2011 - %3, May

Will Clarence Thomas Recuse Himself on Health Care Reform?

| Tue May. 31, 2011 8:11 AM PDT

Following a time-honored Washington tradition of dumping required but embarrassing information on a Friday night before a major holiday, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas finally released the details of his wife's income from her year or so working for the tea party group Liberty Central, which fought President Obama's health care reform law. His new financial disclosure form indicates that his wife, Virginia, who served as Liberty Central's president and CEO, received $150,000 in salary from the group and less than $15,000 in payments from an anti-health care lobbying firm she started.

The disclosure was apparently prompted in part by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who had been needling Thomas (including on Twitter) for months to disclose how much money his wife earned from Liberty Central. That's because challenges to Obama's health care reform law are likely to end up before the Supreme Court sooner rather than later, and if Thomas and his wife benefited from her income working against the bill, the justice has an enormous conflict of interest in hearing any legal challenge. Thomas had failed to disclose Virginia's income on his financial disclosure forms for 20 years; under pressure from Weiner and others, he had recently amended old disclosures to reflect hundreds of thousands of dollars she had earned working for the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that also opposed Obama's health care plan.

But, up until now, Thomas had not revealed how much money his wife made from her controversial Liberty Central work. When Virginia Thomas decided to take a high-profile role in the organization, she was immediately criticized because of the potential that her job might compromise her husband's independence on the bench. Eventually, she was forced to step down (a move also apparently prompted by her bizarre October phone call to Anita Hill, the woman who'd accused her husband of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearing). When she left the organization, she created a new consulting firm, Liberty Consulting, which also did anti-health care reform lobbying. Justice Thomas finally released the details of her compensation Friday night, but the disclosure, and Weiner's triumphant press release announcing the move, were largely overshadowed by Weinergate.

Over the weekend, Weiner's Twitter account was allegedly hacked and Tweeted a photo of a near-naked man to a college student. Conservative media mogul Andrew Breitbart published the photo on his site, Big Government, and the feeding frenzy was furious enough to ensure that Thomas' news barely saw the light of day. Still, if and when health care reform makes its way to the Supreme Court, Thomas will have a much harder time making his conflict of interest go away. 

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Bribery! Corruption! The Scandal That Could Bring Down a Presidency

| Tue May. 31, 2011 6:52 AM PDT

The scandal has it all: A whistleblower, allegations of bribery and vote-buying, pictures of envelopes stuffed with cash, and the suspension of two respected officials. It's a scandal that has rocked the international community, with transparency advocates and international organizations demanding the presidential election itself be postponed until investigators get to the bottom of the corruption.

I'm talking, of course, about the snowballing debacle at FIFA, the global organization that governs the planet's most popular sport, soccer. On Tuesday, the anti-corruption group Transparency International (TI) demanded that FIFA delay its June 1 presidential election so that the organization can get the bottom of the vote-buying controversy. Among other things, Transparency International is demanding that FIFA implement new rules to combat corruption, appoint an ombudsman, and review its ethics code.

"Free and fair elections cannot take place when there is a suspicion that voters may have been swayed," a TI official said in a statement. "Two major figures in football politics have been suspended recently for alleged vote-buying. FIFA delegates know that they must clean house if their vote is to have legitimacy."

FIFA's crisis began when the US's only representative to the organization, Chuck Blazer, accused two FIFA colleagues of offering cash bribes to as many as 25 delegates to secure their support in the vote on which nations would host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments, the game's biggest competition. (Russia won the 2018 rights, and Qatar the 2022 rights.) The two officials accused of allegedly bribing delegates no less than Jack Warner, the head of soccer in North and Central America, and Mohammed Bin Hammam, the head of soccer in Asia. Notably, Bin Hammam was the only challenger to incumbent Sepp Blatter in tomorrow's presidential election, but Bin Hammam's decision to drop out leaves Blatter the only candidate. Qatar has also been accused of buying the rights to host the 2022 World Cup, which Qatari officials reject.

Blatter, the 75-year-old Swiss who's running for his fourth term as FIFA president, has been pulled into the scandal as well, accused of turning a blind eye to the alleged bribery. (He denies the charge.)

TI isn't the only group to demand a delay in the FIFA election. England's Football Association has joined TI in calling for a postponement of the election, demanding that an independent official step in and make recommendations on how to increase the transparency and integrity of FIFA's internal workings. "This has been a very damaging time for the reputation of FIFA and therefore the whole of football," the FA said in a statement.

The GOP Targets Food Safety (Again!)

| Tue May. 31, 2011 6:44 AM PDT

House Republicans are laying down new markers for 2012 budget cuts, continuing their battle to weaken consumer protections in the name of fiscal austerity. As I reported earlier this month, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has been quietly leading the push to slash discretionary spending—which must be approved by Congress every year—as party leaders negotiated a budget and deficit deal.

Now, a House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Food and Drug Administration has decided to cut funding for food safety by $87 million, the Washington Post reports, and the full House is likely to pass the reduction as well. Consumer advocates worry the House GOP's food-safety defunding will undermine FDA's ability to enforce a sweeping new food safety law that passed with bipartisan support last year:

Food safety advocates said that without additional money—let alone the current funding FDA receives—the agency will not be able to meet many requirements of the new law, including increased inspections of food manufacturing plants, better coordination with state health departments, and developing the capacity to more quickly respond to food-borne illnesses and minimize their impact.

The proposed cut is in line with previous GOP efforts to defund food safety and other consumer protections. Earlier this year, House Republicans made a far more drastic push to gut funding for food oversight, proposing to cut $241 million from the FDA’s food safety budget for the rest of 2011. The newly proposed $87 million cut for 2012 is relatively less draconian, and as such, it could conceivably be among the discretionary cuts that could make their way into a grand bargain over the budget and debt ceiling. The House GOP's logic for starting out big is becoming increasingly obvious: By moving the goal posts so far to the right, less drastic compromise deals seem moderate by comparison.

Palin, McCain, and Rolling Thunder

| Tue May. 31, 2011 6:22 AM PDT

Have you read enough about Sarah Palin and her less-than-magical mystery bus tour?

There was one intriguing connection that wasn't made in many of the media accounts of her participation in the annual Rolling Thunder Memorial Day motorcycle extravaganza in Washington, DC, this past weekend: Palin was hanging out at an event that used to be enemy territory for John McCain.

Rolling Thunder was started in late 1980s to raise awareness about Vietnam POWs missing in action. At that time, many of its organizers and activists accepted the notion (or conspiracy theory) that the US government had knowingly left behind US GIs in Vietnam, and was covering up this dastardly deed. (See Rambo: First Blood Part II). And for many who believed this, McCain, a former POW, was an enemy, for he would not join their cause and—worse—he co-chaired with Sen. John Kerry a Senate investigation that essentially found that Rambo was wrong. Their probe, completed in 1993, concluded:

While the Committee has some evidence suggesting the possibility a POW may have survived to the present, and while some information remains yet to be investigated, there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.

This finding enraged the Ramboists within the POW/MIA community. In fact, John Holland, one of the founders of Rolling Thunder, fiercely opposed McCain's presidential bid in 2008. (Holland also denounced McCain for having collaborated with the enemy when McCain was a POW.)

With the passing years, the Rolling Thunder rally has become less about (nonexistent) POWs and more about itself and motorcycles. And there was Palin, turning the event into a platform for herself. She was mostly well received, it seemed, at this photo-op. But if she had brought her once-partner McCain along for the ride, the picture could have been rather different.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 31, 2011

Tue May. 31, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

A U.S. Army soldier with Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, aims his M4 carbine over a wall while securing an open field in Char Shaka, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on April 27, 2011. DoD photo by Spc. Jacob Warren, U.S. Army.

Chart of the Day: The Death of Small Businesses

| Mon May. 30, 2011 6:37 PM PDT

Like me, you've probably been hearing for years that small businesses are the engine of job creation in the United States. But that's an outdated view. The number of new startup businesses has declined sharply since the beginning of the recession, while the number of jobs created by startup businesses has been declining for over a decade. As this chart from the BLS shows, the number of jobs created by new businesses peaked in 2000, began declining at the start of the Bush administration, and has been plummeting ever since:

The number of new establishments for the year ending in March 2010 was lower than any other year since the series began....The number of jobs created by establishments less than 1 year old has decreased from 4.1 million in 1994, when this series began, to 2.5 million in 2010. This trend combined with that of fewer new establishments overall indicates that the number of new jobs in each new establishment is declining.

....The number of jobs created from establishment births peaked in the late 1990s and has experienced an overall decline since then. The decrease in birth-related employment during the latest recession is the largest in the history of the series, followed closely by the period of “jobless recovery” after the 2001 recession.

Since the recession began in 2008, the biggest net generator of jobs has been neither small businesses nor large businesses. It's been medium-sized businesses.

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New York, New York

| Mon May. 30, 2011 8:45 AM PDT

It's vacation time again! Soon, anyway. I'll be in New York for a few days at the end of June, and I'm looking for suggestions for things to do. Last time I did this I was accompanied by Marian and some friends who had never been to New York before, so lots of standard tourist stuff was on the agenda. This time I'm on my own, so I'd be interested in ideas that are a little off the beaten path. This worked pretty well last time, so I thought I'd ask readers for suggestions again.

Not that the usual stuff is off limits. I'm definitely going to spend a few hours at MOMA. I haven't been there in ages and my hotel is right nearby. And I've never been to the Bronx Zoo. Is it worth a visit if the weather isn't too bad? Or maybe a Yankees game at the new stadium if I can find someone who wants to go with me. Beyond that, though, I have no plans. What should I do and what should I eat while I'm there?

Asobi Seksu: Music for Space Travel?

| Mon May. 30, 2011 4:20 AM PDT
Asobi Seksu in Nottingham

You could call it dream pop. Or shoegazing. Music you could fall asleep to. Asobi Seksu lead singer Yuki Chikudate's soft-soprano voice transcends time and space, channeling tones that compel you "to turn off all the lights, put some candles on, and drift into heaven." Layer that with the ebb and flow of rolling drums, heavy guitar riffs, and adorn it with the jingles of a tamborine, and you get what drummer Larry Gorman calls "a big sonic expression." If supernovas made noise, this would come pretty close.

Asobi Seksu (Japanese for "playful sex") doesn't fit squarely into a single genre, and so it ends up being described by phrases rather than single adjectives: "a hyper-stylized and glitzy graphic design sense," for example. And despite the band's name, Chikudate's lineage, and her tendency to sing in Japanese, Asobi Seksu isn't quite the Shibuya import that some like to label it. Many of the band's biggest influences hail from places closer to its Brooklyn home, from Yo La Tengo (Hoboken, NJ) and Sonic Youth (NYC) to Tom Waits (Pomona) and The Beach Boys (So. Cal.). Which makes sense, considering Chikudate grew up in Los Angeles and has lived in the Big Apple since she was 16—not to mention Gorman's lifelong affection for the late punk-and-blues haven, CBGB.

Tonight, the band returns to San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill for an encore show as it tours in support of its latest (well-received) album, Fluorescence. In the clip below, Chikudate (with Gorman) tells me about learning to sing, moving to New York, and why you should never say "asobi seksu" to a Japanese person.

Click here for more music features from Mother Jones.

Over-the-Top Pop: Matt and Kim

| Mon May. 30, 2011 4:00 AM PDT

The dynamic pop duo Matt and Kim are coming to a venue near you as they tour in support of their second full-length LP, Sidewalks. The Brooklyn-based pair, known for their uppity tracks and seemingly bottomless pit of performance energy, have graduated from the tiny clubs of their youth to midsize spots like DC's 9:30 Club, The Vic in Chicago, and Oakland's Fox Theater. Still, if you liked what you saw on their last tour, you shouldn't be disappointed with a less intimate space.

"We just keep doing what we always do, which is essentially embarrassing ourselves," Matt Johnson, the group's singer, told me. "We talk to the audience and jump around. Whether it's a smaller venue show or a big festival, we do a similar thing, and it seems to work."

For the audience, it does work—Matt and Kim's live shows are ultra-entertaining, despite the elementary nature of the music. Johnson, who plays the keyboard, and Kim Schifino, the band's drummer, are self-taught musicians who pride themselves on keeping it simple. Basic melodies, pleasant vocals, and bold percussion are what the Matt and Kim brand is all about, and Johnson and Schifino want to keep it that way.

Remembering America's Soldiers…With Charts

| Mon May. 30, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

How long should you spend commemorating Memorial Day? It can be accomplished in just 60 seconds if you follow a 2000 presidential memo from Bill Clinton that encouraged Americans "to pause for one minute at 3:00 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day, to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom for all." That comes out to 0.0000446 seconds of reflection for each of the approximately 1.3 million Americans who have died in uniform since the earliest days of the republic (according to Wikipedia).

If you have some more time, check out these charts about those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Let's start with a quick review of the biggest conflicts in American history:

Of course, not all Americans who gave all were participants in such memorable campaigns. This list of historic Marine and Navy casualties reminds us that hundreds perished in all but forgotten engagements with Chinese "bandits," Japanese feudal warlords, and even illegal booze makers in Brooklyn. And pirates:

Being a soldier has always been a dangerous job, but fighting on the frontlines has gotten statistically safer. In the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, fewer than 10 percent of all casualties are deaths on the battlefield.

A major reason why more soldiers are surviving modern combat is the vast improvement in battlefield medicine (germ theory, antibiotics, medevacs, etc.). If you were wounded in the Civil War, your chances of survival were worse than a coin flip. Compare that with Iraq and Afghanistan, where a wounded soldier's chance of survival are about 85 percent.

Though still relatively low by historical standards, casualty rates are on the rise in Afghanistan as more troops have surged into the country. Meanwhile, the casualty rates have dropped significantly in Iraq as more troops have left (often for Afghanistan).

Not all wartime deaths occur in combat. A look at the top causes of death for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that while IEDs and other weapons have taken the heaviest toll, more mundane incidents such as car crashes are also a risk.

And with that in mind, stay safe out there on this Memorial Day.

 

Sources
Major wars: Dept. of Defense (PDF)
Pirates: US Navy Naval History & Heritage Command
Combat deaths: Dept. of Defense (PDF, PDF, PDF, PDF)
Survival rates: Congressional Resarch Service (PDF), Dept. of Defense (PDF, PDF, PDF)
Iraq/Afghanistan: Congressional Resarch Service (PDF), Dept. of Defense (PDF, PDF, PDF)
Causes of death: Dept. of Defense (PDF)