2011 - %3, October

Meet the Shadowy Spenders Trying to Buy the 2012 Elections

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 9:50 AM EDT

Tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organizations, named for the part of the tax code they're organized under, have been around (PDF) for nearly a century. But it wasn't until the 2010 elections that these shadowy outfits fully arrived on the political scene, spending tens of millions to influence House and Senate races throughout the country. They're the epitome of dark money, hiding their donors and much of their spending totals, and as iWatch News' Peter Stone reports, they're flirting closely with violating the tax status that lets them remain in the shadows.

As so-called social welfare organizations, 501(c)(4)s such as the Karl Rove-inspired Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network, run by former Sen. Norm Coleman, can by law engage in politicking "so long as that is not its primary activity," according to the Internal Revenue Service. Now, a fight is brewing between advocates for more transparency and campaign finance reform over whether (c)(4) groups are abiding by the law—or use most of their firepower on politics but passing it off as "issue-based advocacy" to stay within the law's boundaries.

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Doing Wrong Right: The Devil Makes Three

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

The Devil Makes Three, a diabolical threesome of guitar, banjo, and upright bass, are masters at befuddling the critics with their genre-bending antics. They are more comfortable with the "hardly" and the "strictly" than the "bluegrass" part of San Francisco's free annual Hardly Stricly Bluegrass festival, where I saw them recently. Singer/guitarist Peter Bernhard told me that the media obsession with pinning their sound to a specific genre takes the fun out of letting their music answer the question. "Frankly, we never get that [bluegrass] association from fellow musicians who actually play bluegrass—it just comes from the fans and writers," he says.

To set the record straight, Bernhard and banjo player Cooper McBean recently quipped to Pop Culture Madness, "We sound like Freddy Mercury with a pogo stick on a back of a pony with Lyle Lovett playing the ukulele and the tamborine. If you don't understand that, you don't understand us."

In short, bandmates Bernhard, McBean, and bassist Lucia Turino could care less if their bluegrass/blues/old-time/punk/Americana sound confuses obsessive-compulsive music fans. The band's fiendish power lies in its ability to transform a crowd into a rollicking clusterfuck of heavy stomping, do-si-do-ing debauchery—a vibe that (at least at Hardly Strictly) brought carousing fans and mothers with cooing babies together as one big, jolly, rhythmic family.

Bernhard and McBean, both born and bred in Vermont, moved out West after high school and ended up in Santa Cruz, where they met Turino. As the story goes, sparks flew at their first jam—and after Turnio mastered the stand-up bass (which she hadn't played before), the trio began making a name for itself. DM3 is well known for its high-octane shows, like its sold-out sets at San Francisco's Cafe Du Nord and a recent two nighter at Petaluma's Mystic Theater, the venue where they recorded Stomp and Smash: Live at the Mystic Theater, released last week on iTunes.

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

Mon Oct. 31, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

An American soldier with Bravo Troop, 2nd Squadron, 38th Regiment, 504th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, pulls security at the Weesh Border Crossing during a visit from a distinguished visitor. During a typical day at the crossing, thousands of vehicles and people on foot pass through the crossing bringing and taking goods to and from Pakistan. Photo by the US Army.

Slave-Labor Candy, Union-Busting Costumes, and Lead-Laden Fake Bling: Happy Halloween!

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

Let me start by confessing that I have become a Halloween curmudgeon. Almost every year I dress up in some sort of costume, plaster on make up, and devour more than my fair share of a candy bar variety pack. There isn't a holiday that tempts me as much to buy, eat, and wear as many things I don't need as I do on Halloween. So what better time to consider where those Halloween goodies came from and who made them? They do, after all, make up a $6.2 billion industry. And even in the midst of a troubling economy, Americans will spend an average of $72.31 on Halloween this year, the highest amount recorded in the last nine years, according to the National Retail Federation. Herewith, the full scoop on pumpkins, candy, costumes, make-up, and fake bling:

Pumpkins: You've likely already touched, seen, or carved a pumpkin of your own. For the most part, these probably were grown on a pumpkin patch not far from your home or within your state. But if you're also planning on eating a pumpkin, in a pie or other such baked form, you're probably buying it canned. The United States produced no less than 1.1 billion pounds of pumpkin in 2010, the lion share of which is sealed in cans and shipped off to grocery aisles. Most canned pumpkins come from central Illinois, around the town of Morton, the self-proclaimed Pumpkin Capital of the World. It is also where Nestle, owner of the pumpkin subsidiary Libby's, operates a pumpkin processing plant, mostly staffed with migrant laborers traveling up from Mexico.

Although there are few labor rights violations reported on pumpkin patches or at the processing plants, Miguel Keberlein, an attorney with the Chicago-based Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project, explains that the fact that migrant labor is used at all raises a flag. "That itself tells you that it's not fantastic work," he says.

Pumpkin cultivation does have some harmful impact on environment. The watchdog group What's On My Food?, which aggregates Department of Agriculture data to monitor pesticide use, lists endosulfan sulfate as a main chemical found on winter squash, which includes pumpkins. Endosulfan sulfates have been known to have toxic and sometimes fatal effects on birds, freshwater fish, insects, and snakes.

If you are willing to shell out some extra cash, you could buy organic pumpkins at a nearby natural foods store or farmers market. Daring gardeners out there might try growing one on their own turf.

In the Ivory Coast and Ghana, a total of 532,030 children worked in cocoa farms or cocoa processing, with some 113,000 reporting that they were working against their will.

Candy: When it comes to chocolate, there's much bad news that we already know. The buckets full of Reese's cups and Hershey's Kisses we'll pass out to trick-or-treaters this week is largely sourced from West Africa. (Some 70 percent of the world's cocoa comes from that region.) Earlier this year, Tulane University published a report (commissioned by the Department of Labor) detailing child labor on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, finding that a total of 532,030 children worked in cocoa farms or cocoa processing in the two countries, with some 113,000 reporting that they were working against their will. In the last year, major candy companies, including Nestlé, Mars, and Kraft, have pledged to purchase certified fair-trade cocoa, according to a September 2011 report by Global Exchange, Green America, and the International Labor Rights Forum. Hershey's has lagged behind in commitments compared with its competitors. Progress has been slow, though, since these companies had already made similar pledges to reduce child labor back in 2001.

You don't have to look too hard to find ethical sweets. GOOD has a bunch of organic and fair-trade recommendations, from chocolates to lollipops. And if you're a die-hard Hershey's fan, good luck with that. Nestlé does sell fair-trade Kit-Kat bars—but only in Europe.

One Point and 150 Grand

| Sun Oct. 30, 2011 5:07 PM EDT

Michael O'Hare polled one of his undergraduate policy design classes at Berkeley to see what they thought about the future of Social Security. The results:

  • 16%: Social Security is in very serious financial trouble and probably won’t be there for my parents
  • 66%:  Social Security is in financial trouble and probably won’t be there for me
  • 16%: Social Security is basically OK and just needs some minor adjustments.

From this we can conclude a couple of things: (a) there are probably 18 students in Mike's class, and (b) the conservative campaign to convince everyone that Social Security is doomed has been wildly successful, even among extremely bright kids who are actively interested in policy issues.

The success of this propaganda campaign is especially impressive because the truth of option 3 (Social Security only needs minor tweaks) is hardly arguable if you have even the barest understanding of Social Security's finances. I struggle constantly trying to figure out a way to convince people of this in a simple way, so here's another crack at it:

If we gradually raise the payroll tax from 6.2% to 7.2% and gradually raise the earnings cap from $100,000 to $250,0001 between 2030 and 2050, Social Security will be solvent forever.

That's it. How much simpler can it be? Certainly this is as easy to understand as raising the retirement age to 67 or changing the COLA formula or whatnot. I don't have any objection to considering some of that other stuff if and when we ever get around to cutting a deal on Social Security, but we don't have to if we don't want to. If you want a simple slogan for the masses, "1 point and 150 grand" does the job just fine. Add one point to Social Security taxes and increase the earnings cap by $150,000 over the course of 20 years. Done.

1Indexed for inflation, of course.

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Quote of the Day: Rick Perry's Maple Syrup Moment

| Sun Oct. 30, 2011 1:19 PM EDT

From my colleague Tim Murphy, commenting on a speech Rick Perry gave in New Hampshire on Friday:

Have you ever seen anyone so happy to receive a jug of maple syrup?

That comes toward the end, and Tim is right. Perry looks as if this is the first time in his life he's encountered the stuff. The rest of Perry's delivery is — um, a bit quirky too. Like this:

This is such a cool state. I mean, come on, "Live free or die"? You gotta love that, right? I come from a state where they had this little place called the Alamo, and they declared "Victory or death." You know, we're kinda into those slogans, man, it's like "Live free or die," "Victory or death," bring it!

Okey dokey. I guess that's what it takes when the local polls have you tied for sixth with Michele Bachmann at 3.3%.

Europe's Non-Final Final Resolution

| Sun Oct. 30, 2011 12:50 PM EDT

Guess what? Last week's resolution of the eurozone crisis is turning out to be about as successful as all the past resolutions were:

Initial relief over Europe's latest attempt to end its debt crisis faded on Friday as investors fretted about the plan's lack of detail and grew more skeptical about Italy's turnaround effort....On Friday, attention focused on Italy. The nation is saddled with €1.9 trillion in debt, with more than €200 billion of it coming due next year. Some investors worry that unless Italy lowers its borrowing costs, it could become the center of a renewed flare-up in the crisis. In Friday's bond auction, Italy was forced to pay more than 6% interest on its new 10-year debt, approaching levels that some analysts said the country can't afford for long.

...."The truth of the matter is that the issues are not entirely resolved," said Steven Walsh, chief investment officer at bond manager Western Asset Management, which oversees $433 billion...."The firepower of this fund…is not enough to calm fears," said Silvio Peruzzo, an economist at RBS Global Banking & Markets in London.

Nobody should be surprised that this is such a hard problem, of course. Fundamentally, someone is going to lose absolutely gigantic sums of money, and figuring out who that someone is going to be was always going to be a fraught affair. As near as I can tell, though, each rescue effort seems to advance asymptotically toward honesty about the scale of the losses, realism about the need to allocate those losses among the non-broke members of the EU, and acceptance among the broke members that they're going to be required to suffer fairly harshly in return for being bailed out. We obviously haven't gotten to the really truly final resolution yet — that won't happen until the European public truly accepts that they're screwed and they can't do much about it — but I suspect that last week's deal is one more step along the path of recognizing the grim reality of the situation.

Either that or Europe is going to implode. In the end, though, I don't think either the ECB or Angela Merkel will allow that to happen.

Is This the Weirdest Rick Perry Speech Ever?

| Sun Oct. 30, 2011 10:28 AM EDT

Jon Ward flags this video of Texas Governor Rick Perry speaking at an event in New Hampshire on Friday, and politely calls it "unusually expressive." I will go a few steps further and say it is the strangest Rick Perry video I have ever seen (which is a pretty long list). Just watch:

Have you ever seen anyone so happy to receive a jug of maple syrup? Ward, who was in attendance, says the clip was not fully representative of the speech, but notes that the entire presentation was weird enough to prompt a tea party leader to tell him, "I think Obama would chew him up." The most recent Des Moines Register survey has the Texas governor polling at just 7 percent in Iowa (tied with Newt Gingrich), a state he led just two months ago. Speeches like this, which look more like an appeal to Alec Baldwin to make another guest appearance on SNL, likely aren't going to do much to stop his free-fall.

Week in Pictures: Must-See Occupy Oakland Photos

| Sat Oct. 29, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

From the West Coast's answer to #hipstercop to an intense photog-police showdown, here are the must-see images from this week's #occupyoakland crackdown.