2011 - %3, October

The Best Piece About the Recession You'll Read This Month

| Sat Oct. 8, 2011 6:04 PM EDT

Ezra Klein has a really, really good piece in the Post today that looks back at the Obama administration's response to the Great Recession and explains why it wasn't enough. It's so good that I almost hate to excerpt anything, but you guys are spoiled and might not click the link just because I tell you it's well worth 15 minutes of your time to do it. So here's an excerpt that explains why Team Obama did so little about mortgage debt even though it was clear from the beginning that debt was a key difference between this recession and every other postwar recession:

On first blush, there are few groups more sympathetic than underwater homeowners or foreclosed families. They remain so until about two seconds after their neighbors are asked to pay their mortgages. Recall that Rick Santelli’s famous CNBC rant wasn’t about big government or high taxes or creeping socialism. It was about a modest program the White House was proposing to help certain homeowners restructure their mortgages. It had Santelli screaming bloody murder.

“This is America!” he shouted from the trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade. “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand.” The traders around him began booing loudly. “President Obama, are you listening?”

Thus was the Tea Party born. And it's an important point: one way or another, taxpayers are always going to be on the hook for any kind of debt relief. They can be on the hook directly, by shoveling dollars to homeowners so they can pay down their mortgages, or they can be on the hook indirectly by bailing out all the banks that would fail if courts were allowed to unilaterally slash the principal on underwater mortgages via cramdown. Taxpayers aren't going to be happy about this either way, and like it or not, that constrains the responses available to politicians.

Economist Carmen Reinhardt gives Obama a lot of credit for what he did. "The initial policy of monetary and fiscal stimulus really made a huge difference," she says. "I would tattoo that on my forehead. The output decline we had was peanuts compared to the output decline we would otherwise have had in a crisis like this. That isn't fully appreciated." The combination of the stimulus bill, the auto bailout, and the bank rescues really did make a big difference.

But it wasn't enough. Partly that was because of political timidity. Partly it was because of genuine disagreements over which policies were likely to work best. And partly it was because we didn't know how truly bad things were in early 2009. As Ezra reminds us:

To understand how the administration got it so wrong, we need to look at the data it was looking at. The Bureau of Economic Analysis, the agency charged with measuring the size and growth of the U.S. economy, initially projected that the economy shrank at an annual rate of 3.8 percent in the last quarter of 2008. Months later, the bureau almost doubled that estimate, saying the number was 6.2 percent. Then it was revised to 6.3 percent. But it wasn’t until this year that the actual number was revealed: 8.9 percent. That makes it one of the worst quarters in American history. Bernstein and Romer knew in 2008 that the economy had sustained a tough blow; they didn’t know that it had been run over by a truck.

Anyway, click the link and read the whole thing. Really. This is one of the best roundups I've read of just what the Obama administration did right, what they did wrong, and whether they could have done better.

And if you're looking for a bottom line, mine is this: Despite everything, Team Obama actually did pretty well. Maybe 70-80% as well as anyone could have done. Housing was their single biggest area of failure, but even there, taxpayer and congressional resistance to bailing out "reckless" borrowers constrained them more than critics usually admit. Our failure to adequately address the Great Recession wasn't really rooted in the Obama administration, it was rooted in the fact that virtually no one, faced with an economic crisis, ever has the guts to truly unleash the proper amount of firepower. It's a very human problem, but for now anyway, humans are all we have. So a human response was what we got.

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Mitt Romney, Mormonism Divide the Values Voter Summit

| Sat Oct. 8, 2011 4:35 PM EDT
Mitt Romney came in sixth place at the Values Voter straw poll, with just 4 percent of the vote.

If Mitt Romney has ever had a "Sista Soulja moment," it came on Saturday morning at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, when he called out a scheduled speaker, the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer, for using "poisonous" rhetoric. Speaking to a crowd that politely acknowledged his best lines but hardly embraced him, Romney did not refer to Fischer by name (a fact that left the many attendees who do not receive email alerts from People for the American Way utterly confused) and did not specificy what exactly set him off. But there's no question about this: Romney made absolutely certain that his comments—and the role of Mormons in the GOP coalition—would be a dominant topic at the event.

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, the host for this weekend's festival, came to Fischer's defense (sort of) when I asked him about the speech. "Discourse is important," he said. "But we don't want anybody shutting down the debate, and that's part of the problem with maybe more inflamed rhetoric, is there is one side that's trying to shut down the debate. The left is trying to shut off debate and not have a discussion." Perkins said he didn't know enough about Fischer's statements to comment on them.

Why New Yorkers Heart #OccupyWallStreet

| Sat Oct. 8, 2011 3:01 PM EDT

In the New York Metro section of yesterday's New York Times, Cara Buckley portrays the Wall Street occupiers as an unruly band of outsiders who've come to terrorize the locals. They rudely befoul restaurant bathrooms without buying anything. They crowd moms and baby strollers off the sidewalks. They flash their tits in broad daylight. The image that comes to mind is that of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd gone wild, or college tourists on spring break at the Jersey Shore. 

Even if there's some truth to this, I can confidently say that Buckley and many other reporters are missing something: Occupy Wall Street was bound to happen at some point even if the Manhattan police sealed off every one of the island's bridges and tunnels. The same vast economic disparities that have outraged so many middle class Americans are only magnified here. A little-known fact about Manhattan, otherwise known as New York County, is that it has the highest level of income inequality of any urban county in the nation. The only US county with a wider gap between rich and poor is Willacy County in South Texas, a ranching community packed with unemployed farm workers where one wealthy individual owns a third of the land.

Without a doubt, many people who live near the New York Stock Exchange feel under siege. It's less clear whether most other Manhattanites give a damn. Consider this: the average price (PDF) of a Financial District studio apartment in Manhattan is more than $2,200 a month (and that excludes apartments with doormen, which cost more). According to a 2006 story in the Gotham Gazette, the district that includes the Financial District and Greenwich Village had the highest median rent of any part of Manhattan. While I couldn't find more recent stats on the area's median housing cost last night, it's pretty safe to assume that most New Yorkers who are hurting from the recession don't live there.

Why does this matter? Certainly, trashing bathrooms or intimidating stroller moms is never OK. (As for nudity, well, I'm from San Francisco).  Given the social and economic divisions in New York, though, it's amazing that those are the worst things that have happened.

Going forward, the mainstream media could do a better job reporting how New Yorkers feel about Occupy Wall Street. And Occupiers from out of town would do well to consider how to bring in more locals, who could help give the movement staying power. It's one of the many things I hope to explore when I set up Mother Jones' outpost in Zuccotti Park later today.

 

Is China Rethinking its Embrace of US-Style Agriculture?

| Sat Oct. 8, 2011 2:00 PM EDT
Factory-style hog farms in a Chinese valley.

Given China's vast and growing population and increasing appetite for meat, it's no surprise the nation's leaders have been scrambling for years to intensify food production along the US model.

Lately, however, the Chinese government appears to be questioning two key tenants of US industrial-ag dogma: 1) that daily low-level doses of antibiotics are necessary and desirable for livestock production, and 2) that genetically modified crops are safe to eat.

The first bit, from a brief recent report in the US ag trade journal WattAg.net has been generating lots of buzz in the sustainable-ag blog/listservosphere over the past couple of days:

China's Ministry of Agriculture has announced a forthcoming ban on antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feed.

The ban is supported by the academic community, which believes that without antibiotics in animal feed, the health of animals will be better promoted, microbes' resistance to antibiotics will be lowered and food will become safer to eat.

Can Piranhas Eat a Human Being Alive? [Video]

| Sat Oct. 8, 2011 1:00 PM EDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth and the Deadly 60 Team. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Legend has it that piranhas gather in predatory shoals and can strip human beings to the bone and eat them alive. The yellow-bellied piranha has a horrific appearance, with a mouth packed full of canines 4 millimeters long, which, like sharks, are constantly replaced when lost or worn down.

Piranhas can also detect a drop of blood in 200 liters of water and shoals can clean off meat from a carcass with alarming effectiveness. Steve went in search of this notorious killer fish when he travelled to the Amazon river. Getting in the water to lure them in with a piece of steak had some frightening results:

Scary! But could they eat a human alive? Probably not.

Piranhas are neither carnivorous nor aggressive man-eaters. According to research in the UK piranhas are thought to be mainly scavengers, feeding on fish, plants, and insects, sometimes stripping meat from mammal carcasses that have ended up in the river. They also appear to be quite fearful, gathering in large shoals not to hunt down prey but rather to defend themselves against predators.

We're pretty sure that no one has ever been eaten alive by piranhas, even if a few attacks have been reported. In fact, if they have eaten any humans it's more likely because they have eaten the remains of a corpse lying on the river bed.

The myth of the aggressive piranha might be traced back to Theodore Roosevelt, who visited Brazil in 1914 and saw a piranha shoal rapidly strip the flesh from a dead cow. However, the show had been set up to entertain tourists; the captive fish had been kept hungry for days so they would go into a feeding frenzy.

We're not suggesting you bathe in piranha-infested water with wild abandon. But we do think it's safe to say most piranhas are peace-loving vegetable eaters, unlikely to devour you alive.

For more stories from Steve and the Deadly 60 team, check out the Deadly Diaries.

Mitt Romney Slams One Anti-Muslim Activist, Praises Another (Updated)

| Sat Oct. 8, 2011 10:32 AM EDT
2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

In his morning address to the Values Voter Summit on Saturday, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney slammed Bryan Fischer, the speaker slated to take the stage after him, for spouting "poisonous language that does not advance our cause." As we reported in September, American Family Association issues director and radio host has said that Mormonism is not protected by the First Amendment, called pre-Columbian Native American societies a "slop bucket," and called for the mass deportation of American-born Muslims. A ubiquitous presence at conservative confabs like VVS, GOP politicians like Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) have been regulars on Fischer's radio program and have consistently blocked questions about his incendiary rhetoric. Not Romney. Here's what he said, toward the end of his remarks:

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Why New Yorkers Heart #OccupyWallStreet

| Sat Oct. 8, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

In the New York Metro section of Friday's New York Times, Cara Buckley portrays the Wall Street occupiers as an unruly band of outsiders who've come to terrorize the locals. They rudely befoul restaurant bathrooms without buying anything. They crowd moms and baby strollers off the sidewalks. They flash their tits in broad daylight. The image that comes to mind is that of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd gone wild, or college tourists on spring break at the Jersey Shore. 

Even if there's some truth to this, I can confidently say that Buckley and many other reporters are missing something: Occupy Wall Street was bound to happen at some point even if the Manhattan police sealed off every one of the island's bridges and tunnels. The same vast economic disparities that have outraged so many middle class Americans are only magnified here. A little-known fact about Manhattan, otherwise known as New York County, is that it has the highest level of income inequality of any urban county in the nation. The only US county with a wider gap between rich and poor is Willacy County in South Texas, a ranching community packed with unemployed farm workers where one wealthy individual owns a third of the land.

Of course, New Yorkers make much more money on average than people in South Texas, thanks in part to the trickle down from Wall Street. That's one reason many observers at first wrote off Occupy Wall Street as a flash in the pan. But as it stretches into its fourth week, it has struck a chord with many people in the city. Many New Yorkers are working harder for the same pay, and Wall Street's über-wealthy have driven up prices, pushing the merely upper middle class into smaller apartments and farther-flung neighborhoods. 

In the Financial District, the average studio apartment rents for (PDF) more than $2,200 a month (and that excludes apartments with doormen, which cost more). According to a 2006 story in the Gotham Gazette, the district that includes the Financial District and Greenwich Village had the highest median rent of any part of Manhattan. While I couldn't find more recent stats on the area's median housing cost last night, it's safe to assume that most New Yorkers who are hurting from the recession don't live there.

Clearly, many people who make their homes near the New York Stock Exchange feel under siege. What's less clear is how much people in the rest of the city feel sorry for them. While trashing bathrooms or intimidating stroller moms is never OK, those things seem positively tame compared to what New York has inflicted upon itself in class struggles of yore.

Going forward, the mainstream media could do a better job reporting how New Yorkers feel about Occupy Wall Street. And Occupiers from out of town would do well to consider how to bring in more locals, who could help give the movement staying power. It's one of the many things I hope to explore when I set up Mother Jones' outpost in Zuccotti Park later today.

 

Pete Rock and DJ Premier's Jazzy Hip-Hop Smackdown

| Sat Oct. 8, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

For beat junkies and fans of jazz and retro hip-hop, the September 30 battle between Pete Rock and DJ Premier at San Francisco's Mighty nightclub was nothing short of epic. Beyond collaborating in the past with an impressive rolodex of artists, including Kanye West, Jay-Z, Big L, J Dilla, Wu-Tang Clan, Rakim, Nas, and Notorious B.I.G., these guys have graced the best of the best lists for beat makers two decades running. To top it off, both are the remaining halves of some of the genre's greatest jazz-rap combos: Gang StarrPete Rock & CL Smooth. The sheer star power was enough to push the crowd's adrenaline off the charts.

Following a brief tour of hip-hop history courtesy of opener DJ Shortkut, smoke machines ushered in a set change, and Premier and Pete Rock took over, serving up a goody bag of improved beats, club bangers, and individual scratch sessions as they took turns passing the proverbial mic. 

They spun each other's classic material ("T.R.O.Y," "Full Clip"), laid down 1986-era Beastie Boys tracks, remixed classic soul and R&B crowd pleasers (including cuts from James Brown's funky people—like Maceo & The Macks "Soul Power '74"  and The JB's "You Can Have Watergate." They even took a 15-minute diversion into classic TV themes like this and this

Both of these producers are masters at weaving the horn improv into a heavy beat or taking a guitar lick and melding it with a spontaneous freestyle. Gang Starr, consisting of DJ Premier and the late Guru, helped pioneer the fusion of jazz and hip-hop. "Words I Manifest," the first track they ever recorded, sampled Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia." Check it out below.

Perry's Values Voters Endorser: Islam is an "Evil, Evil Religion"

| Fri Oct. 7, 2011 9:29 PM EDT

On Friday, Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress got the Rick Perry presidential campaign in a bit of trouble when he told reporters at the Values Voters Summit in DC that the governor's top rival, Mitt Romney, belongs to a "cult," and that his membership in an LDS church was a disqualifier as a Republican presidential candidate. Jeffress' appearance on stage to introduce and endorse Perry* was approved by the campaign, and Perry himself praised Jeffress from the lectern.

If the Republican primary turns into a debate about Mitt Romney's Mormonism, that's probably bad news for everyone involved. But the former Massachusetts Governor is in good company when it comes to being slammed by Jeffress. In 2010, the mega-church pastor convened a weekly lectured series called "Politically Incorrect," in which he tackled the kinds of issues that, in his view, society didn't have the courage to confront. "Oprah Winfrey also claims to be a Christian," Jeffress said in one such discussion, "but her teachings are anything but Christian."

But Islam receives by far the harshest criticism from Jeffress. The world's second-largest religion, he explained in a 2010 video (starting at about the 3:40 mark below), is "evil." Here's how he framed his opposition to the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan:

Herman Cain Wins The Birther Vote

| Fri Oct. 7, 2011 6:35 PM EDT

GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain may have made a sudden leap to the top of the polls recently, but he hasn't lost his appeal among the paranoid faction of the Republican Party. After giving a rousing speech Friday at the Values Voter Summit in DC, a large confab of politically active evangelical conservatives, Cain held a book signing in the lobby of the conference hotel. Among the many people lined up to get a book signed was California lawyer and activist Gary Kreep, who told me why he has also decided to line up behind Cain's campaign.

Kreep heads a number of political organizations, including the US Justice Foundation, the Republican Majority Campaign PAC, and even Defend Glenn, an effort to defend Glenn Beck from attacks by liberal interest groups trying to organize boycotts of his advertisers. But he is best known these days as a birther. He has spent years in court trying to challenge the president's citizenship and his eligibility to be president. In 2009, Kreep even created and starred in a "Birthermercial," a 28-minute infomercial that called on viewers to donate $30 to send a fax to Attorney General Eric Holder asking him to investigate the president's birth certificate.