2011 - %3, May

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

| Tue May 31, 2011 8:52 AM EDT

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.

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The GOP Targets Food Safety (Again!)

| Tue May 31, 2011 8:44 AM EDT

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 8:22 AM EDT

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 5:00 AM EDT

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 8:37 PM EDT

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.

New York, New York

| Mon May 30, 2011 10:45 AM EDT

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?

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Asobi Seksu: Music for Space Travel?

| Mon May 30, 2011 6:20 AM EDT
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 6:00 AM EDT

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 5:00 AM EDT

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)

Letting the Dead Pay for Medicare, Part 2

| Sun May 29, 2011 12:47 PM EDT

Nobody's reading the blog today, right? So that makes it a good time to revisit a topic at great length that's politically out of the question and will never happen.

I've always been open to the idea of means testing Medicare, and a few days ago I suggested a different way of doing it: after death instead of before. For each Medicare recipient, keep a running tally of the cost of their care, and when they die deduct the premiums and copays they've been responsible for. What's left over gets taken out of their estate, the same way back taxes would. Rich people would end up paying their entire bill, poor people with no estates would end up paying nothing, and those in the middle would pay a portion that depends on how big their estate is. Will Wilkinson wasn't impressed:

I've got a better idea. Don't give the elderly rich any government money for health care. Let them pay for it, because they're rich! And give other seniors just the assistance they need—no more, no less—to buy a health plan of a certain minimum level of coverage. Now, I know this is a fantastical idea for crazed, science-hating, Rand-thumping Jacobins, amounts to destroying Medicare as we know it, and is good for nothing but losing elections. But for all that it seems at least as practical as picking over dead peoples' estates.

That phrase — "picking over dead peoples' estates" — is, of course, the Achilles' heel of my proposal, since that seems to be the instinctive reaction of just about everyone to the idea of allowing the government first crack at estates. Still, let's put that aside for the moment. Is means testing of living people really as practical as means testing dead people, as Will suggests? I don't think it is.

First off, let's review Welfare Economics 101. The problem with means testing — any means testing — is that it acts like a gigantic tax on earnings. Suppose, for example, that you receive $5,000 from the government if your income is below a certain level. If you start earning more, your benefits go down. Maybe the income threshold is $10,000, and for every $1,000 above that you lose $500 in benefits. Do you see the problem? It's like a 50% tax on everything you earn over $10,000, and that reduces the incentive to work hard and earn more.

This is a well-known problem with all means-tested programs, and there's no ideal solution to it. You just have to muddle through. The Medicare version of this is that means testing would reduce the incentive to work and save while you're young. Why bother if it's just going to get eaten up by Medicare expenses later in life? Why not live for the moment, keep your income below the means-testing threshold, and then take advantage of free Medicare when you're old?

Beyond that, there's the problem of how to means test and what the threshold should be. Will says that we should give people "just the assistance they need," but that's not as easy as it sounds. Should means testing be done on income or wealth? If it's income, then you're giving away benefits to people who might have modest retirement incomes but lots of assets. Why should they be allowed to keep their expensive homes and cars and boats and stock portfolios while Uncle Sam pays for their hip replacement? But if you means test on wealth, then you force people to impoverish themselves before they qualify for care. Do you want to be the one to tell granny that she has to sell her house and all her belongings before she gets a dime from the government? I didn't think so.

Well, how about just limiting means testing to the genuinely rich? If you have a retirement income of $200,000 and $10 million in assets, then you can certainly pay for your own medical care. No argument there. The problem is that the genuinely rich only account for about 2% of the population. Maybe 5% tops. Sure, you can make them pay for their own care, but it's not going to make much of a dent in Medicare spending. So why bother?

So now consider my idea. You can earn and save money in your youth and know that you'll still have it in your old age. You can spend it as you like. We don't need any complicated formulas for figuring out who qualifies for free Medicare and who doesn't. We don't need to impoverish granny and take away her house.

Instead, we just keep track of what you spend and then take it out of your estate when you don't need it anymore. Will people try to hide assets or give them away in order to avoid Uncle Sam's bite? Sure. But think about this for a moment. The average cumulative Medicare bill after you've died will be on the order of $100-200,000. The really rich, who have the means and the legal talent to do fancy estate planning, aren't going to run down their estates below that amount. It's just too piddling, and they want to have at least a few millions unencumbered by legal chicanery throughout their lives. Conversely, the working and middle classes mostly don't have the ability (i.e., money for expensive lawyers and estate planners) to cheat their way out of this. That leaves the upper middle classes, and they'll probably try to evade some of their Medicare expenses. But that's a relatively small number of people — and without minimizing the problem here, it really is possible to regulate a lot of it away. If Medicare had first claim on estates the same way the IRS does, it would mostly get all the money owed to it. Just giving them first claim on homes would go a long way toward keeping things kosher.

This doesn't completely get rid of the Welfare 101 problem, of course. There's still a certain amount of disincentive to earn and work while you're young, knowing that you can't bequeath every last dime of your money to whoever you want to. But the disincentive is a lot less. Your parents love you and all that, but guess what: they mostly love themselves even more. They'll do a lot more to protect their own access to their wealth than they will to protect yours.

To some extent, of course, all I've done is shift the problem: there's now an incentive to spend all your money not during your working years but during retirement. Why not, if it's all just going to Uncle Sam after you die anyway? There's no question this will happen, but my guess is that it will happen less you might think. I don't know if there's any empirical evidence on this score (how would you get it?), but there's a limit to how much people want to spend down their wealth. Mostly they don't want to sell their houses while they're still alive, for example, and if they're the saving types they probably want to keep a certain amount of their savings around no matter what. Besides, if you means test Medicare, this incentive to spend down your savings during retirement exists regardless of whether the bill comes due before or after death.

So, roughly speaking, that's my case. Charging for Medicare expenses after death solves the problem of trying to figure who deserves what and how much you can afford. We just don't bother. We simply tot up the charges and then take it out of your estate. If there's no estate, that probably means you were poor and couldn't have afforded to pay for it in the first place. If there's a big estate, it means you were rich and can pay for 100% of your Medicare costs. And for the middle classes, which are by far the trickiest for any means testing policy, it allows effective means testing that, almost by definition, takes from you only money that you can truly afford to pay.

There is, of course, no reason this has to be a standalone policy. We still need to rein in the growing costs of Medicare no matter what. You might also want some pretty strict rules about what you can do with your money if you're currently in a nursing home being paid for by Medicare or Medicaid. (Though the rules on this are already pretty strict in a lot of states, which really do require you to impoverish yourself before you qualify for aid.)

But still: this would almost certainly raise a huge amount of money. It would raise it not based on what you might use in the future, but on what you've actually used during your life. And it would raise that money from people who don't need it anymore.

Let me repeat that: It would raise the money from people who don't need it anymore. If you want to think of this in ghoulish "picking over dead peoples' estates" terms, you can. But it's not. What it is is charging people for a service based on whether they can afford it; it's allowing them to live their actual lives free of fear and impoverishment; and it's settling an account the same way that anyone else would who has a claim on an estate. Do you think of a supermarket as ghoulish if they insist that granny's estate pay for the grocery bill she ran up during her final year of life?

There might be technical reasons that make this unworkable (though I suspect most of them could be resolved tolerably well), but philosophically I just don't see the objection. It's fair, it's efficient, it raises a lot of revenue, and it lets people live their lives decently for as long as they're alive. What's not to like?