News Day: MN unemployment up to 8.1% / Liberian countdown / Best AIG advice / Civil rights in Minneapolis / more

UPDATED: Minnesota’s unemployment hit 8.1 percent in February, matching the national rate, as the state shed 13,300 jobs during the month, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development. January’s MN unemployment rate was 7.6 percent (NOT including “discouraged” workers, who have given up looking for full-time jobs, or those who are involuntarily working part-time because they can’t find full-time work.)

Nationwide, new unemployment insurance benefit claims last week were down to “only” 594,121, a decrease of 58,515 from the previous week. For a little perspective — there were 335,917 initial claims in the comparable week in 2008, and the total number of people claiming state unemployment insurance benefits was 6,332,272, up from 3,297,238 in 2008. Full federal report here.

Eat your Cheerios General Mills reported falling profits, but hey — any profit looks like good news this year. Profits for the third quarter, which ended Feb. 22, were down 33 percent from a year earlier, reports the Strib. The company blamed the lower profits on higher prices for ingredients. Sales were up four percent, if measure in dollars, but down one percent, if measured in pounds of food — so, selling a little less food, at higher prices. No surprise there. Cereal sales rose 13 percent, and the company predicts overall increases in the final quarter of the year.

Power of positive prescribing A U of M psychiatrist, Dr. S. Charles Schulz, with ties to the AstraZeneca drug maker claimed its antipsychotic drug (Seroquel) was better than anything else — despite evidence to the contrary. That’s sort of old news, since the glowing recommendation and the contradictory evidence both date back to 2000, and the tie between glowing recommendations and financial interest is as old as the hills, but the questions surfaced only recently, reports Jeremy Olson in the PiPress:

An Internet psychiatry blog first raised questions March 2 about the research Schulz presented at the APA conference and why it lacked any of the company’s findings.

“It raises troubling questions when an independent academic author presents results that are in direct opposition to the underlying data,” wrote the blogger, an anonymous academic.

Twelve days left for Liberians Liberian refugees, legally in this country since 1990 under successive grants of one sort of temporary status or another, see time running out. The latest extension is due to run out March 31, leaving people who have lived in the U.S. for most of their lives subject to deportation orders. They have never been given any opportunity to apply for permanent status in the United States, though they have jobs, homes, and children here. Minnesota is home to large numbers of Liberians, and the Advocates for Human Rights are sponsoring a postcard and phone campaign to get President Obama to extend their status and pass legislation allowing them to apply for permanent residence. Please – call, write or e-mail the White House today.

Best AIG advice Adam Davidson on NPR’s Planet Money offers a thoughtful, nuanced read of the AIG mess. While the bonuses are “immoral, unfair, outrageous,” says Davidson, they are

a $165 Million problem during a multi-Trillion dollar crisis. As Ian Bremmer put it, Outrage is a Luxury We Can’t Afford. The economy is still horribly, scarily precarious. No matter what you think should be done–stimulus, bailout, neither, nationalization, more regulation, less regulation — it needs to be done soon. We are still in an ugly crisis and if it’s badly handled, it can damage the economy so violently that we’ll all be poorer, the vulnerable won’t get food and health care. The stakes are HUGE. And Congress and the President and Geithner should not waste three weeks on this sideshow.

Big coal wins at Big Stone II MN’s Public Utilities Commission approved power lines to bring Big Stone II’s coal-generated electricity into MN, reports Stephanie Hemphill at MPR. No big surprise there, but the project might still fail, as the federal Environmental Protection Agency says SoDak isn’t requiring enough pollution control. Stay tuned.

Printing money, buying loans The Federal Reserve announced plans to expand its lending by about another trillion dollars, brining its balance sheet from $900 billion last September to more than $3 trillion by this time in 2010, reports the NYT. The Fed will buy long-term Treasury bonds and government-backed mortgage securities, in what the NYT calls “a tactic that amounts to creating vast new sums of money out of thin air.” Predicted consequences: lower home loan interest rates, wider credit availability, lower value for the dollar. Because the private lending market has not responded to government efforts,

The Fed and the Treasury are starting a joint venture this week called the Consumer and Business Lending Initiative in their latest effort to thaw the still-frozen credit markets. The program will start out with $200 billion in financing for consumer loans, small-business loans and some corporate purposes.

(Slightly) rising consumer prices Consumer prices rose by four-tenths of one percent in February, reports APin the largest increase since July. The increase was driven by gasoline and clothing cost increases. Consumer prices rose only two-tenths of one percent over the past 12 months, giving rise to worries about deflation.

Rybak, Pawlenty ping-pong over civil rights Mayor R.T. Rybak’s proposal to close the Minneapolis civil rights complaints investigation unit and shift its work to the MN Human Rights Department is running up against T-Paw’s plan to cut funding for the MN Human Rights Department, reports the MN Spokesman-Recorder. The state department is chronically understaffed and underfunded, which is one reason people go to the Minneapolis department with hundreds of complaints each year. Some have complained that the city unit is also slow to respond to complaints.

Rybak’s proposal calls for cuts to other parts of the Minneapolis department as well, in part of the city belt-tightening necessitated by lower state aid. Stephen Cooper, a former state commissioner of human rights, said: ” I wonder if the mayor would say, ‘Let’s get rid of some cops because we have the highway patrol? Or the health department, because OSHA can do it?”

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