2008...essiah-complex - %2

Jim Webb Takes on Prison Reform

| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 12:51 PM EST

jim_webb_saluting.jpg Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) is about to take on one of the most thankless issues in America: prison reform. Here's the Washington Post, explaining Webb's interest:

With 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States has imprisoned a higher percentage of its population than any other nation, according to the Pew Center on the States and other groups. Although the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of its prison population, Webb says.
A disproportionate number of those who are incarcerated are black, Webb notes. African Americans make up 13 percent of the population, but they comprise more than half of all prison inmates, compared with one-third two decades ago. Today, Webb says, a black man without a high school diploma has a 60 percent chance of going to prison.
Webb aims much of his criticism at enforcement efforts that he says too often target low-level drug offenders and parole violators, rather than those who perpetrate violence, such as gang members. He also blames policies that strip felons of citizenship rights and can hinder their chances of finding a job after release. He says he believes society can be made safer while making the system more humane and cost-effective.

It may seem like a strange passion for a former military man from a state that is 75 percent white and that, pre-Obama, was proudly conservative. But this effort may be successful precisely because people assume the gruff, hard-charging Webb is a law-and-order type. It would have less credibility if the leader on this issue came out of the Congressional Black Caucus, a scenario that would probably create wrongheaded whispers about how the priorities of likely-to-be-incarcerated young black men were being placed above America's safety. (Of course, a Senate effort couldn't be led by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. There are currently zero black senators.)

But Webb may have to go it alone on this issue, due to the fact that anyone who suggests improving our truly lamentable prison system gets quickly labeled as "soft on crime." We'll soon see if he has the savviness and political clout to make something happen. And have no doubt, something must happen. As Mother Jones illustrated in our July/August 2008 cover package called "SLAMMED," the state of America's prisons is a disgrace, and an unsustainable one at that. If you didn't know, click the link and get educated.

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Asleep at the Switch

| Mon Dec. 29, 2008 12:30 PM EST

ASLEEP AT THE SWITCH....The Washington Post reports today that during the Bush administration, OSHA pretty much shut itself down and new workplace safety regulations ground to a halt. I don't think this will come as a shock to anyone. But my favorite part of the story is this anecdote about Edwin Foulke, who took over OSHA in 2006:

Foulke quickly acquired a reputation inside the Labor Department as a man who literally fell asleep on the job: Eyewitnesses said they saw him suddenly doze off at staff meetings, during teleconferences, in one-on-one briefings, at retreats involving senior deputies, on the dais at a conference in Europe, at an award ceremony for a corporation and during an interview with a candidate for deputy regional administrator.

His top aides said they rustled papers, wore attention-getting garb, pounded the table for emphasis or gently kicked his leg, all to keep him awake. But, if these tactics failed, sometimes they just continued talking as if he were awake. "We'll be sitting there and things will fall out of his hands; people will go on talking like nothing ever happened," said a career official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to a reporter.

In an interview, Foulke denied falling asleep at work, although he said he was often tired and sometimes listened with his eyes closed.

I think "Listening With His Eyes Closed" is a great metaphor for the entire Bush era. Somebody should write a book with that title.

Wingnuttia Update

| Sun Dec. 28, 2008 3:50 PM EST

WINGNUTTIA UPDATE....Ed Yong posts this weekend on some research about what happens when people feel they have less control over their lives. The nickel version is that they tend to see patterns that don't exist, they get more superstitious, and they become ever more captivated by conspiracy theories. You can read Ed's measured, sober writeup here, or you can just take in Tim F.'s more pungent summary instead:

Anyhow, about peak wingnut theory. Republicans (and Republican bloggers) will spend at least the next two years with about as much political control as a bug in a jar. You can make your own conclusions.

Oh yes. We can. It's gonna be an entertaining era as long as this remains confined to wingnuttia. If it breaks into the mainstream media, as it did in the 90s, not so much.

Cap and Tax

| Sun Dec. 28, 2008 2:09 PM EST

CAP AND TAX....Matt Yglesias suggests that although a gasoline tax would have been a good idea 20 years ago, today it's obsolete:

Given what we've learned about the risks of catastrophic climate change, it [] seems like a concept that's been somewhat overtaken by events. A carbon tax, or a cap on greenhouse gas emissions with auctioned permits, would constitute a tax on gasoline among other things. And there's no particular reason that burning fuel in a car should be disfavored versus other carbon-intensive activities.

This is true, but it's worth noting that for technical reasons there's an argument to be made that cap-and-trade is a good solution for stationary carbon souces (primarily coal and gas fired power generating stations) while a tax is a better solution for mobile sources. A lot of this revolves around whether your favored cap-and-trade plan applies directly to fuel sources ("upstream" cap-and-trade) or to the actual emission of carbon ("downstream" cap-and-trade). Downstream is essentially impossible with cars and trucks since it's impractical to monitor hundreds of millions of carbon sources, so if that's the version of cap-and-trade you prefer, then you need to apply a different solution to the transportation sector.

In addition, it's also possible that driving should, in fact, be disfavored even compared to other sources. The elasticity of gasoline demand is very low (it's higher in the long term than in the short term, but still low in either case), which means you have to price gasoline at a very, very high level if you want to get meaningful reductions in use. In Europe, for example, gasoline is taxed at around $2-3 per gallon, which is equivalent to a carbon tax of about $1000/ton, and even the most aggressive cap-and-trade plan won't produce carbon charges remotely near this level anytime in the foreseeable future. It's arguable (though, admittedly, far from obvious) that a gasoline tax might be able to get to that range faster than a cap-and-trade plan.

I don't have any special dog in this fight. My tentative preference right now is for gasoline taxes combined with cap-and-trade for stationary sources or, possibly, for gasoline taxes in addition to a broader-based cap-and-trade plan. If we really want to reduce driving, encourage use of urban/suburban transit alternatives, and produce a revenue stream big enough to fund it, that might be what we need.

Madoff Matters

| Sun Dec. 28, 2008 1:44 PM EST

I'm still thinking (as are we all) about Bernie Madoff and the New Year recession. Over at the Daily Beast, an artist conveys what it's like to go from riches to rags over night. I link to it mostly because of the appalling comments it generated.

As the author tells it, she scrimped, saved, and worked her way to a schmancy NY apartment, a vacation cottage in Palm Beach, fancy truffles, and real pearls, refusing even to take alimony post-divorce! Yet, oh so predictably, readers crap all over her. Why? Even if she'd inherited all her money and spent her days in a heroin haze, does that make it all right to steal her money, then vilify her? She was victimized! And the readers victimize her again.

There's a lot of petty emotion from readers too obvious to bear discussion, but these are comments we really need to talk about.

Land of the Free

| Sun Dec. 28, 2008 1:21 PM EST

LAND OF THE FREE....Juan Gómez, American citizen, would like to be able to return to his country after an overseas trip the same way every other American citizen does: by showing his passport and walking in. Unfortunately, Juan Gómez is in TSA hell:

Time and time again, I've been cleared for entry into the United States. So why does my name remain on the list? Will I have to go through this for the rest of my life? In desperation, I always ask airport-security officers how my name can be removed. I've heard it all, from writing to my congressman (as if that would do any good) to filling out a form (never mind that no one has been able to produce the document or tell me where I can find it). The most honest answer came from a young, Afghan American officer at Dulles a couple of weeks ago: "There's absolutely nothing you can do."

Welcome to America, Juan.

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Pray for the Dead, Fight Like Hell for the Living: Goodbye Al Meyerhoff

| Sat Dec. 27, 2008 7:38 PM EST

Everyone here was stunned to read the news a couple of days ago that Al Meyerhoff, a fighting lawyer who among other things exposed the Saipan scam (whereby American manufacturers have products made in sweatshops in the U.S. protectorate, then slap a "Made in USA" label on them--legally), has died at age 61. Al served for a few years on MoJo's board; he was a memorable presence, expounding in his booming voice—and, later, via the emails that regularly showed up in our inboxes, and no doubt a few thousand others—on this or that corporate or political outrage. He once told a student magazine that he'd developed his "active dislike of the abuse of power" from having been bullied as a kid. Those bullies messed with the wrong guy. We'll miss him a lot.

*Modern Architecture

| Sat Dec. 27, 2008 4:30 PM EST

MODERN ARCHITECTURE....The Los Angeles Times asked eight local worthies to choose the ten all-time best houses in Southern California. The results: nine out of ten houses are in Los Angeles and ten out of ten were built more than 40 years ago. Discuss.

President Bush to Sink Another Election Bid?

| Sat Dec. 27, 2008 2:04 PM EST

He already sunk McCain. With numbers as bad as the ones below, I have to believe he'll sink his brother, too. Which, of course, is a good thing for dynasty haters. And Americans who don't want to lose their sanity.

From a new CNN poll:

Thinking about the following characteristics and qualities, please say whether you think it applies or doesn't apply to George W. Bush:
Is a strong and decisive leader: Yes 45%, No 55%
Cares about people like you: Yes 37%, No 62%
Brought the kind of change the country needed: Yes 13%, No 86%
Is honest and trustworthy: Yes 37%, No 62%
Managed the government effectively: Yes 25%, No 75%
Is a person you admire: Yes 27%, No 72%
Shares your values: Yes 34%, No 65%
Generally agrees with you on issues you care about: Yes 34%, No 66%
Inspires confidence: Yes 20%, No 80%
Has united the country and not divide it: Yes 17%, No 82%
Was tough enough for the job: Yes 49%, No 51%
Can get things done: Yes 31%, No 69%

A full 75 percent say they are glad President Bush will be leaving Washington. And Jeb thinks Florida will send him there?

Nightmare on Main Street

| Sat Dec. 27, 2008 2:03 PM EST

NIGHTMARE ON MAIN STREET....From the Wall Street Journal, this is as gruesome a statistic as I've seen yet:

Corporate-turnaround experts and bankruptcy lawyers are predicting a wave of retailer bankruptcies early next year, after being contacted by big and small retailers either preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection or scrambling to avoid that fate.

....AlixPartners LLP, a Michigan-based turnaround consulting firm, estimates that 25.8% of 182 large retailers it tracks are at significant risk of filing for bankruptcy or facing financial distress in 2009 or 2010....Recent changes in the bankruptcy code make it more difficult for retailers to emerge from bankruptcy reorganization....Lawrence Gottlieb, a New York bankruptcy attorney at Cooley Godward Kronish LLP says that only two retailers have successfully emerged from bankruptcy proceedings since the amendments to the code were passed.

A quarter of all major retailers may be in either Chapter 11 or liquidation next year? Holy cow.