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I Read Rand Paul's Flat Tax Plan So You Don't Have To

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 12:14 PM EDT

Rand Paul talks taxes in the Wall Street Journal today:

My tax plan would blow up the tax code and start over. In consultation with some of the top tax experts in the country, including the Heritage Foundation’s Stephen Moore....

Hmmm. I think we can probably stop there. If Stephen Moore is one of the brains behind this, we can be pretty sure it's the usual hodgepodge of innumerate nonsense he's famous for. But at least Paul's op-ed doesn't lack for tea party applause lines! Here are my favorites: "seized by the IRS," "rogue agency," "harass anyone who might be adversarial to President Obama’s policies," "economic steroid injection," "rot in the system," and "crony capitalists and lobbyists exploded his noble crusade."1

In any case, I'll save you the trouble of reading the whole thing. It's the usual flat-tax utopia: One rate for everyone, no deductions, end of story. No discussion of how to define "income," of course, which is what makes the tax code complicated in the first place. But no matter. According to Paul, the rich will end up paying 14.5 percent in taxes, with no loopholes to pay less. Given that the rich currently pay about 22 percent of their income in federal taxes, they should be pretty happy about that. They should also be pretty happy that he's getting rid of the estate tax entirely.

And the middle class? Well, they no longer have to pay payroll taxes. Just 14.5 percent of their income.

Happy days! And how will this add up? The usual way: it will supercharge the economy blah blah blah, and we'll all be making such huge buckets of cash that tax revenues will go up. Easy peasy.

The song never changes with these guys. But it's a siren song, and Americans have never been very good at math. I'm sure it will sound good to lots of people, and it will sound great to the lucky few. Hell, I figure it would save me personally $15,000 a year, maybe more. Rand Paul 2016!

1That would be Paul's buddy Steve Forbes, whose noble flat-tax crusade in 1996 went nowhere thanks to the shadowy forces of....Bob Dole.

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It Looks Like Germany is Ready to Let Greece Collapse

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 11:05 AM EDT

Last-ditch talks between Greece and the rest of Europe are scheduled to start today. Nobody is very optimistic:

There is little sign that either side is softening its position....In Germany especially, the fear is that providing new loans to Greece without extracting more spending cuts represents a fateful step toward a so-called transfer union, with wealthier nations providing handouts to Greece and other weaker countries. “If a small country can blackmail the other members into a transfer union without conditions and controls, the euro cannot survive,” said Adam Lerrick, a sovereign debt expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a research organization based in Washington.

....Both sides are girding for a euro exit.

The Greek central bank warned on Wednesday that the country’s economy would be devastated. And bankers say that in the last week, Greeks have pulled more than €1.5 billion from their deposit accounts. Within the European Stability Mechanism, Europe’s newly formed rescue vehicle, preparations are being made to bolster other weak countries in the event of a contagion panic.

While polls in Greece still show overwhelming support of the euro, a majority of Greeks are fed up with the harsh austerity measures that have been a condition for the €240 billion in loans that have been disbursed to the country.

I have the advantage of living in California, where this is all a fairly academic debate. It's even interesting, in a way. Will both sides blink at the last second? If they don't, and Greece leaves the euro and then defaults on its loans and devalues its currency, will it work? How much pain will it cause? Will Greece recover fairly quickly?

Those are interesting questions for anyone who doesn't actually have to live with the answers. For the Greeks themselves, though, the result is going to be horrible either way. It's just a matter of which way is slightly less horrible. For the rest of Europe, it's possible that it will all be a big nothingburger. Then again, nobody thought the default of Creditanstalt would supercharge the Great Depression. So who knows?

What a mess. Both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. But so far Europe has done next to nothing for Greece. They've made lots of loans, but mainly so that Greece could pay back its debt to shaky European banks. It's been every bit as disingenuous and self-interested as all the cheap loans those banks made to Greece in the first place so that Germans and others could enjoy access to cheap Greek products during the aughts. They enjoyed the boom from those loans and supported it with monetary policy that favored Germany but overheated Greece, and then when the economy went sour they set monetary policy continent-wide to favor Germany yet again, not the folks they'd been shoveling money to all those years. And when Greece's economy collapsed, they just sat back, talked about following the rules, and demanded that Greece let their economy collapse even further.

It's not as if Greece bears no blame for what happened. A lot of people share in that. But Germany has been the cynical manipulator of events all the way back to 2000, tacitly approving capital flows to Greece when it helped the German economy and then orchestrating billions in loans when German banks ended up in trouble. And now that German banks aren't in trouble anymore, bye bye loans. Time to pull up the ladder.

Whatever else happens, it's a good time to be German and it's a crappy time to be Greek. Welcome to the European "union."

Dylann Storm Roof Identified as Suspected Gunman in Charleston Mass Shooting (Updated)

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 10:27 AM EDT

Update, 11:30 am EST: Dylann Storm Roof was reportedly arrested in Shelby, North Carolina, according to multiple news sources.

The FBI has reportedly identified Dylann Storm Roof as the suspected gunman behind the mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday. Police released a flier Thursday morning with details of the suspect in the attack:

The shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church killed nine people, six women and three men, including the church's pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

The Ten Dollar Bill Is Getting a Much-Needed Makeover

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 9:48 AM EDT

Ladies—we have finally made it! On to money, that is. (I mean, sure, Sacagawea is on the dollar coin or whatever, but we're talking real-deal-paper.) The Treasury Department announced Wednesday that a redesigned $10 bill will feature a woman alongside Alexander Hamilton, who has been on the note since 1929. 

Who will actually be featured on the bill remains to be seen, but Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will ultimately make the decision. The new $10 bill will debut in 2020, the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. 

The news comes just about a year after nine-year-old Sofia wrote to President Obama asking why there weren't any women on money in the United States and included a list of potential contenders that included his wife, Michelle. He responded saying he thought it was "a pretty good idea." The letter spawned a campaign called Women on 20, which launched petitions and created media to convince the president to put his money where his mouth is (literally).

It's unclear if the decision was influenced by the campaign, but soon we will find out if any of their proposed female icons (the final-round votes on their website left Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Wilma Mankiller) made the cut.

This Map Shows Where the World's Water Is Drying Up

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Groundwater loss isn't just a California problem: According to a recent study by researchers at NASA and the University of California-Irvine, humans are depleting more than half of the world's 37 largest aquifers at unsustainable rates, and there is virtually no accurate data showing how much water is left.

The study, published this week in the journal Water Resources Research, used 11 years of satellite data to measure water depletion. Eight aquifers, primarily in Asia and Africa, were qualified as "overstressed," meaning they had nearly no natural replenishment. The most stressed basin was the Arabian Aquifer System, beneath Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Other quickly disappearing aquifers were the Indus Basin aquifer, between India and Pakistan, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin, in northern Africa.

Five other aquifers, including California's Central Valley Aquifer, were "extremely" or "highly" stressed, with some natural replenishment but not enough to make up for growing demand.

The growing demand on water, exacerbated by overpopulation and climate change, has led to a situation that is "quite critical," says Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA.

Aquifers house groundwater, which serves as a savings account of sorts: It's good to rely on in droughts but takes decades or centuries to replenish. Groundwater usually makes up about 40 percent of the California's freshwater supply, but now, as California endures its fourth year of drought and as farmers have resorted to drilling for water, that number has leapt to more than 60 percent. The state recently implemented regulations to measure groundwater supply that will gradually be implemented over several years.

NASA satellite images show groundwater loss in California. UC-Irvine/NASA

Measuring exactly how much groundwater remains around the world is both difficult and expensive, as it involves drilling, sometimes thousands of feet, into thick layers of bedrock. As a result, estimates of how much longer the existing groundwater will last often vary by orders of magnitude—from decades to millennia.

The researchers got around that problem by using data that shows subtle changes in the Earth's gravity, which is affected by the weight of the aquifers. They acknowledge that this is just a start, and call for more local, detailed data.

"We know we're taking more than we're putting back in—how much do we have before we can't do that anymore?" said lead author Alexandra Richey to the Los Angeles Times. "We don't know, but we keep pumping. Which to me is terrifying."

Humane-Certified Chicken Giant Caught on Video Abusing Chickens

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Foster Farms, the West Coast's largest chicken producer, places the "highest priority on animal welfare," and has for more an 70 years, according to its website. Back in 2013, it even attained the American Humane Association seal. And so, how embarrassing for the poultry giant and its animal-welfare certifier that the animal-rights group Mercy for Animals has come out with the above eye-popping video documenting practices within a Foster Farm  facilities in Fresno, California.

The video shows workers punching and slamming birds as they hang them upside-down into shackles ahead of slaughter.

The video shows workers punching and slamming birds as they hang them upside-down into shackles ahead of slaughter, carelessly dumping bins of newborn chicks onto the ground as if they were stones, and committing other questionable and hard-to-watch acts. Voiced by retired game-show host Bob Barker, the video's voiceover states that the "meat from these animals is sold bearing the American Humane Certified label…don't buy that lie."

For its part, Foster Farms is not casting doubt on the veracity of the footage, which Mercy for Animals attained by sneaking undercover investigators into the facilities disguised as workers. Here's Foster Farms' statement on the matter:

Foster Farms has been made aware of an online video showing company employees in Fresno, California, mishandling birds in their care. We have already begun a comprehensive investigation to determine the source and location, including a fully cooperative effort with all appropriate authorities. The behavior of the individuals in this video is inappropriate and counter to our stringent animal welfare standards, procedures and policies.

As for the American Humane Association, a spokesperson emailed the following statement:

We were made aware yesterday of a video that certainly seems to show inhumane treatment of animals.  As an organization that exists to protect animals, abuse in any form is intolerable and unacceptable. The video was very surprising, as Foster Farms has worked hard to create a culture of humane treatment. In fact, they have never failed an audit in the three years we have been working with them.

He added that the "negative things being said about our program by MFA, which is a group that works to eliminate meat, dairy and eggs from American dinner tables, are false. Everything we do is for the benefit of the animals and we have a very strong and comprehensive program that helps give better lives to more than a billion animals."

Both entities have had their share of bad press in recent years. In March 2013—coincidentally, the same month it won its American Humane Association approval—Foster Farms became embroiled in a 16-month-long antibiotic-resistant salmonella outbreak that sickened 634 people, of whom 38 percent needed to be hospitalized. That's about twice the normal hospitalization rate for such an outbreak, reports the Washington Post, suggesting the salmonella strain was particularly virulent.

In the middle of that fiasco, in January 2014, the US Department of Agriculture's inspection service saw fit to temporarily shut down a Foster Farms plant in Livingston, citing multiple "findings of egregious insanitary conditions related to a cockroach infestation in your facility."

The American Humane Association, meanwhile, does not draw high marks for its welfare standards from Consumer Reports, which issues report cards on food labels. CR rates the American Humane Certified stamp "somewhat meaningful" and found that the label does require producers to follow basic standards: providing adequate food and clean water, and ensuring the animals are "free from pain and unnecessary stress." However, it added, "many of the requirements in the American Humane standards mirror the conventional industry's practices, and livestock producers do not have to meet all of the requirements to be certified."

Meanwhile, the American Humane Association is most famous for certifying humane treatments standard for animals in Hollywood films—the famous "No Animals Were Harmed" statement you see as the credits roll. That program was the subject of a scathing 2013 Hollywood Reporter exposé alleging animal abuse and endangerment in several films and TV shows certified by the association.

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TPP, TPA, and TAA: Explaining the Unexplainable

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 9:33 PM EDT

Even granting that I haven't followed the TPP treaty debate all that closely, the latest maneuvering to get it passed is a little puzzling. As you may recall, the original strategy was to pair up TPA, which most Democrats oppose, with TAA, which most Democrats like, in hopes of attracting enough Democratic votes to pass the whole package. With these preliminaries out of the way, Congress could then vote on TPP itself. It didn't work. Dems voted heavily against TAA because they knew it would sink TPA too. So what's next?

Hold on. That probably barely sounded like English to some of you. Here's an acronym primer:

TPP = Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade treaty between the United States and a bunch of other countries around the Pacific Rim. It's been under negotiation for years and will be ready for a ratification vote soon.

TPA = Trade Promotion Authority, aka "fast track." This comes before the TPP vote, and guarantees that the treaty text will be submitted to Congress for an up-or-down vote with no amendments allowed. Without it, the treaty is dead, since obviously all the other countries won't allow the US to unilaterally makes changes.

TAA = Trade Adjustment Assistance. Trade agreements with poor countries often lead to job losses in the US, as jobs get moved overseas. TAA is a laundry list of measures designed to help workers who lose their jobs because of the treaty, and it's supposed to make trade treaties more tolerable to organized labor. It very decidedly failed to do so this time.

Now go read the first paragraph of this post again.

Right. So where were we? Oh yes: The TPA+TAA package bombed with anti-treaty Democrats, and it needed at least a few Democratic votes to pass. So what's next?

On Thursday the House will vote on just the fast-track portion—also known as Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA—on the understanding that the workers’ aid would be approved later.

....In a renewed push to win support for the fast-track bill, Mr. Obama huddled Wednesday at the White House with pro-trade Democrats. House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), meanwhile, said they would find a way to separately pass legislation renewing the workers’ aid program, also known as Trade Adjustment Assistance or TAA, hoping to shore up the Democratic support necessary for the new plan.

Hmmm. TPA actually passed the House last week, even though TAA had already been voted down earlier in the day. So I guess the idea here is that pro-treaty Democrats will vote for TPA as a standalone bill too. I mean, if they were willing to vote for it last week after TAA had been defeated, why not vote for it this week with no TAA? Following that, it's just a matter of sending the standalone TPA bill to the Senate and finding out if a few Democrats there will still vote for it even without TAA.

It's all a little weird and desperate, but it might work. Republicans are swearing that if TPA passes, they'll bring up TAA for a vote later, which is supposed to appease Democratic concerns about job losses. Dems only voted against TAA in order to kill TPA, so if TPA has already passed there's no longer any reason for them to vote against TAA.

Of course, even if Republicans allow a vote on TAA, it also needs a few Republican votes to pass, and the problem here is the opposite: Republicans have little reason to vote for TAA once TPA has already passed and there's no longer any need to appease Democrats. But Democrats can't pass it alone. They need some Republican votes too. So do they trust the GOP leadership to deliver those votes?

Jesus. What a rat's nest. If you didn't understand any of that, try reading it again. And then again. If it still doesn't make sense, just forget the whole thing and eat a quart of ice cream. You'll be better off.

#Prattkeeping Is the Best Thing on the Internet Today

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 7:34 PM EDT

Jurassic World opened last weekend, breaking all sorts of records. While that's great and all, and dinosaurs are awesome and what not, this is the best thing that happened as a result: Prattkeeping.

In the movie, Chris Pratt does a move to assert dominance and calm down raptors. Animal keepers started to contribute their own versions, and before long a new wonderful meme was born. Check out Fusion for a longer list.

Here are some of our favorites:

 

#raptorsquad @cameldiscovery #jurasiczookeeper keeper Ambrose

A photo posted by Kati Speer (@kati_speer) on

 

#jurassiczookeeper @sacramentozoo

A photo posted by Mike Owyang (@ohmygoat1) on

 

Jurassic Keeper. #jurassicworld #dinosaur #emu #jurassiczookeeper #animal #movie

A photo posted by Jon Ovens (@parrotman_jon) on

 

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks it's funny:

Walmart Uses 22 Shell Companies to Hide an Incredible Amount of Money in Luxembourg

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 5:04 PM EDT

Overseas tax evasion by American corporations has become a political hot button of late: It haunted Mitt Romney in 2012, spurred President Barack Obama last year to crack down on so-called inversions, and has since been seized upon as a 2016 campaign issue by Hillary Clinton. American companies now have an estimated $2.1 trillion in untaxed profits stashed overseas, big sums of which belong to Apple, General Electric, and Microsoft.

Walmart is also a major overseas tax dodger, according to a new report from Americans for Tax Fairness, a liberal-leaning think tank and advocacy group. The world's largest retailer has stashed $64 billion worth of assets in Luxembourg, Europe's smallest and most notorious tax haven. These assets—including cash and the ownership of real estate holdings around the world—are worth more than Luxembourg's entire gross domestic product. If they were liquidated and sprinkled around, it would amount to more than $100,000 per acre in this tiny country of 1,000 square miles that lacks a single Walmart store. Walmart has so much wealth in Luxembourg, in fact, that it could pay several times over to plaster the entire country in Nexus Granite Self-Adhesive Vinyl Floor Tiles, which sell at Walmart for $8.99 per box.

Since 2011, Walmart has transferred more than $45 billion in assets to a network of 22 shell companies in Luxembourg, the report says.

In fact, most Luxembourgers can afford flooring that's considerably more posh. A primary source of the luxe in this city-state of some 500,000 people is its corporate tax rate. Between 2010 and 2013, Walmart reported paying less than 1 percent in tax to Luxembourg on $1.3 billion in profits. Walmart also generates $1.5 billion worth of tax deductions in Luxembourg each year by making "phantom interest payments" to its home office in the United States, according to Americans for Tax Fairness. These benefits may explain why, since 2011, Walmart has transferred more than $45 billion in assets to a network of 22 shell companies in Luxembourg, the report says.

Walmart disputed the report's findings: "This is the same union-supported group that regularly issues flawed reports on Walmart to promote their agenda rather than the facts," the company said in a statement to USA Today. "This latest report includes incomplete, erroneous information designed to mislead readers." But the retailing giant did not go into any further detail.

UPDATE 6:00 p.m. PST: In an email to Mother Jones, a Walmart representative detailed the company's objections to the report:

When calculating total assets, this calculation incorrectly includes intercompany assets, primarily investment in our wholly-owned subsidiaries and intercompany loans which both eliminate on consolidation.  The methodology is flawed and based upon statutory reports prior to intercompany eliminations which occur during consolidation.

As disclosed in our last form 10K (footnote 14), the Walmart International segment has total assets after intercompany eliminations of $80.5 billion, the vast majority of which are retail store buildings, fixtures, inventory and distribution facilities physically located in the countries where we serve customers.

Goldman Sachs to Summer Interns: Don't Stay in the Office Overnight

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 3:49 PM EDT

By Olivia Oran

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Goldman Sachs Group Inc has told its summer investment banking interns not to stay in the office overnight in a bid to improve working conditions for its junior staff.

The move, according to company sources and confirmed by a Goldman spokesman, illustrates how Wall Street banks are seeking to curb excessive hours worked by young employees who see internships and entry-level jobs as a chance for a lucrative investment banking career.

Goldman has told its new crop of summer banking interns they should be out of the office between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m. during the week.

Goldman and other banks have taken steps over the last several years to encourage junior employees, known as analysts and associates, to take time off in a profession notorious for all-nighters and 100-hour work weeks.

The moves came after the death of a Bank of America Corp intern in London in 2013 fueled concerns over working excessive hours. It was later revealed the intern died of natural causes.

Soon after, Goldman told its junior bankers to take Saturdays off and also formed a task force to address quality of life issues.

Bank of America said at the time it would recommend junior employees take off a minimum of four weekend days per month.

Wall Street summer interns are typically college juniors who work as analysts and business school students who serve as associates.

Goldman has more than 2,900 summer interns this year.

Goldman ranked as the top worldwide M&A adviser last year, according to Thomson Reuters data. The bank advised on 449 deals with a total value of $983.9 billion.

 

(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)