2009 - %3, September

Coffee Beanery Foes Lose House

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 9:05 AM PDT

Back in March, we ran a story about Deborah Williams and Richard Welshans, a Maryland couple who alleged that they’d been defrauded by the Coffee Beanery, a national coffee franchiser.  They tried to sue to recover some of the more than $1 million they lost after opening a Coffee Beanery cafe, alleging that the company had failed to disclose the fact that most of their franchises failed within three years rather than netted $250,000 in profits, as the company officials had promised. Instead, the couple landed in mandatory arbitration hell. A private arbitrator, hired by Coffee Beanery, ruled against them and ordered them to pay Coffee Beanery more than $100,000, which included the opposing counsels’ lunch tab during the hearing.

The couple fought the decision all the way through the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which earlier this year overturned the arbitrator’s decision, paving the way for Williams and Welshans to sue the Coffee Beanery in Maryland civil court. But Welshans and Wiliams might have had a much happier ending to their story if they’d been able to access the civil justice system from the beginning, and had their complaint heard in a real court of law, with a real judge and a real jury. Instead, the failure of their franchise plus the arbitration and expensive legal battle sent them into bankruptcy. Now, they are about to lose their house. Last week, Deborah wrote to me saying that their lovely waterfront Annapolis home was going into foreclosure and they had 45 days to leave the premises. In an email she writes:

We now have nothing left to lose. We thought that if by a miracle, we should win our appeal we would finally achieve Justice. But even that was not to be. We are the first franchisee in the State of Maryland to be denied the protection of Maryland Law. I'm crying as I write this, because for the first time I realize our backs are broken and there seems to be nothing left for us. We don't know where we will go. Renting will be almost impossible, I still have not been able to find a job, and then there is the bankruptcy. As you can imagine, any landlord would determine us a high risk.

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White House Slams Israeli Settlement Expansion

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 8:19 AM PDT

The Obama administration wants Israel to stop building and expanding settlements in the occupied territories. But Israel is approving construction of hundreds of new houses in the West Bank and finishing some 2,500 others. The White House is not pleased. Press secretary Robert Gibbs just sent out a statement that included these paragraphs:

We regret the reports of Israel's plans to approve additional settlement construction. Continued settlement activity is inconsistent with Israel's commitment under the Roadmap.
As the President has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop. We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate.

It looks like the administration is taking a pretty hard line about holding Israel to its Roadmap commitments. How will the Israeli government respond?

In Defense of Fact-Checking

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 8:12 AM PDT

What does Michael Kinsley have against fact-checkers? Apparently the WaPo columnist decided today was a good day to bully the little guys. Now why would he want to do that? Fact-checking, the often thankless task of anonymous magazine interns and staff, is the unsung hero and good-news story of an industry struggling to find any good news at all. Fact-checking is the meticulous and often infuriating pursuit of every detail that goes into a story, checking and rechecking, confirming with sources and scouring of databases and archives for references that may live strong on Wikipedia, but are only confirmable at their headwaters. Does Kinsley not remember the Jayson Blair era? Do we want to go back to everyone wondering if the description of the view from a porch means they're reading make-believe?

Kinsley uses the Times' Corrections as an example of why the whole practice is a waste of time:

Who can take facts seriously after reading the daily "Corrections" column in the New York Times? Although the purpose of this column is to demonstrate the Times's rectitude about taking facts seriously, the facts it corrects are generally so bizarre or trivial and its tone so schoolmarmish that the effect is to make the whole pursuit of factual accuracy seem ridiculous.

The bizarre and trivial corrections he links to include: a map of Georgia putting the 8th district on the border with Alabama rather than in the center of the state where it belongs, the wrong country where a new minerals mine is opening (Canada not Australia), and correcting the street location of a London bookstore featured in a column.

Here's what Kinsey doesn't get: if you get the so-called little stuff wrong then people don't believe you on what you really want them to care about. Readers are smart, and lots of them pay attention. And when they read something, even something tiny, that they know is wrong they, understandably, assume the whole article is suspect.

At Mother Jones we have a tireless team of fact-checkers who pore over all of our content, spending sometimes weeks or months on a single story. They end up amassing a veritable archive of expertise on each subject and our articles end up better, more credible, to be read without cause for pause or doubt. Because it happens that reporters, unlike Kinsley who's had a "blameless journalistic career" (we'll assume he's playing sarcastic here), are capturing and describing complex happenings that they haven't lived for decades. So it's understandable that some of the particulars get shifted, confused, transposed, whatever. We all make mistakes, it's just grand when we have people around who can help us fix them.

If you know anyone who wants to join us in our very own war on errorism have them check out MoJo's internship program. True Kinsley, it's an often bizarre job where we ask factcheckers to go to the ends of the earth to confirm dates and map locations and even oft-repeated historical asides, but we guarantee, in the end, it's far from trivial.

Embassy Scandal: Eight Guards Fired

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 8:06 AM PDT

The US embassy in Kabul has fired eight ArmorGroup guards, all of whom appeared in a series of pictures showing the firm's employees partying half-naked and engaging in lewd acts. The AP reports:

The embassy said Friday the management team of the private contractor that provides the guards is also "being replaced immediately."

An embassy statement said the guards who were dismissed left the country Friday. Two other guards resigned and also left.

White House Does 180 on Visitor Records

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 6:21 AM PDT

Remember those Secret Service logs of White House visits by health care and coal industry execs the Obama adminstration was refusing to make public? Or the records of visits by lobbyist Stephen Payne, who was caught on tape peddling access to senior US officials in exchange for a sizable donation to the George W. Bush presidential library, that the Bush administration fought to keep secret? Details of those visits will soon be made public by the Obama White House, which up until now had been following its predecessor's policy of blocking access to the Secret Service logs. But not just that. Going forward, the adminstration is planning to implement an historic transparency policy, releasing the names of most White House visitors, along with other information, on an ongoing base.

This policy shift comes as the Obama administration moved to settle four cases related to public access to White House visitor logs filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. This morning's release from CREW:

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan praised the White House, stating, “The Obama administration has proven its pledge to usher in a new era of government transparency was more than just a campaign promise.  The Bush administration fought tooth and nail to keep secret the identities of those who visited the White House.  In contrast, the Obama administration – by putting visitor records on the White House web site – will have the most open White House in history.  Because visitor records will now be available online, CREW dismissed its lawsuits.”  Sloan continued, “Providing public access to visitor records is an important step in restoring transparency and accountability to our government.  CREW is proud to have been part of this historic decision.”

Yesterday’s agreement stems from lawsuits CREW filed after the Bush and later the Obama administration refused to provide White House visitor records in response to CREW’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.  Visitor records are created by the Secret Service as part of its statutory responsibility to protect the president, vice president, their residences, and the White House generally.

In lawsuits for records of visits by Christian conservative leaders and lobbyist Stephen Payne, the Bush administration argued the records were presidential records, not agency records of the Secret Service, and therefore exempt from the FOIA’s mandatory disclosure requirements.  U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth disagreed, ruling twice that the records are subject to the FOIA and not within any of the claimed exemptions.  The government appealed those decisions to the District of Columbia Circuit Court.

After President Obama took office, CREW sought records of visits to the White House by health care and coal executives to determine the degree of their influence on health care and energy legislative proposals.  The government initially refused to turn over these records, but now has agreed to produce them, as well as the Bush era records, as part of the settlement.  In turn, CREW has agreed to dismiss all the pending litigation.

Need To Read: September 4, 2009

Fri Sep. 4, 2009 4:26 AM PDT

This morning's must-reads are working for the weekend:

  • At least 80 killed in NATO airstrike in Afghanistan (NYT)
  • Obama's Afghanistan contradiction (MoJo)
  • The internal White House battle over troop strength in Afghanistan (NYT)
  • Hey, What's in That New Afghanistan Report? (MoJo)
  • GOP Campaign Against Blue Dogs: More Bark Than Bite (The Washington Independent)
  • Republican Sen. Bob Corker wants to compromise on health care reform? (WaPo)
  • Maybe California's legislature actually can do something! (NYT)
  • What's Obama going to say in that health care speech next week? (WaPo)
  • A new Israeli government TV ad compares children of intermarriage to kidnapping victims (The American Prospect)

I post articles like these throughout the day on twitter. You should follow me, of course. David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

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Eco-News Roundup: Friday, September 4

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

Calling all tweeps: A tip for Follow Friday: Follow @MoJoBlueMarble on Twitter for updates on all things enviro, health, and science. Such as:

Everything's coming up healthcare: Kevin Drum remains fairly optimistic that a decent healthcare reform bill will pass.

Healthcare penny pinching: Why the current bills on the table would do very little to cut costs

Coral reefs SOS: How rising carbon levels, acidity, pollution, algae, bleaching and El Niño are killing our reefs [The Guardian]

Bottleneck-Be-Gone: Cars with traffic-savvy GPS navigational systems pollute less. [Treehugger]

Department of parks and recession: As state funding dries up, parks go to seed. [High Country News]

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 4, 2009

Fri Sep. 4, 2009 3:54 AM PDT

Mr. Ali Jadaan, a local contractor in Scania, Iraq, welcomes members of Alpha Company, 2-162 Infantry, Oregon Army National Guard, into his home for a pre-Ramadan feast. The feast was also an invitation for the Alpha Company, 2-162 new command to sit and have a non-business meeting. The meal consisted of chicken and rice, soups, fresh fruits and vegetables, pickled vegetables and dates. (US Army photo via army.mil.)

The Geithner Plan

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 11:16 PM PDT

Via Felix Salmon, I see that Tim Geithner has unveiled his plan — or, more accurately, his guiding principles — for regulating leverage more effectively in the financial industry.  And it's not bad.  Basically it requires (a) stronger capital requirements across the board; (b) higher capital requirements for bigger firms, which would make larger firms somewhat less profitable; (c) an emphasis on real capital, not shell games; (d) higher capital requirements in good times and lower requirements in bad times; (e) a simple leverage constraint as sort of a backup to the more complex main capital rules; (f) stronger regulation of off-balance-sheet vehicles; (g) some kind of minimum liquidity requirement so that banks can't be wiped out in just a matter of days by a bank run; and (h) extension of all these rules to big non-banking entities (the "shadow banking" system).

All of these are described in general terms, and I note that (h) is described in especially dodgy terms.  So we won't know how serious Geithner is about this stuff until he rolls out the details.  But at least he seems to singing the right songs.

Pulling the Trigger

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 10:53 PM PDT

Let's check out the news on the healthcare front today.  In the New York Times, we have David Brooks suggesting that Obama throw out all the work of the past six months and start completely from scratch on a wonky curve-bending plan that would have approximately zero support in any known galaxy.  Sounds great.  In the Washington Post, we have GOP Senator Bob Corker telling us that if Democrats would just get rid of that mean old public option, Republicans will flock to support healthcare reform.  You betcha.  And in the LA Times, we're told that a public option might be politically acceptable after all as long as it goes into effect only after something "triggers" it.  What that something might be is still unclear, but basically insurance companies would have to reduce costs somehow, and if they don't do it then the public option would be triggered and they'd all have to start competing with the feds.

In other words, things are all over the map.  The trigger idea is sort of interesting, though.  Not because it's new and innovative, but because it's the kind of thing that seems to pop up as a compromise proposal pretty frequently and to no avail.  Alan Greenspan and Paul O'Neill tried to sell the idea of a trigger for the 2001 tax cuts, but nobody bought it.  The Baker Commission basically proposed triggers for withdrawing from Iraq, but that turned out to be DOA.  And here in California, when higher car registration fees got automatically triggered by a growing budget deficit, it caused such hysteria that we ended up tossing out our governor and electing an action star in his place.  Didn't work out so well.

So triggers don't have a really illustrious history.  But maybe it'll work this time.  Anybody know of any examples of successful triggers?  That is, triggers that actually produced a successful compromise at the time of legislation and didn't cause all hell to break loose when they took effect?  We need some data, people.