Blogs

Watch Siskel and Ebert Defend the Original Star Wars Films

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 3:06 PM EDT

The latest trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakening was released Thursday. It is good. It is reallllllllllyyyyyy good. There may have been audible yelps of excitement in the Mother Jones office upon first, second, and third viewings.

There are people living and breathing in this world who are Star Wars haters. They dismiss Star Wars as drivel intended for children, meaningless entertainment that should be discarded in favor of Intellectual Foreign Language Films. These people are wrong, cold-hearted individuals who should be shunned from civil society. "But but but," one might argue, "Episodes I, II, and III were utter garbage, truly horrible, horrible films." This is true. Just erase them from your memory, as I have done. The original three films (Ewoks and all) are masterpieces that should be enjoyed by those of all ages.

Need further proof? Watch Ted Koppel interview Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in 1983. The pair eviscerate a snooty film critic who thinks the movies make children stupid.

You are missed, Siskel and Ebert. You are missed.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Corporate Lobbyists Outspend the Rest of us 34 to 1

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 1:55 PM EDT

Lee Drutman looks at the real problem with lobbying in the American political system:

Looking at lobbying in the aggregate, what jumps out is the stark imbalance in resources. Corporations blow everyone else out of the water. Business accounts for roughly 80 percent of all reported lobbying expenditures, about $2.6 billion dollars a year now.

....Meanwhile, the types of organized interests who we might expect to provide a countervailing force to business — labor unions, groups representing diffuse public like consumers or taxpayers — spend $1 for every $34 businesses spend on lobbying, by my count. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying annually, consistently 95 represent business. In interviewing 60 corporate lobbyists for my book The Business of America is Lobbying, I asked them to identify the leading opposition on an issue on which they were currently working. Not a single lobbyist volunteered a union or a “public interest” group.

....This growing imbalance has had two major effects on the political system. First, it is increasingly difficult to challenge any existing policy that benefits politically active corporations....Second, the sheer amount of lobbying has created a policymaking environment that now requires significant resources to get anything done. Which means that, with increasingly rare exceptions, the only possible policy changes on economic policy issues are those changes that at least some large corporations support.

Lobbying is inevitable. You might even say that it's nothing more than politics in its purest form. But if that's true, American politics has become almost purely a game played by big corporations and their allies. The rest of us—which is to say, practically all of us—are left with nearly no say in what happens.

Republican Judges Set to Rule on Republican Objection to New EPA Regs

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 12:13 PM EDT

Things that make you go "hmmm":

Environmental attorneys say they are confident the court will reject the emergency appeal.

Nevertheless Thursday's hearing, before three Republican-appointed judges, marks the first of what promises to be a series of legal hurdles for climate-change rules.

The subject is Obama's new rules mandating greenhouse gas reductions from power plants, which energy industry attorneys say is "double regulation" since the EPA already regulates other stuff at power plants. No, that doesn't make much sense to me either. Still, the two bolded phrases above might have been believeable together a few decades ago, but not so much now. If it's a Republican panel, I think there's at least a decent chance that we'll get a Republican ruling, regardless of whether it makes any legal sense.

Nebraska Conservatives Take On GOP Governor Over Death Penalty

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 12:06 PM EDT

A group of conservative legislators in Nebraska are gearing up for what could be a multi-day battle to end the state's death penalty. The fight pits the right-wing anti-death penalty crusaders against their fellow conservatives and the state's Republican governor. Here's the Omaha World-Herald:

Nine conservative lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors of a repeal measure the Nebraska Legislature will begin debating Thursday. One of their key platforms: Repealing the death penalty makes good fiscal sense.

"If capital punishment were any other program that was so inefficient and so costly to the taxpayer, we would have gotten rid of it a long time ago," said Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln.

The bill is unlikely to become law. There are currently enough votes for passage, but advocates warn that anything could happen when the bill comes up for a final vote. Death penalty advocates could mount a filibuster to block the legislature from even voting on the measure. If they don't, Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, has vowed to block the legislation, and it's unclear that there are enough votes to override his veto.

Still, the upcoming debate and vote on the bill marks a victory for a small conservative group working on a state-by-state basis to end the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. This group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, argues that capital punishment violates core conservative beliefs about the sanctity of life, small government, and fiscal responsibility.

The Nebraska chapter of the group held a press conference Wednesday in advance of today's floor debate on the bill. "I may be old-fashioned, but I believe God should be the only one who decides when it is time to call a person home," said state Sen. Tommy Garrett, a conservative who supports repeal. "The state has no business playing God."

Nebraska has not carried out an execution since 1997, when the state was still using the electric chair, but that might change, according to the World-Herald:

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson said this week that his staff is working to restore the viability of a lethal injection protocol. He did not, however, predict when executions could resume.

Chris Christie's Social Security Proposal is Cruel and Callous

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 11:14 AM EDT

So Chris Christie is going to campaign on the bold idea of reducing Social Security benefits. My guess is that Christie is going to learn that Social Security remains the third rail of American politics, and will get therefore get charred to a crisp before much longer. For this and many other reasons, we probably don't have to worry much about Christie.

Still, it's worth looking at his proposal. It has two parts:

  1. "I propose a modest means test that only affects those with non–Social Security income of over $80,000 per year, and phases out Social Security payments entirely for those that have $200,000 a year of other income."

Even a lot of us liberal types don't have a big objection to this. But there's a problem here: I don't have exact numbers in front of me, but I'd guess that perhaps 5 percent of retirees have outside incomes of $80,000 and maybe 1 percent have incomes over $200,000. A phaseout that affects such a small number of retirees would hardly save anything. At a guess, maybe it would reduce total payouts by 1-2 percent or so.

But here's the second part of Christie's proposal:

  1. "I’m proposing we raise the age to 69, gradually implementing this change starting in 2022 and increasing the retirement age by two months each year until it reaches 69."

Ouch! As Matt Yglesias points out, life expectancy for the poor at age 65 has barely budged over the past three decades, sitting stubbornly at about 15 years. A 2-year cut forces the poor to work longer and effectively slashes their lifetime Social Security payout by nearly 15 percent. This is a huge reduction for anyone with a low income, and it's especially cruel since it would mostly target people who perform manual labor and have the hardest time working into their late 60s.

I am part of a dwindling band of liberals who is willing to cut a deal on Social Security that would reduce future payouts in return for higher funding rates. Unfortunately, this was never going anywhere because conservatives weren't willing to deal on the funding side, and it's even deader today because liberals are increasingly demanding increases in Social Security, not cuts.

But regardless of how you feel about all this, you should hate Christie's proposal. As I and others have pointed out repeatedly, raising the retirement age is the worst possible way of fixing Social Security's finances, doing its work primarily on the backs of low-income workers while making only token demands on the rich. It's a cruel and callous proposal and everyone should recognize it for what it is.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

As Cities Raise Their Minimum Wage, Where's the Economic Collapse the Right Predicted?

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 9:45 AM EDT
The Fight for 15 protest in New York City Fast Food Forward

Fast-food cooks and cashiers demanding a $15 minimum wage walked off the job in 236 cities yesterday in what organizers called the largest mobilization of low-wage workers ever. The tax-day protest, known as Fight 4/15 (or #Fightfor15 on Twitter), caused some backlash on the Right:

Conservatives have long portrayed minimum-wage increases as a harbingers of economic doom, but their fears simply haven't played out. San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Washington, DC, were among the first major cities to raise their minimum wages to substantially above state and national averages. The Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the increases had little effect on employment rates in traditionally low-wage sectors of their economies:

Economists with the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California-Berkeley have found similar results in studies of the six other cities that have raised their minimum wages in the past decade, and in the 21 states with higher base pay than the federal minimum. Businesses, they found, absorbed the costs through lower job turnover, small price increases, and higher productivity.

It's the taxpayers who ultimately pick up the tab for low wages, because the government subsidizes the working poor.

Obviously, there's a limit to how high you can raise the minimum wage without harming the economy, but evidence suggests we're nowhere close to that tipping point. The ratio between the United States' minimum wage and its median wage has been slipping for years—it's now far lower than in the rest of the developed world. Even after San Francisco increases its minimum wage to $15 next year, it will still amount to just 46 percent of the median wage, putting the city well within the normal historical range.

The bigger threat to the economy may come from not raising the minimum wage. Even Wall Street analysts agree that our ever-widening income inequality threatens to dampen economic growth. And according to a new study by the UC-Berkeley Labor Center, it's the taxpayers who ultimately pick up the tab for low wages, because the federal government subsidizes the working poor through social-service programs to the tune of $153 billion a year.

Even the World Bank Has to Worry About the Competition

| Thu Apr. 16, 2015 8:20 AM EDT

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has just published a deep look into the World Bank's track record of ensuring that the projects it sponsors don't end up harming local communities.

Since 2004, more than 3.4 million people have been economically or physically displaced by Bank projects, according to the report's analysis of the lender's data. And while the Bank has policies requiring it to reestablish and resettle such communities, the ICIJ's investigation found that they were falling short, operating under a troubling lack of safeguards, through bank officials too willing to ignore abuses committed by local partners, and with an institutional culture that values closing big deals over following up on human rights.

After being presented with the ICIJ's findings, the bank quickly promised reforms. But one part of the investigation contains this interesting passage, which suggests an unexpected reason the Bank may not be able to clean up its act: competition has gotten too stiff.

As it enters its eighth decade, the World Bank faces an identity crisis.

It is no longer the only lender willing to venture into struggling nations and finance huge projects. It is being challenged by new competition from other development banks that don’t have the same social standards—and are rapidly drawing support from the World Bank’s traditional backers.

China has launched a new development bank and persuaded Britain, Germany and other American allies to join, despite open U.S. opposition.

These geopolitical shifts have fueled doubts about whether the World Bank still has the clout—or the desire—to impose strong protections for people living in the way of development.

United Nations human rights officials have written World Bank President Kim to say they're concerned that the growing ability of borrowers to access other financing has spurred the bank to join a "race to the bottom" and push its standards for protecting people even lower.

Today's package of stories, published with the Huffington Post, is the first installment of a series reported in 14 countries by over 50 journalists. More than 20 news organizations were involved in the effort.

Health and Logistical Update

| Wed Apr. 15, 2015 8:45 PM EDT

Howdy everyone. I'm back. But I'll bet you didn't even know I was gone.

I spent most of the day up at City of Hope in Duarte getting a few final tests plus a final visit with my transplant physician before I go up next week for the final stage of chemo. For those who are interested, here's my final and (hopefully) firm schedule.

On Monday I go up to CoH and check in to the Village. This sounds like something from The Prisoner, but it's actually just a small collection of houses on the grounds of the campus. Unless something goes wrong that requires round-the-clock observation and care, this is where I'll be staying. It's obviously nicer and more convenient than being cooped up in a hospital room, and it comes complete with its own kitchen so I'm free to make my own meals if I want. (I can also order out from the hospital cafeteria if I don't feel like cooking my own stuff.)

On Tuesday and Wednesday I go into the Day Hospital for an infusion of high-dose Melphalan, a powerful chemotherapy drug. This will kill off all my remaining cancerous bone marrow stem cells, and, along the way, kill off all my healthy stem cells too. So on Thursday they'll pump my own frozen stem cells back into me.

And that's about it. Within a few days of all this I'll be laid low with fatigue, mouth sores, and loss of hair—and hopefully not much more, since that would require transfer to the hospital, which I'd sure like to avoid. For the two weeks after that, I'll take a wide variety of medications and check into the Day Hospital every morning for testing and whatever else they deem necessary (for example, IV fluids if I'm not drinking enough). The rest of the time I spend in my little house, waiting for my immune system to recover enough for me to be sent home.

That will take me through the middle of May, at which point I should be in fairly reasonable shape. Full and complete recovery will take longer—possibly quite a bit longer—but that's unknowable at this point. I'll just have to wait and see.

The next time you see me after this weekend I'll be bald as an egg, as any true cancer patient should be. Yes, there will be pictures. I wouldn't deprive you of that. Between now and then, wish me luck.

McDonald's Franchisees: "We Will Continue to Fall and Fail"

| Wed Apr. 15, 2015 7:11 PM EDT

McDonald's opened its first franchise in Des Plaines, Ill., 60 years ago today, but its franchisees aren't exactly celebrating.

"The future looks very bleak. I'm selling my McDonald's stock," one operator wrote in response to a recent survey of McDonald's franchises across the country, as quoted by Business Insider. "The morale of franchisees is at its lowest level ever."

"McDonalds' system is broken," wrote one franchisee.

"McDonalds' system is broken," another wrote, according to MarketWatch. "We will continue to fall and fail."

Is the fast-food giant having a mid-life crisis?

McDonald's has some 3,000 franchises in the United States, and 32 of them—representing 215 restaurants—took part in the latest survey by Wall Street analyst Mark Kalinowski of Janney Capital Markets. Many of them complained about poor business this year and blamed corporate executives. When asked to assess their six-month business outlook on a scale of 1 to 5, they responded grimly with an average of 1.81. Maybe that's because, according to the survey, same-store sales for franchises declined 3.7 percent in March and 4 percent in February.

Only three of the 32 franchisees said they had a "good" relationship with their franchisor, while about half described their relationship as "poor." The average score for this question was 1.48 out of 5, the lowest score since Kalinowski first started surveying the franchisees more than a decade ago.

Reuters reported that a McDonald's spokesperson responded to the survey by noting the poll size and saying that the company appreciates feedback from franchisees and has a "solid working relationship with them."

Last month, McDonald's executives invited franchisees to a "Turnaround Summit" in Las Vegas, to address its US sales decline. But the get-together didn't seem to boost anyone's spirits. "The Turnaround Summit was a farce," one franchisee wrote in the survey, as quoted by AdAge. "McDonald's Corp. has panicked and jumped the shark." Another added, "McDonald's management does not know what we want to be."

Some franchise operators slammed McDonalds' decision to raise pay by giving employees at company-owned stores $1 an hour above minimum wage. "We will be expected to do the same," one wrote, according to Nation's Restaurant News. "Watch for $5 Big Macs, etc. and Extra Value Meals in the $8 to $10 range."

Next week, McDonald's is set to report its first-quarter earnings.