raft of austerity measures they hoped would pave the way for the €130 billion ($173 billion) bailout package.

However, finance ministers from the other 16 eurozone states put up a roadblock later in the day by insisting that Greece had to save an extra €325 million ($430 million), pass the cuts through a restive parliament and guarantee in writing that they will be implemented even after planned elections in April.


Foreign donations barred by law, but at risk in growth of super PACs and political nonprofits

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Money pouring into the presidential election from super political action committees appears so far to be strictly American, donated by U.S. companies, unions and millionaires. But U.S. officials and tax law experts warn the growth of super PACs has made conditions ripe for illegal foreign donations.

Foreign political money has been outlawed in U.S. campaigns since 1966, and a U.S. Supreme Court order last month upheld that ban.

But the landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling known as the Citizens United case also enabled corporations and other well-financed donors to give money to political committees that avoid direct coordination with campaigns. The decision led to super PACs, and more recent court and government rulings gave the groups more latitude by allowing donors to make unlimited donations with minimal disclosure requirements.


High-frequency traders target Bank of America and take investors along for a wild ride

NEW YORK (AP) -- On a normal day, 4 billion shares of stock change hands on the New York Stock Exchange. One in 10 belongs to a single company. It's not McDonald's or IBM, both of which have been on a tear.

It's Bank of America -- bailed out by the government three years ago, reviled for being part of the mortgage frenzy that helped wreck the economy and selling for not much more than an ATM fee.

When the market goes up because of positive news about the economy, Bank of America stock shoots up past the stocks of other big banks. When traders get worried about Greek debt, Bank of America takes the biggest plunge.

The big swings are not driven by a fundamental bet that the bank will be more profitable because the economy is getting better or a real concern that it will lose more money than others if there is a default in Greece.

Instead, Bank of America is the stock of the moment for high-frequency trading, the supercomputer-driven buying and selling that barely existed a few years ago and now accounts for as much as two-thirds of U.S. trading.


Florida experience shows why states sought relief from No Child Left Behind's strict demands

MIAMI (AP) -- By almost any measure, Norma Butler Bossard Elementary is a top performing school in Miami: It has consistently been rated an 'A' by the state, and students have achieved high scores on Florida's standardized math and reading exams.

Yet when it comes to the federal No Child Left Behind law, the school hasn't lived up to expectations. Last year, 79 percent of students had to be at grade level in reading and 80 percent in math. Overall, the students exceeded those goals. But two groups -- English language learners and the economically disadvantaged -- did not.

"This is a crystallization of the challenge," said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Responding to an outcry from the states and congressional inaction on rewriting the law, President Barack Obama on Thursday told 10 states, including Florida, that they will be freed from the strictest elements of the law, including the requirement that all students be up to par in math and reading by 2014. In exchange for flexibility, states had to present individualized plans aimed at ensuring all students leave school ready for college and career. The plans must set new achievement targets, rewarding high performing schools and focusing on those that are struggling.

"We can combine greater freedom with greater accountability," Obama said at the White House.


Mass. embalmer fights loss of license for crude description of bodies to a reporter

BOSTON (AP) -- Troy Schoeller admits he could have chosen his words more carefully when he talked to a reporter about bodies he worked on as an embalmer at a funeral home.

Among a litany of graphic remarks Schoeller made was that he hates embalming fat people. He also described the body of a baby as a "bearskin rug" and made other crude observations about the difficulties of his work.

After his comments were published in The Boston Phoenix, the state board that licenses funeral directors and embalmers revoked his license. Now Schoeller is challenging that punishment before the highest court in Massachusetts, arguing the revocation violates his constitutional right to free speech.

"I didn't lie about anything," he said. "I didn't say anything that was wrong."

Schoeller argues that state regulators chose to enforce a vague and overly broad provision of the code of conduct that prohibits funeral directors and embalmers from commenting on the condition of a body entrusted to their care.


Groups outraged by Marines posing with logo resembling Nazi SS want new probe, troops punished

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- A leading Jewish organization and others outraged by a photo showing Marine snipers in Afghanistan posing with a logo resembling a notorious Nazi symbol are demanding President Barack Obama order an investigation and hold the troops accountable.

The Marine Corps has said it does not plan any discipline because there was no malicious intent. The Marines mistakenly believed the "SS" in the shape of white lightning bolts on the blue flag were a nod to sniper scouts -- not the members of Adolph Hitler's special unit that murdered millions of Jews, gypsies and others, said Maj. Gabrielle Chapin, a spokeswoman at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

The Marines are no longer with Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, out of the base north of San Diego, and Chapin said she did not know if they had left the Corps.

Military officials learned of the photograph in November and investigated immediately. It later surfaced on a blog of a military weapons company.

In the September 2010 photo taken in the Sangin district of Helmand province, Marines with guns pose in front of an American flag above a dark blue flag with the "SS" letters.


Nearly 1 in 20 Americans over 50 have artificial knees, according to first national estimate

CHICAGO (AP) -- Nearly 1 in 20 Americans older than 50 have artificial knees, or more than 4 million people, according to the first national estimate showing how common these replacement joints have become in an aging population.

Doctors know the number of knee replacement operations has surged in the past decade, especially in baby boomers. But until now, there was no good fix on the total number of people living with them.

The estimate is important because it shows that a big segment of the population might need future knee-related care, said Dr. Daniel Berry, president of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and chairman of orthopedic surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He was not involved in the research.

People with knee replacements sometimes develop knee infections or scar tissue that require additional treatment. But also, even artificial knees wear out, so as the operations are increasingly done on younger people, many will live long enough to almost certainly need a second or even third knee replacement.

The new estimate comes in an analysis being presented Friday at the academy's annual meeting in San Francisco.


Gasol has 25 pts, 14 reb, game-ending blocked shot in Lakers' 88-87 OT win over Celtics

BOSTON (AP) -- Pau Gasol blocked Ray Allen's putback attempt at the buzzer in overtime and the Los Angeles Lakers held on to beat the Boston Celtics 88-87 on Thursday night.

Kobe Bryant had 27 points, Gasol finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds, and Andrew Bynum added 16 points and 17 rebounds to help the Lakers snap a two-game losing streak.

Allen scored 22 points and Kevin Garnett had 12 points and 12 rebounds for Boston, which had won five in a row and nine of its previous 10 games. But Garnett was 6 for 23 from the field and Paul Pierce was 7 for 18, including a clean-look jumper at the end of overtime.

It rimmed out and Allen tried to push the rebound in, but Gasol got his fingertips on it and it floated away as the buzzer sounded.

The Lakers had lost six of their last seven games on the road.