2010 - %3, March

Excellence in Illustration

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 8:20 PM EST

Left: Steve Brodner. Right: Dale StephanosI'm proud to announce that Mother Jones has been recognized for the excellence of our editorial illustration by a trio of prestigious organizations this year: the Society of Publication Designers, American Illustration, and the Society of Illustrators. This magazine has a long tradition of excellence—not only in investigative reporting, but also in design and art direction, and we've always believed that visual journalism is an important part of our mission. It's gratifying to see that we continue to be recognized by our peers in the publication design industry.

Roberto ParadaFirst of all, we've been honored by the Society of Publication Designers with one medal finalist award and three merit winners in their 45th Annual Competition. The SPD is one of the most prestigious association of publication designers and art directors in the country, and this work will be featured in its 45th Publication Design Annual book, which usually appears in November. In addition, the work will be exhibited online and at the Society's awards gala. The gold and silver medal winners from the field of finalists will be announced at the gala, which this year will be held on May 7 in New York City.

Jack UnruhAnd the winners are: The medal finalist was "Presidents of the United States," by Steve Brodner, from our January/February 2009 issue, in the Single/Spread Illustration category. The Merit Award winners were: "Don't Look Down," by Dale Stephanos, from our January/February 2009 issue, in the Cover Illustration category; "The People vs. Dick Cheney," by Roberto Parada, from our January/February 2009 issue, in the Single/Spread Illustration category; and "The Sheikh Down," by Jack Unruh, from our September/October 2009 issue, in the Single/Spread Illustration category.

Left: Yarek Waszul. Right: Tim O'Brien.I'm particularly looking forward to attending the awards gala, which over the years has gotten more and more entertaining. The 42nd annual gala, the last one I attended, featured two emcees, George Karabostos, the design director of Men's Health, and Fiona McDonagh, director of photography at Entertainment Weekly. Their onstage patter was flawless—and then there were the costumes: After the presentation of awards in each category, George and Fiona re-took the stage in increasingly fancy evening dress, until at their final appearance, George brought down the house in an off-the-shoulder evening gown. I'm not sure what they've got planned for this year, but I do know that if our finalist gets the gold or silver medal, I'll be there to pick it up. (The winners aren't allowed to make any speeches, which is probably another plus for all concerned.)

In other awards news this year, two works of illustration commissioned for Mother Jones were included in American Illustration 28, a juried illustration annual publication. Steve Brodner's "Presidents of the United States" will appear along with Yarek Waszul's illustration for "The New ECOnomy," from our November/December 2008 issue.


And finally, the recently-released Society of Illustrators 51st Annual, a publication that features work from the 2008 calendar year, includes a pair of illustrations from our pages: Tim O'Brien painted "The Last Empire" for the cover of our January/February 2008 issue, and Mirko Ilić created "The Seven Myths of Energy Independence" for our May/June 2008 issue.

Illustration credits, from top: left, Steve Brodner, right, Dale Stephanos; Roberto Parada; Jack Unruh; left, Yarek Waszul, right, Tim O'Brien; Mirko Ilić.

Update: After this was posted, we were notified of an additional 8 awards nominations, 4 of them for art, from the Western Publishing Association. See Elizabeth Gettelman's blog on the subject, here.

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Latest Bunning News

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 7:07 PM EST

Time's Jay Newton-Small on the latest Jim Bunning news:

Roll Call reports that Dems are lining up a series of senators who will attempt to move for a vote on the bill all night long, forcing Bunning to be present in the chamber to physically voice his objection to prevent a vote. It's unclear if the handful of Republicans who've spoken out on Bunning's behalf — Sam Brownback, Jon Kyl, Jim DeMint and John Cornyn — will help him sustain his block on the bill.

Later she tweets:

Bunning has placed a hold on all nominations, Reid's office tells me.

Is this guy God's gift to Democrats, or what? If he didn't exist, we'd have to invent him. It's like Dr. Strangelove except it's about Senate procedure instead of nuclear war.

Sting's Uzbek Dictator Problem

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 4:47 PM EST

I'm not going to pretend pop-music fame is easy, but here's a handy maxim for future crooners to keep in mind: Don't do private concerts for tyrannical rulers who reportedly boil people alive. Just sayin'.

You might think it goes without saying. But then, you might not be Sting. The former Police frontman, whose given name is the less-barbed Gordon Matthew Sumner, has been taking it on the nose for performing last October at an "arts festival" put on by the daughter of Uzbekistan's strongarm dictator, Islam Karimov. (He's the former communist party boss who, since 1991, keeps getting "elected" as his political opponents or their bodies keep disappearing.) Tickets to the gig in Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, ran from $1,000 to $2,000—or 45 times the average Uzbek's monthly income. And having been there, I'd say that might just be an overestimate of the average Uzbek's earning power.

If you want to know just how bad Karimov's regime is, ask Britain's former ambassador to the nation, Craig Murray. Or the thousands of children Uzbekistan puts to work in its cotton fields to pick and bale its "white gold." Or Condoleezza Rice, who tore asunder a tenuous US-Uzbek anti-terror alliance after Karimov's men gunned down as many as 1,000 demonstrators in the streets of Andijon five years ago. (When the Bush-era State Department calls your country "an authoritarian state with limited civil rights" and castigates you for allegedly torturing and killing terror suspects "by immersion in boiling water," brother, you're on the wrong side of a moral argument.)

Jim Bunning: Tea Party Darling

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 3:30 PM EST

If you ever wondered what type of candidate the Tea Party movement would like to see elected to Congress, look no farther than Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning (R), the man who is single-handedly holding up unemployment benefit extensions and health insurance coverage for hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Americans. While the rest of his party is quietly trying to ignore him, Bunning is giving Tea Party activists in Kentucky much to love.

"We're all in support of Sen. Bunning," says Wendy Caswell, the founder of the Louisville Tea Party. She says Tea Party activists believe that Bunning is being fiscally responsible, and that's a core Tea Party value. "He is kind of one of our models of a good representative of the people of Kentucky."

Tea Party activists aren't the only ones coming out to support Bunning's obstructionism. The Louisville Tea Party website today posted several endorsements from other state Republican leaders, including both candidates running to replace Bunning, Rand Paul and Trey Grayson. Paul, who is one of the Tea Party activists' favorite candidates, is also staging a rally in front of Bunning's office this afternoon to show support for the senator's position. Paul said in a statement, “Jim Bunning is being unfairly attacked for saying we should spend money already set aside for benefits rather than borrowing more. He deserves our support and he is going to get it.”

Getting to Yes

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 3:23 PM EST

Jonathan Cohn reports on a Democratic strategy memo that outlines a plan for passing healthcare reform:

The gist is pretty simple: The House takes up the Senate bill and passed it by March 19. A few days later it passes a reconciliation bill and sends it over to the Senate, which starts the voting process on March 26.

It's a "process" because, even though the reconciliation process limits debate to 20 hours, it doesn't limit amendments. And Republicans have warned they plan to introduce an amendment, forcing Democrats to take difficult votes, for as long as they can.

That's probably not a major issue. Sen. Kent Conrad explains:

Reconciliation is limited in time to 20 hours of consideration. At the end of that time, you can continue to offer amendments. You could offer 10,000. But if the parliamentarian judges someone as being dilatory, that can be stopped. If he says they’re just offering amendments to delay final action, he can rule to shut that down.

There are going to be lots of votes and lots of delaying tactics offered up by Republicans. But the whole point of the reconciliation process is to allow budget-related bills to pass in a reasonable timeframe on a majority vote. It might take more than 20 hours, but Republicans can't hold it up forever. If Democrats are serious about this, they can pass both the main bill and a package of amendments via reconciliation, and they can do it within weeks, not months. This is on them, not the GOP.

How Bad is the Recession?

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 3:06 PM EST

A recession is typically defined primarily as a drop in GDP. But how is GDP calculated? Here is James Hamilton a couple of years ago:

It is possible to think of GDP in two different ways. One is as the dollar value of all final sales of goods and services produced by factors of production located within the United States. The second is as the dollar value of all the income generated by that production. The two measures are equal to each other by definition. But in practice, one can try to calculate GDP either using production data or using income data. If we obtain the production and income numbers from different sources, we're certain to end up with different numbers for what is supposed to be the nation's GDP. The difference between "gross domestic product" (GDP) and "gross domestic income" (GDI) is simply reported by the BEA as a "statistical discrepancy."

So what accounts for this discrepancy? A few years ago, Mark Thoma suggested the answer had something to do with the level of non-defense government consumption expenditures, but a better answer was apparently elusive. In any case, Justin Wolfers writes over at Freakonomics today that when it comes to the real economy, the "discrepancy" might actually be a problem with standard GDP calculations. Maybe GDI is the measurement that does a better job:

This alternative measure of output growth suggests that the recession may have been deeper, and longer-lasting than previously thought, although data for the fourth quarter aren’t yet available. While many economists believe the recession ended in the second quarter of 2009, this income-based measure of output kept shrinking in the third quarter, too.  And while the expenditure-based measure is back to its level from the third quarter of 2006, the income-based measure suggests that output is still 3.5 percent below that level.  That’s a pretty big hole to dig out of.

One way or another, our current recession really does appear to be deeper and longer-lasting than the usual GDP calculations suggest. Maybe that's an illusion, or maybe there really is a problem with the way we measure GDP. We aren't likely to get any firm answers on this front anytime soon, but at least the questions are worth asking.

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Who is the Fiji Water Guerrilla?

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 2:59 PM EST

Wow. Our 2009 feature on Fiji Water's greenwashing must have made someone mad, because somebody recited several facts from our article on this cardboard sign. This blogger says he found the sign last week, taped to a bottle of Fiji Water in the New York Whole Foods where he works. In case you can't read the back of the sign, it says: "production plant runs on diesel fuel 24/7. high grade plastic transported from China --> Figi --> YOU. shipping thousands of miles to the US & Europe while thousands of Figians do not have access to clean water.............." Thanks for spreading the word, Fiji Water guerrilla, wherever you are.

Fed Consumer Agency a "Grave Mistake"

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 2:44 PM EST

Sen. Chris Dodd's leaked proposal to potentially house a consumer-protection agency within the Federal Reserve has been blasted by consumer advocates today. They say the Fed failed to protect consumers from predatory lending and hidden penalties in the run-up to the financial meltdown, and hardly deserves to have an agency tasked with building and enforcing safeguards for consumers under its auspices. "The Federal Reserve is the last place an agency designed to protect consumers should be housed," said John Taylor, the head of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, in a statement today. "It will be more waste of taxpayers' money because we’ll have to pay for the appearance of protection without getting any." Taylor goes on to say:

As early as 1998 and 1999, we urged Chairman Greenspan and then later Chairman Bernanke to take action against lenders targeting high cost loans to blacks and Hispanics. We presented them hard, cold data backing up these practices, and they did nothing. They refused to send cases to the Justice Department. It took the Federal Reserve board fourteen years to issue rules related to unfair and deceptive lending practices. This was long after the power was granted to them in 1994, and long after we pleaded and cajoled them to do something and, more importantly, after the market collapsed.

Had the Fed exercised their authority and enforced consumer protections, they could have nipped the foreclosure crisis in the bud. Now to turn over consumer protections to the very people who allowed the abuses to happen in the first place is simply beyond belief.

Similarly, Travis Plunkett, legislative director at the Consumer Federation of America, decried yesterday the powerful sway of the financial services industry and their lobbyists on Capitol Hill. It's these forces, Plunkett told the New York Times, that were diluting financial reforms proposed in the Senate—like an independent consumer protection agency—and weakening reform of big banks, mortgage lenders, payday lenders, and so on. "The financial services lobby and particularly the big banks are driving the agenda right now," Plunkett told the Times. "They are the ones gaining ground. Their strategy is clear: death by a thousand cuts."

Payday Loans Are Thriving

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 2:13 PM EST

The LA Times reports that at least one sector of the economy is thriving during the recession:

The payday loan industry has found a new and lucrative source of business: the unemployed.

....No job? No problem. A typical unemployed Californian receiving $300 a week in benefits can walk into one of hundreds of storefront operations statewide and walk out with $255 well before that government check arrives — for a $45 fee. Annualized, that's an interest rate of 459%....APRs in other states are even higher: nearly 782% in Wyoming and 870% in Maine.

But hey — couldn't that proposed Consumer Finance Protection Agency tighten up regulation of these guys? Yes indeed. Which is why lobbying activities have reached a fever pitch over the past year. Here is Keith Epstein in the Huffington Post:

Last year, as the U.S. House drew up a financial reform bill, some lawmakers who were courted by the companies and received campaign contributions from them helped crush amendments seeking to restrict payday practices, a review by the Huffington Post Investigative Fund has found.

The failed amendments would have capped payday interest rates — which reach triple digits on an annualized basis — and would have limited the number of loans a lender could make to a customer. Working largely behind the scenes, the industry ended up dividing the Democratic majority on the 71-member House Financial Services Committee...."The payday lenders have done a lot of work," House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said in an interview. "They've been very good at cultivating Democrats and minorities."

....Steven Schlein, a spokesman for an industry trade group, the Community Financial Services Association, said the industry's victory in the House against the proposed amendments was hardly final. "We were worried," said Schlein. "But we worked it hard. We have lobbyists, and they made their point. The banks worked it hard, too. But we're still in the middle of what could be a big fight."

....The activity in Congress led the industry to spend $6.1 million lobbying Washington last year, more than twice what it spent a year earlier....Meanwhile, an analysis of federal elections records shows payday-linked political contributions are streaming into the campaigns of members of Congress. At the current rate — $1.3 million since the start of last year — the amount of money spent before the 2010 midterm elections could easily surpass the industry's spending during the 2007-2008 presidential campaign season.

You can make up your own mind whether you approve of payday lending or not. The libertarian argument says that poor people deserve to have control over their lives just as much as rich people. Who are we to tell them they can't voluntarily take out a high-interest loan if they're in dire straits?

There's a rough sort of merit to this, but for my taste it's a little too redolant of Anatole France's famously acerbic observation that "The law, in its majesty, prohibits the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under bridges." In fact, common sense not only allows us to make distinctions, it demands it. And common sense suggests that abusive practices that target the most desperate and vulnerable ought to be regulated in ways that similar practices might not be in other circumstances. I don't know that I'd outlaw payday lending entirely, but would I cap interest rates and limit both the number of loans a single customer could take out as well as the total cumulative payout from a single loan? You betcha. Too bad I don't have $1.3 million to contribute to congressional reelection campaigns.

Jim Bunning and the End of Outrage

| Tue Mar. 2, 2010 1:21 PM EST

What is there to say about the Jim Bunning situation? It just leaves me speechless. We have here a situation in which the Senate is being hijacked, literally, by the ravings of a single cranky old man against a bill that the entire Republican leadership had already agreed to. It's pure pique, and the Republican Party is unwilling to do anything about it.

A lot of liberals have taken lately to calling the GOP nihilistic, and I've never bought it. Opportunistic? Sure. Brutally partisan? Sure. Vacuously unwilling to address the country's most serious problems? Sure. Ideologically frozen in the past? Sure. But nihilistic? On the contrary, they seemed driven by a brute cunning that I might even approve of if it were my own side doing it.

But then along comes Bunning, ranting against a temporary extenstion to unemployment benefits just for the sake of.....well, no one quite knows. For the sake of whatever demons are running around in his head, I guess. It's the kind of situation where a non-nihilistic party would finally step up and agree to rein the guy in. But that hasn't happened. The Republican leadership has, by all accounts, done nothing, and the rest of the caucus — or enough of it, anyway — has actually rallied around Bunning. Rallied around him! They know perfectly well he's a crackpot; they know perfectly well this is a bipartisan bill designed to provide working-class relief in the middle of a massive recession. But for guys like Bob Corker and Jeff Sessions and John Kyl it's more important to demonstrate solidarity with a crackpot than it is to help a few people out. "I admire the courage of the junior senator from Kentucky," said John Cornyn, apparently speaking for many.

Nihilism is probably still the wrong word for this. But I guess it's close enough for government work. Whatever it is, it's a very deep rot in the soul of the Republican Party.

And why won't they pay a price for this? Well, partly because Democrats aren't willing to force them to. But it's also partly because of how this gets played to most of the public. One of the consequences of Bunning's objections is that Medicare payments for doctors went down 21% effective yesterday. And whose fault is this? According to the AMA, it's the fault of the "U.S. Senate." Here's their press release:

“The Senate had over a year to repeal the flawed formula that causes the annual payment cut and instead they abandoned America’s seniors, making them collateral damage to their procedural games,” said AMA President J. James Rohack, M.D.  “Physicians are outraged because the cut, combined with the continued instability in the system, will force them to make difficult practice changes including limiting the number of Medicare patients they can treat.”

Not "Jim Bunning." Not "the Republican Party." It's the fault of "the Senate." This sort of thing gets played out in headlines around the country, and the result is disgust with government and disgust with Congress. But it doesn't affect Republicans any more than Democrats until the headlines change.