2010 - %3, August

A Sense of Where We Are: On the Mississippi

| Sat Aug. 7, 2010 5:30 PM EDT


View Westward Expansion in a larger map

I've been meaning to note this for a while, so I'll just use the space under this map to point out that there's actually a Zell Miller Mountain Parkway in northwest Georgia, which we drove across for 15-20 minutes a few weeks back. Zell Miller! I wish I could think of something smart and cutting to say, but it's actually just like any other highway. Except it challenged us to a duel.

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Taliban Spins Time's Cover Photo

| Sat Aug. 7, 2010 2:58 PM EDT

Time magazine's editor, Richard Stengel, took a lot of crap last week for approving a cover image of 18-year-old Bibi Aisha, an Afghan woman whose nose and ears had been hacked off by her Taliban husband. The picture's context was the real source of dissension. Just below Aisha's chin sat the cover line: "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan." (Note the "if," rather than a "when.") Amid talk of a US withdrawal and a possible detente between Afghan president Hamid Karzai and Talib leadership, Time wove Aisha's story into a larger narrative detailing the Taliban's brutal treatment of women. "They are the people that did this to me," she told the magazine. "How can we reconcile with them?"

The Taliban would like to explain itself now.

In a press release Saturday morning, the guerrilla group (still calling itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the title it gave the diplomatically isolated country when it ruled Kabul) argued that Time's "barbaric" story violated journalism's professional code of ethics, as it was "a fabrication by the Americans, who are publishing these lies to divert attention of the people from their clear and disgraceful defeat." The release went on to claim that it ain't Afghanistan that's got a women's rights problem:

America which claims that it needs to protect and liberate Afghan women, to this we say, if there is any place on the earth were women need to be protected and treaty with dignity it is in America, were close to half a million females are raped each year, keeping in mind that more then 50% rapes are not reported. [sic x 5]

What followed were nearly 2,000 words citing stats from the CIA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project—among others—as evidence that the US is a heinous den of spousal abuse, date rape, human trafficking, civil-rights violations, and same-sex domestic violence. (This latter, from the group that banned homosexuality in Afghanistan, despite tacit acceptance of gay interactions in local tradition.)

Also name-checked in the Taliban broadside: ex-KBR employee Jamie Leigh Jones, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the US Army, inner-city Philadelphia, and journalist Helen Benedict—though that entire passage of the press release may be lifted from original sources, since the English suddenly gets a lot better and more complex.

Hard to say what the significance of this is. The Taliban are capitalizing on the valid Western criticisms of Time's story, since Aisha was mutilated just last year, the eighth year of US military intervention in Afghanistan. Fat lot of good that military presence did her.

Still, you'll never hear me utter the words "The Taliban is right." We're talking about this Taliban, and this one, and this one, and this one. And this is what their Pakistani Talib brothers do.

And what of Aisha herself? The Taliban decry what was done to her, but cast aspersions on her account of the crime, since "this case has never been forwarded to any court or persons of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."

For her part, Aisha is headed for reconstructive surgery to repair her mutilated face. In America. Hope she watches out for sexual predators; I hear the US is full of 'em.

(h/t Aaron Y. Zelin, al-Maktabah; for more coverage on women's rights in Afghanistan, read MoJo's May/June 2009 package here, and an extended interview with author Khaled Hosseini here.)

The Latest on Bell

| Sat Aug. 7, 2010 1:42 PM EDT

I've been remiss in keeping you up to speed on the almost comically egregious self-dealing at the city of Bell. The city manager (salary: $800K), asst. city manager (salary: $400K) and police chief (salary: $500K) are gone, but it turns out there's more!

The city's director of administrative services, Lourdes Garcia, was earning $422,707, and the director of general services, Eric Eggena, earned $421,402, officials said. Those amounts include salary, deferred compensation and some benefits, which city officials did not fully detail. In addition, Bell's director of community services, Annette Peretz, earned $273,542, a deputy city engineer earned $247,573, the business development coordinator earned $295,627, a police captain earned $238,075 and a police lieutenant earned $229,992. Their names were not immediately released.

This was all in the midst of rising taxes because, you know, the city was hurting for cash. And what were all these high-paid geniuses doing? Check it out:

The small and cash-strapped city of Bell is on the hook for a $35-million bond debt that voters didn't approve — and that the city can't afford to pay off, The Times has learned.

The debt, which Bell took on three years ago to buy land near the 710 Freeway, is more than twice the size of Bell's annual operating budget. Come November, the city could lose the land to foreclosure. The city's hope to profit from the purchase fell apart in 2008 after city officials failed to conduct basic environmental reviews.

....In October 2007, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, a citizens group that tries to blunt the effect of industrial pollution on the 710 corridor, filed suit against the city and the railroad....In July 2008, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant agreed; he scolded Bell officials for ignoring their obligations under the California Environmental Quality Act. "The whole idea of CEQA is that you are supposed to prepare your environmental review before you enter into the lease with the railroad," the judge said. The law "is supposed to be followed for a project. They didn't do anything."

Nice work, overpaid officials! I know the DA is looking into whether the law was broken when the city council and the city managers all agreed to raise each other's salaries to the moon, but if it turns out there's no applicable law I'd be willing to just make one up.

New Orleans' Garden of Good Intentions

| Sat Aug. 7, 2010 12:15 PM EDT

Pittsburgh: What's Platinum LED certified, flood resistant, and looks like an elephant? One of Brad Pitt's new houses in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward (Photo: Tim Murphy).Pittsburgh: What's Platinum LEED certified, flood resistant, and looks like an elephant? One of Brad Pitt's new houses in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward (Photo: Tim Murphy).New Orleans, Louisiana—I touched on this briefly in my last post, but one of the stranger (if not totally unexpected) things about post-Katrina New Orleans is the extent to which the city's worst-hit areas have become a primordial stew for all manner of idealists. It's a bit like the early American frontier in a way, where religious entrepreneurs and land-happy dreamers plotted out their own utopian communities and would-be empires on the uncharted Eden.

Partly this is due to the fact that there are no Daniel Burnham, Chicago-after-the-fire, big plans to be found. If the federal or city government is actively trying to lure displaced residents back, they deserve credit for at last stifling a leak. Once you get off the main drags of St. Claude or Claiborne (or Brad Pitt's construction zone toward the canal), the streets feel like they've been paved with fun-size volcanoes, pocked with craters big enough to have their own potholes. You don't pass through intersections so much as you overcome them. Absent the land's original tenants, much of the real estate has returned to nature. Stop signs (the ones still manning their posts) are often blocked from site entirely, as are a few intersections, to the point where you have to roll down your window and listen for oncoming cars, rather than look both ways.

Overgrown: (Photo: Tim Murphy)Overgrown: (Photo: Tim Murphy)Telephone wires are down, irreparable buildings (including a few churches) are lost in the overgrowth, and from the street you can find dozens of boarded-up buildings that still wear the spray-paint scars of the first-responders—noting the date the house was searched, the group that did it, and the number of dead found inside.

So that's the bad news. The good news, depending on how you look at it, is that the relative vacuum of activity has made it a hub for the aforementioned pioneers. Walk around for a bit and you'll find a Mennonite aid organization, various church groups from as far off as Atlanta, community gardens, and, invariably, tourists (architectural and otherwise) who've come here to see Brad Pitt.

Real Housewives of the Oval Office

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 10:01 PM EDT

Michelle Obama's vacation in Spain is causing jaws to drop and tongues to wag:

A quiet holiday in a lavish Spanish villa for the first lady and her daughter has turned into a bit of a headache for a White House trying to battle bad economic news at home.

....The first lady is paying for her own room, food and transportation, and the friends she brought will pay for theirs as well. But the government picks up security costs, and the image of the president’s wife enjoying a fancy vacation at a luxury resort abroad while Americans lose their jobs back home struck some as ill-timed. European papers are having a field day tracking her entourage, a New York Daily News columnist called her “a modern-day Marie Antoinette” and the blogosphere has been buzzing.

Now see, that's why Americans preferred the down home common sense of the Bush family. Laura didn't go gallivanting off with her friends and a squad of Secret Service agents every year, she just joined George for quiet getaways clearing brush at the ranch in Crawf — oh, wait. What's that? She didn't?

Laura Bush took solo vacations without her husband each year of George W. Bush’s presidency, likewise traveling with her Secret Service detail on a government plane to meet friends for camping and hiking excursions to national parks. But it never generated the sort of furor Mrs. Obama trip’s is causing, at least in part because visiting national parks in the United States is not as politically sensitive.

Uh huh. That's it. Laura's vacations generated no furor because "visiting national parks in the United States is not as politically sensitive." I imagine that partisan cranks will try to gin up some other reason that no one made a fuss over her vacations, but you can't take these special pleaders seriously. Laura just had the good sense to visit places that weren't as politically-wink-wink-nudge-nudge-sensitive. Facts are facts.

Professor McCain on Bad Science

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 6:50 PM EDT

Earlier this week, Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn published a report titled "Summertime Blues: 100 Stimulus Projects That Give Taxpayers the Blues" in which they deem certain projects unworthy of stimulus money. As Newsweek pointed out, in some instances, they seem to be onto something, but in others they appear to have singled out stimulus-backed art and science projects simply for being, well, art and science projects. The Huffington Post did a nice job showing the list's bias against stimulus-backed art, but besides a short article from the AAAS, little has been said about the senators' ill treatment of science.

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Gray Wolves FTW

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 2:55 PM EDT

A federal judge in the US district court in Montana ruled Thursday that the Rocky Mountain gray wolf should be returned to the endangered species list, overturning the Obama administration's 2009 decision to delist the species in several Western states. The wolves, said the judge, "must be listed, or delisted, as a distinct population and protected accordingly."

Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the April 2009 decision of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to "delist" gray wolves in Montana and Idaho, while keeping them protected in Wyoming, was a violation of the endangered species act. "The plain language of the ESA does not allow the agency to divide a [species] into a smaller taxonomy," Molloy said.

In a statement, Tom Strickland, the assistant secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, said that the agency believes the wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains no longer need protection. "Our collective efforts have brought this population to the point where it no longer requires Endangered Species Act protection," said Strickland. But until Wyoming makes as much progress in restoring the wolf population, the wolves will remain protected throughout the region. "[I]n the days ahead we will work closely with Idaho and Montana to explore all appropriate options for managing wolves in those states," he said.

Fish and Wildlife argued that the wolf population had been brought up to 1,500 and had made significant progress in those two states since they were first listed as endangered in 1974. Wyoming, however, had not succeeded in adequately restoring the species. The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, and other conservation groups sued the federal government over the wolf delisting last year, arguing that the state delineation was arbitrary.

While the ruling deals with a specific decision by the Obama administration regarding these wolves, it more broadly invalidates a policy adopted in the Bush era, which would have allowed for the protection of small divisions of an endangered species rather than the whole species. While "it may be a pragmatic solution to a difficult biological issue, it is not a legal one," Molloy stated in his decision.

"The Obama administration should have known better than to adopt and defend the Bush administration's anti-endangered species policies," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "This is a victory for all wildlife, not just the wolf, because it forces the federal government to treat species as whole, rather then divide them into politically convenient pieces so it can strip them of protection."

Is Fannie Mae Sabotaging Obama's Housing Rescue?

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 2:50 PM EDT

The utter failure of the Obama administration's flagship homeowner rescue is, by now, common knowledge. But has Fannie Mae, the government-backed and taxpayer-supported housing finance company, played an active role in sabotaging Obama's $75-billion bust of a program?

That's the most explosive allegation leveled by Caroline Herron, a former Fannie executive who worked closely with the Treasury Department on the housing program, called the Home Affordable Modification Program. Herron's claims appear in a suit, first reported on by Michael Hudson at the Center for Public Integrity, in which she alleges that Fannie fired her for criticizing the corporation's handling of HAMP and blackballed her from working at Treasury, where she'd hoped to start a new job. Herron's suit, available here, offers a damning critique of Fannie's handling of HAMP, saying the company put the pursuit of easy profits above helping American homeowners—even though it's ultimately American taxpayers who've kept Fannie afloat with more than $85 billion in bailout funds.

Here's one passage from Herron's suit:

"It appeared that Fannie Mae officers were focused on maximizing incentive payments available to Fannie Mae under various federal programs—even if this meant wasting taxpayer money and delaying the implementation of high-priority Treasury programs."

As the suit explains, Fannie received "substantive" incentive payments by getting homeowners modified mortgage deals on a temporary basis. In HAMP, you see, the homeowner first goes through a multiple-month trial run with lower payments. If the homeowner stays current during the trial run, the modification should theoretically be converted into a permanent modification, with the lower terms applying for three to five years. A three- or four-month trial mod doesn't do a homeowner much good—but those trial runs did put money in Fannie's pocket. As CPI's Hudson reports,

Herron charges that Fannie Mae continued in headlong pursuit of “trial mods” even though it knew many had little chance of becoming permanent. As late as September 2009, barely 1 percent of trial modifications had converted to permanent modifications by the end of their three-month trial, a Congressional oversight panel found. Nevertheless, Fannie preferred doing trials, Herron alleges, because it was eligible to receive incentive payments from the Treasury Department for trial modifications it booked before the end of 2009.

Another key part of Herron's suit is her description of Fannie's handling of what's called a "borrower portal." A chief complaint about HAMP is the sheer amount of paperwork involved, how that paperwork gets lost when sent to mortgage servicers, and how the application process creates a major bottleneck for the program. A borrower portal is basically an online application website, which, its proponents claim, would cut down on the paperwork debacle and speed up the application process. 

To its credit, the Treasury Department wanted a portal for HAMP, and asked Fannie to get one into place. Herron, however, alleges that Fannie did everything it could to block the portal and resist Treasury's request, which would've boosted HAMP. In other words, the company Treasury hired to run large parts of HAMP actively prevented the program from helping as many homeowners as it could. Herron's suit says she fought Fannie's attempts to block the portal, and that action led to her firing.

In all, Herron's allegations, if accurate, offer a damning look at how Fannie, already marred by years of mismanagement and accounting controversies, repeatedly undermined HAMP, the bailout-funded program created with regular Americans (and not big banks) in mind. Still, HAMP has mostly been a disaster and waste of taxpayer money. And little wonder why: The people running the show are dooming it fail.

Read former Fannie Mae executive Caroline Herron's suit against Fannie Mae:

Herron Lawsuit Against Fannie Mae

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 August 2010

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 2:05 PM EDT

Every week it's the same old thing: pictures of the cats' faces. But what about the rest of them? Well, here you go: some nice artsy photos of Inkblot and Domino from the back. The one on the left somehow reminds me of an Andrew Wyeth painting. Let's call it Domino's World. The one on the right is more like — I dunno. Some Ansel Adams photograph? Maybe Moonrise Over Inkblot. Except it's actually a sunset. But I bet you guys can come up with something a lot better.

Quote of the Day: Geese and Ganders in the Senate

| Fri Aug. 6, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

From Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D–RI), who decided not to push through the nomination of a Rhode Island judge after Republican senators had all left town even though Republicans had declined to give him the usual home state deference on proceeding with a vote:

It is frustrating to be in this position of holding myself back out of respect for the traditions and courtesies of the Senate when I feel that at the moment I’m on the losing end of a violation of the courtesies and traditions of the Senate.

Ladies and gentlemen, the U.S. Senate, greatest deliberative body etc. etc.