2011 - %3, September

Romney's Chart Fraud

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 1:54 PM PDT

On Tuesday, Massachussetts Governor Mitt Romney unveiled his "jobs plan," which unsurprisingly mostly involves tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. Oliver Willis catches Romney engaging in a pretty blatant example of chart fraud, highlighting job loss during 2007 and 2008, the last two years of the Bush administration, as part of the "Obama recovery."

Here's the thing: With employment still hovering around nine percent, it's not like Romney needs to lie in order to go after Obama's record on the economy. Recent polls have shown nothing but grim news for the president on this front. Why be so conspicuously dishonest about it?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

American Muslims: Incredibly Normal, Also Trusting Of Obama

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 1:38 PM PDT

Last week Jen Quraishi wrote an excellent summary of Pew's latest study on American Muslims, aptly titled "Report: Muslim Americans Are Incredibly Normal." The Washington Times did a largely straight write-up of the study, except for this paragraph:

When asked to choose, nearly half of Muslims in the U.S. say they think of themselves first as Muslim, rather than as American. Roughly 60 percent say that most Muslims come to the U.S. to adopt the American way of life and see no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.

Nearly half of American Muslims think of themselves as Muslims first! Sounds sinister—until you consider that description applies to "nearly half" of American Christians as well, with the percentage of Muslims identifying themselves by religion before nationality (49 percent) being only three points higher than the number of American Christians who say the same (46 percent).

The Times writeup also flags an interesting statistic from the Pew report I haven't seen highlighted elsewhere: a plurality of Muslim Americans, 43 percent, now see American efforts to combat terrorism as "sincere," up from 26 percent in 2007. That's in spite of the Obama administration's aggressive FBI sting operations, its asserting the authority to kill Americans suspected of terrorism abroad, its failure to close Guantanamo and the perpetuation of a litany of Bush-era national security policies. When it comes to drone strikes or escalating troop levels in Afghanistan, Obama has actually out-hawked his predecessor. 

Despite all that, Muslim Americans like and trust Obama more than they trusted Bush, with 76 percent approving of the president's record. Obama's effort to "reset" U.S. relations with Muslims abroad doesn't appear to have worked. At home, though, Obama's outreach seems to be working pretty well. That's despite the fact that, as the Washington Post reported Tuesday, Obama has avoided certain personal public gestures that his predecessor willingly made (like visiting a mosque, for example).

I can't help but wonder if part of the difference has to do with the persistent conspiracy theories about the president being a secret Muslim—on some level, obviously, the president gets what it's like to be singled out for being "different." But perhaps it's also that Obama's gestures of tolerance, such as his support for the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, represent much more of a political risk for him than they did for Bush. Or it might just be that Democrats, the Dubai Ports World fiasco aside, never completely succumbed to the kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric common in the Republican Party today. The bigger difference may simply be that in the age of full-blown Sharia panic, the contrast between the president and the opposition makes Obama's inclusive rhetoric all the more meaningful.

Quote for the Day: "Political Matters"

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 1:10 PM PDT

On Wednesday, the Obama Justice Department filed an antitrust suit to block AT&T's merger with T-Mobile. On Thursday, the New York Times reported that the telecom giant was "caught off guard" by the government's decision to sue. The Times' Michael de la Merced interviewed  law professor Susan Crawford for his story on the lawsuit. Here's what she told him:

"Justice has done a thorough job," said Susan Crawford, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. "AT&T's surprise shows they took this as political matter and not a legal matter."

Determining whether the AT&T/T-Mobile merger is anti-competitive is a legal matter, however AT&T "took" it. There is a whole body of case law on these sorts of issues and the courts will use that, along with the facts in this particular case, to decide whether the merger violates anti-trust rules. In Crawford's telling, AT&T execs thought that if they could win the political fight, the law wouldn't matter. The telecom honchos were wrong, but the fact they convinced themselves that winning the political fight is all they would have to do says a lot about just how much power corporations think they wield (and often do wield) in Washington.

The Eurobond Conundrum

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 12:25 PM PDT

Over the weekend I linked to John Lanchester's piece in the London Review of Books about the general shape of the Eurozone crisis. Here's a key passage:

On 16 August, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel had an emergency meeting to decide what to do about the Eurozone crisis. After it....they precisely and explicitly ruled out the only two things which would have helped: the creation of ‘eurobonds’, i.e. debts backed by the full economic weight of all the countries inside the eurozone; and the extension of the €440 billion European Financial Stability Facility. It’s easy to see why they did this, and their reasons are entirely to do with the domestic unpopularity of giving more aid to the indebted and severely struggling ‘Club Med’ countries of Southern Europe. Unfortunately, Merkel and Sarkozy’s inaction is a recipe for certain disaster. Everybody and his cat knows that the eurobond is the only way out of the crisis for the eurozone in the medium term.

I think this deserves a bit of clarification. If everybody knows that eurobonds are the answer, why is everyone opposed to them? As dangerous as it is to offer an analogy on the internet, let's try one.

Say you have a Visa card. If you buy something expensive and go into debt, you're responsible for paying it off. If you can't pay it off, you have to declare bankruptcy, and maybe your home goes into foreclosure. This is bad for the neighborhood, and it's especially bad if it happens to a bunch of people at once. Lots of foreclosed houses is bad for property values.

So you have a bright idea. Instead of individuals each paying off their own Visa bills, they'll get pooled. At the end of each month the entire neighborhood will pay off everyone's Visa bill. No bankruptcies! No foreclosures! Hooray!

But the downside is obvious: nobody has any incentive to spend wisely. If I want to, I can go out and buy a Rolls Royce and put it on my Visa card. At the end of the month, the cost of my Rolls gets divvied up and everyone in the neighborhood pays a share. I get a new Rolls Royce and my net cost is only a thousand dollars or so. That's obviously pretty cool for me.

But it's just as obviously unacceptable to everyone else. If we want the entire neighborhood to pay off our collective debt, then the neighborhood needs to have some say in how much each of us is allowed to spend. A neighborhood council of some kind will have to determine just how much we're each allowed to charge to our Visa cards. So if I want to pay cash for my Rolls Royce, fine. But if I want to put it on my Visa card, I'll need permission first from the council. Because our debts are pooled, the neighborhood council now has plenary powers to insert itself deeply into my household spending. If they don't like my spending habits, they can force me to stop.

This is, roughly, what a eurobond does. Instead of each country issuing bonds for its own debt, the entire continent issues bonds for everyone's debt. And that's pretty unpopular with everyone. Poor countries don't like it much because it gives the rich countries the power to tell them how much they're allowed to spend. And who wants a bunch of penny-pinching Germans telling you how much you can spend? But the rich countries don't like it much either. They're basically afraid that politics being what it is, they're going to get outvoted and end up holding the bag for spendthrifts over and over. And who wants to be responsible forever for their Greek brother-in-law's profligate ways?

So that's the problem. A big one-time bailout right now is bad enough. But "fiscal union" means that everyone is collectively responsible for every country's debt forever — and everyone has a say in every country's spending forever. Maybe that's where things will end up eventually, but no one likes it. It's only going to happen if it's absolutely the last resort.

Which it might be.

Report: Perry Super PAC Expects to Raise $55 Million

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 11:31 AM PDT
Texas Governor Rick Perry is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.

MSNBC's Michael Isikoff gets a hold of internal communications from Make Us Great Again, a new Super PAC set up by supporters of Texas Governor Rick Perry, and reports that it expects to raise and spend $55 million during the Republican presidential primary:

The new super PAC backing Rick Perry has drawn up plans to spend $55 million as part of an ambitious campaign strategy aimed at blowing away the Texas governor's rivals in early primary states and securing him the Republican nomination by next spring, according to internal committee documents obtained by NBC News.

The documents underscore the central role that such super PACs — or super political action committees unconstrained by any limits on how much they can collect from wealthy donors and corporations — will play in the 2012 presidential election.

They also show that the strategists behind the new Perry super PAC, led by a longtime Perry confidant and backed with infusions of cash from major Perry donors, are preparing to mount a full service political operation — complete with TV advertising, direct mail and social media outreach.

Super PACs can accept unlimited contributions but most disclose donor information and cannot coordinate in any way with candidates. In the post-Citizens United climate, super PACs have become the hottest new accessory for presidential candidates, and all of the serious GOP contenders have at least one. Make Us Great Again was organized by Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff, who has remained close with the governor as a lobbyist in Austin and contributed generously to his most recent re-election bid.

Chart of the Day: Housing Boom, Housing Bust

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 11:29 AM PDT

Via Brad DeLong, this chart shows how much housing was "overbuilt" during the aughts compared to how much it's been underbuilt since the collapse of the housing bubble. As you can see, on net, we're now way, way underbuilt, which means we should be all set for a renaissance of housing construction. Assuming anyone still has the money to buy a house, that is.

Of course, there's another way to look at this: why did home prices rise so furiously even though we were building lots of homes? That's odd, no? Simple supply and demand suggests that when the supply of something goes way up, its price should go down. But it didn't — and it's not because the fundamental demand for housing suddenly skyrocketed. It was because Wall Street could make a lot of money from a housing bubble, so they invented the financial artistry to get one. Thanks, guys!

Advertise on MotherJones.com

NATO Head: Libya Mission Kinda Accomplished (VIDEO)

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 10:48 AM PDT
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared a victory of sorts in Libya yesterday, saying that "we can already draw the first lessons from the operation, and most of them are positive."

"We will continue military operations under our United Nations mandate for as long as necessary to protect the people of Libya," he cautioned, "but no longer than necessary." Nonetheless, Rasmussen left the door open for continued NATO bombing: "If requested, NATO stands ready to play a supporting role so that Libyans can move forward safely."

Rasmussen, a dynamic Danish politician with a polished silvery coif, made the comments in a video (see below) on his blog. His posting on serious trans-Atlantic affairs has been somewhat sparse of late—this gingerly triumphal post, titled "Libya operation coming to an end," is his first since July 15, when Western nations including the US formally recognized the Libyan rebels' Transitional National Council as the country's legitimate leadership.

Koch, Obama, and Saddam Hussein

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 10:09 AM PDT

Brad Friedman has obtained an audio recording of a seminar held by the  Koch brothers earlier this year near Vail, Colorado, and today we've got a piece about the seminar up on our site. Here's how it starts:

"We have Saddam Hussein," declared billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, apparently referring to President Barack Obama as he welcomed hundreds of wealthy guests to the latest of the secret fundraising and strategy seminars he and his brother host twice a year. The 2012 elections, he warned, will be "the mother of all wars."

This has prompted a lot of people to insist that Koch compared Obama to Saddam Hussein. And maybe he did. But here's the whole passage:

But we've been talking about — we have Saddam Hussein, this is the Mother of All Wars we've got in the next 18 months. For the life or death of this country. So, I'm not going to do this to put any pressure on anyone here, mind you. This is not pressure. But if this makes your heart feel glad and you want to be more forthcoming, then so be it.

Can I offer an alternative explanation? Obviously Koch was a little muddled here and never finished his thought, so it's hard to say exactly what he meant. But Saddam Hussein famously called the first Gulf War "the mother of all battles," and it's quite possible that Koch intended something like, "Saddam Hussein called the Gulf War the mother of all wars, and for us, this is the mother of all wars we've got in the next 18 months."

I don't know this for sure, any more than anyone else knows what that stray fragment meant. Koch obviously had some kind of quip in mind, but never managed to actually deliver it. But suggesting that he meant to compare Obama to Saddam Hussein is a stretch. At the very least, there's at least one other quite plausible interpretation.

"South Africa's Wine Woes," Revisited: A Rebuttal

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 9:50 AM PDT
Vines in South Africa's celebrated Stellenbosch wine region.

In an Aug. 31 post called "South Africa's Wine Woes," I discussed a recent report from Human Rights Watch on labor conditions in South Africa's wine industry called Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa's Fruit and Wine Industries (PDF).

Directly below is a rebuttal from Adam Welz, a South African-born filmmaker, writer, Mother Jones contributor, and photographer now living in Brooklyn. My response to Welz follows.

"South Africa's Wine Woes" is a great example of how an incomplete story written far, far away from the action can do more harm than good. The uncritical embedding in the story—and thus apparent endorsement—of a sensationalist and even more incomplete video makes it worse.

I'm a South African filmmaker, writer and researcher who until recently lived near the Cape winelands. Over about five years I spent many months poking around in the back fields of tens of wine farms, speaking to workers and farmers alike about many aspects of the industry. I'm not a wine expert or a foodie, just a curious guy with a background in biology and economics.

Reading "Wine Woes" and watching the accompanying video may well lead the average MoJo reader to believe that in the Cape wine industry it's routine for workers to live in animal sheds with no clean water. It's not.

During my time in the vineyards I encountered a single farm where workers were as badly treated as the poor family featured in the first part of the video. The farm owner, as it turned out, was a violent alcoholic whose wife had left him and was despised by his neighbors—hardly an exemplary member of the agricultural community.

The local government labor inspector and local union rep wasn't interested in his workers' plight because they were "coloured," not "black"—in other words they were Afrikaans-speaking, mixed-race descendants of the original "Khoi" or "Hottentot" inhabitants of the Western Cape. "Coloured" people are less likely to support the ruling African National Congress (ANC) or join their affiliated unions than "black" Xhosa people who have in recent decades migrated to the winelands from the Eastern Cape. The ANC-aligned labor inspector and union were interested in building a power base, not enforcing the law, so they chose to spend their energy elsewhere.

Why do I point this out? Because South African racial politics are far more complex than the 'white vs. black' conflict so often cited by Americans when talking about my home country. Many 'coloured' people would be as offended at being called 'black' as a Navajo would be at being called African-American.

If you don't understand that there is more than one group of workers in this situation and that their interests don't clearly align—there is actually enormous competition for jobs and housing between the 'coloured' workers and the recently-arrived Xhosa which "Wine Woes" lumps together under the category "black"—you won't understand how the situation evolved or how to fix it.

I believe that exposé journalism should provide the reader with actionable information that allows them to improve bad situations, whether by choosing certain products over others, supporting one politician over another, etc.

"Wine Woes" paints the entire Cape wine industry with a particularly dirty brush instead of providing wine drinkers with this actionable information. Readers aren't provided with the names of abusive wineries or those progressive firms striving to improve working conditions, eliminate pesticide use and conserve endangered wild species (of which there are more and more every year.)

Are ethical wine farmers and the thousands they employ expected to burst into joyful song as they fall into bankruptcy because foreigners have quit buying South African wine under a barrage of bad publicity? Last time I checked no worker was lifted out of poverty because their employer went bust.

The movie embedded in the piece is damaging as well as cowardly—by providing just enough information employers to identify the workers in the film but not enough for consumers or law-enforcers to identify the wineries concerned, the filmmakers protect themselves from lawsuits but lay abused workers open to further victimization.

I'm also not sure what this accusatory piece gains by emphasizing that most South African wineries are "white"-owned and that workers are mostly "black." Is it trying to say that 'white' wine farmers are inherently abusive or that only 'white' employers abuse workers? If so, "Wine Woes" should say it clearly instead of hiding behind woolly generalizations. (I find that idea offensive and counter to my own experience; I've seen wine industry players of all races striving to improve things and undo the apartheid legacy of racial stratification common to most industries in South Africa (see, for example, here). I can also take Philpott on an unforgettable tour of some "black"-owned gold mines in South Africa where worker abuse extends to murder and makes the wine industry look like, well, a wine-soaked picnic on a gorgeous Stellenbosch afternoon.)

South Africa is a deeply imperfect work-in-progress with a corrupt government, stubborn racial tensions and massive unemployment. It also has millions of innovative, hard-working of people struggling for a better life who need all the help they can get. It would be good of Philpott and his sources to point fingers precisely and carefully at those who deserve to be called out, not place the whole wine industry, and by extension the country, in the same bucket of ordure. 

Thousands of families have food on the table tonight because South African wine is "increasingly fashionable" in the USA. For many there's no choice between a job on a wine farm or a job somewhere else—there's a choice between a job on a wine farm and no job at all. Let's not forget that.

note: I've used racial descriptors such as 'black' and 'white' in quotes because I'd like not to uncritically perpetuate the use of Apartheid race categories to describe people while at the same time acknowledge that these labels still have descriptive currency when talking about South African society.

Tom Philpott responds:

I salute Adam Welz for offering his from-the-ground perspective—and for broadening my view and that of my readers on this particular topic.

It is true that as a blogger based in the mountains of North Carollina, I rarely get to visit the places I write about and see with my own eyes the conditions on the ground. For this reason, when setting out to write about some faraway place, I choose my sources carefully. For this post, I was citing an in-depth report by Human Right Watch, a widely respected NGO with decades of experience documenting abuses stemming from power inequalities: precisely the situation that too often holds sway in food production, not just in South Africa but (as I took pains to point out) all over the globe, including right here in the United States. (HRW's 2005 report Blood, Sweat, and Fear remains the definitive source on working conditions in US meatpacking plants).

Coming Soon: Keeping Your Shoes On At The Airport

| Tue Sep. 6, 2011 9:43 AM PDT

One of the most recognizable post-9/11 security rituals is on its way out, according to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Politico's Josh Gerstein reports that the days of taking your shoes off in the airport are coming to a close:

"We are moving towards an intelligence and risk-based approach to how we screen," Napolitano told Mike Allen during a morning forum at the Newseum. "I think one of the first things you will see over time is the ability to keep your shoes on. One of the last things you will [see] is the reduction or limitation on liquids."

The phrase "risk-based approach" can mean different things in the context of airport security. Sometimes it's a euphemism for Israeli-style passenger screening involving individual interviews and racial profiling, neither of which would fly politically in the US—and as Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out, Israel's one international airport has about half the traffic of one of Washington DC's three.

Then there's the "trusted traveler" approach, which would exempt certain frequent travelers from enhanced screening and focus on those about whom DHS has little information. TSA head John Pistole has been a supporter of the concept in the past, and he said in a speech two weeks ago that his agency will begin testing out this program in the fall. There are risks to this approach too—namely that exempting some passengers from screening procedures will create an obvious loophole for terrorists to exploit.

What will the "trusted traveler" approach mean for the average, non-frequent flier? Unclear, but the end of the era of taking off your shoes probably has more to do with the advent of invasive tech like backscatter machines than the new "intelligence-based approach" to airport security. As Napolitano told Politico, "The solution to many if not all of these inconveniences is better and better technology." But what this may really mean is that the better TSA gets at invading your privacy, the less the agency needs your assistance in doing it.