2010 - %3, March

North Korea's Currency Debacle

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 10:54 AM EDT

Barbara Demick reports on the aftermath of the great North Korean currency debacle:

North Koreans who recently fled to China say many of their fellow citizens are losing faith in the regime of Kim Jong Il after a disastrous currency revaluation that wiped out savings and left food scarcer than at any time since the famine of the mid-1990s, when as many as 2 million people died.

....By the end of December...Chinese traders who had previously supplied markets didn't want to come into the country because of bans imposed on the use of foreign currency and the wildly fluctuating exchange rates. Food remains in such short supply that a single egg costs a full week's salary for many. Rice remains largely unavailable at state stores and can be purchased only illegally at about the equivalent of more than two weeks' salary.

One North Korean woman interviewed said common laborers under the new system were making about 2,500 won per month, barely more than $1 at the new exchange rates prevailing on the black market. Cooking oil is a luxury, so unaffordable that people buy only a few grams at a time in small plastic bags.

More at the link. Apparently public adoration of Kim Jong Il is still the order of the day, but it's finally taken a hit. And maybe his son's succession chances as well.

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The GOP Stands Tall

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 10:06 AM EDT

A massive, earth-shattering victory for Republicans today:

Senate Republicans have identified two minor violations of reconciliation rules in the final piece of the health-care package. The violations will force the Senate to change the reconciliation bill and ship it to the House of Representatives for final passage.

....Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said one of the deleted provisions was a technical item that he considered "as close to a 'nothing' as you can come around here." The second, more substantive provision would have set a formula for establishing maximum Pell Grant awards. But Conrad said the formula would not have taken effect for two years, giving Congress time to restore it in another bill.

[Senate parliamentarian Alan] Frumin deemed both measures to be out of order because they had no budget implications, Conrad said Thursday. The senator said no other Republican challenges to the legislation were still pending before Frumin, raising Democratic hopes that the Senate would take a final vote within hours.

Well, that's what passes for a massive, earth-shattering victory among the Republican base these days, anyway. I'm sure the GOP is proud of its role in delaying passage of the reconciliation rider for another 24 hours or so.

A War Without Violence?

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 6:04 AM EDT

Renowned revolutionary Srdja Popovic has helped orchestrate five peaceful regime overhauls in countries around the globe. Now he's on a quest to spread his tactics—starting on an idyllic atoll in the Maldives. As Nicholas Schmidle reports in his story in the March/April issue of Mother Jones, on Democracy Island, Popovic hopes to lead activists from around the world in sharing their nonviolent resistance strategies.

Born in the Ukraine, Popovic was one of the organizers for the Serbian youth resistance movement, Otpor!, which rallied ordinary citizens in a grassroots effort to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic's 13-year regime. Their methods of agitation—a get-out-the-vote campaign, strikes, street theater, and civil disobedience—led to triumph over a despotic regime.

If you're still curious after reading Schmidle's story, I recommend A Guide to Nonviolent Struggle, which was created by Popovic and other members of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies as a how-to manual for creating a nonviolent resistance movement of your own. "I am not a politician; I am a revolutionary," Popovic told Schmidle. "I see the world as a big battlefield between those who believe in the power of the people and those who try to control the power of the people."

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Model Citizens

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Looking like a million bucks—even if you're flat broke—is the first rule of La Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes, a subculture of Congolese dandies who bring high fashion to the streets. Sapeurs may beg, borrow, or steal to get the latest from Paris and Milan. Disputes over who's the most dapper are decided by duels: Whoever flashes the most exclusive label wins.

For more of Daniele Tamagni's "Gentlemen of Bacongo," click here.

This photograph appeared in the March/April 2010 Issue of Mother Jones.

Undercover in the Foreclosure Scamming Underworld

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 4:50 AM EDT

It begins with a flyer on your front doorstep, a roadside sign with a local phone number, an ad on TV. "Stop Foreclosure Now!" "We guarantee to stop your foreclosure." "We stop foreclosures every day. Our team of professionals can stop yours this week!" They promise quick access to your bank or lender, and a way out of foreclosure and losing your home. They seem almost too good to be true, especially if you're a beleaguered homeowner clinging to your house.

Almost always they are too good to be true. Welcome to the world of the foreclosure rescue scam. Just as epic levels of fraud helped cause the subprime crisis, now, in the wake of the greatest housing meltdown in at least a generation, thousands of scheming, manipulative foreclosure relief swindlers are preying upon desperate homeowners unschooled in consumer finance and looking for help. The FTC, for example, reported 7,927 complaints on "mortgage modification and foreclosure relief" last year; in 2008, it had one. The Illinois Attorney General filed 31 different lawsuits last year regarding mortgage rescue scams, and the Florida AG filed 20 within the past year.

This newest wave of housing fraud is documented in painstaking detail in a new report, "Foreclosure Rescue Scams: A Nightmare Complicating the American Dream," to be released today by a leading housing advocacy group, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, as part of a hearing held by the House oversight committee. An early copy of the report was obtained by Mother Jones.

To document the pervasive foreclosure relief scamming out there, NCRC arranged more than 200 different undercover "shops," or visits with, these swindlers, getting details on numerous relief scams and probing what each claimed to offer. The services had names like 123 Fix My Loan, Help U Modify, and Legal Loan Bailout; others were clearly intended to confuse homeowners by sounding like legitimate government or private programs, like HopeNow Mortgages or Federal Loan Modification Bureau. In all, 115 foreclosure relief services were identified in NCRC's investigation. (So shady are some of these scams that 17 of them didn't even have legitimate phone numbers.)

The fear, the NCRC report says, is that these rackets draw homeowners away from real programs that could help them. "Modification companies are often operating in a regulatory vacuum, without any accountability, and may be preventing consumer access to the Home Affordable Modification Program," the report says.

Blacks Shut Out of Obama's Housing Rescue

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 4:10 AM EDT

Black homeowners hit hard by the housing crisis and economic downturn are disproportionately shut out of the Obama administration's multibillion-dollar homeowner rescue effort, the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). This startling new finding appears in a first-of-its-kind poll conducted by a leading housing advocacy group, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, in conjunction with a hearing by the House oversight committee today investigating why HAMP has failed beleaguered homeowners and hardly slowed the rising tide of foreclosures. A copy of the report laying out NCRC's findings was first obtained by Mother Jones before its public release.

According to NCRC's findings, white homeowners eligible for the HAMP program are 50 percent more likely than blacks to receive a loan modification, which can lower monthly mortgage payments and help homeowners keep their homes. Loan servicers, the poll finds, foreclosed on black homeowners who were late on their mortgage payments noticeably faster than white or Hispanic borrowers. The poll's finding here "suggests that lenders and servicers push delinquent Black or African-American borrowers into the foreclosure process much sooner than borrowers from other racial and ethnic groups." Black homeowners who did receive modifications also saw smaller reductions in their loan's interest rate—an average drop of 2.84 percentage points—than did whites and Hispanics—3.32 and 3.35, respectively. So telling is NCRC's finding relating to racial differences that the group calls for "fair lending investigations of [the] HAMP program and participating servicers."

NCRC's poll is the first to investigate whether servicers and lenders treat people differently during the modification process due to race.

The poll is equally damning in its broader examination of HAMP, the Treasury Department's flagship homeowner initiative. As others have pointed out, HAMP's results have been dismal at best: Despite originally claiming that HAMP would help 3 to 4 million people—around 270,000 every three months—the program has only resulted in 170,000 permanent mortgage modifications in a year's time. In NCRC's poll, they found homeowners surveyed were more likely to get lasting help if they weren't eligible for HAMP than if they were.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 25, 2010

Thu Mar. 25, 2010 3:55 AM EDT

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US Soldiers fortify an Afghan police checkpoint by placing razor wire around the perimeter in Robat, Afghanistan, on March 19, 2010. Photo via the US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Francisco V. Govea II.

Planning for Climate Change

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 12:45 AM EDT

So what are the likely economic effect of tighter greenhouse gas regulations and the adoption of a cap-and-trade system for pricing carbon emissions? Conservatives insist it would devastate the economy, but in California, at least, a new report says the effect would be pretty small:

It concluded that the measure will yield modest job gains statewide, will have a negligible effect on the state's overall economy — the eighth largest in the world — and could benefit some sectors like alternative energy businesses.

...."These policies can shift the driver of economic growth from polluting energy sources to clean energy and efficient technologies, with little or no economic penalty," the report said. Thousands of manufacturing, mining and utilities industry jobs will be lost, but service, finance, and other sectors will gain similar numbers, leaving the most populous U.S. state about the same in terms of total jobs, income and growth, the report said. Five scenarios found a maximum effect of tens of billions of dollars on state output of $2.5 trillion in 2020.

So: no economic catastrophe. On the other hand, there are certainly specific sectors that would be affected. Which gives me a good opportunity to plug a new project called The Climate Desk, a collaborative project of Mother Jones, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Slate, The Atlantic, Wired, WNET, and the Nation Institute. Our website will be up soon, but reporting projects are already underway. In particular, Felix Salmon of Reuters is looking into the ways that not just specific sectors, but specific companies, are preparing themselves for the downside risk of climate change. A few days ago he posted an update on what he's found out so far:

First, there’s the banks. I heard of one Brazilian bank — I’m not sure which one — which was asked for a 20-year loan to fund a major agricultural project in the Amazon, and which responded by asking for an environmental audit. They don’t want to lend money to a coffee project, say, if the land is not going to be arable for coffee in 20 years’ time. Has anybody heard tales of environmental models playing a role in banks’ loan underwriting?

Secondly, there’s the hospitality industry, especially the parts of it which have a lot of assets on islands and beaches and the like. Are any of these companies doing environmental studies on coastal erosion and sea-level rise, and if so, how are they managing those risks? This isn’t a question of insuring against a disastrous event happening in the next year or two — that can be done by writing a check. It’s more a question of positioning the company so that it wouldn’t be devastated by the inability to insure against a disastrous event in the future, if insurers decide the risks are too big.

Finally there’s companies like ADM or Heinz, which are creating new crops designed to cope well with low-water conditions or large swings in temperatures. This is the point at which risk mitigation becomes profitable in and of itself: once you’ve mitigated risks by creating those crops, you can cash in on demand for those crops if and when climate change causes demand for them to rise.

Anybody know of any other examples? The SEC recently decreed that companies have to disclose the effect of climate change in four different areas, which means that more and more companies will be forced to take this seriously. If you know of any interesting corporate reactions to a warming world, leave 'em in comments.

Corn on "Countdown": The Republicans' Viagra Amendment

Wed Mar. 24, 2010 8:44 PM EDT

David Corn joined guest host Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann to discuss some of the ridiculous amendments the Senate Republicans have proposed in their ongoing efforts to prevent the passage of health care reform.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Reforming the Filibuster

| Wed Mar. 24, 2010 8:32 PM EDT

Why doesn't Harry Reid force Republicans who want to engage in filibusters to really filibuster? Read the phone book, recite the constitution, etc. Answer: because he has to keep at least 50 Democrats on the floor at all times to make this happen. Otherwise the filibusterer will just demand a quorum call and then take a nap or go home until enough Dems are rousted out of bed to keep the Senate in session. Basically, a majority of the Democratic caucus has to stay on the Senate floor at all times, while the Republicans can just tag team, each one talking for a few hours and then handing the baton off to a colleague.

Senator Frank Lautenberg wants to change that by making "dilatory quorum calls" out of order after a cloture motion has been filed:

In response to the growing misuse of the filibuster as a tool to obstruct work in Congress, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) today announced introduction of the Mr. Smith Bill to require Senators who want to filibuster a bill to actually show up on the Senate floor and engage in debate. Once debate ends and Senators no longer seek to speak, the vote could be held immediately.

“If a Senator wants to delay our work in the Senate, then that Senator must show up on the floor and debate,” stated Sen. Lautenberg. “Filibusters should happen on Capitol Hill, not from the Capital Grille. If any of my colleagues feel strongly enough about a bill or nomination to stop all work in the Senate, they should have no problem standing on the Senate floor to explain their opposition to the American public.”

The problem, of course, is that Lautenberg's bill can be filibustered, and since it's a rule change it would require 67 votes to pass. There's no chance of that, obviously. But National Review editor Daniel Foster explains how it could be done:

The bar would be lowered significantly at the beginning of the next Congress in January 2011, however. At that point, only a simple majority will be required to change the Senate's standing rules.

That's true, though I'm a little surprised to see an NR editor admitting it so candidly. But as near as I can tell, it's absolutely correct that Senate rules can be changed at the beginning of a new session as long as Democrats retain their majority and the vice president is willing to provide the needed rulings on objections from the minority. Harry Reid has already said he's willing to consider this, which means the rest is up to Joe Biden and his boss. No word from them, yet, though.