2011 - %3, October

How a Rick Perry Ally Kept an Innocent Man Locked Up

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 10:25 AM EDT
John Bradley was appointed by Rick Perry in 2009 to chair the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

After 25 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit, Michael Morton will leave a Texas prison a free man on Tuesday afternoon. Morton was sentenced to life without parole in 1987 for the murder of his wife, Christine. But he maintained his innocence, and with the support of the New York-based Innocence Project, pushed for a court to consider DNA evidence found at the scene. For six years, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley—a longtime Rick Perry ally who served as the governor's chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC)—blocked efforts to perform new DNA tests, but last summer forensic experts were finally given access to a bandana that was found at the scene. The result? Tests linked the murder not to Morton, but to another unsolved crime involving a California man.

Coming just two weeks after Troy Davis was executed in Georgia, Morton's release is both sobering and encouraging; the system corrected itself, but only after a quarter-century. As the Texas Tribune noted in August, it wasn't just the DNA evidence that seemed to absolve Morton; there were plenty of unexplained loose ends that seemed to undermine the prosecution's theory. The victim's credit card turned up stolen in a different city when Morton was already in custody, for instance, and neighbors reported a suspicious van on the block at around the time of the murder. Bradley, who inherited the case when he became DA in 2001, also held back police records in which Morton's three-year-old daughter suggested the killer was someone else.

(Bradley has stated that he had "good faith reasons" to oppose turning the evidence, but could not discuss them because the investigation of the murder of Christine Bradley was ongoing; the Innocence Project argued in court that Bradley held a grudge against the group, for reasons I'll explain below.)

Bradley, who was first appointed to his post as district attorney by Gov. Perry, has drawn criticism for his opposition to the use of DNA evidence and, more generally, his support for destroying evidence after a plea agreement has been reached. (He's previously argued that prosecutors should ensure the destruction of evidence is a prerequisite for such deals.) Part of Bradley's justification for refusing to turn over evidence in the Morton case was that the inmate was untrustworthy because he had refused to "accept responsibility"—never mind that the whole point was that Morton might not actually be responsible.

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Rick Perry's Abortion Emergency

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 9:34 AM EDT

Texas ushered in one of the country's more invasive anti-abortion measures on October 1, despite the fact that a court blocked large portions of the law. The new law, which forces women to have a sonogram and wait 24 hours before they can have an abortion, was expedited at the behest of Gov. Rick Perry and anti-abortion groups in the state. The bill was passed under "emergency" status in May, and since then Perry and his allies have been fighting to implement it ASAP.

Reproductive rights groups succeeded in getting a court to block some of the more contentious parts of the law from taking effect. In August, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks blocked the state from enforcing the portions of the law that would have forced doctors to show a woman the image of the ultrasound, verbally describe the fetus in detail, and make the woman listen to audio of the heartbeat. The judge ruled that those provisions are unconstitutional, violating First Amendment rights. The version of the law that passed would have required doctors to carry them out even if the woman refused. It did, however, provide exceptions for women who are pregnant as the result of rape or incest, or if there are fetal abnormalities.

While the judge granted a temporary injunction on those provisions—at least until the actual court case goes forward—doctors in the state are still required to perform the ultrasound, and the woman still must to wait 24 hours before she can have an abortion. The same doctor must perform both procedures. (The law did grant an exception to the 24-hour rule for women who live more than 100-miles from an abortion clinic, but it's unclear in the text who would be responsible for verifying that this was in fact the case for women seeking an abortion.)

Henry Rollins: Photojournalism as a Blunt Object

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

In the years since the iconic SoCal punk band Black Flag's 1986 break-up, former front man Henry Rollins has toured college campuses with spoken-word performances, hosted radio shows, honed his acting chops as a white supremecist on the AMC series Sons of Anarchy, and campaigned against homophobia and hunger. He's also spent years traveling the globe to observe the devastation wrought by what he calls the "backhand of capitalism." On those trips, he began carrying a camera—first a simple point-and-shoot, later more professional equipment—and compiled a collection of "some amateur's travel images."

That candid assessment of his visual artistry, curiously, is printed as part of the introduction to Occupants, the latest of Rollins' several books, but his first foray into photojournalism. His snapshots span eight years of journeys across the Middle East and Southeast Asia, China, India, and parts of Europe and Africa. They are alternately bleak (a crying infant crawling on bags of trash in Indonesia; an old man who may or may not be alive covered in flies in India), hopeful (kids laughing while playing in the street in Bangladesh), and coldly opulent (Saddam's abandoned palace in Iraq and another palace very much in use in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia). 

The PR materials tout the book as "photojournalism at its best," but Rollins is undeniably correct in his self-critique: These are simple shots taken with an untrained eye, and his early point-and-shoot photos are of such low resolution that they don't even fill a quarter of the page. Not wanting to appear naive or self-serving, Rollins explains in the introduction why he still published them: "I thought it would be pretentious to release a book that only had photographs. My fear was that someone might think this was a vanity project...So I decided to write something for every photograph. I would look at the photograph and see where it took me."

Is Cooking Really Cheaper Than Fast Food?

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

You can walk into any McDonald's in America and buy a bounty of ready-to-eat calories for just a few bucks.  

But can you cook much better food for yourself for even cheaper? That's the message of Slow Food USA's ongoing $5 Challenge, and of a recent column by New York Times recipe wizard/food politics columnist Mark Bittman. Bittman's piece links to a handy infographic showing that the typical burgers-and-fries dinner for a family of four at McDonald's costs about $28, while a home-cooked chicken-and-potatoes meal for four would run you just $14.

I agree with the message that Slow Food and Bittman are sending here: that from-scratch cooking is absolutely the most powerful tool we have for improving our diets and resisting the food industry's most awful offerings. But I sense a significant accounting error: They omit the cost of labor for the home-cooked meal and include it in the fast-food alternative, which comes begging to be inhaled immediately, no postprandial dish-doing necessary.

The Times calculated the cost of its $14 chicken dinner by summing the price of the individual ingredients: a $6 raw whole chicken, $3 worth of potatoes, a nickel for salt and pepper, etc. But what about the time it takes to plan the dinner, shop for the ingredients, transform them into a meal, and then clean up the resulting mess?

Tuvalu Runs Dry

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Funafuti lagoon, Tuvalu.: Stefan Lins via Wikimedia Commons.Funafuti lagoon, Tuvalu. Credit: Stefan Lins via Wikimedia Commons.The tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu—already suffering from rising sea levels—has declared a state of emergency as water supplies on some islands ran dry today. 

The Telegraph reports that Tuvalu's state of emergency was declared after existing desalination plants broke, exacerbating an already dire drought:

The Tuvalu Red Cross said it had not rained properly in the country for more than six months. Meteorologists have forecast a lack of run until December. Typically it gets between 200mm to 400mm [~8 to 16 inches] of rainfall per month... [New Zealand] was working with the Red Cross to deliver aid workers and supplies as quickly as possible.  

 

Location of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu.: Credit: TUBS via Wikimedia Commons, modified by Julia Whitty.Location of the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu.: Credit: TUBS via Wikimedia Commons, modified by Julia Whitty.I wrote about the troubles facing Tuvalu's nine tiny islands in my 2003 Mother Jones article All the Disappearing Islands. At that time Tuvalu was threatening to sue Earth's gassiest nations for emitting enough CO2 to sink Tuvalu for good:

Tuvalu is among the smallest and most remote countries on Earth, with a total land mass comprising only 10 square miles/26 square kilometers, less than half the size of Manhattan and scattered over 347,400 square miles/899,000 sq km of ocean—an area larger than California, Oregon, and Washington combined... At no point is the sandy island of Funafuti higher than 13 feet above sea level, as is the case throughout the nine coral atolls of this South Pacific nation of Tuvalu. Surrounded by the sea, the people here have been shaped by it as few others on earth. Every afternoon, rain or shine, Tuvaluan children romp in its unsupervised playground... Inescapably, this is a nation of waterfront property; even the plywood and corrugated-tin houses standing 'inland' a block or two enjoy the ambiance of the ocean. No one here has ever lived a moment without hearing the thunder of surf.

Credit: © Julia Whitty.Credit: © Julia Whitty.Now Tuvalu's freshwater aquifers may be contaminated, reports the BBC:

Secretary General Tataua Pefe advised people against drinking water from wells. "It's not safe for consumption," he told Radio Australia. "Some animals have died recently and we think it's because of subterranean water."

In The Fragile Edge I wrote how Tuvalu's problem with freshwater contamination could render its islands uninhabitable long before rising sea levels irrevocably sinks them:

Floods and rogue waves raise the saltwater table underlying the atolls, poisoning the Tuvaluans' staple crops. Already some farmers have been forced to grow their [crops] in tin containers, and already some of the smaller motus [islands] have lost their coconut palms to saltwater intrusion. Nor are storms a prerequisite for disaster. "Last August," Prime Minister Saufatu Sopoanga tells me, "on a clear, calm day, a sudden wave surge rolled in from the sea and washed across Funafuti into the lagoon, flooding houses." There was no apparent reason for it, and during my stay on the atoll, I find the sensation of threat to be ever present—the sea on both sides, the constant drumroll of surf, a thin strip of land between—like living on a liquid fault line.

Meanwhile 3 News New Zealand reports the drought is affecting other Pacific islands too, notably Tokelau—a New Zealand territory of fewer than 1,500 people living on three coral atolls in the central Pacific—which has also declared a state of emergency.

At the same time The Taiwan News reports a possible cholera outbreak in Tuvalu.

Wedding on Funafuti atoll, Tuvalu.: Credit: © Julia Whitty.Wedding on Funafuti atoll, Tuvalu. Credit: © Julia Whitty.Inundated by ills from afar, more and more Tuvaluans are leaving their home islands—and not because they want to. From All the Disappearing Islands:

Within the coming decades, the atolls of Tuvalu and elsewhere will almost certainly revert to sandbars and then nothing. Although the people themselves will not go extinct, without their home islands to anchor them, their beliefs and identity probably will, scattered person by person across the rising waters... until, like Atlantis, the name of Tuvalu fades into myth.

Study: Income Inequality Kills Economic Growth

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Corporate chieftains often claim that fixing the US economy requires signing new free trade deals, lowering government debt, and attracting lots of foreign investment. But a major new study has found that those things matter less than an economic driver that CEOs hate talking about: equality.

"Countries where income was more equally distributed tended to have longer growth spells," says economist Andrew Berg, whose study appears in the current issue of Finance & Development, the quarterly magazine of the International Monetary Fund. Comparing six major economic variables across the world's economies, Berg found that equality of incomes was the most important factor in preventing a major downturn. (See top chart.)

Andrew Berg & Jonathan Ostry
Andrew Berg & Jonathan OstryAndrew Berg & Jonathan Ostry

In their study, Berg and coauthor Jonathan Ostry were less interested in looking at how to spark economic growth than how to sustain it. "Getting growth going is not that difficult; it's keeping it going that is hard," Berg explains. For example, the bailouts and stimulus pulled the US economy out of recession but haven't been enough to fuel a steady recovery. Berg's research suggests that sky-high income inequality in the United States could be partly to blame.

So how important is equality? According to the study, making an economy's income distribution 10 percent more equitable prolongs its typical growth spell by 50 percent. In one case study, Berg looked at Latin America, which is historically much more economically stratified than emerging Asia and also has shorter periods of growth. He found that closing half of the inequality gap between Latin America and Asia would more than double the expected length of Latin America's growth spells. Increasing income inequality has the opposite effect: "We find that more inequality lowers growth," Berg says. (See bottom chart.)

Berg and Ostry aren't the first economists to suggest that income inequality can torpedo the economy. Marriner Eccles, the Depression-era chairman of the Federal Reserve (and an architect of the New Deal), blamed the Great Crash on the nation's wealth gap. "A giant suction pump had by 1929-1930 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth," Eccles recalled in his memoirs. "In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When the credit ran out, the game stopped."

Many economists believe a similar process has unfolded over the past decade. Median wages grew too little over the past 30 years to drive the kind of spending necessary to sustain the consumer economy. Instead, increasingly exotic forms of credit filled the gap, as the wealthy offered the middle class alluring credit card deals and variable-interest subprime loans. This allowed rich investors to keep making money and everyone else to feel like they were keeping up—until the whole system imploded.

Income inequality has other economic downsides. Research suggests that unequal societies have a harder time getting their citizens to support government spending because they believe that it will only benefit elites. A population where many lack access to health care, education, and bank loans can't contribute as much to the economy. And, of course, income inequality goes hand-in-hand with crippling political instability, as we've seen during the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

History shows that "sustainable reforms are only possible when the benefits are widely shared," Berg says. "We hope that we don't have to relearn that the hard way."

Don't miss our blockbuster collection of infographics: "It's the Inequality, Stupid," and our new, interactive explainer map of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 4, 2011

Tue Oct. 4, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

An A-10 Thunderbolt II from the US Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., drops a AGM-65 Maverick during a close-air support training mission Sept. 23, 2011, over the Nevada Test and Training Range. US Air Force Weapons School students participate in many combat training missions over the NTTR during the six-month, graduate-level instructor course. (US Air Force photo/Senior Airman Brett Clashman)

CEO Pay: Still Skyrocketing, Still Undeserved

| Mon Oct. 3, 2011 11:59 PM EDT

Over the past three decades, the growth rate in justifications for skyrocketing executive compensation has been nearly as high as the growth rate of executive compensation itself. Globalization makes a great CEO more valuable than ever. Tournament theory makes high pay inevitable. Companies are bigger these days. The skill sets of modern CEOs dwarf those of past eras. Pay is more closely linked to performance. Blah blah blah.

All of these things have a kernel of truth (aside from pay for performance, which is mostly a myth), but even collectively they don't explain much. What does explain a lot is two things: (a) stagnating worker pay has made a much bigger pool of money available for executive compensation, and (b) peer group comparisons inexorably ratchet up CEO pay. Because nobody wants to admit that their company is merely average, every company wants to pay its CEO more than average. But if every company wants to pay above the average, guess what happens?

Today, Peter Whoriskey of the Washington Post tells us that the practice of peer group comparison is widespread:

It wasn’t until recently, however, that its pervasiveness and impact on executive pay became clear. Companies have long hid the way they set executive pay, but in late 2006, the Securities and Exchange Commission began compelling companies to disclose the specifics of how they use peer groups to determine executive pay.

Since then, researchers have found that about 90 percent of major U.S. companies expressly set their executive pay targets at or above the median of their peer group. This creates just the kinds of circumstances that drive pay upward.

The chart on the right tells the familiar tale. Adjusted for inflation, cash compensation for line workers has actually decreased over the past few decades, and even when you include healthcare compensation it's grown only about 30% or so. In contrast, executive compensation over the same period has more than quadrupled.

Do they deserve this? Almost certainly not. There's simply no good reason that a CEO of 2011 is worth 4x more than a CEO of 1970. The reason their pay has gone up is simple: for all practical purposes, CEOs set each other's pay. And they keep raising each other's pay because they can. It's a pretty nice racket.

Ohio Governor Gets a Raise While Slashing Public Services

| Mon Oct. 3, 2011 11:19 PM EDT

While we're all at being (rightfully) mad at some really rich people, let's splash some more fuel onto the class-warfare fire. Think tank Innovation Ohio has released some stats about that state's governor, John Kasich, who is trying to kill collective bargaining with a bill called SB 5 and who recently slashed funding to services people sort of need, like schools and firefighting.

But the Ohio legislature isn't spreading the pain equally—namely, not among themselves. According to IO's most recent report, Kasich took a raise of more than $10,000 over the last governor's salary, bringing his pay to $148,165. And exempted the salary from the SB 5 provision that cuts automatic annual raises for other public employees. And lied about how much he pays his staff, whose senior members make $110,000. Also unaffected by the recent massive budget cuts is the Ohio General Assembly's minimum salary of $60K—for a part-time job in a state where the average worker makes $40K. Of course, 62 of the 70 legislators who voted for SB 5 make more than that minimum. Those 62 receive annual bonuses up to $34k. No wonder there was so much protesting going on when I was there.

Check out the whole list of sad/maddening hypocrisies here.

GOP Announces It Doesn't Care About the Economy

| Mon Oct. 3, 2011 9:05 PM EDT

Rep. Eric Cantor, to the surprise of exactly no one, announced today that Republicans had summarily rejected President Obama's jobs bill. But all is not lost:

Mr. Cantor announced the House would consider elements of Mr. Obama’s jobs agenda in the coming month, including trade agreements the White House sent to Congress Monday and a tax break for government contractors.

So there you have it. The sum total of what the GOP is willing to consider is a trade pact with South Korea and a tax break for government contractors. Hold on a second while I perform a sophisticated econometric analysis of how many jobs this will create.

[Hold music playing.....]

OK, I've got it. None. This will have no noticeable impact on the economy at all. But then, that's the plan, isn't it?